Joined: Tue Apr 14, 2009 9:31 am Posts: 268 Location: a vanagon somewhere in WA
this past december was a month so fraught with epicness that i'm still working on sorting photos and catching up on a backlog of worthy trip reports.
this installment closes out 2012 with an adventure that ties together good weather, a full moon, some automotive shenanigans, and a few sleep deprivation induced hallucinations. oh yeah there was some couloir riding, too.
back in october, scott asked me what lines i was hoping to ride this winter. i was still transitioning out of rock climbing season and hadn't thought about a tick list much, so i responded with the first thing that came to mind, the couloir that has fascinated me since i first tacked the scurlock photo on the garage wall over my workbench.
the black hole.
i had regarded it primarily as a late season objective, so when scott and i were discussing the best way to capitalize on the full moon, i was surprised and stoked when he brought up the idea of a moonlight trip up the napeequa river valley. i'd been riding pretty hard for the last few weeks and, despite the early season, felt i was mentally and physically prepared for a big mission, so i quickly agreed.
the plan was to meet at scott's house after dinner. a few of his other friends would be joining us there, where we could carpool to the trailhead and sleep for a few hours before starting the approach. i arrived around 9pm, full of exuberance at the thought of ending the year with a big mission so rare for the middle of winter. as the rest of the group arrived, the energy and excitement multiplied, and soon we all agreed to leave the sleeping bags at scott's. we'd hit the trail as soon as we arrived.
we all piled into my newly acquired syncro vanagon for the trip over steven's pass. it wasn't the first tour with my "new" van, but it was certainly the most people and gear that she'd ever carried through the mountains. scott began relating humorous anecdotes from black hole missions past. i was talking to the back seat, trying to get to know the 3 excited strangers that would be the basis for the next round of stories. my typical diligence in monitoring the instrument panel slipped.
shit, what was that, felt like a misfire. this engine hasn't done that before. quick look and the temperature gauge is pegged. overheating doesn't usually cause ignition problems, what's going on? dammit, 3 miles to the top of the pass, we can make it! slow down a little..... damn there she goes again.... slow down a little more. scott put up his window to ask what was going on and that's when i felt it--the defroster was blowing cold air. fuck.
knowing that could only mean that we'd lost a bunch of coolant, i pulled over immediately. steam filled the air as i opened the engine bay. it was not yet midnight. i was already wondering if we'd have time to get towed back for a different vehicle as i peered in with my headlamp. but wait, what's this... a bleeder hose, split right near the end, with just enough slack to cut out the damaged part!
i was a little worried about steam burns, so i borrowed a pair of leather gloves and donned my goggles as i carried out the repair with my leatherman. my new friends were forthcoming with their water supplies and we quickly filled the cooling system back up with only one trip over the snowbank to refill bottles in the ditch. i couldn't believe our luck. the damaged hose had been leaking right onto the airflow meter, and once it dried out the engine started to run normally again. i felt like i held my breath all the way to the trailhead. but soon we were parked and scott passed around a bottle to calm my nerves. the real test is still ahead.
we set out at a slow, determined pace near 1am. i can't speak for the younger members of our group but part of my mind wondered if i still had it in me to forgo an entire night of sleep and still be prepared for the next day's challenges. but soon the moon rose, and the beauty and novelty of skinning by moonlight temporarily overwhelmed my doubts.
my resolve started to flag in the hour before sunrise. i felt like i'd already put in a full day of touring, and the day hadn't even started yet. but as we neared the base of the line, the sun began to paint some color into the monochromatic valley, and with its warmth i felt my energy return. a bit of coffee and breakfast and it was time to put skis on packs and begin the climb. after the horror stories i'd heard of the lower section, the snow seemed surprisingly good.
weary smiles were replaced with excited grins as the steep, narrow upper section came into view. this is what we skinned all night for!
the snow got deeper as we climbed, but repeated hand pits indicated it was stable and well bonded.
again i marveled at our luck--the snow was deep yet bootable, dry but not slabby, and (to our surprise) untracked!
as the sun filled the valley, i felt grateful for the northerly aspect of our line. our snow stayed pleasant and cool as we enjoyed the sunny alpine vista framed by the walls of the couloir.
i'll admit... i like booting. there's satisfaction in the vertical gain of each step. the rhythm--breathe, kick, stand, rest--allows a sort of meditative detachment in which time and fatigue become secondary to the beat of the climb.
earlier in the approach, i was relieved to let scott do most of the leading as we wound our way through the trail-less, dark forest. i get anxious knowing that 4 others are following me every time i waste 30 seconds going the wrong way around a clump of trees or gain a few feet unnecessarily in search of easier ground.
but now i felt like i had a chance to do my share. breathe, kick, stand, rest... i lost myself in the satisfying monotony. as we grew closer to the top, the pitch increased along with the snow depth, until i was digging out space for my body before each step. i paused so that the group could assemble for the final push.
as with many couloirs, the crux was getting to the top. fortunately there was a small alcove on the right where the group could wait as one person at a time proceeded through the final steep, rocky choke. we'd climbed about 4,500 feet in the previous five hours, but those last 50 feet still felt like an eternity. hollow spots in the snowpack near buried rocks kept swallowing up my legs, forcing me to change course as i struggled upwards. i stumbled to the top and quickly dug out my camera to get a picture of the next weary climber.
after 12.5 hours of effort, we had reached our destination. we were all pretty stoked to be on top at last, but between catching our respective breath or taking in the view, things were pretty quiet as we transitioned.
and then it was time to figure out the slightly tricky entrance. we debated dropping in to some exposed spines to skiers left of the couloir...
the direct entrance was more straightforward, but a little narrow for the skiers.
in the end, most of us opted to do battle with the rock pinch.
but andrew opted for the spines. good thing he was the only one, because there wasn't much snow left by the time he traversed over to join us.
there wasn't a safe stopping point anywhere in the narrow upper reaches of the couloir, so i waited until it widened a bit to get my camera out. (and it finally occurred to me to create a custom "black hole white balance" setting to get some halfway normal looking colors).
the conditions ranged from good to great.
it's an amusing dichotomy that the same long approach that had filled my mind with excitement to ride the entire line without stopping had also rendered my legs unable to do so. but at least the fatigue forced me to stop and take a few photos.
i'd been tinkering with my hardboot setup since the spring, and after some fitment work on the boot shells i was starting to get over the lingering fear that those first few excruciating days had instilled in me. this was the first time i'd used my new gear for its intended purpose--big, long days--and so far the system had performed beautifully.
andrew eckles filmed and edited a really cool video of our trip.
crank up the sound, it's a cool song, too!
we found ourselves at the base of the line at 3pm, too tired to go after any of the gullies or pillows that surrounded us, so we transitioned over and started the exit. we made quick time with the last of the daylight, and with only one stop for coffee, did the skin out in a mere 4 hours, bringing the total tour time to a non-record setting 18.5 hours.
much thanks to scott for leading the way on the midnight approach and helping me realize one of my season goals before 2012 had even ended. to the rest of my partners for this trip--it was cool meeting you guys, and everyone gets credit for dealing exceptionally well with the stress of broken ski poles, missing headlamps and crampons, skin descents on splitboards, and of course the vagaries of my temperamental project vehicle. 2012 was great, this year will be even better!