The rope was too short. I was hanging near the end of a two-hundred foot rappel down a steep couloir slick with ice and snow and I couldn’t find the next rap station. Then I saw it. About 20 feet below the end of the rope, I spotted a nylon rap sling hanging from a rock on the right side of the gulley.
But to reach the sling I would have to unclip from the rope and traverse across the slope to the rock—a perilous path that the group of climbers above me would have to repeat. Instead I laboriously ascended the rope and climbed to a rap station a short distance below where four people were huddled on a two-person ledge.
I had started the day expecting to be responsible for helping one person—my climbing partner—get safely off the mountain. But I now found myself unexpectedly responsible for a quartet of climbers.
One of the great things about climbing is the sense of community that it engenders. Putting your life in someone else’s hands can create friendships forged in shared suffering and the surmounting of challenges. The brotherhood of the rope, Gaston Rebuffat called it.
But at the same time, the presence of other climbers often creates dangers. They knock down rocks or ice on you. They delay your team from starting a route, raising the odds that you’ll spend an unplanned night on a mountain. Or their shouted climbing commands (“off belay”) can be confused with those of your own partner—with potentially disastrous consequences if your partner assumes that you’re secure and lets go of the rope.
There’s a fine line between camaraderie and chaos and I was beginning to fear that with five climbers on a rappel that we had crossed it.
Welcome to the Eastern Sierra Ice Fest.
Steve Larson had organized a gathering of people to celebrate the late-season arrival of ice in the gullies of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Of all the mediums people can climb, ice is the most ephemeral and ever-changing. Winter storms fill high mountain couloirs with snow that eventually melts and refreezes and condenses into ice—and then the storms return and obliterate it. Climbers covet the brief Sierra ice season like wine lovers await the first release of Beaujolais nouvelle.
My partner Mark and I met Steve in Bishop on a Friday morning. Steve’s partner Misha had gotten sick so we were reduced to a trio when we reached the trailhead near South Lake later that day.
By late after we had set up camp around 11,600 feet near an idyllic lake at the foot of a boulder field looking over Mt. Gilbert and Mt. Thompson, our objectives for the next two days.
On Saturday we enjoyed an easy climb up a couloir on Gilbert. There wasn’t much ice, mostly neve, which took ice ax picks and crampon points like a dream. Steve didn’t bother to rope up and was on the summit by 10:30. Mark and I roped up and didn’t top out until 2. By the time we finished the long walk-off and trudged back to camp it was almost dark.
There we met Miguel, Andrew and Matt, who had hiked in that day. The next morning Steve didn’t feel well and headed home. That left five of us heading up the Harrington Couloir on Thompson. This time there was more obvious ice—glistening ribbons of frozen water dangling down the couloir.
Mark and I were the first up the gulley, crossing a yawning bergshrund about a third of the way up, where we took out the rope. Miguel and his two companions climbed as a second rope. The climbing was fun and not too difficult and before long I was eyeing the last hundred feet to the top. The angle steepened to perhaps 60 degrees but the snow looked as firm and as smooth as any I had seen over the last two days.
I swung one of my ice tools into the snow. The pick glanced off without taking hold, dumping a pile of loose snow on me and revealing a sheet of brittle water ice under three inches of powder. The climbing was about to get much harder. I began whacking my way up, the ice shattering like a broken dinner plate every time I tried to place a pick, big chunks breaking off and falling onto the heads of those below. By the time I had grunted my way to the top of the pitch, a broad patch of snow had sheared off the slope, replaced by a crystalline surface as pitted and scarred as the surface of the moon.
Eventually the others joined me and after enjoying lunch in the sun on the wide summit plateau we hiked off to the highest pinnacle, which reached 13, 494 feet, offering a glorious view of the Sierra, from Mt. Whitney in the South to Bear Creek Spire in the North.
By 1 pm we were rappelling down the gulley. Climbing up we had spotted regular rap stations so we had decided to tie our two ropes together to reach the bergshrund faster than we could descending as two teams on single ropes.
Unfortunately we soon discovered that most of the rap stations were fairly marginal, both in terms of the gear, much of which looked older than Mark, who is 22, and in location, as I discovered when I came up short.
We improved a couple of stations by adding our own slings but the biggest problem was just packing five people per stance. On the fourth rappel we pulled the rope down and it snagged on a rock outcropping. I climbed up unbelayed and freed the cord. We finished the fifth and last rappel a glacial five hours after we had started our descent.
By 7 we were back in camp and an hour later we were walking out in the dark. Mark and Miguel were the most assured route finders in the group but they had taken different paths cross-country to our camp and disagreed on how to get back to the trail. Tottering under our heavy packs we got lost trying to find our way. Mark led us up a steep, seemingly endless boulder field, and those in the back began grumbling.
“Why are we going this way?” came one voice in the dark.
Our camaraderie was fraying like a cut rope.
Eventually we stumbled back onto the trail, where we slumped over our packs and took a short rest.
In the dark I could hear Matt muttering. “Are all climbing trips like this? I’m never going climbing again.”
Then Matt’s headlamp started to die and he began talking about sleeping on the side of the trail and walking out in the morning.
We finally reached the trailhead at 11 pm. So far it had been an 18 hour day. Matt and his barely burning bulb arrived about 20 minutes later.
No, Matt, not all climbing trips are like this. Some aren’t nearly as fun.