Black Ice and Blind Luck
I’ve always been drawn to the eclectic, growing up with dreams of the fabled snows of the Rwenzori when others turned to football and baseball, collecting stamps from the largely ignored country of Burundi rather than baseball cards or bottle caps like most of my peers.
For a decade of my life, I harbored an obsession for a narrow strip of ice and stone hidden in the chilly shadows on the northwestern side of the Teton’s most famous peak. The Black Ice Couloir; its name alone swept me into a realm of passion and cold sweats. Yet it was never supposed to be anything so monumental. When my parents gave me Fifty Classic Climbs of North America
as a gift long ago in the Seventies, it was the North Face that drew my gaze; the magnificent sweep of rock leading to the range’s highest pedestal. That was the route that I always aspired to before I’d even so much as touched a climbing rope. So it’s ironic that its significance became eclipsed in my mind by a runnel renowned for falling rock and poorly protected thin climbing.
Some famous climber, Chouinard maybe, once said that all American mountaineers make at least one trip to the range sometime in their careers to test themselves upon the steep granite but for me a single trip, two, even five would never be sufficient.
The Grand Teton as viewed from near Lake Solitude.
As a child, I remember my father pointing up and far away to the very highest point of the Grand Teton, describing how he’d fled hail and lightning, thunder and even St. Elmo’s fire there when he was barely more than a child himself. We’d attempted Storm Point, but didn’t even get close to the summit before it was time to return to the valley floor cloaked in disappointment. I visited again only a few years later with a number of other high school students and explored so much of the range but my most striking memory was turning back only a few feet from the summit of Cleaver Peak, an obscure but dramatic mountain hidden far back behind Mt. Moran. During that trip I gazed upon the magnificent West Face of the Grand Teton from Lake Solitude, and had seen the sun rising almost sublime above Mt. Moran’s southern buttresses and vowed to return
My wish came true in 1986. By then I was an accomplished rockclimber, or so I thought, with the Gendarme and a couple dozen other climbs in the North East under my belt. My goal was the North Face of the Grand, of course. I’d spent so many hours dreaming about its ice and ledges, the guano pitch, the pendulum pitch; I had them all memorized. “When we’re there we have to climb the Black Ice Couloir,” my friend Tim told me when we were in the planning stages of the trip. Fine; we could do them both then still have time for Moran, Owen, maybe more.
The Black Ice Couloir ascends to the notch right of the summit. Most parties traverse in to the bottom of the prominent snowfield below the notch from the right along 5.7 ledges.
Ambitiously, we signed up for ascents of Teepe Pillar, The Glacier Route on the Middle Teton, then the Black Ice Couloir in a quick three day blitz. We were young and in shape so it was only a matter of hours before we were climbing a gully beneath our first objective. It wasn’t going to be a very hard climb, only a few pitches and 5.5 at the hardest. But the East didn’t seem to have stretches where great masses of rock collapsed under a person’s weight, didn’t have storms that swept in quite so fast coating everything with sleet and hail even though it was the height of summer and before we even reached the base of the technical climbing we fled to the Lower Saddle then down to our tent empty handed. We awoke to a cold rain the next morning, the peaks socked in with clouds and a steady stream of disappointed climbers ambling past our tent after a futile night on the Lower Saddle. We waited out the weather as a tent tumbled past our camp in the winds, talking of summer jobs and distant climbing objectives in the world’s greater ranges. But with each hour of wind and rain, reflection upon the previous day’s failure, doubts grew in my mind. What was I doing attempting one of the range’s most notorious routes having never climbed a technical peak greater than those at Seneca? Tim was more experienced, a veteran of the Muldrow Glacier route on Denali among others, and was deeply disappointed when I begged to try something more forgiving instead. He was a gentleman though, and understood my discomfort so we spent a fabulous week climbing objectives more moderate. We even crossed paths with Chouinard by chance after completing a pleasant route, despite the fact that I’d begged off of the more difficult alternative. He was a legend and hard man, veteran of Fitzroy and so much more but opened up with delight at our modest success. We might as well have climbed Everest, given his encouraging banter, and for that I’ll always remember him with respect.
