The numerous times I have climbed Ptarmigan Snowfield or North Face Couloirs I have passed a narrow gash in Flattop’s northwestern face. From the base of the face it takes a few turns then disappears mysteriously as it makes it way up the peak. I’ve wondered if this was a viable route, and this year decided to find out.
Fabio found this picture
on SP, which we thought might be the gully in mind. Also, he reported that Gillett’s book
mentions a “Flattop Gully II AI 2, A narrow zigzag gully runs up the side of Flattop left of the previous three lines, with a steep section at the top. FA(?): Topher Donahue, 1999”.
The three lines he mentions are the North Face Couloirs
, were snow loaded and corniced now, so this seemed like a good alternative. Flattop may have a boring summit, but it has some mighty interesting faces!
Where the heck is it?!
Please see the Getting There
section on the main page.
Here it is!
The full route is not visible if you are close to the face when in the stunning cirque between Notchtop and Flattop. As you approach the North Face there is a distinct gash cleaving the face on your left. Do not mistake several less prominent gullies that you pass first for this one. The one you want is clearly defined with vertical cliffs rising 50 feet high on either side of a narrow ramp, like fortress walls guarding the entrance.
Enter the ramp and follow it as it winds its way up the face. The initial angle is gentle, but it steepens as you climb. The views to Notchtop on the other side of the cirque from are tremendous.
There are several clearly defined forks in the gully, the first about halfway up, followed by others slightly higher. We went left at the first fork, and right at the second. The other options looked more difficult on the day that we were there.
There was a small rock step to cross at the second fork, no more than class 3 scrambling for a few moves, but this could present a bigger obstacle if there was less snow in the gully.
On our day the snow was soft at the base of the route, but got firmer the higher we climbed. We were glad to have put on our crampons, even though it initially seemed doubtful that they would be necessary. The top of the route is about 60 degrees and in excellent firm snow conditions for us.
We entered the couloir at about 9:30 and were on top by 10:45. The climb gains nearly 1000 feet of elevation. Descent is down the normal Flattop trail or via the open slopes to the west of the trail. Snowshoes might be necessary for the descent.
This route will generally be in before the North Face couloirs, so it makes for a great early season option, May and June being the best months in a typical year. I suspect that by July this turns into an uninviting scree slog.
One mountaineering ice axe, crampons and helmet are required. We carried a length of 8 mm rope, and wore our harnesses, but did not rope up. If the route is icy or filled with very hard snow then a second tool and/or fixing pro in the snow or rock might be prudent.