friend or fomoA story of Eldorado Peak's NW Ice Couloir.
NW Ice Couloir
Grade IV, AI3+, 60 degrees
10 November 2019
When falls the Iron Rain, be brave. Be brave.
The road blurs in front of my eyes. Lids too heavy to raise. But it hasn’t been fifteen minutes yet! My scrambled brain tries to convince my body to keep driving. Kimber is dead asleep in the passenger seat. We traded shifts not ten minutes before. I fight for every second of vision. Our frantic escape from the wilderness a careening mess of sleep deprivation and panic as we jettison from one world to another.
In the Instagram age, people have friends they’ve never met. People love to say, “Let’s get out!” and never do. Others admire from afar, envious of other’s lives. Used correctly however, the social media platform can be an effective way to connect with those around you, find friends with similar interests, learn and in the case of climbing, it provides an effective window into the lives of would be partners, their personalities and skill sets.
Kimber and I teetered on the edge of friend or fomo. Hard to believe since we’re now such good friends. But we had talked for ages. It was time to get out. Autumn of 2019 was characterized by a very specific weather pattern. A large, early season snowfall followed by an extended period of sunny high pressure. You see this in Washington, and alpine ice is game on. Often the snow comes fast and heavy around late November to early December. Would be ice routes, gullies and the like are just filled in. With this particular weather pattern, a few classics that need melt freeze cycles without too much precipitation come into play.
I had my eye on the NW ice couloir of Eldorado. A couple weeks went by with no available partners. In that time the route went viral. One group went and it blew up. Overnight, party after party posted reports of the line’s all-time conditions. Kimber was down in a heartbeat. It was a big mission for our first trip out, but I suppose that’s what we get for talking about it for so long.
We knew there would be other groups. It was the weekend and Sunday’s window looked spot on. We drove out to the trailhead on Cascade River Rd and tenuously waited for the mob to arrive. We built a log bridge across the creek for easy access in the dark hours of the following morning. A car arrived as we chilled in the tent and I read Red Rising by Pierce Brown aloud to pass the time. We knew there would be other groups. But we also knew there was no good to come from stressing about it. It was going to be a long day. And we’d take it as it came.
The alarm went off at the ass end of early. We rolled out and across our log bridge. Kimber kicked things off with putting a foot into the water. We lost the trail right away and spent a good thirty minutes bushwhacking through dense brush to find it. The Eldorado trail is notoriously steep. This was my first time on it, and it lived up to its reputation. A light mist hung in the air, but it was warm and comfortable enough.
The boulder field is unrelenting. It was wet, slick, long and it started to rain. Kimber slipped and gashed her shin pretty deep. We stopped to administer first aid. Doubts crept in about our ability to continue. But we got her bandaged up and she started walking uphill. We ran into another team, hard on the bail. The trail turned slowly from large boulders, to small loose rocks, to steep sand. It cut hard to the right, across a high alpine stream and wound through the trees for another thousand feet before we hit snow in an open basin around 5,400 feet. We crested the ridge to our west as Forbidden Peak emerged from the early morning gloom behind us. We dropped over to the other side.
We stopped to change out of approach shoes, into mountaineering boots. Kimber’s leg still hurt. The east ridge of Eldorado was bathed in early morning alpenglow. Morale went through the roof as we checked off the weather box. Our path followed the base of the ridge, up onto the Eldorado Glacier. There was no crevasse danger, so we remained unroped. The view down to Forbidden Glacier, the skirt of Mount Torment and the burly north ridge of Forbidden peak took my breath away. We all but danced across the glacier to the next waypoint on the east ridge of Eldo.
Snacks, water, rope and a bit of rack went in and on for the Inspiration Glacier. We continued around the northeast side of the mountain. It’s at this point that the route starts to feel remote. Crevasses yawn on the slopes to hanging seracs high on the northeast face. Compact snow and ice squeaked under our crampons. We headed for the notch at 8,200 feet that was the access point for the true north face of the mountain.
We reached it and a hard decision. As we feared, another group sat waiting at the notch. This route in vogue had many suitors. Another group was on rappel in front of them and yet another already on the route. Do we continue? This was the point of no return. We were good on time as it was, but this would likely put us over. We’re here. Conditions are good. There would be added risk with parties above us. But the route had been well travelled without incident. We would end up in the dark. But we had headlamps, warm clothes and plenty of food and water. Send it.
