Right Place, Wrong Season

The Complete and Unabridged Rock Climb
up the Waterfall Wall

It took two attempts over two days, not to mention several stabs in past years, but we finally pushed a rock route all the way up the same terrain as Crane Mountain’s popular Waterfall Wall ice climb.

Bruce reaches the top of pitch 3 during the first full ascent of the Waterfall Wall.

Bruce reaches the top of pitch 3 during the first full ascent of the Waterfall Wall.

Once upon a time, the Waterfall Wall was not only the most frequented ice climbing venue on Crane Mountain, it shared the same status as a rock climbing area. Admittedly, this was in part because in those days, very few people did technical climbing anywhere on the mountain. Essentially it was me alone or with any poor soul/s I could con into going with me. The Waterfall Wall is a short hike from my house, so it is a natural après-work workout, taking an hour to reach, climb 110′ of moderate slab, and get back home. It was also, back then, the best way to access other cliffs, such as the Slanting Cracks Wall and the Easternmost Cliff.

Tom leads the 5.8 R first pitch of Polar Vortex despite its overgrown state.

Tom leads the 5.8 R first pitch of Polar Vortex despite its overgrown state.

With the advent of the East Path, climbers now concentrate on other areas, as do I. But I still live a short hike away from the Waterfall Wall, and of course, visit it often during the winter months. Over this past rock climbing season, I’ve returned to it and other crags in its vicinity, drawn in equal parts by nostalgia, practicality, and curiosity: seeing routes climbed years ago with old friends, using less gas and time, and searching for new route potential. The return has been fruitful: this season, we’ve added eight new routes to the crag, led a previously top-roped one, and extended another. Heading in that direction has also tended to pull us to other crags in that neck of the woods, which has in turn suggested new route potential in those areas.

One tick-list item that hadn’t been checked off remained: a complete rock ascent of the Waterfall’s ice route. Each slab along the way has been climbed in past years via a technical line, save one, the uppermost pitch. Those who have ice climbed there know that this is the only truly challenging pitch of the lot. The lower pitches are enjoyable but easy grade 1 or 2 ice, while the top one sports a thin sheet of ice cascading over a large overhang, a moderate mixed line, and a couple other steep options. The few fair-weather forays that high have never even attempted this uppermost pitch.

Tom accompanied me last Tuesday on an informal attempt at managing the feat. We opted to start at Learning to Fly, an old route originally used to set a top-rope for the much harder I’ll Fly Away next door. Robin and I had extended this utility route all the way to the top of the slab, adding about eighty feet to the original finish the week before, and I looked forward to getting Tom’s opinion of the result. He led both pitches, the first of which traverses straight right to reach the anchor at the top of I’ll Fly Away, climbs up a vertical crack to a horizontal one, traverses right to another vertical crack, and finishes at an oak tree on a cluttered ledge. The second is a short bit of technical climbing up a sparsely protected bulge into the woods. Once at the top, we scrambled through a short screen of hemlocks to the base of a 45′ tall buttress I’d glanced at previously. We spent an hour playing around on this, failing to find a feasible start for the otherwise pleasant climbing that begins fifteen feet up, before admitting defeat and working out a left-side sneak-in to regain a smidgen of success. The time spent dawdling on this task, and the troublesome bushwhack required to move back left to the actual watercourse spelled the end to our plan of reaching the topmost pitch, so without climbing much else, we ended up descending and heading home.

Bruce came up the next day, and since I’d mentioned my long-held hope of this goal, he opted to risk his day out on such an uncertain target. Loaded for bear, we made the short hike, and this time, I headed straight to Waterfall Left, the second route put up in this locale, in the early 1990s. Its R-rated 5.6 friction slab is familiar to me, and lies just left of the usual ice route, so I knew we wouldn’t have to bushwhack to the upper pitches. I also knew the route well enough to dispatch it quickly, so with little time spent, we were 110′ higher, at the base of the next pitch.

