The West Ridge of Prusik Peak can change a fella’s mind. One week ago, while setting a top-rope at Rocky Butte with a wicked hangover, I was thinking about selling most of my climbing gear. “I like sport climbing”, I told myself, “The movement is fun, and the fear is all of the benign its-in-your-head kind. Why do I repeatedly make myself get scared over trad gear in mediocre rock? Life is short, and mountain biking is way more fun than trad climbing.”
…It is a route of purity on marvelous granite. (Fred Beckey)
There’s a cure for this kind of thinking. It’s called, in the words of guidebook author Fred Beckey, “a route of purity on marvelous granite”. The West Ridge of Prusik Peak in the Enchantment Lakes wilderness is the polar opposite of the terrifying and mediocre rock that Nick Till and I had climbed on Illumination Rock just a few weeks before. In particular, the precipitous south face and exposed west ridge of Prusik peak sport immaculate and solid granite divided by a run of beautiful human-compatible cracks. Add to this that Prusik sits light a lighthouse in the middle of one of the most beautiful alpine environments in the lower-48, and it’s hard to argue against giving it a go.
The West Ridge is Grade II, 5.7 as described in the Beckey Guide. It’s position, and the limited number of permits issued for the Enchantments, convinced us to go light and to climb it car-to-car in a day. To add to the fun and cover more ground, Nick and I opted for a car shuttle, leaving a car at the Snow Creek trail head and leaving from the Stuart Lake trail head, allowing us not only an excellent alpine climb but also a traverse of the Enchantments to boot.
Map and Topo:
Left Stuart Lake TH — 06:15
Mountaineer Creek turnoff — 00:40
Colchuck Lake —
Top of Asgard Pass — 02:55
Top of Prusik Pass — 03:55
Base of the West Ridge — 04:05
Summit — 06:30
Back to Our Packs — 07:30
Snow Creek trail head — 13:10
The Enchantments are as beautiful as everyone had suggested, but I have to say that even with the permitting system, the number of people up on the plateau was a big turn-off. The soaring granite peaks and still glacial lakes are marred by large groups of people camping in plain sight along the shores of lakes and atop bluffs. Leave No Trace is apparently unheard of, and trails lace across the plateau from one ‘improved campsite’ to the next. It is an amazing area and one which is a pleasure to visit, but it would certainly benefit from 10+ years of no overnight camping.
Ranting aside, the in-a-day approach was a fun way to tackle Prusik. It was amusing to rocket past groups with huge packs carrying only small day packs and wearing only trail-runners. It is one thing to plod through a range and another entirely to frolic through it. I prefer the latter.
The unthreatening grade of the climb allowed us to take a light rack and a skinny single rope. We roped up at the balanced rock above Prusik Pass, which was easily accessed via the North Side of the ridge. Contrary to what some parties have written on the web, the start of the route is glaringly obvious, beginning just below a very clean hand crack.
Swarmed by mosquitoes at the notch, Nick took the lead as we simul-climbed the moderate start of the route. Only one real 5.6 move was needed before we quickly found ourselves at the base of the infamous 5.7 slab pitch. This roughly 12-foot unprotected slab is the technical crux of the classic West Ridge, and it is frequently described as a much longer 25 feet, possibly because of the exposure below the slab, or because the old ring piton which protects it might make it feel larger.
Nick cruised through the slab without hesitation, and when I followed it seemed like there was only one true slabby move before reaching the security of positive holds above. A fall wouldn’t be great, but in the words of another NOLS instructor “I’m too scared to fall”.
Finding the climb disappearing all too quickly, we moved out belay across third-class ledges to the pitches below the summit block. Here there are several variations. The easiest begins on the left and climbs a short off-width to ledge before beginning a rising traverse to the right on a solid slab. By moving around the summit to the south, a very easy finish takes you to the top. We instead opted to milk the climb for all that it was worth and climb a more direct line. I took the lead from the 3rd class ledges and after q quick scramble, I found a beautiful, though short, finger crack in the back of a sweeping and clean dihedral.
The pitch protected entirely with nuts, and with perfect stemming feet appearing where they were needed, it went at a beautiful 5.8 addition to the regular route. Though I haven’t seen this described elsewhere, it’s clean and has clearly seen plenty of traffic. Setting a belay above, I brought Nick up and he enthusiastically grabbed our tiny rack to tackle the direct off-width finish which splits the summit block and can be seen from the start of the route.
Our largest piece was a #2 Camalot, which Nick placed at the base of the crack. With some easy squirming, he worked up into a pod and shoved the remaining #1 into a beautiful placement at the crux high-step-squirm of the crack. Ta-da… 10″+ off-width climbed with a rack to 2″. This variation likely goes at an awkward 5.7, though my calibration on off-width may be poor.
From the summit block, 5 raps to the shady North side returned us easily to a walking traverse over to our packs. Back to our gear and packed up by 2:30 pm, we were pleased with our light strategy.
The walk out was long, and though entirely downhill, it weaves a convoluted path through granite slabs among steep cliffs. Padding down these stone ramps turned gradually from novel fun to tiresome knee abuse. Thankfully, the Snow Creek drainage is a beautiful sub-alpine valley of lakes and streams, supervised by large rock walls above.
Just an hour from the trail-head, we received a good energy boost at the sight of the rather-stunning Snow Creek Wall. It is clear, even from a distance, why many consider the 5th and 6th pitches of Outer Space (III, 5.9) to be among the best in the state.
With creaky knees, we made it back down the switchbacks and to the car in 13:08.
I wish that I was more easily pleased– that I could feel fulfilled by a day in a hammock reading a book, or by doing yoga on my lawn. Unfortunately, these can’t compare to the satisfaction of continuing to roll along the trail after 10 hours on the move, or the amusement of slotting nuts into a tiny crack 800 feet in the air, safe among the absurdity.
No, I won’t be selling my gear. I can’t let go of that (especially since I totaled my mountain bike this weekend). But I will keep the bites small for now. No more North Ridge of Stuart or other huge and daunting undertakings. Not for now. I still dream about the Becky-Chouinard in the Bugaboos, and about the great spires of Patagonia, but to be kind to myself and keep the psyche high, I’ll limit my aspirations to what I can chew.
Prusik was delicious.