South Early Winter Spire, Southwest Buttress

August 9, 2007 / 5.8 or 5.10b, 9 pitches, trad.

On August 9, we climb the Southwest Rib of SEWS. We get a late start. Last night was frigid. We don't want to get to the base of the route too far ahead of the sun. We leave the Blue lake Trailhead around 9:30 AM. The base of SEWS is still in the shade when we arrive (it's about 1h30 approach). We start the route from the split larch tree at the base of the west face. I start leading the first pitch. I traverse left on the easy ramp (Class II), to the start of the steeper, broken corner system of yellow/orange rock. I climb maybe 70 ft up that system to a ledge with a small tree at the base of a small overhang before setting a belay. I'm almost out of rope and want to bring Eric up before starting up the steeper section (you can probably belay on the next ledge if you have a 60m rope or if you simul-climb the easy ramp).

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The direct SW Rib starts at the split larch tree.
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Lucie starting the first pitch.
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I belayed at the small tree just below the overhang.
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From there, I traversed right into the finger crack just right of the tree...
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...and belayed on a good ledge 30 ft below the striking 5.8 crack.

According to a TR we've read (and are using as a topo), there are two options here: either straight up the main crack system (looks like steep 5.8 with good jams), or up a small off-finger/thin hands crack to the right, followed by a hand traverse below and around a bulging block. I pick the latter… turns out to have a couple of very thin 5.9 moves at the end of the hand traverse (with slippery, slabby feet). Above that, the crack returns to the left and leads to the large ledge 30 feet below the obvious 5.8 flare.

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Starting pitch 3.
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The 5.8 crack is one of the most enjoyable pitches.
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Views from the belay atop pitch 3.
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Eric leading the 5.10b variation. The normal route follows a 5.5 corner on the left.
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Liebacking the crux.

The next pitch (#3) is straight up the flare above. Some jamming initially, then creative OW and arete climbing along the wide flare. No need for very large cams here. It can be adequately protected with up to #3 Camalots. I have a good time on this pitch - so much easier than most of the "5.8 offwidths" we climbed in Yosemite!

This pitch leads to another ledge at the base of a vertical orange wall. The normal route here goes up a low angle groove to the left, then turns sharp right and traverses on black lichened slabs above. Instead, we go for the appealing 5.10b variation, straight up the orange wall (first crack system you encounter from the belay ledge). Too hard for me to lead - Eric's turn. It's a very nice, classic finger crack, with bomber pro, which leads straight up the wall, just left of a hanging corner, and deposits you on the same black slabs. The rest of the pitch wanders up the slab with occasional pro to a sketchy, balancy 5.6+ move far above a slung horn. This is a full-length pitch on 50m ropes (160 ft). Eric is barely able to reach the belay block on the sloping ledge just right of the base of the double wide crack (the infamous "bear hug").

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Starting the bear-hug pitch (pitch 5, 5.7+).
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Bear-hugging...
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...and traversing left to finish the crux section.
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Belaying on the first good ledge above and right of the twin cracks.
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Following pitch 6 (~5.4?).

Next comes the "bear hug" pitch. Pretty fun, yet very short. Requires large cams for pro (nothing smaller available). I place a #4.5 Camalot in the left hand crack to protect the first move off the belay, then "walk" it up a bit. I then use a #5 Camalot a bit higher in the RHS crack. You could probably get by with just with a #4.5, but with these two monster cams, I feel really well protected. Above the twin OW, I follow a blocky ramp to the right below an overhang, to a good ledge where I belay Eric up.

Next come two easy, slabby pitches with meager protection that lead to the "rabbit ears". From there, you can drop into the gully from slings but it is best to downclimb into the notch a few tens of feet before reaching the rabbit ears, using an easy set of cracks and ledges (easy 5th). This is what we end up doing. I belay Eric from the rabbit ears but he downclimb into the gully and hikes to the top of it, setting up a belay at the base of the short 5" crack that leads to the summit of the spire.

The last pitch is short and sweet. The only pro is a 5" cam, but the climbing is very easy (~5.2).

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Reaching the belay.
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Starting pitch 7 (~5.4?).
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Belaying at the top of the rabbit ears. You can rap from there (slings) or better, downclimb into the notch before getting to the small tree.
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Downclimbing into the gully (pitch 8).
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Leading the short pitch (#9, ~5.2?) to the summit.

We spend some time on the comfortable summit, taking the usual summit shots, looking at other climbers on top of Lliberty Bell and getting a bite to eat. The sky is darkening and soon, we start thinking about getting down. The descent is a straightforward downclimb of the south arete. Obvious route. Mostly 3rd and 4th class, but includes an exciting short stretch of hand traversing (low 5th) near the top (but you can also do this "à cheval").

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Summit views - Liberty Bell.
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Climbers on top of Liberty Bell.
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Summit shot.
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Ditto.
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Downclimbing the gully to the South Arete descent.

Three single-rope raps at the bottom, in a low angle chimney of sorts, bring you back to the col. A short scree hike around the base of the rock (<10 minutes) gets you back to the split larch so you don't even need to carry your shoes up the climb. A good route.

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At the first rap station..
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Happy squirrel found a cookie (not ours, mind you).