North Peak Right Couloir

9 Oct 2004 - by Steve Larson

All the weather reports forecast some kind of misery for the weekend; wind, rain, or snowpossibly a combination of all three. With confidence in the fallibility of numerical weather modeling, I stuffed some lightweight gear into a pack and headed up to Tioga Pass to meet Robert Yang for an outing on North Peak the following day.

We had never met face-to-face, but a few emails back and forth, plus a chat on the phone convinced me that this was going to be a good adventure. Rob was keen to try out his newly minted alpine ice skills, acquired earlier in the season under the tutelage of various guides. And I was eager simply to get on the ice before the season ended.

After a long drive from LA under cloudless skies I discovered the weatherman was right about at least one thing: it was windy. Too lazy to pitch a tent, I holed up in the back of my truck. The effects of altitude always make it difficult for me to sleep the first night, but gusts of wind rocking the truck and blasting bits of flotsam noisily against the sheet metal exacerbated the problem. I slept poorly.

I was awakened shortly after 4:00 am by the clang of the bear locker door. Rob bustled about by headlamp, gathering gear and getting his stove started. I pulled on my sneakers and stumbled out of the truck. We exchanged a brief greeting, then went about our business. I opted to crawl back into the truck to stay out of the wind. Chewing slowly on a bowl of Muesli and raisins, I watched while Rob did breakfast on the picnic table. I began to feel badly that he was out there in the cold all alone, but not so badly that I wanted to go out there and join him.

With the last spoonful of cereal gone I was out of excuses. It was time to get out into the elements. I glanced up at the sky. Still clear from horizon to horizon. A waning sliver of moon was just rising from thewest? This caused me several moments of confusion. Until then I was certain I knew which way was north. Although I knew full well that the moon always rises in the east, it was hard to accept that north was really south. I wasn't fully convinced until an hour later when we started walking along what even my turned-around brain insisted was the west shore of Saddlebag Lake.

We finally started walking at 5:30, a half hour later than planned, but still respectable. The wind continued to buffet us. I tried not to think of what it might be like up higher. Images of howling gales tearing across the ridge tops were interrupted by yet another stumble on the poorly illuminated trail.

Walking by headlamp has never been one of my favorite activities. The implication is generally that it is dark, when sensible people are tucked snugly in their sleeping bags. The obvious conclusion to be drawn is, given that you are not tucked snugly in your bag, you are obviously not one of the more sensible members of the species. I've had a few girlfriends who could have reached that conclusion without going to near as much trouble.

My pack weighed too much. It always does. Even after giving Rob the rope and a few bits of rock pro, it still seemed heavier than it should. If they didn't make all that gear out of metal, this wouldn't be such a problem. I predict that in a generation or two advances in materials will render all this clanky boat anchor stuff obsolete. Climbers of the future will look back on us with the same kind of horrified wonder with which we regard Norman Clyde and his cast iron skillet.

We made good time up to Steelhead Lake, where we left the trail for the ramp leading up to the base of the glacier. I shouldn't have said the ramp, because there are two, and we picked the wrong one. It wasn't a disastrous error, just annoying. To avoid unnecessary elevation gain or loss, we had to fool around with a series of exposed ledges until we regained the correct route.

Before the trip, Rob had warned me that he wasn't too comfortable on rock. Watching him get mildly gripped on what for me was just a ho-hum fourth class move left me feeling slightly unsettled. I had never been on this route before. I'd heard that it was a walk-off, but I've been sandbagged before.

By now the sun was fully up, and the north face of North Peak and the surrounding mountains were bathed in a preternatural light. I paused to allow Rob to catch up while I studied the route. The middle couloir was completely melted out, as was the top third of the left couloir. But the right couloir was in perfect shape; pale blue ice from top to bottom, dappled with myriad spots of powder snow left over from last month's storm. It was a lovely sight.

The glacier, if you can call it that, was another story. The right side of it was covered in heaps of rock and sand, and it appeared to be bare ice clear up to the bergschrund. I'd be surprised if it was still there in 20 years.

