American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The North Face of Bear Mountain

United States, Washington, North Cascades

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Fred Beckey
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 1968

IN the northern Cascades destiny gave a peak of no special significance a precipice that in recent years has almost become legendary. Because Bear Mountain is flanked by more prominent summits and because its great north wall is slightly concave and hidden by its own arc and its spurs, few persons have truly seen it. Early explorers in this wild and rugged region of higher and often more significant mountains took no particular notice of Bear Mountain, for its highest point rises to only a few less than 8000 feet. Well known great alpine walls on outstanding peaks such as Goode, Fury and Johannesburg could be more readily seen and therefore created no attitude of mystique.

Only a few miles from the Canadian border in what is loosely called the Chilliwack "group,” Bear was far from roadheads and difficult of access. This group of rugged peaks was first, though cursorily, explored by the International Boundary Survey of 1859. Then called the "Skagit Range,” the early surveyors, trail-builders and miners found the heavily forested, cliffy, glaciated and jagged country between the Skagit, Nooksack and Chilliwack rivers difficult to penetrate. When cut, trails became annually choked by luxuriant slide alder, vine maple, willows and windfalls. In precipitous relief up to 6000 feet, slopes of jungle and glacier- scoured cliff rise from flat valley bottoms to ridge tops and frontal spur summits.

Only a few peripheral peaks fell to the weekend climber; several parties reached the center of the Chilliwack group by a long, involved access route from the Nooksack or Skagit; the approach from Canada was almost unknown, since roads and trails were partly abandoned and Chilliwack Lake barred the way. I had seen this remote region during the Twin Spires ascents in 1941, but I felt no compulsion to return for Bear’s face, even though I looked down it from the peak’s summit. The approach problems seemed too formidable with heavy loads.

It is likely that the first climbers to travel up bushy Bear Creek were Will Thompson and Calder Bressler, who reached Bear Lake in 1937. They estimated the face "overhung for 3000 feet.” My guidebook mentioned the figure "4000 feet.” The face was discussed in hushed tones among climbers interested in technical problems. Of three separately organized ventures for Bear’s face in the past four years, to my knowledge none progressed beyond Hannegan Pass on the Nooksack approach; soft snows and distances softened the spirit

My own spirit for the challenge of the face awakened while the "wagon road” to Chilliwack Lake was being made fit for car travel. The improvement of the first part had a definite bearing on our success on the northeast buttress of Slesse in 1963. The prospect of finding a shorter route to Bear resulted in a special little adventure in late November, 1966, when Eric Bjornstad and I got a car through the "5.8 mud” section of the road to the lake. I reasoned that this approach would be the key to success on Bear if the old Chilliwack Creek trail was in fair shape beyond the lake and if a "climbers’ trail” could be slashed up Bear Creek. In one long, hectic day we put-putted across the five-and-a-half- mile lake with an antique outboard motor, fought dense wet willows along Chilliwack Creek’s estuary until we located the trail to the U. S. border, and blazed the abandoned "way trail” two miles up Bear Creek to the fresh snow-line at the 3500-foot cloud-level. We had come to within a few miles of Bear’s legendary face by a new route almost at the onset of winter. Shivering as we took the boat back across the lake that dark night, our thoughts ran toward those aspirations that bogged down at Hannegan Pass. Our little ploy was not openly discussed.

In late spring, on two ambitious trail-cutting weekends, we brushed out a rough path the entire way up Bear Creek. We could now make the nine-mile backpack to cache food at the valley head at 4100 feet and return in one long day. Roger Johnson, Scott Clogston, Alex Bertulis and Jim Sinclair assisted me in these various preliminaries.

