January 20-21, 2001
Apologies to the folks on a dial-up
connection. I know this page is huge, but I wanted to include all the good
It has been a dream of Jens’ to climb Drury Falls since he was a kid. After a couple seasons of grooming, I felt I was ready to at least follow it, if not lead a few pitches. In early January we booked off January 20-21 for a climbing weekend, with Drury as the preferred objective. The week before I was encouraged by reports that the climb was in and had seen a few ascents. But I was also nervous that the publicity would loose a barrage of climbers on this Northwest test piece. Nonetheless, we made preparations for an early morning departure on the 20th.
We met at my house at 5:00 AM and were underway by 5:15. We made good time to Leavenworth, arriving in town at 7:15. We had planned to have a big breakfast at the Tumwater Inn, but found it closed. So we hit the Waffle House instead, each ordering and devouring two breakfasts. At 8:00 we were rolling up Tumwater Canyon toward the crossing. We drove back and forth a few times, scouting the parking situation and the river crossing. We saw two people with kayaks that looked like climbers- Goretex jackets and plastic climbing boots. I’d predicted that we would meet three other parties on the route, and I thought the kayakers were the beginning of the crowd.
The swirling clouds blocked out view of the falls, but we finally chose a place to park and cross upstream from the Falls creek drainage. It looked reasonably calm and we figure if we were swept downstream a bit it would only shorten our approach. We inflated the raft while we packed, then walked it, and our gear, down the road a couple hundred yards to the crossing we’d scouted.
Jens sorting gear at the car
At the bank I held the raft with my leg and handed the packs, snowshoes, poles, and paddles in to Jens. I was reminded of a picture from Climbing magazine that showed Alex Lowe climbing out of a rubber raft in Antarctica with his crampons. Even though we’d taken some precautions by cover the sharp points of our crampons and ice tools, we were both a bit nervous about puncturing the raft. I figured that if we could at least get across the Wenatchee river we would get to look at the climb, but if one of us went in the water, the trip was over.
I climbed in and sat down on my pack. I pushed us off and we started paddling like mad- but the current was quite tame, we were only pushed a few yards downstream.
"I think this is going to work!!"
Jens hopped out at the other side and I handed out the gear. Whew! We were across the river without soaking our gear or ourselves. I stashed the raft behind a large boulder and we donned the dreaded snowshoes for the approach march. At 9:50 we started down the river, following another set of tracks.
"Oh yes! Dry land!"
The guidebooks say to allow up to five hours for the approach. When I looked at the map, though, it was only 2500 vertical feet and around a mile. At first I was skeptical that it would take an hour, but numerous resources confirmed what the Nelson book said. So off we went, under
gray skies, in search of elusive Washington water ice.
Having a set of tracks to follow made life much easier. We trudged through the trees, generally downstream and slightly uphill, for about thirty minutes before we rounded over a ridge and were able to the Falls creek drainage below us. Here we found a pair of snowshoes stashed. At least one party was ahead of us, and they’d decided to bootpack the rest of the way.
The trail went along the climber’s right of the creek for a while, then dropped in and crossed. Here, at about 2400 feet, there was a significant amount of avalanche debris, despite the small amount of snow. It was unnerving to be snowshoeing up the steep, narrow canyon though almost continuous rock-hard avalanche rubble. This is the worst terrain trap I’ve ever seen. But the snow that was on the ground seemed quite stable and the steep slopes above us looked almost snow-free, so we continued on.
Jens and avy debris in the Falls Creek drainage
Shortly after we crossed to climber’s left of the creek, we took off our snowshoes. And it was easier going with out them, thanks to the hard snow and recent foot traffic. At 3200 feet, just below a short low-angle ice slope, Jens put on crampons and stashed his snowshoes. Just above, at 3400 feet, the tracks all cut right into a separate, smaller canyon. We didn’t expect this and stopped to consult the map. Sure enough, right on the 3400 foot contour, the approach jogs to the right. So up and right we went. Just above, at 3600 feet, the canyon boxed. There was a wide WI3 climb on our right. The guidebook described “nice” bivy spots at the base of the lower falls, but this spot was a death trap. It was maybe 75 feet wide, and walled off by nearly vertical rock faces, and the waterfall. We got the maps and the route description out. The Nelson book indicates that the base of the lower falls is at 4200 feet. I just couldn’t believe that it would be off by 600 feet, or that it would omit this somewhat imposing approach obstacle. And it was only
12:00: We’d been away from the raft just two hours. So after some debate and exploration, we decided to ditch our poles and my snowshoes and gear up to climb the waterfall in search of better camping spots above.
