North Early Winter Spire, Early Winter Couloir

Technical climbing info

  • Mountain: North Early Winter Spire
  • Elevation: 7,807′
  • Route: Early Winter Couloir
  • Length: 2,500′
  • Grade: III, 5.6 AI3 M4+ A1

Some of my trip reports are pretty descent, some of them are pretty basic. This one, dear readers, is in the “basic” category. No GIFS, no videos, and just a handful of iPhone photos that simply do not capture the true character of this climb.

The plan

Justin and I met nearly exactly a year prior to this climb.  What originally was a series of friendly exchanges between pitches on Mt Hood’s North Face quickly turned desperate. Getting hit by 2 avalanches and dodging 5 more, Jess and I joined with Justin and his partner to make it out. I never did publicly write about that climb aside from this blurb, it’s not my favorite situation to revisit.

Justin and I stayed in contact, hoping to climb some of our more grandiose objectives.  A week beforehand, a bunch of mixed alpine route beta from WA Pass started spraying on Instagram, and we wanted to partake in the fun.

Steph Abegg’s ultra-iconic photo of Washington Pass, including the North and South Early Winter Spires and the dramatic Early Winter Couloir. (Thanks so much for the permission for use, Steph! Check our Steph’s guidebook quality beta here.)

The Approach

We arrived to the iconic hairpin turn on the highway.  The weather was colder than the warm forecast, and we were feeling good after a few glugs of Yerba Matte.  It was fairly clear where we were going even in the pitch dark, and after about an hour of following some boot pack and crossing over some shitty tree wells, we found ourselves at what seemed to be at the bottom of the route.  We booted up the lower slopes of the route until meeting up with what was fairly obviously the first chock. 

The first chock, not quite looking like the quoted AI2 grade..

Pitch 1: The first chock

Justin took the sharp end. From below it looked fairly reasonable, mostly a snow climb with a couple annoying trees to navigate. When the big mote revealed itself as we got closer, this chock was clearly going to be a PITA. Justin delicately navigated around the obstacles (shitty snow, unbonded ice, and branches in the face), mostly using the trees for pro. As it warmed up, we convinced each other that higher up it would be cooler and with that, probably more straightforward.

As I pulled my way upward, I wondered if the best way up was just climbing the tree. Eventually there was no way I was getting up with a backpack on. (Justin was just rocking a harness, smart guy.) He threw down a loop and I shoved the bag up above me while squeezing through more ice-rock off-widths.

Working our way up the dramatic terrain, NEWS and SEWS towering to each side.

Pitch 2 & 3: The snow

The deal was that I would lead the laborious stuff, while Justin would lead the delicate stuff.  We piled the protection onto my harness, and I broke through the steep snow getting mushier by the minute.  Runnel tracks ran deep carved by loose wet avys, “I think these slopes are get a daily dose”, commented Justin. I fought the temptation to climb in the runnels, and stayed on the more awkward lines less likely to get plowed over by more loose-wet debris that were feeling more like a certainty than a possibility as the day’s heat began to really set in.  The motes to either side of the slopes didn’t look friendly, I used a picket in one hand and a tool in the other. Fuck, my hands were cold and wet.

I began attempting the 2nd chock, but was pretty immediately turned around by shitty pro and Justin yelling from below- “Watch out!!”.  A small loose-wet avy blew over above me.  Okay, not too bad, but I’ll set up an anchor and reconvene.” I set up the shittiest anchor ever, and I hid under a mini snow wall that looked like it would protect us from avy debris from above.

Possibly the worst image I’ve uploaded to this blog to date! Photo of the 2nd chock, doesn’t look bad, right? Wrong!

Pitch 4: The second and third chocks

Justin took the lead again, and I belayed from the shitty anchor. Justin made some of the most delicate moved on the route, clearly M5, all while a little stream of water poured onto him.  I couldn’t wait to get wet myself. After more delicate work, he popped up above the chock, out of sight now. “I was hoping for a rock anchor, I’m gunna keep going”.  

As I could feel him poking around, I could hear a huge SNAPPPPPP from far above us heads. Fuck. I saw a huge amount of snow falling off the cliffs over our heads collapse.  I rush came down beside me, and a huge amount cruised over the cliffs above and crashed straight down about 5 meters behind me. Holy holy shit. I said a small prayer. “Justin, you okay up there?” “Yeah, you good down there?” “Yeah.”

