A Day in the Mountains

A few weeks ago, my friend Jens and I made a pilgrimage up to Colchuck Balanced Rock in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness outside of Leavenworth to attempt a free ascent of a relatively new route on the formation: The Tempest Wall. The main event of the climb, aside from really good views, solid rock and stellar climbing throughout, is a 20+ foot splitter roof crack that is actually steeper than horizontal at one point! Jens and I went mainly to climb on the roof and, if things went well, continue to the summit. After a couple of decent attempts we rappelled, happy to have tried the pitch and planning on returning at some point to try again.

A couple of views of Colchuck Balanced Rock from afar, the eponymous 'balanced rock' visible as the highest point; and, a view of the climb, with the roof pitch visible in the center of the picture

This past weekend, Ben, Tiffany and I returned to this part of the Washington Alps to escape the forecast 95 degree temps in the lowlands and to make an attempt at a 'team free ascent' of the route. While the roof pitch has been free climbed in the past, our goal was to have each person either lead or follow each pitch, ideally with no falls on the entire route.

Colchuck lake with part of Dragontail Peak visible; a closeup of nice looking rock on Dragontail; a verdant little gully with some cool rock formations

Both wanting 'the' lead, Ben and I settled the matter with a game of rock/paper/scissors. I lost, of course, but gave him the pitch with small disappointment which was to be exorcised completely shortly thereafter. We were tired after the early start and the approach, but by 10am I was casting off on the first pitch and trying to allay the nervous anticipation of the roof looming closely overhead. The first pitch of the route is varied and fun, including a sporting tree shimmy and some pumpy lie-backing in corners. Not a bad warm-up, but not quite adequate preparation for the 20 feet of inverted jamming on the next pitch. From a luxurious belay stance, we both stared up and out at the incredible roof feature. After some philosophizing between us about expectations and the self-pressure towards perceived success as it pertains to climbing, Ben racked the gear and was off on lead.

Thus began one of the most inspiring feats of rock climbing I've had the good fortune to witness (and to belay for). I could tell Ben was a little nervous from the outset, if the jittery sensations I had were any indication. He climbed up an easy crack to the roof, placed a cam as far as he could reach, then downclimbed to a stance. After a couple minutes' trepidation, he cast off. Right away the pitch is awkward and hard, requiring one to reach far into a flare for hand jams, then to establish one's feet into the same insecure flare before moving through a section of decent but flared hand jams. At this point, the jams become more parallel and hand-sized but one's feet are actually above one's head in the flared section and must be moved somehow into better jams! Ben moved smoothly through to this point until his feet came out of the crack while moving through to the more secure jams. I simply fed out slack and watched in disbelief as he held on for a split second with a single hand jam before reestablishing himself in the crack. The rest of the crack is 5.11 splitter hand jams to a tough section turning the lip, but the pump builds incredibly through this section. Ben spent a minute or two shaking out as much as one possibly can on horizontal ground. The energy level grew. Fighting the inevitable 'hand jam pump', where one can barely operate one's hands, Ben fought to the lip of the roof and turned it. Time seemed to pause for a moment as I watched him fight to get his feet established in the crack above the lip--and then it was done. I let out a joyful yell. He told me he was going to puke. I told him to go ahead and do it. Watching Ben climb can be frustrating for how effortless he sometimes makes things appear, but I could tell he was digging deep for this one which made his success all the more dramatic.

Needless to say, despite our preparatory metaphysical pep talk, I indeed had expectations and was quite nervous about following the pitch. A fall here, while ultimately inconsequential, would now alter the outcome of the day for those of us playing 'by the rules of the game', so to speak, where falling essentially equals failure. Ego and the human tendency towards valuation and self-aggrandizing quantization of achievements bear heavily on climbing and if one is not careful, obfuscate entirely the true reasons we choose to spend out energy this way. Despite my self-admonition to climb for personal growth and enjoyment, I lingered at the start of the roof with both actual fear and doubt. Soon, however, I was climbing and focused. I flowed through the first awkward section effortlessly. I think my surprise at this shook me a little and I lost composure. The annoyance of the rope in front of me (an attentive belay on this pitch is crucial to avoid swinging down too far during a fall) and the difficulty of removing gear flustered me a little as I cleaned a cam from the crack with difficulty. I tried to shake out my arms a little but as I was approaching the lip, my hands, arms and core began to lose integrity; I could feel my strength waning and an outrageous sense of failure attempted to take root. Out of desperation, I actually switched to an undercling position with my feet on a small ramp feature, something that I had written off as ridiculous on my previous attempts weeks before. The change in grip allowed a little blood to flow back into my hands. Still, I hesitated. I established left hand in a good jam above the lip and my feet promptly swung out of the crack. I reestablished and attempted to regain focus, only to have them come out again. My core was blasted from the effort. I barely reestablished and fought a foot out left to a small foothold. I pulled up and into a layback with my right hand but couldn't pull up enough to make it work. Desperately I pulled my hand into a wide, insecure hand jam in a flared section of crack, another thing I had avoided completely as too difficult on previous attempts. I fought my other foot over the lip and reached up--into a perfect hand jam. I was done! I got my foot jammed securely into the crack again and took stock of myself: I was close to vomiting; my fingers were numb from squeezing so hard in the jams while my hand muscles and forearms were so full of lactic acid I couldn't move them; my throat was dry and my lungs were almost wheezing from the effort; mostly, however, I was ecstatic at having fought through what I considered impossible odds, especially considering my somewhat extemporaneous tactics. (Vertical World will be happy to note that I'm unintentionally advertising their gym in the pictures below.)