It was not until the second of these "work trips” that I even saw Bear’s phenomenal face. From below, it was truly a dazzling sight, a wondrous combination of sculpturing by glaciers and the forces of nature. As one nears the curve of the valley up Bear Creek, the magnificent face slowly emerges from its protective buttresses. The entire face is almost two miles wide, with great flanking walls, up to 2500 feet high, spreading out from a shorter central diamond of whitish overhang—perhaps 1000 feet in actual height—which rises above a steepening slab wall and a central ice segment of the glacier at the base; the glacier itself cuts intothe face’s heart to within some 1500 feet of the summit. On this elongated granitic fortress there are a number of successive buttresses, each with a potential climbing value of its own. A black buttress almost in the center of the face, just west of the inner diamond, immediately attracted my attention. As afternoon shadows cast their gray on the inner wall, this prow-like bastion reflected the waning sunshine. Hours of binocular study from both the valley floor and the slope forming the divide to Indian Creek finally convinced me that it was the logical choice for the first climb on the north face. One advantage a pioneer has is this kind of option, the unique control of one’s destiny.

The rock appeared solid through the glass, and on the knife-like upper prow tiny belay ledges showed. A similar but more rounded buttress to the east of the diamond was beautiful but the rock structure and debris on ledges made it uninviting. Somehow, the cracks looked disjointed and filled-in. The overhanging diamond’s crack system appeared devious and at times, rotten. Its blankish-looking spots suggested a "Leaning Tower” type of problem, but it was on an alpine face at an area difficult of access and support. For this route, some form of packing and load-pulling help might be needed. I concluded the best climbing plan would be to get to the apex of the ice with an eye open to continuing onto the diamond above should it appear more promising from there; otherwise to climb the slabs and traversing ramps to the crest of the black buttress, a route which looked feasible both through the glasses and from a study of winter photographs.

Of several climbers with the interest and experience to pit themselves against the climb, only Mark Fielding was available to join me during a spell of excellent July weather. It was a good omen when a fisherman towed us across Chilliwack Lake, sparing us the tedious row. With only medium packs, we reached the cache at the valley head early in the afternoon. Mark could barely believe the thoroughness of the machete-cut trail through the slide alder patches. I could hardly believe the brilliant weather; it was one of the driest summers in history. Building a smoky fire, we avoided most of the mosquitoes as we took a nap under the canopy of a spruce grove. Tomorrow man would finally set foot on Bear’s face, we mused. We prepared carefully for the occasion, racking iron, recoiling ropes and packing rucksacks with food and the usual essentials for the bivouac.

Dawn found us trudging out of the last alders of the moraine, ice axes in hand, laden rucksacks with rattling crampons on our backs. Methodically we gained altitude: first long stretches of gravel hogbacks,then the sun-cupped slopes of the lower névé. The sun appeared, reminding us that the clock was running. Boot edges bit into the hard surface as the valley fell below us, now awake from its deep shade. A few crevasses told us when we reached the glacier. Snow subtly merged into ice. Already above the foot of the lowest walls, we climbed into the heart of the hanging glacier. A potpourri of ice fragments filling a schrund signalled an alert as we clambered through them to the slabby rock wall above.

Climbing unprotected left of the yawning schrund, we slowly mounted the slabby rock margin. Holds were planed smooth by the ice and there was loose sand from melting. Past this distasteful section, we went back onto the ice, reaching the exposure level where mistakes must not be made. Boot edges and a few chops did the trick on several steep leads; we had planned to don crampons, but there was no place to set down rucksacks. Anyhow, had not Wilfred Noyce written, "The typical rock climber is an impulsive man: rock faces demand impulsiveness”? So we kept moving, belaying carefully up the steep, flat sheet of ice which clung to the slabs. We were now in the heart of Bear’s face, with great walls closing in everywhere above us. All one needed was a certain level of composure; so far we had not heard that dreadful sound of stone clatter.

Above the ice one tricky lead on smooth and steep slab was a thoughtful experience amid an absolute lack of piton cracks for protection. A line of small holds and ledges led to the right, toward a ramp system that promised to lead up the crest of the black buttress, just as previous studies had indicated. We both agreed on this route now, for as we tilted our heads backward, the white diamond and its corner looked unfriendly; some sections lacked cracks, and we did not want to become involved with bolting.

We needed a rest from the continuous effort it had taken to reach this point. At a safe place on the ramp, we ate a bite and got water from a dripping snowpatch, saving our bottles for the obvious dryness above. After climbing west a short distance on the ramp, we left it for a crack system that appeared to lead to the crest, higher. Mark led off, finding the vertical beginning of the pitch quite hard; fortunately, protection could be placed. Though more exposed and very steep, the cracks above now provided more moderate climbing to the crest of the buttress; several short traverses to the right avoided immense difficulties.

Our position was now elegant! We had reached the crest by the only feasible route, for the opposite side appeared rotten and the outer wall of the buttress fell away to the glacier in magnificent exposure. It was worth being here just for the sensation.

Apprehension turned to sheer delight as I climbed the first lead on the crest. For several pitches there was just one way—directly on the very exposed edge—but with good belay spots. The rock was sound. Many of the moves were from F3 to F7. We hauled packs. The sun was moving faster than we were, but our progress was satisfying; we still had tomorrow—and more if we needed it.

A dastardly pitch then blocked the route. The narrow crest was split by a deep overhanging crack, too big for bongs and too small to wedge into, Pitoning on the outside looked futile, and the cracks inside its outward flaring walls appeared poor. Hoping he could squirm into the crack and climb it free, I talked Mark into trying—an effort that did little for our friendship. Being smaller than I, we hoped he could make the necessary squeeze, but it turned out that the lack of grip came close to forcing him to fall. Without protection, this would be a bad place to allow gravity to take over. Between squeezing into the crack and taking aid from a succession of really inadequate pitons, he gained height; a piton holding an aid sling did come out, but fortunately the new one he was driving was sufficiently tight to hang on. Eventually, a bolt had to be placed. More hard aid climbing took him to the top of the long, difficult chimney. The pull on the hauling line told me to tie on the packs. The sun was getting low when I reached his belay platform. Above, I tried two separate routes to mount the next step, eventually resorting to some nailing to bypass a flake I did not want to touch. The last portion of the lead took technique and most of the muscle I could muster for free climbing. In the twilight I went on for about a half lead to be stopped by a blank crest; working left, I checked a possibility, but this too ended in blankness.

It was time to forget about progress and get some rest. Leaving the rope in, I came down to Mark’s belay spot, a bivouac site for two. At night, we seemed suspended between the stars and the valley dimly seen below. There was no sight or sound of the busy civilization in the lowlands to the west. The solitude and uncertainties of our adventure had their own reward. Peace of mind comes best when one sleeps, a state we achieved only a portion of the night.

The morning light showed no new cracks in the crest above, only a spectacular view of the great overhang and the big wall to the east of it. Vertically below, the broken glacier we had climbed and its ensuing slabs looked dark and hostile. Most of the face was now below us—just this one pesky problem, and then the route appeared sensible again. Looking to the only alternative, the right side of the soaring crest, we felt it wasworth chancing a high traverse into a chimney perhaps one lead west. Below, the chimney fell away in a hideous, wet drop, but above our level it looked definitely feasible.

Our tactics involved a very exposed pendulum, crawling around on a ledge, then another exposed pendulum. I went first, setting the anchors and placing what protection was possible; Mark followed, pulling the rappel ropes twice. By this time I had checked out the continuing traverse, which fortunately worked; the return to the crest would have been awkward and would certainly have left us with some bolting.

Moisture dripping from snow made the chimney unpleasant. Beyond a section of slimy, treacherous holds, a snow gully took us onward. Several moderate pitches to the chimney’s left brought us back to the buttress crest again. After a final steep step, the rock broke back to a sudden level spot. There were Mount Shuksan, Mount Baker, the Border Peaks, wild-looking Slesse! We had not expected this sight so soon. Essentially the climb was ended, and we were on the brink of the precipice. Bears summit was just a 15-minute traverse and scramble away.

We found a quite easy descent route by traversing west on the south side of the crest to a major gap and then crossing through it to a big snowfield breaking the cliffs on the Bear Creek drainage.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: North Cascades, Washington.

ascent: Bear Mountain, first ascent of north face, July 14 and 15, 1967 (Fred Beckey, Mark Fielding). NCCS V, F8, A4. 44 pitons and 1 bolt.

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