West Face, Colchuck Balanced Rock, WA

August 3-5, 2008 / 5.12 (or 5.11 A1), 9-12p, trad.

Sunday August 3rd, 2008: We hike up to Colchuck Lake. We get up pretty early, hoping to start the hike early enough to make it to the lake by mid-day and have a relaxing afternoon. We leave the bus at the same spot where it's been for a while now: on a large dirt parking area by the main drag in Leavenworth. Not too worried about it. There's this guy who spends his nights in a broken down BMW just in front of us… maybe a bit creepy, but hey, no reason to suspect him more than anyone else.

We find many cars at the trailhead; there's almost no parking left. It's the weekend, so in addition to all the backpackers (the permit system is booked solid every single day), there are also a good number of day hikers I guess. The hike is not too long, and does not seem too steep, at least for the first hour, to the fork. After that, it gets pretty steep on and off, until you reach the lake. Many backpackers and climbers are coming out as we hike up. We take this as a good sign: there should be plenty of sites available to camp. We reach the lake around noon, after about 2H and 15 minutes of hiking.

After checking out some cool sites at the Northern tip of the lake, we decide instead to try and camp as close as possible to our objective. We know from our first visit here (Backbone Ridge, Dragontail, 2003) and from the camp map provided by the forest service, that there is an established site at the very southern tip of the lake, not far from the start of the steep climb toward Asgaard pass. The hike around the lake is a bit longer than you expect, mostly because it goes up and down a lot, past cliffy areas of the lakeshore. We find the campsite vacant and quite attractive: two large flat sandy areas for tents, plenty of boulders to sit on, and a twin Larch tree for shade.

Click for high resolution
The West face route goes through the obvious roof-capped white dihedral in the center of the photo.
Click for high resolution
The approach is on a very good trail (~2h15 with overnight packs).
Click for high resolution
We find a good campsite at the south end of Colchuck Lake.
Click for high resolution
Spending the afternoon relaxing by the lake and...
Click for high resolution
...scoping out the approach. The base of the route is a good two hours from the South end of the lake.

We set up camp then laze around all afternoon. Good views of our objective from here, and of the long and steep approach... It is almost 2,000 vertical feet from here to the base of the route; that, combined with the very likely possibility of some ugly buswhacking through slide alder around the lake, means that is is likely to take us over two hours to reach the climb. We scope a possible route across the slide alders to the base of the approach gully and try to memorize some landmarks so we hopefully can find it tomorrow morning. For the descent, it seems pretty obvious that you want to go around the south of the peak. I forgot to copy the descent info from the guidebook… I remember people mentioning a short rap from near the summit, then an easy scree skiing descent. We had not understood this from our reseacrh, but it is now quite clear that the descent will take us right back to the base of the route. Since people say the descent is very short, we may not need to carry approach shoes on the climb. It also means that instead of gearing up at camp, we can hike to the base of the route with packs, and leave them at the base.

It is quite cold. Clearly colder than normal for this time of year. However, the forecast has been calling for a significant warming trend over the next few days. We'll see. We start dinner early. A ranger stops by to check our permits. We hit the sack well before sunset. Alarm set to 5AM. On one hand, we don't want to start too early and find the route too cold to climb, but we also don't want to risk being passed by another party.

Click for high resolution
Going up the boulderfield in the early morning the next day.
Click for high resolution
Contemplating the bushwack separating us from the approach gully.
Click for high resolution
Halfway up the approach gully.
Click for high resolution
In the basin below the route with possible campsites in the background (no water).
Click for high resolution
Closer look at the route (photo taken in the late afternoon).

The next day, we get up at 5AM, just before sunrise. Standard routine of hot chocolate and oatmeal, drinking as much water as possible. We finish getting our packs ready and are on the move by 6:45AM. We skirt the southern end of Colchuck lake, then hike about 350 vertical feet toward Asgaard pass. We fill up on water at what we believe will be our last chance, before starting a horizontal traverse left (North) to the entrance of the steep approach couloir. Despite our scoping out the day before, we end up doing two or three sections of heavy duty bushwhacking (alder-bending, actually). This is the kind of terrain where you might do a mile a day… on a good day! We manage to keep a cold head (hard to do in this kind of stuff)… perhaps finding the "Way of the Warrior" (we've been reading this book by Arno Ilgner recently; good stuff)! Fortunately, the bad sections are pretty short and we reach the base of the couloir in about 20 minutes.

