Deep Blue: A Dream First Ascent
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic and with lots of time on my hands, I developed a 15 pitch route that became Deep Blue. The slowness of the pandemic period quickly changed as life went back to normal and I added going to school for Computer Science on top of a full time job as a routesetting manager at Seattle Bouldering Project, and I never got around to writing up a story about this significant experience.
I returned to Dolomite Tower last month to repeat Deep Blue and Vanishing Point after not climbing on the tower for two years. I was reminded how special that wall is to me and wanted to try to get some words down to remember it. Right now, the Bolt Creek Fire is still barely controlled and ravaging the south slope of Baring. I’m not sure how it’ll effect future experiences climbing on that wall. The descent trail goes right through the path of the fire and is likely a mess right now. It’ll likely take many hours of donated time to clean it up as it is an unmaintained trail. But hopefully putting this story out there will provide some motivation to keep it alive.
Here is my story:
Since climbing Vanishing Point in 2017 I had been dreaming about doing a new route on Dolomite Tower. I finally stirred up the psych to do it in 2020. We were living under Covid-19 lockdowns, so I had nothing better to do than swing around on a huge wall surprisingly close to Seattle.
My first weekend on the Dolomite Tower I hiked to the top by myself. In a large haulbag I carried a 600ft static line, climbing gear, and bivy gear. It must have weighted over 70lbs, likely the heaviest load I had ever carried. The 4-hour slog up to the top of Dolomite Tower, up nearly 4 thousand feet, was torture. The padless waist straps of the haulbag left bruises. Once all that gear was up there though, I was psyched. I was good for a weekend of exploration and camping in a beautiful place.
Deciding Where to Drop the Lines
As a professional routesetter, I designed artificial rock climbing experiences and I brought that design mentality to my process of finding and creating this new route. Where the route finished would be one of the most important parts of the experience. Should the last pitch be a crux or a cooldown? What should it be like to pull over the top of the mountain? Will it slowly slab out or will there be a defined switch from steep climbing to summit ledge? Will the route finish at the summit or off to the side? Deciding where the route would finish would also define where the rest of the route would climb.
After finishing the 4-hour slog, I immediately started hiking around the top of Dolomite Tower, looking for the right spot to start. Initially I was drawn to finishing the route at the BASE jumper exit: a diving board jutting out of the side of the tower. Climbing one last overhanging pitch and flopping over onto the ledge would definitely be memorable. I felt really excited about it, like this was it. But from the BASE exit, I noticed a bolt up and climber’s left. Was there another route I wasn’t aware of? I climbed up to see if there was an anchor above it. It turned out to be Vanishing Point’s anchor, which I had thought was further climber’s right.
I didn’t realize that Vanishing Point finished so close to the summit of Dolomite Tower, even though I had climbed the route twice! I knew from looking at photos that I wanted to try to take my route straight down the center of the face, which would mean starting not too far climber’s left of the Vanishing Point topout. The BASE exit was to the right, which was not what I wanted. The climbing up to the BASE exit seemed wet and a little loose anyway. I walked up to the summit and peered over the lip. A easy looking steep blunt arete took you to a sharp topout with a wide area to rest and sort gear. The rock looked good and dry. Because it was at the top of the mountain there was no snow to melt onto the route, which was the case with the BASE exit. I knew that this was it.
Discovering the Top 600 Feet
I fixed the 600 foot static and threw it over the edge. I started rapping straight down, putting in occasional protection and re-fixing the rope. The rock was very featured and it was easy to find a line. The top 250 feet followed a blunt arete—a pretty obvious feature to climb. Below that it turned to open face. I kept rapping straight down, still finding plenty of holds, until I was hanging out over a big roof. It was getting late and I didn’t want to rappel into mysterious territory and deal with climbing back over the roof, so I decided to call it for the day and head up. The climbing from above the roof to the summit—about 300 feet—was mostly enjoyable 5.10 face climbing with the occasional 5.11 boulder problem.
That night I set up a solo open bivy in a quite idyllic place. I could see Mt. Index, the Index Town Walls, Mt. Rainier, Glacier Peak, and out to the Puget Sound. I was also not far from home. I could hear the comforting rumble of the train down in the Skykomish Valley as I fell asleep—a pleasant mix of being remote and alone but also in a familiar place.
