Winter is so close I can taste it. The leaves have turned. The larches have been on fire for weeks. The icons on forecast sites show consistent rain. At high elevations the small white snowflakes in those images start to indicate temps have dropped below freezing. The promise of snow-laden slopes and white forests, tempt me to let the hopes a deep winter build. Seattle is in transition to her gray, dreary facade, the clever mask which conceals a landscape adorned in white gold. Is this time of year the hardest or the most exciting? In any case, the Cascades offer endless gifts. On a random Monday in October, one came in the form of a perfect weather window right as I arrived home.
The last time I came in straight from Europe, Pete, Fern and I climbed Shuksan. It was a perfect welcoming back to a reality I sometimes confuse with a dream. That trip rocked my world. While partially for work, I had spent nearly a month amongst the glaciers and peaks of the Alps, learning the skill sets of alpine climbing. It ignited a passion I knew with utter confidence existed for me but had not yet stoked. After an early summer expanding my perception of what was available in my home mountains, I yet again looked to them with a fresh eye, toward the first technical climbs that I would attempt. The partially bolted True Grit was a perfect introduction to gear placement. The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak, a wonderfully nerve-wracking opportunity to make countless placements on moderate terrain while Holly kept close watch. A few weeks spent teaching Fern the ropes and awkwardly stitching up pitches of 5.6 cracks with bolted anchors led us to send the West Ridge of Prusik Peak. It is a fast trajectory but one which I am vigilant to take with care and appreciation.
This trip had been all work, albeit in beautiful Lausanne. But the downtime had me itching badly. I don’t do well with it at all. I love gene therapy and am beyond stoked that I get to work in my dream profession, but I need to move. Granted I shouldn’t say it was all work. I admittedly flew straight from Switzerland to Vegas to tick a System of a Down concert off the bucket list. As I sat in the cab on the way to the airport Fern texted me, asking if I could climb on Monday. There was a perfect weather window aimed straight for Washington Pass. Given the past couple weeks I jumped right into his suggestion that we head out for the Beckey Route on Liberty Bell. Work could wait. I arrived home late Sunday afternoon, dumped the business trip on the floor, packed up the rack, stuffed my overnight gear in the truck and hit the road.
The night was cold. The stars littered above our heads a gleaming indication of the day to come. Tiredness washed over me. We planned a late start the next day to let the rock warm up. I couldn’t be bothered to ready my pack. All could be done after a night’s sleep to recoup the energy lost over an extensive travel weekend. The first night of the season in the zero degree bag. It was unconventionally early to bed and late to rise, but when I did finally dig myself out of the tent and successfully consume a cup of coffee after spilling the first all over the tailgate of my truck, it was go time. Psych! We sat in the truck for another hour or so. There was no rush. This was a chill day compared to the 20 hour effort for Prusik and we wanted to climb in the sun.
Anticipation consumed us. We departed the trailhead around 10:30. The parking lot noticeably empty compared to the only other time I’d been there, when Holly and I got skunked on the SW Rib of SEWS. A few hikers had past us by but we’d seen no other climbers. Maybe a Monday thing, maybe a late October thing, but we had the place to ourselves. The day promised by the stars took shape. The trail from the lot winds easily through the trees on its way to Blue Lake. Before you get there, it opens up in a sloping meadow, the trees cleared to catch a first look at the famous spires. The climber’s path, which I expect will become very familiar in the coming years, diverges to the south east. The landscape changes. Slabs of granite flow through the lower trees. The well-worn path taking a direct approach towards our objective.
The defined path ends at a gully between Liberty Bell and Concord Tower. The ground morphs before your eyes. Dirt trail turns to crunched up rock, compressed by the thousands of feet that tread these paths. The incline steepens. Soon we found our hands starting to stabilize our steps. A few more feet and we were scrambling on solid rock. Fern, “Ferned-it,” as we say and brought a 52L pack full of stuff because it was new and he wanted to test it out. Always fun scrambling around with a ton of weight on your back isn’t it? He looked like he was having fun… Most of the gully consists of loose dirt and rock. The shear walls of Liberty Bell and Concord Tower rose beside us. Whistler Mountain and Cutthroat Peak marked the start to a western skyline that would invite a range’s worth of peaks into our view the higher we climbed. The gully ends at a small notch that dropped away on the northeast aspect of the ridge.
