Friday, June 14, 2013

"Stable Summer Snowpack:" A Tetons Trip Report - Part 2

Part 1 available here:

We awoke late the following morning.  (Well, relatively late - sometime after dawn but no later than 7:30am.)  With our plans for the Cathedral Traverse thwarted, we needed to come up with a new objective that could be completed by Sunday evening as I had to fly out on Monday.  The choice was obvious.  We settled on either the Complete Exum Ridge or the Direct Petzoldt Ridge of the Grand Teton, to be decided when we arrived at the Lower Saddle and could better assess the conditions on either route.

We spent Saturday morning with a repeat of Thursday’s logistics, unpacking, drying gear, re-packing, getting a new permit, reloading food supplies, and gathering more beta.  Packing for this new climb proved an interesting endeavor.  For our Cathedral Traverse attempt, we both carried 30L packs, with much of the technical gear deployed at any given moment of the traverse, leaving food, water, and minimal bivy gear in our packs.  For our Grand Teton climb, we would hike to the Lower Saddle and camp, then climb the next day.  Consequently, we needed the full complement of camping gear as well as climbing gear.

Firing up the stove for dinner at the Lower Saddle.
We ended up with a comically mismatched pair of packs.  Ron had the “heavy pack,” loaded with the tent, cook set, most of the food, and all his personal gear, among other sundries.  His fully loaded 75 liter pack gave the appearance that he was ready for an extended expedition to Denali.  By contrast, my 30 liter pack, the only one I had brought with me, was bursting at the seams and featured a jangling assortment of ice axe, crampons, gaiters, gloves, helmet, and rope hanging off of it.  It appeared that I too was ready to attempt Denali, just with a severely undersized bag. 

We started up the Garnet Canyon Trail at a leisurely pace, stopping to snack and switch packs at intervals.  Yet more snow climbing up the Spalding Falls headwall and the Lower Saddle headwall brought us up the Middle Teton Glacier and to the Lower Saddle.  We made camp in the shelter of a large boulder, ate dinner in the tent, and hunkered down for a somewhat restless night of sleep.

We struck out from the Lower Saddle at first light, ascending to the Black Dike and traversing across the snow field at the toe of the ridges to the Stettner Couloir.  We booted our way up the couloir a few hundred feet and traversed on to the Direct Petzoldt Ridge across a broken ledge system to a point near the crest of the buttress.  The snow-covered ledges, cold temperatures, and lack of sun dictated that we would keep our boots on for the first pitch, and ultimately the entire climb.  As I had carried the coils to this point, my rope end was on the top of the stack, which meant I got the first lead.

I tentatively crept upward and leftward to a right-facing corner system and chimney, delicately yet quite deliberately placing the edge of my boot on small nubbins of rock, feeling for handholds through my gloves with cold, wet fingers.  I was hunting for the first piece of protection, in this case a micro-cam, our only attachment to the mountain.  A mantle move here, a traversing step there, some more protection, and I was soon at the base of the chimney, just a slot in the rock above me with a lonely piton about 10 feet off the ledge.  The slot terminated in a chockstone overhang guarding the belay ledge above. 

I shoved my left shoulder into the corner, braced hands against alternate walls, and stabbed the toe of my right boot at a crystal, hoping that if I just applied enough force it would not slip.  With that, I pushed out and up, placing my left boot toe on another small edge.  I was soon to the fixed pin and awkwardly forcing my way up the corner slot, cursing my ice axe on the back of my pack each time it managed to wedge itself against the rock so as to prohibit my freedom of movement, which it seemed to do incessantly.  I found myself underclinging the large chockstone, feeling for the holds above, and finally settling on an awesome hand-to-finger size slot.  A brief pull up and a high foot landed me on the belay ledge, amidst a whoop from Ron.  I was psyched, but also a bit intimidated; 5.5 in the Tetons in boots seemed a lot more challenging than my previous experience on the Upper Exum had led me to remember.

Ron arrived at the anchor and congratulated me on the crux lead.  I thanked him, but was a bit confused, as I thought I had just climbed the “easy rock to a ledge” below the first proper pitch.  After conferring with the topo, I confirmed that he was correct.  We had started with the crux pitch as a good portion of the easy rock at the base of the route was currently under snow.  Feeling a bit more relieved about my performance, I happily belayed Ron as he led off on the first off many leads we would swap.  A few pitches of enjoyable moderate rock (with notably exposed moves on Ron’s leads) took us through “the window” to the climber’s left side of the ridge. 

