Liberty Bell, Liberty Crack
By: Eric Ponslet | Climbers: Eric Ponslet, Lucie Parietti |Trip Dates: August 9-10, 2003
Photo: Gary Clark
What can I say? It's one of the Fifty Classics. We had to do it. Besides, it follows a striking natural line up the most impressive wall in the Liberty Bell group: the East Face of Liberty Bell.
This climb had been on our list for a long time, but the long distance from New Mexico to the Northwest and the uncertain weather in the area had kept us from attempting it. Now, we were here, and we had just completed the other three routes we had intended to climb at Washington Pass. Unfortunately, after weeks of perfect blue skies, unstable stormy weather had just settled over the mountains. We were planning to do the route in one day, but to fix the first three pitches the day before to avoid carrying full aid gear up the entire climb. So we needed two days of good weather. The forecast was just as unsettled as the weather itself, so we ignored it. On Friday evening, after a couple of days of hesitation, we decided to just go for it. This meant that we would be climbing the three aid pitches on Saturday, not the best choice given the usual popularity of the Classics and the proximity of Seattle. Then again, few people get up as early as we do... we've been behind another party on a long route only once in our climbing history!
Saturday morning, 3:30AM. Up, load up on coffee and muesli, and go. We're a bit anxious. We have only done three pitches of aid climbing in our lives on a rained-out attempt on Washington Column in Yosemite. That climb was rated A2 and was a bit tricky. Liberty Crack receives an A3 rating in some books, although by all recent accounts we've been able to get our hands on, it is more like A2. We'll see. Since we don't know for sure, we're taking a huge, full aid rack, including a hammer and a couple pitons, just in case the fixed pieces have finally decided to unfix themselves.
5:00AM, we're starting up the short approach (45 minutes to an hour) with very heavy packs: large rack, 3 ropes, and lots of water. By 7:15AM, we're on the first pitch. This pitch goes free at 5.11 or so, but with the vast collection of scrap metal that's hanging from my chest harness, it will be mostly aid for me. Some tricky placements; some free climbing; A2 seems right. To our surprise, the belays are fixed with beefy bolts and on good stances and small ledges (we had heard that there were hanging belays until the 8th pitch... baloney; there is not a single hanging belay on the entire climb). By the time Lucie has cleaned the pitch, another party has arrived at the base. Apparently they had the same plan (fixing 3 pitches and climb the next day). They were to give up on the idea by late morning.
The second pitch goes over the infamous Lithuanian Lip. Although roofs are always quite tricky to follow, they are often a breeze to lead, particularly when the gear is good. And it is. In fact, every placement to the lip is fixed: pitons, a nut, and a good bolt. Above the lip, a few small nut placements to clear it, then a short distance to a good belay ledge with another great anchor. Following aid roofs is no fun. Lucie has a good fight with it, and wins.
Third pitch. Reputed to be the crux. We had read a few horror stories about manky old bashies, very steep rock, and scared climbers. We're not finding any of that. Sure there are two or three fixed copperheads and tiny banged up nuts in the thing, so I am hanging from those with some care, but there are also good fixed pitons and 1/4" bolts before and after that section. Besides, the fixed heads have been there for so long, you'd have to be very unlucky to have one pop on you. I never feel unsafe going through it. The rock is barely vertical. Of the 3 aid pitches, I think this is actually the most straightforward. It is rated A2 only because of a hook placement along the way, which I skipped by top-stepping to reach a good small nut placement (even though we carried a hook just for that move). It is a short pitch, and the last 30 feet or so can easily be free-climbed.
Lucie is at the belay in no time. It is 12:15PM. It has taken us 5 hours to aid the three pitches. Not very fast, but not too bad for aid rookies. With the three ropes fixed on the way up, we're back to the ground in a few minutes. We quickly pack the gear, hike back down to the car, and go back to camp to repack for the next day, eat an early dinner, and get some sleep.
Sunday, 3:00AM: It's that alarm clock again! Up, load up on coffee and muesli, and go... déja vu. We start hiking up around 4:30AM, but quickly loose the trail and end up thrashing through brush and boulder fields for a while. After an hour, we're at the base of the climb again. We've only lost 10 minutes.
Now for the fun part: jugging up the fixed ropes. Lucie had some practice from following a few pitches. I had never done this before. Now I've done it, and I am definitely not looking forward to doing it again! It is just a whole lot of work, and because you're trying to go fast, it's incredibly tiring.
I take a lot more time than I should on the first pitch, trying to get everything adjusted just right (it is very critical to efficient rope climbing). Lucie follows smoothly. At the first belay, we re-rig the first fixed rope through a rappel ring and tie it to the second. That way, once at the second belay, we'll be able to drop the second fixed rope and have them both hanging to the ground from the first belay, in a standard rappel setup. It keeps the ropes on the wall during the climb, instead of in the dirt and snow, and makes retrieving them later a breeze.
