C-J Couloir: Grade III, 50 degree snow and ice
August 9, 2002
C-J Couloir from the road. The upper 500 vertical feet is obscured by clouds. This photo was taken after our climb.
I had never been to Cascade Pass and Ben had only been to Eldorado. On Friday, we figured we should remedy that, so we headed up to the North Cascades for some exploring. Of course, in typical Manfredi-Hummel style, fearlessly ignorant, we brought our skis along for comfortís sake. Somehow, early August didnít deter us from our goal of skiing the couloir. We make our own rules. Except on this trip, we discovered some rules arenít so easy to break.
We arrived at the parking lot around 4:30am, a few hours later than we had originally planed. I could see the dark mass of Johannesberg next to me, even more; I could feel itís foreboding presence looming over my shoulders while I packed. About then, another climber noticed our skis laying on the gravel and asked where we were headed. We mentioned we were going for a ski, but he seemed determined to know where. Looking up at Johannesberg Ben said, "We are going to go check out the couloir."
He wished us luck and indicated with a questioning glance, "Isnít it a little late for that? Has it even been skied?"
We had no answers for him and wished him luck on his climb.
Two switchbacks down the road, Ben and I laughed cause after about 50 feet down, we were going to be standing on snow. Now that is my kind of approach.
As a last thought, we added shoes to our already overweighed packs ranging from 50 to 60 pounds. The boots felt good and the crampons felt even better. Ahead of us was mostly scattered avalanche debris, which we finished in no time. At first glance, both Ben and I thought the route was a joke and started calling it, Childís Play. Little did we know, we were in a Giantís playground, and the climb to the top of the beanstalk was a long ways from Jackís home.
The lower third was solid, but very skiable with the biggest obstacle being a crack with a very narrow sliver of a ridge offering the best route across. Ben went first and managed with only a few tense moves. I went next and made it with a few VERY tense moves. Remember that the rope was in Benís pack, so the security it may have offered was denied, giving me that much more pleasure in having a second tool along and not just a glacier axe.
Jason crossing the first crack. You can't tell from the photo but if he falls to either side it's over.
Jason crossing the second crack on rock. We planned to jump both this and the previous crack on the way down.
By this point, the sunlight was starting to brighten the landscape in an eerie-dull shade of blue. What we could see of the upper third was looking bad and worse the closer we got. Ben was ahead of me on the middle third, having taken a better route through a series of cracks. I, on the other hand, was presented with a down sloping crevasse on a very steep slope, easily avoided had I been paying attention. While Ben scurried up the gut, I traversed down and to the right at a snailís pace. Time was now meaningless and getting to the top, my destination.
Jason nearing the first section of neve.
Jason above the first section of neve.
After gliding up and around this obstruction, as light as a tweedy bird, I could see Benís crampons slipping on a section of wet rock he was negotiating to attain the upper third of the couloir. To say I was gripped, is a given, and to say I wasnít scared would be a lie. A thousand possibilities mathematically calculated in my head did little to salve my fear. Ben looked to be faltering, not wanting to commit to the weak snow draped above the rock cliff, which was threatening to give way. After several kicks, he made a move that only luck would allow. As I approached, he simply said, "Go right." There were no arguments coming from me. Turning right I could see I was going to have my hands full. My pack came off and everything below came into focus. Holly crap, rad, sweet! Nothing could explain my thrill. Quickly forgetting about up, I ate a chocolate pudding and was, at least for the moment, content. I knew the ice I had just climbed up guaranteed that skiing was out of the question.
Looking down from a series of cracks. Ben's sketchy rock move is just above here.
When up again became my priority, I was full of anticipation. Soon I would be done with the final slope. The water dripping down beneath the snow and rock convinced me to go on. Each step was tentative, unsure of what the next one would offer. The next step was followed by another and so forth. Several crevasses were bypassed, a section of steep snow, a foot of vertical, followed by more steep snow was pressing my limits for climbing unroped. Seeing no other option pressed me on and across a rising leftward traverse. I ended up a bit high, so I squeezed in-between the snow and rock, using both to make my way up. Before long, my situation was not looking good and bad judgement was to blame. I slipped on the rock and one axe and a weak foot is all that saved me. Growing tired fast, I found a fissure in the rock to place one tine in, so here goes, leap of faith. I swing onto the wet rock, go up five feet and over four. Ugh, the easy stuff. There were good handholds and feet. Finally back were I shouldíve been in the first place. I took another short break, quietly berating myself for not taking the nice snow to the left of the rock.
At first, where the snow met rock looked simple enough, but as soon as reached it, I knew I was mistaken. The snow was melted out beneath, hollow as an ancient, bug-ridden tree trunk. I didnít see myself going the way Ben went and I didnít feel like taking my crampons off and then putting them back on 15 feet later. Still, it wouldíve been the smart thing to do. Bashing the snow with my foot and axe, I made my way to something I thought would hold. Making dang sure my axes were solid, I made my move, followed by a sigh of relief. As meek as a mouse and as fast as a runaway train, I scurried up my paper-thin sliver of snow. Only after 50 feet was I home free, merely a jaunt from the top. Ben told me to wait so he could take a photo. Snap! I scurried up the last remaining slope, set my pack down, and took a much-needed drink. The climb took 4 hours. What a thrill!
Jason nearing the top of the couloir.
