Climbing The Dana Couloir

13 Jun 1992 - by Debbie Benham

We all met at 6:30 am, Saturday, June 13, in the parking lot of TPR (Tioga Pass Resort) to sort our gear, put gaiters and boots on, and layer all clothing, prior to beginning our all day climb of the Mt. Dana Couloir. The group consisted of Debbie Benham, Brian Boyle, Daniel Lord, Kelly Mass (leader), Charles Schafer, and Bob Suzuki. Temperatures had dropped the previous night, and I believe the range throughout the day was 25 to 35 degrees. Daniel Lord quipped that this was the first time he had done a winter ascent of Dana. We drove to within a few yards of the Tioga Pass entrance station and were on our way about 8:15 am. It was very cold and crisp with clear skies; however, we were not novices to the changeable weather in the high country. Upon asking Kelly Maas about the weather, and "What is the forecast?", he grimly replied, "The forecast is for pain" .

As we reached the final ridge that circles Dana Lake, we had our first full view of the Dana glacier and the couloir. It was spectacular and startling -- hard snow conditions with visible ice beneath the layer of snow. We now realized that we had entered "THE DEATH ZONE" where "...the adrenaline alone could kill you..."

We stopped on the ridge to put on our crampons and it was here that we noticed the first clouds coming in just to the southwest of the summit. The wind was whipping, but the sun was shining. We traversed the bowl of the glacier to get to the base of the couloir and stayed high rather than lose elevation and actually begin the climb from the bottom.

While Roper describes the angle as 40 degrees, we mutually consented that the angle was actually 45. Kelly Maas and Brian Boyle began the climb and front-pointed up the couloir. The rest of the group combined several techniques (French technique, side-stepping) while traversing from side to side. We all self-belayed with our ice axes. About half way up, there was some rock fall. One rock shot by and reminded us of a round saw blade by its noise and shape. Charles Schafer was tapped by some of the rocks, but was unhurt.

We ascended the top of the couloir at 1:00, took our photos, then determinedly turned and headed for the summit of Mt. Dana. We reached the top at 1:30 where brisk, cold winds greeted us. Looking east, we not only had a wondrous view of the Mono basin, but a good look at the couloir we had just climbed. Kelly looked at the thermometer, and read out, "25 degrees!"

We headed back down the 'regular' route about 2:15-2:30, and reached the cars about 4:30-4:45. On the final hike out amongst the trees, slight snow flurries began. By the time we were in the cars and headed toward Tuolumne Meadows campground, snow was coming down slow and steady. What great timing!!! By mutual agreement, we all decided to set up camp, then head on over to Tioga Pass Resort for a warm, 'somebody-else-cooking' meal. While waiting to be seated, we went over to warm ourselves by the fire, and ran into Bob Coble, Dave Caldwell, and Balu Sharma. Apparently, they had been investigating rock climbs in the Glen Aulin Canyon areas.

As we enjoyed and savored our respective dinners, talk turned to tomorrow's hike. Due to the weather conditions, we were unsure about climbing the planned Unicorn Peak. As it turned out, the decision was made the next morning, and we all agreed that the Echo Peaks were "just the ticket." Jim Curl joined our group that morning, and he, like the rest of us, was eager to "do something" that day.

Snow flurries enshrouded us and followed us to Budd Lake. We passed several backpackers heading out and commenting on the opportunity to build a snowman; however, we were a determined group. The snow stopped, the cold weather didn't, and all of us climbed Echo Peaks 5 and 8.

Kelly, Daniel, Bob, and Jim continued on and summitted Peaks 1, 2, 3, and 7. Several members hiked up to the top of Echo Ridge, where spectacular views were had of Matthes Crest and the Coxcomb.

We left the Echo Peaks playground around 2:30-3:00 and reached the cars soon after. Dinner at Sonia's Restaurant in Oakdale was delicious, and a perfect way to end a very successful weekend.

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