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Assassin Spire Finally Climbed

The Shooting Gallery (IV WI4+, 3 roped pitches, 2,000’), northwest face of Assassin Spire, Black Buttes, North Cascades, Washington. Tom Sjolseth and Daniel Jeffrey climbed this route on March 6, marking the first ascent of Assassin Spire, previously one of the few remaining major unclimbed summits in Washington State. [Photo] John Scurlock

After studying aerial photos from pilot-photographer John Scurlock, Tom Sjolseth and Daniel Jeffrey set out to climb a series of ice steps in the North Cascades last weekend, March 6. The result was the first ascent of Assassin Spire (ca. 8,680′), one of the few major unclimbed summits in Washington State.

The Shooting Gallery (IV WI4+, 3 roped pitches, 2,000′) climbs the northwest face, which begins with short stretches of vertical and 100-degree ice. Sjolseth and Jeffrey continued up a 55-degree snow buttress, traversed left into another gully above a hanging glacier, and simuled up moderate snow and ice to a final 20-meter ice curtain. Three pitches of snice above led them to the summit.

According to climber and historian John Roper, who named Assassin Spire during his 1967 ascent of Mt. Baker, the climb marks the only time in Washington history that a peak’s first ascent was also the first winter ascent. There may be a good reason why: Assassin Spire is a satellite summit of Lincoln Peak in the Black Buttes, the brittle remains of Mt. Baker’s early volcanic activity. Because of its steep and chossy nature, Darin Berdinka, a well-known ice climber from Bellingham, Washington said that Assassin Spire is one of the hardest summits to reach in the range and “can only be climbed under winter conditions,” when snow and ice solidify its crummy rock.

Numerous parties that included Dallas Kloke, Steve Trent, Scott Bingen and Kevin Kiser had attempted Assassin without success, turned back by rotten rock. But that shouldn’t suggest a lack of further winter potential. Climber’s left of The Shooting Gallery is another line that would involve at least two pitches of WI5-6, Sjolseth said. He added that “above the hanging glacier lies an amazing amphitheater of ice and rock that rivals anything else I have seen in the entire North Cascade Range. How impressive! Many lines are waiting to be climbed here consisting of very aesthetic, sustained and solid ice.”

Sources: Tom Sjolseth, John Scurlock, Joe Dumelin,,

Jeffrey climbs snow above the third and final ice curtain. [Photo] Tom Sjolseth

Jeffrey on the upper slopes of Assassin Spire. [Photo] Tom Sjolseth

The final snowfield leading to the summit of Assassin Spire. Some have called the satellite peak unclimbable except in winter, when snow and ice binds its rotten rock. [Photo] Tom Sjolseth