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Mountain Peak via St Jean Couloir:
An Ascent on February 15, 2015 by Tully MacKay-Tisbert
Camped at Lower Red Lake, I rolled around in my sleeping bag after vivid but now forgotten dreams. My watch read 2:00 am and I relaxed deeply at the notion of two more hours of sleep before braving the cold darkness of the mountain just before dawn. I closed my eyes and dozed off. With what felt like only the passing a couple of minutes my alarm was calling me from my sleep. I sat up and retrieved my head lamp. To avoid the cold just a little longer, I put my jacket and snow pants on within the warmth of my sleeping bag. I climbed out of my sleeping bag, put on my boots and stepped out into the darkness, the crescent moon hanging low in the sky offering hardly any more light than the glimmering stars above. I threw my drinks into my day pack, along with my crampons and helmet with my chocolate covered snacks in my jacket pocket for easy access.
I set off toward the mountain, singing to myself to stave off the uneasy feeling of a world extending only to projected light of my headlamp. The night’s cold solidified the snow and made for easy travel up to Red Lake and from there I crossed over the frozen lake and on to the snowy slopes leading up to St Jean Couloir. The sun had not yet overcome the White Mountains to the east, but its early offerings were a lambent glow off the snow and jagged cliffs of Split Mountain Peak’s mountain mass. The talus slopes were buried under heavy snow and I kicked steps up the steep slopes toward the couloir. Feelings of foreboding were immediately countered by an internal melody that drove me upward, as the sun’s face beamed its first rays of light. I climbed into the couloir and decided it was time to protect my brain and put my helmet on.
As the day brightened it began to soften the snow, and small avalanches of snow flowed with a soft continuity. The couloir steepened and I plunged my ice axe in overhead and kicked steps to progress steadily upwards. Suddenly a steep section of hard ice appeared before me. I contemplated turning back, but the steep snow hung precariously below me and I decided to give it a try. I strapped my crampons on to my boots and stationed myself at the bottom of the ice. I tested the ice with the blade of my axe and plunged it deeply above me. The ice was in good condition and held firmly. Gaining purchase with the front points of my crampons I was secured on the ice. Adrenaline was now flowing readily, but I did my best to keep cool making sure that blade was biting solidly and the crampons on my feet biting to hold my weight. I continued plunging the blade of my axe and crampons and quickly ascended the section of ice on to the steep snow above. I felt committed now, if not to the summit at least to the top of the couloir. I had a strange sense of faith that the most difficult obstacle was past as another brief section of ice appeared. I plunged my axe in high as a firm anchor, dug my crampons in and overcame the ice.
From there on I continued climbing steep snow and watching small rocks and occasional cascades of snow rush past me. I was climbing fast, but the effort was beginning to wear on me—calves were burning and tight from kicking steps with heavy boots and my shoulder straining from the effort of continuing to plunge the axe and pull myself up. Regardless I kept my pace as I continued with the meditative motion. After climbing this way with determination the couloir gave way to blue sky above. So focused I had been on the climb I realized that I had not taken any pictures since just before I entered the couloir. As I progressed to top out I took some shots of the last stretch of the climb as I relaxed a little on the final easy slopes. As stood above the couloir, I made the decision to continue pushing onward to the summit.
As I navigated the rock and snow of the final slopes a strong wind kicked up, whipping my face and adding to the intensity of the moment. Finally the mountain gave way to panoramas and expanses of the jagged snowy peaks of the Sierras. I had climbed Split Mountain Peak. I savored my brief time there and then began my descent down the North Slope.
I plunge stepped down the deep snow. As I descended to the bottom of the North Slope I began looking for a safe descent among the steep cliffs and snowy drops down to the bottom of the mountain. After thinking for a long time that I was the only mountaineer making tracks up there, some mountain lion foot prints fresh in the snow reminded me otherwise. I found a 3rd class rocky ledge protruding from the snow that I took to be the normal route of ascent to the North Slope from Red Lake, though the exposure was great and the steep slope below laden with deep heavy snow and the traverse from the rocky ledge to those steep slopes was an edgy one. The sun was now beating intensely on the snow, so I descended quickly plunge stepping and glissading all the way down. I was now really hot as I slogged through the snow at the bottom of the jagged peaks, one foot after the other back around the mountain towards Red Lake.
As Red Lake came into view once again below me I looked out over it and assessed the final descent of patches of snow and loose red rocks. Further down I caught another good stretch of steep snow and glissaded a ways down. Post holing in the ever warming soft snow made for tough going down to the lake, but I made it. After around six hours of sustained effort, I crossed the final stretch of the frozen lake and I looked up to see someone just beyond waiting for me. My heart warmed and with a wave I returned from one world to another.