High on the East Face of Mox Peak. Photo © Erik Wolfe.

Tamed by the Beast

  Part 2, by Mike Layton  


hursday, 7,200 Feet and Back to Mox Basin Camp

Instead of being warmed by the sun on the east-facing wall in the morning, we woke to cloudy skies and threatening rain. Pitch after pitch ate the day away, and thankfully the weather cleared for us mid-morning. Many of the pitches zigzagged across tiny run-out ledges to find ways through overlaps and overhangs. Protection continued to be a battle of nerve and creativity, run-outs got bigger, and loose rock threatened to end it all.

“Fatigue, hard climbing, and the commitment level were taking a toll on my energy and mind-set, and after a while I told Mike I couldn’t lead any more. He grabbed the rack without hesitation, and proceeded to tear up pitch after scary pitch. At one point, I poked my head over onto the belay and said, ’Mike? Honestly. You are my Hero.’

“At some point during both days of climbing John Scurlock flew over us several times. Seeing his familiar yellow plane circling overhead both days was a sight for sore eyes. Mike’s flight with John the month before provided valuable recon and psych for the whole project.

“During Mike’s extended lead session he kept saying, ‘Okay. One more pitch and I’m calling it.’ The climbing got out of control.” – Erik Wolfe

Erik told me later that he knew I must have really wanted this thing the way I was climbing. We were now fully committed. Every pitch of the upper headwall felt like playing Russian roulette with the rack. The pressure of forcing a way up, constantly trying to dig for gear and getting very little, worrying about poor belay anchors, not knowing if the wall’s gonna totally blank out, and just the whole enormity of the situation almost got to me. I cried on one of my leads and tried to seize control of my mind and calm down before Erik got to the anchor so he wouldn’t see how fucked up I was.

On the East Face, SE Mox Peak. Photo © Mike Layton
On the East Face, SE Mox Peak. Enlarge Photo © Mike Layton
We both pushed and pushed until we were spread to the limit of our physical and mental capacity. Erik ran out of food and water hours earlier and I was hoarding the last few sips I had left to get us up and back down. The climbing was full-on until the very last pitch. Our route stuck to the right edge of the east face and we could see the summit up ahead. Above, the rock was devoid of cracks and solid rock, so we traversed over to the Northeast ridge to get a look at the descent. A short scramble to the summit of “Hardest Mox” led to a heartbreaking full day’s climb over ridges and gendarmes to the summit of SE Mox, and an unknown amount of rappels into the extremely broken glacier. One more easy pitch to the summit would have committed us to another full day of trying to get off the peak. John Scurlock told us later that he saw this on his flights and hoped to God that we wouldn’t try going down that way.

We had to regain control of the situation and get off this mountain. We had completed the East Face and were so close to topping out, but we felt that if we summited we would have climbed past the point of no return. So we put a Joker playing card in a plastic bag to mark our ascent, shook hands, and began to rappel the entire route.

Of course, the ropes got stuck immediately after our first 200-foot vertical rappel. I tried to jug up on Tiblocs on a single line and just got totally cluster-fucked and was taking forever. Erik has way more experience jugging, and proudly and courageously began the shitty jug up the 200 feet of rope, completely exhausted and dehydrated.

“The ropes got stuck within 10 feet and I felt a twang of THE FEAR. I started to jug the line, and after about 20 feet, looking at Mike said, ’I can’t do this, Mike!’ He replied, ’You have to. There is no other way.’ The seriousness of the situation really sunk in then, and with that understanding, I found the reserve to do the rest of the ascent. We were not going to die on the wall. When I got to the top, I was tripping hard from the effort; the world seemed to take on a surreal quality. When I pulled up the ropes to re-toss them, they were horribly tangled and I almost began to cry. The mountain seemed unwilling to let us descend.” – Erik Wolfe

The first rappel took an hour-and-a-half — not a good start. Fortunately that was our only stuck rope in the 13 rappels down the East Face and tree-studded NE ridge. We had many near misses by rocks bombing down from above, and one chopped the lead rope during a rappel. The sky was pitch-black; both ropes were tangled in a pile on a thin ledge below where the rock had struck. We had no way of knowing where in that tangle the rock had struck, or how badly, and were relieved when we found the core shot only five feet from the end. Not knowing were the rope was cut midway down a free hanging rappel on a blank face in the dark is not a pleasant experience. Having exhausted our slings and rap anchor material, we cut those five feet and used them for the next rappel.

