Himmelgeisterhorn - The Wild
Wild Hair Crack from Ottohorn
is one of 20 or so major and minor pinnacles on the west end of
the Southern Pickets, a picket fence of 8000-foot rocky gneiss spikes
in the North Cascades. This is mighty fine, mighty tough country,
probably the best the lower US has to offer.
August 1976, four years before I met him, my fanatic friend to be,
Silas Wild was in the Southern Pickets, 7 miles north of Newhalem
where I grew up, in the heart of the North Cascades National Park.
From the top of Ottohorn, the westernmost high peak on the picket
fence, Silas spotted a beautiful line up the west face of neighboring
was a classic crack in the North Cascades, probably the best crack
climb in the Pickets, a vertical gash that split this side of "Himmel"
in two. Silas was anxious to try the route the first day he saw
it, but Barbara, his wife and partner then knew they didn't have
enough hardware or time. And he reluctantly agreed. So Silas
photographed it, and went home to dream.
"Red Fred," the Cascade Alpine Guide to this area came
out in 1981, the route was clearly exposed in a crisp photograph
on page 92 by fellow Picket lover, David Knudson. Silas panicked
that someone else would spot his route and beat him to it. He enlisted
support from Russ Kroeker and myself even before the '81 summer
and I agreed that this was a great-looking climb, and we wanted
to take a first hand look at it, but it struck me that this was
a technical project that was probably out of our league by such
a leep that I felt that Silas had a wild hair up an unsunny spot
if he thought we could succeed on it. So we came to call his route
"The Wild Hair Crack."
a spell of bad weather in early July 1981, Silas snuck off for an
attempt on the route with Lee Gibbon, a tight-coil, powerfully-built
rock jock. I forget what Russ and I were up to then, but we
were not invited. Silas and Lee went after the "Wild Hair" without
us, holing up on the way in at a small fir grove in what Joan Firey
called "Stump Hollow," under "The Stump" (shown as Pinnacle
Peak on USGS Mount Challenger), waiting out the rain with
only a small plastic tarp for protection.
the clouds, they wandered out of Stump Hollow into the Crescent
Creek Cirque the following day. It's hard to lose the way, even
in stormy weather. Simply keep the big rock wall on your right.
The problem is that when you can't see the tops of the peaks, it's
hard to know where you are along that wall. Which of the many steep
gullies should you go up? Silas and Lee went one gully past the
proper chute up Himmel-Otto Couloir and thus chanced on a new, still
unreported route up Ottohorn, via one of its south gullies over
some steep heather. "Not so hard," Silas said afterwards. That doesn't
always mean it isn't.
Otto-Himmel Col was socked-in city when they descended from Ottohorn
to start their try on the Wild Hair Crack. Silas chose the left
of two parallel fracture lines cutting the lower third of the face.
He led the 150-foot pitch with some 5.2 moves (he says). Lee came
up and tackled the next vertical section that looked to be the crux.
The crack swirled away into the clouds up a narrow chimney that
Lee judged to be very difficult, "probably 5.9." They
wisely opted to abort, rapped off, and beat a wet retreat home.
stories soared. But Russ and I were a little sore too, since it
was openly known that we wanted to be included on this climb.
next attempt on the Wild Hair Crack was to begin August 30, 1981
. This time all four of us would go, Silas, Lee, Russ, and myself.
I had August 29th off as well and decided to use the day clawing
my way into the Pickets alone at a casual pace. A race up The Barrier
with these guys was not something I'd enjoy. And the last time I'd
been out with this gang on Bowan, it was definitely race time.
I lazed my lonely way up The Barrier in what felt like good time
to me, recording the legs on my old, well-worn 15-minute Mt. Challenger
1:15 to Over and Up Creek, 1600'
:40 to Terror Creek, 1800'
1:20 to Barrier Crest, 3550'
1:30 to 5340, where I camped, under The Stump.
started to rain that night and I woke up the next morning to lousy
visibility. This was the day the others would make their approach.
To make a long story short, Russ made it in, but Silas and Lee,
who'd had enough of the Wild Hair in bad weather, bet with the weathermen
that it was going to stay bad and went back home after driving to
the Goodell Creek trailhead.
and I connected in Crescent Creek Cirque where I'd moved camp to
pitch my tent on a giant, flattish, but tilted boulder. We had one
partially "good" day in the Pickets, doing the West Twin
Needle by a new route up the couloir that threaded the East and
West Twin Needles to "Eye Col."
the rappel down, the rain began in earnest and continued heavy for
17 non-stop hours after we crawled into my green Gor-Tex Early Winters
tent. I awoke in the dark to wet feet and shined my headlamp
to the foot of the tent to see a pool of water in the downhill corner.
Taking out my Camp-King knife, I stabbed a hole in the floor at
the lowest point, releasing a liter of liquid.
Silas had not invited us along on his last attempt on The Wild Hair
Crack, we decided to play a little joke on him when we got home.
