The Spindrift Couloir
Scrappin’ it up after classes in the Washington Cascades by Bart Paull
It was my idea, mainly. My friend Doug Littauer was game for anything. The weather had been good: clear and cold. It was the kind of weather winter alpinists dream about.…
The bell rang, and I walked out of Spanish class. As usual, I met Doug in the cafeteria. It was March 1, 1996—a Friday. As other high schoolers talked about their weekend plans, Doug and I sat plotting our next climb. I produced the green Cascade Alpine Guide, or “Beckey’s Bible,” and turned to the marked page. Doug’s eyes lit up. “Looks good,” he said. Together, we concluded that the rain of the previous week, followed by a period of cold weather, would bring the face into good nick. “I’ll be around,” Doug commented as the bell rang. We then scrambled back to class. For the rest of the day, there was but one thing on my mind: the 4,000-foot north face of Big Four Mountain.
Big Four received its first winter ascent in February, 1963. The first winter ascent of the north face came 11 years later, when Rich Carlstad and Cal Folsom climbed a prominent gully immediately to the left of the north rib. Since then, the face has seen few winter visitors. In December, 1988, Robert Cordery-Cotter soloed a route on the north face that he called Lust at First Sight Couloir. Once on top, Cordery-Cotter was hit by a vicious “Patagonian-like” storm. He narrowly missed being swept away by numerous avalanches on the descent, and luckily survived a long fall when a rappel anchor failed. Cordery-Cotter’s story was on my mind as I finished up my classes.
After school, I ran home and racked up. I threw four cams, four pins, seven nuts, four ice screws, and two flukes onto the rack, along with 10 free ‘biners and several quickdraws. I stuffed these, along with my bivy gear, stove, and food into my pack. I figured five Powerbars would be enough for the climb itself; dinner and breakfast would be frugal affairs. I got my tools strapped to my pack just as the doorbell rang. Another weekend had begun.
I first met Doug that fall, and together we climbed rock and ice for several months. Almost every weekend we tackled a new project. Doug was new to the alpine and ice games, but learned rapidly, following WI 5 on his first day out. He was a solid climber, and gung-ho for anything. I had been climbing ice for a few years, had done a few El Cap routes, and was the more experienced member of the team. I was too young to have a driver’s license, so Doug’s car made the partnership even more attractive.…
We talked little as we drove the one-and-a-half hours to the end of the plowed section of the Mountain Loop Highway. I was experiencing strange yet familiar feelings of anxiety and elation one gets before a big climb. On one hand I was scared, on the other, excited. Strange stuff, this climbing.
At 4 p.m. we turned off the car. We had to walk about a mile to the start of the Big Four Ice Caves trail, which, in turn, would take us to the base of the face. Skiers had used the road, so the snow was hard and the walking easy. Then we saw the face for the first time.
“It didn’t look that big in the photo,” Doug said. I had similar thoughts.
The face looked rather dangerous, and was highlighted in evening alpenglow. From here, we could tell it was composed of three main sections: the initial slabs, the north face bowl, and the north face headwall. My eyes were drawn to a thin couloir slicing a bold line through shale bands several gullies to the right of the north rib. We also took note of a good-looking alternative, the 1974 Carlstad/Folsom route. After a period of oohing and aahing, we hiked the remaining half mile or so to the base of the face.
We set up a bivy near a cluster of small trees and cooked up some noodles. All the while I examined our possibilities. A large amount of avalanche debris lay at the base of the Carlstad/Folsom route, so we vetoed that option pretty quickly. A ribbon of ice had formed on the initial slabs of the face. I knew such a feature would offer excellent climbing. I thought we could climb the ribbon and connect it with the couloir. That became the plan.
We finished dinner, and Doug quickly fell asleep. On the other end of the spectrum, I lay awake much of the night listening to rockfall and avalanches. At some point I decided that we would leave all our bivy gear at the base, and make a rapid push up and down the face. To descend, I figured we could down climb the northwest ridge to a treed col, and then rap to the north face bowl. From there, moderate down climbing on snow would lead to the right edge of the initial slabs. Several more rappels would land us back at the base. I knew the climb and descent would be lengthy, but I was sure we could do it in a day. All we needed was speed.…
The alarm rang. Five a.m. After a quick bite, we packed up. The stove, food, and bivy gear would remain at the base. We both had lamps, and I had a garbage bag in my pack just in case things got a little hairball. The weather was perfect. We trudged though wind crust to the base of the ice ribbon. The ice was between one half to one inch thick and three feet wide, and it was quite apparent that no worthwhile protection or belays could be found on it. It still looked climbable. I asked Doug if he were willing to solo. He responded in the affirmative. We snapped on our crampons, tightened our wrist loops, and started. The time was 6 a.m.