I told Erik he was my hero for jugging the line when he had nothing left, and for setting such amazing anchors so quickly with nuts and pins, and stretching the raps to the full length of the rope in complete darkness. Nobody could ask for a better climbing partner. Our relief was overwhelming when the ropes made that familiar “whoomp” sound when they hit the talus at the base of the mountain. We had finally finished a $200 rappel.

Under a cloudy moonless sky, we were forced to bushwhack through intense alder in the middle of the stream because we could not find our tent in the darkness! We knew it was in the talus right next to the river. Cold and wet, and tired to the limits of our endurance, we found the tent at 3:30 a.m. and collapsed inside.

Joker left at the high point. Photo © Mike Layton.
Joker left at the high point. Photo © Mike Layton.
Friday, Mox Basin to the Little Beaver Trailhead

Since our boat pick-up was Saturday morning, we had no time to rest. We were pretty sure the return would not take us the 14 hours of approach, but we didn’t want to risk missing the boat. That day was agonizing but we were so numb to misery that we just kept plodding away.

As we were traversing a ridge I crushed a bee’s nest in the ground and Erik, being right behind, was stung three times. Erik’s foot and hand swelled considerably. The hike out took only ten hours with better weather, drier rocks, 20-20 hindsight of the best way to go, lighter packs, and downhill going. As well, we had stashed a six-pack of Rainier Ale at the launch with some salmon and crackers. We just kept thinking about the beer, put batteries into the mini-speakers, and the Beastie Boys brought us back a little, setting a good rhythm. Time slowed for the last two hours. The last mile to the launch climbs up a 500-foot switchback, and the word “suck” came up a lot.

We finally reached camp at 7:30 p.m. to much celebration, put off only a little by the absence of one of our beers. We still had ourselves a fine Irish drunk, finishing the remaining whiskey as well. I found the energy to “house-party” dance on the bear box and grill. An unbelievable amount of shit was talked before we passed out tired and happy.

Saturday morning, The Last Mile

The inevitable hangover was supposed to be tempered by a swim in the lake, but the clouds were rolling in fast and heavy and the water was too cold, so we nursed our coffees and packed leisurely. The boat ride dumped us off to a crowded launch of people out-bound. We totally forgot today was the start of Labor Day weekend. The final sting in the tail awaited us, as the last mile to the highway was another 500-foot grind. Constant calls of “Take!” and threats of bivying just before the car, or setting off the red flare were uttered during the final bit. We popped some music in the stereo and ignored the disdainful looks from passing hikers. At the parking lot, The General 2000 was a sight for sore eyes.

Mox Peak, Climbing History

The SE Summit of the Mox Peaks (Twin Spires) is the most difficult of Washington’s “100 highest mountains.” Writing on CascadeClimbers.com (post #218142) historian Harry Majors described the rock on the peak as “notoriously unstable and treacherous ... [consisting] of two different rocks, poorly bonded together, dipping or inclined steeply, and rendered hard and brittle.”

Selected chronology:

September 20, 1939
SE Peak attempt by Will Thompson and Calder Bressler of the Ptarmigan Climbing Club. They left a note in a Band-Aid box on one of the sub-summits of the Ridge of Gendarmes.

June 21-22, 1941
First ascent of NW and SE Peaks by Fred and Helmy Beckey. Descending from the SE Peak, Fred Beckey dislodged a piano-sized boulder that nearly swept him off the mountain. He later wrote: “In years of mountaineering this was perhaps my narrowest escape.”

August, 1958
Four climbers from Portland, Oregon attempt East Face of SE Peak. They climbed the lower right side of the face to one-third height, retreating below the “big bulge” at mid-face.

August 20, 1961
Descending from the summit of Northwest Mox Peak, Warren Spickard fell to his death after a hold apparently came loose. In 1964, the high peak two miles to the northeast was renamed Mount Spickard in his memory.

September, 1968
Fred Beckey and Mike Heath attempt East Face of SE Peak while friends Brad Fowler and Dave Leen complete the second ascent of the original route. Beckey and Heath climbed the more-difficult left side of the face and retreated from a point lower than the 1958 party. Heath later reported, “Every crack you find — and they’re pretty scarce — means that something’s ready to peel off the mountain.”

Nicknamed “Hardest Mox,” the 8,501-foot east summit of the SE Peak is a huge separate block of Skagit Gneiss, somewhat detached from the main west summit (8,504 feet). It remains the most difficult unclimbed summit in the North Cascades.


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