Liberty Crack - First/Third Free Ascent 1,200' 5.13b

Donni Reddington - http://www.donnireddington.com/

Liberty Crack, on the East Face of Liberty Bell, is one of the most famous routes in the pacific northwest. It's an obvious natural line up a proud feature. While researching the history of the route for a guidebook ( Cascades Rock ) I learned that the crux pitch (a crack climb and by far the hardest lead) had never seen a redpoint ascent, but had been climbed *free* two times in two different ways. My interest was piqued and I set out to try and make a free ascent of the wall. I installed a new belay bolt high on the stance above the Lithuanian Lip, below where the bolt ladder begins. This bolt supplements an older Mammmut bolt (doesn't match any other bolts on route), and a blue alien or equivalent can be placed here as well. This comprises a free climbing belay above the crux.

The following slab pitch avoids a bolt ladder and is in the .12b/c range, and has 4 protection bolts. It forms an arcing backward "C" shape. It would be possible to clip the first 3 of these bolts and then climb straight up to the anchors atop P3 of Freedom or Death to join that route or even out right into Thin Red Line or Slave to Liberty. There was already one single bolt on this pitch (maybe an abandoned attempt?), but it was actually in an amazingly bad spot. It was removed from the pitch. This pitch features some nice subtle patina crimps and a crucial thumb-press divot that looks like a jam cookie embedded into the wall.

After equipping the pitch for freeclimbing, I returned to Liberty Crack with my friend Nathan Hadley to attempt a free ascent. Despite being new to the area and multipitch routes, Nathan is an impressive granite climber who has already flashed .12a at Index and recently joined me for day in Leavenworth, warming up by onsighting Rainshadow (5.12), the hardest pitch at Castle Rock. He works at the Seattle Bouldering Project and can pull much harder moves than I can. Being fairly new to trad and crack climbing, he would routinely stop mid pitch to ask me which cams were bigger or smaller than other cams, then proceed to fire in the wrong size and send anyway. He proved to be a great partner.

Nathan and I needed to let the wall go into the shade, and we had ended up climbing the wall on a very warm day. After an 11AM start, we began climbing around noon, and were soon trying the Lithuanian Lip and tips crack (P2). My first couple attempts were pathetic. Unlike Nathan, I was reluctant to whip onto the upside-down piton at the lip of the roof, and I was having a hard time switching gears from delicate stemming to full-on power mode out the roof. We traded lead attempts, and on my 3rd go I pulled the roof and barely missed sticking the first good finger lock out on the face. With a blood-curdling scream and a little profanity, I flew through the air and was soon lowered to the belay, again trading rope ends with Nathan. Nathan tried again, but was again unable to complete the pitch. I think that this particular crux sequence is harder for lanky/taller folks. I racked up for my 4th go of the day (now probably about 3:30PM) with our small selection of gear (along with the 3 pins and a bolt, we were using one green alien in the roof, then one red c3, one green c3, and one small stopper). This time I was really really angry. I hadn't come this close on a pitch and then fallen off in a long time. My patience was worn thin and I was ready to be done. I managed to stick the kneebar and pull out and over the roof on try #4. With Nathan screaming me on, I linked a couple sections of .12- tips crack up to the belay.

I hauled our gear and belayed Nathan, who was still just shy of making these moves free. I know he'll be able to get them after some skin recovery and another couple days on the pitch. He gamely said he wanted to continue up the wall swapping leads as we'd planned, and off he went on the slab.
Nathan Hadley photo

He had a couple slips on the 5.12 slab, which were likely due to simple fatigue, heat, or wanting to move very fast on my account. I came pinging off the wall after the jam-cookie thumpress, but ticked a few more small holds, lowered down, and managed to send the pitch on the 2nd go. Now just the long 5.11c/d pitch remained, but it was around 5pm and some sprinkles of rain began.
Nathan Hadley photo

I hadn't taken off my shoes before I was racked up to lead. Just above the first fixed copperhead, I could feel myself sweating off the quartz edges and unable to clip a bolt while freeing. I aided up to hang a draw on the pitch's lone bolt, and lowered back down. Now armed with a little more courage but still sweating buckets and fairly exhausted, I started up the pitch. Despite some nervousness I managed to get past the 2 fixed heads and fire in a textbook #3 camalot. Thinking the pitch was over, I relaxed for a few bodylengths until things steepened again, and I found myself with a very real possibility of a big whipper onto a questionable brass wire, arms failing and sweat pouring into my eyes. I tried to get my breathing under control, placed a stopper (of course filling the best lock), and actually downclimbed and upclimbed about 4 times to try and get a decent shakeout. I could not get ANY power back and was feeling properly worried about blowing the whole ascent. In desperation I removed the stopper I'd been trusting for pro, which allowed me better purchase into the crack, and deadpointed with everything I could muster, barely sticking a finger lock near a half-driven angle piton. I again came within a hair of whipping off the pitch near the end, stabbing my cramping arms toward a finger lock while sketched out above a purple C3. The mix of too many layers of clothing, too tight of shoes for too long, and some late day adrenaline surges amidst heat and raindrops, had all turned this pitch into one of the hardest fought battles I'd done in a while.

 I belayed up Nathan while I caught my breath. It was almost 6pm and we'd have about 7 pitches and many rappels to manage with 3.5 hours of daylight and one headlamp.

Luckily, the route massively kicks back after this point, and despite some rain drops here and there, we topped out at dusk and managed the dark descent ok. Drinking chocolate milk and sharing some Ramen back at the car around midnight, the moon illuminated the east face of Liberty Bell and I never thought that 25 cent noodles had tasted so good.