We’d seen glimpses of the great ice couloirs snaking down the northwest side of the Grand that day, patches of blue fading in and out of the mists that brought a yearning gaze to Tim’s eyes. Much to his chagrin, I’d already written them off. They were too long, too dangerous, too committing for my limited experience, and so we stayed away. In retrospect, I’m convinced that it was the right decision, but hard because I know that I held him back.
The North Face
The North Face
I didn’t return to the Tetons for four years, but all through that time I was climbing whenever I had the chance until routes that had once seemed daunting felt little more than a pleasant jaunt. The opportunity for vindication arose after a friend’s wedding in Bozeman, when Tim and I had a couple of days to spare before needing to return to our jobs. He’d already talked to another about the Black Ice Couloir, though, so we set our sites on the North Face instead, speeding our way through Yellowstone to beat the closing of the ranger station at Jenny Lake. Then we were at the trailhead as the sun sank behind the peaks to the west, shouldering our packs for the long approach. “Rope, harness, rack, helmet…” we made a verbal checklist of critical gear as we wound over the initial easy stretches of the trail.
“Permit?” we heard from somewhere out of site, then a ranger strode into view. Luckily we’d gotten to the station in time and flashed him the all important slip of papery plasticy material. He wished us well and we were on our way up the seemingly endless switchbacks, then beyond, past the north side of Disappointment Peak to the moraine of the Teton Glacier. Later still, ten, maybe ten thirty at night, we finally reached a level spot above the crevasses and only a hundred yards or so from the two thousand foot precipices leading to the range’s highest summit. We’d seen a mother bear and her cub on the way up, and maybe that was a good enough omen, we hoped, slipping in and out of uneasy rest as the beans from a hasty dinner ruminated tirelessly in our intestines.
It’s always nice to have perfect weather for a major climb but the morning dawned only partly sunny, thin clouds drifting in from the west. Nevertheless, we left at first light, quickly gaining a left trending gully above a steep apron of snow then stringing together several pitches in a single push. As the hours ticked by we continued back right, up the notorious guano pitch to the expansive first ledge then higher still, finally reaching a perch below the crux pendulum pitch. This was the first route that I’d ever done with individual stretches named and described in the annals of mountaineering, the first time that I’d ventured upon ground immortalized in pictures and imprinted indelibly upon my mind. The once mighty Mt. Owen now hung beneath out feet, probably only a few hundred yards away but separated by the vast furrow of the Teton Glacier. The crux pitch was mine and passed quickly first up then to the left across the famed traverse. It was thin for a few moves but soon I was across, panting gleefully as clouds filled the sky above. Tim continued into the V groove at the top of the face, and as streamers of snow swept past we emerged on the summit, completing a climb that for so many years had consumed my dreams. There were still hours to go, descending, traversing back around to the north side of the peak, then re-climbing the glacier to our tent but nothing could take away from the satisfaction of a lifetime goal finally completed.
The South Teton from the Grand's summit following our ascent of the North Face. I was to see the reverse view on the day of our accident.
Maybe it had been too easy, though. It had been our first serious attempt. The weather, although not clear, had been far beyond adequate. My main problem had been thirst, trying to force enough water in from the minor slicks that we passed along the way. Tim had to return to Bozeman and his job, and I too soon made the drive back home grinning ear to ear the whole way. The Black Ice Couloir still remained though, hidden in those dark recesses just to the west of where we’d ventured.
I’d moved to Colorado with the Tetons only ten hours away when my car was maxed out and shaking at 57 miles per hour. It was a busy time finding gainful employment, buying a house, getting married, preparing for a trip to Nepal, but somewhere in all of the chaos I hoped to finally get that other climb taken care of. Tim climbed it the summer after our ascent of the North Face and was quick to rave about the delectable ice, pitch after pitch rising up towards the sky. One of the best climbs he’d ever done. Fabulous. Like on our ascent of the face, the notorious rockfall hadn’t materialized to any substantive degree and he could offer nothing beyond accolades for the line. I was genuinely thrilled for him. It had been his route, his idea to make the ascent back in 1986 and he’d finally realized that ambition. Maybe that softened the disappointment from our initial foray, I’m not sure. He told me once that looking over to Mt. Moran, he was glad to have climbed it with me. I don’t think that we’ve ever said any other words about that long ago trip.
