North Peak north couloir
(What, me worry ?)

20 Aug 2005 - by Rob Yang (view roster page)

I'd met David Valdes briefly while climbing North Peak's north couloir last year with Steve Larson. Over time, I'd seen his trip reports on various websites like cascadeclimbers.com and summitpost.org. After getting thrashed by the weather and hobbled by a weak rope team on Rainier in July I asked him if he had any interest in climbing the mountain next year. We decided to meet and climb North Peak's north couloir to see how things went and train for some steep belayed snow climbing.

We headed out from the Saddlebag Lake dam around 5:30am, and arrived at the glacier below North Peak around 8ish. The last beta we had seen was for lots of snow in the couloir and maybe a little ice, so we carried 5 pickets, 3 flukes, a set of nuts, cams between 0.5 and 2.5" (or so), 4 ice screws and a 60m rope.

But apparently a lot more ice had formed in the previous week since the report I had seen, and we were underprepared in terms of ice protection. There was a lot of snow about halfway up the couloir, then a lot of ice, with some snow on the left towards a rock island, and then some snow at the top. I mentioned that we might just simulclimb up a ways, then back off, downclimb, and perhaps practice some crevasse rescue. So we racked & roped up and started towards the bergschrund, leaving our packs below.

Pitch 1 : David set a belay in the snow below the moat on the right, where both our parties had started pitching out last year, and encouraged me to take the lead. I traversed left, went up above the 'schrund and set a fluke just above it to protect the traverse, then a picket around halfway, and then finally near the end of the rope started pounding another picket. It only went in halfway before stopping against the ice underneath. There was a rock ledge nearby, but there didn't look to be anyplace to set pro, and anyway I didn't have the cams. Also I wasn't real sure what kind of moat I would find under the snow. Hey David, what now ? His advice was to set another picket and a fluke, then equalize them. OK. I belayed while he climbed up to the anchor.

Pitch 2 : Above us lay a big stretch of ice. We were stoked now, and retreat was nowhere on our minds. I felt good about my ice technique after the previous winter's climbing in LVC, and led up. The ice was a bit soft, and easy to climb. I only had 3 screws and set one as pro, saving the rest for the anchor. I wish I'd just run it out, because the rope only let me get to a spot with milky ice. I set the two remaining 22cm screws as best I could and chopped out a spot to stand on with my adze. Another f**king hanging belay, and I'd brought my unpadded alpine harness. I belayed while David climbed up. My ankles and heels ached.

In the meantime, the rays of the summer sun started to show in the couloir, and one could see water running down. Oh. My. God. David arrived at the 2-screw anchor and was pretty much horrified. He set his tools into the ice and clipped into them rather than stressing the anchor, then advised me to do the same. I was pretty spooked by then, and mentioned retreat. David figured that we were halfway up, and bailing now would almost certainly involve rapping and leaving gear. We agreed that we would have to get the next pitch done fast.

Pitch 3 : David led up a short bit of ice to where it mostly became snow. This stuff wasn't firm anymore though - it was 18" of soft stuff above solid ice. Fortunately the rock pro was good, and he was able to use cams, kicking a lot of steps along the way. Eventually he made an anchor from cams and an ice screw just below a sloping roof. "You're on belay", he yelled out. I hastily followed, grateful for all the steps.

Pitch 4 : The final pitch was mostly ice, so I took it and traversed right, then climbed, protecting the moves with two screws. Soon I was back on snow, and close to the couloir exit, maybe within about 15'. David had been calling out rope distance, but it was still short. I downclimbed about 5' to the left side, set some cams and a fluke, then called out "Off belay". After I put him on belay he climbed up, saw how close he was, then continued climbing to the notch which was the couloir exit. He let out a whoop of exhilaration, and then put me on a hip belay as I followed the short distance up into the sunlight.

The notch was covered in deep snow - not a trace of the boulders could be seen where Steve had fished his errant ice screw out last October. I looked up at the rock scramble towards the summit. It looked much more doable to me now. But we had been sharing a 1L bottle of water for the entire climb, and it was now empty. A lot of our gear was still down at the glacier. So we decided that it had been a pretty good training climb and bailed on the actual summit.

We followed the class 2 southwest slopes down scree and talus and realized that being out of water, food and potentially daylight perhaps we should hightail it back to the cars and return the next day for our packs, since the descent and subsequent climb back up to the glacier would be pretty grueling. I had never carried crampons, snow pro, and ice tools on my harness before, but we clanked all the way back. It was an amazing rehydration-fest we enjoyed at the Whoa Nelli Deli in Lee Vining that night.

Next morning we returned, and David watched a guy soloing up the same route we had.

A few pics (originals are at) : http://rhysw.com/north_peak200508

click to enlarge north_peak.jpg click to enlarge north_peak_and_conness.jpg click to enlarge right_couloir.jpg


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