As we cleared the slabby final pitch on the Beckey Route of Liberty Bell, I couldn’t help but be overcome by a swell of emotion. This was a dream realized. I moved out to Washington to climb alpine routes, and this was my first. At 7,720 ft we stood above the Liberty Bell group, a set of five spires above Washington Pass and gazed over the North Cascades, with Glacier Peak and Forbidden looming in the distance. Unfortunately Forbidden would live up to it’s namesake and a set of unusual circumstances and timing would deny our passage but it couldn’t deter me from this being one of the happiest moments in my climbing career. Four days in North Cascades National Park was a learning experience, a major climb, a milestone, and good prospects for the future. I had set out for a mission inspired by the #Adventure4Life Campaign, and it ended up being so much more.
They say alpinists enjoy suffering. It’s the masochistic side of climbing. Full exposure, tricky approaches, long pitches, high altitude. For some reason, this sadistic side of the sport intrigues me. My climbing heroes growing up were never the ones pushing grades or finding the next great sport route. My heroes we’re cramped in tents for days at a time, pushing against cold weather in barren environments. True expedition style. Our trip was relatively comfortable by these standards. It was a small tower, only taking about 5-8 hours from top to bottom, but it was a major learning experience. I moved out here because of these peaks, because although the ratings were relatively moderate, the high altitude makes a traverse, a chimney or a crack just that much bigger. Alpinism feels like as much of a mental game as a physical one, concentrating on the pitch at hand and not thinking about how high you actually are.
In 1979, a seminal book in climbing was published: The Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Three of the climbs are located within North Cascades National Park on Mt. Shuksan, Forbidden Peak, and the Liberty Bell. The Beckey Route on Liberty Bell is a 5.6-5.8 five pitch ascent which runs over 1,100 vertical feet. Named for legendary climber Fred Beckey who established many of the routes in the 50’s and 60’s it is an introduction to the sort of climbing that I was interested in. Although the route is not as complex as many of the others, it offers a full set of challenges in the form of chimneys, crack climbing, slab, and traverses while holding onto thin flaking rock.
The and descent to the Liberty Bell can only be described as a chossy nightmarish mess. We started out on the Blue Lake Trail which passes just under the tower group, standing over a spectacular hairpin turn on the highway below. The trail starts in a wooded area over fallen stumps and pines before rising into an alpine forest where the trees become sparse and the uphill becomes a bit more challenging. It is here where the hikers trail and climbers trail branch off and the climbers now must hike up a steep, slippery, rockfall prone corridor between Liberty Bell and it’s sister tower, Lexington. In winter, the snow freezes most of the rocks and crampons and ice axes are usually a necessity but here every piece felt like it could fall away. Progress was slow and it took about an hour to reach the base of the climb.
After setting ourselves up, the guides set the first ropes across a thin ledge leading to a narrow crack. The first pitch was mostly in the shade of the neighboring tower, but it pulls out to the face and the rest of the climb is fully out in sunlight. The second pitch is what many people consider to be the hardest moves of the climb. A chimney (a narrow corridor where a body can fit through) surrounded by featureless slab and with several large chockstones caught in the middle forced us to think creatively about every move. Face climbing was abandoned for using friction to push up the corridor and high heel hooks and laybacking moved around the chockstone. It is here where different skills and abilities come into play. Some are more adept at climbing featureless faces and using friction to push themselves up. I hardily enjoy cracks and jamming a hand or foot inside to lift up to the next feature. The second pitch came to stop at a large ledge and the climbing became noticeably easier from that point.
The final three pitches aren’t vertical but are steep and slippery. The final approaches to the summit force a series of boulder problems including small footholds and lots of friction climbing. Short roping our way across flakes and slippery rock, the last pitch felt more like a difficult hike than a climb. A small ledge and couple boulders brought our passage to the top of Liberty Bell and on a clear blue day, the view did not disappoint. What makes the North Cascades so spectacular is that it resembles a cross between a Yosemitesque valley and the twisting granite spires of Patagonia. Snow capped summits spread wide for miles on one side, while pine forests and cliffs spanned the other. This was the definition of an alpine playground and one where there is still so much possibility.
A series of rappels brought us down from the summit and the walk down the corridor was even tricker than the ascent. Slippery rock ensured a short fall at least once for all involved and the discomfort forced us to abandon the plan for Forbidden Peak. Although I didn’t get to accomplish my true objective, our week in the North Cascades was a realization of the plan I had when I first moved out to Washington. The skills I learned opened a whole set of new doors and even more ambitious plans. So where does it go from here? I have a few names i’m tossing around in my mind but nothing concrete just yet. There still is a lot to learn, a lot to practice, and i’m definitely optimistic about where things are going.
Before I close out, I need to thank Lauren Rains, Outdoor Minded Mag, and the Adventure4Life# crew for letting us have this incredible experience and getting to tell the story. I’d also like to thank and highly recommend Josh and Paul of North Cascade Mountain Guides for giving us a great climb and an excellent trip. Here’s to coming back soon.