Justin continued poking around.  At that point my doubt regarding our choices was at an all-time high, but it was pretty clear that up was closer than down at this point. “I’m going up the 3rd chock,” yelled down Justin.  I felt the rope tug. After another few minutes, I was on belay.

The climbing was awkward and wet. My jacket was baggy with water, and I used every inch of my body to squirm up what were essentially off-width cracks of ice and rock. My fingers were frozen. At least the avy danger was gone, but now we knew that the real danger was the cliffs shedding above our heads.

Justin gearing up for the cornice. Looked chiller from below than from above..
Me navigating over the cornice. This move was shorty followed up by the classic “alpine flopped beach whale” move over the cornice.

Pitch 5: The cornice

The cornice was clearly melting out, and from the photos we had seen online, it looked like we may have gotten it in more straightforward conditions than others. As per usual with the day, it was not nearly as straightforward as it looked from below.  A big mote, poorly bonded ice, and sugar snow, made for another wrestling match. Eventually Justin made it through and put me on belay.  I picked my way through the delicate sections, and struggled to find a “honorable” way over the final last bit of the cornice. “That’s the beached whale spot! You want a photo?” I laughed as a flopped my torso over the final section.

There were a few unexpected little runnels of ice to what felt like the most practical anchor which were nice fun.

At the top of the rock pitch. The little bands of snow below me where what were falling and causing havoc down below on the route.
Me peeking down the final section. Hi!

Pitch 5: The rock pitch

We chilled for a bit; the sun was above us, the cruxes were below us, and the overhead hazard was far from us now.  After a little rest, I swapped out my boots for rock shoes and racked up.  I wondered if I could stash my boots here, but it seemed unwise. I racked up and took the lead.

I wasn’t too certain if I wanted to run the 70m rope and make it 1 big pitch, or break it up into two pitches.  As I climbed on, I didn’t really find anywhere I felt like was an awesome belay spot, so 1 big pitch it would be.  The final little section was the “hard to protect slabby section” that the guidebook mentioned.  I placed what would be my last cam of the pitch and placed the rest of my trust in my feet.  The rock was nice and grippy. 

Justin triumphant on NEWS’ summit, with SEWS’ summit to the right. (You can see the little snow bands on SEWS that were causing havoc down below.)

The Summit

After a shot moderate section, the rope friction stopped me in my tracks, and I set an anchor just a few meters from the top.  A minute later, Justin joined me.  High fives ensued!

Beautiful skyline of the North Cascades. More peaks than a lifetime can manage.

The Rappels

Justin was a bit more familiar with the terrain than me (my first time on NEWS/SEWS), so he took the lead on the decent.  He quicky found the first anchor, and we set up for our first of a few raps.  We made our way down a couple wet gullies towards the snow slope of the Chockstone Route below us.  Justin eventually made it down to the snow, the next rap anchor was pretty far.  He unropped and downclimbed.  

A huge CRACKKKKKKKK echoed from above him.  A very large snow band looked like it exploded off the cliffs above Justin. “ICCCCCCEEEE!”  Justin crouched himself the smallest target possible to the ice above as it rained down. We were obviously not out of the objective hazards yet.

I rapped down the line and dragged to rope behind me as I made my way to the next Anchor.  We made another rap, right over “the chockstone” that was the namesake of the Chockstone Route, suspended in dead air. 

Justin making the rappel into the Chockstone Route, right before getting snow-bombed from the high walls of SEWS.

The Walk

We eventually made it to the gentle hill of the forest below us.  More high fives ensued!

Looking at the avalanche-y sloped on the direct path back to the car, we opted to walk down the standard summer trail and “take the highway” (ie. walk on the highway) back to the car.  We navigated through some forest to take a more efficient diagonal, and eventually popped out on the road.  The sun began to set as we may our way down the scenic pass.  

Walking back to the hairpin turn of the highway. “At least it’s nice out!”

In the end…

My experience with the Early Winter Couloir, at least in the condition we got it in, was best described as an 18-hour wrestling match. There was no winner, and everybody was beat up at the end.  I’m happy I did it once in my life, but I don’t know how often I want to repeat it. I would also certainly not recommend anybody to attempt this route in the condition we climbed it in.

“Rock on!”, except my ring finger is too cold to contract. So you get…whatever this is.

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