Colchuck Peak, Elevation 8,705ft
Northeast Couloir, 50+ degrees
May 10, 2003
Ben, Jason, Josh
The Northeast Couloir is shown in red and the lower North Buttress Couloir in green.
I was at Stuart Lake parking lot, it was 2am, and all I wanted to do was sleep. Instead I kept myself busy by cooking a very late dinner or was it an early breakfast? I expected Ben to be showing up any time now. Across the parking lot, several people were prepping for their following days journey down the Wenatchee. Turns out, they’ve never been rafting before and were going down with a local guiding service. I told them they should have a blast. One guy saw us pull out our skis and curiously wondered back over to ask where we were headed. "Somewhere up Colchuck Peak", I told him, but he didn’t have a clue where that was. I could hear him telling his buds, "…those guys are leaving to go skiing…right now!" Josh and I got a kick out of their disbelief. I guess that maybe we are a bit out of the ordinary.
By the time they quieted down Ben pulled into the parking lot with his big, loud diesel. ’Bout time! It was 3am.
It seems, as soon as we started up the trail, snow rather than dirt was our principal view from then on, especially since down was where we were looking most of the time. The popularity of this area left us with plenty of tracks to follow, which saved us time and effort wondering around in the dark.
Of course we weren’t getting off that easy.
At Colchuck Lake, we glimpsed our first views of Colchuck, Dragontail, Colchuck Balanced Rock, and Cashmere peaks. Since the lake was still frozen, we walked to the other end where we found a nice flat rock to change into our boots and to leave any excess gear. From this vantage, we could see the sun decidedly slice the tops of the surrounding hills and mountains already threatening to warm up the day. Ben was the first to start up the frozen mismatched steps up to the base of the NBC. Josh and I weren’t far behind.
Jason nearing the end of Colchuck Lake.
There was one solo climber who was preparing for Denali, just starting up the North Buttress Couloir. In Ben's words, "looks too easy, lets save it for last." We knew the Northeast Couloir was around the corner, but since the NBC was the plan none of us really knew much about that particular route. All I remembered was something about a 60-degree headwall at the top. Ben seemed intent on checking the route out, Josh and I didn’t argue. Turns out, this day was about to get a whole lot more interesting.
Catching my first glimpse didn’t ease my concerns, but from what I could tell, everything at the bottom looked good to go. Of course, only the mountain knew what lay above. Looking back, I should’ve put my shades on. Instead, at the bergschrund, I pulled out my axes, put on my crampons and helmet, and started up. Wow! I could hear Ben and Josh in front, their voices echoing. Debris were raining down on my head and I could see Ben climbing a steep icy section. Josh went next, but by then he was gone, not waiting around, probably because he wasn’t interested in being a sitting target. I waited until they were both up a stretch before moving to the right. Jeez! I swallowed my fear and made the moves. There's something about climbing unroped that gives rise to a particular feeling of liberation, especially when you’re going into the unknown; a form of escapism I guess. Further up, I looked down and pondered if I could ski it, for that matter, looking up? I heard Josh yell from above saying something about heading back, but that was about all I could discern. I continued up, probably because I felt the desire to inundate myself into the same predicament they were in.
Anyhow, it looked to be getting better.
Josh below the icy crux.
Another 150 feet up the snow softened considerably, still, far too steep to get my skis on. I didn’t know how big the couloir was; I felt at the time to be somewhere in the middle, about 1000 feet up. I strained my ears and heard nothing. I hung out for nearly 20 minutes trying to flatten a platform. No luck. I decided to continue.
Anyhow, it looked to be getting better.
The sun was baking the cliffs, waking them up. I caught most of the ice chunks in my helmet, one in the arm, and watched plenty near misses buzz by. At another bend, I could relax a little. We seemed to be nearing the top of the route. Josh and Ben were out of sight, so I decided to keep going.
