It has been a ruthless November here in the PNW. Six (six!) atmospheric rivers have pummeled us, decimating what was otherwise a promising early season snowpack and causing significant flooding. With one calm, cool weekend finally in the forecast, I was itching to get out in the mountains. I had not been out in the Cascades for over a month, since the Teanaway Thru-Run. Recovering from a thrashing on Rim to Rim to Rim and healing up from yet another gum surgery, I focused my efforts on my weather blog series and getting ready for ice season. Turns out, ice season would be here before I even realized it.
I had seen some surprisingly promising pictures of an ice dagger on one of the Western Esmerelda Peaks out in the Teanaway from a PNW Peak Baggers Facebook post. Traditionally, tons of warm moisture hitting the mountains is the opposite of what we want for setting up ice, but maybe things we not as bad as we had imagined out there. My friends Michael and Kurt were at least game to spend a Sunday walking up to check out this climb and whatever else might be out there.
It was a beautiful morning and we drove up a snowy Teanaway River Road until encountering some fresh blowdowns about 4.5 miles from the actual Esmerelda Trailhead at the end of the road. People had driven this road the weekend prior, but I guess a few trees had fallen in the meantime. We debated just heading back to go dry tooling at exit 38, but as Kurt said “we can go dry tooling there any day” so we might as well take the tools for a walk. It was a beautiful day if nothing else.
So we trudged up the snow covered road for a few miles and gradually the hillsides rose and steepened dramatically. I usually think of the Teanaway as the small fish of the sea compared to the Stuart Range, but with fresh snow, they took on a more imposing character. There was even a surprising amount of ice development, although nothing was quite in climbable condition yet.
Finally at the Esmerelda Trailhead, we continued up the trail to get a view of the flow from that PNW Peak Baggers Post. About a half mile up the trail, we finally spotted it.
We had binoculars and a telephoto lens. The climb looked to be one easier pitch followed by one mega hard scary pitch. It was not even clear if the daggers were touching down. With the time wasted walking the road, we definitely did not have time to climb this one. However, the shady face right above us looked far more intriguing…
We gazed up at the NE Face of Esmerelda East. It was dark, complex, and plastered in snow and thin ice. I had walked back from Longs Pass and Ingalls Lake many times and gazed up at this wall, wondering if it held any good climbing. The rock looks rather poor for summer rock climbing, but in winter it is transformed.
The most striking feature we noticed was a central chimney system that cut through the entire face, almost like a dike. We wondered if that weakness could be followed all the way to the top of the face.
Since we had nothing better to do, we decided to head up and check out the bottom of the climb. We forded the river (about 4 inches deep) and started hiking up annoying boulder fields covered in fresh powder. Higher up, the slopes became more complex and we zig zagged our way through sloping cliff bands until we finally reached a point where the face ramped up more continuously.
It was 12:30 pm already, but we figured we might as well start up the first few pitches and see what happened. Bailing looked easy with the abundance of trees.
Since we had expected to just be single pitching and walking around, Michael had brought a fixed length pole. Fortunately, I had forgotten mine early in the morning. This presented a small problem, as the fixed length pole would make mixed climbing in chimneys quite challenging. Since I had already established that I was happy to follow each pitch, I volunteered to carry the pole on my pack.
The first pitch was actual solid ice. It was only 50-60 degrees, so we soloed it. It felt so good to thunk our tools into solid ice once again. We had the lowest of expectations going into the day, but it was shaping up pretty well.
We continued up some shallow snow before encountering another ice step. This one was a little steeper and funkier, so we broke out the rope and Michael led up. Above this, the natural line towards the obvious chimney would have been right, but there were some not-quite-iced-up runnels in the way, so we continued up a thin snow ramp to the left for a hundred feet before finding a way up an easy mixed step and then back right on a snow ramp to the base of our chimney.
Throughout the climb, we were constantly consulting our earlier photos of the face. The face is an intricate maze of hidden gullies and chimneys – far more complex than it appears from below. But we were doing a great job staying on track. This key chimney provided passage through a steeper section of the face. The route might not be possible without it.
While sub vertical, we could tell that the chimney was tricky and insecure. Snow and rotten ice covered each foothold. Michael had to work really hard to find gear placements, but he did a good job making a bunch. The beak was consistently the most useful piece during the day.
