WASHINGTON: First Complete Traverse of the Silverstar Massif VI 5.9+

First Ascent: Mark Allen and Mike Layton 8/24-8/26 2005. VI 5.9+

Post by Mike Layton

Arial Photo of the East ridge of Silverstar to the Summit. Our hearts sank the first time we beheld its true size. ~Photo John Scurlock

Mark and I finally completed a dream of ours we’ve talked about, but never found the time between the two of us for the past three years It’s gonna be hard to write this up since my memory is terrible and I don’t really know how to begin. I guess I’ll start from the beginning...

Day One: East Ridge of Silverstar V 5.9+

We had 4am wake up at Mark’s unibomber cabin in Mazama, downed some eggs and coffee, shuttled a bike to Silverstar creek and dove the shaggin wagon to the Cedar Creek trailhead. It was pitch black out Mark realized when his petzel “weaka” barely illuminated his shoes as he tied them. It was calm and the stars were blazing. The Northern Lights pulsed across the night sky. Truly spectacular start to a long long trip.

There’s a horse trail that leaves the Cedar Creek trail about 100 yards from the start and is basically a wooded spur off the east ridge of Silverstar. We took the steep trail about 4 miles of uphill grind wondering the whole time, “where the hell does the east ridge of Silverstar start?”

Our hearts sank for the 1st of many many many times when we fist saw the beast, the East Ridge of Silverstar, put up by Childs in the early 90's. It’s only seen a handful of ascents and we had zero beta. Sweet. The climbing started TWO MILES from the summit of Silverstar along an exposed ridge with lots of scrambling and climbing. Our first two raps occurred after about an hour of climbing. We could see the ridge lead up steeply to junction of ridges that block our view. The summit must be just behind

Nope, our hearts sank again after we pulled off some really spooky exposed soloing when we saw the summit another full mile away up an enormously long and confusing ridge with an unbelievable amount of sub peaks and high points. Crap, our noon summit estimate is out the friggin window

Lots and lots of soloing up the ridge (up to 5.6) brought us to the base of the Silver Horn. We tried a new route up the east ridge, but we kept blanking out in 5.10 land in tennis shoes and a long way to go still. More raps and some traversing (below Berdinka/Thibaults route on the middle ledge section...looks great ) brought Mark and I to a steep chimney system that we soloed using full stemming between walls. Very exciting. We topped out on the Silver Horn, rapped back onto the ridge and wondered where in the hell folks were going on this ridge. All our raps were new ones, so we assumed that the people who were doing the regular E.ridge route avoided the silver horn. Who knows? Route finding is full on.

Hours later of continuous climbing (to 5.9+), rapping, mind blowing exposure, dead ends, heart sinking moments of “crap, we gotta find a way through this ), and making sure we stuck to the ridge to keep a clean line (unsure where reg e.ridge goes) we reached the summit. We had one hell of a time getting around huge gendarmes that block passage on the entire width of the ridge (a major problem on this climb) and there were lots more sub summits than we could have possible anticipated. Also there was fresh snow and frozen moss to keep us on our toes for when we were on the north side of the ridge.

Wasting no time (we took zero breaks during the climb on all 3 days) we dropped down to the saddle below the main summit. 11 hours of climbing, 13.5 hours from the car. The way we went on the east ridge was a grade V 5.9+. Full on climbing all day long. Time to bivy. We melted snow and filled our long dry bottles. It got down to 28 degree that night with a brisk wind, so our bivy pads of 8mm rope didn’t make too comfortable of a sleep. Luckily the whiskey I snuck in my pack helped. Then I burned my sleeping bag on the stove and had somehow lost my tape, so I had to ridge a down tourniquet with some perlon. Feathers float about as we slept on and off.

The Old Woman Tower on the Left and the Wine Spire group center and the Burgundy Col Bivi on the right. ~Photo John Scurlock

DAY TWO: West Peak Silverstar-Old Woman-All the Wine Spires V 5.9+

It took a huge amount of willpower to get out of “bed” as it was still in the high twenties when we got going. Mark chugged his water the night before while I hoarded mine. I started to make some more water when I got about 8 ounces before the stove quite. Silence. No more fuel. Mark shoved his water bladder full of snow hoping it would melt against his back during the day. It actually worked

The “easy” west peak of Silverstar took way longer than we expected and we had to rap a few times b/c our crampon less tennis shoes didn’t really want to stick to the steep frozen dirt snow. The frozen dirt snow proved a constant pain in the ass. Then getting to the Old Women took longer than we thought. But when we got there and peered down the abyss 400 feet straight down to dizzying and impossible looking array of wine spires our hearts really sank. Both of us wanted to quit. Go home. Bail. Screw this, we’re gonna die. But we rapped off anyway on our nth rap we had to set up with the 50 feet of dwindling tat I brought.

