When the world shut down in March and our hopes for international travel were squashed, we quickly realized we were going to have to look for adventure closer to home. Sam and I both have aspirations of completing big wall first ascents in the greater ranges. Although much of our time is dedicated to free climbing, we share a love for the beauty and creativity of aid climbing. Though not Yosemite, Washington does have an ancient history of big walling, from the Index Town Walls, to the East Face of Liberty Bell, to the huge alpine faces on Mount Baring and Mount Index. The splitter granite of Yosemite is hard to come by in Washington, and the approaches leave your lungs gasping for air. Worst of all, the rock spends most of its year in a cozy cocoon of wetness, meaning there is moss and dirt everywhere. Then again, we all had to get a little creative this year to keep our dreams alive.
North Norwegian Buttress (NNB) is a feature on the imposing east face Mount Index which rises 2,000 feet above Lake Serene. The lake is a popular summer destination for Washington hikers, known for its views and refreshing waters. Prior to our ascent NNB had only been climbed twice, once via the Doorish Route (VI 5.9 A3), and once via a variation called the Voodoo Project (VI 5.9 A4). Last year Sam asked me if I wanted to repeat the Doorish Route as our first actual time climbing together. I agreed, knowing Index's notoriety for loose rock, but willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. We bailed six pitches up when half our anchor failed, we had very few replacement bolts and the rock in the lower pitches was so chossy it barely took gear. Afterwards I’d pretty much written NNB off, but Sam has a weird way of convincing you something is a good idea.
Flash forward a year and we’re packing for five days on NNB to put up a completely independent route on the left side. We also enlisted our friend Kyle to make it a party. Sam and Kyle have many first ascents under their belts, but a grade VI would be a first for all of us. Similar to how most people wouldn't associate Washington with big walling, most people wouldn’t look at the recess line up and select me for their big wall first ascent team. At 115 pounds I don’t make a formidable opponent to the haul bag, I’m terrified of jugging, and oh right, I’ve never placed a bolt/rivet on lead. The fact that I’ve climbed El Capitan five times, seemed like an asterix to my otherwise blank resume, but I guess there has to be a first for everything. I was a little skeptical about my role in this whole thing. In the end I think Sam lured me in with the promise of banana pancakes.
We bailed in June since our planned route was still wet. It turns out slowly getting dripped on while climbing is some form of tortute. The rock quality wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrendous either. This time we left half our gear at our high point six pitches up so we’d have to return. We learned a lot from the whole experience, like climbing capsule style and fixing ropes would be much easier than packing up our port-a-ledge camp every day. So in July we returned with over 1000 feet of rope, even more aid gear and bolts, Seven days of good weather, and most importantly pancake mix and banana chips. We spent the first two days re-leading, cleaning and hauling up to our high point to set up what would be our first camp.
I was still skeptical about my role, and I’m no stranger to self doubt. Up to this point I felt like I was mostly there to keep the other person at the belay company, and set up the port-a-ledges before it got dark.
When we reached our high point, I knew that it was finally my turn to lead, and I had a month to mull it over. The start of the pitch looked loose and the upper bit was STEEP leading to a roof. It was time to start pushing back into the unknown. My lead started with a few rivets to pass a blank section of rock. Turns out drilling as high as you can above your head, is as hard as it sounds. Climbing overhangs with a triple rack of cams, rack of iron, hammer, and a hammer drill is also as hard as it sounds. Somehow though after the first 30 feet of hooks and rivets I managed to link steep cracks and avoid any more drilling.
At one point, exhausted from the steepness and mentally drained from suspect rock and cleaning out cracks, I was ready to be done. I took a moment to look down at Lake Serene and take in the absurdity of what I was doing. Remembering Andy Kirkpatrick's video on fear, taken while hanging off a bat hook, I decided to recreate a video of my own hanging off a beak in a muddy crack. For some reason that made me feel better and I continued up to eventually find a gorgeous C1 crack. I put in a bolted belay level with the mega roof we’d been intimidated by this entire time, I’d found a way around it. Even better, we’d finally found impeccable rock. Sam led the next two pitches at light speed before we rapped back to camp. I’m sure they were a struggle, but Sam never makes anything sound hard.