Ron just below the "window" pitch on the Direct Petzoldt Ridge.
At this point, we needed to cross back over to the right side of the ridge and continue along its crest to the summit of the buttress.  A challenging 5.9 pitch and a hundred feet of low-angle face climbing landed us on a small ledge on the back side of the summit of the Petzoldt Ridge, about halfway up the southern aspect of the Grand Teton.  We took a moment to adjust and reinforce the rappel anchor near the summit and descended into the notch between the Petzoldt Ridge buttress and the main massif of the Grand.

Above us were three options.  To our left was the hulking Exum Ridge.  A few hundred feet of loose mixed snow and rock guarded the weakness onto the upper portion of the neighboring buttress.  Straight above, uncharted rock led to the skyline, initially very steep but easing in angle after a few hundred feet.  To our right, the relatively soft snow of the Ford Couloir led directly to the skyline and snow field guarding the summit blocks.  We elected to follow the Ford Couloir, simul-climbing ever upward, one laborious step at a time, noting the boot pack of a pair of skiers who had ascended the couloir earlier that day.  After two or three rope lengths of snow climbing, my supply of protection was exhausted so I belayed atop a small rock outcropping on the climber’s left side of the couloir. 

Ron joined my seat perched on the small ledge and we rested a moment, feet dangling off the slab and over the couloir.  Below us, hundreds of feet of bright white couloir gave way to rocky and snowy slopes that terminated in the lateral moraine of the Middle Teton Glacier, some 2,000 feet below.  We were feeling the effects of the altitude, consecutive early mornings, and the somewhat surprising swelter of steep snow climbing as the sun crept overhead, reflecting dazzling light and heat off the uniform snow.  Food, water, sunblock, and a short breather were in order.

With our rest stop completed, Ron readied to lead upward when the two skiers appeared on the skyline of the couloir.  They clearly intended to ski the couloir, and not one to spoil fun for others in the mountains, we gazed back to our left at the uncharted rock beside us.  I put Ron on belay as we scoped the various features.  We exchanged a collective glance that said, “Why the hell not?” before Ron set out while the skiers came sidehilling and jump turning past us.

Ron’s lead proved to be one of the most non-trivial on the entire mountain, concluding with a dicey mantle onto a sloping arĂȘte and delicate slab climbing to a small stance.  I repeatedly watched as Ron approached the next tenuous move, tested the sequence, backed down, and looked for more options.  This process was repeated two or three times until Ron could confirm the best possible sequence, commit to the move, and push himself upward.  I grew more nervous at the belay as he edged farther away from his last protection, unsure of whether to hold my breath or shout encouragement.  I prepared myself for the possibility of a fall, determining my contingency plans should the single ice axe in soft snow that was serving as the belay fail. Thankfully, Ron did not take an unplanned ride down the mountain onto his rope.  After a few tense and seemingly interminable moments, Ron shouted, “Off belay, Derek,” and it was my turn to follow his proud lead.

The stance Ron found for the anchor was too small to accommodate both of us, our packs, and the rope, so I literally grabbed the rack of gear from Ron as I climbed by, stopping a short distance away on the lead to put on my crampons.  My trepidation about the coming pitch and its apparent dearth of protection belied my enjoyment of the moderate mixed climbing that followed.

I launched from my small rock outcropping onto the snow above, confidently and steadily climbing 50 feet up the tight couloir to the first piece of protection in the rock bordering the left side of the couloir.  Another 20 feet of snow led to a second piece of protection and a high step across into the left-facing corner bordering the right side of the couloir.  This small side step avoided the overhanging headwall above the couloir, instead sneaking along an icy runnel in a slot to the side of the overhang.  The thin layer of gray ice and granular snow provided just enough purchase for the pick of an ice axe and front points of my crampons.  The variously frozen water crunched slightly with every swing and kick, forcing delicate movement, the occasional scratching of crampons on rock, and side-pulling the rock in gloved hands.  I finally reached the skyline after 160 feet of climbing only to find an additional 100 feet of snow barring the next belay stance.  Ron took to simul-climbing 200 feet below me as I finished the final steps to the snowy notch.