We traversed around to the East Face of Chablis and did the Beckey route. Great fun. 2 pitches, some runout steep face climbing, and some simul climbing to the wildly exposed summit. We looked across to Pernod spire. How the hell are we gonna get up this? The east was sheer, the west was a huge ridge we’d have to rap forever to get to, and the South face rose impossibly up from the col. But the s.face did have cracks. I gulped and told Mark I’d give it a go.

I climbed extremely timidly up the vertical wall wondering at every moment if the cracks would continue and if I fell would my gear hold. I pulled the roof and ran outta gear. Mark came up and finished the pitch up a great handcrack/layback. We had no idea it had been climbed before. (This face was visited by Cliff Light and Co.)

More rapping, downclimbing, and climbing up a horrible horrible chimney/gully system took Mark and I to the North Face of Chianti Spire. My lead. This pitch was hands down the scariest, loosest, worse, most run-out piece of s*%!t pitch I’ve ever climbed. The rock was finnish before you go insane scary. Mark called it “a life or death” lead. I was glad to be done. More rapping.

One more to go Mark did a terrifying pitch up the south face of Burgundy from the notch. An exposed fingertip traverse with 3 foot tall pedestals that were so loose you HAD to only push down with your feet. Unfortunalty those were the only footholds, and I stepped on the 1st one the wrong way and it started to totter over and fall, so I hooked it with my toes and tipped it back into place so I could 2nd the traverse. Two more pitches took us to the top. I forgot what Mark called this "new" route but it was also 5.9+.

Four double rope raps and we were at Burgundy Col. 11.5 hours of climbing. Out of water once more. Mark and I were excited to be done and go home. Mark said he only had two days because he had to work the next day. But then Mark said something that changed everything “Yeah, I gotta work Saturday morning, tomorrow. Bummer” To which I replied, “Mark, today is Thursday” We instantly had another day. There was still more to climb We took stock of our food situation...we had enough for a small dinner of snacks, and a couple bars for the next day. No water though. We bombed down burgundy col east toward Chianti and found trickles in the old glacier ice. We had to finnish the Whisky. It was the only canister small enough to collect our water. With full bottles we slogged back to the col and had another minimal bivy and slight buzz. It was great

Day Three Vasiliki Ridge IV 5.9+

Vasiliki Tower starts it right off from Burgundy Col. We encountered some unbelievable s%!*y rock on this climb (from the south east ridge) and I had yet another hate filled vomit inspiring I’m gonna fucking die lead. My cams for the 1st part were probably more dangerous in the rock than running it out since when the inevitable ripped out of the rock if I fell, the block that would come down would kill Mark. Good times. Then I began gardening. All Mark saw was a waterfall of dirt pour down 75 feet up. He had the cam I needed in the belay too, so I doubled up in the same spot and went for it. Thank god it went too. Yet another 5.9+

The Acropils, Charon and Ares tower went down way easier than we thought and our hearts almost didn’t sink when we headed for the “final bit,” Juno-Jupiter tower. Jupiter was the before Juno and an exposed but easy crack took us to the top. Then our hearts sank. It was impossible to get to Juno tower. We tried a lot of craziness to make things go over the past three days, and this wouldn’t go. We had to do lots more rapping and very scary down climbing to the West. Long ribs shot down boarded by deep gullies of marginal rock and we climbed up rapped down them looking for a way up. By the time we found a way up we were past Juno. We were way outta water and food. Getting up the remaining pitches horrid rock seemed so forced and contrived. So we got back on the ridge and finished the traverse . 8 hours of climbing on day 3. Hunger was extreme by the decent, and somehow we found the energy to run the last section (the trail to the car) of the Silverstar creek decent. Mark got the privilege of biking to the car (made it back in less than ½ hour ) which I wanted b/c I get bored sitting and waiting.

All told we did 24 high points/summits and 28 rappels, took 3 full days of climbing, and did 4 miles of rock climbing (not including the approach or descent). It was a major traverse of the longest unbroken section of ridge in Washington Pass, thus the name “The Washington Pass Traverse” but it never stuck and the community calls it the "Silverstar Traverse". We feel confident in our grade 6 rating, and our 5.9+ is a conservative estimate of the pitches of “not quite 5.10 . We needed two ropes and about 100 feet of tat. God only knows how many "pitches" We stuck to the ridge crest as much as possible, dropping off the ridge only when absolutely necessary...sometimes sticking to the ridge too much We had a full rack up to a 3 cam and emptied the rack on several pitches. Future parties can add to this traverse by climbing the E.ridge of the silverhorn, and figuring a way up Juno to the south. We weren’t very sad about not tagging juno, 1/24 of the climb and ten feet from the summit we were on anyhow...not such a big deal for us. We are very happy about the whole thing and will be happy to provide beta, or get beta from past ascensionists of some of the more obscure peaks and routes we climbed. And before you (you know who you are) start bitching and wining and thinking of little things to say to call our bluff, go climb it yourself. Mark and I tried doing this climb in the best style possible, no Caches, carrying everything, no topos execpt for chianti and chablis. We made it up as we went along.

Hat’s off to you if you read the whole thing. That’s a feat in itself.

-Mike Layton

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