Overdue: Feather Peak’s North Couloir

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 6-16-10

I stirred to the sound of crows, light tumbling through my blinds, the fan drawing thin breaths of cool morning air into the bedroom. Knowing I wasn’t even remotely close to finishing my packing, I stretched and sat up on the edge of the bed, smiling with the thought that my friends were asleep in the living room and we were headed on a grand adventure. The guys roused around 0630, and after a few hours of banter, gear sorting, grumbling about pack size, and loading the truck, we blinked into the mid-morning sun and headed to Pine Creek.

Paul strained to look from the back seat of the TOF as we cruised up the canyon, the towering granite walls of Wheeler Ridge flying to the north, Mt. Tom’s crumbling north ridge diving to Pine and Gable Creek. Sun shifted between clouds of the moving storm system, unsettled air creating pockets of sky and puffs of breeze over the roar of the creek. I donned Paul’s boots, as my new ones had been sent back for the next size up, and we turned our stride towards the trail.

The shaded, deep green of spring greeted our senses as we leaned into heavy packs laden with ice tools, pickets, rope, and other gear. The cool of the passing storm had softened the earth of the trail, intensifying the emerald aspen leaves as they twitched and fluttered. The ground cover was new and bright, flowers opening dewed petals to what little light would break the trees. The clean smell of spring permeated the air, hints of sage and pine and soil as I worked on breathing deep under the load. I kept my stride long and even, my legs feeling strong and wanting to run. The trail switched back and forth up the grade, meeting the old mining road and climbing the southern face of the canyon. I stopped to rest on my favorite old stump just below the upper mines, waiting a few minutes for the guys to catch up. New snow on White Mountain was down to 9000ft, clouds hovering around the summit. We continued the tromp up, reaching the first Pine Creek Lake in just over 2 hours, crossing a few snow fields and the log bridge, almost consumed by the raging upper creek.

On the far side of the lake, just beyond my favorite 10K sign, we stretched out on the rocks for lunch in the wan sunshine. The trail was swamped and messy, deep and sucking mud lining each rim. At last above 10.5K or so, we reached consistent snow and Honeymoon Lake. I realized that the times I had been up this far, including my first solo winter overnight, I had never actually seen the trail, and it had always been under snow. In my wanderings that trip, I had traversed to the foot of Royce Pass, so I led out from Honeymoon up to Golden Lake. The snow was solid from the recent drop in temps, but allowed for solid footholds with boots alone. Wandering too close to rocks was the only challenge, as each of us, in turn, sank up to hips after breaking the crust. In the mid-afternoon we finally reached the Pass, and, after escaping the gaze of an angry pigeon, I turned to gawk at the grandeur of the frozen Royce Lakes Basin.

My eye was immediately drawn to the north buttress of Merriam Peak, its steep and smooth granite catching the direct beam of sun through the clouds. Royce Peak’s rubble-strewn face was covered with shifting waves of snow, a steep chute leading to the left and up to the summit. Ray’s and my objective, Feather Peak, stood the furthest west, it’s ridge of towers reflecting more light through the clouds. The lakes stood silent and frozen before us, a turquoise necklace ringing each. Wind whipped around the boulders as we set up camp, Ray hunkering down with his bag and tarp, Paul and I guying out his tube-tent as it cracked in the breeze. I ambled down to the lake’s edge to determine if we would be melting snow for the night, immediately cursing myself for leaving the camera back in camp. A flash against the thin ice, snow crystals whispering along the lake, and the pulsing light of late afternoon along the rocks awarded me a few moments of feeling impossibly small, deep within the heart of the mountains.

The three of us were able to dunk and drink directly from the lake, then headed back to camp to heat up the treat of the evening. Of course, what trip would be complete without a Moosie meal? Stew of ground turkey, spinach, portabella mushrooms, onions, garlic, and tomato bubbled in one pot, instant mashed potatoes in the other, while Ray boiled water for tea or hot chocolate and bottles to throw into warm sleeping bags. We laughed while huddled out of the wind under a huge boulder, occasionally quieting to look around and watch the fading light of day against the granite. Sunset touched both the pinions of Feather and the tip of Merriam, an inner fire of the rock glowing as the embers of day faded away in quiet.

I was startled awake by Paul, and sunrise, mainly because my watch had completely died overnight. Shadows of the peaks guarding the gates of Royce Pass settled beneath the early light’s fire on Merriam, Royce, and Feather. While Ray and I sorted our gear, Paul headed out to climb Royce and Merriam via their shared snowfield to the southeast. The snow was firm and crusted after another cold night, as we traversed towards the north couloir of Feather, gazing up to the Royce-Feather chute that we would be descending. Plenty steep, that one, filled rim to rim with snow and running all the way to the lake. I pulled out a bit ahead of Ray as we trudged onward, turning to frame him against the ridge to the east, the corniced snow above cresting like a great wave about to break. I switchered up the slope, French-stepping my way to the base of the north chute, and my jaw dropped at the line we were to take. Ray joined me shortly afterward, and we both gazed up, smiling with excitement. “Do you think we can solo up past that first set of rocks?” he asked. Feeling the solid crunch of snow under my boots and crampons, I took a deep breath and grinned.