While I was excited for the climbing, I was also growing increasingly tired and weary of the mountain.  I was ready to summit and begin the descent.  Three pitches later, I haggardly approached Ron’s anchor, still shy of the summit ridge.  I stood next to Ron in the snow, shoulders slumped, head down, gaze transfixed on some unspecified point just in front of me.  I closed my eyes, and with a deep breath relaxed, straightened my posture, and began silently taking the rack from Ron’s harness and clipping it to my own, one piece at a time.  With renewed resolve and exhausted determination, I looked to Ron for the belay and the unspoken response of his facial expression communicated his acknowledgement, understanding, assent, and trust. I smiled wryly, “We’re almost there,” and set off panting into the final rocky step.

Ron and I on the summit of the Grand Teton.
The summit proved awesome in its magnificent vista as well as its intense wind, both serving to underscore the power of a planet brimming with savage energy and ordered chaos, of which at that moment I could not help but feel only a small yet somehow giant part.  I sat next to Ron huddled against the howling stream of air.  We snapped a few photos and began the long journey downward.

As we descended the west side of the peak toward the Enclosure, the mountain decided it was not quite done with us, even if we were done with it.  Our entire descent to the Lower Saddle some 2,000 feet below was plagued by constant winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour, with gusts to at least 70 miles per hour, sufficiently large to knock both me and Ron over and on one occasion literally pick me up off my feet.  Breaking camp was an interesting process, but a few glissades soon led us down Garnet Canyon to fairer conditions.

On the glacier below I had about seven miles of hiking during which to reflect upon my recent experiences in the Tetons, and there was much to learn.  At one point during the previous day’s approach, Ron and I discussed how climbing had changed his life.  Prior to climbing, Ron had participated in the prototypical behavior emblematic of the extended adolescence of the modern young adult American male.  He and his circle of friends spent much of their time drinking and partying, establishing their credibility and worth based on who could drink more, bed more women, and mock their friends the most.  When he discovered climbing, he felt powerful in a new and different way; he no longer needed the partying to determine his worth over others.  This was evident in his climbing.  Ron is an extremely confident climber, yet he manages to maintain an air of affability and humility in what he does.

In many ways, this balance of confidence and humility was demanded of both of us during all of our climbing, but especially over the preceding few days.  It takes a certain amount of audacity to attempt to climb large mountains.  Often it is only the notion that one is confident and capable of the task that allows success.  The desire and drive for the climb counts for much.  This confidence and motivation stem from an intimate self-knowledge.  Repeatedly pushing one’s limits allows one to know precisely of what they are capable.

Contrarily, the mountain punishes hubris.  The confident, self-knowledgeable climber can achieve success, but those who over-estimate their ability soon find themselves in a world of trouble in payment for their ego.  A climber must be humble enough to know when the mountains decide retreat is the more prudent option.  I feel that Ron and I could have successfully completed the Cathedral Traverse in the conditions we encountered, but we lacked the fitness to move quickly enough to avoid potential avalanche conditions if we were to do the route in a day.  Instead, we would need to return with a plan to bivy so that we could climb potentially dangerous snow slopes at the appropriate times of day.  In our current state, we could simply not attempt the full climb safely.

During the flights to Jackson Hole, I had been reading Snyder’s The Hall of the Mountain King about the 1967 Wilcox expedition to Denali that left 7 of 12 men dead.  The tale was well written, resonating, and haunting.  More than anything, for me it questioned why some live and some die in the mountains.  With every foray into the mountains, I endeavored to return alive and well due to sound decision making and skill, not luck.  Ultimately, it was a series of poor decisions and inadequate preparation that doomed the men of the Wilcox expedition.  The similarity I recognized between the Wilcox expedition and our close call with avalanches on Teewinot was sobering.

The USGS summit marker on the Grand Teton.
That being said, one advantage Ron and I had over the Wilcox expedition lay in our partnership.  With whom one elects to share a rope in the mountains can be as important as any other factor controlling success.  I will go to the crag for a day of climbing with nearly anyone, but in the mountains, my partners are much more carefully considered and of a short list.  Lucky or not, I took solace in the fact that both Ron and I were doggedly dedicated to the notion that we would never despair and never quit, either for ourselves or each other.  No matter what happened in the mountains, we would always keep striving.

