South Early Winters Spire

May 1, 2019


North Cascades Highway, WA

South Early Winters Spire (SEWS) is the highest summit in the rugged granite massif of Liberty Bell Group, which is by no doubt the icon of North Cascades Highway. The spire boasts high-quality climbing routes on all sides and thank to the short approach this is one of the most popular objectives in the North Cascades. Only two of the routes are “intro level mountaineering” – the SW Couloir that goes at 45-50 degrees snow and rock/mixed up to Class 4, and the South Arete that involves a few pitches of mostly “difficult scramble” but with moves up to 5.5. Either of the two would be the route choice of mine. I leaned towards the SW Couloir because I’m much better at steep snow than rock, but this route has a very short timing window. One needs the North Cascades Highway to be open, and once that happens the climbing window generally doesn’t last for more than two weeks. The first week of May is already “late season” but with a bomber snowpack and weather forecast I just didn’t want to wait for another year.

The Wednesday of this week seemed like the right time and after messaging several Washington locals on Facebook it was eventually Jessica S. and myself gaming for the plan. Jessica had been climbing a ton of routes on Mt. Hood recently and with that I figured this would be an easy objective for our first climb together. To time for the best snow conditions we agreed to meet in Burlington at 3:30 am. Ironically the drive was shorter for me coming from White Rock, B.C. than for her coming from south of Seattle. The drive from Burlington to the Blue Lake trail-head near Washington Pass took about 2 hours. Earlier in the week we tried pretty hard to get some beta from a few parties that did the route recently, but couldn’t figure out what exactly to expect other than it’s “mixed climbing”. The solution was to bring a full rock rack along with pickets, screws and a 60 m rope. Because of the short approach we didn’t mind the extra weight and we certainly appreciated the contingencies to deal with a variety of conditions.

South Early Winters Spire via SW Couloir. GPX DL

The trail-head gearing-up took literally no time and soon we were plodding on the snow. Route-finding wasn’t a problem thank to the “highway” of tracks and GPS technology. We did not have to use snowshoes and in fact, we almost have to don crampons in the forest. After a short while we came to a clearing and then ascended a long stretch of open terrain. No form of a “trail” could be seen but again, we just had to follow the tracks. It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the base of SW Couloir and the views were already mind-blowing.

The south buttress of Cutthroat Peak to the north.

This was Jessica’s first time in Washington Pass area.

Liberty Bell Mtn. with Concord and Lexington Towers

Early Winters Spires with the SW Couloir at center shot

Another look at the south buttress of Cutthroat Peak

This is the unofficially named “Blue Lake Peak”

What could be seen in the couloir appeared tame and easy but we still spent some time racking up. There were also a ton of tracks so we didn’t have to do much of our own step-kicking. In short time we had ascended beside that huge chockstone in the bottom. The terrain mellowed out for a while but steepened up considerably once entering the right fork. It’s about 45 degree sustained and we started to hit some short mixed steps. The climbing was easy enough that we felt there’s no need to break the rope out so we continued soloing overcoming minor obstacles here and there. The crux came near the top that a zone of ~8 m of mixed climbing must be ascended. The crux looked fairly straightforward from below so we again, opted for soloing, although the reality was already harder than what’s appeared. The rock was a bit compacted and down-sloping making poor crampon placements, but we all soloed it nonetheless.

Climbing the narrow passage beside the huge chockstone at the bottom of gully

Climbing above the chockstone now.

Me heading for the right fork. Photo by Jessica S.

Looking down at Jessica entering the narrow couloir

Me charging up the sustained 45-degree snow. Photo by Jessica S.

Jessica searing for some tool placements. This was the first mixed step

Higher up in the couloir.

Jessica having lots of fun mixed climbing

Me climbing up the crux. Photo by Jessica S.

Looking down at Jessica starting up the crux

Jessica partway up the crux. These are the trickiest moves

Above the crux now.

The last part was some fun snow climbing.

Jessica heading for the summit ridge.

Once joining the summit ridge we took another short break transitioning gears. The final pitch to get onto the true summit looked like some fun, dry 3rd class and it sure was. I decided to keep the crampons on for practices on mixed climbing, which was awkward on a couple spots. The summit had some really nice views and we spent around 30 min soaking in the moment. I think this was my first summit in the area with clear, blue skies.

Me scrambling up the summit block pitch. Photo by Jessica S.

Me climbing a tricky move with crampons. Photo by Jessica S.

Jessica approaching the summit of SEWS

Summit Panorama from South Early Winters Spire. Click to view large size.

Looking south towards Reynolds Peak

North Gardner Mountain and Gardner Mountain

Big Kangaroo immediately to the east

The west face of Silver Star Mountain with Burgundy Spire attached on left

The Needles or “Big Methow Needle” in the background

Golden Horn (L) and Tower Mountain (R)

Black Peak

Goode Mountain in the shade

Another look at Cutthroat Peak

“Blue Lake Peak” with part of Stiletto Peak behind

It’s Bonanza Peak hidden behind the clouds

McGregor Mountain in the foreground; Glacier Peak behind in the distance

The glaciated massif of Dome Peak with Sinister Peak to its left

A wider shot of “Blue Lake Peak” and the view towards south

A closer look at the Bulgers in Chelan Sawtooth

Jessica checking out the route on North Early Winters Spire

Me on the summit of South Early Winters Spire

Jessica and I on the summit of South Early Winters Spire

On the descent we easily down-climbed the summit pitch and then down-climbed another pitch to a tree rappel anchor. From there we did three short pitches of rappels from station to station. The second and third anchors were sketchy but the second anchor (one nut) could be easily backed up with a .5 cam, and the third anchor (old webbing on tree) was backed up with a brand new cord. Once the rappelling was over we quickly packed the rope and down-climbed the rest of the way back to where we ditched gears. A short break was then taken and we leisurely walked back following the tracks, opting to keep the crampons on for more stability.

Jessica on the first rappel off that tree anchor

Me leading down the second rappel. Photo by Jessica S.

Jessica on the 3rd rappel onto continuous snow

The terrain mellows out after exiting the right fork couloir

Exiting the SW Gully now.

Jessica with SW Couloir – SEWS behind

The terrain here would be prime for skiing though.

The late morning light was better for shooting Liberty Bell Group

Me with Cutthroat Peak behind. Photo by Jessica S.

Liberty Bell Mountain, Concord Tower, Lexington Tower

Hiking down on snow with those granite spires behind

Almost back to the parking lot and it’s not even noon yet…

Our round trip time was about 4.5 hours which was a tad faster than I thought. The post-trip transition took zero time again and we soon were back on the road. The drive back to Burlington was exhausting for me due to the lack of sleep, but I managed to get us there nonetheless. After saying goodbye to Jessica I found a nearby restaurant to have some real food, before continuing driving back home for some work in the evening.