Halfway up the North Couloir of Mt Mary Austin, I turned my darling Dave smiling and said “This is what we came here for.” He looked tired and I looked like hell, but my stomach was aflutter and my spirits lifted – nothing beats kicking up a slightly frozen couloir with the California sun in my face and the love of my life by my side.
Just a year previously, I thought I was going to die on this same mountain. To the credit of my ignorance, I took a solo trip to climb Diamond Peak on Easter weekend 2004. Late start on Baxter Pass and too much crap in my pack, I beat myself near to death on the slog to Summit Meadow – and never made it. After five hours of whining, cussing and really threatening to throw my snow shoes in the creek, I reached a forested area that I mistook for Summit Meadow and made camp right there. Diamond Peak sat so very far in the distance and the pain in my body was way too present to continue further.
I set a modest bivy on the forest floor sans snow and mindlessly gathered dead branches for a fire to keep the fear of being alone at bay. After a 2-soup dinner, I retired to my sack and remained under conscious sedation involving exhaustion, altitude effects, and a blazing full moon in my face. The next morning I felt fairly rested and ventured out of the trees to take a look around.
Diamond Peak was glorious, but still… so very far away. The many eye-catching couloirs of Mt Mary Austin beckoned and naturally being as lazy as I am, I opted for the closest thing possible and to tell tales of grandeur later. The fact that I had left explicit information with my daughter and Dave about me being on Diamond Peak and who to call when my “emergency hour” expired, never entered my mind as I suited up and began the approach to a friendly looking couloir that I assumed was the North Couloir on Mary Austin. I was not where I said I would be.
Zero seven hundred as I entered the couloir, I had already began to sweat. The snow was barely crusted over but I mostly did not sink in passed my ankles. As the couloir looked about 30 degrees, I was still using trekking poles and figured the axe would come out a little later; didn’t feel like stopping to fiddle with gear in my pack.
It was truly awesome in there alone, I could hear occasional rock fall from the peaks to the north that made my hair stand on end, and quite often I had to dodge stones careening down, sounding much like bullets as they whizzed by. I was very excited and thrilled.
The hours ticked by and the sweat poured down my back. I “pulled over” at about ¾ of the way up to feed my starving muscles. With my feet wedged against a boulder along the western wall, I nibbled and watched more stones fly by and dust rise from rockfall across the way. I fell in love with the place that day….just moments before it scared the living crap out of me.
Sometime near 11AM, I was back hard at work in that couloir. I thought I had moved myself far enough away from the wall to be out of bowling alley of stones, but I was getting a bit disgruntled with the condition of the snow and began sinking knee deep so I quit paying attention to my position. “This is going to be f’ing torture!” as I estimated I had only another 300’ to top out. Looking back at the distance I had already traveled, I felt motivated enough to continue regardless of the frustration, so I plugged on ahead. Once I had gained my rhythm of step, step, plunge, breathe my mind zoned out and I became one with the mush.
In a rude instant, I felt enveloped and squeezed. The first word I uttered that day were “OH F—K!” when I realized that I was chest deep in the snow. I struggled to find purchase with the trekking poles; it was like stirring whipped cream. My left foot was on no surface but I could feel that my right could hold my weight.
Whether my decision-making ability was hampered by exhaustion, frustration or just plain ignorance, I rationalized that if I didn’t make the right choice at that moment, something horribly wrong was going to happen. “Stop struggling and make a plan.” My mind saw duck feet, don’t understand why, but I went to work flipping my left foot behind me as far as I could to pack down enough snow to stand on. Granted, it was only about 12” but it worked well enough for me to stand wobbly and back out of my hole. As I did, I nearly blew my lunch when I saw that crystalline blue snow all around which sloped under a corner stone of a boulder into black oblivion. My right foothold was all that kept me from being sucked under to spend the weekend in frozen dark seclusion under the snow on the wrong mountain.
I think I was gasping and gagging to swallow my spit that surrounded words like “HELP!” and “MOMMY!” All I remembered later was backing away from that hole like a cat trying to escape a paper bag – insanely frantic. Once I gathered my senses, I precariously removed my axe from the back of my pack and sloppily crammed my trekking poles in the straps. I down-climbed about 50’ before composing myself and feeling brave enough to glissade. Meanwhile my poles worked themselves loose and pin-balled 1500’ down the couloir; zig-zagging as they crashed into both facing walls and disappeared from sight – “there went 90 f’ing dollars” I thought, but was more concerned about how my body would follow suit if I wasn’t careful.
Now I was fairly new to the ass glissading technique but out of necessity I figured it out quick; I caught myself cruising fast enough to make my pants sing and had the biggest smile on my face. Swinging left and right to avoid fallen rock; practicing my self-arrests – I actually enjoyed myself. And BONUS! My trekking poles lay waiting for me at the bottom!
I’m ashamed to mention what I did the rest of the day and throughout the night, but I sure as hell had my gear packed and at sunrise I was skipping across frozen snow out of there; back to my car in 2 hours flat!
Each time I have gone down Baxter’s Pass since then and crossed the skirts of Mt Mary Austin, I have looked up at that mystery couloir and remembered … luck, stupidity or just one of those things… I am happy to be able to share the story of fear and failure with my loving partner who supported me in recently conquering this bitc….uh..Mt Mary Austin. We had a beautiful day together and wiped away my doubts and stigma of failure.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary … shape up that couloir, it’s too damn scary.