“So is this what it feels like to be committed?” asked Mike.
We were about two-thirds of the way up the North-East Buttress of Mount Slesse in BC, Canada. Nick led above us, stemming between slushy snow and a chossy rock band – left hand bare on the rock, glove and ice tool in his right.
From our perch on the crest I peered down into the bowl formed by the 1,000m vertical East face. Every few minutes a deluge of rock and snow would pitch from the top in free fall to explode on the slabs below. It was early season and the winter’s snow was melting, bringing the mountain tumbling down on either side of us.
It was early evening by the time we reached the top and rather than attempting the treacherous “crossover pass” descent by night we opted to descend the wrong side of the mountain into a different valley away from our bivy kit. A 20km bushwhack later we made an open bivi on a dry creek bed and shivered around a fire. The next morning we continued our cold and hungry hike out to the road.
“I’m not sure if alpine climbing is for me…”
The whole experience was scary and mildly embarrassing. I considered myself a reasonable climber, and telling my peers about my total epic on one of the more moderate classic alpine routes in the area was uncomfortable. I decided to go sport climbing for the rest of the summer and definitely not head back to Slesse…
“Tony… this says decaf.”
Tony looked up, grim resignation creeping over his face. It was 2 months later and we were bivied 5 pitches up the East face of Slesse…without any real coffee. I’d slept fitfully, repeatedly jerking awake thinking I heard the sound of rock fall.
Tony McLane was clearly extremely motivated for this climb; I was the fourth consecutive partner he had lured up there over two summers. He wanted to make the second ascent and first free ascent of the huge wall to the left of the classic North-East Buttress route. The East face of Slesse is kind of like a dark, haunted version of El Capitan. Both walls are a similar size but where El Cap boasts tourist buses and acres of golden granite, Slesse has no one for miles around and bad rock interspersed with occasional bands of very bad rock.
Setting off above the bivy the climbing proved arduous and slow going. We investigated a maze of shallow corners and cracks that turned out to be closed seams. What I like about climbing with Tony is that there is no ego in our partnership. Multiple times I would go up, questing into the unknown and shout down “Tony, this is messed up!” I’d reverse to the anchor and he would take over. Slowly we took it in turns pushing our high point further up the wall. Five times that day the climbing proved too dangerous and we would tag the drill, drilling on lead from sometimes pretty sketchy stances. We climbed 6 new pitches, but after almost cutting through our haul line in two places, we decided that perhaps big wall style wasn’t the best tactic. I suggested jettisoning the bags and gunning for the top. “We’re not sending though,” Tony pointed out. We bailed, deciding to return with twin ropes and minimal gear to try the face in a push.
The next month was a tense one.
Tony in particular was worried our first ascent would get snaked from under our noses. He would text me the names of various famous climbers and say things like “so and so eats routes like this for breakfast!” We both knew the route would go and were itching to get back and finish it off.
On September 4th we navigated my van down the 20km of bumpy dirt road and hiked back into Slesse, my 3rd time that summer. We bivvied by the last stream and set our alarms for 4am. So much of alpine climbing is about becoming comfortable in uncomfortable and intimidating places. Compared to my first trip when the whole mountain came packaged with a lot of fear, this time I knew the plan. I was 100% confident in Tony and despite our route being significantly harder, I felt much more comfortable.
Before dawn the next morning we brewed coffee (real coffee this time!) and tiptoed across the dry bedrock from which the bypass glacier had avalanched earlier in the summer. We spoke in whispers under the wall, feeling intimidated by the huge amphitheatre above us. This time we took almost nothing: twin 8mm ropes, a light rack, a litre of water each and a bag of nuts. Knowing the way, we were able to move much faster. We swung leads, making it to our previous high point by early afternoon.
The rock on the first half is fairly good and the climbing is of the runout slab variety. Above this the rock changes and in places becomes terrifyingly chossy. Seconding a corner pitch in the middle of the wall Tony pulled off a pile of loose rock and made some noises. I shouted down “are you ok?” and got back “I didn’t fall!!” Tony was hanging from one arm by the only remaining hand/foothold that was still attached to the cliff. We continued upwards, with Tony leading a lot of the upper section in one huge pitch and me simul-climbing behind. I would pull up onto a ledge and see the ropes billowing above me, with no gear and no sign of which way Tony had gone. Every time I spotted some chalk on a hold I was relieved to know that I was at least going roughly the same way as Tony! A hundred meters below the top the angle eased and the climbing became wandery. We put the ropes away and soloed to the summit.
We reached the top at 5pm and signed the summit register with the following tongue-in-cheek comment:
Slesse East Face – first free ascent.
Welcome to the Wack 1,000m 5.11+
Good rock and protection throughout.
Tony McLane and Jacob Cook September 2017.
The skills that went into completing this route felt like the culmination of years of experience, from learning to trad climb in the UK to various big walls in Yosemite and elsewhere and even my epic on the mountain earlier in the summer. Whilst I’m not entirely sure I would recommend the climb to a friend, it’s a huge dose of adventure and an experience that will stay with me forever.
True credit for the ascent goes to Tony for having the vision, psyche and dedication to lure four consecutive partners up there with him. I could not have asked for a more solid, good humoured partner, and generally great person to go on an adventure with.