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Accidental First Ascent: Fight or Flight in the North Cascades

Editor’s Note: Blake Herrington is one of few young climbers pushing boundaries in the remote Cascades. Last year he completed a major first on the east ridge of Mt. Goode (read the September 22, 2007 NewsWire), on the heels of establishing the four-peak Gunsight traverse (read the August 1, 2007 NewsWire). Below, Herrington tells of his latest expedition, to the north face of Castle Peak, where he and Peter Hirst accidentally climbed a new route, Fight or Flight (IV 5.10+, 1,400′).

Fight or Flight (IV 5.10+, 1,400′), north face of Castle Peak, North Cascades, Washington. Blake Herrington and Peter Hirst established the route accidentally on August 3, 2008, while trying to climb the Colorado Route. The Colorado Route lies right of the new climb. [Photo] Blake Herrington collection

The clock on the wall showed 1:30 a.m. as the US border patrol agent sauntered across the office and up to the desk. Under the glare of fluorescent lights and overweight customs officers, having to admit that we’d forgotten a passport suddenly seemed morally equivalent to citing kitten-drowning as a frequent hobby. My climbing partner and I weathered the predictable litany of questions, stated our thoroughly non-terrorist occupations, and tried to deflect verbal blows with a steady return fire of “yes sir” and “no sir.” Unlike the other angry late-night travelers at this remote border crossing, Peter and I displayed an odd satisfaction that seemed as out of place as the ominously smiling portraits of Dick Cheney and George Bush overhead. We knew this passport issue was only a temporary delay, not a real obstacle. Not something that would prevent our progress or do us harm. And to a couple of caffeine-hyped climbers twenty-two hours removed from an alpine start, our late night border interrogation was, in retrospect, the most calming part of our whole day.

Peter Hirst and I had left Bellingham, Washington on the morning of Saturday August 2, and driven several hours to Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia. From here, seven miles of trail brought us to an 8,000′ pass and a gathering rain storm. As the drops became more snow than rain, we caught a view of our objective, the North Face of Castle Peak. From the well-maintained trail, beautiful alpine ridges led directly to the glacier below the peak, and the storm abated in time for us to dry out at camp that evening. We intended to climb the Colorado Route, a (likely unrepeated) 5.11 climb tackling the granitic north face of Castle Peak, just south of the USA/Canada border. Fred Beckey had recruited a trio of Colorado climbers to attempt the project fifteen years ago, but he had stayed at camp due to hip troubles while they completed the climb.

This year a large snow patch lingered at the base of the route, seemingly on top of its first pitches. Armed with an excitement fueled by the visions of clean granite overhead, we decided to simply follow whatever features offered protectable and compelling climbing up the wall. After an exciting wakeup crossing the glacial moat, we began just left of the clean buttress face, climbing across to the top of the snow patch in two pitches. Rising up from the belay was a stretch of some of the cleanest alpine granite I’ve ever seen. Though lacking in long corner or crack systems, the appearance of face holds allayed our fears and we set out hoping for adequate protection. The first pitch off the snow (our third) linked balancy face features, a thin crack, and show-stopper crux moves to the belay ledge. On Pitch 4, Peter started with a long stretch of unprotected but positive face climbing before pulling into the twin cracks of a steep dihedral we’d noticed from the glacier below. From the pedestal above these cracks, face climbing continued up and left to a finger crack which provided good protection as the moves again became more difficult and the route was forced up and around a few left-facing corners to the left-edge of the wall. From the belay at the base of pitch seven, we questioned the route ahead and debated, aloud and internally, how best to proceed. I decided to try straight up the arete above, which began with a long stretch of difficult and nervous climbing where the thought of a fall had me wishing for more than the occasional purple TCU for protection. Peter led the next pitch, finding a fantastic and powerful left-facing corner with difficult but manageable finger locks.

From here the rock became more mossy, especially in the obvious dihedral systems. Luckily we were able to follow flakes and cracks onto to an amazing quartz dyke system. This stripe of bright rock–the golden staircase–carried us on for most of two pitches and provided a continuous line of perfect holds, really fun climbing, and occasional gear. From a small ledge below the summit, Peter used double ropes, our lone ice tool, an overhanging pullup move, and all the tricks in the book to get us up a hidden snow patch and through the final rock wall to the summit.

Hirst stemming through the flakes of Pitch 4 on Fight or Flight (IV 5.10+, 1,400′). As Herrington describes it, “probably the nicest two 5.10 alpine pitches I can imagine… so clean and on a nice new route!” [Photo] Blake Herrington collection

Our entry into the summit register was the first in 2008 and kept this year on pace with 2006 and 2007, which both also feature one entry. However, it was a good thing that the register couldn’t hold our attention for long. With both of us expected to show up for work the next morning, we soon began the descent to camp and hike out. Hitting the trail as stars emerged, we pounded down the final seven miles to the car–assuring each other that the inventor of the two-day weekend simply could not have been an alpinist.

After some email and photo sharing with the Colorado climbers, it sounds like we were never on their route at all, so now the Central Buttress on Castle Peak has a couple routes awaiting second ascents. Don’t forget your passport.