North Peak, Right Couloir
(Back to School)

20 Sep 2003 - by Scott Pierce

On September 14th 2003, hankering to do a little soloing, I walked up to the base of the Right Couloir. There was a pair of climbers above, so I hacked out a platform, slightly offset to the right below the bergschrund, and waited for the pair to exit the couloir. They were knocking down a fair amount of ice and rock, and I didn't want to deal with that, nor did I want to pass them and then be the bad guy on an ego trip by dumping debris on them. So I waited. And waited. They were taking hours, and as the afternoon wore on and the shadows lengthened and the cries of "what!?" and "which rope?" and "ROCK!" continued to echo out of the gully, my solo-head deflated and became filled with visions of fish and chips smothered in malt vinegar, so I headed down, promising myself to come back soon.

Six days later on a crystal clear Saturday morning, Robbie and I left the Saddlebag Lake parking lot at 5.45 am. We hiked in to North Peak Glacier, and by 8 am, Robbie was learning the basics of alpine ice climbing. For three hours, we talked over techniques and practiced on the suncupped glacier, and then simul-soloed up to the bergschrund. Robbie belayed off screws from the ice cave formed by the overhang of the melting 'schrund, which put him out of the way of potential rockfall and other "whizzers". We had 3 full 60 meter pitches (and 10 meters of annoying change), belaying succesively from rock on the right, ice pro in the middle, rock on the left, and finally, a quick hip belay from behind a boulder at the top. We found variously, styrofoam, fairly hard bubbly blue ice, and lots of brittle dinner plating. It was interesting to note, while I was waiting at the second belay station, rusty pitons poking from the granite wall 12 feet above the ice, bearing mute witness to decades of diminishing ice in the couloir.

On the third pitch, I belayed from a bouldery stance. I left a little slack in the rope so that it would run around the talus and scree perched precariously on the edge of the ice. The slack was to minimize the chances of the rope nudging rocks onto my second's head. As he was traversing 80 feet below, Robbie took a follower fall. Robbie's 210 bruising pounds, coupled with the slack in the rope, generated some considerable force, pulling me tight in a shower of fist-sized stones. Both Robbie's weight and mine came on the anchor, which made me glad that I had religiously placed three solid, equalized pieces.

I had been swinging my tools lightly, trying to get good bite and solid self-belays without burying the picks, but Robbie quickly had grown fond of holding his tools in dagger position while scuttling on the frozen neve in the lower part of the couloir. Although the conditions in the upper part of the couloir were hard and icy, he didn't adjust, and when he lost a foot while getting ready to kick the other into the ice, all his weight went on his tools, which were good only for balance. So he popped. A fun and benign place to learn an important lesson--on his first alpine climb, no less.

The lesson for me from this situation is this: the nature of my stance was such that I couldn't place myself directly in line with the potential pull if the second fell. I was about 6-12 inches offset to the left. When Robbie fell, I was pulled a little sideways, and lost my footing. On a pure rock or ice climb, this offset would have been acceptable, but I was standing in a chossy gravel heap. When I momentarily lost my balance, I knocked some rocks off the ledge, one of which narrowly missed Robbie's head, and instead hit his thigh, leaving a red smack mark. We got off lucky. A larger rock could have killed him or broken his leg. Given the crummy rock I was standing on, and the stout nature of the anchor, I should have belayed directly off the master point of my anchor, not off my harness. That way, I wouldn't have been pulled sideways.

The ascent of the couloir took longer than I thought it would--3+ hours. (Karma paying me back fom my uncharitable mutterings of the week before).

At the top of the couloir, we snacked, hydrated, took off a layer, and then third-classed two or three hundred feet on excellent rock through a chute scooped from the east ridge, up to the summit.

On the descent, we returned to the notch at the top of the couloir, then zig-zagged on a distinct and easy-to-follow use trail, down a gravelly southeast-facing slope, around small tarns, all the way back to Saddlebag Lake, which we gained just as twilight turned to dusk.

A great, sunny Indian summer day in the Range of Light.

NORTH PEAK, NORTH COULOIR. 45+ deg, WI2, cl 3. Justifiably a classic.

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