Mt Gilbert NE Couloir

16 Aug 2000 - by Michael Gordon

I was asked to do a write-up on this route. I typically try and write more verbose TR's, but nothing truly eventful occurred on the climb. However, it was an extremely aesthetic and beautiful climb.

Alois Smrz and I went ultra-light into the Gilbert Basin Saturday 12 August. We carried scarcely more than the clothing on our backs, ultra-light, warm-rated sleeping bags (I have underwear nearly as thick as Alois'), snack-type food for two days, a very minimal amount of hardware (4 screws, 4 stoppers, some biners, some slings), harnesses, an 8.8 mil rope, helmets, and two technical ice tools. That's about it.

We set our gear down at the highest lake in the Gilbert Basin just at the edge of the moraine then napped for a bit while watching a party of two belaying the couloir - seeing them start it sometime around 1230pm. Their summit entry revealed they summited around 430pm, and may have needed to bivvy on the summit ridge. We were kind of astounded they'd be climbing the gulley that late.

After napping a bit (manly climbers, we), we scrambled the morainal talus for an hour heading toward the Thompson gulleys. We inspected each; the Knudsen Couloir, the Smrz Couloir (named after Alois), the Harrington Couloir, and finally the Moynier Couloir. We might likely return for the Moynier soon. It is in shape now, but the upper end is burned out and will require 1+ pitches of moderate-looking rock.

We retired early Saturday evening for a 4am start on Sunday. However, we overslept by nearly an hour after tossing and turning most of the night. We quickly arose, packed up all of our gear, and set off for the gulley. I believe we arrived on the cone at the base of the gulley around 630-700am. Though we had rope and hardware, we were not to break them out on the whole climb. Alois and I ended up soloing the gulley in right around an hour or so.

Secor calls this a 900 foot(+) gulley at 60 degrees. Some sections are less than 60 (specifically the bottom third), and you can aim for steeper sections if you like. Conditions were beautiful frozen firn which took front points and tool tips like a cantaloupe takes a knife. There were areas of ice where screws could be placed or belays established, but if you climb it now, rock pro may be a better bet - though you'd miss the more exciting climbing out in the middle. We were able to see the screw placements of the previous party; they might as well have been soloing as their placements in the afternoon snow would have failed in catching a fall.

The beta in Secor's 1st Ed. is very accurate, but the rating (5.6) could be considered inaccurate depending upon your climbing ability. From the top of the gulley, descend the other side 40 feet, traverse left 20 feet, and follow the fourth-class ramp/low angle dihedral (some loose stuff - careful!) to the summit for two pitches. We summited at 845am. The weather was beautiful, the sky crystal clear (in all directions), and the sea-of-peaks view to the south elysian. All this, despite the Manter Fire *still* burning (but 100% contained).

The descent is a class two sand hike toward Mt. Johnson, stopping at the top of Treasure Col (faint notch on the ridge). We observed *at least* one rap anchor at the top of the Col, but we downclimbed the gulley - two tools, face in. This gulley is maybe 50 degrees at the top but quickly and steadily diminishes in steepness in around 300-or 400 feet.

I don't believe Mt. Gilbert sees much traffic. Perhaps because even the SPS route to the top is not easy (or fun). We descended the SPS (Class 2, axe required) way to the top and I can tell you I wouldn't want to ascend Gilbert this way. Much talus, willow-wacking, and sand climbing (urgghh!). Old summit registers are still on top, and the first ascentionists of the NE Couloir entry is still easily found. They wrote:

"3 September 1972 First Ascent via the couloir on the Northeast Face. 6 pitches, some 600, mostly 50-550. In contemporary parlance, it was faar ouut (sic). We have named it Engram Couloir, a tribute to Scientology. Dan Eaton, Ron Cale, Al Fowler Today is the first day of the rest of your life. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did."

Alois and I have reported to RJ Secor that the gulley should be named the "Engram Couloir" to respect the first ascentionists. Somehow the name has fallen from favor, even though subsequent parties to the first also referred to it as the Engram.

This is/would be a fine alpine ice climb, but we knowingly were there early. Our busy, optimistic fall alpine schedules call for some routes-crunching, so that we did. Alois had already climbed the couloir in prime ice conditions, so this was a repeat for him in "cruising" conditions. It was truly maximum fun for minimum output: *perfect*, frozen firn that one can fly up without concern for the precise placements or care required by the glassy, hard ice of just weeks from now.


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