As the slope steepened, I fell in behind Ray, claiming to have kicked enough steps for the trip already, but knowing that I was a little nervous about the exposure and that I have never attempted a self-arrest with an ice tool before. Ray and I had also talked about anchor building, and I described exactly what Rob had taught me last summer and fall. Pickets were a new concept, though, so Ray took a moment to drive one home, describing how to chisel out a path for the ‘biner and strap to avoid pistoning once the rope was clipped. The snow was perfect for front-pointing, and we both were able to drive almost half our boots in as we ascended, hands near the heads of our tools. A few hundred feet up, we finally roped up, Ray leading the climb up the 60 degree slope. After Ray put me on belay, and knowing how good the snow was, I played a bit with speed and flow, trying to move quickly up to the next station. The angle steepens again just below the top of the chute, our third pitch, but I called out to Ray that he was about out of rope. “Then we’ll simul-climb for a little bit. But I’m only moving about 10 steps at a time!” After breaking down the belay station, and hanging the pickets on my pack, I called up and we started moving towards the top. A few minutes later, I topped out to find Ray had built an anchor of a picket and ice tool and put me on belay for the final stretch. Excellent! A short slog in the scree later we gazed south and west from the notch, the sun warm, the winds calm.

Gemini, Seven Gables, the lowlands north of Selden Pass, Mt. Hilgard, Ritter, Banner, Gabb, Mills, Abbot, Dade, Bear Creek Spire, Morgan (S)… all spread before us, deep snows still outlining dark ridges, indentations of lakes speckled throughout the basins. We ate lunch in the sunshine before scrambling up the 50 feet of easy class 3 blocks to the summit ridge, walked along the snow to the blocks. I let out a great Moose call down towards Royce Pass, only to be answered by Paul as the echo bounced down the canyons. It was somewhere around 1400, and Ray and I had a long way to go to get off this great peak.

We followed the rocks down the south face, scrambling between boulders and watching for movement in the rocks. To our right, snow filled most of the chute, a few patches of dirt and rocky ledges stood bare but a bit shiny. We were trying to stay on rock as much as we could, our stiff mountaineering boots proving to not have the greatest traction on the slabs. Finally at an impasse, blocked by snow, we realized just how wet and icy the slabs were, that they were in places covered by only a few inches of snow with ice and running water underneath. Looking around, the rappel possibilities were limited: everything moved; horns were sloped; flakes were crumbling. We scouted and slapped, kicked and wrenched every possibility, rigged up one rock only to have me return to the station after descending about ten feet, and Ray saw the flex in the granite. With only one rope, we slowly, at times agonizingly, descended the chute, 6 raps in all, usually with about 50 feet of scrambling between areas, hoping we could avoid another rap. We would test the snow, only to find it falling apart and melted clean through to the slabby rock and ice beneath, and so we stuck with rock and raps. Ray set up anchors while I flaked the rope, tying knots in the ends to avoid flying off the end. Tosses were immediately caught up and tangled in the blocky chute, the snow was rotten from the effects of the sun. I would descend first, untangling the evil rope while postholing to my crotch in the huge sugar crystals. I was swimming downhill while on rappel, grunting as I dug each foot out from a deep tomb at the base of each slab. While we each had our moments of sheer frustration, we worked as a fluid team, moving as best we could in the trying conditions.

At long last, a whoop from me upon landing on a dirt spit between the rocks: I could see directly across to the Royce-Feather Col and there was an easy sand path winding through the rocks. After Ray reached me, we stowed the rope and started scrambling across, slogging up the sand for a hundred feet and reaching the snow once again. The snow pile ended in a steep drop-off, and had been in shadow for a few hours, yet I was still fearful of approaching the edge without Ray being there yet. The later afternoon sun was creeping ever westward as we donned crampons once again and we gazed down into the chute. The snow was firm but grabbing the ‘pons well, and we quickly discussed how to descend the steep chute. Perhaps 35-40 degrees, it would be a long down-climb, knowing it was close to 1000 feet down to the lake. I wasn’t as comfortable, once again, with the exposure, knowing it would be a fast trip down and into the center of the lake, the blue edges convincing me that the ice wasn’t necessarily all that strong. Ray rigged an anchor, handed me the pickets, and I was lowered down a rope length, setting pickets and the anchor, then belaying Ray as he down-climbed and cleaned. Darkness caught us mid-way through the second of three pitches, the only light sparkling from Ray’s and my headlamps. I looked up to watch Ray descend, the first star staring bright above the ridge. The mountains and rock faded into shadow, outlines of black against a sapphire sky filled with the diamonds of the universe.

