Monday, July 25, 2011

The Black Ice Couloir, GTNP

I have four days off this month so in an effort to maintain my sanity, I made another sleep deprived mad dash to the Tetons.  I was teaming up with locals, Nate Brown and Brian Harder, for the Black Ice Couloir and then anything else for which we had time and energy.  

Eating lunch prior to making the drive to Jackson, my fortune read as pictured to the left.  While not necessarily "bold", the BI goes at the modest grade of IV, AI 3-4, 5.7.  However, I think most will agree that it is more serious than the rating given the lengthy traverse/route finding to the base and the significant objective hazard.

The word the last few years is that the Black is back after a warm spell in which the ancient glacial ice melted, leaving a chossy gun barrel.  So, with that in mind, Nate called up the ranger station to inquire about recent conditions and was told it was "out".  On further questioning, the ranger replied it was "sloppy" and generally best avoided all together.  Luckily, NB and BH know a lot of people up there and got the real story.  

After some debate, we decided to meet at the trailhead at midnight rather than haul the bivy gear up to the saddle to spend the night with the rest of the herd headed to the GT.  I planned on sleeping a couple hours but laid in my car listening to thunder and rain percuss the roof.  At a quarter till, BH called wondering what the hell the weather was doing.  Then NB rolled in and laughed it off.  That's one reason I like threesomes in the mountains - someone is always willing, and it's harder to talk two out of an objective.  

Walking in running shoes to the meadows, we made good time before donning the big boots and crampons for the slog up to the lower saddle.  Well under 3 hours after leaving the cars, we stashed our extra gear (shoes, poles) and began probing for the Valhalla Traverse in the dark.  The boys had done it before and we more or less found our way without mishap or detour.  
BH negotiating hard snow on the Valhalla Traverse
Erroneously, I had imagined the traverse to be a stone throw from the saddle.  Well over an hour later after crossing the third or fourth gully/ridge system, I better understood it's reputation.  As the day dawned clear, the ominous foreboding gave way to awe as I looked at my favorite peaks from a new vantage.  

Contemplating an airy step in crampons over a couple thousand feet of exposure on the Valhalla.

BH (red jacket) traversing under the Enclosure Couloir after waiting to take pictures of us getting established under the Black Ice Couloir.

The route via the VT begins after crossing under the Enclosure Couloir.  First a small snow/ice field is crossed to reach a 200 foot 5.7 rock pitch.  We were planning on soloing as much of the route as we deemed acceptable to mitigate the time exposed to rock fall, but I was relieved when Nate agreed to pull out the ropes.  We brought two 100 foot pieces of 8 mm half rope which served to part belay, part simul climb this casual (in hindsight) rock step. 

BH in red and NB in black

The pitch begins at the top of the left/middle snow field.  

And then we turned the corner and found beautiful alpine ice, weaving its way through that huge NW face.  
The boys getting started.
As pictured, we were all rocking tights, which are the only way to move in the mountains and make all butt shots that much better.  

It was unanimous that we group solo the route, particularly after getting strafed by a golf ball at the top of the rock pitch.  From there on I was wide eyed and full of respect for our position.  The argument can be made for roped pitches since getting hit might only maim instead of kill, but to us, the stronger argument was to get the hell out of there as fast as we could, which meant soloing.  
NB rapping Eminem in the BI.  "Shady...will ----- kill you..."

AD and NB probably starting to wonder if our calves are ever going to get a break. (photo by BH)
 Here are a few candid photos that catch the respect for potential rock fall in our eyes...

Photo by BH

Photo by NB
And a bunch more to display the fun nature of the icy ribbons and mixed sections...

BH butt shot.  Delicious.

This part was super fun with the rock providing decent rests and more interesting climbing. (photo by NB)

Photo by NB

Next series by Nate Brown

Then Nate shot a sequence of me and Brian almost completely in sync.  By this point, I was reeling from lack of sleep and trying to keep up with these guys, who on rocky mixed terrain are superb athletes.   In fact, now is probably a good time to mention that BH is older than dirt but still FLYS!  He has found the fountain of youth in those hills and now runs about punishing all comers. 

With the couloir narrowing and the crux impending, we decided to climb one at a time.  Brian leapt ahead while Nate and I found a relatively flat island of safety.  We heard a couple grunts from above and I peered out into the line of fire to see BH stemming up the crux to pull the chockstone.  That was enough to opt for the mental crutch of the half rope again.  Nate was kind enough to grant me the lead, telling me to get some gear in early since his anchor was "unreliable".  A garbage cam and a rusty piton were all I found until just before the crux where I actually wanted something.  Arms and calves protesting, I scratched my way awkwardly around the bulge and joined Brian at a small stance and brought Nate up.  

By this point, I was imploding...again.  Last time, it was also the combination of a lack of sleep and Brian Harder.  Today, the mental strain of knowing climbers were mucking about on the Owen Spalding unwittingly firing shots our way, only exacerbated my fatigued state.  The other guys were upbeat, singing, rapping, and dancing their way up the ice.   Moving more slowly, I was the last to top out.

Just above the crux of the BI.
Stumbling onto the upper saddle, I let out a whoop of relief and joy.  The guys were smiling and my mood went from desperate to relaxed in a heart beat.  I shed my pack, ate some gel and marveled at the wild arena where we had spent the morning.  I'm not sure how long we were climbing, BH would know better, but looking back it feels ephemeral.  

Leaving our packs and gear strewn about, we took a stroll up the Owen Spalding, my first time on that route, and tagged the summit.  Basking in the sun like lazy lizards, I wanted to take a nap.  Nate or Brian, I'm not sure now, urged me up and down to the packs.  I think the other guys would have liked to enchain some other classic lines but I was wasted.  Plus, my day wouldn't be done until back in SLC. 
GT summit!  This is a funny pic b/c Nate looks like a little kid. 
Nate down climbing the OS on the GT
A few hours later, we were sitting amongst the tourists at Dornan's, happy not to be choking on gels anymore.  Then came another epic drive back to SLC and some long awaited sleep, which for a couple days had been traded for another grand adventure.  I'll trade a transient dream for the real thing any day.

Gear list:

La Sportiva Baturas
Petzl Darts
Running tights with Crazy Idea over tights
BD Couloir Harness
BD uncomfortable heavy pack
Camp Speed Helmet
Grivel Quantum Tech Ice Tools
BD Spinner Leash
Edelweiss 8.2mm Half Ropes 2x30m
Various slings and a few cams/nuts/pins/unused screws


  1. I think 3 words summarize your adventure: amazing, crazy, and beautiful.

    Amazing= what you did and how you did it.
    Crazy= what you did and how you did it.
    Beautiful= BH in tights!!

  2. Dude nice work! Looks like fun, I finally got out on something worth writing about too!

  3. Hello, very nice route. A question: Is the Quantum Tech in order to place pitons Ok, or better the Matrix with Aluminium shaft???

    I doubt which of them to buy to alps routes.


  4. Hey Joseillo,

    I find the Quantum Tech adequate to hammer in a piton but the carbon shaft requires a little more precision since you don't want to destroy it with ill placed swings. Also, the surface area of the hammer is a bit on the small side making accuracy important. But...the weight savings and smooth swing are worth it in my opinion. I have friends with the Matrix or the aluminum Quantum and they love them both. I really don't think you can go wrong.


  5. Thank you for your answer SLC, so finally, I have just bought Quantum Tech and Quantum Race too, in order to climb difficult waterfalls ice. ¿What is your opinion about Quark compared with Quantum? Is possible to introduce my mail in your list so that I receive your blog entries?