My tool sinks into the pale blue ice with a reassuring thud. Sweet. I can feel my body loosen slightly with relief as I look around for my next placement. Ok, wide base. Keep your heels down. Breathe. You’re chillin’ man. No need to rush. With a hollow “pop!” my other Black Diamond Cobra shatters a small chunk of alpine ice off the 50-some degree wall. I watch it fall between my legs and skitter down a few hundred feet before it explodes into a million fragments at the base of the [su_tooltip position=”north” shadow=”yes” size=”3″ content=”/ko͞olˈwär/ (noun) – A steep, narrow gully on a mountainside.”]couloir[/su_tooltip]
My breath, the sharp sound of metal on ice, and a gentle breeze are the only noises around me. It’s different climbing alone. It’s much more personal. I don’t feel any expectations, real or projected, from a partner. I don’t feel the need to move quickly, remembering how much time I’m saving by not dealing with belays. My only focus is the next move; the next placement. I haven’t done much by myself and even though I’m not an alpinist (yet), I know that when the gettin’ is good, you better get it. I couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather. But then again, it is the Eastern Sierra.
Sugar, Coffee, and a Lot of Stoke
On November 3rd, 2018, a cool cloudless Saturday morning, I completed a solo ascent of the North Couloir on North Peak, a few miles west of Lee Vining, California. According to Mountain Project, the roughly 50-55 degree, 800-foot couloir goes at AI2. AI (alpine ice) is part of a grading system that pertains to ice climbs that persist throughout the year (whereas WI is seasonal water ice) and the open-ended scale currently goes as high as AI7.
The previous Friday afternoon at 12:55 pm I took off from San Diego and headed north on the “gateway to climbing” that we call the I-15. At approximately 8:30 that evening I rolled into a calm Lee Vining, eventually finding a spot to park for the night and rest before the next day’s activities. At 2:45 am the DirtBag Diaries theme song broke through the crisp mountain air as my alarm sounded. I crank the engine of my trusty vessel, The Belafonte, and drive west up the 120 to the turnoff for Saddlebag Lake Road. After a few miles, the half-paved, half-dirt road terminates at a parking lot for Saddlebag Campground where I parked and proceeded to cook breakfast: oats with pepitas, flax meal, chia seeds, shaved almonds, and honey with an Alpine Start Coconut Creamer Latte to wash it all down. My clothes and gear were already laid out and packed, here’s what I brought up:
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Dyneema Ice Pack
- Pair of Black Diamond Cobras (one adze, one hammer)
- Pair of Black Diamond Cyborg crampons (with dual front points installed)
- Black Diamond Zone harness
- Black Diamond Ultralight Ice Screws (one 19cm, one 16cm)
- Black Diamond Spinner Leash (thank you for letting me borrow this Justin!)
- Alpine draws (one 120cm, two 60cm. Black Diamond slings; Camp Nano 22 carabiners)
- Camp Photon locking carabiners
- Pair of La Sportiva Nepal Cube GTX boots
- Pair of Arc’teryx Gamma MX pants
- Pair of Arc’teryx Alpha FL Gloves
- Smartwool Men’s Merino 250 Base Layer ¼ Zip
- Outdoor Research Men’s Ascendant Jacket
- The North Face Salty Dog beanie
- Mammut Skywalker 2 helmet
- Osprey 3-liter Hydraulics Reservoir (with 2 liters of water)
- Snowpeak Titanium Trek 700 pot
- MSR Pocket Rocket 2
- MSR Strike Igniter
- 4oz can of fuel
- Pair Hanes Boxer Briefs… Grey
I also carried an assortment of Clif bars, Bloks, Alpine Start Coconut Creamer Latte packets, and a couple of Honey Stinger gel packets. In case things got weird, I also had a very light and packable Feathered Friends 30 YF down quilt, a Mountain Laurel Designs eVENT Soul Bivy, printed topo map of the area, small medical kit, and of course my cell phone. Oh, and a WAG bag with extra toilet paper, Because, you know, shit happens (literally).
Getting Lost Under the Stars
At 3:59 am I locked the van, stashed my key deep in one of my zippered pants pockets and began the 3 or so mile approach. From the parking lot, the trail crosses over a dam and follows along the west side of Saddlebag Lake. Even with the light from my Black Diamond Spot illuminating the trail I can feel the darkness and solitude around me. To my right, the lake bears little water. Above me, the sky shines bright with countless constellations and a thin sliver of a crescent moon. The faint streak of the Milky Way bisects the expanse around me. The trail starts off consisting of larger fist to melon-sized rocks that pitch my stiff mountain boots in odd directions. Slowly it gives way to a kinder sandy and flat path that heads north between the Greenstone and Saddlebag Lakes.
The first half of the trail is a well-defined hiker’s path that takes you most of the way towards Cascade Lake. However, for those of the ilk, this is where the trails divide. Hooking dead west off the trail just north of Wasco Lake, climbers seeking the peak will find their way cross-country around the steep north-south ridge that is just west of Cascade Lake. The normal path is to skirt around the north side of the ridge but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the gentle suggestions of the climber’s trail at this point and decided to ascend a narrow fourth/low fifth class gully. In mountain boots. Which, by the way, isn’t exactly comfortable when you’re used to technical rock climbing shoes.
