NW Corner of North Early Winter Spire (5.9) & the East Face of Lexington Tower (5.9+)

Rick:

Sandy had work training until 5 pm on Friday, so we had reluctantly made plans to do some local climbing & swimming at Beacon Rock in the 88 degree Gorge weather. After spending the last few weeks in the heat of Leavenworth, however, that plan was something neither of us was too excited about. Instead we decided to see if we could optimize our time spent traveling and pack in multiple climbs with short approaches over two days in a more amenable climate. Our plan was to drive to Washington Pass Saturday morning, climb the East Face of Lexington Tower, sleep, climb the NW Corner of North Early Winter Spire (NEWS), and then drive back to Portland before work/school Monday.

We slept from 7 pm until midnight Friday, then took off around 1 am. Driving in ~3 hour shifts with the passenger sleeping, we arrived in Washington Pass at 7:30 am — just in time to witness our “.1 inches of rain at 7 am” forecast turn into 4 hours of alternating hard rain and misting. We took a nap and got coffee in Mazama, then once it started drying out switched objectives to climb the NW Corner of NEWS first.

Don’t let the blue skies fool you, the wind didn’t die down until we got back to camp.

Ninety minutes after leaving the parking lot we were at the first chimney pitch. We had arrived just after a group of four who had been attempting the Liberty Bell Traverse until a traversing fall disrupted their momentum, and were now doing the West Face of NEWS. We chatted with them for an hour until both of their groups had finished the first shared chimney pitch, then Sandy led us up the runout face and fun chimney to a series of treed ledges.

The first run out to the chimney.
Pitch 1 chimney.

From here she took us around an arete to the NW Corner proper, up a short hand crack, and a belayed off of large gear. Once I arrived we reassessed and I anchored to a tree with fixed slings and lowered her down to me, which freed up the large gear for the next pitch’s flakes.

Sandy belaying pitch 2.

Leading out from here, I started up the zigzag flakes. After placing a #5 deep in the first wide flake, I mostly ran it out to the next anchor, as it was strenuous but easy liebacking with amazing friction for your feet. These ended up being a great teacher for me, as they showed that while I’m very comfortable on Oregon rock, I still am in need of a lot more mileage on granite to move at the speed I would like to.

Starting up the zigzag flakes.
Looking up the zigzag flakes.
Looking North from the NW Corner.
Looking South from the NW Corner.

Bringing Sandy up to a slung horn and comfortable ledge, we were both now in the sun but fully exposed to the wind that had been blowing between the towers all day. I took off as fast as possible, eager to leave that exposed ledge and hide in the corner. The initial section was the steepest with no features on the rock, so I mostly bumped up a #4 cam while placing smaller gear in the back of the crack where possible, then cruised through a fun hand/fist crack to a lounging belay in a alcove below the last pitch.

Looking up the classic corner pitch.
Looking down from the top of the corner pitch.

After bringing Sandy up to our alcove stance we were both cold and ready to enjoy some sun, so I took off up the last 5.9 pitch to the summit. This ended up being a sweet combination of stemming and liebacking which went quickly and was much easier than the two 5.9 pitches below it.

Getting my first piece in after the slab on pitch 5.

Ducking behind a large boulder to get partly out of the wind, I slung a constriction and brought Sandy up, and we unroped and scrambled to the summit for the obligatory summit shots and views.

“Climbing sucks, don’t go.”
Sandy looking photogenic on the summit of North Early Winter Spire.

Three quick and easy rope-stretching rappels saw us scrambling over to a gully and rappelling the house-sized chockstone to the base of the route. From here it was a simple scramble down to the bottom and back to our packs. We high-tailed it back to the car, made a huge dinner, and got to bed ASAP to be ready for the next day.

Sandy exhibiting classic yogi rappel technique.
The easy hike down to the gear.

East Face of Lexington Tower

After an eventful evening with our brand-new Walmart Special air mattress deflating its first night out and some sleep in the car, we were up at 5 am and packing in the freezing morning air. After yesterday’s antics with a softshell and fleece each, we each went heavy and added a down jacket and wool hat, plus an extra lower layer for Sandy.

Parking at the pond near the hairpin turn, we made quick time up the well-worn climber’s trail to the large boulder field below the east faces of the Liberty Bell Group. Traversing beneath Lexington Tower, we climbed around the mostly melted out snow gully and switched to rock shoes, soloing up the initial low-fifth approach pitch to the treed ledge which marks the first pitch.

From here Sandy took off up a right-facing flake and then made a tenuous traverse left across and up difficult to protect slabs before finding cracks that would take pro. Stretching out 65 meters of our 70 meter rope, she found a ledge and belayed me up to her stance.

Sandy leading the first pitch of run out slabs and terrible gear placements.

After bringing me up, she took off on the next 50 meter pitch, finally with a crack to follow this time. Up a series of ledgy corners she led to the right, before meeting a splitter crack which led to a series of corner cracks. Ending on a wide ledge with a large tree, I had the perfect viewing platform to watch her climb the more intimidating third pitch above.