Eventually, Michael stepped left out of the chimney to a belay bush. Kurt and I followed. The setting was beautiful – a deep dark chimney about four feet wide with overhanging walls. The climbing was not too strenuous but very balancy and technical. Finding feet was a battle.
When I reached the belay, Kurt was already leading up some easier terrain towards a steeper headwall. Although parties of three are traditionally inefficient on multi pitch routes, I really loved climbing in a group of three. Three people allowed us to manage messy belay stations quickly. One person could eat or look at route photos while two others climbed.
Kurt brought us up to the base of the steeper headwall. The dike-like weakness continued up the rock, but the climbing looked quite bare and challenging. There was a very thin ice smear that could provide an incredible WI3 passageway upwards in fatter conditions. Instead, we decided to quest up a mixed chimney to the left. It looked rough, so Kurt took the lead.
There were a few vertical sections of the chimney, and Kurt moved very slowly upwards. It was a real search for trustworthy gear. Feet looked terrible. The crux section involved finding tool placements in a jumble of frozen rocks and trusting body weight to this. This was the only section of rotten rock on the entire climb that we encountered and each of us would knock off some rock at this point.
Eventually, Kurt made it over the lip and continued up to a belay. Michael followed first. Just as he was entering the crux, he shouted back to me, “look at Stuart!”
I chuckled at both the ridiculous situation we were in and the ridiculous beauty of the setting. Here we were, 800 ft up a random face in the mountains, climbing up snow covered rock with our tools and crampons, watching the sun go down. Unlike most of my adventures, this one was not scripted, not in the least. It was pure serendipity. We did not know what was around each corner, or where this would even lead us. Follow the weaknesses. Take what the mountain gives you. In the impending darkness, there was but one way: up.
The crux section of this chimney was very challenging, harder than the first chimney. It was leaning, slabby, and slightly overhung. Luckily, I had discovered a new way of carrying the annoying pole: clipping it to my harness and dragging it behind me. At the crux, my feet kept blowing, but I clung to my tools and desperately kept inching upwards. Finally, I made it.
At the belay station, we briefly discussed whether to continue upwards or head down. From this point, we felt it would be pretty easy to rappel the route on tree anchors. After another 30 minutes, it was not going to get any darker, so we felt we might as well take our time and continue upwards.
At this point, we gave the reigns completely to Kurt. Kurt has made first ascents of 6000m peaks in the Himalaya in addition to huge alpine climbs in Alaska in the Canadian Rockies. Although Michael is a very talented mixed climber and I am a solid follower, it was great to have someone like Kurt along. I was constantly impressed by his decisiveness, efficiency, and most importantly, commitment to safety. He never cut corners. He always made good belays for us, even in easy terrain. He was efficient but never rushed.
The next pitch brought us across an improbable snow ledge above cliffs and then up a narrow slot to a broader snowfield. With a foot less snow, I am not sure Kurt could have stamped out flat steps. In the darkness, it felt truly epic.
We were now staring up at a large snowfield on the left shoulder of the face. We were probably on the upper east face. We did a long pitch, with some simul climbing. It was mostly snow, but there still some very tenuous slabs covered in snow to navigate.
We arrived at the base of a dark, vertical headwall. We surmised that we were actually higher than any point we could see from below. There might have been a chimney we could climb, but we were done with hard mixed climbing at this point. Michael and I fully expected our climb to end here, but Kurt took us back right, traversing across a snowfield to peek around a corner. Here, a perfect rock ramp improbably lead up and right to the top. As I followed, gazing down into the abyss below and above, it felt like the alpine puzzle had been finally solved.
We celebrated on top of our little summit. In the darkness, we could see that the true East summit of Esmerelda was still a hundred or two hundred feet higher, separated by a nasty ridge of snow covered gendarmes. We had vaguely hoped we could top out and walk down the southern aspect, but that hope quickly vanished. We were going to have to descend the route we came up, but at least we knew what we were in for.
It was 7 pm, and we we knew we were in for a long night. I had about one liter of water all day, expecting to be back at the car by dark. All of us were basically out of water and food. But as an alpinist, you have to be ready for a little suffering when a golden opportunity presents itself. Seize the day, or night in our case.
On the entire climb and descent, we were blessed by absolutely perfect weather. Temperatures were comfortable, the sky was clear, and there was not a hint of a breeze. Michael and I sat on the summit, watching the moonrise over the Stuart Range, as Kurt down led the final pitch to the summit block. Michael was in absolute ecstasy. He loves this shit.
