The ‘Engram’ Couloir of Mt. Gilbert
by Michael Gordon
The moon and stars shine brightly as Alois crawls into his ricepaper-thin summer weight sleeping bag. He chuckles excitedly to himself like a kid being strapped in for his first ride on the Cyclone. I’m amused. I think "get this guy out of the city and he comes alive!" We laugh together. We’re both excited to be here.
Tomorrow morning we begin a leisurely hike into the Gilbert Basin where we will explore the gullies on Mt. Thompson and have a look at our climb: the northeast couloir of Mt. Gilbert. It’s easily done car-to-car in a day by any strong party, but we’ve decided to do it casually in a weekend. I’ve tried to practice it, and I’ve listened to Alois preach it many a time, but this time I really have committed myself to his suggestion of this trip as an ultra-light, alpine style climb. I brought scarcely more in my truck than what I would take up the hill with me – and it is little. I’m not concerned about this commitment because I more than trust Alois’ experience and his judgement, and I trust my knowledge of the warm nighttime temperatures from my Palisades trip with Joe Lemay two weeks previous. As a matter of fact, I’m actually surprised to see Alois’ stuffed pack, which appears larger than mine. I think he’s carrying more than he told me to, despite him being the preacher of light. Maybe I’ve gone too far. Maybe I have way too little: A two pound down bag (loaned to me by Alois); my climbing pants; my lightweight fleece pullover; my hoodless climbing windbreaker; a balaclava; liner glovers; enough no-cook snack food to get me through the weekend; toilet paper; a harness; two ice screws; a few stoppers; a few biners; a few slings; two ice tools; crampons; an 8.8mil rope; and a helmet. All I know is it doesn’t look like much. And it doesn’t feel like much on my back either. I’m jazzed. I’ve wanted to climb this way for a while but have never been willing enough to forsake some of the comforts of cooked food, hot drinks, and a warm night’s rest. This weekend I am. Why? Because I’ve become fleet of foot. I feel light and move fast. I want to test myself. Further, we will climb the NE couloir with all of our gear, as we’ll end up descending via Treasure Col and circumambulating the peak. Climbing a 60° gulley with a large, heavy pack doesn’t interest me.
Saturday midday finds us in the Gilbert Basin after a couple of leisurely miles on trail, then a couple of hours of slab skipping and talus hopping. We’ve only had to cover about 1800 feet of gain today. We’re both temporarily lazy, and lounge about at our beautiful bivy site at the highest lake below the impressive northeast face of Mt. Gilbert. The air is warm, and the gentle breeze that blows carries not the smells nor sounds of other souls. This alpine arena is all ours.
After quenching our ‘need’ for a nap, we head north across the massive moraines of the Gilbert and Thompson Glaciers. Alois and I are heading as far back as necessary into the Thompson cirque to study the Moynier Couloir. Along the way, we stop and study the Knutson, Smrz (named after Alois), and Harrington Couloirs with Alois’ featherweight and optically pure miniature Leica binoculars. Shortly thereafter we were gazing into the shady, cold-looking confines of the icy Moynier Couloir which pinched down to a width of just a few feet a melted-out rock-pitch or so from the top. We hatch plans to come back and climb it together.
The one slight problem with traveling so light is that you have nothing to whittle away the time while awaiting darkness; no book, no extra food, no card games. Just your partner, his stories, and your own mind. When you’re with Alois, the lack of ‘extras’ is not an issue. Nightfall comes late here, but we decide not to wait. We attempt slumber in the early evening well before darkness ever arrives, with the intent of awaking at four a.m. to catch the couloir in its best shape.
It’s funny that no matter how great your intent nor how great the alarm on your wristwatch, you never really hear it when you need to most. So, it should ironically happen that five a.m. rolls around and I awake to Alois’ warning that we’re late. We both quickly pull out of our bags, stuff our packs, and start moving.
Within in an hour or so, we stand before the 900-foot long NE Couloir of Mt. Gilbert. I had warned Alois the day before that in the interest of safety, I might ask for us to simul-climb the gully keeping at least a couple of pieces of pro between in us. Alois, however, ensured me I’d feel fine enough with the conditions and angle to just solo it. Encouragingly, with me out front, he suggested I climb until I felt uncomfortable enough to warrant taking the rope and some pro out of my pack. That moment never came.
The lower angled fan of frozen snow and dirty ice soon gave way to the fifty-degree or so lower section of the couloir proper. The conditions were phenomenal. We knew we were there a bit too early for full-blown ice climbing, but instead were treated to occasional ice and perfectly frozen firn and snow which took ice tool tips and crampon points like a cantaloupe takes a knife. Never having to swing feet or wrists beyond gently, we quietly and swiftly made our way up the couloir as yet another sparkling eastern Sierra sunrise washed the rock faces along the crest, but never touched our gully.
Before I knew it, I could see the top of the couloir just a couple of pitches above me. Most parties belay this couloir in six to seven pitches. Uninhibited by a heavy pack, dragging rope, or the need to place pro, my focus was entirely upon the gentle beauty of this wilderness and the crunching and stabbing noises of my feet and tools. A rhythm developed within me that aligned the beat of my heart with the swing of my tools. I was fully consumed by the quality and movement of the climbing. Occasionally, I’d look down to Alois to hear him emit a "woo-hoo" – another one of those child-like indulgences a climber allows himself when the climbing is so beautiful and effortless. Though the angle at top of the couloir kicked up to about sixty-degrees, in minutes I was on top. Looking at my watch, I realized that I had covered the 900+ feet of this gully in just about an hour. We were cruising. A few minutes behind me, Alois arrived and we moved on to finish the two fourth-class pitches of rock necessary to attain the summit.
The whole climb had been in shade, but the moment we pulled onto the 13,106 foot summit, the warmth of the new day’s sun bathed us. It was 8:45a.m. The views were astounding and it felt great to share this climb and summit with Alois.
We spent about thirty minutes basking, snacking, and reading summit register entries, when Alois happened upon the original entry from the first ascent team of the NE Couloir. Their entry read:
3 September 1972
First Ascent via the couloir on the Northeast Face. 6 pitches, some 60°, mostly 50-55°. In contemporary parlance, it was faar ouut . We have named it Engram Couloir, a tribute to Scientology.
Dan Eaton, Ron Cale, Al Fowler
Today is the first day of the rest of your life. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
Alois informs me that Dan Eaton and Al Fowler were original RCS members. I’m honored to have climbed their line, and what a climb it was.
The downclimb of Treasure Col and the ensuing walk out is uneventful, but long. A little route finding was in order to keep from cliffing-out in spots, and yet more talus hopping was necessary.
Alas, we make it to the trailhead, only to be questioned by a backpacker if we are heading to Bishop. Turns out his ride stiffed him, and being a private pilot, he needs a ride back to the Bishop airport and his waiting plane. We exchange the usual questions and answers with each other (‘Where’d you go? What did you do?’) and learn that he was in for only four days, yet had a seventy-pound pack! He had everything: fly-fishing pole, sun shower, chair, bear canister; the whole nine yards. While we sipped beers on my tailgate, Alois and I both confirmed flyboy’s pack weight and reveled in our (by comparison) near featherweight packs. We questioned: Are we unnecessarily out there ‘killing’ ourselves for a summit? Are we missing out on something? Are we doing this all wrong?
Unequivocally, no. We’re doing it just the way we want. We really did something, Alois. Yes, we really did something.
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