After sleeping in my car Thursday night  we woke up at 3am at the Blue Lake Trailhead along highway 20. The sun’s light was already illuminating the outline of the surrounding mountains of the North Cascades. Groggily we ate breakfast, shouldered our packs and started out on the day’s adventures at 4:00am . Our objective was South Early Winters Spire also knows simply as SEWS. It is the tallest formation of the chain of  massive rock spires near Washington Pass known at the Liberty Bell Group. You can also approach the group via the “Hairpin” turn further down the road, but our sources hinted that Blue Lake Trail was a bit shorter.

The Blue Lake trail was hidden beneath snow this early in the season making it impossible to actually follow a trail. Old and barely visibly footprints zigzagged through the forest in various directions. We made out own way through the tree as the sun rose in the sky heading in the general direction of the spires that we could see every now and then through gaps in the forest (south). We were supposed to end up in a clearing eventually.

We did enter a clearing with many steams running beneath the snow. Careful here as the snow bridges don’t always hold and you can fall into the running water beneath. We were a little further down the clearing than we needed to be and closer to Blue Mountain than the Liberty Bell Group. We could see a wide and mostly clear avalanche gulley leading up to the ridge between SEWS and Blue Mountain. We turned and began to slowly make our way up the steep snow slope to the ridge. Later in the season there is a climbers trail weaving through talus and boulders during this section. The presence of s snow probably made the approach easier as were were able to go straight up and not twist our ankles on rocks. We did wear crampons through as the snow was hard so early in the morning.

Finally we gained the ridge. We geared up here and tied our mountaineering packs to one of the many scrub trees. There are goats in the area that love to explore backpacks! We brought our summit packs with some layers and all our food with up on the climb however (chipmunks were running around waiting for a meal).

We were climbing the “South Arete” 5.6 route. This is the easiest route on SEWS and the second most popular route of the entire group (hence us starting early). The first pitch is the crux of the route containing the only 5.6 part of the climb. The start is described as a crack behind a flake. It was hard to figure out which crack behind a flake our beta was referring to as there seemed to e many features that fit that description. I was leading this pitch and in the end I ended up doing what I thought resembled some reachy boulder moves along a line where I was able to place only two pieces of protects (a cam omni and tree sling). As it turned out I took the what is referred to as the “reach variation” (left of traditional route) which as almost no pro. The pitch is 90ft long with a tree to belay off of at the top.

Eric lead pitch 2 which was mostly a gulley 4th class scramble until the very end where you have to climb out of the gulley via a 5.4 chimney. A few tricky moves here, but not that challenging. At this point a soloist passed us. he said he had downclimbed the route any times in the past and thus didn’t feel he needed a rope.

Pitches 3-6 are low 5th class. Eric and a kiwi coiled 1/3 of the rope at this point and simul-climbed quickly through this blocky section. The toughest move was a 5.3 over a bulge.

Pitch 7 begins with a section know as “White Camel”. It is a knife edge block that is not difficult to cross, but very exposed. There is a bolt in the center to protect the crossing. The group behind us unroped and dropped there gear here. They crossed without protection. Eric belayed me over the section. Most people cross on the right side of the edge, some straddle the top and very few cross on the left which is more shear. I crossed on the right Then I belayed Eric in.

We untied at this point and scrambled over massive blocks and boulders (class 4 & 5.0) to the summit. There was plenty of space for the five of us up there. The day was clear with sweeping views of Kangaroo Ridge, Wine Spires, Cutthroat Peak, Glacier Peak, Black Peak… everything! The sun was very strong and refection off the snow. Bring lots of sunblock and sunglasses!

To descend we reversed route and down climbed back to the top of Pitch 2 (we did belay across the white camel however). From there we did two rappels off the trees. It is recommended that you do not use a double rope rappel since it will most likely get stuck.

We were greeted by some climbers that were just arriving to the route and a goat inspecting the packs when we arrived back at the ridge. We desended via several glissade chute on the now softened snow down the steepest part of the gulley. We then decided to traverse across beneath the spires to scout out the the next days approach to Liberty Bell before continuing back to the car. We glissaded several more times. However, there are some massive slabs beneath the spires. Be very careful not to glissade into the rocks. As you descend aim more to the left to avoid them.

We arrived at the clearing and made our way again through the forest. When we finally arrived back at the car were were exhausted and ready for our freeze dried dinner. The South Arete is not a route for someone looking to do some “real” rock climbing. It is not all that inspiring a route in my opinion, but it did offer excellent views.

Gear Notes:

We were over prepared. You really just need a light rack. Full set of nuts, 3 mid sized hexes, Cams .5-2.5 inches. Two double runners to sling trees

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *