Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Independence Route-V 5.12A R

From the free climber's perspective, the east face of Liberty Bell is perhaps the most overlooked "big" wall in the Cascades. Sure, many people tackle Liberty Crack and Thin Red Line in a traditional wall style, but it is a true rarity to hear of a free ascent of the east face. This past summer, I was able to spend a bit of time climbing in the area and realized that nothing in the Cascades can offer a similar experience-hard free climbing, on beautifully featured stone, in an incredible alpine setting.

The Independence Route, one of the big three 1960's aid climbs to breach the east face, had always held my interest. There is a great topo of the route in the Beckey guide detailing a free ascent by Steve Risse and Kieth Hertel. As far as I knew no one had repeated the route free. From the few reports I had heard of people aiding the route, I expected challenging, scary free climbing. The Beckey book also said the route was done with "some preplaced gear and inspection". How would it feel from the ground up? Only time would tell.

My first effort on the route was with my freind Sol Werkin. Right away the climbing was tedious and the gear thin. Although I fell off that first day, we got to the top of the route, and I was happy to have climbed through the runouts in a ground up style. I did not expect an on sight as most Cascade lines of this magnitude are chalkless and dirty and require a certain knowledge of the terrain to succeed. As we descended in the night I felt I had that certain knowledge now and vowed I would return the next week.
A few days later I returned with Max Hasson and started up the route again. We quickly dispatched the first few pitches of climbing, both of which had fun, quality moves up to 5.11A.
The next pitch, 5.11+ R, was a serious lead. I placed a funny nut right before the hardest climbing and then made delicate moves until I was well above the piece. Perched on two small holds I made a controlled dead point to a nice edge. The crux was over, but the climbing remained difficult and slabby. Right near the end of the long pitch I blew a slippery holdless slab sequence and fell onto the rope. No!
I immediatly rehearsed the move, and lowered to the belay, pulling out the gear I had placed. On big free ascents you have to remain positive. Back at the belay I rested, ate a bar, and gave Max (see picture) a frustrated look or two. Once I had gathered myself I started up the pitch and quickly arrived at the anchor, glad I didn't slip off the slab again. Max then led a nice 5.11B pitch up cracks and through a fun roof.
This put us at the base of the crux 5.12 lead. The moves off the belay on this pitch were difficult and very thin. An intricate slab sequence led to a big move to a small tree (gotta love the Cascades).
I swung right on the tree like a monkey and established myself in a long, flaring corner system. Insecure jams, body scumming, and balancy moves saw me at the anchor not long after starting. Max followed cleanly and quickly racked up for another pitch of mid 5.11.
At this point we knew we had the route. As I followed Max up the last hard pitch I made sure to enjoy the moves and exposure. There is nothing like hanging off a solid jam, eyes scanning a rugged mountain scene. I soon arrived at the large ledge that marked the end of the hard climbing. We put away the tag line, and tailored our small haul bag into a backpack. Soon we were blitzing fun, easy climbing to the summit.

As we sat on the top we soaked in the incredible view and talked excitedly about free climbing on the east face. Why are more people not up here we wondered??!!
Later that summer I ran into Mikey Shaefer. He had just freed Thin Red Line at mid 5.12. The quality of the route was amazing he said. Right at the end of the season I was able to get on the route (cold weather and a battered body kept me from the send) and confirmed its classic free climbing status. Although a bit more difficult than the Independence Route, it is not nearly as mental. I am excited to return next season and send both Thin Red Line and Liberty Crack. Three, high standard free climbs now exist on the east face of Liberty Bell and in the future I dream of a link up of all three routes. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Eli Helmuth said...

Steve House, Paul Butler and I free'd this line in Sept of '95 after aiding the original. We replaced most old bolts, added one new, and did the FFA of the original route. The previous year's FFA diverted around two crux sections although the ratings are about same - we didn't get the beta on the other ascent until after ours and it was so dirty, kinda hard to imagine climbing it free in that condition?
Sweet rock, this "Astroman of the Cascades".. Psyched it's getting some more traffic as I climbed it 2x more after the FFA.
Eli Helmuth