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Frozen Sweat

Northeast Couloir is one of three classic ice gullies on North Peak, 12,242 feet, in the High Sierra. Rated class 4-5 ice and five pitches in length, the guide book described it at 50 degrees.

“That doesn’t seem too steep,” I thought, as I put my hand in various angles imagining what 50 degrees looked like.

I figured it would be in great shape in late September, and looking at the photo in the guide book, it looked very doable as a solo climb.

My previous experience of climbing ice routes was in the Canadian Rockies with my older brother Bill, five years ago. My memories of that fledgling outing were of exhaustive postholing, snowy conditions, frozen fingers, shattering ice, and getting used to ice tools and front-pointing on WI 3 routes. Not what I would recall as fond, but memories nonetheless. The image of climbing a moderate ice route in late, sunny September got me excited.

Living in Eugene, Oregon, in the flat expanses of the Willamette Valley at 500 feet elevation, I found myself daydreaming about getting on the high, white granite and ice, seeking solitude and challenge. Lately, I’ve been questioning why I seek the challenges of climbing. Why put myself in risky situations? I needed to find answers to those mid-life questions. This climb provided more than just answers.

I spent my first two days in the Sierras with splitting headaches, doing mild day climbs, drinking lots of water and eating ibuprofen. From a distance I reconnoitered the ice gullies on the north face of North Peak, and spotted a party on the far left gully, the steepest of the three. As I glassed them through binoculars, clinging spider-like to the white wall, I began to question my desires. The self-doubts began to rise–all those questions of putting myself at risk that I was seeking answers to.

“Well, I’ll just check it out and do what I can do”, was my self-assuring answer. I was already giving myself a way to back down.

Morning of the fourth day came too soon. I greeted the hot chocolate and coffee with childlike enthusiasm in the cold alpine dawn. I was already tired of the bland oatmeal though. But it was quick and filled a hole. I packed, paring down my weight to the absolute necessities of the ice climb. Most of the weight was for the “just in case” scenarios: ice screws, pitons, slings, a full-length 8.5mm twin rope, and gortex shell. Snacks and a quart of Cytomax rounded it out.

“I’m just going to check it out,” I was saying. I had rehearsed my backing off procedure, if indeed, I needed to.

The hike in to the glacier at the base of the north face went fast. I was already anxious. I could feel it in my stomach, creating an emptiness where confidence needed to be. I ascended the ledges up to the toe of the glacier. There were the gullies, no longer a photo in a guide book, but the real thing.

“Is that something I can do? What am I getting myself into? Is this just plain stupid, naive? Will doing this really prove something to myself?”

Months earlier, I had backed off Mount Hood’s Leuthold’s Couloir. What was that all about? I could have climbed through that nausea, I felt. After that attempt is when the questions began. I considered getting rid of all my climbing gear.

“Why do I have all this shit if I’m not going to use it?” Ice tools hanging on nails in the closet, along with my memories, dreams, and desires.

I needed to know that I could get on a route without knowing that I could already do it. I needed to put myself in the position of pushing beyond comfort, into the unknown, and not know the outcome.

The sun was high in the deep blue sky as I gazed at the ice gully. Plenty of time to climb and get back to camp. I emptied my pack gear, unpouched my crampons, and unholstered my ice tools. My arsenal. I munched, but was too anxious to really dive into lunch. Finding the middle of the rope, I tied a bite into it and clipped it to my harness, gathered up a few coils, got on the glacier, and took off toward the bergschrund at the base of the far right gully.

“OK. Let’s see what this is all leading to.” The rope trailing, I did my best French technique as the slope steepened, and soon needed to sink an axe pick for balance. The commitment begins here. I sucked in a deep breath of cooling air and visualized climbing. Ready.

Dropping the coils of rope, I am now on both tools, half front-pointing, half side-stepping, the bergschrund gaping at me. I look down in, about fifteen feet to the dark-shaded ice and rock below. To the left, the bergschrund narrows as it nears the gully wall and is easily crossed. I swing a tool into the far side of the bergschrund wall. The unconsolidated snow provides no purchase. I look down the face below the bergschrund. The glacier drops away. The gripping begins to stir. I swing my right tool farther out onto the face of the ice gully and thunk, it sinks up to the head with my overswinging. I scout out rock and ice ledges for my frontpoints to gain purchase. Pulling on my tools and stepping up on my frontpoints, I find some confidence and get a feel for the climbing.

