A climbing epic
By John Minier
Labor Day is an interesting holiday. Originally, it was meant to be an exhibition of the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations. Essentially, it was a holiday to celebrate the power and contributions of America’s workers and their families.
Ironically, it was adopted nationally in 1894, a mere six days after the U.S. military crushed the Pullman Strike, which pitted the American Railway Union against its owners and resulted in the deaths of numerous railway workers. In many ways, Labor Day was a government’s apology to its workers.
However, like many holidays, the original intent of Labor Day has lost its significance, and most of us simply look forward to our three-day weekend. With fall looming, we take to the countryside to enjoy the last bit of summer before the days become short and the mornings crisp.
The problem with Labor Day, or any national holiday for that matter, is that most everyone gets the day off. The one thing you can be sure of is that anywhere you go will be packed with people looking to get away from people. The solution: Don’t go anywhere.
“Why don’t we hang around here this weekend,” Jenni suggests. “It would be nice to do some rock climbing,. “Maybe Mt. Erie,” I added. If there’s one thing we have learned, it’s that nobody goes to Mt. Erie for their three-day weekend. After discussing several options, we finally decided that it would be nice to get out and do something new in the area.
It’s at this point that Jenni dives into any adventure, scouring Internet forums and guidebooks to hunt down that obscure, elusive, rewarding weekend marathon. Don’t have three days? Do it in two. Don’t have two days? Do it in one. All I know is that we’re inevitably going to do something, and it’s probably going to involve a lot of hiking and bushwhacking.
“I want to go to the mountains!” has become our Friday evening rallying cry.
“Check this out!” Jenni comes running up to me with The Becky Book. “It’s called the Mythic Wall and it’s right here in our backyard … it’s over 1,000 feet!” Skeptical, I grab the book from her to flesh out Fred Becky’s always-too brief description:
“This is a 1,400 foot east facing wall, located on the north flank of Green Creek, about 1.5 miles northeast of South Twin Sister.” Visions of choss piles dance through my head. Becky continues with the approach beta: “Ford the river on log jams and pick up the trail downstream … Traverse up valley (some brush) to Green Creek.”
“Yep, that’ll do ‘er,” I said. “We aren’t going to see anyone out there.”
Twelve hours later we’re standing in the middle of a blueberry thicket with full packs of climbing equipment. I’ve got a couple of GPS waypoints and a photocopied route description, but for the most part, these are proving useless. There’s something to be said for winging it. Sometimes you don’t need an elaborate tour plan or climbing topo. In fact, sometimes they’re a hindrance. Sometimes you just need to go have a look and see what adventure you can find. Sometimes …
For the most part, the description of “some brush” is spot on. The Green Creek Valley is a remote corner of the Twin Sister Range, and probably one of the wildest spots in Whatcom
County. After setting a waypoint at our last switchback on the Elbow Lake Trail, we descended into the mass of vegetation.
If I had to imagine the island in the Lord of the Flies, I would suspect it looks something like the Green Creek Valley. I often wondered why they sold machetes at the Bellingham
REI. Now I know.
After several hours of bushwhacking, and with bellies full of blueberries, we emerged into the upper Green Creek drainage. Sure enough, the Mythical Bellingham Big Wall does indeed exist. Like a sentinel, it rises a thousand feet to stand guard over Green Creek. It is nothing if not awesome.
Jenni and I race towards the base as my general enthusiasm morphs into a burning desire to climb this beast. By the time we get to the wall it’s late morning. Apprehension begins to eat away at my insides. We still have a lot of rock to climb and not a ton of daylight to burn. The hours aren’t adding up in my head, but I’m past the point of caring. I want to climb this thing bad. This was never meant to be a recon mission, and neither of us is going home without at least pulling the rope out of our packs.
Our intention was to climb the Mythic Wall itself, which is the cleanest, steepest route on the formation, but the start of the route is proving elusive. After a classic male-female conversation, we decide to climb an adjacent route known as the Evil Twin Arête – 1,000 feet of rock we know absolutely nothing about.
The rock in the Twin Sisters Range might be the most interesting I have ever climbed on. It is an ultramafic variety called dunite that contains one of the world’s largest deposits
of Olivine. Basically this translates to really sharp rock – like cheese grater sharp. Climbing shoes love it, but fingers not so much. So far it seemed relatively solid as well. Sure, the giant pile of talus at the base had to come from somewhere. But the first few hundred feet of climbing looked pretty good. Jenni and I tied into the rope and I looked up at the sea of rock above us. “On belay?”
Pitch after pitch passed us by. This was real adventure climbing. No topo or route description, just a couple of cracks to choose from on each section. Pick one and go. Sometimes the climbing was hard, sometimes it wasn’t, but in general it was no cakewalk. The hardest part was not knowing what was above. So far I was handling what was in front of me. By pitch six we were committed, up was down at this point, as there was no way we were going to try and rappel down some of what we came up – and then we arrived at the choss, or really crumbly, low quality rock.
“What’s going on up there,” Jenni yelled up. I wasn’t sure how to explain to her the concept of portable climbing holds.
“Kind of loose up here,” I shouted back – understatement of the century. I was 700 feet up, clinging to a pile of vertical, 5.8 kitty litter. “So this is where the giant talus field came from,” I thought to myself.
I commenced a delicate dance of shifting my weight to and fro, brushing dirt off of various holds here and there until I finally found something (sort of) attached to the wall. Fortunately for Jenni there was the odd massive detached block that served as a relatively comforting belay anchor. I belayed her up. “Wow, that was kind of sketchy,” she said. “Yes. Yes, it was.”
Several more hundred feet of crumbly climbing brought us to, well, “nowhere in particular” as the first ascentionist quipped. Pulling over the top of the arête, we found ourselves on a broad ridge stretching west up towards South Twin Sister.
To the east, Baker loomed large behind the formidable Black Buttes. “Quite the setting,” I thought to myself. “Quite the climb,” I said to Jenni. “Now, how the hell do we get down?”
I guess part of me was just really hoping that we would get to the top and there would be a perfect descent gully to the east, equipped with little cairns, stairs and maybe a sandwich stand. Thirty minutes of recon yielded no such luck. The other alternative was to follow the ridge west to the Green Creek Arête, and down climb 1,400 feet – also not appealing. Hiking north seemed reasonable if we wanted to sacrifice our packs at the base. Jenni looked up at me with big, sad, doe eyes.
“We’re going to have to rappel, aren’t we?” she said.
As it turns out, the Evil Twin Arête is just as exciting going down as it is going up. Fortunately I always pack some emergency webbing when tackling anything in the Becky books, and the occasional massive blocks served as pretty good rap anchors. We arrived at the base unscathed, and with a little daylight to spare. Rifling through my pack I realized that my headlamp was not where I thought it was, nor were my climbing shoes, which I must have left on top of the ridge. Given its popularity, they’re probably still there.
We descended the other side of Green Creek through the jungle thinking somehow that would be better. Again, machetes… why didn’t we have them? My waypoint served us well. For the first time all day we had an idea of where we might be going. We arrived at the car 13 hours after our departure, with brush-whipped faces, blueberry-stained clothes and a whole new definition for the phrase “Labor Day.”
Oh, and we didn’t see a single person. Imagine that. X