Slesse Mountain - 8002' - NE Buttress Class 5.8
Just a few days after Steven climbed Slesse via the standard route, Itai (my friend from Israel) and I went up to climb it via the classic NE buttress. It was just a coincidence that Steven and I climbed it within just a few days of one another, despite both of us probably wanting to climb it for many years. Immediately after I landed back in Seattle returning from Indonesia, I picked up Itai in Seattle and we drove north to Canada. We didn't have any issues crossing the border and we made it to the Slesse Memorial trailhead fairly late in the evening on the 18th where we met a couple other climbers also planning to climb the NE buttress. They were about ready to head out but we chatted for a while and shared some beta. They started up the trail as we packed up our gear. About 45 minutes before it got dark we started hiking up the remainder of the road (my sisters car couldn't make it up the whole way) and up the trail to where it crosses Nesakwatch Creek on a large bridge. It got dark just as we reached the bridge and there was a nice flat spot right there we were able to bivy for the night.
Early the next morning we started the uphill hike to the propeller cairn, which was where our two new friends made it that night. It took is about 1.5 hours to reach the cairn with on and off passing low clouds obstructing our view of the long traverse to the NE buttress. We saw the big landslide that cut through a portion of the crossover descent, and I noticed it had completely slid all the way to the base of the cliffs above on Stumpy Hill, making the crossing now impossible. We decided we would have to walk around, or hopefully hitch a ride from someone after descending the standard west route. We began the traverse westward towards the lower NE ridge of Slesse. Literally all the snow in the basin above had melted away, making the traverse across the low angle rock slabs quite easy. Since we walked into a fog though, we veered too high and missed the the correct notch to cross the ridge to enter the next basin where the remains of the Pocket Glacier are located. This would be our first navigational blunder for the day as we began scrambling up steep 4th class slabs up the Navigator Wall aiming for a notch that we thought was correct. After realizing the route to this notch was going to be 5th class we retreated and looked below us and found a much easier notch. We concluded that the clouds blocked this notch from our view when we scouted the route from the propeller cairn, so we missed it.
We descended about 150 feet and crossed the correct notch. As we descended down the slippery mossy 3rd class gully on the other side we emerged into a total whiteout and traversed the dry rock slabs across the Pocket Glacier basin. We reached the headwall where the sweeping granite steepened heading up to the lower portion of the NE buttress, and we veered left and gained elevation until we could see the ledge that gives access to the crest of the NE buttress, bypassing the crumbly lower 6 pitches of the buttress (which few people have ever done as it goes at mid 5.10 difficulty and isn't as solid). As we started to ascend the diagonally right leaning ledge towards the crest, we emerged above the fog and could finally get some panoramic views!
We ascended the ledge until it appeared to end, with a sheer drop and some vertically growing bushes blocking the way. Above us looked like easy terrain so we assumed this is where we started climbing. We racked up and I led a 5.6 pitch to a sling wrapped around a rock and that gave us confidence we were on route. I did notice the ledge did continue though just beyond that bush I mentioned before and it was a ways further to the actual crest of the buttress. Anyways, Itai followed, then climbed a hard pitch above, aiming for a left facing corner that appeared reasonable, although the terrain above looked to get increasingly more difficult. He climbed a 5.8+ slabby section and reached a second sling. I followed, and led on making a very delicate rightward traverse to the left facing corner we were aiming for. Once I got to its base, I saw no evidence of anyone ever climbing it, being completely mossed over, not much of any crack in the corner to climb or protect with and it was dead vertical. No way was I climbing this, so I traversed back to Itai and we agreed we started climbing too soon. These two slings must have been from many other people who made the same mistake. e did two raps each about 30m long but made an effort to finish the second rappel on the far side of the bush that blocked our path, and low and behold we saw a trail that snaked its way under the bush and across a tiny ledge that we couldn't see from the other side. If you're climbing the NE buttress, be sure to cross through this impossibly looking but not so bad bush on the ledge and continue ALL the way to the crest of the buttress; do not start climbing the face too soon.
