Richard below the lower buttress of Lillarete. Photo by Nick Elson.
Salal Creek is located in the Upper Lillooet River valley, approximately 70km past Pemberton. This past summer, I had a chance to visit the area twice, once to climb on the Salal Creek walls, and another time to hike into Athelney Pass. Both of these areas are well worth visiting in the summer, whether you’re an experienced mountaineer, or a hearty hiker.
For those who don’t know me, I tend to read a lot of guidebooks, especially at social events. While flipping through Alpine Select, this route caught my eye. Lillarete, 18 pitches of 5.8 which leads to the summit of the Randy Stoltmann Tower. Lots and lots of pitches of moderate climbing in a remote area, what else could I want? It’s somewhat of an intimidating route, especially after hearing of Arlin’s epic (see VOCJ44), and Pete Hudson’s epic more recently on the route.
After climbing in Squamish for a few days, I was longing to get into the mountains. It didn’t take too much effort to convince Nick Elson, Ian Garber, and Stefan Albrecher to go climbing. It was middle of the summer, and it was suppose to be hot. From the end of the logging road, you can see the Salal Creek walls, and realize why the route is 18 pitches long. We met a confused party on the logging road, looking for a trail to the top of Mount Athelstan. It was quite strange. We weren’t aware of any easier trail up Athelstan, and we would they just want to snipe our route. The approach to the bivy site is short but steep, but with every step you get a nicer view of Plinth Peak. This volcanic peak has a steep north face, which is all that remains of the crater wall when the peak erupted.
To save some time for the next morning, I started sorting out the rack with Stefan once we got to the bivy site. Stefan really likes aid climbing, so he has a ton of nuts and sketchy looking gear, like offset aliens. It turns out that he lost most of his nuts, but he brought the one carabiner which had a full set of nuts, except they were all the same size, just different manufacturers.
The bivy site here is probably one of the best that I have experienced. There are a series of dug in platform on a pumice slope, just wide enough to fit one or two sleeping bags. It was a clear night, and the Perseids were putting up a spectacular show. I didn’t sleep much, it was too hard to close my eyes and miss out on another shooting star.
From the base of the climb, you can see a large square flat face, which has a diagonal crack cutting across it. Apparently this is what you want to climb up to. This is the first half of the route, which takes you to a notch below the summit of the Gnomon pinnacle. I can’t say the climbing in this section was particularly enjoyable. Most of the rock was a bit loose, and there was pitch after pitch of classic grass. Climbing with two parties can be tricky on such terrain; there is a real risk of knocking rocks down onto the lower party. This entire time we were in the shade, wondering when the sun would hit the rock. We brought a lot of water, since Pete and his partner had come close to dehydration on the route, but I think I barely drank any. Somehow we went further climbers left than we should have. After climbing through a few pitches of less than memorable gully pitches, we reached a full pitch traverse on a ledge.
At the end of this ledge, we found a bail anchor. These are never reassuring. But we knew we had to be on route, the ledge was described in the guidebook, and we could see the Gnonom pinnacle above us.
Beyond the Gnonom Pinnacle, the route got a lot nicer. We were finally in the sun, and the views of the mountains were incredible. We had trouble naming most of the mountains in the area, which meant there were more trips to do in the area. Some of the climbing in the upper parts were actually enjoyable, with some exposed moves on good rock. We even found a short hand crack near the top. Based on my limited alpine experience, it seems that the rock in the alpine around the Coast Mountain lacks the splitter features that you find in Squamish. The entire time on the route, Stefan and I were trying to beat Nick and Ian to the summit, just so we could claim the booty Max cam that Pete left behind on his epic trip here. The other two got the top of the narrow summit first, but didn’t find a good place to belay from. I went over and down the side of the pinnacle, and tied some slings around a solid block to belay from.
The two rappels from the summit to a col are not trivial. Both rappels are at awkward angles, and there is a lot of loose rock up here. When we pulled the rope, we found a new core shot, right in the middle of the rope. At this point, you can either climb another pitch of 5.7 on what looked like very loose rock to reach the glacier descent, or you could go down a couloir on the left. It was already late afternoon, and refrigerator size blocks were beginning to tumble down the main glacier, whereas the couloir was still in the shade and wasn’t releasing any rocks.
The descent down the couloirs was equally, if not more terrifying than climbing down the route. We were going light and fast, and didn’t have the best glacier equipment. For example, Stefan had a combination of approach shoes and new-matic crampons. He used climbing tape to hold it all together, and a glove to pad his feet against the metal. If we all had proper gear, we could have down climbed most of the gully. I was glad Stefan and Nick were here, since it took a full bag of alpine rappel tricks to get down the gully. This included a hex and tied blocks, multiple v-threads, one snow bollard, and a single #2 knifeblade. We bootied the pin from higher up, and Stefan thought the placement was so good that he rappelled last on it.
Rocks were still tumbling down the main glacier, so we had to move fast to avoid being a human bowling pin. The sun began to set as we arrived back at camp. It didn’t feel right to go back to the city when the surroundings were so beautiful, so we spent another night watching the meteor shower.