jakedouglas Posted March 11, 2015 Share Posted March 11, 2015 Trip: Colchuck Peak - North Buttress Couloir, unplanned bivy Date: 3/7/2015 Trip Report: On Friday afternoon I left the gate at 12:30pm to meet GerritD at the lake to try the NBC the following morning. I hit the lake at 3:30pm and found Gerrit resting in his tent, having just returned from a day of climbing by himself around the lower north buttress area. We ate dinner and waited up for another CCer who was supposed to meet us. Around 9pm he still hadn't showed so we headed to bed. We woke at 4am and had a fairly slow start that included chipping ice off of the toilet until the lid would open. Approach conditions were slow, with frustrating post holing through deep soft snow. We took a break to put on our gear and were climbing up the couloir at around 8am. Getting ready at the bottom of the couloir. The first short ice step is visible at the choke. We climbed the first ~250 feet unroped including a short ice step. We arrived at 2 more steps, the top of which looked steeper, so we pulled out the rope and I led a short belayed pitch. I was glad to have the rope on the steeper top step as it mostly crusty snow that did not feel very secure. Things looked easier from here and Gerrit led off with the agreement that we would simulclimb after he got a piece or two in. Gerrit following the steps Easier terrain above Unfortunately we got too attached to mental comfort of the rope and protection even though the climbing was easy and mostly secure. We kept building anchors to rerack and avoid getting low on gear, causing our simul blocks to come up short, maybe 2 ropelengths at a time. The snow was deep, slowing us down even more. We had counted on following the boot pack of a party from the previous day for increased efficiency, but it had long since filled in with spindrift and was no better than breaking our own trail. We finally hit the top of the couloir at 2pm. We had discussed the feasibility of bailing and agreed that it would be very time consuming by this point with only one 60m rope and myself having less than ideal confidence to downclimb at a decent pace. We had 700 vertical feet to go which seemed very reasonable with 4-5 hours of daylight left, and we were still feeling fine, so we rounded the corner out onto the NW face. Looking back down from the top of the NBC. Rounding the corner onto the face The face turned out to be quite a bit different than the couloir though and a lot more involved than the vertical gain led us to believe. Exposed, more sugary snow, often scraping on rock underneath, and lots of traversing. There must have been as much traversing as there was vertical gain and this threw off our time estimate substantially. We got nervous and started pitching it out, reasoning that as long as we stayed safe we would certainly get up and over by nightfall and could walk down in the dark. The terrain was more complicated than the couloir and we were glad to have the old boot tracks to follow. I had read that we should continue trending right and the tracks agreed. The exposed NW face The sun started going down. Gerrit has more alpine climbing experience and I had been forfeiting some of my food and water to keep him fueled and leading as quickly as possible. His headlamp had died on the approach and now we pulled out the spare battery to find that it looked exactly the same but was a few millimeters too short - the wrong battery. I gave him my headlamp and would follow the last 2 pitches in the dark, building a mental model of how to break down the anchor before he led out each time. We finally arrived at the base of what had to be the summit block around 8pm, feeling pretty fried. The boot tracks ended at a point where the rock was ledgy but also kind of steep and exposed and it wasn't clear whether there were any protection opportunities. I would have walked right up it had I been wearing even running shoes and had some energy, but mantling in crampons in our depleted state seemed like a bad idea at the time. From researching the route I was pretty sure that there was an easier way but we couldn't tell what was what by headlamp. We resolved to take a break and collect ourselves. The break turned into a bivy as we lost the confidence to continue in the dark. The moon had been very bright the night before so we hoped that it would soon rise and illuminate the way. We put on all of our clothes, sat on our packs, took off crampons and put our feet on the rope. I had an ultralight emergency bivy sack that I've thought was stupid every time I've thrown it in my pack in the last 3 years but I was glad to have it now. We couldn't pull it up past our hips but we could fit both of our legs into it and this helped to break the slight breeze and share some heat. We quickly tore it by punching a boot out of the bottom, reducing its effectiveness. We had brought the stove and one small fuel canister but quickly found out that there wasn't much left in it. We managed to make about one liter before it started to sputter and we decided to save the rest for later. Gerrit had a warmer parka so I got to keep the warm bottle in my jacket. For the first couple of hours I actually managed to sleep for periods of a few minutes at a time and it wasn't too bad. The last time we had eaten was around 5pm though and our only remaining food was one Snickers bar that we wanted to save for our push out of there. Without any calories coming in, we started to get cold in a bad way. My boots and socks were soaked and so were his gloves. Every time a breeze picked up we were reduced to convulsions. We took turns doing 10 minute sessions of squats before getting back into the bivy sack. This would generate a miniscule amount of heat that would always dissipate faster than it took to create. We used the last of our fuel to rewarm the last of our water and I stuffed the bottle back down my shirt after some sips. Then we got "close". Getting cozy Early on Gerrit had brought up using the emergency locator beacon that I always carry climbing and skiing. I was strongly opposed to the idea on the grounds that we had not exhausted our options. The beacon is clearly for use in situations of "grave and imminent danger" and as shitty and serious as our situation was, it did not yet fit the criteria in my eyes. Could we really have climbed 99% of the route but not be able to get up the last short pitch and descend? The moon came up but never shined enough on our aspect to show us the way, so we kept on waiting for sunrise. Mt. Stuart was lit up in the moonlight and looked like the most inhospitable place on