The banana pancakes in action
The next morning, after filling our bellies with pancakes, we ascended from camp back to our high point and Sam asked if I wanted to lead again. I looked up at the next stretch of rock, this first 30 feet didn't look too bad, after that who knew? That weird determination when I don’t want to do something, but refuse to say no, came over me. The first 80 feet proved to be really fun C1/A1 through a couple of small roofs where somehow a placement always appeared when I needed one. The rock quality also continued to be superb.
Eventually though I came to the bushy corner we had seen from below. I knew it was time to leave my nice crack system and start moving left. The diagonally leftward traverse took me through hook placements and small random cracks. I tried to link together features as much as possible and spent a heinous amount of time trying to clean out cracks to avoid drilling. It felt creative, the direction and character of the pitch was completely in my hands. It was also strenuous, standing in the top of my ladders to clean out placements at the edge of my reach. I ended up having to drill a few rivets but to my satisfaction, kept it at a minimum. When I finally reached a small ledge I was exhausted, but proud. I had been so caught up in the climbing, I had forgotten to be scared. It’s a cool mental state in aid climbing, maybe the closest you can get to flow. You become so focused on the task at hand, that you stop thinking about anything outside your bubble of rock. If free climbing is about pushing yourself physically, then aid climbing is about pushing yourself mentally. Your only option and goal is to methodically move upwards and you have to use every once of creativity you have to do it. Many people turn their noses up to aid climbing, they’ve clearly never felt this side of it.
When Sam reached the anchors he asked me what I thought the pitch should be rated,
“5.7 A2? Maybe A2+?” I said with uncertainty. It had felt hard, but not that hard, and I didn’t want to seem soft.
Sam looked at me, eyes wide, “Lani, that’s a sandbag, the gear in the traverse was mank. That pitch was at least A3.”
I smiled, and shrugged, I had done it, that was all that mattered. Sam took us up another pitch and we zipped back down our ropes for some pesto ramen dinner.
Sam cleaning my lead
The next day it was time to haul all of our stuff to our next camp. Turns out my fears of being useless hauling were also for nothing. No one could move the bags quickly solo, even with Sam's spiffy 2:1 hauling system. So Sam and I ended up simul space hauling. Space hauling involves putting all your weight on the haul line and walking down the wall, basically you are a counter weight to the bags. Then re jugging the lines, over and over. Even with two people it was a lot of work, but we moved efficiently as a team. Meanwhile Kyle followed behind us smashing and cleaning all the loose blocks, so that the route would be ready and safer for a second ascent. It should be known that Kyle is a pro smasher.
Kyle in homemade port-a-legde
Sam at one of our camps
After hauling to our high point we still had plenty of time to climb a few pitches. Sam started up the headwall above, drilling a few hooks and rivets, and finally free climbing to avoid placing gear in some choss. The rock quality was deteriorating again. Kyle then led an extremely dirty pitch up a corner, and took a small whip, the first and only of the route. Don’t worry, most of the dirt from that corner ended up on his face,
so it should be clean now. The sun was setting so we settled into our most comfortable camp yet. The port-a-ledge was starting to feel like home. I’m pretty sure I had forgotten what flat ground felt like.
We had no idea how many pitches we had left, but we knew we must be getting close. We ascended to our high point and Sam took the lead up some loose 5.9 past some trees to our first real ledge. The next pitch went up a C1 fist crack. Sam made a joke while aiding off a root that he was "on route". I think Kyle and I were too tired to laugh. He then battled some bushes to get to another mega ledge.
We had accidentally only brought four liters of water for the three of us, (“I thought you had the water!”) and it was about 100 degrees in the sun. We were all extremely dehydrated and demoralized at this point, uncertain of how far to the summit. There was a growing part of me that wanted to turn back. Let’s be real, it had been there the whole time. We were so close and yet as the rock quality deteriorated, catastrophic failure crept into my tired mind again. Was the summit really worth it? I tried to distract myself while belaying by watching people jump off a rock into Lake Serene. That just caused me to contemplate what the hell was wrong with me, why couldn’t I find enjoyment in “normal” activities?