Himmelgeisterhorn - The Wild Hair Crack

The Wild Hair Crack from Ottohorn

Silas Wild lower right


Himmelgeisterhorn 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.


In 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 Himmelgeisterhorn.

It 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.


When "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 began.


Russ 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."




During 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.


Through 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.


The 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.


Silas' 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.


The 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.

So 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 map:

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.

It 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.

Russ 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."

On 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.


Since 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.

The 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.

Well, 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.

He 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.

Silas 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.

September 5, 1981

So 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.

As 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 fashion.

We 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.

Himmel 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 Himmelgeisterhorn.

Silas 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 dawned cloudless.

September 6, 1981

The 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.

Today 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 scary air.

Russ 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 lead.

We 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."

The happy sounds from Russ were even more exuberant than usual as he led his pitch.

"God, what a great jug (large handhold)!"

"You're going to love this Silas, and the Doc's going love this exposure." ("The Doc"-me-hates exposure.)

"Oh, 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."

I fired away with my Olympus camera, recording his progress up the crack.

Silas 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.

My 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 up.

"Gotcha!" 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.

"That you, Doc?" inquired Russ. "I think I had a bite there, Silas."

Trying 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!

Silas 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.)

Frenzelspitz 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.

The 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.

"Sounds like this is definitely whistle-worthy," I chuckled.

Silas' 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.

"Put 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!"

"I'm aware of that. There's just nothing here. Just keep quiet, I'm working the problem," Silas replied.

"There, 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."

"It didn't look like 'no problem' to me," I remarked.

Silas 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."

The 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.

In 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 us.

"Great lead, Silage," he commended.

My 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.

When 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.

This 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.

Trying 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."

Among 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."

For 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.

Beckey 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.

We 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 to inspire.

We 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.

We scrambled up Ottohorn next. From here, The Wild Hair

Crack, 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 anywhere.