earth. I thought of the nature of the climbing over there and how I would probably never be worthy enough to consider it. Did I even want to? I had just gotten stuck pushing my limit on a route that is a steep ski for many people. Gerrit continued to bring up the beacon. I talked about how we would have to leave all of our gear on the mountain, how everyone at home would be worried, how it could potentially divert rescue resources away from a more serious emergency. He said we were too fucked up to keep climbing safely. What if the leader climbed themselves off route and couldn't downclimb? What if one of us slipped and broke an ankle? What if it got colder? Could we afford to wait until the sun came up? Couldn't we just be digging ourselves into a worse situation? Doubts had grown in my head as the night went on. The cold was messing with me and I started to wonder how cold a person can get before they can't come back easily. I had never been this cold before and the things we had been doing all night to stay warm weren't working anymore. Earlier I had been sure that I had more in the tank to get us out of there but now I was questioning myself. I still felt like we had an obligation to try. Eventually Gerrit insisted that he would be unable to descend safely under his own power even if I could take us up to the summit. I told him that we should split the Snickers bar and he should reconsider after having some food. He stuck to his opinion and around 4:30am I handed him the beacon and said that he would have to do it himself. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I felt terrible about the call my wife was about to get. We speculated about what would happen and how long it would take to sort out the aftermath. I closed my eyes and tried to forget where I was. At around 7am I was too cold to sit any longer and it was getting light. I got up and walked over to where the old boot tracks had stopped at the base of the rock but still found it unappealing like the night before. On the other side of our bivy site was a short snow ramp and some easy looking ledges and in the morning light it looked like they had to lead to the top. I got all of my stuff back on, went on belay, and scrambled some of the easiest 30 feet of the whole route to the summit and into the morning sun. I brought Gerrit up and we started our descent. Gerrit scrambling to the summit As we walked across the summit plateau the helicopter arrived for the first time. We weren't sure what to do. Wave like "hi"? Wave like "go away"? Thumbs up? We did some of each and they seemed to pause near us but did not communicate back. They flew off towards Dragontail which confused us, but we just kept descending. My brain was now boiling in the sun on a southern aspect and I was messed up enough that I didn't trust myself to downclimb the steepest parts of the snow off of the plateau, so I did 2 rappels on the way to Colchuck col. We passed several parties on their way up that were very generous with food and water that we needed badly. Thank you! The helicopter continued to fly back and forth out of sight as we walked down the glacier. Eventually they started circling us and made contact with hand signals. They landed on the lake and we confirmed that we were the group in question and that we were fine. I later learned that the beacon had been reporting locations all over the Stuart range and the closest one to our location was near Witches Tower, probably over a mile away. My understanding is that the sheriff probably located our bivy site and us only because they made contact with my wife who I had told our intended route. I used GPS on my phone to look at a topo while we were at the bivy site and it had no trouble, so I imagine that the beacon must have been defective. I intend to follow up with the sherrif and beacon manufacturer about this issue. Notably there was no cell phone service with either ATT or Verizon on on the summit of Colchuck. A couple days later I think I still have more questions than answers about the experience. I consider myself to be very conservative about what I get myself into, almost to a fault. I had been researching the route on and off for over a year and thought that it would be a good challenge for us without being risky. Did I wildly misjudge the appropriateness of the route for our skill level or did we just make one too many mistakes that added up to a big mess? None of the climbing was difficult. When should we have bailed? Our pace was slow, but groups top out in the evening all the time. After all, it was only a few hours difference between a long day and an overnight epic. How would we have figured out beforehand that the face would take so long? Should we have pressed on in the night? When your head is in a bad place, how do you know whether having found yourself up shit creek is part of the experience that you came here for or if things have really gotten out of hand and you need help? I do have some thoughts on emergency equipment and the survivability of different conditions. We had the most mild weather that a person could ask for with minimal wind and temps probably in the low to mid 30s. But with tired bodies, no food, and wet clothes, I feel like we were walking a thin line. If conditions had deteriorated much at all, the situation could have been grave. Luckily I kept putting back on my wet gloves all day while climbing and preserved a dry pair for the bivy. We used basically every item in our packs and it was barely enough. We talked at length during the night about things that would have made it infinitely better and we would have paid a million bucks for in the moment: a short sleeping pad to sit on, a bigger belay jacket, puffy pants, a more substantial bivy sack that could provide full coverage and fit 2 people, more fuel, more food, a change of socks, a tarp, etc. I'll definitely be adding or upgrading an item or two in my pack and adjusting the way that I pick clothing appropriate for the weather forecast to have a larger margin of safety. This was somewhat embarrassing for me to write and post but I hope that myself and others might learn something from it. Climbing is more popular than ever especially at the novice level and I find it hard to imagine that situations like these do not occur with some regularity, but they are rarely written about here. Gear Notes: 10 cams to #2, 1 set of nuts, 1 picket, 3 pins. Should have brought all double length runners. Approach Notes: Icy trail, post holing beyond the lake. Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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