As I racked up for what I expected to be our final pitch, we could see the headlamps of Max & Kevin as they ascended the final couloir. It was an eerie sight in the dark – it made the couloir somehow seem more large and brooding. It also looked pretty steep. The speedsters announced that they were going to bivy in the notch at top. Vitaliy and Shane said they felt too beat to do the long snow climb and wanted to belay lower. Remembering a photo that showed a nice notch at the base of the couloir, we agreed to bivy there and relayed our plans to the others.
I started out on steep, insecure snow slopes like the last ones. I traversed another 40 feet or so and reached the point where Kevin had backtracked. I looked down to see where he downclimbed and saw a muddle of tracked snow going down steepening snow and around a large block. Most of what I could see was blackness, so I knew the slope dropped off real fast. I tested the first few footholds and found them to be very unpredictable in quality, and the steps seemed to disintegrate into granite slab beneath. If I fell here, there was no way I could self arrest and I would come into a big swing onto the anchor.
So I spent the next 10-15 minutes making my first truly needed Deadman snow anchor. The snow went about 2 ft before I hit slab, but it was very unconsolidated. I made the T of the T-trench right against the slab so that I could make it as deep as possible. I did some practice pulls on the webbing to see how the picket would drag in the snow. At first it was popping up, but with some adjustments of how the webbing was tied to the picket and how the picket was angled, I was able to get itself to (seemingly) burrow down into the snow when loaded. A pretty worthless piece, if you’d ask me, but I at least hoped that it could take a relatively static fall as a top rope anchor as I downclimbed to the block where I hoped to find more pro.
I downclimbed very slowly, sometimes purposefully collapsing steps as I stomped them down to make sure they’d hold. It was like aid testing in snow! At last I reached the block and . . . no pro. As I traversed beneath it I refused to accept this situation and spent some time digging in the snow before I found a crack. I happily plugged in my first real piece of the climb about 70 ft into it and began another snow traverse that was no better than the previous ones.
In the beam of my headlamp I could see rocks ahead and I approached these eagerly as if they were an island of safety. At first they were, but still no pro. I dug out more snow but wherever the rock planes met the cracks were either choked with ice or too thin to take nuts.
But aha! I had brought pins and a tool with a hammer!
But oh no! I couldn’t place them here! Crap!
I was on my tippy toes, barely balanced on the thin edges on the rock. While I have practiced placing pins, I hadn’t practiced placing them with one hand. The cracks were too shallow to set a pin and let go to grab the hammer, and I was more worried about falling off while trying to place the pin than I was in being unable to find a piece of pro at the next corner. So I kept traversing as the rock got steeper and the climbing got thinner.
After another 15-20 ft of traversing (maybe another 40 ft out from my one cam for the pitch), the ‘ledge’ I was on just ended. I was stepping on two thumb-sized edges at the time, neither one big enough for more than one boot tip, spaced about 4 ft apart. I looked down with my headlamp, and the rock beneath my feet dropped away so steeply that the only rock I could see was very feint in the light.
Note to self – falling here will result in a big and unpleasant pendulum flight into space. DO NOT FALL HERE.
To my right the rock was featureless. I looked around for a long time for hand holds and footholds but I couldn’t find anything. I was at a corner in the rock, but it seemed scarcely more feasible. The corner didn’t have anything to grab or jam in it. On the left there was a 5 ft wall that topped out with a steep slab, but it had a lot of snow on it and as I swept my hand around to clean it off, I couldn’t find any cracks or features to crimp.
I tried cleaning out the corner crack some more and found a shallow groove. Too thin to get in a finger jam, too high to really be able to stick my finger into it, and frankly I’d rather have pro here instead. At least I could alpine aid off of it if I got desperate! As I reached up with a microcam my left foot popped off of the thin edge I was standing on.
“Guuuuuuh!” I blurted as I tensioned my body and pressed my outstretched hand into the corner to prevent from barndooring off the rock. “Baaaah!”
Luckily most of my weight was already on my right foot, so once I caught the swing I shoved in the cam, grasped it with one hand in case anything else popped off, and clipped the rope to it with my other hand.
Still, it was a micro-cam in a snow-choked crack. I set in a nut and gave it a good yanking with the greater confidence of my current top-rope, equalized the pieces, then again weighed my options.
I refused to give in so easily to yanking up on the pro. Besides, I didn’t see where else I could go with climbing or additional pro once I did so as all of the rock that had cleared off above it was devoid of any more cracks. With the greater security of the pro, I stood up higher and swept away snow with my axe higher on the slab, feeling around . . . and . . . hook!
The slab ended cleanly in another step above me, but with patient searching I managed to find a small pocket that opened into the corner! It was not very secure for my tool, but just large enough for a decent one handed crimp. Still no other handholds, no footholds to assist getting onto the slab, and I didn’t know whether I could get my feet to stick onto the slab once there. But if my feet held, I could probably reach out enough to a potential mantel higher in the corner with my free hand, hike my feet up, move the other hand up, and . . . freedom!
I crimped hard, yanked up hard on my right arm as I gave a little hop and shoved my left knee onto the slab and my right boot onto the corner to my right. I grunted a few more times as I hiked my legs up before I lost my grip and found some purchase! Up and over the mantel I went, and another 2-3 more between ledge traverses before I ran out of rope.
I can only imagine how I would have done this pitch without following Kevin – both in knowing that the snow could hold, and having a general idea of a route and that one would go through. If had could have done it without this assistance, I sure would have been MUCH slower! Kudos to Kevin for his badass lead!
“On this particular pitch I climbed last on rope, and psychological crux was a down-climb after a brief climb up to remove a picket (which protected the leader and first follower). As soon as I took out the picket I was [a ways away] over the next piece of pro with a difficult task - a crumbling layer (12cm or so) of snow over steep hold-less slab I had to down-climb. I placed my right foot on a previously made step, and it collapsed under my weight. I quickly regained my balance and watched the snow fall into the void. I regained my concentration - this is a no fall zone.Somehow I made my way down the slope to Shane, who was belaying me from the rock, and we continue to climb up towards Mark. On the last part we encountered a rock crux of the route - perhaps a poorly protected 5.7, that felt a lot harder in mountaineering boots. Without peeling off Shane and I made it to the ledge and congratulated Mark on a fine lead.”
Of course everything is harder in boots, with a pack, on snow, and especially when these are combined with a slab were friction is no longer an option, but amongst me, and Shane and Vitaliy following on a virtual top rope, conservatively we’d rate the rock crux section a freaky, awkward, and insecure 5.6. Talk about your Sierra class 3-4 route! Of course we may have been off route by this point . . .