Mt. Slesse, Northeast Buttress

By: Richard MacKenzie | Climbers: Richard MacKenzie, _?_ |Trip Dates: August 29-30, 1998

Photo: George Bell, Jr.

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I just got back from an outing to Slesse Mt., east of Vancouver. We did the Northeast Buttress (one of the Fifty Classic Climbs). The route has a 4ish-hour approach, is about 25 pitches, and has a long descent. A logistical complication is that the usual descent is down the West Side of the mountain, far (25km walk!) from the start. Most parties stash a car or bicycle on the West Side and go to the East Side to start the climb. At the end of the climb one person takes the bike, or both take the 2nd car, back to the other side. Alternatively, there's a descent down to the East Side (back near the start) which avoids this complication, but it's said to be a major effort to find the one survivable way down from among thousands of possibilities.

Being lazy couch-potato types, we wanted to do the route in a day to avoid having to climb with bivy gear. We had initially also decided to try the east-side descent, since we don't have two cars and didn't really relish the thought of trashing one of our ordinary (non-mtn) bikes on logging roads, which can be, to put it mildly, pretty rough. However we decided after consulting a few people who had done the route (one of whom had actually done that descent) that it would be too much to hope that we would find our way down without taking an "express descent" variation. So we managed to borrow a second car to leave at the end of the climb. (Darned if we didn't forget, when borrowing it, to mention the part about those logging roads...)

As for the climbing itself, there are a few options. The first 6 or so pitches can be bypassed. This sounds wimpy, of course, but since we were doing the route in one day we decided to allow ourselves the luxury of being wimps. (Fred Beckey, King of the Cascades, gives that option his blessing in his book, which made us feel better. [He derides, however, the recent practice of taking a helicopter to the base of the climb -- ruining the adventurous nature of the climb. No kidding!!!!]) The second option is mid-route: the crux is a supposedly sustained 5.10 crack pitch with questionable pro; there's a north-side traverse which avoids this and two other pitches, replacing them with four easier, though "occasionally loose" (guidebook parlance for "occasionally solid"), pitches. Again we decided to be wimps, since we figured time is going to be in great demand for a one-day ascent. And the third variation is a traverse to the east to avoid the last two pitches of climbing. Since the direct finish was 5.8, we didn't think it would slow us down much, so we decided to go direct there.

So the plan was: one-day outing, west side descent, bypass of the lower buttress, north side traverse, direct finish. The hardest climbing was 5.9, and many pitches were 4th or easy 5th class, so we figured we could zip along fairly quickly, hopefully doing some simul-climbing to speed things up. We climbed with small packs, containing some warmish clothes, headlamps, food, and 2.5 liters of water. We brought a pared-down rack (set of rocks, 4 TCUs, 5 Camalots, 8 QDs, slings). For "bivy gear", just in case, we brought one of those silver emergency blankets which I'd bought about 5 years ago and which had been sitting in its wrapping ever since.

We managed to leave our drop-off car as far along the west-side logging road as we dared to drive it (several kms from the actual descent trail), check out the beginning of the approach on the east side, and get to the place where we'd decided to camp for the night by about 8:00pm, an impressive and encouraging show of organization. The campground was at the beginning of the logging road leading to the approach, it was free, and it was quiet. We set our watches for 3:30am and bedded down under the stars, without a tent. It was a clear, calm night, far away from civilization, and the stars were magnificent.

Our attempt at getting a good night's sleep was short lived, however. After about 1/2 hour, we heard the odd scurrying noise around us, and first Karen, and then I, actually felt critters checking out the new squatters, crawling on our hair! Ugh! So eventually, not knowing whether the critters were mice, lizards, or other, we decided we would have to retreat to the back of our car, whose rear seat folds down, though the drop between the folded-down seat and the trunk was not exactly conducive to a good night's sleep. Still, it was better than worrying about critters crawling on us. As if the discomfort wasn't enough, not twenty minutes after settling into the car the nightmare continued: we again started to hear scurrying, and eventually to feel creatures on our hair. We turned on a headlamp, wondering what the hell was going on, and one or more mice had somehow found its way into our car! Repeated efforts to capture or scare away the spunky little rodent/s were a total failure.

After a couple of other attempts, we eventually drove to the trailhead, hoping (correctly, it turned out) that there would be no mice there, and that the one or more we were bringing along with us would stay in the car (the smell of a pizza box would hopefully be a stronger draw than the smell of us!). So some time near 1:00am we managed to bed down for the last time and actually may have gotten a few minutes of sleep, not quite as restful a night as we'd hoped before the big day ahead of us. During the night, I had thoughts of those annoying mice, and I got an absurd line in my head. No idea where it comes from; some cartoon, I think:


The alarm sounded all too soon, of course, but we were psyched. We hit the road at about 4am, headtorches blazing, and in about 2 1/2 hrs got an impressive view of Slesse. It looked big! We continued on, having a rough idea as to the approach, and eventually crossed the exposed but easy slabs of the "pocket glacier", below the east face. It's amazing how a little water and sand underfoot and a several-hundred foot drop-off can make a 30-degree slab seem intimidating!