Looking up pitch 2 towards the roofs.

Not wanting to lead this pitch myself, I assured her she had it, and settled in to watch the show. Leading slightly downwards and across a large flake with no pro, Sandy gained one of the most parallel cracks of the route — which was only slightly detracted from by having numerous flowers growing out of it. Leading up this crack, she traversed left around a roof and then up another corner crack, leading to a cave which formed from a dead-end chimney.

Sandy leading pitch 3, which traversing left around the first roof to a deadend chimney.
Sandy pulling the roof move.

From this hanging belay we switched leads, and I appraised the ledge I had to traverse. The route description had described this as an exposed 30 foot rightwards traverse with no hands, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was much easier than I how I had built it up in my mind. While it was exposed with no handholds, you could reach down and brace yourself on the ledge while placing gear to protect the traverse. As the wall became steeper, I stuck both hands in the crack at my feet and dropped down onto the face on small footholds, traversing the last few feet to the flake with hundreds of feet of air beneath my feet.

The crux of the route was above, a few moves of difficult liebacking off a high flake with smears for feet. Placing a #2 above me before committing and with a safe fall below, I inched my way up the flake until I was able to enter a hand and finger crack which led to a horn that could be slung for a belay below the 5.9 chimney.

Looking up the famous 2×4 chimney.

After a break to refuel I started up the crux chimney, gladly clipping the two bolts for my only pro and wiggling up on a combination of chicken wings and face holds until reaching a chockstone I could sling and the beginning of the runout 5.8 chimney. While there was no gear here, and a fall would cause you to hit the ledge below without even weighting the last piece of pro, this section had some of the sweetest movement on the route.

Kneebaring my way up the inside of the chimney and internally chanting “No one falls out of chimneys”, I slowly made my way up and towards the top, which had a horizontal #2 crack and the first piece of pro of this section. Finally getting some pro in, I pulled over the next bulge and into a fun easy offwidth crack which deposited me at the base of the awkward 5.8+ chimney.

Looking down towards the run out 5.8 chimney and the team below us on the 5.9+ crux flakes.

Bringing Sandy up to my stance, I was gifted to a first-rate show of the joys of climbing a chimney with a backpack on, something I sadly have never had the chance to experience. From here we were faced with the last hard pitch, a 5.8+ flaring chimney leading to easier ground. I started off, making the first few easy moves above the belay before making a very delicate #5 cam placement and launching into the weirdness.

Over the next ten feet I managed to blow my right foot, catch it, then immediately blow my left foot before wiggling up into a more secure stance. While the climbing was never hard, you could never use technique to get up it, thrutching through the several bulges seemed the only way to go. As quickly as I could, I escaped the chimney across a short slab to treed ledges on the left, and brought Sandy up, now out of the difficulties.

The awkward 5.8+ flaring chimney, looking deceptively simple.
Sandy continues to look photogenic after 6 pitches.

From here Sandy led up the next 5.6 pitch… for about 20 feet. She had discovered the numerous mentions of the word “grainy” to describe the rock of the upper pitches was really just another word for choss, and suddenly seemed very keen to give up her leads now. I shot off to the top of the East Face, and belayed her to a large sandy ledge from which the rappel route begins. One last pitch of enjoyably exposed definitely-not-fourth-class-but-solo-anyway-because-there’s-no-pro traversing saw us back at the bottom of the rappels for the Lexington Tower’s West Face. We took a page from the Liberty Bell Traverse guidebook and traversed south along the ridge line to a short rappel, then continued traversing south towards North Early Winter Spire until we were in the gully above the start of the NW Corner & West Face. From here it was a simple scree surf to the main trail down, and avoids all the unpleasantness of the normal Lexington descent.

We took the trail back down and made plans for the next adventure, past the new and improved trail the Access Fund had been working on all weekend, and back down the highway to the little pond and our car, rounding out a great 36 hours in the mountains.

Looking back towards the Liberty Bell Group from the starting pond as we make our way out.

Lessons Learned:

  • Handling driving so many hours while still getting sleep in was the big improvement over previous trips. Sleeping a few hours before starting and then each driving in 3 hour shifts while the other slept allowed us to both be rested and ready to climb multiple routes, and then on the return trip rested and ready to work Monday.
  • We eat significantly less during a long climb than a day of running and working. We could have easily dropped half a pound of food weight and still been more than comfortable.
  • Canned dolmas is amazing after a climb.

Gear Notes:

  • Doubles from .3-3, plus a single 4 and 5 for the NW Corner & East Face. This worked well for us — while the #5 was not strictly necessary for either route, it was nice to have.
  • The #6 had mysteriously disappeared from our packs when we went to climb Lexington (it was later found in a recycling bin in the garage), but was never necessary. The #5 was only placed once on pitch 6, and would have fit either a #5 or #6.

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