Photo: The view of Mt. Stuart from CBR.
Words and pictures by John Plotz
Norma Vincent Peale said, “Repetition of the same thought or action develops into a habit, which repeated enough, becomes an automatic reflex.” I know this as true, because any inquiry into my weekend climbing plans has an automatic response from me: “Somewhere around the Leavenworth Alps.” As my west-side friend Pat Sullivan and I hike up to Colchuck Lake, I’m awed by the fact this is my fourth consecutive trip up to the area, amazed in fact at my geo-centricity. In 2009 alone, this represents my nineth trip into the Stuart-Colchuck wonderland. I try in vain to romanticize the hike by pretending to notice new sights, sounds, landmarks. But I’m unfortunately not that gullible. I see the same rocks, step over the same roots, use the same limbs for upward assistance, and hear the same birds and rushing streams in the background. Despite the repetition, it’s all right by me. It’s familiar and comfortable.
Index, WA is known for stiff crack climbing at hard grades. Pat has been cragging hard there after work, climbing desperate 5.11 cracks. He’s trimmed 20 lbs off his frame too, all in the hopes of having a banner climbing year in the alpine. Colchuck Balanced Rock (CBR) is on this hardman’s list. It is graded at 5.12. I’ve “climbed” this route before with Kyle Flick, five years ago when I used to shake and quake my way up 5.9’s. Kyle and I essentially directly aided the crux pitches, standing in etriers in a pathetic show of deference to the outstanding free-climbing that CBR offers. Five years later, I’m ready not to lead these pitches, not yet. I’m here to follow them cleanly, which will be my small victory. Pat is here to on-sight this Leavenworth test-piece. He’s hungry for this (literally!), because one doesn’t just lose 20lbs without some compensation.
The first three pitches are nothing spectacular. The third pitch in particular is, as we say in climbing, “heady”. There are slabby moves and at times scant protection, enough so that I’m on alert to avoid taking a long fall. After a mantel onto a gravelly perch, I breathe deeper again, and set up the belay. Now it’s the business pitches. Following the unimpressive start, the next three pitches are the cleanest, steepest, most rewarding alpine pitches in the area.
The fourth pitch is a 150 foot vertical crack rated 5.11 that is a combination of jamming and lie-backing. It induces a mind-blowing pump in the forearms. Pat screams and pants his way up the crack cleanly, and I am able to second without a fall to a hanging belay right underneath a massive roof.
The next pitch, 5.11 is a horizontal traverse underneath the roof. Pat screams through the crux, looking like he’s trying to escape from a straightjacket as his arms crisscross in front of him in an odd fashion, his neck bent 45 degrees to accommodate the roof. He later muses that he used a scalp smear to his full advantage, though he says he should have taped up. I follow, but must employ a couple moves of French-free to get through.
The following pitch is the crux at 5.12. One starts out climbing an incredible hand crack for 60 feet that goes at 5.9 that leads to a small roof. At this point, plug in pro, smear your feet on an overhanging, blank wall and have faith that as you reach around the roof blindly, there is a decent hold to crank up on. Pat takes his only fall of the route here. He hangs around a bit to rest and then lets out his warrior scream as he pulls up and over the roof cleanly. I follow the pitch and hang at the crux a few times, but finally pull off the move too.
By no means is the route over at this point. An improbable chimney stands ominous guard over the exit to this route. It’s rated 5.10 and looks obscenely overhanging. The words “5.10” and “chimney” have a nauseating effect on most climbers. Pat agrees to lead this as I’m fried from the effort. Of course, so is he, but hey, he weighs 30 lbs less than I do! There’s no dignity in climbing a 5.10 chimney. Anything goes. There’s no finesse, dainty climbing involved, but more like “scooching” and “scritching”. These are real chimney terms. He slowly gets to the belay above, and I second with just as much brute and desperation.
We simul-climb to the top and hang out, reformulating the tick-list for the season. There are some great climbs left in the area that are less well-known: Solid Gold, Gorillas in the Mist, Dragons of Eden, Wayne Wallace climbs (Solid Gold, Dragons) and all climbed recently by locals Sol Wertken, Jens Holsten and Blake Herrington (Gorillas). These routes are obscure, yes, but very enticing… if Pat can manage to keep the weight off.
Photo: The view of Colchuck from CBR
Rating/Difficulty. This climb is rated 5.12. If you want to free it or most of it, you need to be a solid 5.11 climber. The crux is easily french free’d. As an aid climb, it’s easy C1.
Protection. Overall the protection this route is great. On the third pitch, expect a small section of slab climbing with tricky pro.
Rack Recommendations. Doubles on protection up to 3 inches and a single four- inch cam. Triples in the one and two inch range would not be unreasonable.
Rope. Only one rope needed.
Approach. Hike to Colchuck Lake and then work counter-clockwise around the lake toward the slopes leading up to Aasgard Pass. From the slopes below Aasgard Pass, traverse north, finding the easiest way throgh the slide alder. There is a nice path that’s cairned. Once past the alder, take the left-most gully 1,000 feet to its top. From the top of this gully, follow an easy path east into CBR’s West basin. From here, the entire climb is visible. The driving access to this route is described in the link above.
Map. View our topo map of the area below. Print on 8.5″ x 11″ paper in portrait mode.
Descent. Descend by a short, 60-rappel to the east from in-situ slings. Then walk off south, then west back to your packs. The descent is very pleasant!
Recommended Season. There tends to be seepage on some of the crux pitches, especially under the roof, so mid- to late summer (late July and August) is ideal for this climb. The route faces west, so it’s often chilly much of the day even when it’s blistering in Leavenworth.
Time Needed. For those with the prerequisite climbing skills, this would be an easy day trip if you camped in the basin below the route. From the trailhead (parking lot), it’s a long, strenuous approach, but still reasonable as a day trip if you’re an efficient free or aid climber.
Permits. A Northwest Forest Pass is needed at the trailhead and a Wilderness Permit is needed if you intend to camp at or near Colchuck Lake between June 15 and October 15.
Leave It Better Than You Found It: This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.