Thursday, September 20, 2012

Vanishing Point

Yesterday I had the opportunity to do a free ascent of Bryan Burdo's elusive Vanishing Point on the imposing Dolomite Tower of Mt. Baring.  For 20 years I'd stared down this iconic Nordwand from U.S. Highway 2, as I sped to Index, Steven's Pass or other trailheads.  Mt. Baring rears like a proud sentinel situated just East of Index, between the North and South Fork of the Skykomish River.  At just 6125 ft elevation, it isn't all that tall; but what it lacks in elevation it makes up in angle. 

The town of Index with Mt. Baring dead center.

Fresh from a no falls ascent of Liberty Bell's Thin Red Line (5.12b/c) two weeks earlier with Blake Herrington, I thought perhaps I had the juice and fortitude to attempt Vanishing Point (5.12) on Mt. Baring.  With a forecast for unseasonably warm conditions, I cemented plans with Blake for a 5am start.  True to form, I heard the rumble of Blake's car as he pulled into the Barclay Lake trailhead just after 5am.  At 5:30am, just as we were about to hit it, we realized Blake's headlamp batteries had somehow died.  One headlamp is better than none...but on a thousand foot wall, two-thirds the way up Mt. Baring, that headlamp ratio would surely mean big wall bivy, if we didn't top out by nightfall.  Unfazed by our predicament, we took to the trail with gusto.
Jesse Heineman on the Upper Wall at Index.  Mt. Baring and Mt. Index both form
imposing backdrops.

Patrick O'Donnell and Jess Heineman at Index.  Good friends and Vanishing Point advisors.

From what information I was able to gather, Vanishing Point was established in the early 90's by the legendary Washington climber Bryan Burdo.  The route follows an amazing blunt arete for a thousand feet topping out just shy of the North Summit on Dolomite Tower.   There are intermittent crack systems throughout the climb, but the defining character of the route is bolted face climbing, on good to superb alpine granite like metamorphic stone, accessed by an adventurous and considerable approach.  

Mt. Baring's North Walls.  Vanishing Point climbs the middle tower top and center.  The rock is steep and lighter in color than the adjacent walls.
After trolling the internet and Cascade alpine guide books, I wasn't able to come up with any firm route topos or other anecdotal tidbits to shed light on the route.  However, fortunate for us, Patrick O'Donnell and Jesse Heineman had put in several attempts on VP in the recent past, and on their last, pushed it to the top.  My sincere gratitude goes out to these gents who answered my endless questions on the subject.   It must be noted that they in turn had received some route/approach beta from Matt Anderson, who climbed the route 12 or so years ago, I think.

The previous week, I had taken an afternoon to recon the initial approach and stash a chord up near the forested rib.  This tactic definitely served us well and without it, our one day ascent probably wouldn't have worked.

The approach starts by taking a dry streambed up towards Barclay Lake.

Fixed lines leading up the forested rib.  Without these lines, a one day ascent would likely be impossible.  The angle of the forest is way steep, sometimes getting up to 70 degrees.

Working our way up the forested rib.  
Once in the forested rib region, we quickly decided to not simul climb the forest due to rope drag etc.  Instead, we just bat-manned ropes and motored.  We topped the forested ridge out at 7am.  1.5 hours to here.  At this point the views really open up.
Dropping down and left into the gully system, we climbed another 400 or something feet up to 60m pitch of 5.8 slab.  This pitch had at one point been coated in some horrid rock dust.  But, we found nice dry slab climbing.

Dawn on Dolomite Tower.


Blake following the first 200 ft' 5.8 slab which gains a large bench.

Getting psyched!!
Sunrise around 7am, from the top of the forested rib.


Merchant Peak in the background?

After the first real pitch, there is a long eastward traverse to gain 400 more feet mostly 5th- 5.8 type of climbing.  There are some bolts towards the gully's end which enabled very nice face climbing on uniquely sculpted holds.
Blake exiting the last gully pitch.
Navigating 2nd and 3rd class ramps which lead up and left to VP's base.
Feeling a little awkward in a helmet, but quite happy to have one.  
VP towering above us, capped with a 20 foot roof towards the end.  I'll admit it was a bit intimidating.
Bolt hanger flattened by rock fall.
Forest fires East of the mountains have filled many valleys with smoke.
 NOAA had actually put a hazardous air quality warning up.  We found ourselves with
unusually dry throats through much of the day.