From here, things looks pretty obvious: straight up the steep couloir to a col and a small hidden basin at the base of the formation. It's another 1500 ft of climbing from here… ouch. The first third of the couloir is quite vegetated, and irrigated by a small permanent-looking stream… whish we had known this. At about a third of the way up, the stream disappears into a tributary gully to the right, while we continue up the now dry open scree toward the col. We are taking a very slow pace. We want to save our strength for the climb. There does not appear to be anyone behind us so far. At about the two-third point, we notice what we believe to be two climbers moving quite fast up the initial portion of the climb toward Asgaard Pass. We worry for a while that they might be coming our way. We won't see them again though.

Finally, we reach the small col and get a first closeup view of the face. The roof looks impressive. The rock below and above the roof looks quite clean, but the rest of the route is obviously a bit licheny. We'll see. We're trying to keep low expectations. Better than being disappointed. From the col, we drop back down a few tens of feet into a lovely little basin (good camps on flat sand among trees here but no water, although there are some snow banks left), then climb a few hundred feet up a boulderfield toward the base of the rock. A huge scar is very obvious some distance left of our route, and fresh-cut boulders cover most of the slope below that we are now ascending. Must have come down very recently, perhaps even this season. One of the largest pieces, a boulder the size of a small house, landed on one of the flat sandy campsites below, after apparently bouncing off the slope just above, leaving a sizeable crater… hope the rest of this formation is solid! There is a reason why the rock is clean on our route… lichen does not take that long to establish itself in these parts! Better not think too much about that. Statistically, the risk is infinitesimal.

We find a decent spot among the boulders and near the base of the face to gear up. We have some food (sausage and crackers, and some fruit bars and GU), drink a lot (we carried 7 quarts up), and get ourselves ready. Only, after not moving for the last half an hour or so, we are feeling really cold, even shivering. We wait some more, hoping for the temperature to rise, or perhaps just delaying the inevitable; we know from watching the route yesterday that it does not get any sun until well past 2PM. Eventually, we just have to go. It's 10AM, and this climb could take a while... according to its rating, it will be right at the edge of our ability, perhaps even beyond. Fortunately, the route also has the reputation of being over-rated. We put our climbing shoes on and scramble up the narrow diagonal gully (freshly scoured by rock fall) to the base of the route.

Click for high resolution
A short vegetated pitch takes you to the base of the obvious crack.
Click for high resolution
Pitch 2 is much cleaner: a very short 5.10+ crack.
Click for high resolution
Pitch 3 (5.7) ascends easier cracks and chimneys to the top of a detached pinnacle.
Click for high resolution
At the belay atop p3. Pretty good anchor gear can be had at the bottom of the next pitch's crack..
Click for high resolution
Eric starting pitch 4, stepping across from the pinnacle into the thin crack.

The first few pitches of climbing are really not that great. We first scramble up maybe 100ft or so up a system of ramps, diagonally up and right, until the going gets tougher and the exposure more uncomfortable. We make a short pitch on a single half-rope (some 5.8 moves) to the ledge at the base of the obvious yet short 5.10+ crack. Here, we rope up properly. The crack is steep and tough, but only for a few moves, and the pitch is very short. The next pitch ascends some easier cracks and chimneys (5.7) to the top of a detached pinnacle. We had read about the lack of good anchors here, but some pretty good gear can be found at the bottom of the next pitch's crack. This, combined with a sling around a good size boulder at the top of the pinnacle makes for a good belay.

There are two ways to go from here. We take the rightmost dihedral. Step across from the pinnacle into the thin crack, do a couple of tricky moves, then cruise up the obvious and esthetic shallow dihedral, before being forced right a bit and onto unpleasantly sandy and grassy mantle stances. Too bad the last third of this pitch detracts from the initial clean corner. Eventually, it leads to a sandy ledge with a belay tree (with a broken top).

Click for high resolution
Higher on pitch 4, in the esthetic shallow dihedral.
Click for high resolution
The pitch unfortunately ends with some unpleasant grassy mantles.
Click for high resolution
Gorgeous views of Colchuck Lake and Mt Stuart.
Click for high resolution
Pitch 5 (5.9?) leads to the base of the steep dihedral.
Click for high resolution
Lucie in the shallow groove of pitch 5.

The next pitch leads to the base of the 5.11a crack, below the giant roof. This was supposed to be easy and ledgy, but I found it pretty tricky and difficult to protect. Very shallow groove with a flake. Maybe 5.9 or so? I think we may have been just a bit to the right of an easier way. Oh well. Good belay on a small ledge at the base of the steep dihedral.

Click for high resolution
Reaching the belay at the base of the steep dihedral.
Click for high resolution
Pitch 6 is the money pitch. A beautiful and very sustained 5.10+ corner.
Click for high resolution
Just gorgeous.
Click for high resolution
Looking back at Lucie starting the pitch.
Click for high resolution
The last jamming section before reaching the belay.