Once we finished with that debacle where we lost another hour, we continued up easy class 3 terrain as the ledge now widened significantly to the crest, and scrambled up about 350 feet through trees and heather on the low angle portion of the buttress crest until we were about 100 feet above the prominent gendarme on the crest, above all the trees and heather. Just as I was starting to lead the first actual on-route roped pitch for the day, I went to place a piece and didn't have any of my alpine slings around my neck! Turns out I had left them at the bottom of our second rappel on the access ledge 400 feet below us!! So Itai waited while I had to scramble back down the buttress to pick them up, then return, wasting yet another half hour. Back at the base of the first pitch, we were finally ready to start climbing and on the correct route. I led up a nice 5.7 pitch with easy cracks, then Itai led up the next pitch that was mostly 5.6 with the exception for a 5.8 short overhang. Itai and I both led another easy 5.6-5.7 couple pitches to a large tree on a ledge covered with heather. We recognized this as the location where the original route traverses the grassy ledges to the right of the crest, while a direct variation continues straight up in the 5.10b difficulty range. Right around this time a helicopter started flying around Slesse, making a few passes close to the summit. We began to get worried that the could we met the previous day had gotten hurt. The choper then landed on a ridgecrest lower and across the valley for some time, then returned back and picked someone off from the summit! We watched as the injured climber was lifted off the mountain and landed back on the tree covered ridge lower down. Scary...we would later find out that the injured climber took a fall on the last crux pitch and injured his ankle, but was part of another party we hadn't met ahead of the couple we ran into.
After that excitement, we walked right on the grassy ledge a hundred feet or so, then I started leading up 5.4-5.6 grassy, mossy and damp ledges for a full 60m. Itai then continued on an ascending traverse up additional damp ledges up a nice scoop. I then led another pitch with a 5.8 crux section through a small but juggy overhang. Itai then led another short pitch zig-zagging ledges to a decent belay ledge. We saw our friends around this time off on the 5.10 direct variation. From this vantage, it looked like we could go two directions; either continue on a rightward ascending traverse, or cut back slightly to the left up a gully/chimney. I started scouting out the right option and saw continued wet mossy ledges up a long ways and a single bright red sling around a horn. With my slightly higher vantage I was able to get a better view of the chimney off to our left, and noticed it terminated at a large ledge with a cairn at the top and then I knew that was the way to go. So Itai lowered me off from the piece of red sling (likely placed there by someone who made the same mistake) and I traversed left on some easy ledges into the base of the chimney then climbed 5.5 to its top, then passed a few sh##ty bivy spots on angles until I reached the base of the 5.8 money pitch. Itai followed, and requested lead it. Since it was vertical and looked pumpy I decided to leave my pack and haul it up after I finished. It was a short pitch but sustained 5.8+ definitely the best pitch of the day. Atop this pitch we reached the giant bivy ledge with no one else there! We totally scored, and after some scouting around, we found a small snow patch off to the right although it was filled with glacier worms.
We relaxed here and made some dinner with the worm infested water, boiling to ensure death. I took a bunch of photos and we tried to sleep. Next morning was chilly, but luckily the sun hit us right away. More photos ensued and around 7:30am we started the long scramble up lower angle terrain until we felt it was time to start roped climbing again. Itai wanted to lead some more, so he led 3 short pitches in a row up terrain in the 5.5-5.7 range, then I led the crux pitch. It is supposed to be a 5.9 but despite the more sistained nature of the long pitch, which also included a decent overhang, I thought it was only 5.8, slightly easier (but much longer) than the pitch I led just below the bivy. Itai then led the next pitch, a slightly easier 5.8 pitch at which point we cut left onto 3rd and 4th class terrain for the final 200 feet to the summit. Immediately below the summit there was a 15 foot vertical step where we had to worm up through a chimney at low 5th class. We took our packs off for this and I pushed them up above me as I climbed up. Just after that we were on top a bit before noon. Views were spectacular!
Knowing we had a very long descent ahead of us we only stayed for 20 minutes or so, then started down the southwest side, following the convoluted standard route down a series of long ledges, separated by rappels. It was also hot and dry, and we didn't see any snow or water from the time we left the bivy until we finished the descent all the way to the valley floor 6000 feet down. We followed the descent shown in the great beta photo below by Steph Abegg.
It was fairly straightforward and obvious, just make sure when you start walking on the trail that you don't lose it! It was a long, uneventful descent, followed by a flat walk back to the Slesse Mountain Trail trailhead. We were hoping someone would be there, and you'd never guess who we found! The two we met at the Memorial TH were there with their car, and offered to drive us around. They were picking up their gear cache since they decided to return back down the buttress, and just happened to be there the same time we got there. Couldn't have timed it any better. So instead of a midnight arrival back to our car we were all able to get pizzas in Chilliwack by 8pm. It was overall a very fun climb, but with the three routefinding blunders, leaving my slings 400 feet below, and the hot and dry descent it ended up being more effort than we had planned.
Overall, I didn't think any part of the route was 5.9, and there was certainly large sections of the route we solod. If you are a 5.8 lead climber, and you stay on route there shouldn't be any reason you couldn't do this route. I found it pretty straightforward as long as you nail the routefinding.