Mixed Couloir Climbing on the Sickle

Mixed Couloir Climbing on the Sickle

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Oct 29, 2006
Activities Activities: Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Ice Climbing, Mixed, Scrambling
Seasons Season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter

Sickle Couloir

One of the classic couloir climbs in the Sawtooth Range is the Sickle Couloir on the northeast side of Horstmann Peak.  Clearly visible from the Stanley area, and aptly named for it's curved blade-like shape that often appears wider at the bottom to thinner at the top, The Sickle is one of the alpine standards in central Idaho.  Other notable couloir / alpine climbs in the area include The Petzoldt Couloir on Mt. Heyburn, The June Couloir on Williams Peak, The Mazama Couloir on Mt. Underhill,  The North Face of Tohobit Peak, The Chockstone Couloir on The Grand Mogul, and The Northeast Face on Thompson Peak.

When Dusty suggested the Sickle Couloir in October, I knew the route wouldn't be in great snow climbing condition.  While the Sawtooths have had several small snowfalls of 1-4 inches, only the north sides were collecting and retaining snow.  The recent temperatures were very cold and the north sides were not melting and freezing, so the snow would be mostly powder on top of either last years ice, or bare rock.  So we were expecting an alpine climb of varying conditions that would probably include mixed climbing and perhaps some rock moves.  We headed out early, saw virtually no cars on the drive up, and headed out just before sunrise on the trail with clear skies and temperatures in the teens.

The Upper Sickle Couloir

The hike up Fishhook Creek went quickly and the sun came up just as we were leaving the trail to bushwhack to the base.  We passed a photographers point with the classic shot of Horstmann Peak. After the trail ends, the best approach for this climb is to stay on the north side of the creek for another 1/2 mile, then cross through a swampy area and Fishhook Creek to the south side of the Creek.  Look for a small rise near where the valley east of Horstmann runs perpendicular to Fishhook Creek.  Note this drainage as it's the easiest decent route off of Horstmann's south side.  Attain the small rise and follow the south side of Fishhook Creek aiming for the basin at the base of the Sickle Couloir.  Without visual sighting of the route, it could be difficult to find the base of the climb.  At about 8800 feet, we were at the base of the climb with spectacular sun soaked views to the north of Mt. Bush,  Mt. Bruce, Harriet's Pinnacle, and Thompson Peak.

Couloir Climbing

Initially the climbing was straight forward and much like in-season (May-June) snow climbs: kicking steps in snow and stepping up.  As we ascended, the nature of the snow started to change.  Before I knew it, I was front pointing on pure ice as the slope steepened.  Dusty led through nicely, but his nice steps became tiny holes in ice.  I continued on utilizing a full-on overhead swing of my glacier ax into the ice above me, as I pulled my weight up.  After another section of snow steps, the ice returned, but this time it was lined with exposed rock and intermittent falling pebbles.  We decided to rope up and placed some gear; Dusty placed some pitons and nuts.  We ascended up the chute as it narrowed, and in many spots it required stemming out with the cramp-ons onto the bare rock and pulling up on the ax.  Near the top of the Couloir,  the snow became incredibly soft and just below a chockstone, the snow was just sliding away.  To leave the couloir, we have to make some rock moves to get out of the slot and to the ridge.  I watched with some amusement as Dusty front-pointed a solid granite wall, swung his ice-tool over a V-notch and stuck it. He hoisted himself over and found the glorious south facing sun.  I met him on the warm side and we rejoiced in our climbing.  A look down the couloir from the top revealed little as it dropped down so precipitously and into the dark and cold of the north side.

Looking down the Couloir

The Sickle Couloir tops out on the rugged east ridge of Horstmann Peak.  To obtain the summit, follow this ridge up and over several Class 4-5 towers or drop down and find the Class 3 South Side gulley.  To descend after obtaining the top of The Sickle, follow the Class 2-3 slopes down the south side of Horstmann as you contour east, then eventually north staying just west of the unnamed creek drainage east of Horstmann. This drainage will eventually bisect Fishhook Creek.  Descent off the inside of the Sickle Couloir would be possible, but difficult. Pitons would be the best insurance policy, as most of the nut protection was of small nature.

Views from the top of the Couloir

Climbing a couloir in the Sawtooths in the Fall required
full on mixed climbing techniques and skill.  Generally, the high
variability of the snow, rock, and ice this time of year will require
persistence, ingenuity, and having the proper tools.  Rock fall and ice
fall are real hazards. It's typically very cold most, if not all of the day as
the sun won't shine on these north sides this time of year. For the alpine
enthusiast, the clear cold days of Fall in Sawtooths on snow, rock, and ice provide
challenging climbing opportunities.


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