At around 8am we started on the route proper. More accurately, I should say we roped up, because I don't think we were on the route proper (if indeed there is one) for more than two pitches until the final six-pitch finish. We spent much of the first few hours of climbing wondering where we were, gazing left and right, up and down, trying desperately to make features on the rock look like those described in the guidebook ("hmm, maybe that groove is the gendarme... do you think that left-facing corner is what he means by 'right-facing corner'?...") The climbing was often fairly loose, with rounded, slopey holds, marginal pro and the uncertainty of not knowing whether you were on a dead end (not in a literal sense, you hoped) or not. Every once in a while there would be a sign that we were not the first humans to venture where we were, though whether finding a sling around a flake is a good or bad sign is not always entirely clear. In short, it was lots of fun.

When we eventually did find ourselves on route, for the last pitches of the climb, it was quite good climbing, though occasionally loose, and the going seemed fairly easy. Certainly the 5.9 roof pitch seemed considerably easier than what we'd climbed when the description called for a 5.6 groove. There's nothing like hard, loose, unprotected climbing off route to make the route itself seem easier than expected. That roof pitch, incidentally, has the only bolt on the route, and it must be one of the most untrustworthy-looking bolts I've ever seen, ca. 1963. It did hold the weight of a quickdraw, but I wouldn't have wanted to test it with body-weight.

At some point we looked to our right, studying the north flank of the mountain, looking for the east-side descent, just to see what we would have been up against, had we chosen that descent. Nowhere did it look anything other than suicidal to go down that way. We were glad we'd decided to do the usual west-side descent.

We made it to the summit just before 6:00pm, which was about what I'd hoped for, and I thought we were in pretty good shape for getting down to the descent trail before dark, after which I figured we would be safe, with our headlamps. We hadn't seen a human all day, surprising since this route is such a classic. We puttered around on the summit briefly, ate some food, drank some water, took some pictures, and headed down. The descent was not entirely obvious, and we wasted some precious time trying to locate rappel stations, but with an hour of daylight to go we were able to see the start of a vague trail lower down. We got onto the trail at around 8pm, not much daylight left, happy to have virtually made it back to the car. A long day on very little sleep looked like it was going to come to a successful end.

However, Slesse was to have the last laugh: the trail was rather difficult to follow, and as day turned into night we fired up our headlamps, but eventually the trail led to a broad plateau, and seemingly, unbelievably, ended. We briefly debated trying to bushwhack down ("debated" is perhaps too dignified a term...), but decided to be cautious and spend an unplanned night out, hopefully finding the trail again in the morning. Luckily, the weather was cooperative.

We found the most sheltered, flat area we could, ate some food, had a bit of water (which was running seriously low), and bedded down, our ropes no competition for a Sealy Posture-pedic. We were grateful to each have decided to throw in a pile jacket at the last minute, and grateful also for that emergency blanket. I don't know if the reflecting surface does any good, and the thing is incredibly noisy, but it did block the wind quite well.

And best of all, there were no meeces!

We got up at daybreak, having slept almost not at all for the second night in a row. We immediately found the trail, naturally, and our initial reaction was anger that we'd lost it in the first place, costing us an unplanned bivy. But as we wound our way down the incredibly long, steep trail, knees wobbling from lack of sleep, we realized that there had been virtually no hope that we might have been able to follow the trail down in the dark, as indistinct as it was.

After about 1 1/2 hrs of thigh-burning descending we made it to a logging road of sorts. It was 99.9 percent clear that we had to turn right down the logging road, to head towards our car. We started in that direction, and then we did the Mendell Shuffle. Never heard of the Mendell Shuffle? That's where you have two possible directions to go in, you decide on the most logical one and start going, then as you walk the uncertainty builds until you're convinced you should have gone the other way. You turn around and start retracing your steps. Again as you go, you manage to convince yourself the first way was, in fact, right. You turn around again, but the seeds of uncertainty have already been planted.... you get the point.

About 45 minutes after leaving the trailhead to walk along the logging road towards the car, the Mendell Shuffle had brought us back to the trailhead, where we were able to confirm that, yes, there only WAS one way in the first place, and so we headed for the last time in the original direction, where maybe 45 minutes later, we finally arrived at the car. (At least the Mendell Shuffle enabled us to notice some water near the trailhead, where we -- tired, hungry and desperately thirsty at the time -- were able to tank up for the final walk.) In summary: a great adventure, a classic route, beautiful scenery. And I learned something about myself: I JUST LOVE THOSE MEECES TO PIECES!