American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

First Ascents in the Cashmere Crags

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1949

First Ascents in the Cashmere Crags

Ralph S. Widrig

GOOD granite is probably the best of rocks to climb on. The State of Washington is blessed with several granitic batholiths, of which one of the finest, from a rock climber’s point of view, is to be found near Leavenworth, in the vicinity of Icicle Creek and its tributaries. In the center of this granitic region rises a menacing collection of isolated spires and towers called the Cashmere Crags. The granite range extends southward past Ingalls Creek and is finally climaxed by 9500-foot Mount Stuart.

The best approach to the climbing area is up the Icicle Creek road from Leavenworth, about two miles. From there, an excellent horse trail leads five miles up Snow Creek to Nada Lake. Then one follows up Nada Creek, which can be seen flowing down over a series of cliffs and rockslides to the west (no trail). It is best to keep just to the right of the creek. One emerges in a large basin, with the crags beginning to appear to the south. Proceed to the head of this shallow basin, and there you are—virtually surrounded by tall, threatening spires that streak skyward like Dantesque flames. One reflects that it might have been well to bring along more pitons, not to mention contraction bolts …

These were the thoughts which drifted through the minds of Fred Beckey, Pete Schoening, Art Holben and the writer as they beheld the sight early one morning in the spring of 1948. We realized that 99% of these awful things had not been climbed. And our intended objectives for the trip were not yet even in view! We had planned to start at the western limit of the spires and work east, climbing as many of them as would “go.” We therefore traversed westward along the lower northern slopes until we reached a broad col, “Prussik Pass,” the western limit of the crags. Our attention now focused on the first of a series of three very striking towers. It seemed to have only one route worthy of consideration. This would involve about 200 feet of nearly vertical climbing, but would end 30 feet below the summit horn.

It was decided that Beckey and Holben would worry about making this route, while Schoening and I would examine the next spire for a possible route. This next peak was simply a four-sided shaft, perched on an exposed, knife-like ridge. It was perhaps 60 feet tall and beautifully symmetrical, resembling a steep truncated pyramid. The symmetry was so striking that we decided to call this “The Monument.” Again there appeared to be only one possible route of attack. This, we could plainly see, would involve 60 feet of direct-aid work.

On a platform which was to be the base of operations, we assembled our gear—pitons of every description, hammers, ¼-inch manila slings, contraction bolts (which were not used), karabiners, two nylon climbing ropes and, of course, tennis shoes. We based our hope of attaining the top on a vertical crack running from the platform to a very narrow ledge which extended around the peak about half-way up. There the crack ended, but a cannonhole behind a large slab balanced on this ledge gave us hope of traversing from that point to the opposite side of the spire. We would then try to pass a line over the remaining pitch.

I quickly stocked up with hardware and, with Pete belaying, drove the first piton. The crack was too wide for ordinary iron; angle pitons had to be used. Fortunately, we had a fair supply of them. I tied a sling into the ring of the piton and, using it for a foothold while at the same time taking tension from Schoening’s belay, drove in the next piton as high as I could reach. Continuing in this fashion until four pitons had been used, I attained a position about ten feet below the ledge, on the smooth wall. I then retreated, and Pete went up to continue while I belayed. Two more direct- aid pitons enabled him to reach the ledge. I heard him say something about “airy atmosphere” and wondered how he managed to stick to the narrow offset. As I later found out, this ledge was about six inches wide!

As Pete began to traverse to the opposite side, I became mentally prepared to give a dynamic belay in case he should slip. His balance was good, however, and soon the “tension” was over when he anchored himself on a relatively spacious platform, probably at least a foot and a half wide!

I next assembled a light cod line, weighted at one end by several pitons. Piton weights had to be used, as no loose rock seems to exist in the area. After carefully coiling the line so that it would pay out (and also pay off), I gave the weight a mighty thrust. Luck was with us: it soared inches above the top and down the other side into Pete’s lap.

I then tied the spare climbing rope to my end of the line, and Pete pulled it over the top. Then, with Pete belaying his end of it, I ascended the wall using slings and Prussik knot. Having gained the top, I anchored the rope while Pete climbed. Five hours after we started from the platform, we were both perched on the meager summit.

We could now see Beckey and Holben back on the first peak. As we learned later, they had also used a lot of direct-aid pitons to negotiate the lower 180 feet, and now they were debating the best method (if any) of scaling the final horn. After reaching a decision, Art made a lasso from a 100-foot length of ?-inch nylon rope. With this he vainly attempted, from a very precarious perch, to lasso the horn. On the fourth try he succeeded, and joyful shouts could be heard echoing off the near-by spires. Beckey then climbed up this rope with slings and Prussik knot, encountering extreme difficulty at the junction of the loop and the horn. But ultimately both climbers reached the top and built a large, tall cairn. They dubbed it “Prussik Peak,” in recognition of their extensive use of the Prussik knot.