We sat down at the toe of the glacier some time after 7:30 to put on crampons. I was beginning to think we might have the route all to ourselves when another party emerged from the moraine. We waved and said hello, then hurried to get under way. We soon reached the bergschrund to the right of the couloir, and began traversing to the first belay. Rob began to feel uncomfortable unroped, so I went back and got the rope from him and set up a belay to bring him across. We were on the route proper a few minutes later.

I reached the bergschrund crossing at the same time as the leader of the other party. They had started pitching it out maybe 75 directly below. After a quick introduction, where I learned they were from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and instantly forgot his name, we discussed strategy. The leader were impressed with the quality of ice on the left side so far, which suited me fine, since I had figured the right side was more protected from rock and ice fall, and sharing a line with another party just seemed like a hassle.

The ice was awesomemore or less sinker everywhere except for the occasional patch of dinner-plating. It was so fun I almost forgot to place pro.

I was hoping that I'd be able to use the rock wall for protection, since even my spiffy new BD turbo express screws are more hassle to place than a quick cam, but the right wall presents few opportunities. Oh, well. I'd been warned, but I've grow too conservative in my old age to venture out into unknown territory without a little backup gear.

In my zeal to stretch each lead out as far as possible, and thus maximize our chances of finishing the route in three pitches, I ended up with a hanging belay about 40 feet above a nice comfy ledge. I made a half-hearted attempt to chop out some decent foot placements, but gave up when it became obvious that this was going to be more hassle than it was worth. I was also feeling guilty that every bit of ice I dislodged made a beeline for the Cal Poly team.

Rob followed the pitch admirably, as he did every subsequent pitch. For someone who had just begun to climb technical ice he did an outstanding job. Way to go Rob!

In the mean time a third party had arrived, and their leader was hot on Rob's tail. They wisely set up their belay on the comfy ledge I had passed by in my haste.

The ice slopes slightly towards the left side of the gully, making it possible for more than one party to climb the right-hand line without showering those below with ice. Not so for the left hand side. Between Rob, myself, and their lead climber, the poor belayer on team Cal Poly suffered a nearly constant bombardment. I was sure one of those baseball-sized chunks was going to take him out, but I never heard him complain.

I bailed on the three-pitch fantasy on pitch two, when a veritable soccer field of a ledge someone had hacked out of the ice emerged. Even the screw placements were pre-drilled! Ahhh, I could get used to this.

Bill from the Bay Area, leader of the third team, came steaming up as I put Rob on belay. We brought up our respective seconds more or less simultaneously. I don't think Rob was too pleased with the hanging belay at the end of the first pitch. He muttered something about not trusting it as we traded the last of the lead gear. I didn't give him time to dwell on it, since there wasn't much I could do about it anyway, but I had him in mind when the penthouse balcony at the end of pitch two hove into view.

I think I was spoiled by the nice ledge at the end of the second pitch. I could have gone quite a bit further on pitch three, but when a nice rock ledge presented itself I dove for the opportunity. Well, wallowed might be a better description. A snowfall a few weeks earlier had deposited about a foot of powder snow on the ice leading to the ledge. I scooped and scraped and swung my tools blindly into the fluff before finally reaching flat ground.

But it was worth it. Bill passed me just as Rob started to follow. He got to the end of his rope, and seemed rather unsatisfied with his surroundings. After considering his options for a moment he called down to his partner and inquired as to his feelings about simulclimbing. His partner Dave quickly agreed, and soon they were both making steady progress. I felt a twinge of jealousy.

By the time we started the third pitch team Cal Poly was pulling ahead. I don't know if their speed was due to inherent skill, or desperation to get out from under the constant rain of debris we loosed upon their heads. Whatever the reason, they poured it on and disappeared into the notch.

Bill and Dave soon followed them into the notch. As I lead the last short pitch I heard the four of them talking. They sounded relaxed. I could hear the sunshine in their voices. I ditched the purist line straight up the gully for the easier snow-filled moat, pulling the rope as fast as Rob could pay it out. The slight degradation of standards was worth the extra minute or two of sunlight.

