Liberty Crack Trip Report

Liberty Crack (V 5.9 A3, 12 pitches)
Liberty Bell Mountain
August 10-11, 2005

Liberty Bell

Stewart and I climbed Liberty Crack on Liberty Bell, fixing the first three aid pitches on August 10th, and climbing the route on August 11th. Below is the full blow-by-blow trip report. And I do mean blow-by-blow, this climb felt like no-holds-barred ultimate fighting.

All of my pictures from the climb. Just look at these if you don't want all this detail.

We found this topo to be more useful than the published topos we looked at (original). All pitch numbers in this trip report corresond to this topo.

This picture shows the Middle of the Route; the steep crack system includes the top of pitch 3 through pitch 6. You can see where the route starts to diagonal left on more moderate terrain after that.

August 9: Travel and preparation

Stewart picked me up at SeaTac, and once we got my gear duffels we headed to REI. I'd planned on getting Volume 3 of Becky's Cascade alpine guide, but the stop became essential when we realized Stewart hadn’t brought my rain shell – I’d left it in his car at the end of our Tuolumne trip, and I was planning on getting it back for this climb. While the flagship REI disappointed by not having volume 3 in stock, I did find a $4.95 vinyl poncho. The weather forecast was good, so I didn't expect to need it. We drove as far as Darrington and camped in what, apparently, was a little-used pull-off on a forest service road.

August 10: Fixing the first three pitches


Stewart

As Stewart and I were breaking camp around 7am, a pickup truck roared past on the main forest service road. A few seconds later we heard the gravel scatter as the driver applied the brakes, and the pickup backed up to our turnoff. The large hunting rifle hanging behind the seat was a bit intimidating, but the driver was friendly. He rolled down the window and let us know that we were camped on the entrance to a gravel dump, and the county would be rolling trucks in around 8. We thanked the driver and he headed off. The man's extra effort to help out two total strangers reminded me that the mountains aren’t the only thing the Northwest has going for it.

A two-hour drive brought us to a pull-off on Highway 20 below the Liberty Bell group at about 11:30am. We followed a good climber’s trail from a pond beside the highway to the base of the climb, reaching it in about 45 minutes. Stewart led up the "4th class" ledges to the base of the 1st pitch, built a gear anchor, and brought me up. The 4th class was probably more like 5.2 with fall potential, so roping up was a good call. Stewart led the 1st aid pitch, which went smoothly if not quickly. The pitch goes free at 5.10+ or 5.11, so I brought my Anasazis and chalk bag and figured I’d give it a try. With a pack and a tailed rope I was fairly weighted down, but I still managed to do all the moves, hanging once to clean a nut in the middle of the pitch (probably right around the crux).


Brendan

I then aided the Lithuanian Lip pitch, which was a blast. A good bolt to get part way out under the roof and a solid fixed pin right at the lip meant I only had to place one piece under the roof -- a yellow alien I think. While hanging under the lip I unexpectedly swung around, giving me a crazy sensation of exposure. Even though you're really only 2 pitches up, the talus below doesn't convey much scale and the trees are all farther down, so it feels like you’re much higher. Stewart's only HB offset fit the one tricky spot above the lip perfectly (clean aid wish list: full sets of offset Aliens and HB offsets). Getting on and then off the bolt ladder required a couple of balancy free moves, leading to a small belay ledge with bomber bolts. Despite the impressive exposure and steepness of the first 2/3 of the route, the belay stances are all quite reasonable. A definite plus.

Stewart led the 3rd pitch, the aid crux of the route. None of the moves were particularly difficult, though the pitch requires trusting some questionable-looking fixed gear. Two 60m ropes are sufficient to fix these three pitches to the ground (about 350’). We anchored the ropes at the top of the 2nd pitch in addition to the top of the 3rd, so the second person could start jugging once the first reached the top of the second pitch. We left the rack and slings for the rest of the climb at the top, and headed down. The knot hung in free space maybe 30 feet below the Lithuanian Lip. I'd never passed a knot before on rappel, and so I fumbled around a bit before completing the transition. Probably a good skill to practice in advance.

Neither of us were particularly warmed up on aid, so we didn't get back down until dusk. By the end of the day I had a headache and felt pretty crappy, probably from some combination of jet-lag, altitude, and exertion. We drove a few miles down the road to a campground; we'd been planning on driving farther and free camping on a forest service road, but the late hour and reasonable fee ($8) convinced us to stay.

