North Peak — Page 6

North Peak - Looking Down the North Couloir

The Entrance

Tense moments of climbing get to me to top of the couloir, but my plan has worked. By skirting the extreme right edge of the couloir, I've avoided the exposed ice.

The ideal strategy at this point would be to set up a rappel, put on my skis, and rap past the ice bulge to regain entry to the couloir—and the skiable steeps below. I do not have a rope. Already, my experience on the North Couloir is leading to a paradigm shift when it comes to gear.

Saddlebag Lake from North Peak Mount Conness & Glacier Skiing the North Couloir Ski Tracks in the Couloir Ice Axe

I won't be skiing chutes like this again without a rope, protection, and—always!—a steel axe.

I thank my lucky stars I brought a steel tool with me on this trip, instead of my usual aluminum axe.

It would be entirely reasonable for me to abandon the couloir at this point and ski the steep but manageable south slopes of North Peak.

But, as I've noted, if I can ski something, I generally want to ski it—and I know I can ski that 55° ribbon of snow alongside the ice.

I give no thought to climbing the remaining Class 3 scramble to North Peak's 12,242' summit.

Nor do I spend much time enjoying the views from the Notch above the North Couloir.

I want to get right to business.

There are a few critical tasks to attend to first: clear the bindings of snow, make sure to snap in securely.

And don't forget to switch the boots to ski mode!

I tighten my pack straps, cinch my boots tighter, and generally sack up.

A short traverse into the entrance, and the fun begins.

My plan is simple: sidestep down the snow ridge and avoid the ice.

For extra security, I sink my poles into my ascent footsteps, effectively belaying my skis' edges in case they slip.

This is a tedious, unglamorous business—and perhaps a tad excessive when it come to caution.

Then again, I'm stepping down a 55° pitch of hard snow, my ski tips inches away from the couloir's rock wall, my ski tails floating inches above bare ice.

I think that qualifies as a no-fall zone. With the help of my ski poles, I safely bypass the ice and sideslip onto the snow beneath.

As expected, the snow is hard but of good consistency for steep skiing. Given all the drama of the climb and the entrance, the first turn feels a little anticlimactic. The pitch is still hovering between 50-55°, however, and that rock garden is still lurking below. While the total vertical of North Peak's North Couloir is a modest 500 or 600 hundred feet from notch to apron top, the chute's sustained steepness greatly expands the difficulty factor.

I work to make smooth, solid turns, carefully leading with a pole plant, following with my upper body, stepping my uphill ski down the hill, pivoting the turn decisively, maintaining balance. Given the hardness of the snow, I'm impressed with the amount of sluff that my turns generate. I stop to let that rushing cascade of snow blow past me.

The couloir's difficulty eases once I've worked my way through the midsection. Now, a fall would only send me tumbling down onto the apron, where presumably I'd come to a rest with no great harm done. Nonetheless, the adrenaline is still flowing freely.

When I reach the bottom third of the couloir, I switch to big, sweeping GS turns that send me roaring out onto the apron, warm wind ripping through my hair. Just like that, it's all over. I stop to take a photo of myself with the couloir in the background. Piece of Cake—if you like yours with extra frosting.

next: The Way Home

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.

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