Shirley and I climbed Orbit (III 5.8+) on a damp Sunday in May. We found the climb to be beautiful and challenging at the same time. Looking back, I have to say I “worked” pretty hard on what is a 5.8+ route.
Our plans for the weekend were for Cutthroat Peak (South Buttress) further north. After driving there Friday night, we woke up on Saturday to see our route with large patches of snow on it…..maybe we could’ve pushed it but it did not look appealing (large snowfield on the slabs near the top). Oh well, we’ll be back there in a month or so.
Decide to go to “plan B” and drive down to Leavenworth. Warm up on the nice Lightning Bolt Crack at Peshastin Pinnacles (the 5.8 variation, not 5.9…..I thought that the 5.8 slab was difficult enough). We then go back to Castle Rock to do Canary (a BEAUTIFUL route!!!). Feeling pretty good, we decide to give Orbit on Snow Creek Wall a shot on Sunday. It is a 6-7 pitch route (grade III) rated anywhere between 5.8 to 5.9 depending both on variations as well as on sources.
Wake up at 6am but it’s drizzling – so we sleep in late. By the time we finally make it to the base of the route (after sampling some of the temptations of that little Bavarian nightmare known as Leavenworth – i.e. fresh Coffee), it’s about 11:30 am (so much for the early start). Not another soul on the whole wall as far as we can tell (not even on the ultra popular Outer Space!!!).
Rope up and do the first pitch – mostly class 4 with some mid-fifth moves near the top. Pitch two is straightforward enough as well (with one or two well-protected 5.8 moves near the top). This brings us to just below Mary Jane Dihedral (a 5.9 route). From here, I lead a traversing pitch to reach the base of (what Nelson and Potterfield claim to be the route’s technical crux) 5.9 finger cracks (about 30 feet tall). This section is by-passable (on left via low 5th class terrain) but the climbing does not look that bad so I give it a shot. Pretty smooth sailing – some finger jams and stemming for feet. The pitch ends shortly thereafter in a small slot behind a flake. Shirley comes up enjoying the moves despite the backpack. “I guess we bagged it” I exclaim having passed Nelson’s crux section. That was naive of me…
The next pitch starts with a calf-burning slab (c. 5.8). A couple of micro-cams and a nice bolt. Small roofs on the left then force you out to the right onto and past the arete. The move above is kind of tricky with 1 blue Alien, 1 green Alien, and 1 bolt (20 feet below). There is a nice 3-4″ in slanting crack just above that move. As I’m hanging there in a semi-lieback position reaching for my #4 Camalot to slam into the crack and keep moving, the trigger gets stuck! “Sh..!!!”. I Switch my hands and try to fiddle single handedly with the trigger wires. No go. My arms are wasting away quickly – just before I come off, I lower myself desperately hoping my foot finds something. Thankfully it does. I untangle the trigger wires and try it again. Works well. I keep climbing up the face now. The going is fairly straight forward (5.7-5.8) – two moves followed by a rest stance, repeat. Pro is OK – some small cams supplemented by some ancient fixed stuff. I clip a piton and move up 8 feet towards what looks like a belay stance. It’s a somewhat tricky mantle move onto a sloping narrow (6inch) “ledge”. I look for gear opportunity and find a micronut placement on the right side of the ledge. Once on the “ledge”, I find two ancient bolts. I supplement those with a micro-cam. The “ledge” is actually a 25 degree ramp about 3 feet long – barely enough space for two. I bring Shirley up and we re-rack. It’s drizzling a little. I’m hesitant to weigh this crappy anchor but we have no choice given the smallness of the “ledge”.
I set off on the next lead hoping to find some good placements early on (nightmares of me peeling off and pulling both of us off the “ledge” dance in my head). Fortunately the going is easy (c. 5.6 dihedral). Down below I see the leader of a party that has caught up to us (an easy task for them given that I took a while to lead the previous pitch) ask Shirley if he can belay from a stance 15 feet above our ledge – not a problem. I’m still in the small dihedral which is getting progressively harder. I’m faced with a 10 foot section that does not want to yield to my attempts at jamming or stemming. Time for “plan B” – I try to lieback. Seems like a good plan for the first 6 feet but then I face a tricky exit from the lieback. “Oh man!!” – search for something to land my feet on results in nothing!! “Oh Sh..!!” – I once again feel my arms pumping out…..quite badly this time. I know I’m peeling off. My arms go numb. I manage a “Holy Sh..!!” slur (it’s quite the attention grabber – the leader from the other party is getting a show)……not a religious man myself, but somehow it seems like a bad idea to combine “Holy” and “Sh..” in the same phrase at a moment when judgment could be near. One last flail of the arms – my elbow finds a weird jam. I’m still teetering as my arms feel useless. I throw my foot up and it finds a nubbin on the outside of the dihedral. I weigh the nubbin and balance myself onto my “anchored” foot. I’m out of the dihedral, sweat pouring out from under the helmet. The rest of the pitch is mostly easy. One move to pull onto a minor roof followed by a 5.5-5.6 chicken head studded face. The pitch ends on a nice ledge. I’m tired. Shirley comes up and does not seem to agree that my problem move was that difficult – guess I’m really tired.
We’re on a ledge below a prominent roof. The easy way up seems to be diagonalling up and right. Lead up the next pitch expecting to see the top any second. Going is runout but feels very secure – nice, very positive chicken heads (can girth hitch them easily). The angle of the terrain kicks back but the top is nowhere in sight. I run the rope out and bring Shirley up. We’re on slabs. The last pitch is class 3 walking with some sporadic class 5 steps followed by class 4 chicken heads. This brings us to the sandy top and mountain goats. They’re cute and seem curious. We’re both tired – more so than usual after a 6-7pitch route (guess it was the excitement).
The descent is painful. We stay in rock shoes as there are quite a few exposed class 4 downclimb moves. It takes us (I think) over an hour to get down. Sandy slabs, dirty gullies….all the nastiness is there. The goats are trailing us – waiting for us to pee no doubt. We make it down to our pack. Like an idiot, I neglected to hang it on a tree – thankfully the two guys who caught up to us on the route were thoughtful enough to do it for us. It’s about 7:30 pm or better.
We begin the hike out. Full on rain begins to come down on us – doesn’t matter, we feel grateful to mother nature that she did not hose us on the slab pitch. Darkness falls as we’re about 1/2 way down the Snow Creek Trail. Make it to the car after 9pm. After drive thru. food stop and a gas fill up (both for the car and for myself = 3 Red Bulls), we’re on the road. It’s a long drive back to Portland. Make it home by 2:15am. Red Bull doesn’t disappoint. Work sucks the next day (…wait, work sucks every day :)!
West Face, Lightning Crack