Colchuck - Northeast Buttress Attempt
October 12-13, 2002
Dan and I hooked up to climb the Northeast Buttress of Colchuck
for I had heard something about it being a nice line. As with many routes
in the area, it seemed to be a long climb with many technical pitches
and long sections of easier terrain. A perfect outing for this beautiful
Colchuck's NE Buttress is the prominent line coming down to the glacier
from the false summit.
We hiked up to the lake and then up the scree field above
it to reach some nice bivi spots next to the drainage of the glacier.
It was COLD! After sitting for about 5 minutes we were totally freezing
with all of our clothes on, and our sleeping bags draped on top of us.
By the time our water bottles began to freeze in the mid-afternoon "warmth,"
we decided it was time to hike up and check out the route.
We scrambled up the slabs to the glacier and pulled out
the topo from Beckey's book (drawn by the first ascentionists). The features
were obvious: The initial ramp to ledge, the shallow chimney, the major
dihedral... Then, about half way up the buttress the topo "ends"
and the description becomes very vague. Perhaps it is just easy after
that point? We would find out tomorrow!
Preferring to stay active (warm) until dinner, we decided
to add to the alpine ambiance by trundling every large rock in sight.
We knocked down some serious boulders and almost got a car-sized one to
go with a little creative "bowling". After a candlelight dinner,
we took in the awesome array of stars that filled the moonless sky.
The night was cold, and getting out of our bags was certainly
a crux of the day. It did feel a bit warmer today, so we headed up with
a little optimism about warm hands.
Dan approaching the base of the route.
We crossed the icy glacier and found a perfect belay at the base of the
route on a platform in the moat. We belayed off of two solid ice screws.
The route (per Beckey) begins near the upper left part of the pink band
of rotten rock. A prow shaped rock forms the second pitch's shallow chimney,
and is the left hand border of the light rock.
Dan leads off on the first pitch.
We opted to climb the first pitch in our boots, seeing as we were standing
on a patch of ice. Dan lead off climbing up short cracks that break the
wall above little ledges (5.6). This brought us to the ledge with some
talus on it, below the rotten pink dike, and the "shallow chimney"
The 2nd pitch: Shallow chimney? More like splitter handcrack!
Dan had the belay right up against the edge of the pink dike The topo
shows a rightward jag before heading back left to the "chimney".
Seeing as we were a little to the right already, my rightward jag lead
me into the "not recommended" dike variation. Every hold was
loose, solid pro was scarce, and Dan was directly below me in the firing
line. Getting back on track looked difficult, but there was a rap station
just off to the right so I traversed over towards it and a series of cool
looking flake-cracks. The anchor was a tiny hex and a sling around a big
detached pillar (6ft tall, 1ft diameter). I nearly pulled it, and myself
off when I yarded past it. The flakes turned out to be pretty solid and
enjoyable jamming (5.8). I was still huffing and puffing though when I
reached the belay, still trying to acclimate my hands to the cold rock.
Dan came up and lead off right into a big dihedral. This nice pitch on
solid rock featured a couple of easy cracks strait up, and then a branch
right on a small crack to a ledge with a big tree (not small as the description
says). I lead the next pitch which continued on small cracks and edges
up and right for a half rope length. At this point I reached the prominent
ledge system that traverses the face of the buttress a ways below the
crest. We decided to running belay up the ledge system (4th class) until
it ends at the "twin 5.8 cracks".
We cruised along, and after climbing up a short step to a ledge with
two dead trees, we were at the base of the twin cracks. Above we could
see the obvious ramp mentioned in the topo. We were starting to feel pretty
good about staying on route and climbing quickly.
Dan starts the twin cracks pitch as the sun makes its short cameo on the
The twin cracks turned out to be more nice crack climbing, though it
was a little dirty. However, the little tuffs of dirt and grass in the
crack give great little platforms for setting gear! Dan belayed me up
on a I'm-in-the-bush belay, and I finished the rest of the ramp up to
the crest of the ridge. I had now reached the dreaded end of the topo.
I was looking for the mentioned lyeback crack (which I had already climbed
to reach the crest), and decided that it continued up past the large ledge
and up the crest of the buttress.
To get up to the crest, I followed a right ramping crack under a small
roof. The climbing was pretty hard due to the lichened featureless slab
and the shallow crimp on the horizontal crack. I reached an opportunity
to go up, but continued traversing towards a rest on a little ledge. Once
I made it there, I immediately realized my error. 100 feet of free air
below my feet was the "catwalk" ledge system that we were supposed
to be on. Going up was a dead end, and I was a good 15 feet away from
my last piece. Eventually I resigned myself to climbing back across that
crux of the traverse (5.10-) to my last piece. Once back I was pretty
flamed out from the constant lock-off position and had to hang. I decided
to try the up option this time, and climbed a thin finger crack another
25 feet to a belay.
Dan climbed up to the crest and verified that he was indeed on the Catwalk.
At this point I rearranged the anchor and rapped off. We had wasted a
little time, but were still feeling optimistic about our pace. We running
belayed across the broad ledge for a ropelength, and then turned the corner
to follow a ramp up to a blocky corner with a fixed pin. Dan continued
around the next corner and started up some very loose and dirty 5.7 ground.
The description did mention "2 pitches back to crest", and we
seemed to be in the obvious dihedral feature that would grant that. However,
about a half pitch from the crest Dan reached an impass. An impass and
someone else's expensive bail anchor. Once I joined him, we weighed the
Dan looks up in horror at the steep licheny corner (left). Unfortunately,
there was no crack in that corner!
There was no where to go. The corner above couldn't even be aided, the
face to the left was blank, and the chimney feature to the right was totally
loose and dangerous. It was time to go back down!
The way down into choss ville: the west side of the NE buttress. Note
the gigantic boulder that overhangs the NE buttress couloir. This bus
sized gem is precariously perched on a knife edge of dirt!
Once back at the crest where the catwalk begins, we weighed the daylight
remaining and the uncertainty of the ground ahead. If we headed up another
way, would we again find ourselves denied in the shambles of choss and
lichen? We decided to bail down the often-used looking rap stations that
dotted the route up to this point.
The descent went pretty smoothly until we had to contend with the loose-pillar
station in the pink dike After trundle-man-Dan sent the pillar along its
way, he was able to access enough crack to beef up the anchor. Two more
rapps and we touched down onto the glacier, which we had left 9 hours
before (at 7:30am).
Trying to beat the sunset, we zoomed back to camp, packed up and headed
out. However, we still ended up hiking the last few miles or so in the
dark. Ironically, Emily and her friend Easton were also coming down in
the dark directly across the valley, descending from climbing the Condor
Buttress. They had only one headlamp and got to enjoy a true bushwhack
through the old burn and new brush!
Colchuck shows us the door...
Apparently this route is written up in a "50 favorite climbs in
the NW" book which describes an alternate start from the buttress
toe, and perhaps more insight into the upper reaches of the climb. I spoke
with one person who had climbed the ramp that traverses below the crest
past the twin 5.8 cracks. They climbed two pitches of 5.9/10a off the
ramp to reach the ridge crest. From there they cruised easy terrain up
to the final obstacles. So, as Arnold says, I'll be back.