The Hidden Couloir on Thor Peak (AI3, 5.6)
I’ve never been denied a campsite in the Tetons. We got a Lower Saddle permit once for the same night at 9 in the morning, peak season. I’ve camped on uncomfortable, cramped, windy cols high above Garnet Canyon because the camping zones were full, but the ranger on duty felt like we should get a shot at the south face of Cloudveil during the weather window. But trying to get a coveted site at the mouth of Leigh Canyon on Fourth of July weekend seemed to be asking too much of karma. So Garrett took the hit for the sake of the trip, and gave up an entire day of work to drive down early and reserve our site. It’s that kind of sacrifice that you look for in a climbing partner.
Leigh Canyon is one of those places that holds high treasure for those intrepid enough to leave the smooth walking trails of the southern range and side hill on loose talus for a few hours. This was my fifth trip up this way, twice to climb the Direct South Buttress of Mount Moran (last fourth of July we climbed the DSB and continued to the summit over two days), and three times to attempt the Hidden Couloir on Thor Peak. An often overlooked gem, Thor Peak is one of a dozen Teton peaks reaching Twelve thousand feet (12,028’) and sits in a truly remote and hard to reach setting. By now we were pretty well acquainted with the schwack into the canyon, the 1,500’ of steep gully and the couple hundred feet of snow that it took to get to the base of the east face. With the new moon, we would need familiarity to navigate the dense brush between talus fields until the sky lightened with dawn.
The first rock pitch on the headwall.
We left camp on the lake shore at about a quarter to four. The mosquitoes were too bad to sit around, so we just powered down a little food and hit the trail. Pitch black, dense forest. Some of the best moose and bear habitat in the park. The first half mile along the creek was a little tense, but I focused on the puddle of light between me and the next cairn, trying not to look around nervously between claps and shouts. Surprisingly the trail seemed more clear in the dark and things went smashingly to the point where we ascended out of the wild kingdom and into the alpine. The clear path and growing light sped things up a bit, gave us something to look at during short rest stops. We had a pretty light climbing rack, but made up for it with 70 meters of rope, axes and crampons. Alpine climbing is fucking heavy.
The meat of the couloir.
The first place we kicked up to at the rock headwall turned out to be a large fin of ice a couple of feet thick. As Garrett was kicking steps ahead of me I could feel each one reverberate through the thing. We moved along the edge of the moat, peering into the depths and hoping to find a decent belay. Once established, it was a quick transition to climbing in rock shoes. Our first attempt on this route was in early May and we had hoped that the headwall was covered enough to be a winter climb. There was much more rock than we were prepared for. The second attempt was later in May the next year and we did two pitches of wet, snowy slabs before bailing from under a very large, very precarious boulder. The reconnaissance after that was the crucial, and we found a route that would take longer to dry out, but actually had cracks and features. Sitting under it again, moments away from climbing in the first rays of sun, we felt like this was going to be a good day in the mountains.
Looking down the Hidden Couloir.
After three pitches of climbing in rock shoes, it looked like we were about to hit the snow. Both of us were eager to get the crampons and tools out of the packs, but there was still a little dry ground left. We put boots on and I led off towards the snow. But things often don’t work out as planned, and 15 minutes later I was making my way up a steep rock rib making more climbing moves on wet, loose rock. The boots still felt better than they did on my back, and at the end of the pitch we were unmistakably on route. I could just make out the entrance to the couloir up and left. When Garrett got to my belay we doubled the rope for simul climbing. The book mentioned something about the availability of protection in the rock along the couloir, so we brought mostly rock pro and a few screws. After 35 meters there was still no pro but the angle wasn’t very steep so I started up. We had a quick talk about how this wasn’t the best idea, but surely there would be more pro somewhere. We made the turn into the couloir and looked up to a thousand feet of consistent, steep snow . Stopping to look for gear in the few rotten outcrops became tedious and more unnerving than climbing roped with no pro so we kept going until obvious placements became available. The snow was a little soft, about three kicks each step, but I felt solid. We stopped twice to re-rack and reassess. The protection continued to get a little better and all of a sudden we were at the top.
The Hidden Couloir tops out at a notch about a hundred feet below the summit. All at once the entire Teton range spilled out in front of us. The craggy peaks at the heart of them all rose dark against the mass of snow covered terrain to the west. Mount Moran, the subject of our view for most of the day, stood solitary beside us, the great black dike scoring the face like a trail blaze. Clouds in the distance made me appreciate even more the brilliance of the sky above us, empty and fiercely blue. The two enemies of the mountaineer, time and weather, had conspired with us today and we spent a good 30 minutes tooling around the top of this spectacular peak. Both of us knew that a long, grueling descent was still in front of us, so at 2:30 we cut it short and started down.
The descent off of Thor Peak starts by going west down a gully and further up Leigh Canyon. This was disheartening. On top of that, it traverses up and over several rock ribs in order to stay out of several steep, cliffy chutes. So in only 2 or 3 miles of knee pounding steep side hill we were at the bivy boulder below the DSB again. We stopped long enough to finish our water and spot a bear across the canyon, heading away from camp. Of course we had more difficulty finding the trail this time, with daylight and on the way down. But we made it nonetheless and rolled into camp at a little after 8 to dinner, beers and plenty of mosquitoes.