Words: Brette Harrington
Photos & Video: Kieran Brownie
Some places are best kept secret, at least for awhile, like treasures unbeknownst to the world. That is how Marc-André and I felt about the Chinese Puzzle Wall after we made it’s first ascent in 2016 via Hidden Dragon. Tucked away high in the mountains of the Canadian North Cascades, The Chinese Puzzle Wall is perched quietly on the south face of one of Mt. Rexford’s many batholith formations. The Nesakwatch valley drops steeply below; the depth of its greenery constitutes of enormous pines, cedars and alders providing home to some of the greatest animals of North America, the bear, wolf, and cougar to name a few. Across the valley Mt. Slesse and her neighboring peaks dominate the skyline forming an amphitheater of granite. The booming claps of glaciers breaking up under the heat of the sun, or thunder from a passing storm ricochet through the valley.
The Chinese Puzzle wall is a marvel in itself. I often wonder what geological phenomenon created such an exceptionally steep feature. My best guess is that it was an earthquake a couple thousand years ago that sent half the face cascading off, leaving behind suspended blocks in stacked overhangs, and splitter crack systems from vertical pressure.
Marc and I kept quiet about the wall, in hopes that the spirit for adventure would guide other climbers to its base rather than a written description of the approach. Our reason being, another line had caught our eyes, the neighboring line to Hidden Dragon where a prominent corner system dominates the lower wall of white granite. It then links into an immaculate looking crack, trends through large roofs and is identified by a prominent orange stripe about a quarter of the way up the wall. This line we would call Crouching Tiger.
He and I had attempted the line back in 2016, but I turned back from a teetering and offensive block. This year, I returned to the Chinese Puzzle Wall with Caro North and Chris Kalman. My mind was set on Crouching Tiger, to fulfill the vision that Marc and I had created together but I was concerned about the blocks that had impeded our path before. This time, when I reached the section of dangerous blocks I did not retreat. I held my balance, used my aiders to stand in the highest steps, carefully eased my weight onto questionable placements, and sure enough, overcame them. Once the pitch was established, our team of three set off and up. We finished establishing the line by aid over five days amidst the blazing summer heat wave. Fatigued from the hard work and heat, we returned home to recover for a few days.
Last week Caro, Chris and I accompanied by our friend and photographer Kieran Brownie returned to The Chinese Puzzle Wall. I managed to free each pitch of our new line making the first free ascent of Crouching Tiger. Involving many thoughtful movements and gear placements, my favorite sequence of the climb came at pitch three where a finger crack pinches down under a roof. By tossing my right foot around the roof and over my head I fitted my heel upside-down into a crack system above. With excitement, I pulled around the roof and climbed up to the anchor! Other such difficulties arise on the climb such as the crux flare on pitch seven, or the fierce layback on pitch eight. The sheer vertical and sustained difficulty of the Chinese Puzzle wall would appeal to anyone looking for adventurous and difficult traditional climbs, away from the crowds above a quiet Cascadian valley.
As we hiked down from the wall, I stopped at the lookout to admire the hanging wall once more, knowing that I will be back again soon.