A short time later we held a rendezvous at the base of the third spire. The lateness of the hour put any attempt on it out of the question; but after looking it over we concluded that here again one, and only one, route was even thinkable. This peak looks very impressive from a distance. Its square appearance inspired the name “Boxtop.” Unusually clear weather allowed us a good view of other near-by peaks. To the south, the large bristling massif of McClellan Peak stood clearly outlined. A party reached its highest point in 1946.1 Eastward, just past the Boxtop, projected a formidable spire, the West Peak of Mount Temple, named and climbed by a party including Beckey on a previous trip.2 To the north, perhaps three miles distant, loomed a very large, thick, thumb-like shaft. Beckey turned to me and said, “Oh look, there's The Mole.” The shaft was thereupon named, and we immediately made plans for its conquest on the next trip.

On Memorial Day week end, one week later, Beckey, Wes Grande and I made our way up Rat Creek hoping to make an attempt on this new peak. Rat Creek drains the northern slopes of the crags and flows into the Icicle River several miles above Snow Creek. We had decided on this approach because it seemed the most direct route to the base of the Mole.

By noon we were well up toward the head of the creek, and several new peaks were beginning to show themselves. The Mole loomed up like an immense monolith, its dome-like top appearing to be quite inaccessible. Considerable amounts of snow still covered the area; the effects of an exceptionally severe winter were still very apparent. The appalling, near-vertical flanks of the Mole, however, were virtually dry; and climbing conditions appeared to be at their best.

That afternoon, from our camp near its base, we studied a route which once again was the only one that seemed to exist. With the aid of a telescope, we concluded that the first 500 feet would be the toughest. If they could be negotiated, the remaining 300 feet, we decided, would surely prove easier.

At dawn the next morning, the sky was clear, and a brisk north wind assured us that it would remain so. After a quick breakfast we packed our rucksacks with rope, pitons, karabiners, etc., and started out in high spirits. We ascended a series of steep snow fields and then a couloir which brought us out at the junction of the Mole’s rock flanks and its lower snow fields. Here we set about changing to tennis shoes while the barking of coyotes echoed weirdly from the basin below. Fred led the first three rope lengths, using a couple of pitons for safety. Then, after a brief debate as to the route, Grande climbed a high-angle 100-foot gully and belayed me to his stance on a small platform. Here the route was completely blocked by a large flake, split off about six inches from the main face.

The only apparent solution was to go right over the top of the flake by using two direct-aid pitons in a crack on the adjacent wall. This Grande did, and from the top was able to stem down the other side. Fred and I then came up quickly, and Wes proceeded along an exposed ledge to a short, steep gully which was filled with ice. This he slowly ascended, belayed from below, by chopping steps with a piton hammer. He then anchored himself and belayed me up. Here the route was again blocked by an enormous flake, but a narrow tunnel seemed to lead in behind it. I gave Wes a shoulder stand, and he started to crawl through the cannonhole. When he was about half-way through, he yelled back that he could see daylight through another opening straight above and that he would try to stem out through it. This he did, and immediately reported that the way looked clear to the summit. We scrambled up the remaining 300 feet of exposed but well-broken face.

To our astonishment we found several large pools of clear, cold water on top of the final block—evidently solution holes in the granite. After quenching our thirst we got out lunches and prepared a gormandizer’s potlatch to celebrate our good fortune. A large cairn was then constructed from loose boulders, and a register bottle left inside. As our eyes wandered across the rolling snow fields to the south, we could not help but be impressed by the appearance of the peaks at the east end of the crags. We decided to attempt them next and let the Boxtop go for a while. But our chance did not come until autumn.

On the first week end of September 1948, Beckey, Schoening and I were once again at the east end of the crags, preparing to tackle the three formidable spires which dominate that end. These can be plainly seen from Nada Lake. The rock was all dry by now, and we wore tennis shoes the entire day.

The first peak that we attempted was the highest of the three. It did not prove too difficult, and it was a very enjoyable climb. We called it “Razor Back Spire” and from its summit admired the highest peak in the area, Mount Temple, just across a col to the west.3

Our next objective was “The Professor,” so named because of an odd slab projecting from the upper part, like the nose of a dignified professor. Seen from the Mole, this spire seems to thrust skyward in a twisting fashion. The climb proved considerably more difficult than the previous one. Reaching its base involved some really delicate balance work and took an hour and a half. The route was climaxed by a 60-foot vertical pitch leading up the south skyline. Two pitons were employed as safeguards here, and after some strenuous muscle-work by the leader the summit was ours.