August 11: Finishing the climb


Brendan aiding the Lithuanian Lip

The alarm went off at 5 am. Stewart coaxed his stove into working with a bit more motor oil on the pump while I broke down the tent. After some oatmeal and coffee we headed for the route. About halfway up the approach I realized I'd forgotten my second ascender. Rats. I decided to improvise instead of going back to get it. We reached the base around 7, and Stewart headed up first since he was going to lead the first pitch. My hands still had some wounds from crack practice in the gym, so I taped up. I started the jug with one ascender and a Bachman-on-a-biner. After struggling up 15' I gave up on that combination -- the Bachman was cinching down each time I weighted it so much that I needed both hands to loosen it to move it up. I switched it out for my Reverso in auto-lock mode. I eventually figured out how to keep proper tension on the rope so pulling rope through the Reverso wasn’t too strenuous, at least on the vertical terrain. Once I was on the free-hanging rope under the lip it became a tiring full-body workout. This was the first time I'd jugged a non-trivial distance, and before I try it again I definitely think I'd benefit from some practice to dial in my system. And of course, remembering two ascenders would presumably help a lot, too. In any case, I reached the start of the free climbing sweaty and tired.

Stewart headed up the first pitch of the day (pitch 4 overall, 5.10-). We both thought it was a beast. Stewart climbed the first third or half of the pitch free, and then switched to French free and grunted his way up the rest. I pulled on gear most of the way as well, and still felt like I’d gotten worked. The pitch was steep, and with the pack, boots, and second rope pulling me back it felt even steeper.

This left me feeling less than 100% as I led out on pitch 5 (5.8+ , 160’). It opens with a wide section that isn’t too bad, but it used up my biggest cams (the #3 and #4). The rest of the pitch follows a corner crack, as sustained and steep as Triple S (at Seneca Rocks), but longer and with more jamming and less stemming. It felt somewhat desperate the whole way up, even though it probably wasn't. I thought the crack would pinch down up higher, but it stayed hand to fist sized, and I regretted having burned all my big cams. The basic sequence was this: climb 10 or 15' of powerful crack moves. Finally find a place to plug some gear 3 or 4 feet higher than you would have liked. Fiddle something in because you don't have the big cam that would fit instantly. Hang on a bomber hand jam that should offer a rest, but feel like you're just getting more pumped. Repeat about 12 times. Stewart found a good crack inside the main crack about elbow deep -- I don't think I used it at all. I rarely feel solid on my first lead of the day, I get too tense, want to place lots of gear, and don't find the best sequence. By the end of the pitch I wasn't sure how many more like that I had in me.

Stewart led the next pitch, it felt quite a bit easier, with some fun stemming moves giving awesome exposure. Stewart aided the last 10' to gain the top of a large block (the so-called rotten block). There were three 1/4" bolts, which Stewart backed up with a couple bomber aliens.


Stewart jugging past the "tricky"
5.7 traverse

I didn't feel up to leading the 5.9 corner, the last hard pitch on the climb, so we decided I'd lead the next three (7,8, and 9), running them together as two by using the alternate belay. I aided for about 12' off the block to bypass a 5.10 section, and transitioned to free climbing for the 5.8 friction corner. Fun! I felt better, at least for the first part of the pitch, as I could keep more weight on my feet. There wasn't much pro other than a few (pretty decent looking) fixed pins. A friction traverse to the edge of the slab brought me to two bolts, a rusty old 1/4" Leeper and a brand new ASCA-installed bolt (Why just one bolt?). As planned, I continued on to the higher alternate belay. According to our topos, I had the option of a 5.9 move on the right to more friction, or a "tricky" 5.7 traverse left. I tried the traverse, which was indeed tricky, and felt far harder than 5.7. French-free time! I even copped a rest by hooking the runner girth hitched to my harness over a broken-off 1" stump stuck in the crack. At the top I built a belay and Stewart jugged the pitch. The next pitch looked easy, traversing along ledges to a 5.6 chimney. It would have been, too, but about 15 feet from the belay my arms started cramping up when I bent them too much and pulled. I'm guessing it had something to do with the workouts I'd already gotten. I tried to climb more straight-armed and carried on.