I popped a couple of nuts into the rock and brought Rob up. By the time he emerged from the icy shadows of the couloir, Bill, Dave, and team Cal Poly were gone; on their way to tag the summit a few hundred feet higher.

With Rob on safe ground, we wasted no time in attacking our lunch and dropping a brand-new ice screw down into a deep crack in the talus. Hunger helped me stay in denial about the screw once I ascertained that it was not within easy reach.

It was 1:00 pm, nine hours after breakfast, with only the odd gel and energy bar in between. I savored a turkey and avocado sandwich as I watched the clouds over Mts. MacLure and Lyell to the south. I was struck by how much more snow remained here at the end of the season, versus the much dryer, though taller, Whitney area. Not just gullies and high cirques, but also the lee shoulders of rounded ridges. I must say that the Yosemite high country has the most stunning scenery in the range.

Rob and I were of like mind as we packed away our wrappers. It was time to head down. The weather, though pleasant, looked unsettled; the remainder of the route was solidly class 3, which was hardly Rob's forte; and I needed to drive back to LA that night.

I scraped up the loose gear and stuffed it willy-nilly into the pack. All set, except for that damn screw. I was just to cheap to leave it without a fight, but I didn't really know where it was. Rob finally spotted it about five feet down a crevice that even my three year-old son would have trouble navigating.

Rob suggested that we try pushing the boulders aside. The smallest one was about six feet long by three feet wide and two feet thick. It had to weigh as much as an SUV. But when there's expensive gear at stake, no suggestion is too outrageous. I braced my legs and gave it my best shot.

Andit moved! Okay, technically, it moved about the width of a Hydrogen atom, but I'll take what I can get. I tried pushing the other rocks, with about the same level of success. I peered down into the darkness, pondering the situation. Rob looked serious, or perhaps just boredI'm not sure. It occurred to me that I might be stubborn enough to stay here through the night, or however long it took to figure out how to get the thing out of there.

While I considered how I would survive my tentless, sleeping bagless, foodless, waterless, bloody hopeless plan, Rob mumbled something about trying to hook it. Of course! Within seconds I had mangled my Abalakov hook into something that extended the shaft of my hammer just far enough to reach the fugitive device. A few minutes of blood rushing to my head while I hung upside down in the crevice, and I had it.

Awesome. I could descend in peace now. And descend we did. A couple hours later we arrived back at the car as a few crystals of ice drifted out of the sky. Back up canyon, grey curtains of precipitation obscured the peaks. I'm sure that Bill, Dave, and team Cal Poly were well-prepared for the conditions, and having a grand time. But just the same, I was glad to be down. I had a date with a hot shower, and I didn't want to be late.

Robert Yang adds:

It was a real privilege to climb with someone so skilled as Steve.

Carrying a rope in the top of my daypack does seem to make it top-heavy, and kind of throws off my center of gravity. Is there a better way of dealing with this ? Maybe I should pack it lower next time. I also find that totally stiff-soled ice boots don't seem to help my rather pitiful rock-climbing skills. Maybe I'm just making excuses.

The right side of the bergschrund was kind of steep, with a nice moat and a knife edge, and that sort of spooked me while traversing up. After mentioning that I was sketched out, I watched Steve come back down and hook his tools over the lip of the moat edge after taking the rope, and that was helpful to see. I wonder if perhaps should have traversed a little lower and used my tool in cross-body position for security (I was too high for that initially).

There was actually a platform on the other side of the moat to stand on for the first belay, but to get from there to make upward progress I had to jump down, which I'd never done while ice climbing before. The time I spent puzzling that problem out cost us, sorry.

Steve's hanging belay was bomber, my whining notwithstanding.

Driving back down from Tioga Pass I noticed a big cloud around Mt. Dana, and it was raining part of the way. I enjoyed the autumn weather immensely.

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