At first, the angle was about 65 degrees. For the first 160 feet or so, the ice was well attached and plastic. Then it thinned out. Luckily, a few edges appeared. A few 5.8 mixed moves reached another tongue of ice on the slab. The tongue was about four inches thick, and the angle steepened to 85 degrees for about 15 feet. After the short, near-vertical step, another 160 feet or so of thin, 65-degree ice lead us to the north face bowl.
Upon arriving at the bowl, we grabbed a drink and started trudging up the low angle (20°) snow to the steeper slopes which lead to the headwall and the enchanting couloir. The snow in the bowl varied from névé to windcrust over powder. Step, step, plunge. We climbed at an erratic rate, heading for the base of the couloir.
We eventually reached the 35-degree slopes that form the avalanche fan at the couloir’s base. Here, perfect styrofoam allowed rapid progress. We scrambled up on our frontpoints, and soon found ourselves at the beginning of the couloir. The time was about 8 a.m. We took a brief rest, and, seeing no reason to rope up, began to solo once again. We climbed a combination of névé and water ice for two pitches. The angle was about 75 degrees. Protection could have been obtained here, but soloing was required if we wanted to complete the whole enchilada before dark. At one point the couloir narrowed down to about three feet, and fat, blue ice sat in the back. So good! The trees at the base of the face were starting to get small, and the exposure began to envelope us.
After about 300 feet of climbing, we emerged on top of the first step. About 300 feet above lay the second step, a feature composed of rotten shale, snow mushrooms, and funky ice. Doug and I quickly frontpointed up, and had a short conversation.
“Should we rope up?” Doug asked.
“Uh, pro looks jingus,” I responded. Doug nodded. I started up solo.
The first 20 feet were quite cool: 75 degrees, perfect ice. Then it got weird. The wall reared above me, and the ice became thin to nonexistent. All I had was powder snow and shale. I carefully cleaned each placement, tested it, then moved slowly. The climbing was mostly “snow-trolling”—sliding my picks through the powder until they caught. One hundred twenty feet of this 5.8 WI 5 mixed section led to thicker ice and the angle relented to 60 degrees. I scraped around for a belay, but there was only loose shale and powder. The ice would hold picks, but was too shallow for pro. I yelled down to Doug. “Shit,” he mumbled. Then he soloed the step in controlled style.
After a while, Doug pulled onto the lower angled terrain. Four hundred feet above us lay the third step. It looked similar to what we had just climbed, only steeper.
“We’re roping up for that,” Doug stated. I heartily agreed.
As we climbed up to the Third Step, spindrift began to slip past us. The slides were little, but they still gave us a sense that the mountain was alive, that it was watching us. A half hour after leaving the top of the second step, we had a so-so belay at the base of the third. It consisted of a crummy fluke and a screw that went in effortlessly. Doug dug in. It was time. The climbing above looked serious. I took my time, breathing deeply and trying to relax. The first 20 feet were at an angle of 80 degrees. Here, rotten ice held picks but was too shallow to accept pro. I managed to find a seam in the shale, and whacked in a blade. Then I tied it off. For having my feet on shale edges and my picks in rotten ice, I felt surprisingly calm. Retreat at that point would have been involved, if not impossible. In my mind, there was no hesitation. It was either climb or bivy until spring.
I moved up, and the wall steepened to 90 degrees. “Ice-like” snow plastered the wall, and I put in a pathetic screw. Time seemed to slow down as I moved slowly up, drytooling here, getting a stick in the weird snow there. Fifteen feet below the top the wall steepened, and the ice stopped holding picks. I mostly drytooled on the 95-degree shale, but occasionally I got a stick in the ce.” Right before the top, I reached an impasse. The ice wouldn't hold picks, and the edges had run out. I could see what looked like névé about two feet above. I looked down, and then looked up. I had no choice. I loosened my right tool, moved my feet up, and lunged. With the help of adrenaline, my right tool entered the névé with a solid “thunk.” I re-established, and climbed to the top. It took a while for my heart to slow down!
