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It was mid-September when while thumbing through Jeff Smoot’s Climbing Washington Mountains book I came across a description of Prusik Peak in the Enchantments. The technical rock summits my Shirley and I have done up to now have been largely limited to relatively easy scrambles (generally 5.5 and under). Prusik and specifically the West Ridge caught my attention largely because of what looked like sustained 5.6 climbing followed by a 5.7 friction slab and topped off with a 5.8 off-width crack (rating according to Jeff Smoot; Beckey is a bit more vague on this section) on a beautiful heap of rock. All of this in the spectacular setting of the Enchantment Lakes Wilderness! Though most seasoned rock climbers would consider this to be an “easy” or a “descent” route (for the more classic South Face routes), for our experience level this would be a sufficient challenge. Our rock climbing career (of any kind – be it sports, top rope, gym climbing) did not exist prior to May of that year. It was in May that we first got exposed to rock climbing during two field outings (Horsethief Butte in WA and Rooster Rock in the Columbia River Gorge, OR) which were part of our basic mountaineering skills course courtesy of the Mazamas Club. A day of following on trad at Smith Rock with an experienced friend followed and soon I was receiving cams from Shirley for my birthday. I reciprocated with more cams as an anniversary gift to ourselves and we were soon rolling in brand new rock climbing paraphernalia with little knowledge as to how to use them. A period of intensive theoretical study (two great trad books by John Long come to mind here) and experimentation (where my own behind served as the guinea pig) followed with trips to City of Rocks, ID and more Smith (all of these on our own at this point). In mid-August of that year we began to venture into the mountains with intention to climb some rock. We worked through a list of rock peaks from Oregon’s Mount Washington (North Ridge, 5.0) to Liberty Bell (Beckey Route, 5.6). We were hooked.
I ran the idea of doing Prusik by Shirley in stages:
Me: Let’s do Prusik [showing one of the classic shots of the pyramid on SP].
Shirley: How hard is it?
Shirley: No really – how hard?
Me: …there might be a 5.7 friction slab…..and a VERY SHORT 5.8 off-width.
Shirley: That’s crazy! We’re not ready!!!
Me: Also, we have to do it in a day since overnight permits for the Enchantments are pain to get….10 miles in with 6700′ of elevation gain.
Shirley: Whatever it is you’re on, I’d like a hit as well so that we can both laugh!! NO WAY!!!! You’re nuts – we’re not doing that!!!!
We made it our goal to leave work early that Friday afternoon – but as “luck” would have it, I had “stuff” to do at work and we were not able to leave town till about 7pm. By the time we reached the (busy) trailhead right outside of Leavenworth it was 11pm on Friday. Our plan was to hike in via the slightly longer (with more elevation gain) Snow Lakes trail and thus to avoid the shorter but steeper Aasgard Pass approach. This would make for a monotonically downhill return trip on a good trail (instead of an up/down hike over Aasgard). I set the alarm for 1:30am and we went to sleep on the front seats – getting good rest in this position is a skill we had perfected on our weekend trips.
I woke up a minute before the alarm went off. Spurred on by excitement, we grabbed our pre-packed backpack and hit the trail. We made a decision to pack everything up into a single backpack so that when we hit the technical rock portion Shirley would carry the half-empty pack while seconding. The pack was massive: two ropes (10.5 and 9mm both X 60m), full set of cams and nuts (in the finest tradition of novice climbers we took all that we had – just in case), and the usual space fillers (warm clothing and a space blanket included) that would allow us – if necessary – to survive an overnighter in the mountains. Without divulging family secretes, the pack weight was comparable to Shirley’s body weight. The night was pleasantly warm for the most part. The hiking was uneventful. There’s a mental low point I have observed during all alpine starts – when the initial excitement of the climbing to be had wears off and daylight is nowhere to be seen yet. It is during that time that one is most susceptible to the chatter of the inner demons – those voices that say things like “what the hell am I doing here?”, “why aren’t I in bed?”, “why don’t we turn around?”, and “I feel sick!!”. It is during that time that the success or failure of a climb is decided for me. This time we plowed through the chatter – covering mile after mile through the dark forest. We arrived at Snow Lakes at dawn. It is here that the trail turns in the direction of Lake Viviane and starts climbing uphill vigorously beside a stream.
We arrived at the shores of Lake Viviane and got our first unobstructed view of Prusik Peak’s south face. We were both awestruck at the sharp features of the pyramid and the general beauty of this alpine area. We sat on the rocky shore of the lake for half an hour (our first real break on the hike in) and enjoyed the company of a pair of curious mountain goats.
