By Ann McCreary
The Liberty Bell spires at Washington Pass offer some of the most popular and iconic alpine climbing in Washington, attracting more than 2,500 climbers each year.
A destination for climbers since the 1940s, the granite spires at the north end of the Methow Valley have grown in popularity among rock climbers over the past decade. Most climbers approach the spires by a route on U.S. Forest Service land that heads off the Blue Lake Trail on the west slope of Liberty Bell Mountain, climbing through meadows and steep hillsides leading to the base of the spires.
Because there has never been a designated and maintained climber trail, the fragile sub-alpine terrain below the spires has been trampled by people winding their way up to the climbing routes. The main trail to the spires is eroded by heavy use, and a web of smaller paths has developed over time. Runoff from snowmelt and storms has channeled water down the trails, further impacting the landscape.
“It suffers from a lack of intentional design,” said Zachary Winters, a climbing ranger for the Methow Valley Ranger District. “A traditional trail will have turnpikes and water bars and dips to channel water off the trail. The user trail has none of that.”
The damage resulting from lack of an established access route accelerated after a climbing guide to Washington Pass was published in 2012 by SuperTopo, a rock climbing guide publisher, and attracted even more climbers, Winters said. “The degradation of the trail had been gradual up to that point,” he said.
The increasing damage became a concern for the climbing community, which this month launched an initiative to improve access to the Liberty Bell spires over the next two years.
The Liberty Bell spires project is spearheaded by the Access Fund, a Colorado-based organization dedicated to protecting climbing access and climbing areas. The Access Fund this month announced a fundraising campaign to raise money to pay for professional trail crews and supplies to address the problems at the Liberty Bell spires.
“The desire to work on this project came from local climbers and businesses in Mazama,” said Joe Sambataro, Northwest regional director of the Access Fund. Local climbers first brought attention to the issue in 2015 and reached out to Access Fund for help.
“The existing trail is a deteriorating mess with eroded trenches and unsafe, loose rock. We are hoping to create a sustainable trail that serves all climbers into the future,” said CB Thomas, manager of Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies in Mazama. “We realized the U.S. Forest Service would need additional support to steward this popular area.”
In 2016, professional trail crew members from Access Fund worked alongside local climbers and the North Cascades Mountain Guides, a Mazama-based guide company, to complete an extensive assessment of trail conditions on the west approach to the Liberty Bell spires. They provided a proposal to the Methow Valley Ranger District for trail restoration, reconstruction and trail rerouting for the area.
“Support at the planning stage helped our staff complete the necessary steps to approve this project,” said Mike Liu, Methow Valley district ranger.
To get the project off the ground, several climbing and outdoor groups have teamed up in the fundraising campaign to raise $100,000 needed to complete the trail work.
Initial donations to kick off the campaign have come from The Mountaineers, which gave $10,000, the Washington Climbers Coalition, which donated $4,000, and the Petzl Foundation, which donated $6,000.
The campaign, called Liberty Bell Conservation Initiative, seeks to raise the remaining $80,000 by June this year, with work expected to begin in August and be completed in the summer of 2019. Information about the fundraising campaign is available at accessfund.org/libertybell.
Plans include reinforcing and stabilizing existing sections of trail and rerouting unsustainable sections to safer and more stable paths that have less impact on the terrain. Trail improvements include constructing rock stops, drainage features and new switchbacks. About one mile of new trail will be constructed, and another mile or so of trails will be closed and revegetated, Sambataro said.
Way-finding signs are planned to encourage climbers to stay on the designated trail, and a WAG bag (portable waste kit) dispenser will be provided to reduce human waste.
“The goal is to have signage be as minimal as possible, because climbers want a rugged experience,” said Winters. “It’s still going to be steep and rugged. We’re not trying to eliminate the sense of adventure. It will still be an alpine climbing experience.”
“We will work with the landscape and think of human behavior” in developing the trail, said Sambataro. “You want to make sure it is the easiest path and most logical, so there is less shortcutting in the future. Where necessary, we will have signage to keep people on the trails.”
Improved trail access is also important to climber safety, and the safety of search-and-rescue workers who respond to injuries, Sambataro said. According to the Okanogan County Sheriff, there have been more than 20 rescue missions in the area over the past 15 years, and rescue workers must use the trails to access the area and bring injured climbers out.
Plans call for improving climber safety by rerouting the trail away from potential rockfalls from slopes and gullies above the trail, Winters said.
The Access Fund will provide two professional trail developers for the project, who will work with oversight from the Methow Valley Ranger District, Sambataro said. The Forest Service climbing rangers will assist on the project along with volunteers from The Mountaineers, Washington Climbers Coalition, the American Alpine Club, local climbers and Americorps members. “That’s what makes it affordable — a lot of the work will be matched by volunteers,” Sambataro said.
The popularity of the Liberty Bell spires is due in part to the comparatively easy access off the North Cascades Highway, and the variety of climbing experiences the area offers, Sambataro said.
“It’s one of the top alpine climbing destinations in Washington,” he said. “It has everything from great 5.4 to 5.12 climbs. I’ve been able to go back here year after year and find great, challenging routes.”
The spires include classic ascents pioneered by famous Northwest climber Fred Beckey, including the Beckey Route on Liberty Bell and the West Face of North Early Winters Spire.