We reversed our ascent route nearly exactly. We downclimbed a few of the traversing pitches and otherwise made 7 full 60m rappels off of tree anchors. With three of us, we were hyper efficient. At one point, I was still belaying Kurt downclimbing above me while Michael was already rappelling the next pitch. With fair temps, a bright moon, and convenient trees, the descent was almost pleasant. Michael led us down the entire way.
We finally put away our gear at 10pm and followed our snowy footsteps back to the river (and downed a ton of water), the trail, and the road. It was a death march out on the road, but we made it back to my car at midnight. A pair of male elk with giant antlers threatened to derail our drive back, but I reacted quickly enough and we made it back without incident. Sadly, it was not the first time I have driven around Cle Elum at 1 am, searching for an open gas station for a little food in futility. Finally, at 2:30 am, I crawled into bed.
We decided to name our route Moonlight Serendipity (WI2, M5+, 1200′). It was truly a serendipitous day, one that began with the lowest of expectations but delivered an incredible adventure. Generally, I feel like I am very risk adverse with planning objectives in the mountains. I do not mean “risk” in the normal sense of injury / death. I mean risk of failure, risk of plans not working out. I usually choose “safe” objectives like high routes that I know will work out some way, ice climbs I know are likely in condition, ski tours that hold plenty of easy bail options, or rock climbs I know I can get up without problems. From time to time, it is good to open myself up to the possibility of failure. If I cannot tolerate failure, I will never push my comfort zone and grow. In this case, we got really lucky and succeeded, but we had no expectations of success and were okay with that. It was a true, improvisational, unscripted adventure. We kept our eyes open, followed the line of weakness, and took it one step at a time. In a world of beta overload, satellite imagery, and no more secrets, it was a total throwback. We loved it.
Most significantly, this was my first real alpine climb since my accident on Sloan nearly two years ago. For Kurt, it was his first alpine climb since fracturing his pelvis and moving to Washington. Neither of us are in our tip top shape, both mentally and physically, but ultimately it is not the grandness of the send but the power of the experience and partnerships that matter. It is a first step, and a big one at that.
Throughout the climb, I felt gradually less nervous. Early on, I expressed that I was not comfortable leading any mixed pitches and would take on the follower role. I know now it is okay to express weakness and fear but still be a contributing member of a team. It was really a privilege to get to follow two super talented climbers on an adventure like this and ease my way back into alpine climbing. While I know I have nothing to prove to others anymore, I have proven to myself at least that I can balance fear and ambition, and there can be more adventures like this in my future.
Moonlight Serendipity (WI2, M5+, 1200′) is on the NE Face of East Esmerelda. We have found no reports of climbing on this face, although we would not be surprised if climbing has occurred. The east face gully, described as a rock climb, is in the Beckey Guide.
Approach: Very simple and short from the Esmerelda Trailhead. After about half mile on trail, cross the stream and pick your way up to the center of the face. In the winter, you will need a snowmobile to get to the trailhead, although you could ski if you really wanted.
This summer image shows the full extent:
Conditions: We guess that this route could found be in much fatter conditions, especially in late winter. The chimney systems could funnel melt water and freeze into fat ice. However, the lower pitches might get fully buried in snow. A more direct route than our following the dike weakness the entire way would likely be possible in such conditions. This fall has been average, at best, for alpine ice conditions. In reality, it is probably a below average fall. A foot or two of snow really helped us up high on the route, so I would not attempt this route until a bit of snow has fallen up high.
Gear: Single rack .1-3 cams, nuts, beaks, KB’s and a Spectre came in handy. Screws were not required for the conditions we encountered. 10 cm and 13 cm screws would be best.
Grade: I do not know much about mixed grades, so I deferred to Michael and Kurt here. They felt the first chimney was about M5 and the second was a little harder, like M5+ or 6-. Compared to Wayne’s World, our local dry tool crag, the climbing was much less steep but much less secure. The style was so different that it was challenging to compare. The climbing was more comparable to the Cougar Mountain dry tool crag. However, the cruxes were definitely harder than the M4+ climbs at Cougar.
Descent: A bunch of rappels and downclimbing. Definitely bring twin 60m ropes.