The North (Moynier) Couloir of Mt. Thompson
by Michael Gordon
There we were beneath the North Couloir of Mt. Thompson – Alois and I. I’d never had Acute Mountain Sickness or even headaches at altitude, but if ever there was a time I was going to get it, it was right then. We weren’t that high – only about 12,000 feet – and our acclimitization pattern was no different than any other trip: drive from sea level, sleep at the trailhead, and climb the following day. Works great every time. However, this time I was staring up into the icy confines of the North Couloir, one thousand feet above me. It looked cold. It looked steep. It looked awfully narrow. And it looked formidable. I’m usually gung-ho to get on a climb, but I was just about as gung-ho to fake my way out of this one. I could have "lost" a crampon or been "too weak" to climb, but Alois would know better. I’d have to summon the courage and go for it. ‘Alpinist’ is the badge I seek and chickening out of climbs doesn’t fit the image of the indomitable and courageous alpinist.
Studying our objective and then turning toward me, in a cocksure tone Alois assures: "No problem; piece of cake!"
In return, I look at him and silently think, "Sure, pal".
The North Couloir (or Moynier Couloir) of Mt. Thompson is the furthest right of the four gullies on the north face of Sierra Nevada’s Mt. Thompson. This narrow, ice-choked couloir is almost entirely hidden from view until you nearly reach the base of the Thompson Ridge via the lateral moraine spilling out from the cirque. Although the climb is profiled in Moynier & Fiddler’s Sierra Classics, not many people get back here to make the climb. Perhaps because the approach is no picnic. Perhaps because it is a mixed climb. Perhaps because getting down from the summit may be as difficult as the climb itself. Perhaps this is why I feel queasy sitting on the edge of the glacier while donning my crampons.
I never worry too much about a climb, really. Climbing is the easy part. It’s always the descent that troubles me most when I should be concentrating on the climb instead. I’d heard stories from others that the descent was no ‘walk-off’. Alois himself turned back from the Thompson Ridge descent in 1997 after soloing the (then unnamed) Smrz Couloir, opting instead to downclimb the 60-degree Harrington Couloir. What’s to worry about, I ask myself?
The North Couloir is a serious mixed climb. While it’s not technically difficult, it might not let you by with a mistake. With that in mind, in the chilly morning alpine air of October 1 we left the glacier’s edge and started cramponing up the fanned, lower-angled runout zone of the couloir. Because the lower end of the couloir catches a fair amount of sun, much of it was thin water ice and hard firn hidden by a shallow veil of Labor Day’s snowfall; just beautiful climbing. We soloed up the first four pitches or so, staying to the left wall of the couloir. In no time we were at the throat of the couloir, looking at the "real" climbing above us. Here the walls neck in tightly, allowing just ten or fifteen feet width of shiny and solid 60o water ice to cascade down the middle; ‘serious’ water ice.
We found a suitable belay at the right hand wall where I flaked out the rope as we readied ourselves. Alois tied into the sharp end of the rope. We spoke little, and prepared for the real deal. Without words, it was understood that Alois would take the first pitch. It was his. Alois led off, kicking and picking his way up the spindly couloir, sending down volleys of dinner-plating ice. This was not simple single-swing cruising like lower in the gully; Alois had to clear the brittle surface ice to get a good stick. Alois would learn that I enjoy the benefit of modern tools with picks perfectly intended for this medium. Mine would sink effortlessly without much of the dinner-plating caused by his older tools. Boulders protruding here and there from the ice provided a little mixed excitement as Alois navigated through and over them.
Traveling out one rope length, Alois began putting in a belay anchor. His tool was planted off to his right (not leashed to his wrist), but while sinking a screw he unwittingly knocked the tool free from its placement. I heard brief profanity and witnessed the fall of the axe. Although falling quickly, the tool remarkably hooked the hanger or carabiner of his last ice screw placement and stayed. However, it was not to stay long. Alois was unable to lower to it or downclimb to it, so I would have to try and recover it following the pitch. The moment Alois took up slack in the rope for me to follow, off the tool went. It bounced and bounded down the narrow couloir. Reaching my safe position, I watched it career by at a high rate of speed throwing sparks as it glanced boulders in the middle of the gully. In no time it was gone from my sight due to my belay position at the wall, but Alois was able to watch it continue its long, fatal trajectory. Alois was now committed to completing the second pitch of ice without the benefit of a second tool.
I followed the pitch, collected gear from Alois, and led the second and even steeper pitch of water ice. Reaching the massive crux chockstone, I looked under - considering the 'tunneling' advice from John Moynier himself – only to find tunneling impossible. Many large boulders had dammed up behind the giant, main chockstone, making passage by tunneling available only to midgets and small children. We had no alternative; we would exit the couloir and climb rock.
