Liberty Bell, Liberty Crack
By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary &, Lynn Clark, Mark Jonas |Trip Dates: Late June, 1995
Photo: Gary Clark
This report was written more than 4 years after the climb, so it will be weak on details. Perhaps there will be still be some useful information in these rememberances.
I called Mark in Alaska because I remembered him talking about this climb. Not only was it on his tick list, but I learned he had attempted it once already, but was foiled by weather. He was anxious to put it in the bag, and even better, he had good friends in Winthrop, Washington, the closest community and one that bills itself as the "Gateway to the North Cascades." Mark was sure we'd all be welcome to hang out at his friends' place while in the area. He cashed in some frequent flyer miles and we set a date.
As soon as we hit town, we drove up to Washington Pass to have a look. The route looked fantastic - a little water was on the face, but it was in good shape overall, and the weather was, for the moment, clear. We went back to town for a good meal and some fine local brew, then started getting our gear together for the morrow. Our strategy was simple - we'd climb the first three pitches, which would get us over the crux of the route and most of the aid, then rappel back to the ground so we could continue to enjoy the local restaurants and beer. No point in suffering when it isn't necessary. We figured we could finish the climb in a long day.
After a responsible but not overly eager alpine start, we came to grips with the first hard pitch. Mark wanted to lead, because he had a notion of freeing it. Unfortunately, some of the water we had seen on the face with binoculars was coming right down the 5.10 finger crack and the smooth face to it's right over the footholds. After about 4 attempts, he grumbled and reached for his etriers. The remaining aid went fairly quickly, although I was impressed with it when I cleaned it. There were a few rasty-looking fixed things, but mostly it was typical A3 fiddling. I took the next pitch, which includes the famous "Lithuanian Roof." The roof was a good workout, but with fixed pieces presented no great technical challenge. More fiddling led to the end of possible placements. Up to my right was the beginning of the huge crack system that constitutes most of the climb - the problem was getting out of my aiders and getting to it. With the roof below me, the exposure was rather dramatic as I tip-toed along a smooth slab, reaching for a long sling dangling just out of reach. I was glad to be out of sight of my partners as I groveled and whimpered before finally getting to the point I could grab the sling and pull onto the belay ledge. This seemed to me the psychological crux of the route. Everything else was relatively straightforward, well rated, and well protected. We quickly dispatched the next pitch, then attended to fixing ropes as we rapped back to the snow.
The next day we woke to a steady rain. Oh darn, this is northern Washington, isn't it? Fortunately there was a mountain shop in town and I'm almost always as enthusiastic about shopping for climbing gear as doing the actual climbing. There was also plenty of interesting countryside around Winthrop, and we did some exploring when the rain let up a bit. Another good meal, some more great beer, and early to bed in anticipation of another early start.
Another rainy morning. This was starting to be not so amusing. Mark had a fixed return plane ticket, so if it didn't go today or tomorrow, he was out of the picture. More hiking, more beer, another night . . .
Rain. Mark began packing for his return flight. Lynn and I wondered how the fixed lines were holding up. We envisioned legions of the famous Northwest snaffle-hounds feasting on them like so many long strands of linguini. We were not looking forward to the long jug upward, even granted that the sun might return. We spent the day reading and adjusting mentally to the realities. The weather in the evening showed promise, so we optimistically moved to a campsite up the road as close to the climb as possible.
5:00a - it's clear! We launch out of the bags and are soon parked at the base of the climb. The ropes are gone! . . . . Nope, with binoculars we could just make them out, looking rather insignificant on this decidedly BIG wall. Soon we were scrabbling up the snowfield again.
Now for the fun part - jugging lines that we were sure were chewed down to the last few filaments by the rock rodents. Just enough to support our weight until just below the big overhang, then a quick trip to the bottom a la John Harlin. The only thing we could do was jump on them hard before committing. Our fears were unfounded (or we were lucky) and the ropes were just fine. Watching Lynn jug the Lithuanian Roof with a pack on was entertaining - she hadn't done much of this sort of thing and so didn't know all the tricks, but she persevered and got up with little ado.
Mark had come to the base to collect the ropes we dropped, and from our perch high on the wall we watched him carving tele-turns down the spring corn snow before we got on to the business at hand. It was like looking down on a sidewalk from a 40-story balcony. We were not to see him again this trip - he had a plane to catch.
The rest of the climb unfolded pretty much as expected. Most of the pitches were good solid classic climbing - continuous, strenuous, but not severe. I had pause high on the wall when I had to belay on some really poor fixed anchors, but other than that and a couple of short overhanging sections that I aided (or French freed), we enjoyed every pitch. I hauled the pack for some of the more difficult pitches to allow Lynn to enjoy the climbing, but this ate at the time. Finally we were facing the final pitches in a race with the daylight. Where had the hours gone? We watched the glaciers to the south turn golden, then red with the slanting rays of the sunset as we coiled the ropes at the last belay spot, then set off around the corner to the North to search for the first rappel station. The top of the tower was still 400 feet of scrambling above, but there was little consideration of trying to get there in complete darkness, then finding the unfamiliar descent route with headlamps. We had the route in the bag, and that would have to do.
I touched ground at the saddle and called "Off rappel!" just as the light faded completely. I got the headlamp out to help light the way for Lynn. After we pulled and coiled the ropes, we settled down for some much-needed nourishment. I tend to eat nothing and drink little in the excitement of a technical climb like this, but knew that my energy would go to zero if I didn't bolster the reserves a bit before beginning the long hike down.
By headlamp on a crystal night we started down the snow gully on the North side. It was surprisingly long. Ice axes were essential, since the snow quickly crisped up as the temperature dropped. June back home in New Mexico would mean a balmy evening, but at these northern latitudes this felt more like winter. After an hour of steep mixed snow, rock, and bushes, we came to the woods. Here the route was quite unobvious. People had been there, but there were paths going every direction - some of them human, some animal. I finally stopped worrying about where the real trail might be and just dead-reckoned with the help of the stars. At about 11:00p we stumbled out onto the road. We were, however, still 30minutes from the car, because we had ascended the South side and descended the North. But we could relax. Rather than stumbling through the trees on two to three feet of highly variable quality snow, we were on pavement. Pavement is an amazing invention. We turned off the headlamps and relished the experience - the climb was in the bag, we were tired but happy, and the night was exquisite. Just what we had come for.