Bairs Creek Cirque — Page 9

Bairs Creek Cirque - Headwall Couloir

Headwall at Dawn

Granite spires come alive as the first rays of dawn touch them. I skin as high as I can up the headwall, then stop on a small flat perch and switch over to crampons.

As the new day rises, chasing away the lingering shadows of my despair, I eat a peanut butter sandwich, drink water, and enjoy the view. For all its challenges, hiking through the night has paid off. At 12,000', I'm well-positioned to make an early summit before the snow becomes too soft.

Sunrise Over Owens Valley Looking Down the Cirque Climbing in Crampons The Top of the Pillar Summit Headwall Andy at the top of the Cirque Peak 14,160 & Peak 14,125 The Entrance to the Cirque Gaining Williamson's Summit Plateau Williamson's Summit Plateau

The only challenge between me and the summit now is fatigue—and about 2500 vertical feet. With the appearance of the sun, the day warms with alarming speed.

I pull off my fleece cap and windshirt, and begin ascending the short pitch of the headwall chute.

I can't help stopping, from time to time, to enjoy the view.

After all, this is the first time I'm seeing any of the Upper Cirque, having climbed this far in darkness.

The frequent stops are also necessary to catch my breath. Coming from sea level, I've about reached the altitude where my body slows down considerably.

It's a struggle to make upward progress in the thin air. Nothing about this hike, it seems, is going to be easy.

On the other hand, my crampons are biting nicely into the hard, consolidated snow.

This is a huge contrast from my recent climb up Langley, when I sank deep into the snow with each step, and the mush continually stuck to the soles of my feet, rendering crampons nearly useless.

I aim for the pillar at the center of the upper apron, staying in the shade to keep the heat of the sun off my neck.

The angle of the Bairs Creek Headwall is just steep enough to be lively, without any significant danger.

An experienced ax man should have no trouble arresting a fall here, and even if that fails, there's little below to pose much threat.

Given the huge effort I've expended to get here, I'm well glad not to be facing much objective hazard.

As for skiing, the Headwall promises a fine descent.

I estimate the angle around 35°. To the left, the pitch steepens, perhaps nearing 45° for a short section.

The right side remains moderate all the way to the top of the Cirque.

I reach the top of the pillar.

The geology here is reminiscent of volcanic action: a series of angled pillars that close around the top of the Cirque like teeth.

Williamson's granite is surprisingly colorful here; beautiful.

As I ascend the upper pitch of the Headwall Couloir, I notice for the first time the unmistakable tracks of a pair of skiers or snowboarders, probably less than a week old. So, I think, someone out there is as crazy as I am. I offer a salute of backcountry solidarity to my unknown predecessors, and go back to the climbing.

Oh, so close! I am nearing the top of the headwall, elevation 13,000'. I hope to get my first glimpse of Williamson's summit. The sight of it should provide the mental kick I'll need to keep going. Just show me the summit, I think, as I at last top out the headwall.

That view, alas, is not to be. I push myself up the last few steep steps at the top of the couloir, only to see yet another giant headwall in my path.

I'm in a vast bowl, with tantalizing views of the George Creek drainage to the south, and Williamson's twin 14,000' horns to the northeast.

From here, I've still got another 1400 vertical feet or so to climb, the final push in what can only be called a marathon test of endurance.

The temperature continues to rise, motivating me to keep moving.

I had hoped to ascend the remainder of the way on skins, but the upper headwall is clearly too steep to allow that.

The angle looks moderate enough, however, so I drop my axe and crampons and stash them along a rocky spine at the top of the Cirque to save weight for the summit push. I'm intrigued by the horns, and especially the narrow, southeast-facing couloir that splits them. Most guidebooks warn that this chute avalanches regularly. Looking at it, I'd guess the danger is principally from wet slides.

Another concern, for those who'd like to ski it, is the lack of summit access. From the notch between the two peaklets, Class 4 climbing is required to rejoin Williamson's summit plateau. I skin up across the bowl, slowly gaining elevation, until the angle of the upper headwall becomes too steep to continue. Once again, it's back to boot hiking. As the altitude continues to drain my reserves, I decide this is the real Heartbreak Ridge.

The views continue to amaze. I'm well above the entrance to the Bairs Creek Cirque now. Unfortunately, the jagged tops of Williamson's twin horns remain well above me. The horns serve as a mental marker. I keep checking over at them, wanting to see how much higher I have to climb.

It takes me a solid hour to finally round the top of the upper headwall, and stand upon Williamson's summit plateau. The true summit appears as a distant hump at the western edge of the plateau. Just another quarter mile to go, maybe a few hundred vertical feet. The warmth and calm of the mountain's lower slopes are abruptly replaced with a frigid, blasting wind.

The snow shifts from consolidated spring corn to winter wind slab. I'm able to resume climbing on skis and skins, thanks to the reduced angle, but this final pitch is a killer. I want so much to be done with this climb. It has taken everything I have to give, and more—and I've still got to face that hellish hike out once the descent is done.

I cinch my windshirt's hood tight and clench my frozen fingers against my palms. This is it. The summit is only a half hour or so away. Just keep climbing, keep climbing, keep'll all be over soon. I promise.

next: Williamson Summit

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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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