I put a two-screw semi-hanging belay here: the couloir at the chockstone is barely two or three feet wide of brilliantly hard water ice, and inclined at sixty-five+ degrees. Like fresh, mouth-blown glass of a vase maker, the ice was alive with air bubbles and glistening. The perch was equally magnificent, but terrifying. I felt a distinct disconnection from things joyful and alive during my time under the chockstone. It was icy, cold, and dim. We chose to be here, yet at that instant in time it was the last place I wanted to be. I yearned for a rocky ledge; a sunlit plateau; a view of something green in the distance which would remind me of life; a place where I couldn’t see the world sweep away so quickly from the points of my crampons. Like Alois’ ice tool, a simple mistake here guaranteed an extremely fast ride to the afterworld.
Alois had to follow my lead with his single ice tool. I cautioned him to climb carefully as my belay was not ideal but adequate: one ice screw sunk to the hilt, one tied off at its ¾ mark (no rock pro to be found). No Worries, Alois made it look trivial and arriving at my belay, he racked up and headed off on the exposed but moderate fifth-class moves, exiting the couloir on the left wall. A pitch and a half of easy to moderate scrambling later, the warmth of the sun striking the summit plateau greeted us as we bid adieu to the shade and cold of the icy couloir. A fantastic and challenging climb it was, but I could not remove from my mind the concern of the approaching unknown descent.
Twenty minutes of virtually flat and sandy walking on the summit plateau brought us to the abrupt twenty-foot high rockpile of the summit proper where we were greeted by a stiff autumn wind. The descent weighed on both our minds; despite having two cameras between us, not one photo was captured on the summit.
Nourishment and water was quickly had while viewing the small number of past entries in the summit register. The time had come to look for our descent. Walking to the north edge of the summit plateau, my stomach dropped. Our "third-class" descent was to be found here, yet the whole north edge of the summit plateau dropped off sharply. Beyond the sharp drop-off of the summit is 1/4 mile of knife-edge ridge to reach what appeared (on the approach) to be a class two talus and scree gully. We had no descent information other than the Sierra Classics suggestion to locate "a short gully [which] drops onto the north ridge (Class 3)". I’d never seen 3rd Class terrain look so scary.
Before we committed to this descent, I discussed with Alois my willingness to walk the half-mile back to the Harrington Couloir to consider it as a safer, possibly faster, and more straight-forward descent. However, with the loss of his second ice tool, Alois could not consider the 60o downclimb. We were committed to descending the North Ridge, and as the afternoon hour burned on, we were committed to descending it now.
We agreed that we would belay any potentially dangerous downclimbing, placing pro where necessary. Not surprisingly, we belayed right off the summit – our first pitch of the "3rd Class" descent. When Alois asked me to lead us down, I looked at him like he’d just asked me to jump into a piranha pond.
"I’m not going first – you’re crazy, man!" I thought. I quickly recomposed when I examined the reality that a fall for me on toprope (belayed from above) was safer for me as the leader than for Alois as the follower.
Sparse pro was placed where available in the extremely friable and poor rock. Two pitches off the summit delivered us at a notch on the Thompson Ridge where we could see steeply down a rough and tough looking chute to the glacier. Alois felt like it would go. I told him that during our approach that morning I had scanned the wall on Thompson Ridge, and the only thing that looked truly descendable was the scree gully - still a 1/4 mile away from us after the knife-edge, gendarmed ridge. We had to keep moving however - it was 1:00pm. We hadn’t the time or energy to argue about whose proposed descent would work, so I sided with the experience of Alois.
Once again, Alois asked me to take the lead down this unknown chute. Still roped, I quickly began descending it despite my seriously uneasy feelings about whether it would fly. Should it not, we could get benighted on this wall and have to reascend to the ridge to get down. Two pitches of belayed downclimbing on more friable rock and sand brought us to our first rappel of about 80 feet. We were fortunate to discover that another party had taken this same descent; two fixed pieces of sling were found at this rappel. We inspected then equalized them, and I rapped first. Having only a single rope, it was a relief to see the tails touching bottom on this blind rappel. Another pitch or two of unroped descent on scree brought us to another rap - another full length at 80 or more feet. This one brought grief as we could find no place to fix a sling for the anchor, when out of the corner of my eye I caught a large green sling straddling the largest boulder in the middle of the chute. This rappel didn’t quite make it far enough off the technical terrain and required some nerve-wracking fourth-class downclimbing on sand covered slabs and cracks in a very narrow portion of the gully.
My feelings of unease and concern continued. Despite the number of pitches we’d descended, the glacier appeared no closer and the friable rock and sandy slabs required constant vigilance. Dry-mouth and fatigue were setting in. With limited water, Alois and I shared sips from the bottle.