I continued tromping down the trail, ruminating, abusing my knees, pushing just a few more miles.  A few hours later we treated ourselves to a room at Motel 6, struggling to stay awake long enough to finish our customary victory beer.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Stable Summer Snowpack:" A Tetons Trip Report - Part 1

Ron was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle at the gate, directly in front of the airline desk.  I stopped amidst the bustling passengers, creating an eddy in the stream of humanity flowing through Concourse C of Chicago O’Hare International.  The pause allowed me to scrutinize the situation properly; it took a moment to place the features on his familiar visage in the somewhat unorthodox setting.   Ron sat with an impish grin, hunched over his smartphone, clearly engrossed, wisps of gingery hair sneaking out beneath his off-white ball cap.  He looked up with a smile and laugh.

I strode toward him, treading carefully around his small encampment in front to the desk, narrowly avoiding kicking over his iced coffee and ripping his phone charger out of the wall.  I bemusedly surveyed the yard sale of his carry-on essentials spread across the floor, raised an eye brow, and turned to see his response.  “It was the only power outlet,” he stated matter-of-factly.  That settled the matter.

I placed my bags against the desk, retrieved my phone charger, and assumed my own cross-legged seat in the middle of the carpeted floor, attempting to settle in while also not interfering with the queue in front of the desk.  Satisfied with our new base of operations, we immediately turned to the task of any climber flying into a small mountain town like Jackson Hole:  identifying the other climbers.  We set about scouring the apparel and luggage of the passengers arrayed in the vicinity, matching footwear, clothing brands, backpacks, and physiques to generate a pool of likely candidates.  Satisfied with our people watching endeavor, we turned to the task of getting seat assignments for the flight, scored two berths in the exit row, and soon found ourselves flying over the Tetons at sunset.

To say that I was psyched would be an understatement.  I was visibly shaking in my seat from excitement as the plane made a 180 degree bank to approach the runway and the Cathedral Group came into view.  Ron and I had been planning this particular climb for the preceding four months. What started as an off-hand remark nearly a year prior had finally come to fruition.  We were planning an early-season attempt of the Cathedral Traverse, a single-push climb of Teewinot Mountain, Mount Owen, and the Grand Teton.

As I am apt to do, I approached the entire experience with detailed planning.  The first step was purely financial.  Now that the plan was hatched, I had to ascertain that I could reasonably afford to do it.  After a little analysis and some conversations with my wife, the answer seemed affirmative, leading to the much more time consuming processes of physical training and route research.

Nearly every source I referenced indicated that the traverse was best done in late summer, ideally mid-August, when the snowpack would be at its smallest and most stable.  In these conditions, the traverse would largely be an endurance undertaking for Ron and I, as the technical crux of the route was 5.8, a grade at which we are both comfortable.  Consequently, nearly all the information I collected about the route indicated that it would be possible to move quite quickly over largely rock terrain and that skilled climbers could probably complete the entire climb in approach shoes, and possibly in one long day.  This assumed late summer conditions, though.

In early June, there is still ample snow in the Teton Range, which slows travel and complicates pure rock climbing with things like slush, verglass, and snow-covered ledges.  Ron and I hoped to complete the traverse in one very long day, moving as quickly as possible, in favor of an athletic endeavor as opposed to a logistical one.  Notions of the typical conditions for early June were somewhat sparse, but we anticipated that most of the rock climbing would actually be mixed rock, snow, and ice climbing.  My training plans reflected this.

I laid out the framework for an 8-week training cycle that shifted from an initial focus on climbing-specific strength to a concluding emphasis on cardiac endurance.  In my experiences at altitude, I have found that technically demanding climbing (and even moderate climbing) can feel very similar to climbing boulder problems while running wind sprints due to the necessarily increased breathing rate.  As a result, I would spend significant time doing “the circuit,” a workout to which Ron introduced me.  “The circuit” was simply a collection of about 40 bouldering problems across a variety of grades completed at a cardiac pace, running from boulder to boulder with no rest between problems.  In other words, it would be like doing bouldering problems while running wind sprints.  I am very fond of the circuit, and have developed them at each of the major bouldering areas that I frequent.

