On the east ridge of Silver Star. Photo © Geof Childs

A Ridge Too Far

  Passing the Torch on Silver Star
Part 2, by Geof Childs


y own history with Silver Star begins in the spring of 1978 with ascents of both the glacier route and the regular route on the north face of Burgundy Spire. Having spent much of the previous five years climbing in the French West Alps and Himalayas, neither of those two routes quite lived up to my expectation of the ideal alpine route, but the mountain as a whole struck me as having great potential. I was back again in 1980, this time working as an Outward Bound instructor, and made a variety of ascents including solos of Ulrichs’ route and some more technical lines in the Cedar Creek area. It was not, however, until a drunken romp up Goat Peak in the fall of 1983 that I finally noticed the east ridge. And though intriguing, subsequent explorations left me with the feeling that the ridge was simply too long to complete in a day and just not technically appealing enough to merit dragging along bivouac gear.

Ironically, 18 years later, during a ski traverse of the range, I began changing my mind. During a lunch break at the head of Varden Creek I had looked along the ridge in both directions and decided that a one-day ascent might just be possible if only a practical means of access to the base of the ridge could be found. A few days later a local horsepacker provided the missing piece in the puzzle when he told me that a trail did, indeed, exist up the east ridge and could, in fact, be accessed from the Cedar Creek parking area. With that information in mind I immediately called Larry Goldie and, after a few adjustments to our schedules, made plans to try on the ridge as soon as possible.

On the East Ridge Silver Star. Photo © Geof Childs.
On the east ridge Silver Star. Enlarge Photo © Geof Childs.
A transplanted New Jerseyite, Larry had first learned to climb on a NOLS course and later moved to Bellingham, WA, where, in the early 1990’s, he finished college, served a brief apprenticeship sewing packs for Lipke and learned enough about his new-found craft to work as a guide. Moving to the Methow in 1995, he built a house, started guiding full-time and became both a close friend and a preferred climbing partner.

Starting out from the Cedar Creek trailhead on the morning of September 14, 2000, carrying headlamps, a light rack, a single 9mm cord, 72 ounces of water and a fresh turkey sandwich each, we quickly found ourselves scrambling a series of humpbacked ridges composed of coarse-grained granite overlaid by a weaker layer of metamorphic debris. Though never difficult, this portion of the ridge kept us fully engaged for the next mile-and-a-half. A more solid section of very exposed climbing and two short rappels (with bits of sling that were to be the only signs of human passage we encountered during the entire day) put us at Varden Col, where we ate lunch and finished the last of our water. Turning Silver Horn spire to the south, we next climbed grit-covered slabs to a narrow ledge where I nearly killed Larry with a loose rock; we then continued climbing west, still unroped, mixing long traverses with corners and slabs until finally reaching a point where going on meant going up. Ascending a steep bowl, we followed chimneys, cracks, blocks and slabs to an intersection with both the Beckey and Ulrichs routes and what must be the most spectacular 200 feet of tower-hopping in the Cascades.

It had been a great day. Fourteen hours car-to-car without a single piece of gear placed or a pitch belayed. It nagged at me that we hadn’t kept to a more direct line on the upper ridge, but that was a small complaint considering the miles of climbing we had done, the spectacular scenery, the solve-as-you-go route-finding and our satisfaction at having pulled off a probable first ascent of so obvious a feature. Yet, as the years rolled by it seemed increasingly obvious to me that with a little snow, a straighter line and a second summit, our route could be transformed from interesting into a classic. Thus, on a scorching hot Memorial Day in 2005, Rick Rozell and I decided to leverage our 118 years of cumulative life experience into a second shot at doing the thing right.

The snow we that thought would speed our travels proved to be a bottomless muck, the sun sapped our strength, the purest path up the ridge eluded us and, as if to punish our vanity, an afternoon lightning storm tanked our plans for a traverse of the east ridge. So it goes. We were both old enough to know that getting home is the most important part of going out and, as if to assuage our egos, Scott Johnston repeated most of the route a few days later and declared it to be excellent. Sean and Laura McCabe made the complete second a few weeks later and were equally complimentary—though Sean thought my rating of IV 5.8 hardly described the route’s true character. I did not disagree. How could a couple of numbers tell the story of so much rock covered in such a hurry? And besides, at an age when indolence comes rather more easily than activity, I was more than happy to settle down into semi-retirement and await the plaudits of the next wave. I was aware, of course, that some fitter and faster pair might eventually force a more direct line up the ridge, or perhaps extend our route as far as Silver Star’s west summit—I just didn’t know that time had already arrived.

Mark Allen, 27, and Mike Layton, 28, are in many ways an intriguing blend of both old and new school alpinism. Though decidedly generation next in language and attitude, their best routes give a traditionalist nod to the value of adventure. Fittingly, they had first met on a descent from the Wine Spires. Walking back to their cars in the dark, the two had discovered an immediate bond in terms of both shared friends and a belief that the big routes of the future in the Washington Pass area would come in the form of traverses rather than walls. During the weeks and months that followed they discussed climbing the east ridge of Silver Star, or perhaps making a north-to-south traverse of the Wine Spires or maybe even trying a run along the crest of Vasiliki Ridge. But finally, unable to decide which of these projects to try first, they simply decided to “do the whole thing at the same time.”