With the crux complete, we regained our composure to finish the rest of the climb. After my fingers thawed painfully and I regained most of the use of my hands and arms, I led us up the next 5.10a pitch and Ben swung through on a short easy pitch to a ledge below the next, albeit easier, crux: a 60 meter 5.11 endurance pitch featuring almost every style of crack and flare climbing, which was to be my lead. Between the approach hike and the amount of effort spent on the roof pitch, this lead turned out to be a fight: I moved hesitantly and somewhat nervously; I ran out of long slings too early and incurred rope drag that was absolutely heinous, almost untenable; despite placing gear sparingly I ended up with a 30-40 foot rope-fighting runout at the end until I could put my final two cams in as an (thankfully bombproof) anchor. Par for the course, naturally, and very satisfying to be able to climb on such incredible features: the variety of physical, body-size flares and steep crack climbing make this pitch one of the best I've climbed in recent memory! The only drawback was the relative discomfort of an awkward hanging belay in the left facing corner (in the pictures below, it is the obvious feature above me about 40 feet).

The lengthy 5.11 pitch: after passing two overhangs I'm being greeted by 60 or 70 feet of steep, varied jamming. Awesome!

I'm amazed at how physical crack climbing can be. Ben just redpointed a .14b/c sport route last week and I would venture to say that I'm no slouch at the sport crag either, but we were both tired after this pitch! Different disciplines of climbing, I suppose. Ben led us up the final 5.11a pitch which is short and climbs out of the corner to the right and under a roof to finish on ledges. 4th to easy 5th class scrambling led us up to the descent, but luckily we still had time to go to the summit. Some more easy 5th class and we were beneath the precarious-looking Balanced Rock. An exposed and slightly dangerous slab boulder problem, which I insisted on doing, leads to the summit proper, with incredible views of the cirque behind Colchuck Balanced Rock as well as Dragontail Peak, Colchuck Peak and Mt. Stuart. In the distance were visible Baker, Rainier, Glacier Peak and undoubtedly more that I couldn't identify. I was greeted on the summit by, surprisingly, a cloud of mosquitoes (to whom we had become well accustomed throughout the day) and copious amounts of flying ants of some kind. The descent from the top is mellow but the CBR approach gully is a little rugged and we were slowed by exhaustion: back to the base of CBR by 5:30; at Colchuck Lake by about 7:00 or so; at the car by 10:00.

The cirque behind CBR; and Colchuck Lake from the summit block

Crags and Colchuck lake; Mt. Stuart and the Stuart Glacier

I think Ben is enjoying some quality time on the summit with his new mosquito friends; and am I happy or scary, or both? And what year is it anyway?

Dragontail with the Triple Couloirs route visible in the center with Colchuck Peak visible behind; and Dragontail again from a different viewpoint

Self-effacing stoicism leads to fierce determination as the time for action approaches; or maybe it's the other way around?

Tiffany, Ben's wife, made the approach and descent hikes with us. Done in such short order, they amount to a bit of a slog. She also took some great pictures of the roof pitch which I unfortunately don't have to share; and, on the right: beautiful paintbrush in the summit area, where many varieties of wildflowers are present. As Jeanna was out of town and unable to suffer with us, I figured she'd appreciate a picture or two of the flora

Although somewhat beaten down by the effort, I find myself exhilarated to remember it even now as I slowly recover energy. I suppose I could pretend that I'm a swashbuckling bad-ass and play down the amount of effort this took, but I won't; consequently you, the reader, have to suffer (or enjoy? both? and I suppose you don't really have to) the long descriptions of what I consider a defining moment in my climbing, one in which the idea of working in league with a partner towards a common goal really became palpable and the goal came to fruition. For that I must thank Ben both for the fine day of rock scaling and for being a rock solid partner for an endeavor such as this, carrying the day with his fine lead effort.




  1. Somehow, the html for this post is screwed up. I'll blame the wonderful and user friendly Blogspot formatting, but hopefully the post is still legible. Enjoy!

  2. Awesome story! This route sounds incredible! Very good pictures too.

  3. Yes Andrew!!!
    Great job on "sending it", amazing writing, and impressive mustache- all three with such style!

  4. Speaking in as unbiased a fashion as I can, may I say this a terrific narrative of the best athleticism there is. I've often daydreamed about existing in the body of a strong climber for a bit, and getting to experience this kind of effort. You just accomplished it for me. Muchas gracias!
    And way to go, you guys!

  5. The thing you forget, mom, is that you DO exist in the body of a strong climber and are perfectly capable of climbing something that is, while perhaps slightly less arduous, equally rewarding and inspiring as the routes that all us young folk are climbing. You know I'm right. We'll just have to get you climbing outside more often!

  6. Awesome story and great job! I am really glad that you guys sent the route AND had a fun time on the first pitch, headwall, etc. I was wondering if the unique roof would reduce the entire climb to a 20-foot 'alpine oddity'. What rating did you and Ben think for the 2nd pitch free?

  7. That may have been clarified elsewhere, but we pretty easily agreed on .12d, given the amount of effort it took and taking everything into consideration. I've only tried one harder roof crack (in Zion) but that was size-based (tight hands) as opposed to length-based difficulty. The other pitches are great! The headwall pitch certainly covers some interesting terrain. Cheers to you and Sol for the FA and photos. For what it's worth, even as an 'alpine oddity' the climb is still a total gem.