Unfortunately, the circuit would also prove to be the undoing of my climbing-specific training plan.  Early in May, Ron and I found ourselves with a few other climber-types at the base of Table Rock, North Carolina.  The unrelenting skies had unleashed a steady deluge of rain for the preceding week, shrouding the verdant hills and craggy outcrops in mist and drawing the entire visual palette in blues and grays.  Hiking trails became creek beds, soaking feet and caking shoe soles in muddy clay.  Rock faces became waterfalls, sending chilling tendrils of icy water down rain jacket sleeves and literally assaulting one’s gaze with fierce, sharp drops of water that stung the face.

Under these skies, Ron, Clay, Ryan, and I stood beneath yet another nameless trailside boulder, skin soaked equally by perspiration and precipitation, panting heavily, nearing exhaustion.  Clay went first on this boulder, firing through the in-cut rails of the steeply overhanging rock, our first shelter from the weather for the day.  He reached a high point on the lip of the boulder and elected to down-climb, not wanting to risk a wet, mossy top-out without crash pads and while wearing his approach shoes.

My turn was next, and with some resolve, I placed my pruned fingers on the wet, lichen-covered starting holds of the circuit’s twentieth or so problem.  I laboriously hauled by butt off the ground, aping back and leftward through the overhang, moving deliberately and doggedly on the positive handholds.  As I neared the lip, one final large move lay between my current painful exertion and the sweet respite of someone else’s turn.  I swung my left hand out, slapping the hold, releasing my feet too soon, as a result of poor technique, or more correctly, little core control due to exhaustion.  As my feet cut away from the wall, I fought to maintain control and swing them back into position, just as I felt a popping in my middle finger.

In that instant my serious climbing plans for the foreseeable four weeks or more were gone.  I immediately recognized the same sensation from previous finger injuries.  I had torn two pulley tendons in my middle finger that would take anywhere from four to eight weeks to heal, provided I managed to rest and treat them appropriately.  With a departure date for the Tetons four weeks and one day away, I was more than a little concerned with how this would affect the upcoming trip.  Nevertheless, I continued with my training plan, shifting the focus heavily toward the endurance work and substituting an ice axe for my left hand when dictated. 

The missing finger tip.
Weeks later, I was healing well and the prognosis looked good for the relatively moderate climbing of our trip.  Naturally, two days before departure I sliced the tip off my left index finger during a random slam dunk contest.  (The dunk was spectacular, for the record.)  I took solace in the fact that the climbing was not supposed to be too stressful, my hands would be gloved, and my fingers would probably be too cold to feel much of anything, regardless.  One way or another, I was going to climb.

View after our first night in Jackson Hole
Our arrival on a Wednesday evening in Jackson Hole, Wyoming was uneventful.  Baggage claim and car rentals seem to move with the same plodding pace regardless of location.  We crashed in the back of our white rental van near the Grand Teton National Park entrance and started the next day’s work around dawn.  We spent several hours on Thursday shopping for groceries and last minute gear, getting permits, gathering conditions reports, packing and re-packing, studying the route, leaving us with a full but leisurely day.  I settled into my sleeping pad on the van floor excited and anxious for the coming climb.

The Jenny Lake Visitor Center
I startled awake at 1:30am Friday morning to the blaring claxon of simultaneous phone alarm clocks.  I jolted upright and was greeted with equally energetic motion from Ron’s side of the van.  It can be challenging to be excited at 1:30 in the morning, but we were clearly both ready to go for the day’s adventure, alpine starts notwithstanding.  Ron brewed coffee and I ate granola under the dark sky of a new moon, the stars bigger and brighter because of it.  The dusty gravel parking lot of the Lupine Meadows trailhead was deserted save for two other unoccupied cars.  A lukewarm breeze made its way lazily down from the summits of the great peaks to our west, creating the only stir on an otherwise quiet, calm night.

