Speed on Snow Creek
by Jacob Leonard
A friend of mine (John Plotz) did Outer Space after work one day with another friend (Vern Nelson), completing RPM (RPM is the name of the route) and Outerspace (also the name of a climbing route) to the top in 1 hour and 30 minutes. 5 hours car to car.
How fast could a team climb Snow Creek Wall? Like the sound of the starting gun at the race. It was on and some of the rules had been laid down. I texted Vern. Dude! We could totally beat 5 hours. Vern and I had climbed SCW (Snow Creek Wall) last season a handful of times. Once on Orbit we had a car to car time just over 5 hours. For such a competition there would have to be a small set of rules. The timer would start from the bridge crossing the Icicle River and it would stop when you arrive back at the bridge. The route, RPM to Outer Space. So pure, so classic, so straight, so splitter.
Our first attempt came on a Wednesday after work. Vern and I had discussed loosely what we had planned on the car ride up. Run as fast as we can to the base. Solo the first pitch of easy climbing and rope up at the ledge below the RPM corner/roof. I would lead this pitch and Vern would take over on the 5.9 traverse of Outer Space. We would then swap leads for the last time and I would link the next 4 pitches in an amazing simul-block of climbing. Outer Space is so rad, mother nature just doesn’t make it much better than that upper head wall.
We arrived at the parking lot and assembled our meager lightweight rack and our dental floss of a rope. All you got to do nowadays is buy the good gear and it makes you a better climber right? We walked down to the bridge and got out our phones, hit start on the timer and raced off up the trail. We subdued switchback after switchback. We dove down to the creek and promptly crossed. At that point we stopped for a short water break and then started the trudge up the last part of the approach. Arriving at the base we met with another party that had just gotten done after a long day on the wall. We found out we were to do the same route as they had just completed and they kindly suggested that we ought to have headlamps. “Ha! They must not know who we are”, Vern and I joked.
We dumped out our packs, switched into our climbing shoes and soloed up the first pitch to the ledge below the RPM roof. As soon as Vern reached the ledge he slapped me on belay and I took off up the corner. I arrived at the roof fast enough, but then I couldn’t figure an easy way up and over. I wasted a ton of time but finally found the appropriate face hold and hoisted myself over the roof. I arrived at the belay ledge and put Vern on belay. He joined me at the ledge in no time. I transferred to him the rest of the trad rack and he set out up the traverse pitch of Outer Space. As he climbed we joked back and forth about how the whole pitch was a loose pile that could go at any moment. For those who have climbed this pitch they may have come across the loose flakes, crumbling feet or the death block of the traverse. Besides all that this pitch is still a classic. Vern disappeared out of sight and I soon heard “on belay”, I took off climbing as quick as I could while still being efficient. At the traverse I cranked on the death block and felt it shift under my pull. It was my lucky day as it held, so I continued traversing and soon arrived at the belay station.
Vern gave me the gear and I started up on what is perhaps my favorite pitch. The 5 easy knobby face climbing to the pedestal is pure fun. This pitch is the easiest but also the most dangerous in the style that I had climbed it. I headed up from the belay and 40 meters later I plugged in my first piece to pull onto the top of the pedestal. I then back-cleaned that piece and clipped the bolt above the pedestal. I down-climbed to library ledge and the start of the amazing splitter head wall crack of OS (Outer Space). In order to make the rope run smoothly for the rest of the way I climbed around 25 meters before placing my first piece above library ledge. We were on cruise control now.
I knew we had one major obstacle left. It was the bolt I had clipped at the top of the pedestal. Vern needed to climb up to clean the bolt and then down climb to get to the ledge. But, we were unable to communicate because of the distance we were apart. I knew Vern would be arriving to the down climb soon so I placed a piece and waited. I got impatient and continued up another 10 meters to a spot where the crack opens up and provides a small ledge for your feet. Shortly after I arrived the rope went tight. Suddenly the rope began to stretch. The rope was tugging me down the wall. I braced myself on the ledge with my two hand jams in the crack. I was able to arrest Vern’s fall. The weight on my waist was immense. I hoped he was okay and that soon he would begin to climb again. Soon enough the weight on my harness lessened and I had to begin climbing. I was a little rattled after the ordeal. My head was not in the same mindset as it was before the fall. One hand-jam after another I continued up the crack. Placing perhaps more gear then I would have. I soon pulled over the top and crawled to the summit boulder where I found a fixed nut to supplement my anchor. I brought Vern up and we had a quick moment of relaxation before the descent.
We donned our approach shoes and started down the tedious descent route. We wrapped around the base of the wall and grabbed our gear we had stashed at the base before the climb. It was a full on sprint back down to the creek. I greedily grabbed water at the crossing costing us precious time. We merged back onto the Snow Creek trail and ran down the endless knee-bashing switchbacks until we were crossing the canal. A final effort got us to the bridge. We checked our phones. 4:00:32. No! That drink of water cost us our sub 4 hour time! Next time I guess. It was just after 8pm. No need for headlamps thankfully.
On the car ride home we were already discussing our next time on the wall. How could we do it faster and safer. Vern divulged that at the pedestal he was trying to save some time by traversing from the top of the pedestal straight to the crack. This would skip the 5 meters of down climbing. However, for the sake of time he did not re-rack the double length sling I had attached to the bolt. His foot became tangled and he tumbled down the pedestal. No harm no foul. We rolled into Leavenworth and celebrated with McDonald’s. Fries for Vern and a chocolate shake for me. Nothing quite says recovery like milk and sugar.
It was a week later that we were driving back up to Leavenworth to give it another go. Our one goal being that we could be under 4 hours. We had decided to switch a few things up. The night before I had convinced Vern after heated text argument that he must wear shorts. “They will make you faster” I said. “I never wear shorts”, “Do you want to break the record or not”? In a bold move I even decided to leave my water bottle in the car. I knew my partner would gladly carry one up for the both of us. We paired down the rack by a couple of cams and a sling or two and we were ready. We strolled down to the bridge, got out our timers and hit the start button.
This time we arrived to the base of the wall in what felt like good time. I again took the first lead up RPM. This time I had the sequence at the roof ready to go. I pulled into the under-cling, fired in my gear and hoisted my skeeter onto the easier terrain above. Vern promptly joined me on the ledge and took over on the sharp end. Vern too was dialed in for his pitch. In no time at all and with less gear then before he scurried across the traverse. Soon enough the rope was tugging at me signalling it was my turn. I met with Vern one last time as he handed me the gear and I took off for the top of the wall. The next 4 pitches were again pure joy. 400 feet of climbing. Unhindered by the drag and boredom of belaying. All too quickly it was over.
We crested over the top and hurriedly packed up. We rocketed down the broken ledges and sandy trail. We quickly wrapped around the base of the wall and headed down to the creek. A quick log hop and we were across and up the other side of the bank back on the Snow Creek Trail. It was a full on sprint down to the bridge. At one moment Vern was redlining it so hard he blew threw a corner and was running on the downhill side of the trail. With such great speed he was able to continue running through the brush and justly righted his legs back onto the trail. Classic! The rest of the run went smoothly and we were soon at the bridge.
We checked the time. We did it! This time we had a time of 3:38:45. We had met our goal of being under 4 hours. We walked up to the car and headed to McDonald’s for our ultimate celebration.