Pitch 6 is clearly the best on the route, and probably the main reason you do this route. Steep, unrelenting corner crack straight up to the roof. Plentiful pro the entire way. The crack starts finger sized, with occasional good locks and more rattly sections, and progressively widens to hands at the top. Not much in the way of rests after the first third, so efficiency is key. I was in good spirits (the Warrior?) and onsighted the thing clean! The key is to avoid overprotecting (it's a clean fall anyway) and move fast through the more strenuous sections between good finger locks or hand-jams. I felt that the moves were never that difficult, and that the pitch may be a bit over-rated. Probably more like sustained 10b, deserving of 10d for its unrelenting nature, than 11a. But whatever, I'll gladly take the credit. Only the last 10 feet or so has green slime oozing out of it, but the jams are positive hands in that section, so the wetness is no issue. Lucie had a much harder time following this. She was still carrying two and a half quarts of water on this pitch, and her smaller fingers forced her into more liebacking in the first third of the pitch… she used up too much energy and ended up having to hang a few times in the upper part (some of those hangs to remove stuck nuts).

Click for high resolution
The amazing view from the belay underneath the huge roof.
Click for high resolution
Climbing the short finger crack to the roof...
Click for high resolution
...and starting the traverse.
Click for high resolution
Pressing my head head into the roof while smearing my feet.
Click for high resolution
Almost there!

The belay below the roof is half-hanging, and pretty cool. Lots of exposure and great views of Mt Stuart, perfectly framed by the wall and roof. The exposure makes you want a really bombproof anchor, and it is: two fixed medium nuts, two fixed pins (KB), and options for at least two more nuts (tiny) above the right hand pin. Equalize it all and no worries.

The next pitch is a semi-desperate traverse left under the gigantic roof. I debate a bit whether to aid or try to free the traverse. I am worried about spending too much energy freeing it and spoiling the rest of the route. But hey, it's only 11a, and all dry. I free climb the short finger crack to the roof, place a few pieces, take a good look, then just go for it. Not too bad actually. You can get some help from pressing your head, or the top of your back, into the roof, while smearing the clean granite with your feet. A couple of reaches past short sections where the crack is pinched, and some awkward moments trying to blindly move your hands while your head is forced down by the roof. Awesome pitch actually.

Watch out for a really nasty pinch at the very end of the roof, just before moving up a short distance to the belay stance. If you don't do something about it, your rope will jam here. I place two medium nuts, upside down and side-by-side, tethered to a #2 Camalot above, and it does the trick. Lucie - who is scared to death of huge roofs - also ends up freeing the pitch with just one slip. Kudos to her...she's carrying a heavy pack!

Click for high resolution
Lucie poking her head out of the roof.
Click for high resolution
More views from the belay.
Click for high resolution
A tricky corner leads to the crux overhang.
Click for high resolution
Trying to figure out the crux move.
Click for high resolution
Taking a break before the final chimney.

The crux pitch (p8) starts with another clean corner crack, mostly thin hands. Surprizingly, this section feels harder than rated to both of us: the corner leans right and the footwork is tricky, making it feel hard for 5.9. Anyway, soon enough you are under the small roof, on bomber hand jams but in a very strenuous position with no feet. Just above is the supposed 5.12a section (or A1). I need a break from placing pro below the roof so I hang on my pieces here for a couple of minutes. This also give me a chance to take a better look at the moves above. There are two good hand jams right at the lip: an obvious one, and another hidden behind the first and under the roof. With both hands securely jammed, I throw my left leg onto the slopy ledge at left, and use it to pull myself heel-hook style, until I can reach a terrific undercling finger lock on the left. Once I have the undercling, the move is over, and I pull myself easily onto the slopy ledge. Seriously doubt that this is 12a (I freed it first try after one hang…), but it's hard to tell since it is only one move. Not over though. From the slopy ledge, you have to balance back into the crack, get a so-so flared hand jam above, then a good finger lock in a deep recess, before finishing the pitch to below the chimney. Lucie ends up hanging at the same place I did but manage to free the move too.

Click for high resolution
Eric on the chimney pitch.
Click for high resolution
An easier pitch leads to just below the summit.
Click for high resolution
Lassoing the top of the balanced summit rock.
Click for high resolution
Climbing to the top of the summit block. Yeah! It's a summit.
Click for high resolution
Short rap to the easy descent slopes (you could also scramble down).