We felt we had time to try one more peak and, after constructing a six-foot cairn, hastily made our way over to the base of “The Lighthouse,” third of the three east spires. It is a tall, isolated tower which stands like a beacon just to the north. A brief examination of its tapering, cylindrical surface made it obvious to us that here was a tough one. There seemed no visible way to get started on the thing, and the appearance of its upper regions was even more discouraging. For a moment I entertained the idea of trying again the tactics we had applied to the Monument. Further investigation showed that this was probably the only way, save that of nailing one’s way straight up the face with a star drill and contraction bolts!

With careful belays we climbed to a small platform on the north face. From here a hidden flake of exfoliating granite existed up to within about 15 feet of the top. There it ended, and the remaining pitch was simply a smooth wall. The flake, however, terminated in a shallow depression from which we hoped to get a stance to pass a line over the top.

Pete retreated, made his way around to the lower south face, ascended as far as safety would permit, and anchored himself on a small shelf where he would receive the line. Fred and I then prepared to climb, by tension, to the upper limit of the granite flake on the north face. Here again we learned that angle pitons were all that could be driven in the wide crack between the flake and main wall.

With Fred belaying, I began the ascent of this pitch, using angle pitons and slings in the same fashion as had been necessary on the Monument. But about 20 feet up, the crack suddenly flared out to an irregular width too great for our widest angle pitons. For a moment it seemed that we were to be stopped just six feet below the depression from which we had expected to throw the line. Finally I stretched to my utmost reach and tried a piton at a point in the crack that seemed somewhat narrower. It stuck, temporarily at least. I then gave it a gentle tap with the hammer, to see if it would drive; and soon the air was filled with the melodious, high- pitched ringing of a piton being driven in sound rock. A hoarse yodel then informed Pete that the line would soon be coming over the top.

I quickly retreated, and Fred went up to the shallow depression to throw the weighted line. His accuracy was good, and after the second attempt Pete yelled back that he had the end of it and was tying on the spare climbing rope. Fred soon pulled the rope back over the top, and Pete ascended the final pitch using Prussik knot.

From the top the afterglow of a beautiful sunset suggested that darkness would soon be upon us. Two quick rappels and some scrambling brought us down to the rockslide, and from there we hastily made our way down toward Nada Creek. The trail at Nada Lake was reached at 2.00 A.M. A bivouac closed a rather exhausting day.

The climbing season was now waning, and a sizable group of rock climbers from Seattle made plans for an elaborate expedition to the crags to get in a last bit of climbing before winter. Six of us were planning to have an airplane drop supplies to our camp in a beautiful open meadow near the Lighthouse. Our equipment, this time, included an automobile tent, a 12-pound radio, and a profusion of canned goods and delicacies. We had planned to set up a camp that would seem a paradise to parties returning from a day in the crags. But such it was not to be …

A friend of one of the climbers was to drop the equipment from a Luscombe seaplane. The plan was for him to land on Lake Wenatchee, take on a load of bundles which we would have previously left on the beach, and fly them over to our camp, a distance of about ten minutes by air.

On the afternoon of September 19th we were eagerly waiting at our campsite for the sound of approaching aircraft. Soon we could see the plane coming, and we immediately set up the prearranged signals to mark our position. The first load got off excellently: all the bundles fell within 100 yards of camp. The second load was also very successful. But on the third and last trip things finally went wrong. As the first bundle left the plane, the second one fell down from the seat and jammed on the right- hand stick of the dual controls. The plane went into a spin and crashed in a rockslide about 300 yards from camp. The pilot broke right through his 2000-pound test safety belt and was thrown out on the rocks. To our amazement he picked himself up and started over to meet us. Some cuts and a sprained back seemed the extent of his injuries, and we brought him clear out to the cars that evening.

The next day we spent salvaging what was worth while of the demolished airplane. The next after that proved to be the only one of climbing. The West Peak was climbed for the second time, and Beckey and Schoening were finally able to force their way to the top of the Boxtop, under very cold and adverse weather conditions. They reported this to be an excellent climb involving a surplus of exposure. Direct-aid technique was again resorted to.*

The following morning the party was greeted by stormy weather and eight inches of fresh snow. Winter had obviously arrived, and we made haste to cache the unused food that remained. The party then made its way down the familiar route to Nada Creek as swirling fog closed in around the ice-sheathed spires behind.

1 Keith Rankin, “New Climbs in the Cascades,” Mountaineer, XXXIX

(Dec. 1956), 28.

2 Gummie Johnson, “Now Conquered,” Mountaineer, XXXIX (15 Dec. 1947), 51. See also A.A.J., VII (April 1948), 102.

3 Mt. Temple was first climbed in 1946. See Rankin, op. cit., p. 29.

* See the note on p, 342 below.—Ed.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.