Early Morning Spire

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So Big Retard

August 13-15, 2005

Hannah and I pursued some alpine climbing-errantry on Early Morning Spire. The original intent was to climb the classic Southwest Face route, which begins on the rock at the upper red dot. We climbed an independent line beginning at the lower red dot. Thanks to Lowell Skoog for the photo.

Click here for a photo approximating our full route. Photo by Lowell Skoog

Marble Creek Cirque seems like a place worthy of a significant sojourn. It's a piece of work to get there, requiring cross-country travel over passes and glaciers or a seriously long hike up a valley with no trail. If you're lucky enough to get there, however, there is no shortage of isolation to enjoy, sights to ogle, and features to climb.

Hannah and I are planning a three-day trip, so I manufacture a modestly ambitious itinerary. We start with an easy day, approaching via Sibley Creek Pass, around the Triad, over Triad-Eldorado Col, down the Triad Glacier, and around Marble Creek Cirque to an acceptable campsite. Day two we should be able to bag Early Morning Spire and Dorado Needle. Day three we cap the coup with an up-and-over of Eldorado's West Arête, down the easy East Ridge, across the Eldorado Glacier, around the Triad, and out Sibley Creek Pass. Hopefully we can keep ourselves busy.

Day one goes according to plan, besides a somewhat late start. I won't blame anyone in particular for the late start, but I will say I was ready. In case you haven't heard anyone rave about it yet, let me tell you that this approach is absolutely gorgeous. The scenery on the ridge hike toward the Triad is definitely worth the haul. Now that I've done it several times I may try to save myself by approaching via the Eldorado Glacier next time, but suffice it to say the aesthetics make it a haul-worthy approach.

The snowfield on the approach to the Triad is in significantly worse shape than when we made a high traverse of the Triad a few weeks ago. Having both crampons and an ax is definitely a good thing.

A little downclimb follows the snowfield. I miss the climber's path so we have to climb a nasty gully from much lower than necessary. It's all worthwhile after I find two nuts and a 'biner somebody used to rappel. Booty call!

Below the Big Dick I take a nap while listening to Nirvana Unplugged. Hannah must be contagious. This isn't like me; we gotta go. I rise startled and demand departure.

Sunset in Marble Creek Cirque Sunset in Marble Creek Cirque

Now we're in Marble Creek Cirque and I am flying high. Early Morning Spire, Dorado Needle, and the West Arête of Eldorado are all giving me positive vibrations. Hannah makes her perfunctory plea for a break, to which I reply soon. Despite her early stall tactics, we're in optimal position. A camp at the base of the West Arête is perfect.

The next morning I'm still hype. Hannah is kind enough to expedite her preparations. We're on our way to Early Morning Spire by eight and I have high hopes to bag both the Spire and the Needle. My grandiose plans make me an absolute junkie for the needle. Such a junkie, in fact, that I can't be bothered to take the time and really think about the approach to the Spire. Once we round the corner, BAM, we should be there right? I have a facsimile of the topo from Kearney's guide, which is a tidy-looking sketch from Lowell Skoog; I see a chimney that just looks too much like the one in the drawing in front of me. Nevermind that we haven't ascended any snowfields.

Photographic evidence that I'm a dumbass?

Hannah asks some very sensible questions. "How do you know this is the right route?"
"Well, I could look at the picture. But this topo looks perfect. Let's do it."
"Lemme see that. Twelve pitches. Are you sure it's only twelve pitches to the top from here?"

Clearly she somehow knows better, but so did Sancho Panza. She's unable to resist the demands of an alpinist-errant. Give me that rack! We have a spire to climb.

We begin the climb in my standard fashion. That is, scramble past all convenient spots until it seems absolutely necessary to make a belay and get the gear from a most pestilent perch. Hannah is a sport, though, and she finds herself a nice placement for my new Wild Things Zero Cam for security while I finish my preparations. She got the first placement of my new Zero Cam!

One full pitch puts us at a belay right next to the chimney. The topo, of which I have not yet disillusioned myself, says to cross the chimney and climb a flake to a 5.8 layback. I cross the chimney and immediately climb a 5.8 thin crack before moving left into an offwidth. I am only able to protect the crux move with my new Zero Cam. As I place it, I tell Hannah, "Yeah, this little baby's brand new. I'm totally stoked to take a whipper on this tiny thing. We'll have to try that somewhere up here." She never seems to find the jokes I tell on lead amusing.

