This 5.9 Is Worth the 20-Mile Approach
One climber’s quest for the promised land
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Tucked away in the Pasayten Wilderness, in the far northeast corner of the Okanogan National Forest, Amphitheater Mountain has stayed under the radar despite the area’s epic potential. Perhaps it’s the 20-mile approach (yes, you read that correctly), which includes roughly 4,000 feet of elevation gain—a true pilgrimage that requires backpacking in. In any case, over 100 years ago, George Otis Smith nabbed many of the region’s first documented climbs, including his 1901 ascents of Amphitheater and the neighboring Cathedral Peak. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early ’70s that technical rock climbs were documented here, including Middle Finger Buttress on Amphitheater (5.10b; 4 pitches) and the South Face of Cathedral (5.8 A1; 7 pitches).
Pilgrimage to Mecca was first climbed in July 2004 by Washington local Darin Berdinka and his partner visiting from Colorado, Owen Lunz. Berdinka is an active new-router, having established more than 30 climbs mostly throughout the North Cascades in his 30-plus years of climbing. He jokes that while most of his climbs are “doomed to obscurity,” a few names may be recognizable, including the alpine rock routes Ragged Edge on Vesper Peak (5.7; 6 pitches) and the fully bolted Mile High Club on Morning Star Peak (5.10a; 7 pitches).
Sixteen years after his FA on Amphitheater, Berdinka still recalls that high-summer day: “After climbing the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral, we spent the afternoon swimming and sunbathing in the lake. Idle chatter led to pointing out the series of cracks and corners that make up Pilgrimage to Mecca.” Around 5 p.m., the climbers grabbed their gear, headed up, and fired off the route in sub-two-hours, landing back in camp by 8 p.m. Their approach took only 10 minutes: Once you’re at the picturesque Upper Cathedral Lake, the routes rise directly above the crystalline, blue-green waters—the zone itself is a cousin to the more famous (and crowded) Enchantment Lakes near Leavenworth.
Admittedly, Berdinka questions whether he and Lunz were truly the first to ascend the line, or if the local legend Pete Doorish had climbed the route earlier yet failed to document it. Doorish, a lesser-known pioneer of the Cascade range, established daunting routes like the North Norwegian Buttress of Mount Index and the 1,100-foot Dolomite Tower (V+ 5.9 A3) just outside Index, the latter in a 12-day solo push in September 1985. On the route, his hammock broke, committing him to “11 sleepless nights” on the wall as reported in the American Alpine Journal, all while battling foul weather and having to use a whopping 30 drill bits to install 40 bolts on the dense, marble-like stone.
In fact, Doorish is said to be the one who gave several features on Amphitheater Mountain their Islamic-themed names, including the one climbed by Pilgrimage to Mecca—the Ka’aba Buttress, named for Mecca’s holiest shrine. Reflecting on the climbing history of the area combined with the arduous approach and otherworldly granite, Berdinka and Lunz settled on Pilgrimage as a moniker.
Whether it was Berdinka and Lunz or Doorish who sent first, one fact remains: The rock quality on Pilgrimage is peerless, especially on the third, money pitch. After finishing pitch two, where an exposed (yet secure) fin provides friendly laybacking, the third pitch tackles a moderate finger-crack layback up a clean corner. However, arguably the most famed feature is the steep double hand cracks above, with their cruxy 5.8–5.9 hero hand jamming. To summit, climbers ascend the so-called “diving board,” a jutting feature that requires creative beta.
From the summit of Amphitheater, the Pasayten Wilderness unfolds below, revealing a sea of beetling granite peaks and remote alpine lakes amidst Washington’s verdant forests. With nearby mountains like Cathedral, Apex, and Remmel seemingly a stone’s-throw away, one could spend a week exploring and barely scratch the climbing surface. Despite his double-digit résumé of first ascents, Berdinka still thinks the Pasayten Wilderness remains a goldmine of potential, and encourages curious climbers to visit. As he says, “Long-forgotten classics wait to be rediscovered, and new-route opportunities are still abundant. Consider looking beyond the handful of well-traveled routes to find your own adventure.”
Darin Berdinka and Owen Lunz; July 2004
Amphitheater Mtn., Pasayten Wilderness, WA (ancestral lands of the Okanogan and Nlaka’pamux peoples)