With packs on our backs we began the laborious approach to the Cathedral Traverse, a climb of nearly 6,000 feet to the summit of Teewinot Mountain.  The plan was to reach its summit by dawn, continue over the sub-peaks 11,840 and East Prong, climb the Koven Route on Mount Owen, descend into the Gunsight Notch, climb out of the notch onto the Grandstand, and ascend the North Ridge of the Grand Teton.  Finally, we would finish the day by descending the Owen-Spalding to the Lower Saddle and hike the remaining 8 miles back to the car.

Switchbacking steadily uphill through meadows and forest, we encountered our first snow at 9,000 feet, still below tree line on the approach ridge.  At the ridge crest, we donned gaiters, helmets, and ice axes, in preparation for 2,500 to 3,000 feet of sustained snow climbing, broken occasionally by rocky ledges and blocky towers.  According to local guides, Teewinot was expected to be in good condition as a snow climb.  In general, the mountains throughout the range had finished their major “shedding” of snow and rock for the reason.  As I kicked the first steps climbing out of the stunted pine trees, I found the snow to be pleasantly soft, able to hold steps well but requiring little extra effort in trail breaking.

We took turns kicking steps, making steady progress up the moderate snow slope toward the towering “Idol” and “Worshipper,” two significant towers protruding a few hundred feet in height out of Teewinot’s east face.  At this point, our lack of acclimatization was showing, as the 10,500 foot altitude left both Ron and I breathless and in need of more frequent rests than either of us would have liked.   Undeterred, we continued steadily upward at a somewhat slower pace.

Leading the charge beyond the Idol and the Worshipper, the snow grew steadily softer, in some places frustratingly so.  I soon began a game of “two steps forward, one step back” with the snow, sinking to my ankles and sometimes my knees as I weighted a step in the snowpack, leaving Ron with post-holes to walk in.  In the wet snowpack of early summer, such significant sinking while kicking steps can be a sign of instability, but I did not give it much attention as it was not yet dawn and the locals had assured us of a “stable, summer snowpack.” 

Ron on our way up the "central cleft" of Teewinot
Passing over a series of broken rocky ledges, we came to the central cleft of Teewinot’s east face, which terminates in a large notch at the skyline, a few hundred feet below the summit.  Dawn was fast approaching, and I estimated that we were about an hour behind schedule.  Ron and I discussed this briefly and agreed that once we crested Teewinot, it would do much to help us gain momentum for the rest of the traverse and we could probably make up for time lost on our snow slog elsewhere on the climb.

The central cleft featured a steep, hard-packed snow gulley down its fall line that made for more laborious step-kicking but ultimately easier climbing if for no reason other than one did not slip back down the mountain with each step.  Beyond this gulley, we continued up and rightward from the cleft toward the summit, on the northern end of the mountain.  Here we encountered still softer snow, making continued climbing soggy, chilly, and frustrating.  Instead of continuing rightward, we elected to head straight up to the rocky tower just to the side of Teewinot’s central cleft and traverse to the summit from there.  This would avoid the snow which was becoming increasingly frustrating and risky.  We anticipated that this would add 5th class rock climbing to what was otherwise supposed to be a 4th class rock and snow ascent, but we welcomed the change.

As I was the better pacer for endurance work like step-kicking and Ron was the more talented technical climber (regardless of any handicaps I might have incurred from two less-than-functional fingers on my left hand), he led the first pitch.  A short 5.6 hand crack with an awkward protruding chockstone soon gave way to an easier face to the top of the tower.  A pitch of relatively straightforward down-leading took us across the traverse to the summit. 

Ron on the summit of Teewinot Mountain with the peaks of Cascade Canyon behind.
From our vantage on Teewinot we could scout the rest of our route.  The intervening peaks 11,840 and East Prong that lay between us and Mount Owen still featured open snow fields on their summit plateaus.  More importantly, “the collar” of snow around Owen’s summit cone loomed full and heavy with evidence of recent “sun devils” or “pin wheels,” sheets of snow that unfurl their way down the slope, collecting surface snow and rolling up into a spiral shape as they go.  They can be indicators of instability in a wet snowpack.  Beyond that, however, the north ridge of the Grand Teton appeared surprisingly reasonable.

