South Early Winters Spire Southwest Couloir + Blue Lake Peak / 南早冬尖塔

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South Early Winters Spire southwest couloir makes the most popular early-season snow climb. Towering above Washington Pass, the peak is also the highest point of the Liberty Bell group. Its nearest taller neighbor sits over on Copper Benchmark above Copper Pass.

One step closer to South Early Winters Spire
One step closer to South Early Winters Spire

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South Early Winters Spire at a Glance

Access: Blue Lake Trailhead
Round Trip: 4.1 miles
Elevation Range: 4900′-7840′
Gear: helmet, crampons, ice ax, rock & rope
Route Info: Stephen Sugiyama
GPS Track: available
Dog-Friendly: no

The Preface

South Early Winters Spire was a hard-to-come-by basic climb with the Mountaineers club. In such high demand, I was still on the waitlist two days before the trip. So I removed myself and went for something else instead.

The following year in 2013, I signed up for the climb as a rope lead. After waitlisting a month and a half, I decided it wasn’t my time. So I again unlisted myself and climbed a few Bulger List peaks instead.

View from Blue Lake Trailhead
View from Blue Lake Trailhead

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South Early Winters Spire

I had no intention of visiting the peak since its popularity has long outgrown the area. But when it popped up on my list, I thought it was time to end the love-hate affair. So I took Friday off work, hoping to avoid the weekend crowds.

The weather was gorgeous, and it felt like summer had finally arrived. I had a bigger plan for the long weekend going backpacking. But as the forecast worsened, I decided to return home after the trip to visit places nearby.

South Early Winters Spire in full display
South Early Winters Spire in full display

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Blue Lake Trail

As I packed by the highway, I chatted with a passerby going up to South Early Winters Spire. It looked odd that he had carried so little for a climb. As it turned out, Eric was going BASE jumping via the south arête. Holy isht!!!

I gave him a ride to the trailhead before finishing the last bit of preparation. Then I walked with two folks I met in the lot climbing the southwest rib. But I skipped the trail about 1000′ in and went uphill through the trees.

Peaks over Rainy Pass
Peaks over Rainy Pass

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Early Winters Spires West Basin

I started heading south through patchy snow. At 5600′, I moved east over the open forest before finding constant snow another 400′ higher. Then I went straight up the slope in old boot tracks without much route-finding.

I saw Eric again above the basin. After a quick chat, he disappeared into the shrubs as I veered left toward the couloir. But as I neared the entrance, I saw that most snow had melted out since a month ago.

A mountain goat on the saddle
A mountain goat on the saddle

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South Early Winters Spire Southwest Couloir

Right away, the giant chockstone caught my eye. Instead of going up from the right per Cascade Alpine Guide, I went up from the left. But I had to take off my pack and bring it up after squeezing through the narrow chimney.

Soon, I reached the snow after walking 200′ up the loose rocks and scree. Taking the standard route in the right fork, I went up through the wide most at first. But soon, the tall slabs had forced me onto the steep snow.

Taking the right fork
Taking the right fork

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The Final Stretch

With crampons and the ice ax, I carefully moved up the ramp. I had also brought an ice tool just in case but ended up not using it. Then came the crux of the limb at the constriction where the snow had broken in half.

It took some acrobatic moves to reach the upper half of the ramp since it was hollow underneath. Above that were a few more steps to the top of the snow. Then the rest of the way was over gravel slabs plus a few class 4 moves.

Decent rocks below the top
Decent rocks below the top

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South Early Winters Spire Summit Views

The rock quality had improved near the finish. From the gully entrance to the top was only 600′ but no walk in the park. I wouldn’t want to climb in a group during the dry months due to possible human-induced rockfalls.

The rest of the spires to the north all look stunning, and so was everything around Washington Pass. I spent an hour and a half on top before leaving. But I wondered what happened to the two I met at the parking lot.

Blue Lake Peak on the other side of the saddle
Blue Lake Peak on the other side of the saddle

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Exiting the Southwest Couloir

I had planned on visiting Blue Lake Peak if time allowed. After downclimbing to the first anchor, I rappelled into the couloir on a 60m rope. Then I made another rappel from the options but only made it to the constriction.

Going in reverse over the broken ramp was awkward. I also didn’t want to step through the thin snow into the deep moat. Without a proper place to rappel, I squeezed myself from the side to finish the descent over the chockstone.

Back through the crux
Back through the crux

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En Route to Blue Lake Peak

From South Early Winters Spire, Blue Lake Peak was under half a mile away. Back at the gully entrance, I went south by staying at the same altitude. During this, I left the rope and the extra gear by the dry rocks to retrieve later.

The prominent cornices atop the 200′ steep slope had forced me to the left. It looked like the days-old boot tracks had done the same to avoid the hazard. Soon, I walked over to the dry rocks south of the summit.

Below the cornices
Below the cornices

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Blue Lake Peak Summit Views

I went up the ragged crest through blocky steps and reached the top at 100′ above. South Early Winters Spire already looked impressive from the highway. But the entire group looked even more stunning from this angle.

Since the climbs were shorter than expected, I spent another hour on top. I saw places we’d visited south of here, including Lincoln Butte and Crescent Mountain. Meanwhile, I watched two parties going up the south spire.

Back at ya, South Early Winters Spire
Back at ya, South Early Winters Spire

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Leaving Blue Lake Basin

Blue Lake was still under the snow. And speaking of which, we got lots of it this season! Today would’ve been ideal for visiting the lake. But it had grown pretty warm, and I didn’t need to tan anymore. Alas, next time.

After making a pitstop on Cornice Peak at 500′ away, I retraced my steps into the basin. Then I bypassed the trail as I did this morning. Soon, I was back at the trailhead, now with more cars and people hanging out.

Finding my way home
Finding my way home

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