Exhilaration pulses through me as I pull onto the face of the ice gully. I continue up a few tentative feet, my eyes darting for pick placements. Stagger your swings, keep them apart, don’t overswing, don’t over kick. My skills now come into narrow focus on the four square feet of ice in front of me. Bill’s supportive cajoling during our Canadian climb springs to mind. I judge the ice with each swing of the tools.

“Well, this feels solid.”

I feel secure. I am soloing, though. My tool placements are my belay. Should I back off now? I crane my neck and look up at the dazzling blue sky as it fills the notch of the couloir above me–the sun brilliant white as it glances on the snow at the gully exit. It beckons me. I need to do this. Five pitches,

I judge the angle to be more like 60 degrees. It angles steeper above, but only for a body length or two. I swing. The tools again sinking to the head. Either through just-gained confidence or simple lack of ice climbing wisdom, I continue up with rope trailing. I’m doing it. It is at once so mentally liberating and freeing, as the only thing on my mind is climbing. Yet I am so completely enslaved, chained to my ice tools and the ice itself, to complete this climb.

I begin to get into a rhythm: OK. . . swing right there and plant the pick. . . looks and feels solid. . . move feet up. . . eyes darting again, looking for pick placements. . . heart racing, panting, dry mouth, 12,000 feet altitude . . I’m really doing this. . . sweat running down my forehead into my eyes, stinging, making me squeeze my eyelids tight for a moment. I’m overswinging, at times bashing my knuckles into the ice. It seems removing the pick takes more effort than anything else. I have to rest. I plant both tools, and move my feet up under me into a monkey-hang position. I don’t look down. I need to focus on what is above and success, not what is below and failure.

My breathing slows. I relax. I look up at the exit notch. I still have a ways to go. I charge on again, relaxing into my rhythm until my heart and breathing race again. I pause, sucking Cytomax from the hydration bladder in my pack. Then the gurgling sound of sucking air–the bladder is empty. I curse myself for sacrificing liquids for the sake of a too heavy pack. Stupid. My feet are numbing. My calves burn. My thighs ache. My throat is parched as sweat drips onto the lens of my sunglasses. I’m spent. I’ve hit a wall. I’ve got to get off this climb. I’ve been swinging ice tools and kicking in frontpoints for almost an hour and a half. The aerobic work-out has me hammered. I begin to have “dumb” arms, as my ice tools glance off instead of finding solid placements.

“Man, don’t fuck up now. Keep it together”, I silently urge to myself.

Thirty feet to go and I have that anxious fear of being so close yet too far to stop. Just a few more placements. Ten feet. Thunk, thunk. I pull over the lip of a moat and stand on small, level platform of snow. The afternoon alpine sun warms my face. I did it.

Exhausted–emotionally and physically–I don’t feel the exhilaration and exuberance that I was anticipating from completing the climb. Still on level snow, I throw off my pack and lean my helmeted head against the granite wall of the gully. Sneaking a look at what I’ve just climbed, I realize that I should anchor in. I find a narrow crack in the granite wall and pound in a bugaboo piton. Clipping in, I can finally and completely relax. Many minutes pass before I can even bring myself to open my eyes and look around. Looking down the gully, I can’t see the bottom as the slope curves under me.

The buzzy feeling of accomplishment and successful self-reliance suddenly wells-up in me and erases the self-doubt. In a rush, those earlier questions that seemed so intractable begin to find answers. I let out a loud “whoooooop.” It echoes down the gully walls and carries across the glacier. A big smile comes across my face. Another whoop echoes and I begin wishing that this high moment was being shared, creating bonding memories.

My thoughts go to my brother and tears well-up in my eyes. Exhilarating joy of accomplishment turns to lingering anger and frustration over his premature, cancerous death. I “whoop” again, but through clinched teeth, the whooping becoming a yell of anger and rage. My state of exhaustion has allowed this buried anger to find light.

The untimely death two years ago of Bill, my climbing mentor, is still seeking a reason within me. It was not suppose to be that way. Tears continue to warm my eyelids, and I surprise myself with the depth of emotion rattling me. I collapse on my pack, continuing to yell and weep as it feels so good to release these coiled-up emotions. I look down the gully through teary eyes, and just at that moment, a golden eagle soars past. I am looking down on a golden eagle!

“What are the chances of that? How do things like that happen?” I ask incredulously.

Being mindful of greater-than-life happenings, I just nod at the synchronicity of the moment, knowing that Bill is here in spirit. Perhaps riding on the wings of an eagle.