A small snag at the base of an arête marks the start of the route. It is about fifteen meters below the notch on the western-purveyor’s right. You have to scamble around this arête to find the route. Fern unloaded his thirty pounds worth of shit and we got ready to roll. Like Prusik, I brought doubles #0.4 – 2 and a single #3 along with a set of nuts. It was shady in the gully but as we scrambled over to the ledge behind the snag the sun laid eyes on the first moves. Fern and I tied in, I took one last look at the route description and it was ready to climb! I’m starting to relish these moments. Anticipation and fear start to be accompanied by confidence. I love being a beginner. Not only for the physical progress, the rapid changes in mental preparedness offer a unique perspective on every trip. In this moment I was faced with three options: the arête to the climber’s right, a blocky, casual ten meters around the center chimney, option two. I took option three, on the left, initially climbing the face, angling back to the right around the left side of the chimney, 5.6 or 5.7. The rest of the pitch consists of ledges, one of which, about fifty meters up, with a blocky chimney to the left, marks the end of pitch one.
The start of pitch two held my favorite climbing on the route. Again there are options. You can access the upper chimney via blocks to the left or right. I had stared at this splitter, small hand crack as I’d belayed up Fern. It was a direct line into the chimney. It called to me and so I gave it a go. There was one or two pumpy moves but it climbed great and before I knew it I was clambering around on the big blocks that choked the upper chimney. This section is described as a chimney but in reality there was very little chimney style climbing. Most of it was mantles over blocks or face climbing. I remember there being a tricky move towards the top to reach a slabby prow before setting up shop on a tree belay to bring up Fern. It was one of those positions that made it hard to focus. The view from this western facing ledge was remarkable. Static air had formed a haze that added a colorful dimensionality. The sun lent light to the vibrant, living work of art.
At the start of pitch three, we faced a large corner topped with a roofed crest. Based on the cleanliness of the rock I suspect most people climb the center corner and traverse right around the crest. This looked to be closer to class four. The Cascade Rock guidebook describes a series of cracks to the right of the corner, followed by a delicate, slabby traverse into the upper corner before wrapping around the crest. Much more interesting! The initial, wavy crack system is obvious off to the right. The delicate traverse was like the Prusik friction slab round two. Except this time it was very dirty and held more consequence in a fall with the ledge below. Traverse behind me, I placed a cam in the corner and moved up and around the crest, through some treed class three to a large ledge just under the, “Boulder problem,” start of pitch four.
On this pitch a rope is optional. Were I to do it again, the rope would come off. In fact, we down climbed the same set of moves without it, so I guess that reasoning has come partially to fruition. The boulder problem is a quick four – five meters of slab. There’s good feet that reached us up to the firm hands at its crest. The rest of the pitch consists of easy class three. It follows a series of sandy ledges and blocks toward the summit.
“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir
The summit of Liberty Bell was the energy source I sought. Nature’s peace stilled my mind’s excursions beyond the present. The mountains had greeted us with a warm embrace, arms a 360 degree view, illuminated by the evening sun, urged our eyes to wander over every intricate line. In the foreground, the towers of the Liberty Bell range, up close and personal, their summits look straight back at you, Concord, Lexington and the Early Winter Spires. The granite of these friends hold countless stories of success and failure. Stories Fern and I seek to emulate, early on our own journey to become proficient travelers of these environments. Further west, the expansive central region of the range, layer upon layer of mountain peaks, each with their own potential for adventure. I know Muir was partial to the Sierra but I imagine he would have described a similar energy to this place.
Fern and I sat atop our perch and watched the sun drift toward the horizon. Fern had brought every snack known to man so we feasted. With an hour before dark we packed up and set off to descend. The final pitch of the route had posed no significant obstacle so we opted to down climb to the bottom of the boulder problem. From there the route veers left into a tree filled gully. We had quite a bit of difficulty finding the first set of rap bolts and wandered around too far left for some time. Eventually we located them on the far right, oriented down the mountain. They are on a large rock face which overlooks the notch at the top of the approach gully. It is a clean line from here with a second set of bolts fifty meters down on a small ledge next to a snag. The cliff faces on either side shone bright gold. It was a special moment. Nature said her sweetest goodnight. We rappelled into the sunset.
Night descended with autumn’s urgency. We completed the gully scramble just as headlamps turned on. The walk out was mercifully short yet I felt the physical weariness seep in, my muscles having a stern conversation with me in regard to adequate sleep or something stupid like that. We reached the truck after a leisurely walk back, the three hour drive back to Seattle our final task to complete a perfect excursion. I slept well that night. The Beckey Route wasn’t a trip of epic proportions. The climbing was easy. It provided necessary alpine trad lead practice. But its true gift was a sanctuary, my cares littered along the path with the autumn leaves.