Two more pitches of unroped downclimbing on slabs and scree brought us to yet another rappel. This one raised greater alarm. Fixed with the chopped end of another party's rope and two carabiners, I realized this previous party was having an epic at this point and felt their situation dire enough to chop into their new-looking rope. I wondered if the same feeling would befall me, or us. This descent seemed to go on forever. At this point I began to accept the possibility that a bivy on this God-forsaken wall might occur with Alois and I as the unwitting and unwilling participants.
Fixing this rappel, we took the two biners left by the previous party. This rappel brought us into a section of the gully that was nothing more than steep death-slabs covered in scree. The gully opened up wide, exposing the east wall of the Thompson Ridge, left and right of us. It didn't look good: impossible looking steep scree slabs hurriedly dropped away below us; left and right of us along the wall were the numerous shallow ribs descending from the top of the ridge. Almost by intuition, Alois and I looked at each other with a look of near-surrender, proclaiming ourselves screwed. Disappointment, weariness, dehydration, and the lack of nourishment beset us both. We spoke little and shared more sips from the bottle, drinking just briefly to conserve some water for the bivy.
Dejected and weary, I sat in the sand considering my fate while Alois climbed up onto the rib east of us to have a look. Somewhat excitedly, he called me up to have a look at the next gully over which appeared as if it would go. Somewhat refreshed by the remote possibility we would get off the mountain, we scrambled back down, shouldered our packs, and headed back to the top of the rib. Once again, repeating what we’d been doing for a few hours, I racked up and led off into the unknown with Alois giving me a top belay. This gully looked like it contained better possibilities than the horrific one which we’d just left, but before committing to this cliff-bottomed chute, I decided to scramble to the top of the next rib to have a look even further east along the wall. Slight elation hit me as I found easy scree leading off the rib with very little downclimbing. I brought Alois over, and once again re-racked and headed off. We were now averaging about one pitch of distance every ten minutes. Until now, the complexity of the terrain consumed much more time per pitch. Moving quickly was essential as we were now getting very close to dusk. Safety remained the motive, however. Even though we could have unroped at this point, any fall had fatal or injurious complications, so we stayed roped. Dehydration, hunger, and fatigue was taking its toll - mistakes could be easily made.
Two more pitches of belayed scrambling opened to greater visibility. Our gully hooked to the right, and rounding a corner of the rib I could see easy, scree-covered ledges and slabs that led without difficulty to the highest portion of the Thompson Glacier at the base of the Thompson Ridge. I was overwhelmed with relief. I let out a holler to Alois to let him know of our assured arrival at the glacier’s edge. No bivy would happen on this God-forsaken cliff. We had averted danger and injury on this perilous descent – five-and-a-half hours after we left the summit.
Finally, Alois reached my last belay and we unroped. A few minutes of travel brought us to the glacier's edge where Alois and I hugged. We had toughed out an unknown and challenging descent and we did it safely - without leaving any gear.
We quickly put our crampons back on and headed across the glacier toward the runout zone of the North Couloir to scan for his ice tool, but to no avail. It would not be found. I was sure I saw it at a higher position in the couloir while at one of the last belays, but we could not afford the time or energy to recover it. We still had to reach camp, pack up, and pack out. Alois would continually reassure me that he would be fired if he did not show up for work Monday morning. We could not return to camp to rest and recover from the day; we would have to quickly pack and start walking.
As we walked away from the Thompson Ridge and the Couloir, I looked back at the wall to study what we had descended. I will not forget this view. From the ground, a descent of the wall looks damn near improbable - at least not without leaving lots of gear and slings. It had only taken us about three hours to complete the whole climb, yet more than five hours to get down.
We reached our camp at sunset, quickly packed up, and hiked and scrambled out in total darkness. Finding correct passage back to the trail from the Gilbert/Thompson basin would not pass uneventfully however. Trying to find the correct gully down the mostly 5th class approach slabs in complete darkness was by no means trivial. Our first gully choice was the wrong one and we began to think that despite our best efforts, we were bound to sleep somewhere on the side of something this night. Alois’ eyes were failing him in the darkness, so it was the waning light of my headtorch and my ‘young’ eyes that had to get us to the car. Never have I felt so blind in the wilderness. Though we knew the terrain, there were no landmarks to be seen or silhouettes to reference. We were navigating entirely by sound. Descending closer and closer to the water coursing through the Treasure Lakes drainage, we could only hear it – never would we see it. Eventually we located the Treasure Lakes trail, finally reaching the South Lake parking lot at 930pm. The celebratory ales in the cooler would never see the celebration this night.
My weary head touched its pillow in Long Beach at 330am - just two hours before the Monday morning work wakeup. Lapsing into unconsciousness put to sleep my toughest-ever day in the Sierra - the day that undeniably forged a solid climbing partnership between Alois and me.