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An Adventure on Mount Slesse

Posted Aug 28 2009 7:25pm
Alex Lowe once said that the best climber is the climber that is having the most fun. When I put together personal climbs, it's important to add the ingredients that will lead me to such a place. And for me those ingredients are the right people.

Brian Eckerling and Jay Hack both worked as guides at the American Alpine Institute for a number of years. We all started guiding together in the summer of 2000. And since then, the three of us have done a number of routes together. We've done two walls in Zion and a lot of climbing in Red Rock Canyon. I've done some of my most memorable climbs with those guys and have had a lot of fun with them as well.

Brian and Jay both grew up a few years ago and got real jobs. I, on the other hand, am still deeply entrenched in the guiding world. Brian is now a massage therapist and anxiously awaiting the birth of his first child. Jay is now a financial manager and a serious weekend warrior.

I've long dreamed about the Northeast Buttress of Mount Slesse. This Grade V route in British Columbia requires 25 pitches of climbing on an absolutely stellar feature. The route was prominently featured on the most sought after tick list in the country, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. And while the route is not considered technically difficult (depending on the variation, the line goes from 5.9-5.10a), the overall experience is considered extremely difficult because the route is so long and the descent is so serious. Jay and Brian were both up for the adventure, so we grabbed our passports and made our way to Canada.

While this is an incredible objective, an ambiance of dread hangs over Mount Slesse that has nothing to do with climbing. The peak was the site of the worst air disaster in Western Canada's history. On December 9, 1956, Trans Canada Airlines Flight 810 slammed into the mountain, killing all 62 aboard. For five months nobody knew what happened. Finally on May 10, 1957, a female mountaineer named Elfrida Pigou discovered the crash site. The discovery set off a stampede of treasure hunters and collectors. It wasn’t until May 25, 1995, that the BC government placed a protective zone around the debris field, declaring it a Heritage Wreck Site.

I took the following photo of a memorial marker after we finished the climb.

The Mount Slesse Memorial Plaque. Click on the photo to enlarge.

We left the car at three in the morning on the first day of the climb. After about two and a half hours of hiking we made our way to the "Propeller Carin," a place where some airplane debris, including an old propeller have been propped up in the rocks. From this spot we could see our objective.

Brian and Jay under the route. The Northeast Buttress is the prominent ridge in the background.

Many consider a small pocket glacier below the start of the route proper to be one of the greatest objective dangers. The seasonal glacier is fed by the snow and ice that is shed off of the mountain's east face. It collects on steep slabs beneath the face and the northeast buttress. During the summer season, the ice in this glacier is very unstable and is constantly breaking up. It could easily rain truck-sized blocks down on an unsuspecting climber crossing beneath it. The whole feature usually slides sometime late in the summer.

Luckily, by the time we arrived, the pocket glacier had almost completely slid away. Only a small relatively stable remnant of the glacier remained beneath the east face when we arrived.

A Party on the Slabs Below the Route at Dawn

Jay beneath the remnants of the pocket glacier at the base of the route.

A Beautiful Sunrise as seen from the Slabs beneath the Route
with the Illusion Peaks above the Clouds


The bottom of the route requires one to climb easy but exposed terrain. Some of the climbing at the base of the route is on good rock, but some is vegetated and muddy. Fog around the mountain early in the morning made everything a bit damp.

Brian on Easy Terrain low on the Route

Brian on the First 5.7 Pitch on the Route

Amazingly, some of the most dangerous sections of climbing were on the "easier" sections. Even some of the pitches midway up the mountain included wet grass and mud.

Brian Climbing through Vegetation Mid-Route

Down low, we were trying to figure out what gave the route such a classic bearing. It turns out that on the last third of the route, the climbing is quite good. Indeed, it is not just the climbing that is good, but the whole experience. Some pitches move up classic features, whereas others are in stunning positions high above the valley floor.

A Classic Lie-Back Corner

Approaching the Upper Mountain

Brian on Pitch 17

Jay Leading the Final Pitches

Jay Eating a Sandwich just below the Summit

We finally summited at about six in the evening. We expected the descent to be difficult, but at that time we still had no idea what we were in for.

Almost immediately we dropped down off the summit and began to work our way down through a series of mildly sketchy loose gullies. After downclimbing and rappelling, we eventually found ourselves benighted in a talus strewn basin.

Descending in the Alpenglow

Rigging a Rappel at Dusk

We weren't the first climbers to have problems with the descent from this peak. In the past, climbers accessed the route via Nesakwatch Creek Road on the east side of the mountain and then descended to Slesse Creek on the west side. In other words, you needed two cars or a long bike ride back to the other side of the mountain, neither of which are very appealing options after a big climb.

We were supposed to descend via a new descent route that the books and the Internet all refer to as "the Crossover Pass" descent. The value of this descent route over the other options is that one does not need to descend to the opposite side of the mountain to a car or a bike, but instead may descend back to the route's access trail.

Due to the fact that this particular route wasn't terribly well traveled and the fact that it was nearly pitch black out, the three of us decided to bivy. We didn't have sleeping bags or tents or any real camping gear at all. But it wasn't really safe to keep moving. And while it is fun to look back on this as a great bonding experience, it was really really cold. We absolutely could not wait until the sun finally peaked its head out above the mountains to rewarm us. Indeed, in the morning I think all three of us understood why the ancients worshiped the sun.

After the sun shook the cold out of our bones, we got moving again at about six in the morning.

Jay Early on the Second Day of the trip with the American Boarder Peak
and the Canadian Boarder Peak in the Background


Mount Slesse from our Descent. Our route climbed the middle of the face.

The Crossover Pass descent turned out to be a little bit epic. We had this description to work with. The description breaks down the route-finding into two "Crux Route-Finding Sections." The first crux route-finding section was easy. The second however, dropped us into another loose gully. The notes in the description were off and we ended up abandoning a handful of cams while dodging rockfall to get safely down.

The final crux of the descent involved a steep downclimb through thick and slick vegetation. There was supposed to be a trail in the woods somewhere, but we never found it. This element of the descent felt as if it took forever.

At one point, I slipped on the steep huckleberry bushes and slid down the hill a few feet before I came to a stop. Brian slipped in the same spot and then so did Jay. For a moment it was kind of funny...that was the moment before we realized that we had upset a bee hive. Then it wasn't so funny anymore.

We immediately stumbled, slid and ran away from the spot where we were getting nailed by bees. I got stung three or four times, Brian got it five or six times, and Jay got the brunt of it with dozens of stings. Luckily, none of us were allergic.

When we finally emerged from the woods, we were exhausted, but happy. We knew that the remainder of the trek back to the car would be on a trail and would be relatively easy.

Brian and Jay in the basin below Slesse after escaping the bushwack

The soul of climbing is not in the routes that we climb or in the places that we visit, but instead in the friends that we make. Mount Slesse gave us a cool route in a great setting, but that's not what made the trip great. Instead, it was spending some good time with some good friends while on a great adventure...

--Jason D. Martin
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