Colchuck North Buttress Couloir (June 14, 2002)

Left the parking lot at around 6pm and hiked up to Colchuck lake. We slept on flat boulders near the S end of the lake under beautiful, clear skies. Snow cover around the lake was minimal. The way up to Aasgard pass looked about 50% snow covered. Snowpatches on Dragontail were considerable, but melting fast. It had been warm lately, with daytime temps in the mid 80s and freezing levels around 12,000+ feet. The snow was generally soft but consolodated. We knew that the climbing would be a bit challenging come morning.

Morning came and we left camp by about 5am, expecting to summit by 10am. We headed up snow to the right lateral moraine of the Colchuck glacier. From here we followed snowfields, doing a high traverse into the gully. We quickly encountered the "rock step" that Beckey mentions. On the left (the gully proper) was a waterfall; on the right we found a big chockstone that looked feasable. Getting over the chockstone was nasty -- it overhung a good deal and the exposure was enough to bust out the rope. With one point of aid (a small cam at the right edge of the stone with a sling for foot loop) and lots of grovelling I led over the stone and up easier but loose ground above. After a full pitch I reached the first decent crack for a belay and brought Matt up.

From here we stayed on rock on the right edge of the snow for another pitch. We then simul climbed the snow (pickets and rock placements) to where the gully splits (about 200 ft from the top). We opted to take the left hand option, because it looked more "interesting" and because it was in the shade. The exit slope on the right had been in the sun for a couple of hours by this point. It was about 8am.

Matt led another simul pitch of about 300 ft with difficult mixed moves (shallow snow, spots of black ice, rock) to reach a small notch on what turned out to be a spur of the main ridge (not the main ridge as we thought). From here we traversed onto another snowfield and up into another snow gully. Mostly the climbing was steep, sloppy snow with occasionally reassuring rock placements on the left side. The last 80 feet were difficult/scary (for me) mixed climbing: black ice, 6 inches of mush on rock, and terribly loose rock. We reached the N Buttress proper at about noon.

After briefly considering dropping onto the NW slopes of the peak -- it seemed to require downclimbing the ridge for a bit to facilitate easier access to the slopes below. Although we saw tracks on that side of the mountain, we weren't that happy with the snow conditions anymore, so we decided to stay on the warm, dry rock of the ridge. This turned out to be the right choice. The ridge was interesting 3/4th class scrambling with a few 5th class moves which we simulclimbed in about 1 hour to the summit (probably 500 feet of length). In general, if the going got tough on the ridge we found wonderful ledge systems on the right (west) side. At the summit pyramid, we went left, although in retrospect it might have been easier to go right. We summmited at around 1pm, well burnt and pretty exhausted. After a rest, we zoomed back to camp via the col and glacier. On the way down, looking back at the peak, our variation on the standard route was pretty obvious. We dubbed it the "Sidewinder" variation, because it makes a left turn near the top of the main gully to reach a the high snowfield which we traversed to enter the second gully.

All in all, a great climb, with a nice mix of challenges. A classic alpine climb -- you're not that happy when you're on it, but you're sure glad you did it when you reach the summit. I'm impressed with all the people who have soloed the thing. Surely, with better snow conditions, the whole thing would have gone more smoothly -- the rock step near the bottom of the gully as well as the various exits onto rock would have been a lot more comfortable. Also, had we taken the obvious (right hand) exit to the gully we would have hit the rock earlier and had more pleasant rock scrambling. The maximum slopes were probably 50 degrees, which isn't bad if they aren't 6 inches of soft snow on slab or black ice. We never needed the crampons we carried. We used the rock gear we brought extensively.

Rack and gear:

9mm rope
2 pickets
1 set of stoppers
#2 TCU and 4 friends (1.5 - 3) 
4 single and 3 double slings (as ever, more are better, esp. for the ridge)
Axe and crampons (never used the crampons)