On September 14th 2003, hankering to do a little soloing, I walked up to the base of the Right Couloir. There was a pair of climbers above, so I hacked out a platform, slightly offset to the right below the bergschrund, and waited for the pair to exit the couloir. They were knocking down a fair amount of ice and rock, and I didn't want to deal with that, nor did I want to pass them and then be the bad guy on an ego trip by dumping debris on them. So I waited. And waited. They were taking hours, and as the afternoon wore on and the shadows lengthened and the cries of "what!?" and "which rope?" and "ROCK!" continued to echo out of the gully, my solo-head deflated and became filled with visions of fish and chips smothered in malt vinegar, so I headed down, promising myself to come back soon.
Six days later on a crystal clear Saturday morning, Robbie and I left the Saddlebag Lake parking lot at 5.45 am. We hiked in to North Peak Glacier, and by 8 am, Robby was working on snow and ice basics. For three hours, we talked over techniques and practiced on the suncupped glacier, and then Robby applied his new skills as he climbed unroped up to the bergschrund. We set up a belay off screws from the ice cave formed by the overhang of the melting 'schrund, which put Robby out of the way of rockfall and "whizzers". We had 3 full 60 meter pitches and change, belaying succesively from rock on the right, ice pro in the middle, rock on the left, and finally, a quick hip belay from behind a boulder at the top. We found variously, styrofoam, fairly hard bubbly blue ice, and lots of brittle dinner plating. While I was belaying at the top of the first pitch, I began to ponder climate cycles after noticing rusty pitons poking from the granite wall 12 feet above the ice, bearing mute witness to decades of diminishing ice in the couloir.
On the third pitch, I belayed from a bouldery stance. I left a little slack in the rope so that it would run around the talus and scree perched precariously on the edge of the ice. The slack was to minimize the chances of the rope nudging rocks onto my second's head. As he was traversing 80 feet below, Robby slipped. His 210 bruising pounds, coupled with the slack in the rope, generated considerable force, pulling me tight in a shower of fist-sized stones. Both Robby's weight and mine came on the anchor, which made me glad that I had three solid, equalized pieces.
Robby had found that holding his tools in dagger position while scuttling on the frozen neve in the lower part of the couloir worked well. Although the conditions in the upper part of the couloir were hard and icy, he didn't adjust, and when he lost a foot placement while getting ready to kick the other into the ice, all his weight went on his tools, which were good only for balance. So he popped. A fun and benign place to learn an important lesson--on his first alpine climb, no less.
The lesson for me was this: the geometry of the protection and the ledge made it impossible for me to place myself directly in line with the potential pull if the second fell. I was about 6-12 inches offset to the left. When Rob fell, I was pulled a little sideways, and lost my footing. I should have belayed directly from the master point of the anchor, not from my harness. That way, I wouldn't have been pulled sideways.
The ascent of the couloir took longer than I thought it would--3+ hours. Pay back for my uncharitable mutterings of the week before).
At the top of the couloir, we ate a snack, de-layered, and scrambled two or three hundred feet on fun and clean rock through a chute scooped from the east ridge, up to the summit.
On the descent, we returned to the notch at the top of the couloir, then zig-zagged on a distinct and easy-to-follow use trail, down a gravelly southeast-facing slope, around small tarns, all the way back to Saddlebag Lake, which we gained just as twilight turned to dusk.
Another halcyon Indian summer day in the Range of Light.
NORTH PEAK, RIGHT (NORTH) COULOIR. 45+ deg, WI2, cl 3.
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