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Mount Rexford Traverse and Judge Howay South Face

(Originally "Memorable Short Journeys in the Coast Range", CAJ 1993)

by Kobus Barnard

(all photos copyright by Kobus Barnard)

Sometimes one just has to curtail one's climbing to get life sorted out. Well, maybe not, but that's how it appeared to me in the summer of 1993. Since I was unable to do a long trip, I faced the challenge of thinking of interesting new places to go close to home. I was able to manage two excursions which may be of interest to those with a stretched long weekend or a short week. That is, unless you only like sport climbing, in which case you should skip to the next article.

John Black and Emily Butler were my partners for the first trip, the Illusion-Nesakwatch-Rexford traverse. This is a great outing! Begin by traversing the Illusions from north to south as described in Bruce Fairley's guide to the area. Then simply continue on up and over the Nesakwatch spires, the main peak of Rexford, Pi Pillar, and the South Peak of Rexford. Escape is possible from many points, but this trip is so much fun, you wonıt want to miss any of it! To overcome the first of the Nesakwatch spires follow the north ridge as described in the guidebook and scramble down the other side. Climb the south Nesakwatch spire just to the left of the crest (a few moves of 5.6-5.7) to just below the summit. The thirty foot final summit block features a lovely offwidth; a great finish to a true mountaineerıs summit. A scramble and a short rappel takes you to the col between the spire and an arm of Rexford. Three or four straightforward pitches will get you to the West Ridge route on Rexford. At least they should be straightforward. It was on this section that John explored some desperate variation in his running shoes and Emily became so cold waiting that she would not let him lead for the rest of the trip. So, if you like to lead, I recommend that you avoid difficulties on the left. The summit of Rexford is reached by following the aesthetic West Ridge route. Once you have accomplished the chore of descending to the col between the two peaks of Rexford, you are in position to climb the South Peak via Pi Pillar. This is the highlight of the trip. Pi pillar is a structure the shape of the Greek letter pi, with two legs supporting a horizontal block. The sources differ somewhat on the routes up the pillar. Culbert's and Becky's guides describe an aid climb from between the legs. Fairly's guide has the same first ascent party and date, but describes a 5.7 free climb from the other side. I think this is the route we took. From the basin to the northeast of the South Peak, easy climbing leads to an extension of the north leg of the pillar. Climb a corner up this extension to a ledge about 20 feet short of the top of the pillar and belay. It is recommended that the final section is done as a separate pitch, since the packs do not have to go beyond the ledge. We chose to down climb the top bit, as we couldn't find an acceptable rap anchor on the top of the pillar. From the ledge you can rappel between the legs to the other side. The view of the pillar from that vantage is much more impressive. As you rappel you will wonder what is actually holding the structure up. Don't linger if the earthquake forecast is high! From below the pillar a good (not necessarily elegant) pitch puts you close to the crest. From here, look up, slightly to the right, to a lovely clean granite face with a wide crack in it. This crack has your name on it. Fortunately, the true offwidth is limited to a few moves. The crack then becomes a chimney, and then essentially a tunnel­ or at least it feels like one, since you are deep in the bowels of the mountain. Clearly the laws of geology are a bit warped on this ridge. This pitch puts you on the summit. To finish the traverse, descend to the col to the south, from where the Center Creek logging roads can be reached with little trouble (keep left going down the first part). Our original intention was to continue the traverse south, to Middle peak and then come back north over Lindeman, exiting on the Radium Lake trail, but I had been over optimistic (as usual) about how long we would take, and thus we were out of food. As it was, we climbed the next bump to the south as a consolation prize, and were quite happy with ourselves for doing the most important part of the trip. Still, I think YOU should go and try to do the complete traverse! Yes, NOW, before you are too old.

The Rexford traverse was really great, but the easy approach left us wanting a true West Coast trip. To get our fix, Emily and I teamed up with Mark van Wouw for yet another Judge Howay trip. This was my ninth trip into the area (I'm a true addict), and Emily's second. She was also successful on her first trip, as she always waits until the approach bugs are worked out. In contrast, it was Mark's second mountain trip ever. I had visualized the 20 pitch unclimbed face, and then, while trying to keep a straight face, simply asked him if he wanted to do something interesting for five days. After the obligatory paddle, hike, swim, bush crash, and scramble, we were at the base of the South Face of the South Peak. OK, Iıll be honest: we were one third of the way up the face having bypassed the lesser quality climbing on the first third via a ledge system. The first technical pitch had me worried because I had practically sworn on the "Freedom of the Hills" that the climbing would be mellow, or at least straightforward (what we do for rope mates!). Luckily, however, the team was able to elegantly climb the steep, slightly loose, chimney­chockstone­stem affair, and I entertained the thought that we would be able to get high enough so that retreat would not be an attractive option. This we did, and about 12 pitches later there was no audible dissent on the next crux section, a beautiful corner requiring wide stemming. Overall things went really well, except that the duct tape responsible for keeping a two liter bottle of water hanging from my harness failed in its duty, and the precious cargo plummeted toward the base. Putting the prospect of imminent thirst out of our minds, we thoroughly enjoyed the high quality climbing on the upper section. In total, the route was 18 pitches, with the maximum difficulty being around 5.8.

From a previous trip I knew that the summit would be a great place to bivi, and reaching it well before dark gave us a chance to stretch out and enjoy the view. Water rationing was in effect, but throughout the night we were able to alleviate the thirst by sucking the big dew drops forming on the sleeping bags. Unlike the previous trip, we found the correct descent down to the col, and from there it was just the standard business of testing out the rock shoes for step kicking, glissading, and hiking­ slippers would definitely fail the test. At our camp in the basing, after the climb, Mark commented that he liked doing trips with us because things go so smoothly. As he was saying this, he knocked the pot off the stove (fortunately only containing leftovers), and it went bouncing down the boulders, disappearing from sight a few hundred meters below. Twenty minutes later, returning from the recovery, he sat down with the pot, knocking the lid off the ledge. Thus he was put in charge of comic relief.

Should you do this climb? Unlike the Rexford trip, you have to be a little into "approach". You will already know if you are one of those people, and you will have lost many of your partners to sport climbing. If wading rivers and technical bush crashing with a full climbing pack sounds like your particular brand of social deviancy, then the Judge wants to see you. Muriel Pacheco, an experienced Judge Howay voyager, had previously suggested that we call the next Howay route "Repeat Offender" and we will follow her suggestion.