Alas, I topped out the gully to a ledge and traversed it south towards the dim silhouette of North Peak. Once on the sloping hill near the base of the ridgeline, I got lost again scrambling the grassy and chossy hillside. Finally though, I found my way to the edge of the snowfield of my intended route. 6:46 am, I doffed my pack and admired the wall in front of me in the muted pre-dawn glow. Here I ate a full pack of Clif Bloks and a packet of Honey Stinger gel with a few gulps of water to wash it down. After snapping a few pictures, I slowly unpacked my bag and laid out my harness, gloves, crampons, ice tools, and helmet.
Here We Go! Precision and Persistence
As the horizon started to change from violet to orange, I slipped my harness on and racked the draws, lockers, and screws. The Spinner leash dangled from my belay loop as I grab each tool, clipping them at their base. I repack my bag and start to don the crampons. Stepping on the snowfield, my right leg postholes effectively creating a step stool making it easier to strap the gear onto each boot. Well, that’s nice. To free my hands, I swing the Cobras into the [su_tooltip position=”north” shadow=”yes” size=”2″ content=”Névé /neɪˈveɪ/ – is a young, granular type of snow which has been partially melted, refrozen and compacted, yet precedes the form of ice”]névé[/su_tooltip] near me. George Takei’s voice rings in my head as a grin spreads across my face. Oh my. Finally, the crampons are secured, the pack is on and I’m ready to start up the couloir. I take a final panorama to mark the time (7:02 am) and capture the early morning light adorning my path ahead.
The route starts on the gentle sloping fan of snow beneath the couloir and slowly ramps up to about 40 degrees before separations from the main chute start to appear. The technical crux of the pitch is a [su_tooltip position=”north” shadow=”yes” size=”2″ content=”a crevasse that forms where moving glacier ice separates from the stagnant ice or firn above”]bergschrund[/su_tooltip] that steepens close to 70 or 80 degrees for around six feet. On the ledge before the bergschrund, I spot my line over it: a less steep section on the left-hand side that shows evidence of traffic. Here we go. Coming from overhead, the Cobras land deep in the wall of the schrund. Holding the tools for balance I kick my left foot into the ice. Ok, toe up. Get those points in there. Drop the heel. I weight the left foot and stand as I spot a place for my right front points. After a few moves up and left, I plunge my tools high over the lip of the bergschrund and work the rest of my body onto the firn of the bottom half of the route. Alright, get to the right. The topo said everything gets funneled to the left. Traversing across slowly I can see the cupped remnants of other parties before me. Using some of these placements as guides I methodically make my way further up the route.
At around halfway, the [su_tooltip position=”north” shadow=”yes” size=”2″ content=”granular snow, especially on the upper part of a glacier”]firn[/su_tooltip] turns to pale blue alpine ice. It’s right around here I found a small nook in the right-side rock wall to perch in. With my front points dug in, I can lean my knees against the ice and relax. Both of my tools are sunk in firmly as I work each hand open and closed to bring some blood back. Alright man, almost there, Just keep swimming. A deep breath brings my gaze back from the top of the shoot. I shift my body back into position and work my feet higher. My right tool swings down with a hollow pop as I watch the instantaneous air bubble appear around the pick. I pull the Cobra out and brush the ice away. The chunks skate past and fade away beneath me. I swing again, slightly softer this time, and a firm thud reports back. Good. I continue to work upward with the familiar purpose and focus that comes with climbing high above your last piece or with little to no pro at all. But this is different than being run out in Joshua tree on some bold Stonemaster’s onsight free solo. This isn’t terrifying. On the contrary, this is actually fun!
We Climb to See the World
With the sun fully risen beyond the crest of the ridge just in front me, I make the final moves over the thinning sheet of ice onto boulders and firm ground. I stow one tool on the harness to free a hand and hook the other over a boulder. With my left hand, I grasp another stone and bring my feet up onto the rocks and make my way to a comfortable seat; grin spread wide across my face. Spread before me a few alpine lakes are scattered below. A quick picture and time check: 9:08. 2 hours and 6 minutes. It’s no Nose record but I’m pretty happy with it.
At this point, once again, I doff my pack and all of my gear and shove them between two boulders as I search for some more Bloks and a Clif bar. A few more chugs of water and I’m off to yet another fantastic Sierra granite summit. I’m rewarded by fun 4th class climbing up to the ridgeline and a short walk up to the summit. It’s now 9:31 as I sign the log (and find SD local Ash Gambhir’s signature). A few more pictures for the ‘gram and I’m walking back to my stashed pack a couple hundred feet below me.
The Adventure Never Ends
Once again, I fill my pack with the gear, strap my crampons and tools on the outside, and begin the descent down the sandy backside of North Peak. A relaxed return hike gives me plenty of time to reflect on the climb. I’m back home (the van) at 11:47 feeling a little warm, sunburnt from the trek back, and bit shaky from exertion. But most of all feeling accomplished with completing my goal. 30 minutes later the Belafonte points south as I head to Bishop to join some friends from Mesa Rim in the Buttermilks for my first trip there. You know, I wonder if Mesa will let me practice some dry tooling there….
A big thanks goes out to Ash Gambhir of Vertical Nomads. Stepping into ice was new to me and he was extremely insightful and helpful. No matter how many questions I asked he was there to patiently assist.