Icicle Buttress – Trad/Multipitch

My good friend Wes and I climbed Icicle Buttress today.   The R&D route on Icicle Buttress is a classic trad route which is deemed as “easy”.  The “Leavenworth Rock” guide by Viktor Kramar describes the route as

This easy , roadside, multi-pitch route is very popular and has been the scene of several rescues and other oddball antics over the years.

Pitch 1 & 2: Wander up one of several 5- variations, aiming for the chimney to the right of Cocaine Crack.

Pitch 3: Climb the chimney to the right of Cocaine Crack.

Pitch 4: Either of 2 cracks can be taken to the top (5.6)

Our plan was to do a variation which uses a route to the right known as “Cocaine Connection” (route #27) — it’s a 5.7 bolted/trad route which connects to route #28 below the chimney as show in the route map below.

Icicle Buttress Route Map

Given the weather and rock conditions today, we looked at the 5.7 variation and I didn’t like the water run off we were seeing from up top — the slab was wet to the first bolt.  In the picture below, the area shown by the green line is the approximate described route when completely dry.

We started with the walk-up variation and I found a good place to set a belay anchor to prepare for the 2nd pitch.  It was here where I was contemplating the gully and the area to the right of it was wet, not favorable to cross.   This may have gained the ledge to the normal traverse to the chimney.  Wes saw a crack line that traversed to the left and up and looked like a reasonable approach.  I headed out on the ledge and traversed the crack.   It thinned out.  I tried calling to Wes but the river noise and wind prevented voice communications.  I realized I was committed on this line.

The green line is the 5.7 variation, the circled areas are approximate anchor stations in the first couple of pitches.  The 5.7 seems to have an anchor/belay station not noted in the book — I’d need to look at this closer when out on site again but from other pictures this seems to be the case now.

Icicle Buttress

Among several friends, we’ve agreed that the ratings in the Leavenworth book are sandbagged compared to other areas — e.g. we expect a 5.7 to have 5.8 moves. But I knew I definitely was not on a 5.6 (5.7) route at this point.   Comparatively, I regularly lead sport in the gym (comfortably) to 5.10b, I’m projecting 5.11+.   I’ve lead 5.8/5.9+ routes in Vantage and climb 5.10+ outdoors as a second.  Over the years, I’ve taken courses with International Mountain Guides, American Alpine Institute, Northwest Mountain Schools and Vertical World (Redmond) — the classes and training has proven invaluable.  We were no longer on a beginner trad climb.

[Edit: After reviewing another guide book (Rock Climbing Washington), Cocaine Crack is further left of where we were climbing but there is a 5.10a variation on R&D that is noted on page 280.  This variation "passes the prominent roof low on the route", is left of the gully and rejoins under the chimney.]

I needed to do more advanced weight shifting on my feet (than expected for a 5.6) to stay while I was placing gear and moving up on this line.  I reached a point to set another directional piece and then traverse right back towards the chimney entrance.   The pitch now involved a slab run-out with no place to set gear to protect.   I found my way to a crack system below the chimney, set my gear anchor, hooked in, backed myself up and then started taking in the slack.   Wes and I were only able to communicate by the rope and knowing the stages of our rope management.   Before our departure, I shared with Wes the steps we’d have at the belay anchors and we quickly reviewed on the first pitch but now we were unable to use voice commands and he was out of sight.

Happy that he understood the rope motions with pulling in the slack and keeping tension, etc.,  Wes was soon on belay and climbing.  I continued to belay as he made his way up the route, waiting for helmet to appear in my view as I waited to see him traverse to reach the slab area.  After a bit of belaying, I finally heard a voice command “Take!”.   I quickly set more tension and then the rope quickly loaded, I felt a jar and then I fully loaded the anchor system.  Wes had finished cleaning the last piece of gear on the traverse and then lost his footing and did a pendulum swing (but thankfully not a full whipper because of the angle of the pitch) and held directly below my position.

We were able to communicate at this point and I was able to lower him back on to the traverse section so he could regain footing and begin the traversal again.

As I mentioned, I have been fortunate to have taken part in some great training programs the last couple of years.  One of my favorite books on preparing for climbing is by John Long and Bob Gaines “Climbing Anchors, 2nd Edition”.  After a lot of field testing and lab stress testing, the authors have proposed the “equalette” rigging of cordelette as a preferred equalizing solution for anchor systems.  There are always pros and cons of all systems but I’ve become convinced this is a great system because of its ease of setup and versatility.  I am using this in both top rope (as a quadalette) and in trad-anchor systems as the equalette.

The anchor in place when Wes lost his footing was a three-piece gear anchor consisting of two cams and a nut near a constricting crack system at the base of the chimney.  All protective pieces held and the nut wedged further into the constriction.

After Wes completed the pitch, we continued the route, and up the chimney.  The weather started rolling in and a mist was dampening the rock.   We finished up the crack system to the finishing 5- walkup to the top of the buttress.   I guess the two notable cracks we saw before the finishing pitch were the 5.6 designated cracks, but they felt harder — perhaps it was the conditions.  The chimney is noted to be 5.5 but it seemed harder than other 5.8 chimneys that I have pulled, it’s short section, only a couple of moves but they seemed more difficult than other 5.8 chimneys that I’ve done.

I’m not sure if R&D is easy or a walk-up as you’d expect for a 5.6 route, perhaps we were way off — but I know the chimney and crack system is in the original R&D route.   I would not recommend this for beginner trad climbers and perhaps that is the reason for the note regarding “several rescues.”

It is one thing to study and practice rock climbing anchor systems and methodology, it is another to load and to know it is saving your life.  There is no “easy” 5.something — bomber placements and bomber anchors are a must.  The experts remind you, the books teach you, the guides show you — reality will verify it.