1993: Picture on a Wall

Posted on: June 17, 2021


[This story originally appeared in the Mountain Profile of Slesse (Selisi) in Alpinist 74, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 74 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Perry Beckham on East Pillar Direct in 1993. [Photo] Greg ChildPerry Beckham on East Pillar Direct in 1993. [Photo] Greg Child

IN THE SUMMER OF 1993, I was living in Seattle, watching rain pelt down outside my window, when Perry Beckham phoned me from his home in Squamish. On many weekends, we'd rope up on the granite crags there, where he delighted in touring me up his first ascents, such as the delicate slabs of Cruel Shoes and the arm-wearying cracks of Astro Logger. His routes were meticulous creations, echoing other elements that defined my impression of Perry: the fast and precise way he pulled notes from a guitar; or his attention to detail and safety as a professional rope-rigger, be it at belay stances or on movie sets.

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On the phone, Perry exhorted me to speed north across the Canadian border to join him for something new on Slesse's east face. There was no time to lose, he said, because high-pressure weather was settling over the North Cascade Range, evaporating rain clouds and drying out the often-dank rock.

A couple of days later, we emerged from the forest of cedars and firs beneath a dark and forbidding wall, framed by the classic Northeast Buttress on the right skyline and a serrated ridge on the left. Directly in front of us, a glacier-carved bowl steepened into the east face. Nowhere did an obvious "line" proclaim itself. Any climb up this wall would be strung together from an assemblage of corners, cracks and ledges.

Rockfall from the face clattered round the bowl. Perry pointed to a toe of stone festooned with tangled evergreens.

"Up there," he said.

We veered left and away from the bowling alley, "freight hauling" our packs up ever-steepening terrain until we arrived at our objective, a crease of rock that Perry dubbed the East Pillar.

Perry and Barry Blanchard had started this route in 1992. Despite the miserable, cold weather, they succeeded in climbing several hundred feet of untrodden rock that included convoluted face climbing and bolting on the lead. They also discovered a fabulous bivy ledge 150 feet left of the sixth pitch that they'd dubbed the Kipper Traverse. On our first night, Perry and I slumbered there, with a warm starry sky above.

On the second day, Perry continued into new ground, stemming up a long corner, hand drilling on the lead and tapping in quarter-inch bolts. At its best, the stone formed crisp, crystallized edges; at its worst, it crumbled where the bonds that hold rock together had been sucked away. Moss abounded.

Partway through day two, we romped up an easy section of terraces and landed at a stance beside a gaping cavern that held a snow blob the size of a house. A clear stream flowed from the snow. I belayed Perry across a narrow ledge so he could fill his bottle, and then he did the same for me. After guzzling my fill, I stepped away from the snow blob, and the entire thing slid off with a mighty thud and blew apart below us. Had I lingered one moment longer, I would have been pulverized.

"*#^*!," we said as one man. Route finding on the remainder of that day was a case of "follow your nose," but the features fell into place and the difficulty remained reasonable. By twilight, we were sniffing for a bivouac ledge. Perry pulled onto a cramped, triangular niche the size of a closet that was seeping with water, and he suggested we sleep on it.

In the fading light, I thought I spotted the hint of a better ledge, eighty feet higher—because, when craving a bivouac, a climber always believes there is a better ledge above. When I got there, I was disappointed to have found a sloping thirty-degree ramp. "I think the other ledge was better," said Perry after I belayed him up. But it was too late; darkness had fallen. The ledge was so glacier polished that we kept sliding toward the rim all night, held up by a constricting web of slings and knots.

On the third and final day, a steep headwall of rust-red rock split by a fissure led to a zigzagging path across ledges and the summit crest. As we basked in sunshine on the summit, we lamented the eventual bushwhack back to the car that awaited us. Perry pulled out his radio and phoned the heli operator in Chilliwack, and for a few dollars more, we got a pickup from a meadow at the base of our rappels down the regular descent. The flight gave us a final glimpse of the enormous symmetry of Slesse's walls and ridges. Despite the patches of thick moss and decaying rock, there was an innate beauty and sense to the line—like so many adventures, and like so much of life, perhaps, a feeling of order composed of random things, most discernible in the aftermath and from afar. Ever since, and to this day, Perry recently told me, he's kept a framed photograph of that beautiful peak hanging on the wall of his home.

[This story originally appeared in the Mountain Profile of Slesse (Selisi) in Alpinist 74, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 74 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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