These are probably the best two technical climbs on the Liberty Bell towers. We mean it! They are relatively short lines on the "back" (west) side of North Early Winter Spire and may not be as impressive looking as longer climbs on the east faces, but they hold exhilarating pitches of cracks, corners, and flakes, on excellent rock with mostly good protection.
Add to this a relatively mild approach (by Cascades standards), an easy descent back to your packs and the fact that you won't even need to carry your boots up! They shouldn't be missed. In their guidebook, Nelson and Potterfield go as far as calling these "roadside crag climbs"... not quite: the approach climbs 2,000 ft in a few miles and took us almost exactly an hour and a half both times.
Both climbs share the same first pitch, which is nothing special (goes up some cracks then an easy chimney). This is followed by easier climbing to a large ledge at the start of the interesting parts of the routes. The two climbs could even be done one after the other in one long day if one were so inclined, although the routes are in the shade only in the morning. When we were there, it was very warm and climbing in the sun was out of the question.
The descent involves a few short raps and some scrambling down the west-facing gully between South and North Early Winter Spires. Quick and straightforward. It brings you back to within 200 yards of the base of the routes.
Note: Contrary to recommendations in the guidebooks, two ropes are NOT needed (or ever desirable) for the descent. There are as many as five single rope raps (50 meter rope is fine) that bypass steeper sections of the gully and a couple of giant chockstones. However, these raps are separated by sections of scrambling and walking down ramps and scree. Double rope raps would not only be useless but risky, with great potential for knocking loose rock off the ledges.
Northwest Corner: The route follows a very obvious left facing system of flakes and dihedrals, up the north end of the west face. We felt that the 5.9 rating was quite fair for the climb. Most people find the crux to be the long offwidth corner crack on pitch 4, because of its somewhat sustained nature. A fun pitch; not the draining struggle that people often associate with offwidth cracks. We thought that some of the flake moves on pitch 3 may have been more challenging. A standard rack to 4 inches gives plentiful protection on the climb. A very enjoyable route.
West Face: This more difficult route branches off right from the previous one after the first two pitches and aims for the obvious solitary crack that splits the smooth upper wall of the west face. After looking at the upper cracks when we came down from the Northwest Corner, we couldn't resist; we came back a week later.
Lucie led the first three pitches. She made quick work of the first two rope lengths (shared with the other route), to a spacious sandy ledge where the serious climbing begins. The first pitch follows a slightly rotten crack (5.7) past a bush and ends up above a short chimney. The second pitch goes up a gully to a huge ledge with a big tree.
The third pitch is short (about 40 feet) and climbs enjoyable cracks in a right facing corner just above the large ledge (5.8+). Note that it is important to end that pitch and belay at the first ledge (40 ft out at most). Another small ledge will be visible 20 feet or so higher with several slings around a horn. This ledge makes a bad belay choice because the anchor is at your feet, and it makes the runout section of 5.8 lieback flake in the next rope length more serious (factor 2 fall potential).
The next pitch starts with a short 5.7+ corner to the ledge with the slung horn, then up a short but unprotected 5.8 flake to another horn. Note that it appeared that the flake may be protectable with a very large camming device or a Big Bro (although we have not tested that). The runout is short though, and probably more like 5.7 than 5.8. From the horn, 5.9 underclings lead right then up to a belay at the base of the thin crux crack.
The next pitch is the crux: a short stretch up a thin finger crack in a smooth face followed by a 5 feet traverse left near an old bolt to a good belay at the base of another obvious crack. That pitch is rated 5.11 or A1 by Nelson and Potterfield. Since Lucie and I had no problem on-sighting it, we felt it wasn't more than 5.10c/d. It would only pass for 5.11 at a sport climbing crag... Seriously, it has good rests, excellent protection (nuts and small to medium Aliens), and solid finger locks. And it is FUN! Lumpy Ridge quality, and that's saying a lot.
The long next pitch (155 ft) cruises up a delightful finger crack that starts thin (one move of 5.10) and progressively widens to a 5.8 hand crack. Amazing! We both agreed these were the best two pitches of pure rock climbing we have found in the Cascades (so far anyway). The last pitch is an easy scramble up slabs and steps to the top.
Wow! One of our best days on the rock so far this season. We spent quite a while at the summit again, taking pictures and enjoying the fantastic views. But wait! Was that thunder? Sure enough, a quick moving storm was almost above our heads (the first bad weather we'd seen in weeks). A few rain drops later, we were back at the base, packed the gear, and headed down the trail.
North Early Winter Spire, WA
|The West Face of North Early Winters Spire.|
|The climbs seen from the top of Liberty Bell: NW Corner is the obvious shaded dihedral; the West Face follows the worn crack to its right.|
|Roping-up at the base.|
|Looking back toward the valley.|
|Lucie leading the 1st pitch (5.7, same start for both climbs).|
|On the 3rd pitch of the Northwest Corner (5.9).|
|Eric leading the 5.9 offwidth (4th pitch of Northwest Corner).|
|At the belay with Liberty Bell in the background.|
|The belay at the top of the 4th pitch.|
|Views of the North Cascades.|
|Lucie leading the last pitch.|
|Relaxing on the summit.|
|On the 3rd pitch of the West Face (5.8+).|
|Lucie starting up the corner leading to the wide crack (5.7+).|
|Going up the exquisite 4th pitch of the West Face (5.11).|
|Eric just above the belay on pitch 5 (5.10).|
|On the 5th pitch of the West Face, almost at the top.|
|Dear Patagonia, I need a new puffball sweater....|
|Free hanging rappel on the way down.|
Northwest Corner (Grade III, 5.9, 6p, trad.) and West Face (Grade III, 5.11, 7p, trad.)