Jens solo-exploring the mystery WI3- pitch. The weather was
Jens led up and belayed from a fixed screw and V-thread. Visibility was poor, with thick clouds rolling though, so I led on from there. The slope laid back and through the mist I could just make out a huge ice flow. Drury Falls. “Ohmygod Jens! This thing is huge!”
“Is there a bivy spot?”
I looked around the basin. There was a stand of trees up to my left, and one across the base of the falls to my right. “Sure! Looks like a couple good spots.”
I headed to the nearer group of trees to my left. It was a good spot, but was close
to the edge of the canyon below and would require some leveling work. I tied off the rope and my pack and started to traverse toward the other promising spot. This took me past the base of the lower falls. It was fat and wide. I climbed up a short slope and into a small stand of trees. Here I found a nice, previously constructed tent platform and a great view of the entire route (the clouds had parted for the moment). “This is us, Jens. This is a great spot!”
Jens at our bivy site (and my finger), taken from the base of the
I went back over and retrieved my pack and the rope, then joined Jens at the bivy site. We stood for 20 minutes or more looking up at the falls through the binoculars. “I think we can do this”, Jens said.
“Yeah, it looks hard, but it's terraced up high, so there will be good rest.”
Lower and Upper Falls from the bivy site. Don't be fooled: The
Upper Falls is more than twice the height of the Lower Falls, almost 500
While we gawked, a party of two rapped down the lower falls. It was 2:00, and they’d only left their canoe at 6:40 that morning. There were making very good time. Excellent time, I found out the next day. They described the route as “in good shape” with “some thin ice, three inches thick, with water running behind it on the top pitch”.
We settled in and started melting water and eating. We hadn’t expected to be in so early, and it was nice to have some time to relax.
We agreed on 5:30 AM to set the alarm. When it went off we were greeted by the sound of graupel hitting the tent walls. We started to get ready, but at 6:15 it was still snowing and dark, so we laid back to chill for a few more minutes. At 6:45 Jens got up and started dressing and pulling on his boots. He climbed out of the tent and into the snow just after 7:00. I started getting dressed and then heard voices. “Shit! Are there people out there?”
“Are they going to beat us?”
“Yes. There is nothing we can do now.”
“Bullshit! Go! Setup and I will be three minutes behind you.”
And I was. I showed up as Jens was flaking ropes and just before the other party (of three) arrived. Though I had planned to lead the lower falls, with the arrival of another party we decided that staying in front was more important, so Jens quickly led off as they set up to our right.
Jens leading the Lower Falls, the white spots are snowflakes in
He clipped a fixed V-thread about 40 feet up and that was his only pro for the lower falls. He cruised it. He belayed from a small rock alcove and I led past. A short, steep step led to easier ground.
Loren leading out on the Lower Falls. Hey dude, are those
I found a boulder to use as an anchor and brought him up. From there we traversed around the left edge of the large basin below the upper falls. It helped to have the tracks from the previous party to follow.
Since the other group was not is sight as we pulled into the base of the upper falls, I decided to take the first lead. After scoping it out we decided that the right side was the way to go. It was more sustained, but less steep. I led up, feeling good and placing bomber screws in solid, deep ice. I placed three good screws, then a marginal one. I led up past it to a nice alcove and a standing rest. I expected to get a very good screw here, but didn’t. I was only up about 100 feet, but I was feeling that familiar psyche-out that I get on steeper ground above questionable gear. And with bad gear I couldn’t belay from here. Jens hollered up that 25 feet above, past an 85 degree pillar, there was a bench. I sucked it up and traversed out of the alcove to the pillar.