It took forever to get on that rappel. It was a loose, full sixty meters to reach the snow. I was happy to have the half ropes. That is until they got stuck on the pull. It was fairly low grade mixed terrain so I solo’d up to retrieve the rope. Not that it mattered so much for timing, we could see the other group slowly making their way up through the first pitches. The route was striking though. It was beyond anything I imagined from the book. A beautiful, continuous line in a desolately remote position.
Kimber and I transitioned to climbing mode. Time to get up this thing. As I climbed the first pitch, a mildly steep combination of snow and ice, showers of the same rained down on me from the parties above. Lovely. I built an anchor and brought Kimber up into the deluge. Have to say, that aspect of the first half of this climb was not fun. It was all but terrifying really. Not knowing what could come down on us. We had no other option though so I steeled the nerves as best I could and kept climbing.
The route was in perfect condition. Steepish WI3+ ice steps connected with stretches of 50-60 degree snow. The pitch lengths worked out perfectly to try and shelter the belays from the spindrift torrent at the base of each ice step. I fought with stubbies at the outer edges to try and get the stance out of the funnel. Kimber crushed it. This was her first full on alpine ice route but I wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t told me. It hardly bears mentioning that she was born without a fully developed right hand because she’s quickly becoming a master of her adaptive craft. A prosthetic doctor built her an incredible carbon fiber rendition of a Petzl nomic. This was a true display of his workmanship and Kimber’s drive to put it and her use of it to the test. It’s up to her to explain to you how it works and to describe her journey with it. But I can tell you, even with messy, twisted double ropes, I never once pulled them through the belay device. She climbed confidently through every section of the route. And only once, did I have to smash the frozen release on the prosthetic with the tip of my ice tool to get it off. RIP glove though.
It got dark on pitch four of six. A purple hue hinted at a sunset I couldn’t see. Darkness set in as I scratched around on the rocky wall of the couloir for an anchor. It’s good to remember that when the nut doesn’t fit, don’t try to force it, just calm down and take out a different size nut. I was oddly calm once it got completely dark. The world shrunk to the flame of my headlamp. The last party above us topped out and the spindrift stopped. Protection went to shit in the loose, unconsolidated snow but at least there were anchors at the end of the rope.
Exhaustion was real at the top of the route. We discussed the summit but thankfully decided to save it for another time. I don’t remember if my flight was part of that chat or not… But we loaded up our bags and started the long descent down the east ridge back to our snack spot from earlier in the day. I don’t have time points, it was late, but Kimber brought a PIZZA! We sunk into a rocky cove out of the wind and munched while we looked out at the stunning Forbidden vista under clear, full moon skies.
I take back the comment about exhaustion at the top of the route. We ran out of water at Pizza Point. We could both remember the spot at which the snow had melted enough to get at the water below distinctly. Every step was an investment to reach that point. Even though it was still hours and hours from the car. We adopted the, “It’s already super late so why be in a rush,” mentality and chilled at that fountain of youth for at least an hour.
Let’s hit fast forward. Gully to the ridge, open alpine basin, high wooded trail, the endless boulder field, the lower wooded trail and giving up on finding the right log to cross at the very bottom and plunging into the river with our shoes on to get back to the car. What a day. All told, we had been on the move for twenty-four hours. It was in that moment reality sunk in and we find ourselves back at the beginning of this tale.
I had a flight to Boston in a few hours. The cold, harsh reality chilled my blood. All I wanted was sleep. Time to go to work you idiot. We threw our kits into Kimber’s car and ejected like an iron gold from a spitTube. The road blurs in front of my eyes. Lids too heavy to raise. Time slowed to a crawl. My brain was scrambled but I had to keep driving. Kimber is dead asleep in the passenger seat. We had to trade shifts every fifteen minutes to nap and drive. There was no other way. I fight for every second of vision. Our frantic escape from the wilderness a careening mess of sleep deprivation and panic as we jettison from one world to another.
We mercifully found an open coffee stand to load up on espresso. Minutes ticked away. My flight time got closer and closer. I hadn’t even packed. We made it back to Seattle and raced into my apartment. I ran through the shower while Kimber did her best to help me pack. We were in and out in under ten minutes. Every second cut the panic deeper. We made it to Seatac and I sprinted for the gate. It couldn’t have even been A or B gates. I took the train to S gates, stealing glances at my phone while I nervously danced in front of the train door, waiting for it to open. I ran up the escalator, and through the food court. I rounded the final corner and there was the gate, still open. A few last stragglers waited to board. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and passed the fuck out.
Good show Kim.