Finally, I could see Josh and Ben ahead of me noticeable growing impatient. I used what energy I had left to speed up. Getting a chance to get off my toes and sit down was a priority and worth the extra effort. I stopped for a quick photo before carefully getting under the cliff and taking my pack off. "So?" Ben’s grin and Josh’s look of bewilderment told me all I needed to know. Ben looked up, did I mention up! We estimated there was another 300 feet or so. Someone who has climbed the route will have to tell us, so I’m just guessing here. Where we stopped is the last best place to do so. About 100 feet up from there was a small rock section followed by a steep traverse to the top. We weren’t prepared to climb the rock and our chances of getting pummeled by loosely draped snow and ice were increasing by the second.
Josh nearing our turnaround.
Josh carefully slid out first. This section was a bit mellower than what was below, still somewhere around 50 degrees. Josh took a few test turns before stopping to film Ben. My first turns opened my adrenaline valves wide open. The snow was perfect! Okay, don’t get too cocky.
Josh's first turn…
Ben taking seconds.
Back down to the icy section, the slope progressively got steeper and icier. We each went one at a time and took each turn very carefully, finally sidestepping and making some sketchy moves to make our way to softer snow. Here we all pulled out one axe; something I’ve never done before, but trust me it was the smart thing to do considering the conditions. Still thinking we may be able to ski where the couloir tightened up, we continued down. Finally, Josh and I hung out while Ben continued still further down. Above the most difficult section was a small ledge just big enough for one person. From there, Ben weighed his options. They weren’t good. The chute was about 8-10 feet wide with an icy debris runnel several feet deep and across.
Josh savors the sun. The icy section begins in the shade and the section we downclimbed is just out of view.
Ben opted to forego the skis (a move we dreaded since it would take much longer for Josh and I to switch to crampons).
Within minutes, Ben had his skis loaded, and sketched the 30-foot downclimb in his UTBs. Josh went next taking a fair bit longer. I spent the entire time balancing on my edges several hundred above. By the time Josh was done my legs were burning. I should also mention here that we had a continual barrage of ice plunging down on top of us. I wasn’t very thrilled about just hanging out but I’m just glad the big stuff came down where I wasn’t.
At the ledge I cautiously took my crampons off, jammed my skis and poles into my pack, and pulled out my other axe before continuing. By this time, Josh and Ben where waiting on the Colchuck Glacier, well out of the firing range. For some reason I had an easier time going down this section than up it. At the edge of the couloir I again readied for the ski. Even with my drained legs this section was fun. At the last second I remembered the schrund and veered right. Below, I noticed Josh jumped it. Nice!
At the bottom, I collapsed, and where fear was only relief remained. And…look! It’s a nice day and it’s still early! Ben says, "So… how about NBC?" Cue, icefall and avalanche. "Ok, how about the Colchuck Glacier and up the back side of Colchuck." I can’t say I was terribly pumped about either but we ended up choosing the latter. We skied over to the other side of the glacier before climbing up.
The Northeast Couloir. The section we downclimbed is where it narrows.
We met a climber going the same way; headed up to the col. At the top, we hung out and enjoyed the sun along with some much needed rest. Ben had some energy left (what a surprise), so he put his pack and skis on and started up the West Ridge of Dragontail. Nolan (the climber) joined him, I followed and Josh brought up the rear. Around the corner from the col was a nice slope all the way to the ridge top. We left our skis there and followed the West Ridge to the summit. By the time we reached the top, so had the fog, clouds and snow. I guess I shouldn’t have left my coat and gloves at the col, eh?
Which of these three belong together? Which of these three are not the same… Elmo, Oscar and Big Bird on top of Dragontail.
Jason on the West Ridge of Dragontail. Fall left and you die. Fall right and you fly.
We followed the ridge back to where we left our skis. Josh pulled out the video camera and filmed while Ben while Nolan and I made our way down.
Back at the col we again rested before skiing nearly 3,000 vertical feet back down to the lake. Somehow it was sunny and nice again.
Josh taking some air at the col.
We picked up our shoes at the lake before gliding across.
In a tree well we decided to leave our skis, axes, crampons and some other essentials. Before the upper bridge crossing we stashed our boots in some boulders. Our plan was to pick them up the following day on our way up to the North Buttress Couloir. Anyhow, that was the plan. Given the uncertain weather and exhausted mind and bodies, it also served as a motivation not to drive home and nest. We met several groups on the way down who were heading up to Colchuck Lake. With our tennis shoes and light packs, we were looked down on by most. Little did they know…