This too has been climbed as a rock route in the past, and like the lower stretch, its protection opportunities are few and far between. There is one effective piece on the route that we took, fortunately at the hardest move on it, so while the second pitch garners a 5.4 X rating, its crux is 5.6 PG. After the first 50′, the next 90′ is trivially easy, up tilted slab and over some boulders to the belay. Anyone seeking to repeat our trip during drier conditions might want to check out the left-facing flake system to the left of the watercourse, which may provide some decent protection up to the easy stuff, which has been climbed in the past, I think at about 5.6.

The third pitch is about 80′ of low-angle friction climbing that would probably clock in at barely technical if cleaned up thoroughly; in fact, if it were dry, the watercourse follows a right-facing corner that is class 3. It was cascading lazily when we reached it, and the short bulging slab to its right (where most ice climbers end up climbing) was also streaming wet, so we had to move farther right to reach a dry, green slab. After climbing fifteen feet, I slung an oak sapling, then moved left along a seam to the very edge of the green-carpeted slab before moving up and back right out into the midst of it. A sinuous dot-to-dot of cleaned patches betrayed an earlier solo ascent of this slab, something I’d done just a year or two ago. I was happy to have that trail marked out for me, since the slab offered zero gear, clocking in at 5.3 X in its current condition.

The Scramble from the third pitch to the fourth includes a walk through thick woods.

The Scramble from the third pitch to the fourth includes a walk through thick woods.

We coiled the rope for the fourth pitch, which is a walk, crossing the stream and scrambling up a steep ramp to the base of the fifth pitch’s slab. Here, we perused the situation carefully, since wetness was evident almost everywhere. This is probably the most dangerous pitch of the route, not because it is technically difficult, but because there is no protection for the first 70′, the upper part of which is extremely dirty, featureless, albeit low-angle slab. If that upper part is wet, it is well-nigh impossible to negotiate, and from the base, it is not possible to see its condition. A few moves on the steeper slab below would be extremely difficult to reverse, so committing to the slab may be a disastrous choice. When we arrived, two swathes of moisture ran down the lower section of slab, and I suspected they issued from an entirely-wet upper slab, but looking it over carefully, I judged that I could retreat if necessary. In the end, I did find the upper slab too wet to climb, so headed far left, traversing over one of the water streaks to reach a sodden, dirty right-facing corner, gaining my first pro and thence progressing to the second half of the pitch. This entailed an easy traverse right, underneath a 7′ high overlap, to rejoin the regular ice line, which ascends a dirty, right-facing corner system. Good holds and gear made it a relaxing contrast to the lower difficulties, and soon we both stood under the final cliff, having negotiated the 5.6 X pitch below.

Here was what we’d come for, but it was also unpleasantly wet. Remorseful that we hadn’t come here during the long dry spell of July and August, we considered our options. Rather than turn back once again, we thought an end run might be possible, climbing easily up the central block’s left edge, skirting some wetness to reach the overhang, then hoping for an easy traverse across the dripping center section of the roof to reach the vertical crack of the winter mixed line finish.

Bruce rappels down the uppermost pitch. Our line of ascent is drawn in.

Bruce rappels down the uppermost pitch. Our line of ascent is drawn in.

Long story short: we did it, more or less as described. Surprisingly easier than we expected, in dry conditions it would warrant a star or two. Its only major detraction is that the traverse passes a lot of crud lying on the holds and ledges along the way. At 5.7 PG, this is the best-protected pitch of the entire line, and also the most technically challenging, yet it will come as a relief from the often-frightful runouts common to the lower pitches. The frequent wetness actually helps to limit the growth of moss and lichen here, so the rock tends to be much cleaner than other places on Crane Mountain. Snag this at an opportune time, say at the height of a summer dry spell, and this may be one of the more enjoyable exploratory routes to seek out here.


All Wet 5.7 PG 5.6 X

The Waterfall Wall is popular as a long, mild ice climb, but for awhile it was also the most popular rock climbing area on the mountain. This was, admittedly, back in the days when Crane Mountain’s climbing population consisted of me and/or whatever poor fool I could con into hiking out there. But it was close to home, had a lot of modest slab to climb, and a couple interesting top-ropes. Over the years, every pitch of the ice climbing route has been soloed – every pitch except the topmost one. Bruce Monroe came up one day, and we finally put that puppy to rest – despite the less-than stellar conditions. Much was wet.

