This amazing, alpine granite paradise is situated right on the Cascade Crest with a starting elevation of 4,875! As climbers, the main draw here is the Liberty Group. When approached from the east by Winthrop, the massive, immaculate granite formations stand like sentinels guarding the area. Unlike other alpine rock in the Cascades, these granite escarpments have long, continuous crack systems. These systems mean the rock is less crumbly and more consistently sustained, making for a much more pleasant and straight-forward climbing experience.
Enjoy the classics by climbing Liberty Group and Cutthroat Peak
There are, of course, many other formations in the area such as Cutthroat Peak along with some surrounding crags around Cutthroat Lake, Silver Star and the amazing Wine Spires. You’ll have plenty to do with so many other smaller crags, but the main draw here is the Liberty Group! Situated high on the pass and directly above HWY 20, this grouping of towers are the following formation listed from south to north: South and North Early Winter Spires, Lexington Tower, Concord Tower and the Liberty Bell.
Beautiful routes can be found on all of them, but the classics hone in on the SEWS, and Liberty Bell. To reach either, park on the west side of the pass at Blue Lake Trailhead using your Northwest Forest Pass. To access east-facing routes on SEWS, park at the Hairpin and work your way up the gully to your route. Know it can be steep with snow in the early season. For the eastern routes on Liberty Bell, park at a pullout just west of the hairpin turn.
My route recommendations for the iconic SEWS climb
By far the two routes I’d choose on SEWS are the South Arete (5.4 on the climb and descent) and the Southwest Rib (5.8). The Southwest Rib follows gullies and ledges across the southern flank of the formation, crossing an amazing, exposed fin of rock that goes by many names. You’ll then get into boulder hopping on the summit, which is the tallest in the Liberty Group. This is also the descent for all routes topping out the formation, so pay careful attention if planning to do other routes! Given the nature of this route’s popularity, it is typically easy to follow the well worn climbers path down. The Southwest Rib holds a spectacular position on that side of the spire with pitches each have different characters. The most notable pitch is called the bear hug. Either bring a BD #5 or don’t, but be ready for some interesting climbing!
Find advanced pitches with Liberty Bell’s classic routes
Other, harder routes also attract attention here, the Direct East Buttress being my favorite with a rating of 5.11 and well protected as Cascade rock climbs go! Further to the north, the Liberty Bell holds a plethora of classic routes from the “50 Classic Climbs,” Liberty Crack (5.11 C2) and the Beckey Route (5.7). The former is one of the best free climbs/aid routes in the country, in my opinion. With a fairly simple approach and a beautiful alpine setting, this continuous crack system has enough to keep everyone smiling! In case you’re looking for a challenge: To this date, the Lithuanian Roof on pitch 2/3 has only been freed once.
Best time of year to visit Washington Pass
This of course means the season for rock climbing is shorter than other areas in the range, with the best climbing generally done from late May to September. In May and much of June, it is not uncommon to encounter snow on your way to the routes, so check with conditions and plan accordingly. It is also worthwhile to check for the state of the road and whether or not it is open to traffic. Typically closures run from November through late May, but don’t be surprised it closures run into June.
What to know before you head out
While getting to Washington Pass, or just after leaving and heading east, I love to head to the Mazama Store in Mazama. Here, you can find pretty much anything you need from gas to groceries to beer. Right next door is Goat’s Beard, where you can find any last minute climbing gear you may need. Also, located in this store is North Cascade Mountain Guides, who can give you recent conditions updates and take you up the less-traveled terrain in Washington Pass, which highly recommend! A lot of nearby campgrounds offer a range of prices. Free, dispersed camping can be found off of Goat Creek Road in Mazama. Please leave no trace here as the area continues to become more popular. The Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival is held every July and is the perfect excuse to plan your trip.