Loren leading out from the rest alcove on the first pitch. The
belay was set just below the large rock.
It was mildly chandeliered on the near (left) side, so I climbed up and to the right to nice plastic ice. Above it was a 60 degree slope and no bench. I put in two screws and set a belay, my first hanging ice-screw belay.
Jens followed easily, and joined me at the belay.
Jens following the first pitch of the Upper Falls. The second
party is just starting on the right.
“Loren, that was harder than any pitch I’ve ever led.”
“Really? Wow. Well, don’t worry, I think you’ll get your chance up higher.”
Jens led past up a short WI3 section to a long 2+ leftward traverse. He used most of the rope, so it was about a 180 foot pitch. Around the corner I could hear the other party. They were catching up.
Jens leading the second pitch of the Upper Falls.
Loren hanging out at the first belay.
Jens put me on and I followed. Just as I was clearing the WI3 section a large chunk of ice hit me square in the head. It didn’t hurt me as much as it startled me. The leader of the other party, who was now directly above me, had knocked it down.
“Yell ‘Ice’ when you knock shit down!! That hit me right in the fucking head.”
I rambled up and over their rope to Jens, who had constructed the most luxurious belay of the day. It looked like we could finish in one more long pitch, but it wasn’t going to be led by me. The ice above was steep, but
terraced. Jens led out as the other party belayed forty feet to my right. They were trying to decide if they should wait for us on the ‘preferred’ left-hand line, or try to climb on the right side of the falls.
The top is in sight! Jens leading out on the third pitch of the
125 feet up Jens realized he didn’t have enough gear to finish the pitch. He set a belay in a small alcove. Meanwhile the other party had decided to follow us. Their third climbed up next to me and waited patiently while I broke down the belay and start climbing.
Jens near our belay on the third pitch
The pitch, while not sustained, was difficult due to chandeliered ice. The thick, plastic ice from below was not to be had. Jens’ lead was impressive on this unnerving terrain. He had a nice belay and it looked like the top was close, but we couldn’t be sure. We swapped gear and he climbed around me onto a vertical pillar. Thirty feet above he found some nice ice and put in a screw for each of our double ropes. Then I heard a hollow, echoing sound. Then nothing for a while. Finally I heard Jens holler, but couldn’t tell what he said. Was it “Off belay” or “How much rope”? I couldn’t tell, so I left him on even after the rope started running fast. When it was all out I pulled it from my device.
The rope came tight on me and then tugged. This is our signal for on belay. I broke down the belay and started climbing. To the two good screws, the ice was better than the previous pitch, but steeper. I cleaned the two screws from a good rest, then traversed out, following the ropes. After twenty diagonal feet I found the source of the hollow sound: The ice was indeed about three inches thick and I could see the water running behind it. Each swing and kick produced a sound and vibration that I was sure was the beginning of the section completely collapsing. It didn’t, but I was fading fast. I had to resort to monkey hanging every few moves to rest my calves and biceps. I cleaned one more marginal screw, then followed up a steep column, on better ice. There was also some stemming to be had, which helped my fatigued body. As I pulled over
the column I could finally see Jens 30 feet up a steep snowfield. I huffed and puffed up the slope and joined him. It was 3:50 PM. We’d been on the route for eight hours.
Oh, so happy to be on top!
Jens and the obligatory summit photo.
We both wanted to rest and eat, but time was short and we had only one headlamp. So we snapped a couple pictures and followed the tracks to the south. We walked down through the creek and up a small ridge. From there the first rappel a large tree was obvious. It went down a steep,
Scottish-style gully with some rock, snow and ice. A short section was overhanging.
