Viewed from the road, the Direct East Buttress is a striking line which follows the crest of the buttress for 10 pitches to the top of South Early Winter Spire. Depending on your free climb ability, it goes anywhere from 5.9 A1 to 5.11. We "French-freed" it at about 5.10+ A0.
To get to the base of the route, park at the hairpin turn (1/2 mile from the Pass) and follow the obvious scree gully until able to traverse right on slabs. There are two variants to the approach. The first traverses below the lower cliff band and joins the top of the steep gully between the north and south spires. The other continues higher then traverses above the highest cliffs, on slightly more technical terrain (class 4). We followed the higher way. When we went through it, there were two fixed ropes to facilitate the 4th-class scrambling up the slabs leading to the left side of the buttress.
We climbed this route on a Friday, hoping to avoid the week-end crowds. Naturally, 10 minutes after we started up the gully, we saw another car parking at the hairpin. Our pace on the steep approach accelerated significantly. It took us a little over an hour to reach the base of the climb.
Since we could hear the other party below us (they used the lower traverse), we roped up quickly without even taking the time to have a snack. We started climbing around 7:15AM. To speed things up, we simul-climbed the first two pitches (mid-5th class) to the base of a nice left facing corner. Pitches 3 and 4 follow this corner to a large ledge where the difficult climbing begins. The 3rd pitch involves some 5.9+ crack climbing and is harder than pitch 4. The first 5.11 pitch (pitch 5) connects two crack systems via an airy bolt ladder that traverses up and right around the crest of the buttress. The first ascensionists spent three days on the route setting bolts but most climbers today "French-free" it (or even climb it clean). We brought with us long slings in case we had to aid this 5.11 section but we never used them. We merely had to pull on a bolt or two. At the end of the ladder, there is a bolted belay. This is where we decided to end the pitch (and from reports we read, most people do), before going up a short 5.10 crack (rated 5.9 by Nelson and Potterfield, but we beg to disagree). Splitting the pitch at the bolted anchor minimizes rope-drag and allows you to recover from the 5.11 climbing. The next pitch goes down and right a few feet to reach the crack. Traversing into the short handcrack is one of the cruxes of the climb and we both ended up grabbing a conveniently located sling (Eric did not even try to free it and I fell trying to do it). This is a short pitch; Eric set up a belay at the end of the crack system, just below the 5.8 face section leading to the second 5.11 bolt ladder. After a weird balancy 5.8 move, the rest of the crux 5.11 pitch is quite fun: steep moves on an overhanging face followed by a steep dihedral and a couple of 5.10'ish mantles. The moves up the face were well protected by bolts; the mantle moves were trickier and required gear placements. Neither one of us is a particularly strong face climber, so we both had to hang once or twice at the crux for rest. I led the next two pitches (5.6) which join the South Arete route after a tricky step down move off a ridge block. From there, the summit is a quick scramble away.
We reached the summit shortly after noon and had it to ourselves. The weather was beautiful and the views to the Wine Spires and the North Cascades exquisite. After a well-deserved lunch, we started the easy descent down the South Arete route (5.4). A fair amount of downclimbing, three single rope raps, and an hour later, we were on solid ground. From there, you have two choices: the more direct way drops down a very steep scree gully directly to the hairpin and your car; the other - longer but far gentler - goes down the west side to the Blue Lake trail, back to the road, and up the road and over Washington Pass back to the east side. After one look at the east-side gully, we decided to spare our knees a Chinese torture and went west (if you follow this option, do not descend all the way to the trailhead but cut through the woods to the highway about 1/2 mile before the trailhead. The hairpin is about 1.5 miles from that point). We tried our hitch-hiking karma, but it did not work, so we plodded along the road back to the car.
The Direct East Buttress follows the most striking line up the tallest spire of the Liberty Bell group. For that reason alone, it is a worthwhile climb! However, the rock quality is not the best and the climbing is OK but not great compared to the two routes on the west side of North Early Spire for example. Would I recommend it? Only if you have some more time after Liberty Crack and North Early Winter Spire...
South Early Winter Spire, WA
|The South and North Early Winter Spires viewed from the east. The Direct East Buttress route climbs the sun/shade arete of the South (left) Spire.|
|Eric leading the nice corner of pitch 3 (5.9+).|
|Going up the 4th pitch (5.8).|
|Lucie following the first 5.11 pitch.|
|On the short 5.10 crack between the two 5.11 pitches.|
|Eric a little higher up the 5.10 crack.|
|Views toward Washington Pass.|
|Just below the 5.11 section on the 7th pitch.|
|Eric going up the steep 5.11 face (pitch 7).|
|Great views from somewhere on the climb.|
|Lucie on pitch 8 (5.6).|
|On the last scramble before the summit (pitch 10).|
|Approaching the summit.|
|On the summit with the Wine Spires in the background.|
|Panoramic view of the North Cascades.|
|Walking back over the pass and to the car.|