North Peak — Page 5

North Peak's Impressive Cirque

Climbing the North Couloir

Thoughts of bears, ice, steeps, and sharp rocks puncturing my sleeping pad make for a restless night. I am much relieved when the eastern horizon begins to lighten.

It is a short climb up the drainage to reach the base of North Peak's impressive glacial cirque. The snow steepens considerably as I make my way up a section of steps to gain the cirque's upper slopes—requiring crampons much earlier than expected. I cross a frozen waterfall-pinch and carefully traverse above the steps, eyeing the growing walls of granite ahead.

Imposing: The North Couloir Climbing the Couloir North Couloir - Steepness Andy Climbing Hidden Ice Bulge

Soon enough, I reach the base of the first of North Peak's three couloirs. The left chute has the look of an elevator shaft: exceptionally steep and narrow, with at least two chockstones to contend with.

My objective today, however, is the right-hand chute—the primary climbing route.

When I traverse beneath it a few minutes later, the perspective looking up the chute is so warped I can't get a sense of its steepness. It doesn't take long to remedy the problem.

Up the apron I go—and the pitch immediately steepens to 45°. I'll check the steepness several more times as I climb. It will never measure less.

The snow makes for good climbing: it's easy to kick steps without sinking too far in. The consistency borders somewhere between winter snow and spring corn—but it's a favorable mix.

Since the Couloir will remain shaded all morning, the snow will be harder than I'd prefer, but still acceptable, given the angle.

Steepness is a funny thing.

I'll admit, I wasn't overly impressed with the view from the bottom of the Couloir. Now, however, the steepness and exposure is beginning to kick into high gear.

I take another measurement. The angle here in the midsection tops 50°. Moreover, the couloir has been climbing slightly leftward, which now puts me over a nasty-looking rock garden two hundred vertical feet below.

To add to the drama, I'm beginning to suspect the upper part of the couloir is blocked by a hidden ice bulge.

I don't like ice. And I don't trust any skier who claims they do.

I understand that ice climbers seek out the stuff like candy. It's what they do. But ice kills skiers, plain and simple. And with that thought, my axe goes THUNK against the ice bulge, and I'm suddenly aware that my crampon points are the only thing holding me onto the hill...

You've been doing fine, my friend, making good progress. The couloir is steep, but your feet sink comfortably into the snow, and your axe shaft plunges deep into firm neve. You feel safe; solid. And then comes that THUNK! Suddenly, your axe won't bite even a 1/4 inch into the hill. Where did all this blasted ice come from? You look down at your feet, and see naked crampon points clawing at clear blue ice. Below that is a yawning void that smiles, says Remember Me? and then drags your stomach clear out of your body and discards it casually on the jagged rocks far, far below.

I carefully, carefully down-climb ten steps or so, until I'm safely back on snow. Now, it's decision time. The ice, as far as I can tell, is blocking the entrance to the couloir. It will not be possible to ski it. Where I'm standing, the snow is steep and exposed. It's a lousy place to try to switch over to skis. I could attempt to down-climb the entire couloir, but this in my opinion would be even more dangerous.

A third option exists: attempt to climb the rest of the couloir via a 55° section of drifted snow bordering the right edge of the ice bulge. Then, either ski down the snowdrift and skirt the ice, or abandon the couloir entirely and descend the moderate south slopes on the opposite side of the mountain.

I resist the considerable allure of simply remaining frozen in place and rehashing the options over and over in my mind. Instead, I decide to try to climb the 55° snowdrift. I'll decide whether or not to ski down when I get to the top.

next: The Entrance

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.