The Grand Teton (left) and Mount Owen (right) as seen from Teewinot.
At this point, Ron and I decided that the best course of action would be to head back to the van.  We were running a little behind schedule, but more importantly, the sun was now up, the snowpack on Teewinot seemed weak, we had every reason to believe Owen’s collar would be in similar shape, and most importantly, if we wanted to complete the traverse in a day, we would not have the luxury of waiting until the conditions were safer for snow climbing.  We snapped a few photos and began the moist descent through the increasingly soft, wet snow.

Whatever disappointment we might have felt at deciding to retreat was soon overcome by the exuberance of having climbed a peak.  Further, we still had two more days of climbing with which to do some other objective.  Finally, in a most unpleasant manner, the mountain would soon confirm our suspicions about the hazard the snowpack presented.

Ron and I were soon back in the central cleft traversing down and south across it.  The descent down its steep central gully was particularly laborious as the near-vertical snow was no longer hard-packed but was instead quite soft snow atop rock, verglass, and gray ice.  We cleared this obstacle and rested a moment on a rock ledge in the broad cleft before continuing across another chute.  We no longer felt significantly pressured to be ever-moving as we had ample time to return to the van.

In short order, Ron crossed the chute and proceeded just a few steps to the shelter of a snowfield under a small rock buttress.  I pulled my ice axe out from between my shoulder blades and backpack and readied myself for another precipitous and nerve-fraying crossing of steep wet snow.  As I made my way  to the edge of the rock, a few snow balls came cascading down the chute, slowly picking up speed as they careened and bounced down the trench in the snow.  Within moments, a sheet of slow-moving wet snow crept over skyline and began barreling down the chute.

“AVALANCHE!” I shouted across the chute to Ron.  I quickly gauged Ron’s position relative to the slide.  We were both in relatively safe locations, but as any good avalanche forecaster will tell you, the best sign of avalanches is avalanches.  In other words, I knew that more slides were probably in store for us, and we still had about 2,300 feet to descend before reaching the relative safety of treeline.

Once the slide finished, I moved as quickly as possible across the chute to Ron’s stance below the rocky buttress.  On the plus side, the slide had scraped all of the wet snow out of the chute, leaving stable hard snow upon which to boot across.  Slightly spooked, I made my way to Ron and determined we were both quite confident that we had made the correct decision regarding our retreat.  Unfortunately, the terrain separating us from the trailhead involved crossing numerous avalanche paths with spontaneous natural avalanche activity. 

As we began making our plans for extricating ourselves from our current situation, we heard the familiar sound of rockfall skipping down the main gulley in the central cleft, first a few pebbles, then some bowling ball-sized rock, and finally a large slide of massive wet snow and torso-sized boulders rocketing down the central cleft.  Either of the two slides would have taken one or both of us all the way to the foot of the mountain, and they both happened in places where we had been in the last thirty minutes.  Doing my best to make light of an otherwise potentially perilous situation, I looked at Ron and said, “‘Stable summer snowpack’ my ass.” We shared a tense laugh and started flaking out the rope.

We pitched out the entire rest of the descent to treeline, variously rappelling, down-leading, and traversing one at a time from islands of safety across avalanche paths.  The hope was that if one of us was to get caught in an avalanche, the belay from the other would be secure enough to ensure we were both still attached to the mountain at the end of it.  Further, if there was a burial, it becomes a much simpler task to find a survivor when he or she is attached to the end of the rope.  The reality was such that if either of us was buried, descent to the victim would likely have otherwise been far too slow and risky to be of much use.  After four grueling hours of this and a least a half dozen more natural avalanches, we collapsed into a heap in the snow just inside treeline, dehydrated, hungry, and with nerves frayed.

On to Part 2...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Cathedral Traverse Beta

For the last post in my series while I'm in the Tetons, I’ve uploaded the .pdf that we used as the beta for our attempt of the Cathedral Traverse.  Some of this is my personal work, but much of it is an amalgamation of the work of others, and I’ll attempt to credit them here.  Specifically, Rolando Garibotti’s Grand Traverse beta on and Mark P. Thomas’ beta from his “Teton Grand Slam” were particularly useful.  Most of the other information was drawn from various pages on 

The below map is of my own devising stitched together from USGS quads.  Our intended route is approximated in blue, with retreat options in red.  The .pdf can be found here.

 When I return to North Carolina, I go into the field for about 2 solid weeks.  After that, I intend to make a complete trip report.