Andy Porter Image

A little history:

Brooke Sandahl had sent the route with pre-placed protection on the crux crack pitch, and then freeclimbed where the next pitch bolt ladder ascends, backing up the original bolt hangers with a short bit of fixed line tied to newer anchor boltsd above. Mikey Schaefer had sent the roof/crack pitch with protection in place, and then TRed the erstwhile protectionless slab to the right of the bolt ladder. (this topo is wrong) Both then went on the complete the next long 5.11c/d pitch and the entirety of the route. My only minor improvement in style was to place the protection on the crux pitch. And I did the community service or sacrilege of making the free climbing version of P3 (right of the bolt ladder) leadable with a few protection bolts, as a logical freeclimbing pitch. 

  • 25 years ago, famous Oregon/California climber Brooke Sandahl and a couple friends set out to free the route. They used portaledges 150' up and spent a few days working the route. Brooke was generous enough to provide some photos and an account of their time on the route. 

Brooke: Yes, sent the roof with the gear left in place!  I graded it 5.13a - and I tend to grade things for someone with no knowledge of the route (ie trying it onsight) who would go up there and figure out the sequences and place the gear on lead. I think if that was done - then 13a is fairly close!  Generally I could care less about grades/numbers, I use them only to give people a general indication of around what difficulty they may find.  I had done a number of 13a's onsight at that point...but wasn't even close to doing the roof (even) in a day, (took me three days of cleaning, placing the gear, rehearsing and then sending) - regardless its a really cool sequence of moves!

Bolt Ladder:  I followed the old devil horns (1/4" bolts), very closely & just under them on the original aid ladder.  They were in very poor shape, some more than halfway pulled out & seriously bent over...so I didn't want to fall on them and pull them all the way out or slam in a bunch of new ones.  To me, part of the allure of an alpine route is using the things you find along the way.  Those original bolts had a lot of history and character...and they were part of that route, if one pulled while you were climbing...then you'd have to improvise ( way before cheater sticks were common place) to get past it to the next bolt or not.  Didn't feel like it was my call to alter this for others. 

I also didn't think people would be lining up anytime soon too free the route either and my assumption was correct...as I think Mikey is the only one to even get tr linkage.  The bolt ladder section is pretty freakin' hard...but totally my kind of climbing, bouldery, on really small crimps..and I did it my first try with the rope on (after totally dialing it the day before).  Again, since I went through it first go I felt it to be around 12c.  But, its pretty low percentage, easy climbing to fall off of & condition dependent...so may in fact be harder than the roof section itself??  To me personally the roof section felt a bit harder!  Again, need more people doing it to really reach a concensus!  I was really stoked to get through it first try...as I could see flailing on that thing pretty easily!  

Mikey: I quickly free climbed up to the lip and promptly pulled on a few pieces up and over the lip again. I continued on to the bolt by the little stance and had Kate lower me from there. I made sure all of the gear was where I wanted as I went by. A pinkpoint attempt would have to do right now.Back at the lower belay I pulled the rope, gave myself a little inward motivational talk, laced my shoes a little tighter and started upwards. For some reason I had the heebee jeebess inside me, which is something I usually only get when I’ve been trying really hard to redpoint a pitch. At this point my attachment to sending this pitch wasn’t that high so I was surprised to feel this way.As I reached the base of the roof a strong breeze kicked up cooling the stale morning heat. I stuck the entry sequence better than I had previously and was quickly and blindly pinky locking over the roof. A few primal screams, a heal hook and deadpoint to the good lock brought me over the roof. I shook out from the good lock in a state of amazement wondering how the hell I just pulled that off. Kate says I have a knack for pulling shit out of my ass, this may have been one of those times. I finished up the next short tricky sections with less thrutching than expected.

I chilled out on the stance for a bit trying to decide what to do. I ended up yarding past the original bolts to get to the anchor on top of pitch 2. Kate quickly followed with some good french free technique.I had to figure out what to do about the steep slab section below. There was no way I was going to lead that thing and I really doubted that Brooke Sandahl (who did the FFA) had lead that pitch with the single bolt. [He had not] He must of done some sort of monkey trick to protect it. I had heard stories of him fixing a line from some anchor and using that for pro but I had always figured that was for the section past the Lithuanian Lip. I have no idea what he did but I don’t know of many people that would lead that pitch in it’s current state. If it were me doing the FFA I would of had a total of 4 bolts protecting the slab. I need to email Brooke and find out more details.I decided I would have to settle for the toprope for the time being if I could even pull that off. After an hour or so of toiling on the pitch yesterday I still had a couple moves I couldn’t do and a move I only pulled off once. As I lowered down with my nose 6 inches away from the rock inspecting every fleck, chip or bump for potential I realized this was going to be really hard. I worked the upper moves on the pitch for almost an hour before I could figure out the 10 foot traverse back to the anchor. This was the move I couldn’t do yesterday so I figured I had it in the bag after lapping the move 3 times in a row. After a short rest I lowered down to give the whole pitch a burn. To my dismay I fell off the lower portion of the slab over and over and over again. I had done this part somewhat casually yesterday but that was in the shade. It was now approaching noon and with high’s in the 80’s things weren’t feeling very sticky. I can’t even count how many times it took me to figure out the moves on the lower bit. Again after 3 straight laps I figured I had it wired. Up at the belay I rested for awhile pondering my chances of sending. I wouldn’t of put 5 bucks on the table saying I’d send next go. But luckily i beat my own odds on my next attempt. It had all the makings of good redpoint (though i was only on TR) , blown sequences, deadpoints to crappy holds, fighting back the urge of the Elvis leg and just barely sketching it out to the belay. I was glad to have that one over. Even though it wasn’t in the best style I’ll take it for what its worth given the lack of info and time I could put into it. The pitch could really use some more bolts if anyone besides the likes of Tommy or Honold are going to go up there and truly redpoint it.


  1. Nice work Blake! I always wanted to do this one.

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