Ben had a grin. I had a grin. Still, we both knew the truth even if we didnít want to admit it. The couloir was not a go. Over a third of the route was ice and there were some big airs throughout that left no room for error. Either way, neither of us were sure our edges would hold. Rather, we were pretty sure they wouldnít. At that point, we knew we should have tried sooner, like months ago. The decision to not ski the couloir was easy. Turns out, finding another way back was going to be anything but. If you told me it was going to take 12 hours, I probably wouldíve chosen differently, fate be-damned. As it was, we were about to get worked.
Both Ben and I looked at the map. He figured left was the way to go, and I thought right. Truth is, neither of us had a clue and we would make it up as we went, trusting our instinct to show us the way. The couloir was behind us, and the undiscovered ahead.
Jason on top of the couloir looking south towards Formidable.
Left it was. On the ski down the backside of Jberg, a mere 500 vertical feet, we both snapped some photos. At the rocks, we packed our skis and boots, pulled out the shoes, and headed back up to another col, looking for a plausible escape route. What we found instead was a justifiable cliff, pure and simple. As I neared, Ben said, "It will go." All I could see was several thousand feet of choss and could only imagine he was joking. From there, we followed the ridge, which was easy enough until I saw Ben pulling some moves that didnít look like fun to me, especially when I saw him questioning his sanity. Now, of course, the easy way would be to go down and around, but that was too easy and this way had the potential of being easier, right? Well, I followed as far as I dared. My heavy pack with skis and boots was making my going anywhere difficult and going down worst of all. The easy did beckon me and I found it was indeed easier, but that is about all I would give it. Ben was a bit ahead now and it looked as if I had some catching up to do.
Jason making his way to the first mistaken col.
Jason climbing above the first mistaken col. The parking lot is to his left. Anybody want to trade a parachute for some skis?
My catching up only got worse. If I had a light pack and no skis and boots this part would hardly be worth mentioning. As it was, I found myself on ledges with certain death below, crumbling rock that would fall unaided let alone hold when I reached for it, and heather which offered a slippery path over very large cliffs, as if small ones wouldnít do. I kept telling myself I shouldíve stayed lower and realized what I was doing now was far scarier than anything the C-J Couloir had dished out was. This was stupid! I eventually caught sight of Ben in another drainage, something like 400 feet across, yet surely an hour to negotiate. Ben is a very good rock climber and he was worried! I said I am heading down. He agreed, climbing down and out of sight. I followed, figuring I could catch up, discovering instead that I was putting myself in a bad place. I managed to stay higher than Ben; somehow succeeding in putting myself in one of the worst binds Iíve been in. Any climber knows what I am talking about. You canít go forward, backward, down, to the right or left. Well, maybe down. You can always go down. Gravity was my friend and allowed me to triumph where given another try, I surely would have failed. I lived, I learned, and I slowly made my way down to safer ground. My thrill was quickly diminishing.
The only other instance worth mentioning was a meeting with a thick grove of weather worn, midget trees that got the best of me and my sunglasses (at least they have a good home). It wasnít pretty. The going was definitely getting easier the farther down I went. Still, anything but a walk in the park. Eventually, I found myself on something of a goat trail, which looked to be the only way through steep ravines and cliff bands. Before long, I found myself on scree and steep heather. Ben was just ahead and above me.
One of many gullies that we had to negotiate. Ben traversed above the snow, Jason traversed below.
Above us, maybe 1500 feet up looked to be another col. Once again climbing together; we made quick work of it. As soon as were on top, we saw snow just over the other side. Finally! We were confident we had found a way. Looking at the map, we figured we were now at Cache Col.
Jason nearing Cache ColÖ or not.
Determined to climb something, we continued up without our packs. At a high point, we could see between openings in the fog that we were still on a ridge with no summit in sight. We snapped some photos and returned to our packs for a much-needed break. Each of us were quietly thinking about the traverse, which had taken us nearly 10 hours from C-J Col. I could hardly believe it. When I asked Ben how his route went, guessing he had as much trouble as me, sure enough, he explained a few parts he would gladly avoid next time.
Jason at our high point. You can see Johannesberg, C-J Col (barely) and the piece of snow we skied that morning. Mix-up Peak is above Jason. Recognize that sliver of snow on the lower left?
While carrying my skis to the snow, I noticed a rap sling on a rock. I laughed and yelled back to Ben, "These guys must be a bunch of Joes." Then I noticed the second cliff and another rap sling. Staring to my right the snow was cleaved in two. Luck was not with us and skiing was a bad option. We pulled out the rope, put on the harness, and shouldered our skis. We made two short raps along the edge of the broken up snow.
To rappel or not rappel. It was tempting with skis but we decided to rappel considering our luck thus far.
Ben checking out the second rappel.
Jason on the second short rappel.
Below the mess, we put on our skis and made our way down, hoping there would be a way through the rock cliffs. There wasnít. Seeing some tracks to the left, we started traversing again, eventually coming to a hikerís trail. From there, we couldnít go fast enough. One hiker said, "You guys sound like a runaway freight train coming down the trail." We smiled and walked on all the noisier.
Ben skiing below the col.
Jason skiing towards Cascade Pass. The col we rappelled from is above him. Cache Col is on the left.
At the car, we sat on the tailgate and looked up at Johannesberg. It didnít feel so alien now, just that much more real.
We headed out, thinking only about what we would do on Saturday and Sunday. Heck, we still had a whole weekend left to fillÖ