And still we down-climbed. Three pitches had brought us to 400 feet above the lake, perhaps a bit more, but the angle lessened and we stuffed the rope into my pack, hung the pickets off my harness. I felt comfortable enough to turn and start to walk, traversing the slope beneath the wave of a cornice we had passed that morning, looking over my shoulder to see Ray still making his way slowly across. We both guzzled water from the lake’s outlet upon reaching the rocks, knowing we had less than a mile to go to get back to camp. Paul had placed his headlamp on the tallest boulder, and in strobe mode, it served as a homing beacon to which I responded like my usual beer-dar. My pace was faster than Ray’s, but I kept turning to ensure his light was still moving towards me, and I know the clang and clank of the pickets made me sound like a herd of high-altitude cattle moving across the slopes above the lake. Within 200 yards of camp, I must have found the warmest boulder still hidden under the snow, as the day gave me one final frustration as I sank to my hip once again. With an aggravated grunt and a great heave, I hauled myself up and beelined it for camp, Ray arriving just a few minutes later.

It was 2300, and all I wanted to do was get in bed. Worried thoughts pierced my addled and tired brain, as I knew I wouldn’t be showing for work in the morning, and that it was going to upset them. But it would be madness to pack out now, in the middle of a moonless night, Ray and I exhausted from the descent. I slapped myself, thinking of my decision to leave my SPOT device at home for once. But the point was moot, and I knew I was in for it the next day. The guys were in agreement to get rested before packing out, and we fell into bags warmed by Paul’s hot water bottles he had prepared. I started to shiver, probably chilled by the exertion of the day, sunburn on my face, and the relief of stress knowing we descended safely, although painfully slowly. Sleep did not come easily to me that night as I cuddled the bottle for warmth, sipping a bit to try and ease my body into relaxation.

The next morning, I hugged Ray good morning and we both smiled at each other. He paid me the highest compliment I could imagine: “You know, Laura, there are a lot of people who, in the same situation, would be dead right now.” We made solid decisions, maintained our focus, and kept moving. Leaving gear behind was no problem if it meant we were going to be safe. We knew the only thing we would have done differently that day would have been to descend the same chute we had climbed, sparing us the suffering of moving between rock and snow and ice. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner that day, his calm demeanor helping me stay true to the tasks at hand. The three of us moved out at last, heading down the slopes to Honeymoon Lake, finally picking up bits of the trail above Pine Creek Lake #2 and trying to avoid the slop in the warm day. By noon we had at last descended the switchbacked old road and the TOF waited patiently at the trailhead.

Ray and Paul had both noticed my anxiety as we had descended, an urgency to get back and report in. They didn’t quite understand until we passed my boss’ husband, Bob, driving up the Pine Creek Road, and telling us the posse had been called into action. “Who was that?” they asked me as we rolled eastward. “My boss’ husband,” I replied. Just then, my cell phone regained reception and literally jumped from the dash, beeping and whirring with the multiple voice mails and text messages. One look over to the guys and I knew they finally understood what was going on. Sara met us lower on the road, throwing her arms around me in relief after we pulled over. I was put on speaker-phone at work, the first call I made to let them know I was ok. We were home. We were safe. The word would spread.

You know, words don’t often fail me. In fact, I’m entirely too verbose for my own good, a trait inherited from my Pop, the master of the “long-story-short.” But how do you describe what happened on the outside while we slowly made our way home? I still can’t fully comprehend the frantic phone calls, the tears, the concern, the connections. And we had done everything right: left an itinerary, pulled a permit, instructed my work that if I hadn’t shown or called by 1000 to initiate the SAR. To answer Dale’s questions directly, I haven’t set any rules about my SPOT acting differently, so my friends wouldn’t necessarily know what to do, I suppose, except to initiate SAR. And that’s what I would hope they would do. I, for one, do not rely on my SPOT for all of my hikes; I’ve only had it for a year and I still don’t take it every weekend.

I really don’t know what to say here, except thank you to everyone. To Bob and Pat, my Bishop mom and dad and the best boss I could ask for. To Maryanne and Sandra and Sue at work, who made all the right calls to all the right people. To Jeff, my knight, for spending so much time on the phone with Pat and the sheriff and whomever else to get things started and headed in the right direction. To Stace, for following up as well and verifying that I was indeed up Pine Creek. To Michelle, my dear friend at SMI, who also directed the posse to Pine Creek and described the gear we had. To DougSr, my eastside dad, for having the Board in the first place. To Paulie, once an instructor, now a dear friend and climbing partner, for the beacon and the hot water bottles.

To RayRay: I haven’t got a long list of people with whom I’d want to epic. I’ll haul that gear and share that rope with you anytime. Because I know, with you, and together as a team, we’ll be coming home.

Thanks for all of the well wishes, prayers, and good juju from everyone. Believe me, I could feel it.

Photos from this weekend’s adventure are here.

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.



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