Rays of sunshine woke me up the following morning. I would rappel below the mysterious big roof today. I made myself coffee and oatmeal, enjoying the solitude of the morning. I lowered onto the face around 7am and quickly dropped several hundred feet. I lowered out the roof, finagling stoppers into small discontinuous cracks every 10-15 feet. I was worried about loose rock but was met with perfect small edges, sidepulls, and pockets. It was going to be a good pitch, and possibly the crux of the route, but there was still almost 1000 feet of rock below it.
I placed a big stopper below the roof and lowered down another 200 feet through face holds, a bulge, and layback flake. Below the bottom of my line, the wall overhung slightly and the climbing seemed like it would be thin. Judging by how featured the rock was so far, I was pretty sure there would be holds, but I’d have to wait till the next weekend to find out.
A Party on Dolomite Tower
The psych about Dolomite Tower somehow aligned that summer. Two other Washington climbers, Matt Carrol and Dan Kluskiewicz, decided to replace all the hardware on Vanishing Point, a classic nearly-1500 foot 5.12b, put up in 1998 by Brian Burdo. Climbing Vanishing Point in 2017 was what got me dreaming about a new route on the face. So my second weekend on the route, seven of us met up Saturday morning to hike to the top together—my friend Blake, my wife Liz, Dan, Matt, and two of their friends who volunteered to help schlep rope and hardware to the top of the tower.
Blake and I hiked up another 400 feet of rope, which would allow us to get down to a big ledge one quarter of the way from the bottom. This was the only part of the wall that could stop the whole project in its tracks. If this section was climbable, we could commit to finishing the route. Below the ledge looked like easier climbing, and if it wasn’t, it would be possible to gain the ledge from the start of Vanishing Point.
Blake would work on the top part of the route while I pushed the route further down. I once again dropped hundreds of feet down the wall, this time with a crowbar. I scared the shit out of myself by pulling off several human sized flakes. After reaching the bottom of the 600 foot static, I made an anchor, tied off the new static to it and continued down the wall.
Sure enough, small holds continued to appear at regular intervals. I followed interesting features, connecting stances, while keeping the line relatively straight. Four hundred feet down from the end of last weekend’s low point and 1000 feet from the top, I landed on the big ledge. I knew the route would go.
It took me over an hour to get through a 35 meter section of particularly hard climbing. I roughly figured out where I wanted to take it, but it seemed hard. It felt like that pitch would be at least 5.13. I’d have to leave it for the next weekend to figure out.
Climbing 1000 feet in less than 3 hours with a backpack was punishing. I rarely feel like my fingers are giving out, but I did that day. It was hard to tell how good the climbing was through the intense pump brought on by the sustained small holds and overhung climbing.
Blake hiked down that evening, leaving Liz, Dan, Matt, and I to enjoy the night on top of the tower. The next day I worked on the upper parts of the route alone, replacing the single stoppers with safe anchors and trundling any loose rock I could find.
The Pitches Off the Ledge
The next weekend, it was just Dan, Dan’s friend, and I. My plan was to figure out the crux pitch while also cleaning and prepping as much of the route down to the huge ledge at a quarter height as I could. I worked feverishly, getting an incredible amount of work done.
The three pitches off the ledge surprised me with their quality. A 5.12- pitch, then a 5.12+, and then the crux, a 5.13, link some of the most consistently steep rock on the route. The 12- pitch leaves the big ledge with a couple boulders down low and then eases as it climbs into a pedestal feature. The 5.12+ pitch climbs through a roof and then onto a perfect vertical face with edges, slopers, and sidepulls. The 5.13 was a long pitch—35m—with three distinct sections, each with their own flavor: a sporty overhang, a bouldery undercling crack, and a slightly overhung thin and pumpy face to finished the pitch. It is a dream pitch with quality rock and movement the whole way.
The Pitches Below the Ledge
I convinced my good friend Mike Kerzhner to come help me try to push the route to the base of the tower. The plan was to figure out an original line from the base of the tower to the big ledge. I had decided that I didn’t want to continue my trajectory straight down because the climbing did not look interesting. You’d have to claw your way up grassy ledges and tiptoe over piles of loose rock. From photos, I could see that there was a clean looking face just left of Vanishing Point.