It was agreed that whoever talked to Silas first would tell him
we had done the Wild Hair on our one good weather day and, just
as he'd said, the lower section was 5.2, but the the upper crack
was a little easier than predicted, 5.7, and quite nice, really--thanks
for the idea.
second of us would then call (or be called by) Silas and would get
to hear him lament his decision not to go, then break it to him
that we really hadn't done his route, and for crying out loud, don't
leave us behind the next time.
as it turned out, Silas got hold of me at work first, catching me
between patients. I broke the fanciful "story" of our
Wild Hair climb detailing every handhold, and you could almost hear
his heart break. Here was the best climb he'd ever seen, or discovered,
anyway. He'd fantasized about it for years. He'd given it a solid
shot and had failed. And then suddenly it was "done,"
just the way he knew it could go, but by someone else.
told me later that the way he felt when I told him this news was
the way he felt when Barbara told him she was leaving him. These
were the two worst moments in his life.
then tried to call Russ, but he was at a long meeting and unavailable.
So sadly, Silas spent the rest of the day not knowing the truth
and feeling quite bad. So sad did he sound when he called me back
in the middle of the afternoon and told me he hadn't reached Russ
yet, I had to break down and tell him the truth. A ton lifted from
his heart. The boy giggled and bubbled with jubilation and we planned
our next try.
it was with plenty of enthusiasm that the three of us trekked up
Goodell Creek on the way to the Wild Hair on a great-looking Labor
Day Weekend. Silas dreaded the Barrier route in, but when I rattled
off my Barrier time numbers, "One hour 15 minutes to Over and
Up Creek, 40 minutes to Terror Creek, then only 1 hour 20 minutes
to the top of Barrier Flat...and less than 7 hours to Stump Col,"
his face lit up.
it turned out, these were the exact times recorded for our trip
in this day as well, except that the usually brisk Silas burned
out under the weight of a heavy pack in Stump Hollow and came straggling
over the gneiss meadow up to Stump Col, the pass into Crescent Creek,
about a half hour behind us. 6 hours 45 minutes to here. Clouds
gripped the upper reaches of the Crescent Creek Spires in not unusual
dropped into the Crescent Creek Cirque then angled for Rock Camp
at 6150 where Russ and I had slept the week before. Russ dug up
some food he'd buried here. From Rock Camp we contoured towards
Himmel Camp with Silas and me in a full-pack, dead-run race across
the talus. The sight was so startlingly amusing to Russ, he later
told us, that he burst out laughing and lost large sphincter control.
He then lost several minutes on us as he cleaned up.
Camp was reached in a total of 9 hours 45 minutes from the car,
counting 2 hours plus of rests on the way in. So less than 8 hours
of moving. It took a little over one hour from Stump Col to Himmel
Camp, a flat spot at the 6000-foot level under the south wall of
and I kicked out a platform in the snow for my green Light Dimensions
tent. Russ did some minor excavation work for his yellow one-man
Pocket Hotel. We retired in anticipation of the next day, which
Himmel-Otto Couloir certainly was more difficult at the end of the
season than it had been coming down on August 1, 1980, even though
I'd taken a tumble in it then, requiring a self-arrest to stop.
The snow was quite hard and step kicking was a chore. We had to
swing into the moat between the rock and snow to get around a couple
of breaks. Russ couldn't believe it when I told him we'd descended
this facing out the last time down.
we were carrying a ton of hardware, two 150-foot, 9-mm ropes, and
bivy gear with the idea we would lay a seige on the Wild Hair Crack.
My old Penberthy aluminum-frame pack banged on the rock as we bypassed
the upper chockstones on the left over some broken gneiss. It was
still shady at the Himmel-Otto Col when we arrived, adding to the
mounted up the gear, trying to look strong under the weight. Silas
laughed that, "He looks like the 6-Million Dollar Man."
And he did indeed, draped as he was with two nearly full sets of
ten "Friends" (two each of Numbers 1, 2, 2 1/2, 3, and
4) as well as a good assortment of chocks. Silas put him on belay
while I clambered up Ottohorn a ways to get a head on shot of his
had decided to go up the right of the twin lower cracks, primarily
because it was the crack that connects all the way up the face.
Even though the left crack at first glance suggests a straighter
line, it has a blank spot and doesn't connect to the upper crack.
Besides, Silas had already done the left crack and we were into
doing a "totally new route."
happy sounds from Russ were even more exuberant than usual as he
led his pitch.
what a great jug (large handhold)!"
going to love this Silas, and the Doc's going love this exposure."
("The Doc"-me-hates exposure.)
fantastic bucket over here. This stuff is bombproof. It's all here.
Wait 'til you see this placement. What a great route! I'm going
into a cave to belay you. You'll never get me out of here."
fired away with my Olympus camera, recording his progress up the
flashed up the crack with his own style of enthusiasm. They both
had on their "EB" rock-dancing shoes, and I wondered if my clumsy
big leather climbing boots would keep me from doing this thing.
Silas moved by Russ, then Russ set a top belay for my ascent.
mouth was a dry even after a half pint of Wyler's and it was not
with a lot of joy that I grabbed for my first handhold. The start
of this pitch was the worst. "Keep it tight!" I yelled
Russ yelled back. I was just a few feet off the ground when my Vibram
sole slipped off its puny toehold perch, as I was reaching for a
higher handhold. I skidded down three feet just from the stretch
in the rope. No damage, except to my confidence.
you, Doc?" inquired Russ. "I think I had a bite there,
not to think about it, I promptly gathered myself up and moved along
quite well over the rest of the pitch. It had several spots where
the crack was deep enough, and had good enough platforms, that I
could hide from the exposure. I reached Russ to find him lowered
chest-deep into the crack just before the vertical upper section.