Above the offwidth, I pass a tree to stem up a corner so that I can make an absolutely heinous hanging belay. Naturally, Hannah can't retrieve the Zero Cam and I hear, "Take!" She fools with it while I flirt with whiplash, until I finally tell her to just leave it. I have her lower me from the belay to retrieve it myself. To her credit, it is tricky. I have to position my legs in a funky stance to free both hands so the rope won't pull me away from the cam. Then it takes an intricate series of nut-tool bashing and trigger tickling to retrieve it.

The next pitch, I'm still trying to forge a climb that isn't here from the topo. There's a roof above us, and pitch three is supposed to involve climbing up through a roof. I keep trying to climb toward the roof, and I see cracks above me, but they only come after significant thin face climbing with no protection. Nope, that's just not going to happen. Instead I follow an off-width crack on a rising traverse to the right. There still isn't any pro, but it's not nearly as scary as difficult, thin face climbing with no pro. I make sure to stop for a nice belay.

I'm beginning to disabuse myself of any notion that we're near the intended climb. I climb to the right into a wide depression below a white, overhanging roof. (This roof is prominently visible in my route photo.) I begin by heading up the more-interesting-looking side on climber's left. No pro, no pro, up into the corner and here we go... damn it! What looked like a sweet dihedral requires a funky entrance move; on top of that, the dihedral doesn't offer a crack and I'm way above my last piece. "Hannah, will you take the slack? I'm downclimbing." Imaginative readers should feel free to insert a string of expletives while I downclimb.

I cross the wide depression on some thin face moves, still without pro, and head up the right corner. There are some nice cracks for protection. It looks like a chimney above me. "Hannah, I think I have a nice chimney for you here." Once again, she's not laughing. Actually, no chimney technique is required and I find myself on a nice, huge ledge.

Hannah climbs to me with no problem. I exclaim, "I gotta take a break. Hopefully some smoked trout will help me get the mojo going!" So far the climb has been frustrating. Lowering to the cam, lots of runouts, and more downclimbs than I care to make have me in an irascible state. We need to get on the good foot if we're climbing Dorado Needle today. (Ha, ha, ha...)

Just to climber's right from the ledge is a steep drop to a snowfield. There's a really cool face above the snowfield; that's the climb we came to do. I'm planning to ascend directly above us for the next pitch. Nice, blocky climbing with plenty shrubbery leads to a right-facing corner with lots of cracks. I make a belay at the end of the 50 m rope.

Things are looking even better the next pitch. The right-facing corner leads to a roof where I move to the left into a left-facing corner. Another bulge leads to some face moves just below an awesome cubbyhole at 50m. One more pitch of nice face climbing and flakes puts us on the ridge. We've just had three excellent pitches.

There is a really nice ledge when we reach the ridge. It's already after noon and fairly obvious that we won't be climbing Dorado Needle today. Somehow I'm convinced that a nap would be all right. It sure is a nice place to loiter. The Marble Creek valley is so pristine; we can't see any signs of people, but we can see all the way to the Skagit River. It's a calm, hot afternoon. If ever there is a time and place for a nice, lazy nap in the mountains this must be it. I can scarcely believe I would buy into such thoughts; the fact is that the ledge must have been enchanted. We stayed there way too long.

We've climbed thirteen pitches or so. I constantly stretch the rope the full 50 meters in my quixotic quest for bad belays. So I figure pitch fourteen must put us near the top. The topo shows twelve pitches; I know we're off route but my pitches are bigger. That's right, my pitches are bigger than yours! The magnitude of my errors escapes me. Pitch fourteen, after its fun face and flake climbing, clarifies everything. I regain the ridge to see the summit sailing at rather lofty heights. A subsequent glance at the sun, not impressively high above the horizon, makes me uneasy.

"All right, Hannah, I'm just gonna make a belay here to avoid rope drag."

One way or another it's past seven in the evening and we're in a race. I feel like the sun got an unfair advantage while I was in the shadows unaware of its progress. Three pitches or so along the ridge, just interesting and loose enough to preclude simulclimbing, and the sun is getting really low. It's pretty much gone.

