Slesse had been on the list for a long time. The Northeast Buttress rises from the valley in a striking, obvious line and the route made its way into The 50 Classic Climbs of North America. Timing on Slesse seems to be a bit tricky, with a waiting game for the Pocket Glacier to slide, and lots of wildfire smoke the last couple of summers in July and August, but a desire to get up there with longer summer days and better weather.
After climbing the Northeast Buttress on Colchuck Peak together earlier this summer, Adam and I set plans to head up for Slesse over Labor Day weekend. The forecast ended up being pretty solid for that time of year, so we decided to go for it when the time came.
Having never been in the area before, we thought it wise to bring bivy gear and be prepared in case we didn’t get through the route in a day. Saturday was a late start for a number of reasons, so we decided to hike up and camp at the propeller cairn and get a fairly early start from there on Sunday. My Subaru Outback miraculously made it within about 10 minutes of the trailhead on the rocky road and we made it up to camp on Saturday in just over 2 hours.
On Sunday, we started moving at about 5:30am—we wanted time on the route, but also wanted to start climbing with some light. It was pretty quick to get over the notch and across the Pocket Glacier slabs, which meant we were heading up the exposed 4th class ramps at about 6:30am. Most of the Pocket Glacier had slid, but a huge chunk was still looming at the top of the cirque and we walked quickly under it to get to the route.
The ledge and treed lower sections went fast and we got to the first slab 5th class pitch at about 7:15am. I took this one in approach shoes, which was nearly a mistake as the terrain was steeper and slabbier than it looked with not much protection, but it went. Adam then headed up the 5.7-5.8 pitch to gain the upper ridge. I swung through and tried to decide which feature to follow from there. An anchor was on the left at the ridge crest while signs of other parties were everywhere. I ended up going up a slightly dirty set of features right of the crest and found an anchor when rope drag got nasty. We’d later learn that the nice cracks in this section were just to our right by about 20 feet.
Adam headed through and brought us up to the base of the crux, where a big horn had a ton of tat on it. I centered my chi and started up the fingers section. The climbing wasn’t too bad, but the overnight pack with still about 3 liters of water in it fought me a bit. I ended up finding a way through the roof by cutting slightly right and then back left through the steepest terrain and got up to a section with good gear where I made an anchor and brought Adam up.
He had a similar battle with his pack on this pitch, but got through it. The terrain eased from there up to a ledge where he stopped and brought me up. I pulled through that short, steep band and walked across the small grassy ledges above it where I made another anchor and brought him up. This next pitch seemed to be where the direct and indirect lines met back up for a 5.7 flake pitch that brought us to the big bivy ledge. Adam took this one and we took a break on the nice, flat ground of the ledge.
What had been a decently quick pace for us up to the technical climbing had slowed considerably for whatever reasons—route finding, packs, hydration, nutrition—I’m not sure. It was about 5pm at this point. The weather was still looking good, but it seemed clear to both of us that, if we continued up, we’d be climbing the last technical pitches in the dark and would be spending the night on the summit. Adam was feeling a bit fatigued and so we were worried that our pace wouldn’t pick up, so we made the call to spend the night and finish the next day—we had the gear, water, and food for it.
After taking a nap, we woke up for dinner in a complete whiteout. It seemed good decisions had been made. I used my satellite phone to check in on the weather and saw at this point that the chance of rain overnight had increased to 30% and that late Monday was supposed to be pretty bad. We were committed to spending the night with our down bags and no tent or bivy sacks to protect us, so we brainstormed how to stay dry enough. We rigged up a frame with our rack and rope off a boulder that we could put our ridge rests on top of to act like a little roof in case it got bad in the middle of the night and then went to bed.
At about 3am, we awoke to rain and rigged up our shelter. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped a bit. After a while, the rain stopped again. We went through this cycle a few times through the course of the night until 7am or so when we decided it was time to make a call—up or down. We were still in a whiteout and the rock had gotten pretty soaked. We decided that, even if it cleared up enough to safely climb, we would be making a big gamble that the descent would be clear enough to follow. At least we knew the way down, even if it was going to be a bear to bail. So we bailed.
We carefully picked our way down, leaving a handful of nuts and slings on the upper buttress before getting to the lower buttress where more fixed anchors were in place. Our first rap was especially demoralizing as our anchor was set too far back from the ledge and I ended up needing to ascend the rope to extend the anchor so we could pull it. We simul down-climbed the treed buttress and access ramp, which was a bit treacherous when wet, but was protectable. By 2:15pm, we were out of the business. It had been a pretty intense 5-6 hours and, while we were disappointed to not be finishing the route, we were both happy to have gotten out of that mess. Looking up at the summit as we walked out, it stayed shrouded in clouds the whole time. A little under 3 hours after getting off the route, we were at the car, taking the edge off with a beer, feeling pretty thankful. As we drove back to Seattle, it seemed like
I’ll certainly be back. Next time should be a bit earlier in the season for more daylight and better weather. It’ll be quite a bit faster up there next time.