There is an excellent terraced area of talus, heather, and fir near the base of Dolomite Tower.
We enjoyed some snacks.  Time 9:30am.  Time to rock climb.  My plan was to try and link the first two bolted pitches, both of which are 10c.  Since I knew these pitches were 100% bolted I elected to just have draws and runners.  My plan worked until just past the first 10c anchor where I lost the bolted line and ended up in 5.9 cracks.  I kept thinking bolts would show up.  Wrong.  75 feet after my last bolt I managed to find the anchor.  It was exciting, but not the start I was looking for.  
Blake following the last bit of climbing on pitch 2.
Blake trying to figure out how to enter the first 5.11 crack pitch.
After the first two 10c pitches Blake took off up the first filter pitch.  Our topo and advice didn't really help us here, and the terrain was serious, with some widow maker type blocks just up and right of the belay.  I offered to take a shot at it.  Just up and right of the two stacked blocks I committed to an unprotected and barn door-ish move up to a jug.  After that I was able to get a nice purple TCU, which was my last piece for 20 more feet.  The start of the pitch would definitely be safer with one bolt before the committing move.  The remaining pitch and following one are both excellent 5.11 crack climbing on bomber rock.


Blake following 5.11 awkward crack with a backpack.  Impressive!

Blake following the first "filter" pitch with the lake way down below.
Blake not only climbs well but is also quite fashionable.  I think this is his version of
"Blue Steel" or "le Tigre"

Blake sending pitch 4 in style.  5.11-
Mt. Baring has an incredible position in the Cascades, delivering panoramic views in all direction.  Glacier
Peak.  Not a bad view.
Starting the face climbing.  5.11-

Above this point, there are some bolted variations which beg questions like, "am I on route?" or "will this go free?"  Honestly, it was a bit much, kind of like a choose your own adventure climb.  I'm thinking that perhaps Bryan isn't completely done adjusting bolts and route direction yet.  Anyhow, we mostly chose the correct line I think.  I stopped at a belay 30 feet above the roof pictured above.  It  probably wasn't the right anchor.  In turn Blake led the remaining 11.c pitch.  After that there is a hard 11.c bolted arete out left finishing on gear.  It felt more like 12b to me.  But, I managed to claw my way through some heinous holds and delicate smeary feet.  If this was 11c I thought...what is the next 12a pitch below the roof going to be like?
Blake led this 11c pitch.  There isn't anything straight forward about the climbing style.
It is not only tenuous, but the holds are mostly odd angled ones; and finding them
could be the real crux.  No chalk trails up here.
Fortunately, I have some TC Pros from La Sportiva.  They are like a secret weapon for vertical funk.
Blake following the next "11c" pitch.  We both thought this was more like 12-ish.
Me following Blake's lead of pitch 8.  This pitch was 10-, but the runouts between bolts and gear
were certainly provocative.  Burdo definitely made a valiant effort to keep VP exciting.  And, I would definitely not
consider it a sport climb, despite there being pitches that are mostly bolted.  Most of the time you still want to gear on your harness just in case.

Before gaining a hanging belay below the roof, there is a spectacular pitch (mostly bolted) of 12a.  Two bolts up from the belay I negotiated a heinous highstep and lock-off to clip a chain hanging from a high bolt.  It took me quite a bit of hold groping to figure out how to navigate out left and continue. These moves were 11+.  15 feet above that lies the crux.  I won't ruin it for you.  But, I'll tell you that I jumped.  Lucky me, I caught a hold!  Up and left of here there are two bolted lines.  After hemming and hawing for several minutes, I elected to take the bolted line leading back onto the arete, thinking this is probably where BB would want to climb.  The remaining moves of this pitch are delicate and spectacular, weaving a cunning path around the arete, with a bit of runout scariness gaining the hanging belay.  Needless to say, I'm feeling pretty psyched to make it this far without falling.  Actually, it makes my fingertips start to sweat just thinking about those cerebral alpine hand holds and precarious moves.  
Blake leading the 11a roof pitch.  This one takes a line around to the right to a hanging belay.

Blake led the roof pitch next and completely smoked it, monkey style.  The holds are pretty good, but the exposure is unreal; and the views, priceless.
Nothing but 1000ft of air below you.  Good times.

Still smiling.

At this point I was starting to feel very worked.  Somewhat nervous, I cast off and around the roof to deal with the last 12a/b crux moves.  I was very near the finishing holds when I realized that I needed like 5 more inches of arm span to hit an enormous jug.  Flames were literally bursting from my forearms and my fingers were starting to open up.  Not wanting to fall out into space and have to deal with getting back onto route, I grabbed the draw and took.  After some exploration I found a hidden undercling which enabled me to cross through and do a couple matches.  Blake, the paragon of patience allowed me to return back under the roof to the belay.  I untied, pulled the rope, and sent next go.  
Blake following the 12b pitch.

From here there are 3 more pitches to the top. The last two of which harbor significant runouts
and questionable blocks off all sizes.  Heads up for sure.






We topped out the route around 7pm.  Back to the cars at 9:45pm.  Many thanks goes to BB, Matt Anderson, Patrick O'Donnell, Jesse Heineman and mostly importantly Blake for making this free ascent possible.  It was an awesome day in the mountains!  Now, I'm ready to start Anatomy and Physics next week!!

But first, one more trip to Squamish...

Oh, and if anyone has more historical knowledge on this route, please feel free to contact me so I can make adjustments.


3 comments:

  1. The silhouetted photo (5th one up) is a great picture. Man! I miss Washington.

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