Weather is always a factor when climbing in the Cascades, and on all three trips I’ve been on Liberty Bell clouds have built in the East during the day. When Stewart and I tried the Becky Route last year (pictures), thunder, lightning, intense rain, and punchy bursts of hail beat us back down. When Amy and I climbed that route later last summer (pictures), the clouds stayed passive, and the first day of this trip was similar -- a smattering of mid-sized cumulus clouds dotted the sky, but they never became threatening. We were hoping for a repeat for our summit bid, and for the first half of the climb it looked like we might get it. But as we climbed higher, the clouds grew thicker. Not big thunderheads, but a dark gray mass slowly consuming the blue sky. About the same time my muscles started cramping, it started to sprinkle.

I grunted my way up the chimney (Thanks for carrying those boots, Stewart. Sorry you got stuck), and a little bit of simul climbing got me to the first comfy flat spot we'd seen. I slung the tree, put Stewart on a real belay, and plugged a #1 Camalot for backup. Then it was time to get out the poncho. The rain continued to spit at us while Stewart followed the pitch, but no substantial shower materialized. Stewart racked up for the last hard pitch. A moderate ramp, some traversing moves to a smaller ramp with wild exposure, into a crack system, up past an alcove for a few steep moves, to a belay. Stewart climbed the whole pitch free, a nice effort that late in the day with the weather threatening. I pulled on gear, eager to get the climb done. I led the last pitch, which follows a sandy, sloping ledge system broken by a few steep shelves requiring 5th class moves. I belayed Stewart up, completing the roped climbing around 5:20pm. The rain had abated, and after locating the rap station we dumped the ropes and rack and scrambled to the summit. After a few pictures and a few minutes to admire the spectacular 360-degree panorama, we headed down. I knew the way, as the descent is shared with the Becky route.


Brendan and Stewart on the summit

Unfortunately, on the second and final rap the tail of Stewart’s rope stuck in a crack before it passed through the rap rings. No amount of flipping, whipping, or tugging would move it. Stewart began checking out the 5.8 face back up to the rope, expecting to have to lead it. Eager for dinner and beer, I decided to give the rope one last effort. We’d already resorted to hard pulls on the rope, but I clipped an ascender to my daisy, attached it to the rope, and gave it a series of full body-weight tugs. Nothing. I stood up and turned to Stewart, ready to admit defeat … and as I did, the rope slithered down behind me. Apparently, releasing the tension I’d put on the rope popped it free. Amy and I got a rope stuck on the same rappel (but a different spot) last summer, so this was my second last minute rope retrieval on the climb.

We descended the choss-filled gulley between Liberty Bell and Concord Tower, reached the Blue Lake trail, and hiked it until we could see the road. After retrieving the car (and our beers, which we’d stashed in the roadside pond), we drove down to some picnic tables at the Liberty Bell overlook and cooked up some well-earned dinner.

Commentary

We decided to trail the 2nd rope instead of dropping it, as that allowed more options for retreat and eliminated the need for another trip to the base of the climb to retrieve it. This ended up being a good decision, but having to tend the rope and drag it when seconding made the climbing more strenuous and somewhat slower.

We mostly swung leads, which was also probably somewhat slower than leading in blocks. Stewart racks to the harness and I rack to a gear sling, so we had to re-rack at every pitch, as well as trade off the trail line and my boots, which I made Stewart carry on my leads (his shoes fit in his pack). I'm sure you can read more about that in his trip report. He complained enough I almost wish I'd just carried them the whole time. Except on the chimney pitch.

Notes on Gear

Free Rack (day two)

  • aliens: doubles blue-yellow, 1 gray, 1 red
  • camalots: 0.5, doubles .75-2, 3, 4 (C4)
  • wallnuts 1-10
  • 2 rockcentrics (6 and 7, I think)
  • lots of assorted runners, double length runners, a few quickdraws

Comments: We could have left 1 or maybe both of the blue aliens, though I placed a blue at least once. One green alien would probably have been enough, and we could have left one of the (grey alien, red alien, 0.5 Camalot). I would definitely have liked another Camalot #3 or #4 on the 5th pitch, but a bigger hex would be another option.

Aid Rack (day one)

As above, plus a few more cams, micro nuts, one HB offset. One hook. We probably could have done all the aid with the free rack and a few micros.