Tim on the Summit
Now it was my turn to climb the Black Ice Couloir. One of those Labor Days, 1992 I think, I packed the car and was all ready to return with a friend, Steve, but just as we were about to leave the forecast turned sour: rain, snow at higher elevations and we opted against the long drive. The next opportunity came over the Fourth of July weekend the following year. With his wife, we ambled past the Wind Rivers in his VW bus, reaching the pass into the fabulous valley of Jackson Hole late in the evening. We pulled off the road just as the first flakes of snow splattered across the windshield. By morning there were four, maybe six inches and the storm was only growing in intensity. Two feet had been recorded on the Lower Saddle by the time we reached the ranger station so we decided to view the amazing geysers to the north instead. Pleasant, maybe even surreal through mid summer flakes, but neither it nor touristy walks along the main streets of Jackson Hole were the reason that we’d driven so far from our homes. We packed again for the trip that Labor Day but again the forecast turned grim and we climbed something in Colorado instead to spare the disappointment.
Then, there was another gap. Nepal and all of its majesty, the birth of his son, then mine, switching careers when my line of work was shipped overseas with the advent of the Internet. Finally, in 1998 we both had the time and opportunity to return back to that fabulous range. We budgeted a week for the trip this time to guard against any unforeseen changes in the weather. We’d both been running, and felt in excellent shape, and I’d passed so many weekends on the rocks that I was brimming with confidence as we again made the foray to the north. Unlike before, the forecast was perfect: cloudless all week, without even the chance for a thunderstorm. We’d talked to the rangers and the route was in such excellent condition that ascents were routine. One guy had even done it as a day hike from Lupine Meadows, so we were convinced that our time had finally arrived. To be safe, we decided to camp at the start of the Valhalla Traverse, make the ascent the following day and return to our tent then descend the third. We’d still have four days left and given the forecast could probably squeeze in the Direct South Buttress on Moran before leaving.
Of course that was until Steve ground to a halt at the mouth of Garnet Canyon, overcome with nausea and sickness, forcing us to stop for a while. We’d been making reasonable time until that point, so it wouldn’t hurt for him to re-hydrate and get some calories before continuing. We only had to get just beyond the Lower Saddle, and at first his condition didn’t seem too much of a concern, but each time we resumed the approach he was less able to continue and it soon became apparent that it was some bug causing his condition not the rigors of the approach. I’m sure that Tim had felt similarly disappointed returning back to the car and level ground a dozen years before, but like then, we both knew that it was the right decision, that his health and safety overrode all other concerns.
Since we’d made the drive, he offered to wait around the next morning so that I could at least scamper up the South Teton, as I’d never visited that summit. As predicted, the weather was perfect: crisp and cloudless with hardly a breath of wind when I reached the summit. The Grand Teton rose into the sky so far above my perch in majestic splendor. To its left, Cleaver Peak, also pierced the mundane ridges and drew my gaze. Some year, I know I’ll have to give that one another go. I didn’t want to linger, though, since Steve was waiting patiently below for the return trip to Colorado.
It’s hard to describe the final events of what should have been our death day. Steve had been given a ride to the trailhead but then couldn’t locate the hidden key and spent hours lolling about, hungry and thirsty awaiting my return. Then in departing we passed a car and an ambulance; it looked like someone with an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting. Wishing him well but also glad that it wasn’t us, we continued on. There were construction sites, delays, flag people and it wasn’t until after four o’clock that we reached Pinedale. Then another half hour steeped in quiet ruminations, disheartened by a trip gone sour.
This is my four door Tercel following the crash.
