What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a happening? What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a happening?
It’s been a long time since I did a big, committing, technical alpine route. Time for that to change! I’d wanted to tackle the Flying Dutchman on Longs Peak, but Scott and Fabio negotiated a compromise: one of the east-face routes on James Peak. Oooh, yeah, I’d forgotten about those! There are five snow routes in the small, jagged cirque on the east side of this large but otherwise gentle mountain. The routes vary from the easy-as-pie Starlight couloir on the periphery to the wicked-steep, cornice-threatened, Superstar and Shooting Star routes which run right up the center of the face. With so many options, something interesting was bound to happen.
Alpine starts are painful, especially when it’s the second (maybe third, depending how alpine you want to get) in less than a week. Up at 3 am, trailhead by 5, on the route by 7 before the snow gets too soft… or at least that was the plan. We left the car at St. Mary’s Glacier at 5:15, hoofed it up the glacier and across the broad tundra on the slopes of James in good time. But then things started to get more complicated.
In order to climb the east-face routes, one has to drop from the broad plains at 12,000′ into the valley near James Peak Lake (a loss of about 800′) or traverse around some shoulders on rough terrain. We managed something close to the latter; balancing over some loose talus before donning crampons and traversing a 35o snowfield with occasional rock bands. It’s disconcertint to don points before you can even see the route you’re climbing! However, at length, we reached a grassy plateau and could see the head of the cirque laid out before us and only a few hundred feet below.
From this angle, Superstar looks implausibly steep. How does the snow even stick to something so obviously, offensively, vertical? How would we stick on it? The crux of the route is a hefty cornice which reliably forms each year. Even from down below, it was pretty clear that the cornice was gone (hurray!) or at least significantly blunted, thus reducing the serious hazard of having it fall on us. Even though we were 90 minutes behind our naive plan and things were warming up quickly in the hot sun, snow conditions seemed reasonably stable and there were no signs of recent slide activity in any of the many couloirs. If things looked bad half-way up, we could always take the left exit on the (slightly) easier Shooting Star couloir, a challenging and aesthetic classic line in its own right.
Scott, being young and strong, took the lead with vim and vigor kicking mighty steps and zig-zagging back and forth trying to stay in the region of most consolidated snow while simultaneously avoiding the fall-line of rocks and snow from above (if any). I contentedly brought up the middle while Fabio–recently returned from a month at sea level–gamely played rear-guard to keep us from doing anything stupid(er). The initial snow apron climbed about 300′ increasing in steepness to about 45o and narrowing steadily.
At the junction with Shooting Star, things were going well, so we decided to brave the cornice and deal with it however looked most prudent. Two sets of mutual acquaintence climber friends had tackled the route in previous years and both had been stymied by the cornice. One group had traversed to the right and climbed a 5.4 rock pitch to escape. The other had escaped left on rock of similar difficulty. We had ropes, racks, and options. Tally-ho!
The steepness abruptly increased to around 55o and the route narrowed to ten feet or less. Water dripped from the small patches of snow on either side of the route and small latteral bergshrunds were starting to develop here and there. Birds zoomed in and out of the couloir and soared in the warming air of the cirque beneath our heels. Snow conditions varied wildly from one place to the next, but Scott sought out the best possible line and laid in a good boot track. All three of us were climbing well with two tools, plunging or daggering as the conditions warranted, sweating heavily, but really enjoying the day. This is exactly the type of climbing that makes the alpine starts worthwhile.
The closer we got, the better view we got of the exit. From the junction it was clear that the cornice was still present, albeit in a very blunted, somewhat benign form, smaller than either of the previous trips our of our fellows. The closer we got, the smaller it looked. A shaft of sunlight on the left wall suggested that there was a gap on the right side we could slip through at the top. Or we could simply scale it’s body-length of vertical snow and gain the summit. Scott was still claiming right of conquest, so Fabio and I waited 30′ below while he prepared to do battle.
Reports from the front lines were not encouraging. Scott found the remains of the cornice were the consistency of mashed potatoes and his tools had nothing to work with. To our eyes below, he seemed to be getting a little desperate and it looked like we might need to deploy the rock gear after all.
I moved up to a small shelf on the left ten feet below the cornice to see what I could do about getting us that final 20 feet (?) to level ground. It was a fairly precarious position: 600′ up a remote alpine face on a 4″ wide shelf of dripping, mossy rock, in crampons. The first item of business was to fashion some sort of anchor and fortunately there was a crack at waist level in which I sank two of the three cams we’d brought. I then proceeded with the clumsy dance of getting the rope out, getting my crampons out, tools stowed, and the rest of the rock rack (such as it was) deployed for action all while not losing my balance. Fabio moved up behind me and got me on belay and I gamely started out; and there are few people on Earth I would rather have on belay duty in this kind of situation.
Hmmm, is it better to head left on the sloping, mossy ramp or go straight up the steep, more solid-looking wall immediately above? That snow patch over to the left doesn’t look too promising. Maybe a little from column A followed by some from column B? Either way, it doesn’t look like there’s much usable protection. Not that I have much protection to use! I split the difference, moving left ten feet, then starting up a weakness that was sort of steep, sort of mossy. One dictionary-sized hold came off in my hands and accellerated down the couloir at 9.8 meters per second squared. Yikes! Breath, collect yourself! You’re 20′ above your somewhat sketchy anchor leading rotten alpine rock on a single strand of 8mm ice rope, wearing hiking boots and heavy pack. No problem.
Over to the right there was horizontal crack just perfect for a #1 Camalot (fortunately, the one cam I had left) and it looked like it might even be sort of solid. Not that I had many other protection ther options up here, though I did toy with micronuts for a while. Nuts! Place the cam, move onto the ledge, reach up the body-length of slightly-overhanging monolithic rock, hope that ledge above hides a positive hold. Breath, breath. “Watch me!” Go for it! Grip! Pull! Mantle! Made it! Hey, that’s the hiking trail up the north side of James! That was only about 30′ of rock and the grade probably wasn’t more than 5.4, but it was certainly one of the spicier leads I’ve ever done.
Anchor options up on the steep tundra at 13,000′ weren’t abundant, but I slung a moderately-sized boulder embedded in the moss and called it good. After some additional cramped rearranging down below, Scott and then Fabio came up.
From there on, it was easy. We lounged at the top of the couloir for a while, then later at the summit enjoying a bluebird day, great view, and popular summit with inexplicably no company. The trip down was uneventful and we arrived at the trailhead a little after 1pm after 8 hours and 3300′ of gain and loss.
What a fantastic climb!