Several easy pitches follow along the ridge. 4th, a move of 5th, some sandy 3rd... four easy pitches and we reach a transition. To the left a sheer face drops into some nasty gullies. I move right onto a face. A traversing pitch puts us in a groove. I bring Hannah to me and she comments, "Your anchor makes such a nice sharp angle this time." I respond, "I'll have to fix that." Some interesting climbing leads to a ledge, which leads to some really horrendous rock. I get to a good belay spot, but I just can't find any decent pro. I bash my knuckles into a bloody mess by trying to slot nuts into several failing cracks. I finally find a good cam placement at my foot and clip it to a nut at my shoulder in the most unequalized fashion possible. That'll show her.

I rerack and tell Hannah I'll stop if I see a good ledge. Those of you who know me know better. There was an excellent ledge about 20m from the belay. "I'm gonna go above this ledge and see. Maybe I'll downclimb if there's nothing good above." It's the damnedest thing: when you're climbing steep rocks, the slightest relent in angle looks like it could be a ledge from below. I'm zooming along, in the zen-runout-climbing-by-braille mindframe.

"Sky that's me!"

Shit. At least there's a good placement for a cam here. I belay her to the fifteen-degree 'ledge'. She notices, "Wow, you were really running it out here." I figured if I went faster it would get flatter. And now it's too dark to climb. We're officially benighted. "Welcome to the Ritz," I tell her. It's another first for Hannah!

Hannah's attitude is great. She's excited at the prospect of such a significant rite of passage in the career of an alpinist. Make that alpinist-errant. I'm excited to eat a handful of dried apricots, a couple crackers, and a cubic inch of cheddar cheese. Wash it all down with 6 oz. of water and I'm done with that pesky food and drink stuff. I sure am glad I went light and left all that good food at camp. The Icesac's bivy pad is quite useful; we're also both able to keep our feet rather warm inside it. Luckily it's a very warm, calm night. Over consultation I jest, "All right, we're going to start early tomorrow morning so we can still hit the West Arête before hiking to the car."

Before I start the first pitch of the day in the morning, we make a bet. I bet it's only two pitches to the summit. The loser buys ice cream for the winner. I'll go ahead and tell you that Hannah had a hot fudge sundae on my coin. It's an easy scramble to some tricky loose flakes before I make a belay in a horrendous gully. The gully descends from a notch to the summit's west. I equalize some nuts in completely untrustworthy flakes just for show.

"It's only one pitch to the summit from here Hannah. You know what that means right? I'm gonna have you pull the belay and simul behind me regardless of what happens at the end of this rope."

There's no way I'm taking the stupid gully, so I cross it. There's a corner on the left and a chimney on the right. From a distance I thought the corner would be good, but it looks like it is layered with flakes of death. I ask Hannah, "Do you prefer to climb shit in stacks or piles?" Still not funny.

The chimney on the right provides a nice overhanging bulge with loose flakes. It reminds me a lot of the chimney variation on Guye Peak's Improbable Traverse. Luckily there are good face holds on the right. There is a good spot to stand and what I think is a good belay. The little purple DMM is bomber, yeah.

Before I try to pull the roof I decide to clean some house for Hannah's sake. I carefully toss three stacked flakes into the abyss. Hmm, all of a sudden the little purple DMM doesn't seem so bomber. Oh well, the nut's still good.

Scouting for the descent Scouting the descent: Hannah's favorite photo from the trip.

Excellent face holds make the roof easy. Above the roof is beautiful face climbing. Clean, vertical rock with juggy holds at just the right spacing. I bring Hannah to the last belay, hooray! The last pitch has more cool face climbing and I take a huge runout just for sentimental reasons. Here we are at the summit, and it's only been 24 hours!

The views of the Triad and Eldorado Peak are nice.

Hannah asks, "How are we going to rappel?" Umm, with the rope... There is an old fixed rope descending the gully to the glacier between the Spire and Dorado Needle. The bergschrund above the glacier is huge, with the snow overhanging a drop of thirty feet and surrounded on the sides by intimidating steep, slabby rock. We rappel into the bergschrund off a bollard. I go first but Hannah is still really intimidated; it takes her a while to commit her weight to the rope from the snow's edge. Another first!

We reach the car at half past midnight. A long stop for dinner, coffee and ice cream and I'm not home until four in the morning. I take a shower, walk the dog, and head to school. A nice delirious day, followed by a 5pm-1am shift for an experiment. Haggard hallucinations, anyone?