Another pitch up and a bit of a struggle passing the lip of the roof again, and we're at the second belay. We drop the second fixed rope. We are committed. The weather has been worrying us since early morning. Clouds are increasingly blocking the sky, and they are looking darker by the hour. We reach the third belay station and the start of the free climbing at 8:45AM. It has taken us a little over two hours to climb the ropes. We are just as tired as after leading those pitches.
(NOTE: pitch numbers are from Nelson and Potterfield's topo in "Selected Climbs of the Cascades")
Time to pack the ascenders (we used one Petzl jumar and one "ropeman" each, to save weight) and switch to free climbing mode. The climbing feels hard. We're pretty tired from the work of the previous day and the jugging this morning. A 5.10 crack (pitch 4) is followed by a sustained 5.8+ corner (pitch 5), then a long, easier pitch to the infamous rotten block (pitches 6 and 7, done as one, which I recommend). Moving up and onto the block is 5.10 or A1. We try to free it, but end up hanging for rest through the sequence of very steep finger locks. That section is entirely fixed with good pitons. The last move onto the block is a struggle. Decent belay sitting on the block, with good gear in a small crack to complement the suspicious-looking 1/4" bolts (3 of them). The weather is holding.
The next pitch (#8) starts with very thin moves under a right-leaning slot (5.10c/A1). I don't really try to free it as the rock is extremely slick and slippery on the friction face to the right (BTW, we found the rock very polished on most of the route). Instead, I "French-free" it on a few small nuts and Aliens until above the slot and into a nice 5.9 dihedral. The pitch ends with a weird and tricky 5.10 section, left under a block and up a crack to a tree belay
Pitches 9 and 10 follow pleasant 5.7 ramps and chimneys on good rock. Lucie fires up that section to another tree belay at the base of a steep dihedral. We're both at the ledge at 1:30PM and rest a while.
The next rope length (#11) is by far the best on the route and also the last of the really technical pitches on the route. It goes up two left-facing corners (5.9 then 5.8+) on very good rock for a full 55 meters (best done with a 60m rope, or else belay as high as possible at the end of pitch 10).
From here, the route continues up and left on easier terrain until it joins the standard route at the base of its last pitch. We both feel that this is an unfortunate finish for an otherwise direct route. Some scrambling and one 5.7 move bring us to the top. It is about 3:00PM. The sky has cleared up almost completely above the towers. The views of the North Cascades under the now distant clouds are magnificent. We enjoy the sunny summit for a while.
The descent is remarkably easy: a bit of scrambling down slabs and ledges followed by two single rope raps bring us to the notch between Liberty Bell and Concord Tower. From there, a loose gully leads to the "back" (west) side of the massif and the Blue Lake trail. Since we're parked along Highway 20 on the west side of the tower, we have to hike around to the other side. We follow the Blue Lake trail to within 1/2 mile of the trailhead, then cut through the woods to the highway. A short 3/4 mile up the road brings us back to Washington Pass. The car is only a few hundred yards downhill from here. We reach it at 6:15PM. Car to car in just over 13 hours.
But wait! There's plenty of daylight left, why not go back up and get the ropes off the wall now instead of tomorrow morning? And that's exactly what we do. A little less than two hours later, we're back at the car again, and this time, it's for good.
Our general impressions of the climb are mixed. While it is clearly one of the most obvious and impressive lines in the Bells, it suffers from a non-descript finish up the trade route. We had a great adventure on the route, but cannot really say we enjoyed the climbing itself that much. A lot of the rock is of mediocre quality and/or very polished. The aid climbing adds a dimension to the experience but it is too straightforward to be a real challenge in itself.
If we were to do this route again, knowing what we know now, we would not fix the aid pitches (or maybe just the first). Fixing those pitches the day before takes a lot of energy, particularly since you end up carrying multiple ropes up the approach and part of the climb. Jugging the ropes the next morning is faster (maybe much faster for people who have done this a lot) than leading the pitches but every bit as tiring (it took us 2 hours instead of 5). If we had led the aid pitches that morning, we could have made the summit by 6PM, more than early enough for the season, given the quick and easy descent.
To do the entire route in a day, you'd want to minimize your rack. Since most placements on the aid pitches are secure, I would personally consider it very reasonable to back-clean nearly every other placement. There is no use for a hammer, assuming that the fixed heads on pitch 3 are in place (take a chance; if they're not, you're going down). With that in mind, our recommended gear list for a one-day ascent would be: a 60 meter rope, two sets of small aliens (purple to orange), one set of nuts with doubles of the small and medium sizes, two each of Camalots from #1 and #2, one #3 Camalot, a set of hexes, one Black Diamond skyhook and maybe about 30 free carabiners (only enough if back-cleaning).
Editor's Note: This report, with photos, can also be found on the author's web site.