Liberty Crack, Liberty Bell 5.9 C2 or 5.13b
Avg time to climb route: 1-2 Days
Approach time: 1 hour
Descent time: 2-4 hours
Number of pitches: 14
Height of route: 1,200'
OverviewLocated on remote Washington Pass in the North Cascades, Liberty Bell (7,720’) is a striking granite monolith that harbors a number of great routes, from easy novice climbs, difficult free-lines, and perhaps Washington State’s most accessible alpine big-wall. In 1965, Liberty Crack was the first line to go up on the huge east face and it is still to this day a challenging endeavor, requiring a gamut of climbing skills to tackle its 12 long pitches of mixed aid and free climbing. Most parties can fire the route in one long day, but it is still not uncommon to see parties hauling gear for a bivy half way up.
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Route HistoryBy the mid-1950s, word was starting to spread of the spectacular climbs done on the big walls of Yosemite. The ascents of the Northwest Face of Half Dome and the Nose of El Capitan had ushered in a new style of big wall climbing. In 1964 Alex Bertulis and Steve Marts hiked in from Twisp, coming over Kangaroo pass, unaware of the highway under construction. They started up what would become Liberty Crack. From the beginning the climbing was difficult and involved sustained aid. In this way, the duo reached the huge, 17-foot roof that would become the Lithuanian Lip, named in honor of Bertulis’s ancestry. Bertulis was so intimidated he decided to put a bolt in right below the roof. He put in a half-inch angle piton right at the lip, standing on it and watching it rotate 30 degrees but not popping. “Oh shit, I’m coming off!” he yelled. After this, Bertulis lowered back to the belay, saying, “Okay Steve you have a go.” Steve replied, “No, I’m not going,” and they rappelled off and went home.
Early in the summer of 1965 the pair returned. Bertulis sent the pitch and put in a bolted belay above the lip. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse with no sign of improvement, forcing them to descend. In July, Marts returned with Fred Stanly and Don McPherson. Because Bertulis had a commitment in Africa, he told Steve, “Go finish the job.” The trio jugged the fixed ropes left earlier in the summer. Marts took most of the day to lead Pitch 3 on what was to be the crux of the route. He placed numerous knife blades and RURPs on this pitch, a pitch that proved to be the most challenging of his career. The three reached a small stance not big enough to sleep on, so they spent the night in hammocks, suspended with the relief of the Cascades beneath them. In the morning, the climbers continued, and as they had hoped, the climbing began to ease. The three men bivied once more on a series of reasonably more comfortable ledges two thirds of the way up the wall at the top of the dihedral. They reached the top on the morning of the third day, severely dehydrated but elated, and rapped the SW face.
During the mid-1980s and early 1990s, some of the strongest climbers in the country, including Ron Kauk, Peter Croft and Dale Bard, attempted a free ascent of Liberty Crack. The painful and extremely technical nature of the Lithuanian Lip and the slab above thwarted all comers until the summer of 1991.
During that summer, Brooke Sandahl, Adam Growski and Kurt Schierer decided to spend some time and make a project out of it. With five days worth of supplies and Brooke’s quiver of four pairs of rock shoes, the trio set up a hanging camp below the Lithuanian Lip. Their wall camp, which included two double portaledges, gave the trio, “A spacious place to hang out, belay, lounge around in style, swill coffee, and dwell above the ferocious bugs below,” according to Sandahl. He later said, “Camping out on a big wall or on a high peak is just sublime.”
After aiding the Lithuanian roof, giving it a meticulous cleaning and closely examining even the tiniest features, it was time for them to start learning a sequence. After three days of intense learning, memorizing, and focused effort, Sandahl had a totally dialed sequence. He sent with gear left in place on the Lip, and it is now considered to check in at 5.13a/b. The next order of business was the micro-hold, bouldery slab that closely follows the old bolt ladder. It took another day to brush clean and thoroughly inspect the bolt ladder slab and dial a sequence. Brooke says, “I purposely didn’t try to link this pitch that day...saving my skin and strength for much needed cool morning temps.” The problem with the slab was that the bolts there were old quarter-inch bolts that appeared to barely support body weight. The group decided to tie a static rope to the anchor above in order to protect the pitch while leading without having to re-bolt it. They then made loops in the static rope, and after clipping quick draws to the old bolts, they then clipped the loops in the static rope into the top biner of each draw to back up the bolts. After a thorough warmup, Sandahl red pointed the pitch on his first go in perfect, crisp, cool conditions. He originally rated this Pitch 5.12+, but subsequent attempts might lean toward 5.13a. The following day, the three of them ascended the remaining pitches and Growski came close to doing the roof pitch, basically doing it with a fall at the lip.
StrategyOne of Allen Steck and Steve Roper’s 50 classic climbs of North America, this is the most popular Grade V route in the state. During weekends in July and August, it is not uncommon to see one to three other parties on the route at the same time. Don’t lose hope and give up right away, as it’s likely more than half the parties will bail on Pitches 2 or 3. A light-is-right mantra is key to success on Liberty Crack, no matter which way you climb it; hauling on the upper pitches is horrible.
Most people climb the route in two days, hiking loads to the base and fixing the first three pitches with two 60m ropes, then going light and blasting to the top the next day. Faster parties with aid climbing experience can climb the route in a single day. The key to going fast on Liberty Crack is free climbing as much as possible. The 5.11a Pitch 1 can be aided at C1+ but it has many tricky placements. Climbing at a mid-5.10 level, you can free over half Pitch 1. Pitch 2, the Lithuanian Lip, is relatively straightforward aid climbing, but it is strenuous and exposed. Those without much wall experience will find seconding the pitching as challenging as leading it. Toward the top of the Pitch 2, be prepared for the mandatory 5.7 free climbing or face ultra tricky aid climbing. While Pitch 3 goes free at 5.11d R, it goes quickest for most if aided. High stepping in your aiders can help you skip the worst looking fixed heads, and bring at least one three-inch cam. From Pitch 4 upward, aim to free climb as much as possible.
While a few select climbers succeeded with Liberty Crack as their first or second aid climb, it is not recommended. The primary reason many parties must bail from Pitches 2 or 3 is that they aren’t experience with aid climbing and are moving too slowly. On Pitch 7, the free climbing isn’t straightforward and the rock on your left is poor (be careful of those below). Try to avoid going into full aid climbing mode, just pull on a few mostly fixed pieces around the roof. The tricky free climbing ends quickly and eases after you pull the roof. Protect your second on the long traverse of Pitch 9. While you can descend from the top of Pitch 12, it is worth climbing the last two pitches to the summit. Many climbers capable of climbing Liberty Crack will simul-climb Pitches 13 and 14 (same as the last pitch of the Becky route) to the top.
Retreat StormThe route can be rappelled at anytime off fixed anchors from the top of Pitch 7. From there, the traversing nature of the route makes retreat more difficult but not impossible with many fixed anchors of varying states of decay higher up. The upper portion of the wall runs with water and is no place you want to be in a storm. The route gets all morning sun and dries fairly early in the season once all the snow has melted off ledges.
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