Leaving the Cedar Creek parking lot on the morning of Wednesday, August 26, 2005, and lugging all the necessary impedimenta for three days on the rock stuffed into their packs, they set out to accomplish “something special”. Four hours later, and with miles of what Layton would later call “spooky, exposed soloing” already behind them, they arrived at Varden Col, looked up at what lay in front of them and shook their heads at what was clearly more difficult than they had bargained for. Still, rather than skirting the tower (as all previous parties had done) they decided to stick with “a clean line” and give it a try. Simul-climbing directly toward the summit, they topped out and then rappelled into the same notch where Beckey’s northeast spur intersected the ridge. A few hundred feet of easier rock then led to the “monolith block” that had forced all previous parties down onto the south face. After a brief hesitation, Layton led off onto the north face, linking cracks, chimneys and clods of frozen moss into several rope-lengths of climbing that eventually put them back on the ridge proper. What followed is best described by Layton as hours of “rapping, mind blowing exposure, dead ends, [and] heart sinking moments of ‘crap, we gotta find a way through this.’” Nevertheless, thirteen-and-a-half hours after leaving the trailhead they found themselves standing on the east summit of Silver Star—exhausted, stoked, aching and amazed, and more than ready to crawl into their sleeping bags.

On Burgundy Spire. Photo © Mike Layton.
On Burgundy Spire. Enlarge Photo © Mike Layton.
Unfortunately, whatever hopes they had for an easier second day on the mountain quickly disappeared as the two climbers worked their way down dirt-covered slabs toward a feature known as the Old Woman. After three full-length rappels and a quick romp up the Beckey route on Chablis, they next climbed the more demanding south face of Pernod and, after two more rappels, found themselves at the base of Chianti Spire. The pitch that followed Layton would later describe as “hands down the scariest, loosest, worst, most run-out piece of shit pitch I’ve ever climbed.” Astoundingly, however, he made it to the top and was more than happy to turn the lead over to Allen who led nearly as hideous a pitch up the south face of Burgundy. Three rappels later, with another 11 hours of mind-numbing terror behind them, the two climbers spread out their sleeping bags beneath the stars and fell into yet another night of exhausted sleep.

Their third day began with a discussion about heading down. But as they talked the sky cleared, the day became warmer and it occurred to them that if Beckey and his friends had traversed the ridge 53 years earlier, how hard could it be? Quite hard, as it turned out, and after one more “hate-filled vomit-inspiring” pitch had put them on top of Vasiliki Tower, Allen and Layton probably would have retreated had they not found better rock. Thankfully, Acropilis, Charon, Ares and Jupiter all went in rapid order and as they approached their final objective, Juno, it was with a growing sense of certainty that their project was almost at an end. Then, at a small declivity in the ridge, things once again turned ugly. Hours of false starts, downward traversing, upward climbing and diagonal rappelling—all of it on “turd” rock—led to nothing. Out of water, out of food and no closer to the summit than they had been when they first looked up at it, they decided that, having already used up more luck than was their fair share, it was time to head for home.

Two days later Layton posted their tale on a local website. The route, in general, received praise, though Layton’s rating of VI 5.9+ provoked cries of outrage from the usual band of couch-sitters. His response, to paraphrase, was simply: ‘if you don’t like the grade, go do the route yourself and change it.’ My guess is that that challenge will go unaccepted for a while. On the other hand, I am also certain that other similar enchainements will eventually take place in the Washington Pass area. Projects like a complete traverse of the Silver Star-Big Kangaroo crest, a traverse from Easy Pass to Kangaroo Col, a winter ascent of the complete east ridge of Silver Star or maybe even a one-day ascent of the Allen-Layton route would all be noble projects. Each of them almost as unimaginable today as the south face must have appeared 80 years ago when Lage Wernstedt stood alone atop Silver Star and looked out over a range in which every possibility was as yet undreamed.

Silver Star

Silver Star Mountain Traverses
8,876 feet

East Ridge
(skirting portions of ridge top)
Geof Childs
Larry Goldie
September 14, 2000

Full Silver Star Continuous Traverse
(includes all major high points except Juno Tower, done in 3 days itemized below)
Mike Layton
Mark Allen
Grade VI, 5.9+

Silver Star Traverse - East Ridge
August 26, 2005
- Silver Horn
- Numerous other high points
- East Summit Silver Star
Route stays on ridge following Silver Horn.
Grade V, 5.9+

Silver Star Traverse - Wine Spires
August 27, 2005
- West Summit Silver Star
- Old Woman
- East Face Chablis
- South Face Pernod
- North Face Chianti (poor rock)
- South Face Burgundy
Grade V, 5.9+

Silver Star Traverse - Vasiliki Ridge
August 28, 2005
- Vasiliki Tower (poor rock)
- The Acropolis
- Charon
- Ares Tower
- Jupiter Tower
- Traverse around Juno Tower on poor rock.
Grade IV, 5.9+


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