Serpentine Crack, Liberty Bell III 5.11b/c
Washington Pass, Washington, USA
Avg time to climb route: 2.5-4 hours
Approach time: 2-3 hours
Descent time: 2-3 hours
Number of pitches: 8
Height of route: 600'
OverviewThe Serpentine Crack, though a classic, is not frequently attempted. This has more to do with the grade than the quality of climbing. The Serpentine Crack is best characterized by its two well-protected and stylistically opposite challenging pitches. One pitch is steep and thuggy, the other technical and delicate. The unique, horizontal keyhole chimney on Pitch 5 also contributes to the route’s quality. The route has typically been either over or under graded. Pitch 2 used to be called 5.11d or 5.11a and is more likely to check in at around 5.11b/c. Pitch 3 used to be 5.10a or 5.10+, but it is no harder than 5.10c and probably is 5.10b. Both these pitches are extremely well-protected and are a great place for climbers to push themselves at the grade. The cruxes are on solid rock and the route has fantastic position on the mountain.
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Route HistorySerpentine Crack was first climbed by Fred Beckey, Doug Lean and David Wagner in July of 1967. The trio had contemplated climbing what Beckey and Lean would climb together and become the Direct East Buttress on SEWS the Following year. Wagner, Lean and Beckey even went so far as walking up to the base of the soaring buttress on South Early Winters Spire to scope it out. This was Beckey’s second first ascent on the West Face of Liberty Bell after climbing the West Face with John Rupley in June of 1958. The ascent of the Serpentine Crack was very challenging with most of the middle of the route being entirely done on direct aid and the original ascent used over 35 pitons.
StrategyCrowds are extremely unlikely, even on a busy weekend. Pitch 1 is a little dirty, isn’t super obvious, is long and can have bad rope-drag. The second and crux pitch is short but awesome – steep hands to fist jamming out a steeply bulging corner. Stem to conserve energy and then punch it over lip (5.11b/c) when the climbing gets steeper and the stemming more difficult. Once at the lip, reach up and over for a locker Thank God hand jam. Three 3” and two 4” pieces are advised for people who think they might be hang-dogging this pitch. The difficulty comes more from the pump than a single crux move.
While Pitch 2 is thuggy, the fantastic Pitch 3 is technical and delicate. It starts slick but the rock quickly gets grippier; the crux comes at the end of the pitch pulling another bulge (watch for rope drag). Pitch 4 looks like it dead-ends at a rotten corner, but a hidden sideways chimney leads to another ledge. The Pitch 5 start is a little tricky on slightly grainy rock. Then very quickly the difficulties ease and the route finding becomes more apparent.
Both crux pitches protect well, and you can easily pull through the most difficult sections on gear. There are some small but mandatory runouts on 5.8 terrain. Since the crux pitch starts in the deep V-slot, this route doesn’t dry as fast as others in the area. That said, much of the route is quick to dry and receives lots of afternoon sun. Leave shoes and extra gear at the intersection below the cave 200 feet below the col in the Liberty Bell-Concord Gully and walk to the base in rock shoes
Retreat StormThere are no fixed anchors and you need two ropes to get down in the event of a storm. Once past Pitch 3, retreat is more difficult. Reversing Pitch 3 is hard because of its traversing nature. With the greatest difficulties behind you, it is easier in most situations to continue to the top.
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