I climbed 30 feet above the step on 60-degree névé and found a good spot for a belay. Two ice screws later, Doug started. He followed the pitch without falling, and when he pulled over the top his arms were full of lactic acid. The time was 1 p.m.
Now all that separated us from the top was 1,000 feet of mostly névé and ice. I led off the belay, making quick progress on the solid medium. Our position was outrageous! We were way up on the face, the view was great, and the trees below looked like toothpicks. Doug and I were both slowing down, however. We had consumed little water and only one Powerbar each since 5 a.m. Even though we were hungry and fatigued, we made good time. We simul-climbed up, and every so often I placed a screw.
About 500 feet below the top, the snow changed. It became unconsolidated and insecure. We moved up slowly, carefully sculpting each step with our boots. The slope was steep, and I feel this was the scariest part of the route. We had no pro, and it felt like the whole slope was quivering. We were really exposed, and this added much to our fear. Right before the top, we climbed a short mixed section. I got an OK screw for pro. Above me were the summit cornices.
The cornices overhung the face about six feet. I chose the route of least resistance. Using my adze, I cut a tunnel through the wave of snow. Kick, kick, wait for the snow to consolidate, carefully move up. I did this for a while! Eventually, I got a good stick in the snow above the cornices. I scummed a knee on top and pulled. Then I stood up in the warm sunlight.
Right in front of me was a big boulder with a perfect placement for a #1 Camalot. I shoved in the cam and put Doug on belay. Ten minutes later Doug emerged on the summit ridge. The time was 3:10 p.m. Doug asked if I wanted to traverse the ridge to the highest summit. I looked along the ridge, and all I saw was cornices and shale. I also noticed storm clouds on the horizon. I recalled the forecast: Saturday: sunny; Sunday: sunny; Monday: rain, with snow in the mountains. The storm was early. “I’ve had enough weirdness for one day,” I said. Doug understood.
We began descending the south side of the northwest ridge on moderate terrain. We plunged- stepped soft snow, and our crampons balled up. Whack, whack. We made a few short rappels off trees, and at about 5 p.m. arrived at the treed col.
From here, we made numerous rappels off trees and shrubs. At dusk I rapped down over an overhang and found a tree for the next anchor. I tested the ropes and they did not budge. I called up to Doug. Then the ropes started shaking. “Shit,” I thought. ‘Doug’s coming down and the ropes are stuck.” When Doug arrived, I tried to pull the ropes again. No go. We both pulled with all our might.
and the rope moved an inch. We didn’t feel like prusiking, and I had a better idea. It was now totally dark, so we got our lamps out before preceding. I clipped into the tree with a few slings, and tied a Bachmann knot on one of the ropes. I attached my daisy to the Bachmann knot, and applied full body weight. Doug did the same thing. We both bounced, and the rope started to move. We pulled, then moved up. We repeated this for what seemed to be a thousand times. Finally, the ropes pulled and 1 went crashing into Doug. As Doug hung shivering, I set up the next rappel and sped off into the darkness. That rappel placed us back into the north face bowl.
We plunge-stepped down, heading to the left of the slabs. We had run out of water several hours earlier, and were interested in liquid refreshment. Doug located a drip and we drank and drank and drank. We made a few more rappels off bushes and bollards, and at 11 p.m. stepped onto level ground.
Doug and I shook hands, shouted, and released our tension. We staggered back to our gear, laid out our sleeping bags, and drifted into blissful sleep.
The next morning, I awoke to snow. The whole mountain was clouded over; every so often I heard avalanches pouring down the face. We had just made it.
After eating our last remaining food—one packet of oatmeal—Doug and I staggered back to the car. As we walked, I contemplated what we had just done. It seemed like a dream, as though it had never happened. We had climbed an extreme route in ultralight style, leaving nothing. For me, it does not get any better.
As Doug opened the car door, he wore a huge grin. We both knew what we had just done was something special, something we would remember forever. As I sat down in the car, I felt all tension leave my body. I was at peace.
Summary of Statistics
AREA: Washington Cascades
NEW ROUTE: Spindrift Couloir (IV+ 5.9 WI5 mixed) on the north face of Big Four Mountain, March 2, 1996 (Bart Pauli and Doug Littauer)