East Wilmans Spire July 24, 2004
So, Vincent, thumbing through Jim Nelson's 2nd Selected Climbs guidebook, suggested East Wilmans Spire. O how the mighty have fallen!
The morning was actually pleasantly cool. The trailhead was quiet, except for another pair of climbers decked out in shorts, polypro and gaiters, and already wearing their climbing helmets for the 4 mile bicycle ride into the ole Monte Cristo townsite. They left just ahead of us.
Vincent had brought his road bike, since he doesn't have a mountain bike. I thought the road was a little rough for a road bike, but I should learn not to question Vincent's resolve.
The ride went smoothly, except for the roughs parts where he had to walk his bike. We locked our bikes at the bike rack in town, and wandered across the bridge, following signs to Glacier Basin.
In the morning, Vincent had been excited about visiting this mining ghost town. I made sure to set his expectations low though - there was to be no "wild west", with old buildings scattered about, and tumbleweeds blowing through. I had only been to the townsite once before, and recall no buildings, other than the modern forest service cabins. There may have been some old ruins off in the overgrown woods.
It was pretty much as I remembered, even as we took "Dumas Street"... a lot of signs indicating what was once there (Royal Hotel, Peabody Mercantile, etc...) but not much in the way of actual remains. We had to use our imagination. Ouch, that hurts!
The trail was a quick ascent to Glacier Basin - you get out of the trees quickly. Some blueberries and a salmonberry made the ascent a little more pleasant.
The spire soon came into view - along with the infamous approach gully etched into the mountain side. The spires are impressive from Glacier Basin. Less impressive is the massive talus field you must climb. We filled up with water coming out of this talus. The water in the basin is contaminated by heavy metals due to the mining in the past, but presumably our water source was clean. Besides, the National Mining Association says that heavy metals build strong bones.
The talus turned out to be much better than it looked - it was solid underfoot and provided a quick ascent to the snow gully.
Time for crampons. We ascended the snow until it ran out where there is a step in the gully. The snow continued above, but the way through the step wasn't clear. We eventually decided on a rocky dihedral on the left side of the gully. Vincent climbed up - once he was out of the way, I stepped up into it, but quickly proclaimed that the holds sucked (downsloping) and that I didn't think I'd make it up the 5th class step without a belay. All I heard from Vincent above was "Dhhude... it's all there..."
After whining about getting sketched for a few minutes, I moved right - it was more exposed but easier climbing, and soon I was on top, on gravelly ledges. Time to get back on the snow.
Vincent said the rock on the side looked better, and maybe the snow would end in a big snow cliff - what then? I continued putting my crampons back on, and as I climbed onto the snow, Vincent shouted down (as he committed himself to a move) that that was probably a good idea.
So I went up the snow, and he went up a crack system on the left side. It climbed higher and higher above the gully. We talked about me throwing a rope over to him, but nothing came of it. It looked to me like he was going to get stuck high on the gully walls. It looked to him like I was going to get stranded on the snow plug, with overhanging moats all around.
Soon he was forty feet above the gully, and mostly out of sight. Meanwhile, I reached the end of the snow. Hmm. It petered out into a narrow fin - but the right side was slightly less than vertical, and seemed to provide a way down.
I leaned over and set about chopping some steps out to make the down climb easier. I was able to chop two steps. I was feeling like the alpine hardman or something. Probably something.
I planned the order of my feet, and started down, placing the axe and both hands on the opposite side of the fin. One step into it I realized my chopped steps were quite useless, and the snow was soft enough to kick decent holds, and I just smashed up my beautiful chopped steps with my crampons. Upon reaching the edge, it was time to jump a few feet down into the chossy 45 degree dirt & rock.
Done. I scrambled up the dirty gully to the ridge top, where Vincent was just finishing off his foray onto the gully walls by finding a ledge that got him easily off. He didn't seem too enthused about his route up, and mumbled something about mid 5th class - "but it was all there!".
Ok, spire time. We dropped our axes and crampons, and hiked up Heisenberg-uncertainly-principle-talus to the col east of the spire. From here the ledge we needed to get to was obvious, but how to get to it was not. So we cheated: Vincent pulled out the guidebook description. "Climb up 20ft, then left (and down 10ft) to the ledge". Ahh. I led this "pitch", which is accurately rated 5.0.
Vincent continued up the final pitch - it was nice climbing (blocky face climbing on little ledges with a crack - 5.4 or so), but quite loose in spots. My turn.
Soon I was on the summit. Cool summit, but descriptions of it being "table top" sized are a little exaggerated. It's a big table. Maybe like the "situation room" in the White House or something. Still, it drops off steeply on all sides, so it's nice and airy.
Sloan Peak looked cool.
After relaxing for half an hour, we made two raps back to the base of the first pitch, and back-tracked the first pitch unroped (it's easier going backwards).
Soon we were back on top of the approach gully. Not really looking forward to this.
Down the loose gravel, onto the snow fin, and then careful down climbing of the steep hard snow. It was actually kind of fun, but required constant care, so it was a bit mentally exhausting. Vincent said he'd belay me down the rock constriction, and then down climb (no good rappel anchors). That felt like pussing out though, so I search around a little more, and found a 3rd class way through the constriction. Amazing what a little route-finding will do.
We cruised down the talus field back into Glacier Basin... well, I cruised. Vincent was off on the south side of the talus, trying to find a path in gravelly scree. I was on the north side, cruising twice as fast down solid slabby talus.
The trail down from Glacier Basin was brutally hot (brutile). That may have been why we saw no one else all day (past the townsite). I thought this place was popular??
Back at the bike racks in town, Vincent saw one of his road bike tires was flat. He inflated it. It seemed ok. We rode for a hundred yards or so. It was not ok. We rode a little more. He asked if he could use my pump this time, to see if that would help. "Will my pump make it deflate less quickly?" I pondered, questioning his logic. Okay, maybe not.
So he was going to ride back on his rim. "Won't that damage it?" I asked.
"There's no way I'm walking".
That was fine by me, so we continued. When we stopped for a break at the bridge, and he announced that both his tires were flat. I took smug satisfaction in my comments about not taking a road bike: "I told you so." He announced his intention to go into Walmart and buy an "approach" bike for $100. He would approach the greeter, and ask "Excuse me, do you sell approach bikes?".
The two guys we'd met in the morning passed by at this point. They were still wearing polypro and gaiters. It had been in the mid 90s! That might have been cool in the 90s...?
We talked to them back at the trailhead - they had been up into Glacier Basin, and climbed Cadet Peak, but we never saw them.
We met yet again in Granite Falls, and ate pizza with them. They were nice guys. After eating, walking back to my truck was scary, because there were some drunken Granite Falls white-bread homeboys antagonizing each other - circling around each other, doing that intimidating motion they do with their hands, you know. I just averted my gaze and we quietly got into my truck and left. Granite Falls is maturing into a city or something.
In conclusion, I would like to say that East Wilmans Spire is highly recommended. The small dollop of (crumbly) rock climbing is more than made up for by the sparse topping and the slightly spicy approach, resulting in a subtle alpine flavour that will tantalize your senses.
Since you've made it this far, I will reward you with two mtnPhilms Instructional Series videos:
Snow Plug Climbing