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Looking up into ‘The Pressure Chamber.’

By John Plotz

There is nothing more aggravating than having an itch you can’t scratch. It’s usually centered around the middle of your back, dead center between the scapulae where it’s impossible to reach unless you’re a yogi contortionist who can dislocate the shoulder joints at will.

For me, Hyperspace has represented that elusive itch over the years, the climb that I have aspired to do in good style but have been too intimidated to attempt. For good reason, it has a fierce reputation on Snow Creek Wall among all the easier classics that surround it. At 5.11a, Hyperspace goes at a grade that is certainly attainable to the reasonably fit climber. Put in a solid season at the crags, take a road trip or two, be good about the diet in the off season and this route can be done. But there’s always that one detail that discourages most suitors, based upon one small section of climbing upon which the entire mystique and fear that surrounds this route is built: The penultimate rope length affectionately dubbed “The Pressure Chamber” that features 15 feet of overhanging 5.10d squeeze chimney. Yes. Squeeze chimney.

Good times before the worm hole.

Most modern climbers (aka, kids) can handle 5.11 thin cracks, or 5.11 face climbing, easily enough now that strength and technique are rapidly developed in the gyms and out at the abundant crags of Washington. But mention climbing a 5.10+ chimney and the atmosphere suddenly gets awkward. You may even get confused, blank stares from younger climbers blissfully unaware of the horrors of a squeeze chimney, having thought those went the way of the portable CD player, never to be seen anywhere outside of obscure pawn shops. They’re those long neglected dark, dirty cracks with moss and lichen growing over them, right next to the pristine, overhanging bolted routes, right? Yes, that’s usually where they are located.

Years ago, my climbing mentor gave me the “beta” on climbing the Pressure Chamber on Hyperspace, and it went something like this: (1) Squeeze as much of your torso into the flaring, overhung crack as possible; (2) Exhale as much air as possible out of your chest and move up a couple inches; (3) Inhale as deeply as possible to remain inside the crack; (4) Exhale and move up another two inches; (5) Once you finally reach the anchors a couple hours later, proceed to vomit. I have thus avoided this route for good reason. This year, however, I have learned of a weakness that I hope will prove to be the undoing of the Pressure Chamber’s nasty reputation.

My climbing partner Jake has an interesting take on just about every topic imaginable, from the inane to the complex. He’s a British ex-pat, so even if he only has surface knowledge of a certain subject, his accent lends a curious air of authority to what he is saying. Either that, or I can only understand about every other word he says so my mind has to fill in the blanks. Regardless, the banter is never dull on the approach hikes, during the climb, after the climb, and on the hike out. Jake is an Energizer Bunny of discourse and will have you either laughing hysterically or muted in confusion – usually it’s the former. He doesn’t get out much due to a busy schedule, so he must pick and choose his climbing objectives carefully. He relishes a good challenge, like the kind that Hyperspace can deliver.

Our approach hike to Snow Creek Wall is accomplished in the crisp mid-October air where brisk movement up the Snow Lakes Trail doesn’t cause us to be dehydrated from profuse sweating. Rather, the vigorous hike keeps us warm until we break out into the sun at the base of our climb.  With shoes on and T-shirts, we start up and fire off the first 5.9 “Remorse” pitch of Snow Creek Wall. I lead us through pitch two, the first crux of the climb known as “Psychopath” that requires more finesse, balance and poise than brute strength. I’ve memorized the moves on this pitch over time, so we move efficiently through. Though Jake is not leading today, he follows each crux quickly. We move fast enough to put distance between us and the two climbers behind us.

The pitches flow by as I jam and pinch all the familiar cracks and holds, place my feet where I know they need to be, and slot the exact right piece of protection into the cracks first try. It’s my tendency to climb routes until I quite literally have memorized all the moves, and this route I’ve climbed about 95% “clean” about five times this season, with the exception of the Pressure Chamber. That pesky 20 feet of nausea inducing squeeze chimney have always eluded my grasp.

The look of someone who knows his partner has the crux lead.

The Pressure Chamber pitch, the 6th rope length of the climb, deserves its own description since it may be the single best pitch of climbing on all of Snow Creek Wall, and even all of the Leavenworth crags. It runs about 160 feet of sustained crack climbing, mostly in the perfect hands size. It is consistently steep and left-leaning, so one must maintain body tension throughout to stay adhered. The protection is excellent, the rests are good, and the hand jamming is dreamy. Being consistently challenging from the start, it’s critical to make sure there is gas left in the tank by the time the Pressure Chamber is reached.

In the meat of the chimney, my body is contorted and scrunched up in the overhanging pod that is really ridiculously small to accommodate my 6′ 2″ frame. There isn’t enough room for me to crane my head upwards to see where my next piece of protection is, so I have to place it blindly and hope it’s the right size. My core is quaking as I try to keep my body inside the crack – it’s a constant struggle against falling backwards into the void. Just when I think all hope is lost, I remember the sequence I have learned over my last few attempts. I know that I don’t have to climb this silly squeeze chimney “blue collar style” as Jake refers to it. Rather, I slay the dragon by leaning out on a small handhold, swinging my right foot way outside the chimney to a good foothold, reaching out far right to a positive edge of a crack, and perform a number of wide stems and bear-hug moves that challenge the ripping point of my inflexible hips and shoulder joints. A few of these awkward but solid moves and I can reach a hand-jam that is my salvation. I flop onto the small belay ledge out of breath.

I’m a little nauseous but absolutely exhilarated to finally get this itch scratched.

Jake follows the chimney in excellent blue collar style, climbing the squeeze portion appropriately as perhaps Fred Beckey once did in hiking boots and wool knickers. We surmount the final “sting in the tail” 7th pitch and sit on top of Hyperspace in a satisfied glaze. Surprisingly it had only taken us 5 hours to finish this monster off, leaving plenty of time to soak in the autumn sun, and for Jake to converse with the other climbers topping out on Outer Space.

It’s Oktoberfest in Leavenworth, and we honor the season by rushing back to Icicle Brewery to toast our triumph over dragons and squeeze chimneys.

Details, Details: Hyperspace

Additional Information. Pitch information and details found here.

Elevation. 3,900ft

Difficulty. Grade IV; 5.11

Equipment. 60 meter rope recommended. Medium rack to 3 1/2 inches

Season. Apr – Oct

Photo by Tom McMacking from a 1976 guidebook to the area by Rich Carlstad and Don Brooks18=Outer Space (5.9). Gear to 3.5″  19=Remorse (5.8). Gear to 3″ 21=Iconoclast (5.10c). Gear to 3″  22=Galaxy (5.9). Gear to 3.5″  23= Chimney Sweep (5.10b). Gear to 2.5″ 24=Mary Jane Dihedral (5.9+). Gear to 3″ 25= Orbit (5.9). Gear to 3″

Access. Turn south on Icicle Creek Road from Highway 2 in Leavenworth. Take Icicle Creek Road to the Snow Lakes trailhead at 4.2 miles. Proceed up the Snow Creek Trail, two miles. Where the creek flattens, branch right on a climber’s trail, cross Snow Creek on logs. Hike up boulders and talus and then find the continuance of the climber’s trail that ascends roughly 500 vertical feet to the base of the wall.

Permits. Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead.

. See our topographical map to the Icicle for finding different crags.

Sketch (see attached): This topo is from Selected Climbs in the Cascades Volume 2 by Nelson and Potterfield and published by The Mountaineers

Additional Snow Creek Wall Options: View Additional Snow Creek Wall Options here.

More Rock: Maps and details of over 30 regional climbing crags in this guidebook.

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.

This post was originally published on 10/15/13.

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