After completing the grueling hike to the top of Dolomite Tower yet again, Mike and I set up camp and racked up to drop in. We both rapped down to the ledge and Mike got to work cleaning the first pitch off the ledge. I fixed the ledge traverse and lowered into new terrain, following a subtle corner feature most of the way down until it disappeared into an overhung blank face. If I kept going straight down, the crux of the route would be getting off the ground! I thought that there might be a way around, so I started swinging out to the left. I found deep pockets and edges breaking through the blank face, leading to a good stance. The pitch wouldn’t be the crux, but it seemed like it would be one of the hardest (it ended up being around mid-5.12). I placed a bolt at the stance and rappelled straight down 15-20 meters to the ground. After several weeks of work, it was strange to finally touch the “ground”—still 2000 feet above Barclay Lake!
Figuring out the bottom three pitches was on average more time consuming than the pitches above. It was the only time where I couldn’t keep going roughly straight down, which says something about how featured that wall is, or just my luck!
We had to call it that first day with a lot of work remaining. Mike and I started slowly climbing the whole wall back up to our bivy at the top. We had stashed everything on the wall, so we were able to enjoy climbing light. I sent the crux pitch on toprope for the first time, feeling like the route was within my limits. It would be a hard route, but not too hard. At mid-5.13, it would be an achievable goal for many climbers in this era where climbing 5.13 quite common.
The next day Mike and I finished the rest of the prep and cleaning work, and climbed the whole tower once more. After that weekend I took a break from the wall. I still had to do some work on the approach, lead the route, and remove the fixed lines.
Dumbing Down the Approach
A few weeks later, I teamed up with Luke Stefurak to work on the approach. We added rap anchors on the approach slabs so that they could be reversed and found a way around a portion that is a waterfall in the early season. A big mental aspect of climbing Vanishing Point before was feeling like you really didn’t want to reverse the approach. If you needed to bail, it seemed like it’d be better to bail upward. Now that’s not the case. Just turning around is safe and easy.
Luke came out again to support me on the first official ascent. We aligned our schedules with “the Matts,” who would climb Vanishing Point at the same time. One of the Matts, Matt Carrol, had put in a lot of work replacing the hardware on Vanishing Point that summer, without ever climbing the route ground up. Him and I were both going for “the send” on the routes that we had been swinging around on for several weeks already. We had the routes rehearsed, so the atmosphere was light, despite climbing in eerie clouds and wind all day.
Luke and I hiked to the top so that we could rappel down and move the fixed lines out of the way. The Matts were approaching from the bottom. Near the bottom of the wall I realized I had left all our water at the top! Luckily the Matts, who were already on the wall, had some extra water and we were able to swing over near enough to them to grab it.
It was really meaningful to finally enjoy the experience I had been working to create all summer. I felt good, and the climbing felt amazing. Both Matt and I sent our summer projects with no falls. Thank you Luke for supporting me on that day!
Supporting Jasna and Removing the Fixed Lines
I left the fixed lines up, hoping that someone would make use of them to check out the wall with the remaining time that summer. Luke and Matt suggested that I reach out to Jasna Hodzic and see if she’d be interested in climbing the route. I talked to Jasna on the phone and coincidentally she had one last goal for the year: “a hard multipitch.” I gave her all the beta and the weather looked promising, so she decided to go for it.
Jasna spent two days on the lines before deciding to give it a lead attempt. We got Luke, Matt, and I back together to support her. Unfortunately our day was one of the worst wildfire smoke days of the year. We knew it’d be incredibly unhealthy to go out in the mountains, but we decided to go for it anyway. We didn’t know the next time that the weather, schedules, and psych would come together.
We all started from the bottom together at around 7am. Luke would do some more work on dumbing down the approach, reverse it, and hike to the top to help carry out ropes. Matt would belay Jasna, who would lead all the pitches, and I would continue ahead, pulling up the fixed lines and taking photos.
The day worked out beautifully. It was inspiring to watch Jasna send the whole route with no falls. Usually when you put up a new 5.13 multipitch, it might not get repeated for years. It was great that someone else got to share the experience only a couple weeks later. After topping out the route, Matt said something like, “I’m actually irked by how sick that was.”
Luke was waiting for us at the top, literally hanging his head over the edge as we climbed the final pitch. As I was hauling a batch of four 60m ropes, he pulled out the 600ft line by hand! We were back at the cars at 10pm—15 hours car-to-car, a pretty standard Dolomite Tower day.
Note on the Name
On May 11, 1997, an IBM computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion after a six-game match: two wins for IBM, one for the champion and three draws. This event was a momentous step forward in artificial intelligence. Deep Blue was retired to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.
Deep Blue: A Dream First Ascent
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