To reach the Waterfall Wall via public access takes over an hour: from the trailhead parking lot, walk east, through the Boulderwoods out the East Path. Follow the E.P. to the Isobuttress (part of the Black Arches Wall), then walk steeply downhill to reach the base of the Underworld cliff, the leftmost section of the Slanting Cracks Wall. Continue along the bottom of this cliff (admiring the shiny new super-hard routes there), then work downward to the drainage. Turn left, downhill, staying within sight of the drainage, to the point where the ground levels off. The base of the Waterfall Wall slab is here.

Start (a.k.a. P1) 5.6 R ~110’: Pick a pitch; but on the first successful send, it was Waterfall Left. Better protection and easier climbing is available on The Verge, less pro and harder going on The Verge Inn, and if you’re willing to traverse through truly nasty blowdown, loose boulders, or across wet slabs, almost any route along the lower cliff can be utilized to begin your “odd”yssey.

P2 5.6 PG 5.4 X 140’: Dry conditions may increase your options: the crack on the left edge of the watercourse has been climbed, for example; but on the initial unabridged ascent, we climbed from the bottom left edge of the dry buttress right of the watercourse to its upper right end. The first (and only relevant) pro lay in the crack 35’ up, rendering the most difficult move somewhat safer than the lesser moves below. After continuing rightward into a facetious pocketed groove, our route went up left to easy ground, then scrambled to the trees at the base of the next pitch.

P3 5.3 X 75’: If dry, the right-facing corner where the water usually runs is a class 3 scramble, the slab to its is an unprotectable 5.6 that gets easy after 10’, and there are a couple overhangs left of the watercourse that have been climbed, all of which involve tricky unprotected pulls to easy, short slabs into forest. The first full ascent opted for the low-angle, green slab right of the watercourse, because the entire watercourse was of course, coursing. This slab, while low-angle, has very little to offer in the way of gear (effectively one oak sapling), and  a few moves that would be trivially easy on sparkling clean rock, but are much more inspiring with their present endowment of greenery. Tip-toe up the start, about 8’ right of the boundary with the wet (and/or brown) rock, past the aforementioned sapling, traverse left 6’ along a seam to the edge of the green slab, then make a tricky move up following a suspicious line of clean patches to the top of the slab, being careful not to dislodge any of the loose rock shingles along the way. Belay with the same care, to avoid annoying your second.

P4 Class 2 260’: Cross the stream, then head up and right to a ramp leading to the base of the next pitch, a slab with a 7’ tall overlap above a scruffy ledge 75’ up.

P5 5.6 X 150’: Probably the most dangerous pitch on the route. There is no protection for the first 65’, and although the lower, steeper section sports holds and dries relatively quickly, the upper, lower-angled stretch is usually wet; wet and very dirty, and almost impossible to climb in said condition. This upper section is not visible from the base; the possibility of climbing into a trap exists. With no pro below, the near-certain fall attempting the moss covered slab directly above would be fatal. While this slab has been climbed in thoroughly dry conditions, the complete ascent managed a tenuous escape leftward after climbing up between two wet streaks only to discover the mess at the top, by sneaking under a loose rock plate on wet though clean(ish) rock, snagging pro in the wet right-facing corner, then scrambling up woods and moss to rejoin the regular ice climbing path after traversing right under the overlap.

P6 5.7 PG 85’: What we came here for; the only pitch that hadn’t seen an earlier ascent, and possibly, with some modifications and cleanup, an excellent line. Cowardliness obstructed a direct assault on the normal “ice curtain” line, dampness precluded a direct run at the mixed one, but we managed a hybrid that, save for the disgusting traverse, was decent. Climb up the left side of the 20’ tall block lying near the center of the face, to its top, then traverse left to a right-facing corner (both wet and dirty), make a couple funky upward moves, then hop left onto dry and clean slab leading to a stance under the overhang. Commence a long and very wet traverse, 25’ right to a position 8’ below and right of the bottom of a vertical crack. Climb up to the crack and through it to the top. After traversing 20’ of wet rock whilst being dripped on continuously, the 5.7 moves getting into and up the crack were a welcome relief.

FA: October 7, 2015 Jay Harrison and Bruce Monroe

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