Maybe that’s why Steve’s curse was so jarring. I’d been slowing behind another car for yet another flag lady when he’d broken the silence. Since he wasn’t one to wantonly swear, it didn’t take me more than a moment to see the semi bearing down on us only a hundred yards or so away. As the flag lady dove to safety, I turned the car off the side of the road hoping that we could get out of the truck’s path but its driver had the same idea, so desperate, I swung the wheel around the other way just as the cab roared past us. It had missed us - momentary relief - but I’d forgotten about the back of the truck and with it came sudden movement, flying glass, my car’s trunk collapsing into the back of our seats and then everything ground to a halt except for the steady dripping of blood from my forehead. Steve was moaning beside me, good, he was still alive, I have to get out, it was a tanker truck; wow, I’m never driving my car again. All sorts of thoughts swirled through my head. I’m safe. Steve. I should probably help him. Others were there by then, a wonderful nurse who happened to be passing through, someone with a cell phone to call my wife, the ambulance and paramedics. We were strapped to the backboards, loaded and leaving before the crew even saw our car crumbled beneath the truck. They’d assumed that we’d been in the car in front. One of the paramedics on her first call ever seemed stressed so Steve calmed her with assurances that he was okay and in the end he was but it was a strange time, waking up the next morning and opening the curtains to our hotel to see a car engulfed in flames in the parking lot. Then our wives arrived and we returned to retrieve our gear from a garage where everyone was incredulous that we’d survived.
What about our wives, our kids? What if we’d been killed and my son had had to grow up without a father? That’s how it should have been. The car had been demolished; we were in the only crevice that hadn’t been crunched entirely. Every moment after 4:51 on July 14, 1998 is time that I probably shouldn’t still be here, but somehow by blind luck and a trunk full of climbing gear to absorb the impact, we both survived.
Since then, I’ve made two further attempts to climb the Black Ice Couloir. The first was only a year later with a colleague and friend coincidentally named Steven. He’d also had a history with the route, arriving at its base one morning just as a large avalanche of stones clattered past them from above. They’d been able to find cover behind a small wall and survived unscathed but turned their backs on the route and retraced their steps across the Valhalla Traverse thankful to be alive. However, of our attempt there isn’t much to describe. We’d talked the day before leaving and he mentioned feeling sick but he’d be okay. Probably I should have just seen the writing on the wall and called the attempt off there, rather than five hundred miles of driving later when he could barely walk the paved path to Jenny Lake without nausea. A thousand miles is a long way to drive for a beautiful view, but even still, if that view is of the Tetons it’s almost worthwhile.
Looking up to the North Face
Several years later I finally returned to the range with Steve. It was our first major trip together after the accident and we hoped, initially, to finally put all of the skeletons in the closet to rest. Our drive was different this time; we kept to the east of the Wind Rivers, so as not to pass by the scene of our accident, but even still arrived at the inevitable construction stop on the final hill down into the valley of Jackson Hole. This time there was no truck bearing down on us, no profanity or any sort of discomfort. Instead, a beautiful woman in a flattering skirt emerged from the car in front of ours and began to stretch in the light of the rising sun. Beyond were so many of the range’s most prominent peaks, and I’m sure a flag person as well. Then, she returned to her car and the traffic began to move, allowing us to arrive at the trailhead without incident. There’d just been a significant storm; it was only the middle of June, and we opted for the Direct South Buttress on Mt. Moran so as not to get caught in a slide from the new fallen snow. Again the opportunity to pass ground I’d memorized so thoroughly in photographs. We reached the bivy spot just as thunder rumbled past then continued climbing early the next morning, confident of reaching the summit that day. Unfortunately we’d underestimated the intensity of the remaining route; been surprised at the insane drops plunging to either side where the ridge levels for a spell. So as the morning drifted into afternoon, we exited the route and traversed across to east and down towards the comforts of the valley floor.
As it is, I’ve never completed the Black Ice Couloir, never actually set foot on it despite eight trips to the range. More recently, I’ve heard that the route isn’t what it used to be, the ice largely melted, old anchors dangling out of reach high above people’s heads. Now with thoughts of its ascent, my mind turns to falling rocks and my children growing up without a father. Maybe it’s cowardice or perhaps wisdom, but the desire to enter those shaded hollows on the northwest side of the peak has largely vanished. Reflecting upon the Grand Teton, I recall one of the finest days of mountaineering that I’ve ever experienced, reaching the summit by what I’ve always thought is the peak’s most aesthetic line. I think of a crash that I never should have survived and a friend who has been with me on so many adventures over the past eighteen years. The Black Ice Couloir might never happen, but perhaps there are other trips still looming: Kilimanjaro, Mt. Robson, the Tibesti Mountains; the possibilities are nearly endless.