This route had character!
was just finishing getting all the gear on as I pulled up. Russ
took me off belay and turned his grip to the rope connecting him
with Silas while I swung my daypack around to grab my camera. (I
take my camera off my chest for rock climbs because it pushes me
away from the rock, disturbing my balance on thin moves.)
looked fantastic from here. The morning light on the brown rock
of Fury made that mountain look warm and friendly, especially compared
to the vertical shade of this crack on Himmel.
sound of a series of deep breaths, followed by the sound of nervous
exhalation through pursed lips took my gaze off the scenery and
fixed it on Silas as he pumped himself up for the next lead.
like this is definitely whistle-worthy," I chuckled.
trademark was to make these whistle-wooshing sounds when his comfort
level edged in on his anxiety limit. He entered the vertical crack
facing in, with his left leg and thigh wedged in the crack as his
right leg carefully pawed for the next boosting foothold. Once the
foothold was located, he would slowly, cautiously, raise his body
and jam his left knee into a higher portion of the crack.
in some pro, for Christ's sake," shouted Russ. "You're
30 feet out. I'm going to have trouble holding you if you go!"
aware of that. There's just nothing here. Just keep quiet, I'm working
the problem," Silas replied.
finally, there's a little crack here. Whew! I'm putting a stopper
in. It's not much, but it's something. Ah, and here's a spot for
a number 2 Friend. Boy, that was great! Child's play. No problem."
didn't look like 'no problem' to me," I remarked.
then moved smoothly and steadily over the rest of his lead to a
belay point. "This next pitch looks easy enough for the doctor
to lead. I'll tie in and bring you up to me."
crux of The Wild Hair Crack, which Silas had just led, was a pure
delight with a taut top rope. The wall on the left (north) side
of the crack was offset out from the right side by about 9-12 inches.
The crack itself was about a foot wide and close enough to vertical
for me. It was just big enough to get my left butt cheek and thigh
into, and squeezed me so tightly that I could hold my entire weight
on friction by contracting these muscles.
Santa Claus fashion, I wiggled my way up the chimney, impressed
that Silas would extend himself to doing it with no initial protection.
I climbed by Silas as the sun came onto the face and threw a sling
around a good horn and clipped in. Russ was happy to be moving again,
having waited in his hole for four pitches, two by each of us, and
made many more excited noises as he went through his moves to join
lead, Silage," he commended.
lead was half a rope length and not so hard, class 4, at the most,
though I put in a Friend or two just for the practice. The crack
led me to the left side of the face, from where I could see a decent
route into the gully the Fireys had climbed on the NW side of the
mountain on the first ascent of the peak in 1961. I knew we could
make it and shouted back my discovery.
Silas scampered up to my position and surveyed the situation, he
pointed out that we would be bailing off the classic route if we
went into the gully. The clean line laid back out on the face for
another easy-5 rock pitch to the western tip on Himmel, which Silas
accomplished in his usual smooth fashion. (Unforturately, when Fred
Beckey re-did his red book, he had us bailing off the classic line
(on page 110), instead of going out on the face to the Himmel "subpoint,"
which we did.
done, we knew success was at hand. We grabbed rope coils and walked
over to the last short lead up the summit cone. We had done the
Wild Hair. We were pretty high. It was the third ascent of the peak,
the first being in 1961, then repeated by Joan and Carla Firey with
Dave Knudson and Peter Renz in 1970, up the original route. This
was a good feather in our hardhats.
to decifer the word, "Himmelgeisterhorn," before we did
the climb, I went to my Cassell's German-English dictionary. A decent
translation would be: "The Horn of the Sky Spirit."
the other German words that started with "himmel-" was
"himmelfahrtskommando," which means "Going-for-the-Sky
Squad," or more somberly, "the death or glory squad."
this route on this peak, we felt this word was the perfect name
for our threesome. On this climb we became the Himmelfahrtskommando,
or HFK for short. We decided that this would be our three-person
club with no dues, and no indoor meetings. There would be no new
members unless one of the members dropped off the roster.
tried to change Firey's original terminology by shortening the name
to Himmelhorn in his red book, which takes the "spirit"
(geister) out of the original name.
surveyed the route down to Dusseldorferspitz on the east ridge of
Himmel, and decided this spectacular hook was not necessary to do.
It appears to be a clean exercise over solid rock, but somehow failed
did three 150-foot rappels off the west face, setting the anchors
at the tops of the pitches. It was two raps down to the top of the
high point reached by Silas and Lee in July, and we used their sling
for the last anchor.
scrambled up Ottohorn next. From here, The Wild Hair
in the afternoon sun, cut a mighty pretty line up the face of Himmel.
This is the best climb I've ever done in the North Cascades, or
Copyright 2004, John W. Roper.
All Rights Reserved.