The final chimney (p9) looks awkward, but maybe not as scary as most reports made it sound like. Getting established in the chimney is probably the hardest part, but not that terrible by old-fashioned chimney standards. I jam a flake, then grab the top of it, and wiggle into the flare (facing left). After turning around a bit higher, I get some footholds on the arete to the right. Fairly straightforward from here. Great pro all along. After you exit this first chimney, you climb a bit higher, before getting into another chimney section.

Above this, one long pitch on lots of lichen and dangerously loose blocks leads us to a large loose ledge a few tens of feet below the summit.

One more shorter pitch up then around the right hand side of the balanced rock leads to a rap anchor (slings around a flake, at the base of the balanced rock). It's getting a bit late, but we cannot just go down without tagging the top of the balanced rock (the summit block). Problem is, the 10 feet of climbing to get there look pretty hard, and there is absolutely no option for pro… lassoing the top might be doable. After a couple of tries, I get the rope looped over the top, but it slides back down when I tension it. I try again, this time trying to wrap the rope behind a protruding "nose" at the right side of the block. Done. And the rope is very secure this time. Lucie goes first. Tough moves indeed, very steep yet slabby, on elusive holds, until you are able to grab the edge of the top face and pull up. The top of the summit block is incredibly flat. She comes down, I retie into that end of the rope and she belays me up. I get my feet up there and immediately come back down.

Time is of the essence now, if we want a chance to get back to camp without having to buswhack too much in the dark. Fortunately, the descent looks remarkably easy and obvious from here: simply go around the south side of the formation, down sandy slopes. We coil one rope and set the other one up for a short rappel (actually 30+ meters to sandy ledges). We pull the rope, it falls on intermediate ledges, and gets stuck. F#%&! Fortunately, this is easy terrain and in fact, I had been expecting this and wondering if we shouldn't downclimb instead of rapping. I climb back up ¾ of the way, free the rope, toss it down, scramble back down. No sweat.

Click for high resolution
Descending the sandy slopes on the South side.
Click for high resolution
Hiking down the boulderfield toward the approach gully.
Click for high resolution
A sunlit Dragontail from the top of the approach gully.
Click for high resolution
We do the last bit of bushwacking in the dark.
Click for high resolution
Back at camp.

Lucie changes into her descent shoes (I didn't bring any, so I'm going in my 5.10 Piton climbing shoes). About a half hour later, after a lot of scree skiing, we land right back at our packs (hint: stay very close to the cliffs to get past the steeper terrain at the end).

We eat some food, drink some water, and head down. Down the big boulders to the small basin, back up a few tens of feet to the col, and then down the long, steep couloir. We try going down another way than we came through the alders, but cannot avoid a few short sections of intense alder flexing anyway, and end up exiting onto the boulder field below Asgaard Pass at the same point as where we started the traverse in the morning. It is now almost completely dark. We get the headlamps out, but Eric's dies almost immediately. Maybe it turned itself on in the packs? Or is there something wrong with this one? (it's the second time this happens).

Our legs are really sore by now, as we make our way through the bush around the southern tip of the lake. We finally reach camp at about 9PM. We left a Platypus full of water at camp this morning, so we have something to drink. It's too late and we're too wiped to really make dinner. So we eat the rest of our dried sausage, then make some soups. I make a quick trip to the lake to get more water and we hit the sack. The end of a long day.

Click for high resolution
Taking it easy at our idyllic campsite.
Click for high resolution
Drying out after a cold dip in the lake.
Click for high resolution
Nearly done with the hike out the next day!
Click for high resolution
Back at the car.
Click for high resolution
Cool sticker on one of the cars at the trailhead.

The next day, we spend the morning at Colchuck Lake. We can barely move. We laze around, slowly preparing to pack. Eventually, by mid-day, we start packing more seriously. When ready, we go to the shore and I get into some serious skinny dipping. Cold! I manage to get completely in the water (too cold to swim), then quickly back out to dry on a boulder. What had seemed two days before a pretty reasonable hike seems interminable. We finally make it back to the trailhead and go for a burger in town at the balcony at Otto's (their burger is OK but the fries are horrible!).

Note: Some parties do this route in a day car-to-car. We'd rather use a more relaxed approach. Camping at Colchuck Lake is a real treat, even though permits are hard to come by... If you opt for the 1-day option, the trail to the lake is easy to follow and can be done in the dark without any problem. Water is available along the way (footbridge) and of course at the lake. You may also find water in the approach gully (whish we had known that). We would not recommend camping/bivying below the base of the route. Given the serious bushwack, it takes too much effort to carry an overnight pack up there. Plus, there is no water except for a potential snow patch. Don't start the route too early and dress warmly cause it is in the shade until 2PM (in early August)!