An Unplanned Bivouac at the Top of the North Peak Couloir
19-20 Aug 2006 - by Marek r Damm
The purpose of this trip was to prepare for ice climbing season and to practice some techniques in an easy and reasonable safe environment. So my intention was not to find a place with a blue ice but rather with, as I call it, frozen snow (hard enough to use technical tools and, at least, pickets for anchors). The other factor was a short hiking distance from the car to that place. I considered Mt Dana and Conness, which I intended to climb in the past but lost my desire once I started climbing the Cascades, and North Peak, which I have climbed a few times with my previous climbing partner John Zazzara and knew what to expect.
- Peaks: North Peak Couloir
(sorted/filed as Couloir)
- Place: California
- Trailhead: Saddlebag Lake
- Participants: Daniel Preda
My climbing party was a PhD Computer Science student from Berkeley, Daniel Preda, who responded to my post. Up to that point, Daniel used to do rock climbing but had very limited ice climbing experience (he climbed Mt Dana couloir a couple years ago).
On Sunday morning (8/19/2006, 8am) we started hiking to Cascade Lake with just day packs but full of gear, including ice screws and rock pros just in case; we decided to do round trip in one day and then eventually stay one more day in this area (if we like it) or move to Mt Dana. Even though we had a late start, we were very optimistic and sure that it was more than enough daylight time to climb up and back.
Ninety minutes later we were already struggling with the slope (combination of everything, grass, scree, bushes, and rock) leading from the meadow to the base of snowfield were the couloirs rise. We managed to get to the point that we had to use a rope to safely pass through. Though I was leading, Daniel, as a rock climber, climbed this section first, then pulled up his backpack, and then I climbed with my backpack using the rope as handholds.
After finaly arriving to the snowfield, we examined the couloirs. As the first option we decided on the most right colour (third from the left facing the wall) with a bergschrund at its base. The second option, if we could not pass the bergschrund, was to climb the most left couloir (no obstacles at its base). The middle couloir looked like did not have snow at its upper section. Earlier we saw a party of two climbers who for some reason gave up the right couloir and moved down to the first from the left. While sorting our gear and preparing for the route we watched the two moving up fast.
It was 3pm. I am not sure were we wasted so much time. We roped, and moved on using pickets for anchors. The bergschrund formed a few meters vertical wall from side to side. I was not certain if the upper snow of the wall could have held my axes securely and did not really feel like climbing it without protection. I let Daniel to check the possibility of climbing the rock on the left side. There were few vertical cracks offered to a rock climber. Daniel did not want to do it without protection as well. So we had to decide who had a greater chance of overcoming the obstacle or retrieve. After reconsidering our options, Daniel figured out that he could use some rock pros and climb the rock. After struggling for a while with the slippery rock he managed to get on the slope above the bergschrund. I tried to copy him but did not succeed and climbed the bergschrund's wall instead. The downside of this outcome, however, was leaving two rock pros in place; I could not reach them to remove. (So if any of you would be able to recover the pros, two cams, we would be very thankful for returning them to Daniel.)
The rest of the climb was pretty simple and only a matter of time. However, it was already very late. I led the whole route using pickets for anchors (snow was too soft for ice screws). When I was in the middle of the slope's length I noticed beautiful orange and red colors of the surrounding sky and rocks. At that point I was certain we were going to be caught by night. To avoid unnecessary emotional tension, however, I did not want to rush Daniel, who was doing a great job learning new skills. He understood well we were late but was still moving carefully and safely avoiding any unfavorable occurrences. "Time is not important, life is important."
The red disappeared and darkness occupied our territory. I did not care and kept climbing. Snow is friendly enough and as long as I can recognize some shapes I can handle it. However, for Daniel it was quite a new experience and insisted on using flashlights. Of course, with some light climbing became more pleasant and even gave me a feeling like having a nice evening in a warm room lightened with candles.
On the ridge (a reasonably flat and large enough snow field) I set up the last belay station and waited for Daniel to discuss our options: to descend the mountain or stay there overnight. There was no doubt in his mind that the first option was too risky. However, he did not know what to expect if we stayed. That morning the temperature was about freezing point at the parking lot and now we were on the snow field about 2,000 feet higher, not to mention the exposed ridge. I enlightened him that there was nothing to be anxious about, that I had had similar experiences in the past under much worse circumstances, and that we were going to suffer only from coldness and inability of falling asleep, and just had to kill time. Unfortunately, it was about eight hours to kill.
We put on all clothes we had and used backpacks as sleeping pads. The night was peaceful with billions of stars and frequently passing aircrafts. At first we kept busy by holding conversations. Our bodies were still warm from physical activity. Then we tried to find the best positions to stop shivering. Most of the night Daniel spent sitting with his backpack on and his knees bend and hidden under his jacket and I was laying on my backpack holding my knees bend and roped together to prevent from spreading them out while falling asleep. I also covered my knees with my hands inserting them under the rope. From time to time we were changing our positions to stretch out our bones and keep the blood circulating. I was dreaming about hot springs. Daniel was dreaming about a long hot shower. The night seemed to be endless. I don't remember how many times I checked the sky above the ridge on the East but finaly noticed a change in its light density. I happily informed Daniel that the nigh was almost over and the sun was going to show up in about one hour. It was already morning but Daniel was still sitting in his position waiting for sun to rise above the ridge and to send us warm greetings. He told me he had a strange feeling; at first he was not sure if it was a dream or real stuff but he was awake; he was hallucinating.
In the morning we descended one more snow field than scree and hiked a few miles back to the car. We were tired and hungry but completely satisfied from our adventure.
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