A Stormy Climb
Last week, we headed into the Beartooths, armed with a perfect weather forecast and some sexy new gear. Our objective: the north face couloir on Whitetail Peak, a mountain that sent us whimpering back home last time we tried it. The route is the big obvious couloir in the first picture below.
We left late, but made good time in, despite the heavily drifted trail that eventually became impossible to follow. Much post-holing ensued, followed by a short but insistent rain storm and we picked a camp near Sundance Pass in time to dodge a succession of many more rains.
Whitetail Seen From The Trail
We left the tent at 3 a.m. on summit day, picking our way toward the couloir in the dark. Rotten snow and unstable boulder fields gave us an early morning workout, accompanied by the clang of ice-axe on rock and the steady background noise of heavy breathing. By dawn we were close to the couloir, but sunrise revealed a black and yellow horizon. What happened to the forecast for clear skies and afternoon thunderstorms?
After much debate, we decided to wait and see (a climbing technique used often in times of duress). We continued forward as the storm rolled blackly toward us. A flash of lightning declared the moment of truth–and the burst of thunder was 8 seconds behind it. I threw the pack cover over my pack and we hunched down to wait out the ensuing rain. It was over in 5 minutes and a clean blue sky opened up. This matched the prevailing weather pattern we’d been observing: frequent small rainstorms lasting 5-10 minutes, followed by periods of partly cloudy skies. We decided to continue.
The snow in the couloir was fabulous and we chose not to rope up. It steepened from about 40 degrees at the bottom to 51 degrees higher up, where a fall would likely have been impossible to self-arrest. As the Queen of Cowards, I would not have continued unroped had the snow not been in such excellent condition. We were kicking deep, solid steps and getting stonker axe plunges. But unfortunately our blue sky disappeared. From inside the couloir, we could no longer see the approaching weather, so we found out about the blizzard when it descended.
At that point, there wasn’t much to be gained from retreating, so we continued upward with many grim thoughts about NOAA. Visibility was pretty low, but all we needed to see was the snow in front of us. And the cornice above. Bypassing the cornice involved a short stretch of 60-70 degree snow, which was exciting. And the top-out was even more exciting, as I pretty much had to back-step on the cornice, fling one leg over and yell for Bill to grab me if I fell.
After climbing out of the couloir, we met the full force of the storm: 60 mph winds and near white-out conditions. And we were still faced with finding our way down an unknown and rather nasty ridge, to locate the trail over Sundance Pass about a mile and a half away.
High on the ridge
On the descent
The first part of the ridge was a series of ugly boulder fields: wet granite now coated with an inch of slippery snow. The older, deep snow between the boulders was rotten and treacherous and we picked our way down very carefully, with visions of spiral fractures dancing in our heads. Navigation was tricky with the very low visibility.
We got down eventually and found the trail and the whiteout lifted, but Whitetail wasn’t finished with us. Almost as soon as our boots hit the trail, the snow/hail turned into drenching, sideways rain. We raced for the tent as fast as we could, even jumping off the trail in the end for some high-speed glissades. But even our top-notch, much-trusted gear couldn’t save us from a downpour of that magnitude. Anything not in a dry-bag was thoroughly soaked.
Luckily for us, the storm eventually ended and the sun (sort of) came out. We dried our clothes, had a good dinner and went to bed, exhausted. We made good time out the next day, despite the endless post-holing and a painful detour through boulders and deadfall to avoid two big moose grazing on the trail. We arrived at the car happy and hungry and only slightly damp, and not sure if we’d tangle with the Beartooths again in June.
This TR is also posted on my blog
, along with reviews of some of the gear I used on this trip: Outdoor Research Cirque softshell pants and Teton Sports Hiker 3700 Backpack.