Mt. Slesse

Posted on: March 1, 2007

[Photo] Jeremy Collins

December 9, 1956: a Canadair plane with sixty-two passengers left Vancouver amid a lashing storm. Twelve miles from takeoff, one engine caught fire, and the pilot radioed in a loss of altitude from 19,000 to 13,000 feet. The plane turned back toward Vancouver, then apparently moved off course southward. Suddenly, all contact was lost. Some claimed they heard a disturbing roar that night from a road in the Cascade Mountains of southern British Columbia, but the aircraft had vanished without a sign, as though it had continued on to infinity.

When a rumor began that a Chinese passenger had carried a money belt with $80,000 in cash, treasure hunters began to scour parts of the area, but it wasn't until the next summer that climbers wandering off route on Mt. Slesse spotted bits of wreckage along a knife-edge. They peered farther down to find a propeller, airplane tires, engine sections and human remains strewn on the mountainside all the way to the glacier, 2,300 feet below.

The diorite wall the plane had struck is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. Six years before the crash I'd flown by Slesse myself and become transfixed by its sheer east and north faces. In 1952 I'd followed the mountain's 1927 first-ascent route and gotten a closer look. From the dark summit helmet, the northeast buttress plumbed straight down, took a sharp leftward crook at twenty degrees, then angled in an unfaltering vector into the deep Chilliwack River Valley. I knew it must be at least 2,500 feet high—possibly the most magnificent alpine rock wall in the Cascades. No one had ever climbed it. With such an immense, wild valley between the buttress and the road, it would be hard even to reach the base.

The first time I tried to get to the wall, in September 1957, Don Gordon and I made a chilly river crossing, only to be stopped by snow on a high pass south of the mountain. In the summer of 1962 Dave Collins and I crawled through the scorched forest for hours. As we traversed below the east face, we glanced around for any of that lost currency in the scatter of metal, clothing and bone.

Tony McLane (on his eighteenth birthday) third-classing off the glacier onto the Northeast Buttress (V 5.9, 2,700', Beckey-Bjornstad-Marts, 1963) of Mt. Slesse (8,002'), Cascade Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. According to photographer Kevin McLane, "This is a classic 'Slesse Moment': the approach is over, the glacier is behind you, warm granite is under hand and you feel fully at grips with the route." [Photo] Kevin McLane

Up close the northeast buttress was so immense we could barely begin to look for routes. Its vast yellow and red-tinted sections looked blank, but a gray corner seemed more promising, although its start appeared out of reach, far below tree line. A row of careening seracs rested under the peak's east face; at any moment they might collapse and crush us. Below, the wreck's grim evidence lay in dark specks. Thoughts of our own annihilation turned us back.

The next summer loggers cleared a road into the valley east of Slesse, permitting a much shorter approach. I knew that others would soon be making attempts, so Steve Marts and I snuck back into the valley, past an airplane wheel resting on the ice and a bright object that might have been a bead necklace. A glacier chasm between us and the pillar now seemed like the most logical route. We crept across an exposed slab to the pillar's south edge, under huge fragments of the hanging glacier. On the other side, small evergreens sprouted out of strange perches. A crack system in the polished rock offered a logical first pitch. Then one of the ice blocks slid, only 100 yards away. If we'd been six minutes slower on the approach, we would have been struck.

We started climbing quickly. The first six pitches took us up an open book; a steep runout slab, lined with moss and cedar shrubs that seemed to float upward like a magic carpet; and then some crack systems. All the while the exposure haunted us. The broken glacier hovered underneath, and to the north, a dark wall fell into an abyss. At night, a fog engulfed our bivy, and when the morning came, the edges of the wall had disappeared into gray. Disoriented and spooked, after one pitch, we bailed into nothingness. Sometimes we'd reach the end of our rappel ropes, unable to see anything except an endless drop into darkness, and we'd have to swing sideways to get back on route.

Such misadventures notwithstanding, we were entranced, and we left the haul line and fixed ropes on two of the harder sections to facilitate our next attempt.

Since the buttress was so remote and the hauling so difficult, we decided to invite along another climber, but to preserve our secret, we didn't tell Eric Bjornstad what our objective was until he could no longer reach a telephone. When Eric complained, we reminded him that if one of his many girlfriends found out, the news would spread in the climbing community like a Montana wildfire.

The eastern ramparts of Slesse at sunrise. The Northeast Buttress, which takes the prominent sun-shadow line, is one of the routes featured in Steve Roper and Alan Steck's Fifty Classics Climbs of North America. Of the fifty routes in the book, Fred Beckey, who pioneered this line, established seven. [Photo] Kevin McLane

Eric later wrote in The Canadian Alpine Journal that once he found out where we were taking him, he was filled "with considerable apprehension." This time, however, the sky was clear, and we moved quickly up to our previous bivouac. The rock became steeper and the protection more tricky. We began to realize how hard it might be to escape if anything went wrong. After one long, sustained pitch, I reached the first decent ledge just as it got dark—too dark for Steve to remove the pitons. While Eric and I slept on the ledge, he hung in his slings, waiting for light.

"Rats!" Eric's cry woke us. "Something just jumped on my shoulder." Steve responded from below, "Don't drop any rat turds on me, buddy." At dawn we found the snafflehounds had chewed through the leather straps on our packs and nibbled at our boots.

Another cloudless day brought the more-welcome discovery that we'd already made it through the crux, and a few more reasonable pitches brought us to the top. While I don't know whether the legendary money belt was ever found, or if it indeed existed, we'd discovered our own richness in this place: a beauty that rose out of the danger and potential ruin, just as the buttress soared amid the wreckage of the plane and the remnants of the old glacier.

Today the route's otherworldly ambiance is evolving as civilization and climate change continue to encroach. But while the hanging pocket glacier under the east face may become smaller, the landmark buttress will always remain mysterious, its 3,000 feet visible above the Trans-Canada Highway and the shopping malls, a relic of the sixty-two passengers lost and the moment of fragile summit happiness that we'd once gained.

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