Red Slate Couloir Trip – Part 2
Saturday 5 July 2014
Elevation gain: 3,248m (10,656 feet) at Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah to about 3,712m (12,180 feet) up the couloir
References: Tom Harrison Map – Mammoth High Country, Eastern Sierra Ice by Robert “SP” Parker.
Sometimes you snatch a surprisingly restful sleep before an alpine start. The sound of an iPhone at 3am alarmed us to rise on a semi-moonlit morning. Dikko and I called out to wake Dave in his tent, as we dressed in a light layer of clothing for the Sierra’s mild night.
Emerging from the tent with a yawn, the view was spectacular. The milky way was spread across the sky like glittery paste on an ebony curtain. There were countless stars twinkling in the reflection of Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah and, looking to our objective, the couloir snow was lit softly with a low half-moon.
For some reason I had only packed small headtorches. Luckily Dave had a powerful one bright enough to illuminate the creek crossing and beyond. Plodding up to Lake Constance we rounded it and started up a scree slope. By now the sky was lighter and visibility entered that confusing decision of torchlight versus wide eyes and large pupils.
The scree was a bit of a frustrating dance, trying to step on larger, slatey rocks that didn’t instantly slide down on loose gravel. I didn’t really have my groove on.
Reaching the top of the scree ridge the rocks were basketball size, slightly more stable, and it was only 20m or so until snow. We’d skirted up the northern side and I imagined in an average year the entire place would likely be covered in snow. We were experiencing the ‘perks’ of seeking snow routes in California’s exceptional drought.
Dave announced he wasn’t feeling well, ongoing from the walk in the day prior. Dikko and I left the decision to stop at this point up to him. Reaching the snow we donned crampons and placed axes in hand to cross the slope to the base of the couloir. The snow was slightly crunchy, a surprise to me considering the forecast temperature.
Stopping to rope up at the base of the couloir my cheap watch flashed 6am. We’d decided to rope up no matter what the conditions were like. There was no crystal ball to confirm exactly what to expect, and we’d made a decision before the weekend to climb with protection. Dave wasn’t all that agreeable on this style, however Dikko and I were sticking to our plan, especially with the decision not to walk off the summit.
As I put Dikko on belay I noticed Dave walking across the snow. I offered him the other end of our double ropes. Lucky for him he now felt good enough to solo. Dave began to tell me how to belay as Dikko reached the end of the 60m. I’m not a morning person, let alone someone who enjoys being told what to do when I have a familiar climbing system, and I grumpily snapped.
Conditions were good, and we steadily gained elevation with the couloir’s walls boxing us on route. At times I couldn’t believe I was there, on a climb I’d stared at on the walk in, in guidebooks, on websites.
The thinnest snow coverage I noticed was about 30cm (around a foot) based on plunging my axe in to see the ice below. There were also some exposed bits of ice from the giant suncups which were up to three feet tall, making it hard to gain a good climbing rhythm, more like two steep moves, two 40 degree moves.
Nearly 400m up and the sun lit up the couloir like a time-lapse video, shadows disappeared before my eyes, the sound of melted water grew below, and the snow became a bright reflector.
I was warm, and felt uncomfortable about how high we were with the snow becoming so soft. When the snow is wet and soggy it’s harder to self arrest if you slip. I also noticed Dikko becoming tired and my own body slowing, tired from the walk in, altitude and substandard fitness. We all agreed it was time to descend. Dave spotted a great rock to abseil from, it was the only one we found on the way down that was easy to access. The season’s low snowfall meant many rope-sling-worthy rocks were out of safe reach.
The abseils after that were bomber safe but tedious. Dikko built a T-Slot using a stake or axe, abseiled down, placed a stake at the 30m mark. Then I abseiled and, finally, Dikko would belay Dave as he downclimbed with protection.
I felt somewhat useless as a piggy in the middle. While I felt comfortable downclimbing I would’ve been slower than Dave and Dikko was keen for me to abseil. Once we had a system in place it made sense to be consistent to avoid mistakes or confusion.
At the end of the abseils Dikko untied and walked to the rocks, he was on the verge of ‘hangry’ so I offered to do the rope work while Dave descended the last section.
Amusingly, a young man had appeared below us on the snow. He was standing in flip flops and took pictures of us. We waved to him and he gave us a “rock on” signal. I ignored my feet’s yearning to be in flip flops and wondered at his general sanity, then focussed on carrying two wet, heavy ropes across the slope.
Crampons and axes went back onto my pack and I offloaded one rope to Dikko. The scree slope didn’t seem as bad on the way down. After teeting on larger rocks I aimed for gravel sections and slid down, catching up with Dikko and Dave at Lake Constance.
Sitting at the lake I instantly attracted mosquitoes. With enough itchy elbows to last me a lifetime I decide to continue back to the campsite. The “Flip Flop Man” (as we’d dubbed him) surprised me from behind a shady rock, waving again and smiling with huge bright teeth.
I waved back to him and continued down, crossing the inlet to Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah and flopping down near our tent, only to get straight back up again as mosquitoes attacked.
With hours until sunset and dinner, I looked forward to a relaxing time at the lake. I wiped my face and body with a little flannel I’d carried for luxury. Suddenly there was a spray of blood on the grass and my flannel, I had a terrible blood nose, the first I’ve ever had in the outdoors. It took about 45 minutes to stop.
I had trouble eating dinner as one nostril was full of blood and, of course, the other decided to block up. Who knew you usually breathe through your nose without thinking while eating? I dribbled cous cous and smacked like a cow, sucking in air while chewing and bending over when a new drip ran down my upper lip. I was a little miserable at that point.
Luckily the wilderness offered a pick me up – a stunning red sunset that set Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah on fire with color. Eventually it was dark enough and I was tired enough to lay my clogged head on a tiny inflatable pillow. I awoke at 3am by pure chance. Smiling at the thought of hours left before rising, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, a stunning view from the couloir etched on my closed eyes.