Looking up at me on the first rap. The tree on the skyline is the
We descended slightly in a counter-clockwise arc to the next rap, from a tree on a small promontory. We could see the other climbers on the last pitch, in the dusky light. I could hear the frustration in their voices. Jens rapped over and landed on a large bench about 100 feet below. The tracks from the previous party were obscured. Jens wandered right, then back left toward the falls. From above I spotted some footprints out toward the falls and Jens confirmed that it looked like they’d rapped off a dead snag. I rapped down and pulled the ropes, then
walked up to the snag. It had a few old slings on it. We threw the rope around it and I went down first, unsure if we could get to the base of the upper falls on this rap. I could see the tips of the ropes below, just as I passed a bad looking chockstone with more old slings. The rope didn’t reach all the way, but maybe with stretch, the downclimb would be short. I reached the end of the ropes about 20 feet from the base of the falls. I got out my tools, set my feet, and let the ends of the rope slide through the rappel device. Then I carefully downclimbed the twenty feet to soft, fluffy snow below.
As Jens started down I realized that I’d left him with a very shitty job. He couldn’t just rap off the ends of the rope, he needed to pull one end down to me from twenty feet off the deck. Well, this turned out to be a mini-epic. The ropes are stretchy and were somewhat jammed in a
notch above, and the ice was thin so he couldn’t place a screw to anchor himself while he yarded on the ropes. In the end, he tossed down the screw he tried to place, which I promptly lost in the snow. Then I threw the web-o-lette up to him (it actually took about five throws). He attached a sling to the rope and the web-o-lette to the sling. Then I was just able to reach up and hook it with my tool. I started pulling the rope while Jens downclimbed.
We traversed around the amphitheater to the top of the lower falls. The party the day before had rapped part way down the upper falls from a tree far on the climbers left, then made a second rappel from a V-thread. We opted to use the same tree, but to go over the cliff instead of down the ice. It was really getting dark now, but I figured we could make it, so I didn’t get out the headlamp, which was buried in the pack. Jens called that he was off rappel and I carefully clipped in in the low light. Below, he was hanging from a large tree growing out of the cliff. I came down to him and clipped the rap ring on the wad of slings. We pulled the rope, and in the near darkness, each made one more rappel to the welcome snow slopes below. It was 5:30 PM. Now at the base of the lower falls, we followed our tracks from the morning up to out tent. We were exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated, so we took off our crampons and piled into the tent where we gorged ourselves on everything in sight and drank lots of water. We both felt much better after twenty minutes, so we packed up and started down at about 7:30. We could hear voices, but there was no sign of headlamps above us.
I don't envy the other group all those rappels in the dark.
Goofy looking Loren packs camp in the dark
With all the snow that had fallen, and our fatigued heads, we couldn’t quite remember what we had used for an anchor at the top of the WI3 pitch below. I thought I belayed from rocks, but that was actually at the top of the upper falls. Then, as we stumbled around, Jens spotted the end of the cord from the fixed V-thread and screw sticking up out of the fresh snow. Whew. We threaded the ropes and I rapped down to the narrow canyon below. With the high beam of my headlamp I could see the tent of the other group, tucked up against the rock wall. We gathered up the gear we had stashed here (poles and my snowshoes), grabbed some water, and headed down. Just around the corner we did some reverse frontpointing to get back into the main drainage.
Jens downclimbing in the dark
There we stripped off some layers and I got my poles out. We cruised down quickly, pausing briefly to pick up Jens’ snowshoes. I left my crampons on until we exited the drainage and reached the relative safety of the trees. There we both switched to snowshoes. Twenty minutes later we were retrieving the raft from behind the boulder. It was 9:30 PM. We quickly, but carefully, put the raft in the water and piled in the gear. I climbed in and pushed us off the shore. Two minutes of paddling later we hit the far shore just where we’d put in the previous day. Jens hopped out and I handed him the gear. We put our packs back on, threw poles and paddles back in the raft, and dragged it up the bank to the road. Two hundred yards later we were back at the car. After scraping the ice off the windshield and throwing in our packs, we each had a Snowcap Ale, a tradition at the end of a climb.
It was after 10:30 when we drove off. We stopped in Leavenworth for coffee and tortilla chips. The night manager of the gas station/food mart was busy throwing out a homeless person, but grudgingly made some time for us anyway. The drive home was long. Though the skies were clear, intermittent, and sometimes thick, ground fog slowed us down. It was after 1:00 AM when we pulled into my driveway. The coffee kept me awake just long enough to tell the abridged version of this story to my wife, then I was off to a well-earned sleep.