South Early Winter
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Climbing is dangerous! Every year many climbers are broken, maimed, and killed. Don't be so foolish as to trust your life to what you see here. I'm not a guide and neither is this web site. If you don't know what you are doing or where you are going, please take a course or hire a guide!

Cutthroat Peak East Couloir attempt and South Early Winter Spire South Arete

May 11, 2002

It had been far, far too long since my last trip to the mountains, especially with Jens. Work, family, and other priorities and obligations seem to be piling up in my life lately. But by mid-week I was ready to do what needed to be done to be rested and ready on Saturday.

"I don't care what time we leave, Jens. Just not earlier that 3:00 AM."

"Okay, let's leave at 3:00, then."

This turned out to be the turning point of the next day.

Jens is right on time and I'm packed and ready to go. I have to stop for gas, but then we're on our way. The drive is long, but we're kept awake by a variety of highly caffeinated beverages (courtesy James Blach). We're both surprised when it is daylight at 5:00 AM. I worry to myself about our objective: An East-facing couloir with a WI4-5 crux pitch. I rationalize my worry away with thoughts of the 7000' predicted freezing level. The route is buried in a deep gully and starts at 7500'.

The big, bad north face of Colonial. Home of Twight's "Watusi Rodeo" route.

Morning light on the north face of Graybeard.

We park in the pullout across from Cutthroat Peak well before 6:00 AM. At 6:20 we're on our way, me on skis and Jens boot-packing. After twenty minutes of sliding and cursing I strap my skis on my pack and follow Jens up the boot-pack steps. We gain the crest of the south rib and follow it to a broad-snowy plateau where we turn right and traverse into the basin on the east side of the mountain. As the foot of the couloir comes into view we also spot crampon prints in the snow, snow which is now quite soft.

Jens on the south rib.

We drop our packs near the base of the route, but away from the copious avalanche and cornice debris. As we rack up we can hear, but not see, the other party above us. There is a lot of hollering going on. I surprised to see that the route is threatened on three sides by cornices. There is almost no chance of getting out of the way from the base of the avalanche fan to the top of the ice pitch.

The East Couloir of Cutthroat peak. A climber is circled in red. The smiley marks our turn-around point.

As we start up toward the couloir, I hear more yelling from above. When I look up I can see a climber wallowing in deep, soft snow near the col that separates the true summit from the north sub-summit.

"Whaddid they say, Jens?"

"They said, 'Too soft'"

"Huh. I wish I had a dollar for every time a climber told me, 'Well, we made it, but it was really bad. You shouldn't continue.' Let's go up and check it out."

So we continue up. We take turns post-holing at maximum speed, with the cornices looming above. Part-way up there is a small alcove where we stop to rest before racing up to the base of the ice pitch. just above the narrowest part of the gully is a large, overhanging chunk-o-cornice. In the sunshine and leaning way out from the rock it defies gravity and the odds.

Jens goes first, blitzing out and up while I watch for falling snow. Once he is clear, I start up. As I pass a short 60 degree ice step snow and ice starts running down the ice pitch. With a goodly shot of adrenaline I blitz up to relative safety.

Jens ponders the wisdom of continuing up. Notice the sun-baked white ice and the water running behind it.

Over the next fifteen minutes we discuss the sanity of continuing up, as snow and ice repeated cascades down the anemic, running-wet ice. We both want to climb the route and figure that the difficult-to-protect ice pitch is the crux, even on this day. It looks steep, but certainly less than vertical, and also significantly shorter than the 'full rope length' called out in the guide book. Jens, nearest the base of the pitch, takes a few testing swings at the ice. From the sound it has clearly melted away from the rock. One more cascade of snow and ice is enough for both of us.

"Let's get the hell out of here."


Jens downclimbs while the death-cornice works on its summer tan.

I downclimb quickly, not pausing until I reach the little overhang where we stopped on the way up. As Jens reaches me I start down again. At the base I stop only to grab my pack, then move even farther away from the base of the route.

Jens joins me and we stop to eat, drink, and watch the route. We both hope that one of the cornices will break off, justifying our decision. There is plenty of activity on the face, but nothing in the gully. Still, I shake Jens' hand and tell him that I think we made the right decision.

The Liberty Bell group, the Blue Lake approach, and the North Cascades Highway from the east side of Cutthroat Peak.

"Hey Loren, let's ski back to the car, then skin up to South Early Winter spire. The Southeast Arete may be dry enough to climb. The ski back to the car is fast and fun. At the car we lay out gear in the pullout and repack.

Cutthroat Peak from Highway 20. Our route up the south rib in blue.

"We won't need a rope, Loren. It's only 4th class. Well, I guess the Mounties call it 5.0."

"You really think it will be dry?"

"It's probably 50-50."

We eat and drink and pack. Then we drive down to the hairpin and start bootpacking up through old avalanche debris. Halfway to the col we switch to skis and skin on up.

I'm feeling done (a nice euphemism for tired) when we reach the col. I try to beg off even making the travese to the base of the route, but Jens cajoles me. We make a descending traverse, then skin up a bit to the base of the route. It looks ledgy and easy, so I decide to give it a go.

"The first move is the hardest on the whole route, Loren. Mid-fifth."

"What happened to 4th class?"

"Well, the rest is a lot easier."

Jens low on the South Arete of South Early Winter Spire.

We start up, me following closely behind. As we approach the chockstone in the chimney, Jens suddenly veers left.

"It looks icy and wet up there. I'm gonna go scout around the corner."

I wait, staring up at the icy, wet chimney blocked by the chockstone.

Jens returns. "I think we can bypass this on the right, but there is one short section of fifth."

"Let's try the chimney first."

I climb up to the chockstone. Both side of the chimney are covered with wet ice. No way. I start down, then get scared. My wet, sandy rock shoes are slipping and sliding one everything: Rock, ice, and snow. My hands are wet and cold. True to form, I start cussing a blue streak to myself. After a few false starts and near-death experiences I make it back down. Jens has already moved right, to the bypass.

"Yep, this will go Loren, I can see it."

I make another mid-fifth move to exit the chimney to join Jens. He pulls up and over a relatively blank face and then offers more encouragement.

"This is a huge bucket right here, Loren."

He is pointing to a hold that is a foot out of reach. One move of 5.8 (or so) separates me from it. I turn around and look down. If I fall I will either go off the east face, or bounce down to the base of the route. I grab a left crimp and a right gaston and pull up. Then down. Then up. Then swearing. Then down. Finally I find a better right foot and get to the bucket. The rest of the way is easier, but there is a goodly amount of hiking in the snow. I wear my shoes, Jens opts to save his rubber and finishes the route bare-foot. The cornice at the top of the southwest couloir is quite interesting, though we can't tell until we are past it.

Me paying attention to my sandy, wet feet.

Me just below the summit with a wicked cornice in the background.

We relax for a few minutes on the summit, then start down. There is more cursing on my part on the descent, but overall it is easier and we are soon sitting at the base putting our rando boots back on. We skin back over to the col, switch to downhill mode, and start down to the car.

My legs are tired, but the snow is forgiving. Until the bottom, that is, which is choked with avalanche debris. We manage to pick our way through (very slowly on my part) and arrive back at the car.

We didn't complete the climb we planned, but we had a lot of fun, got scared a few times, and enjoyed a spectacular, sunny day on the opening weekend at Washington Pass. Huzzah.


This page was last edited on Tuesday, August 30, 2005
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