From our vantage point, it was not clear which shore would provide a quicker and easier access to the start of the West Ridge route. We chose to follow the lake leftwards (while looking at the peak). This was probably the worse option as it involved some 4th class scrambling over the chilly waters of the lake. Once we reached the base of the climb (near a huge balanced boulder), we met two climbers just starting the first pitch after a bivy somewhere in the boulder field above Lake Viviane. They initially tried simul-climbing the first two pitches of the route (books call these 5.6) but changed their minds half way up. We geared up and followed them up the ridge. The climbing was easy – seemed much easier than 5.6 (5.4?). We were following the West Ridge just below and on the (climber’s) left side.
We reached the distinct 5.7 friction slab (all 12 feet of it) in two pitches. As I approached the base of the slab, I found an old piton and a permanently wedged nut. After putting in an additional nut of my own (there is a bit of exposure here), I climbed to the top of the slab in two easy moves.
After a few feet of traversing I found myself on a small (about a foot wide) ledge on the right side of the ridge with some strong rope drag slowing me down. I decided to belay Shirley up at this point. The exposure was pretty spectacular. The next pitch was a short traverse along the ridge top to reach the 3rd class ledges directly below the summit block. I could slot a few nuts in that would take a load if I selectively fell off the ridge in one direction only. I therefore decided to do this pitch as a finger traverse – fingers on the ridge top, feet smearing. Soon enough, we were both on the 3rd class ledges. Some roped scrambling on the somewhat exposed ledges followed (we actually did this as an extra pitch not feeling all that comfy free scrambling given the exposure). The two climbers who started just ahead of us were rappelling off the summit.
I have been eyeing the off-width section of the final pitch ever since it came into my view atop the friction slab. It looked longer than I estimated it to be from the photos I found on the web……”hmmmm – pretty intimidating”. At least that’s what it seemed like to me. Reality is that the off-width is probably not taller than 20 or 25 feet. I started up this final pitch with a 5.6 crack followed by a 5.6 flake that I tackled with a short series of lie back moves (both Beckey and Smoot are pretty accurate here). This brought me to the right side of a narrow ledge which I would need to traverse leftwards to the base of the off-width without any obvious possibility of putting in pro. I was pretty nervous.
At the base of the off-width, I found a wedged chock stone which I quickly girth-hitched. I was also able to put in a couple of nuts. I took my time and equalized this set up before committing to the off-width – I was not planning on falling past this point (especially since there was nothing else but a ledge for about 30 feet below me). This looked harder than any climb I’ve done so far – top-roped or otherwise. I decided to “aid” my way up by putting in one large cam as high as I could reach and using that as a handhold. This “cheating” worked out and I was soon on top of the off-width squeezing through a narrow slot a few feet below the summit. I brought Shirley up. She was able to do the off-width section clean but was too preoccupied to retrieve the “handhold” cam – would have to wait till we rappel. The summit was spacious and full of boulders. There was a summitlog (at least a container, visible in the photo) which we – as usual – did not bother signing.
We were excited but reserved our happiness for later – it ain’t over till the ropes pull down successfully on the last rappel! We met another pair of climbers on the summit – they had come up a south face route and were rapping off the north side (this would be our descent route as well). They kept getting their ropes stuck which slowed our descent down the north face considerably.
A double-rope rap from the summit brought us back to the 3rd class ledges. We traversed back toward the direction of the West Ridge and did another double rope rap down the north face. What seemed like very many (more than expected) single rope raps, we found ourselves at the base of Prusik on its north side. It was about 5 pm as the rope came down. Again the “congrats” were put on hold as we wanted to make it back to the main trail (on the opposite shore of Lake Viviane) before dusk. In fact, we managed to get down to Snow Lakes before total darkness engulfed the forest. At this point however we were on a “highway” of a trail – we could afford to just mindlessly coast downhill for the next seven miles back to the car. We were extremely grateful for the initial “investment” in this longer approach option on the way up and kept thinking how much it would suck if we had to go over Aasgard Pass on the return hike. We again passed a (man-made?) water spout in the dark. The miles were going by pretty quickly until we saw the faint lights of the trailhead parking lot far below. This last mile or two went on forever! We stumbled back to our car at 11 pm very tired but extremely satisfied with ourselves. We also realized that we have not eaten for the entire day (thankfully we had the presence of mind to keep drinking though). A bucket of delicious pasta salad (with feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, and cherry tomatoes) that Shirley made for our after-climb feast disappeared in a matter of minutes. We crawled into the car and passed out till morning. It had been a long – 21-hour – day, with 20+ miles and about 6700 feet of elevation gain behind us. Jeff Smoot makes a comment in his book regarding this climb: “The climb is generally done as part of a two-day backpacking trip. Only the most obsessive climbers (or those not lucky enough to get a permit) will try it in a day”.
What a blast!
Post-script (Aug. 13, 2003): Since the time we did this climb, we’ve learned that the “5.8 offwidth” version (some might not even call it a 5.8?) is NOT part of the standard West Ridge route. Always kept getting looks of puzzlement when we mentioned the “5.8 offwidth crux” to people who have done the West Ridge climb – it was good, scary (for us) fun.
Go back to Alpine Lakes Wilderness page.