AUGUST 26, 1971. Bill Lindberg and I are several pitches up a narrow couloir on the north side of Mt. Helen. A thick, even ribbon of white divides the tawny-grey granite walls that rise steeply above us on either side. The granular, late-season ice accepts the picks of our piolets and rigid crampon points perfectly. Thus far, the climb has been so straightforward that we might have rehearsed it ahead of time; we are both exhilarated to be moving rapidly on an unclimbed alpine line.
Two years earlier, on a backpacking trip that spanned the length of the Wind Rivers, Bill and I caught sight of the north face of Mt. Helen as we crossed the Continental Divide–a grey thrust of granite with several long streaks of snow and ice, including a narrow, uniform couloir that looked to exceed a thousand feet in length. We vowed to return with ice-climbing gear to check it out.
The next summer, I attended a seminar by Yvon Chouinard on new ice tools. The Chouinard-Frost drooped-pick piolet gave one a genuine feeling of security, unlike previous generations of axes that, when weighted, might pop out of the ice and hit you in the nose. Rigid boots from France and rigid crampons made it possible to alternate between the French flat-foot technique and frontpointing. Tubular ice screws and Wart Hogs, the latest in protection, really would hold a fall, unlike the redhead Austrian screws, which were too short and subject to mechanical failure. This new gear also allowed more speed and efficiency because it was easier to remove than the very secure foot-long Swiss and Austrian ice pitons, which had to be chopped out.
In 1971, at the end of a great summer of ascents, Bill and I had honed our alpine technique on several lines in the Canadian Rockies. For one, final adventure with Peggy and Nancy, our wives-to-be, we decided to combine a backpacking and fishing trip in the Winds with a look at that Mt. Helen couloir. After a few days of hiking, we made our base camp in Titcomb Basin.
The next day, Bill and I started in the dark, and at first light we encountered a rainsquall. With no extra day in our schedule, we never considered abandoning the climb, but waited for the shower to blow over. Soon, we were cramponing several hundred feet up steep snow. When the couloir narrowed, we sought a ledge to rope up for the technical portion of the ascent. Piolet picks, crampon points and protection all went firmly into the granular ice and provided great security. Over ten pitches, we worked diagonally back and forth across the couloir, using pitons in adjacent rock for anchors and carving small steps in the ice for belay stances. Our back and forth style emulated the French pied a plat technique, where all but the frontpoints of the crampons engage the slope. Bill and I hardly spoke except to exclaim over the perfect ice and clear, blue skies.
By the final, sixty-degree pitch, we knew the route would be a classic. From the notch, easy fifth-class chimneys led to the apex. About a ropelength below the top, we heard Nancy’s calls, and soon we were all on the summit, enjoying the vistas of the whole Wind River Range, the granite peaks, shining lakes and alpine meadows, with this pearl of an ice climb below. The next day we headed toward home, stopping to fish at Island Lake.
So much of mountaineering literature focuses on the epic and the disastrous, on frostbitten limbs and deadly storms, leaving little room for depictions of the simple happiness of climbing when everyone is prepared and when everything goes well. The excursion may have lacked the elements of drama and danger that make for a classic adventure story, but it has remained one of my most memorable experiences–for the sensation of climbing a new, remote line with style and for the pure joy of being in the mountains with good companions.
It should be noted that we weren’t the only ones to have spotted this attractive couloir. The following summer, two independent parties climbed the couloir. And–as would so often occur in Wind River history–both the second and the third ascensionists thought they were the first.