Feather Peak North Couloir
(First epic)

1-3 Oct 2005 - by Rob Yang

Another trip with David Valdes, whom I had climbed North Peak's right couloir with in August. We had intended to go up to the Palisades and try either the V- or U-notch, but David had a work crisis come up and so we decided to do this instead.

Saturday we started from the Pine Creek Pass trailhead, up the road from Rovana on the eastside, hiked up to about 11,100' below the Royce Lakes and camped on an obvious bivy area, not far from a stream and some low whitebark pines. Our plan was to get up at 2am for an alpine start.

2am on Sunday rolled around. David hadn't been able to sleep. We decided to wait a few hours and try again. Long story short - we didn't leave camp until 7am, and David had still not slept, but wanted to go anyway. By 10am we were up on the glacier getting our gear together for the climb of the Feather Couloir.

A recent storm had put several inches of fresh snow. As we headed up the couloir the snow in places was enough to plunge a 50cm ice tool to the hilt. We were simulclimbing now, and after a few hundred feet David placed a snow fluke. The first belay was cams in a crack on the right side of the couloir, at a level just above a rock island in the middle of the couloir.

Pitch 1 was mostly snow / neve with ice patches. David led with rock gear and some screws in neve. At the end of it he told me things were getting too steep for him to go on comfortably. My turn.

Pitch 2 started out on neve, and soon turned to ice. Angle was 45-50 degrees. I set a belay near the right side with three screws and mentioned to David that if he wanted, we could bail onto the class 2-3 (?) rock on the side. Nothing doing.

Pitch 3: I continued on, the beautiful glassy ice getting steeper. I decided to split the last pitch into two, in order to make things a little easier - David had been having troubles with his right boot. The last belay was actually on the flatter neve / ice just above where the couloir went from 55 degrees or so to nearly horizontal.

Fun climbing. I brought David up around 5:30pm. He was worried about the rock above the couloir exit to the summit, and mistakenly believed that we would have to climb with a belay, traverse a ridge to the Feather-Royce col, followed by raps in the dark. The only alternative that he knew of was to bivy until daylight - without gear. The wind was howling, and I hadn't ever been up there before. I was tired and cold, and didn't argue.

Well, I got more tired and more cold than I knew I could that night. Temps dropped to 12 degrees F there at 13170', and I thought I might die of hypothermia as uncontrollable shivering set in. To stave off the grim reaper I gulped down chocolate and trail mix periodically, and swung my arms hour after hour until 5am rolled around. It is by sheer will and luck that our corpses are not still up there to be found by other climbers.

We put our gear together as sunlight started to enter the sky again. David hadn't slept for a second night, and wasn't feeling well. I scrambled up the solid class 3 to the summit, marveling at how much fun it was, and how little wind there was vs. at the notch just above the couloir. David got himself up without too much trouble, considering that he had just been throwing up an half hour before.

It seemed to take a few hours to descend the class 2-3 ledges and then head up the sandy slopes to the Royce-Feather col, which appeared to be mostly neve and ice at the top. There we descended about 100' on a snow/dirt trail to the climber's right, where we found a good set of rap slings on a rock horn. The first double-rope 60m rappel took us down to a patch of solid ice, where I set up an abalakov thread. The next rap took us down to easily-downclimbed fresh snow. All told we rapped maybe a quarter of the distance down the col, and walked the rest.

Lessons learned: start early, and bring bivy gear if any doubts. Make sure partner understands the route. The descent on this one takes a while.

Epilog: After getting home and discussing the trip with a more experienced ice partner, I realized that we should have probably started rappelling the couloir while we still had some daylight. We had plenty of v-thread material, screws, and rock gear. There was no reason why we could not have left some of it. Getting down before nightfall should have been a first priority.

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