The cam is set behind a flake about the size of a ham sandwich, but its metal contacts stone beyond the junction with the main rock mass on each side of the corner. As long as it doesn’t shift, it should be solid. All the rest is solid, too. Tools and front points rest on good edges. I can see the way forward as if the holds were marked with colored tape. My mind is set and quiet. I have 15 feet to make it all happen, and things are looking good. The angle eases after that. There may even be a ledge. At the very least, the slab should hold enough ice to break out to more secure ground on the right. We must still find our way past a bit of challenging climbing above, but nothing as long or vexing as that below. Then we will have light, warmth, and open sky. The alternative is unthinkable: the sort of retreat in which the route strips you bare for your trespass even as you beg mercy of the inanimate. I am committed to finishing this…
The Grand Central Couloir is a beautiful line, and one of its enticements is the order of the difficulties. The higher in the couloir, the steeper the climbing and the greater the exposure. But that arrangement also ensures tired calves and hands at the crux. The crux is a steep wall where the couloir degenerates to a rock corner (the course of the first ascent) flanked by a blank face on the right, which is breached by an ice-filled groove (the Doyle-Blanchard ice strip, the course of most subsequent ascents). We had certainly felt up to it that morning. I had rested well, Chad less so, but well enough (his sleeping bag was a little lighter). The walk across the dormant glacier on the approach was a nice, gentle warm-up. Crashing ice calving from the 300-foot serac above sharpened our focus as we neared the hanging glacier that forms the bottom section of the route. With headlamps in spotlight mode, we picked out a passage through the lower ice cliff on the far left. For about an hour, we felt our way through the crevasses and bergschrunds, hugging the left margin of the ice. Then things got confusing. Small gullies began to appear, as well as larger fingers of ice and snow cutting into the cliffs. Fooled by the scale of the face, we worried that we had gone too far right. We sat down for a snack and waited for the light.
Soon enough the sky brightened up enough to see ahead. We were no where near the top of the glacier. Annoyed at the lost time, we shrugged on our packs and moved out at a faster pace. One more bergschrund crossing put us at the base of the couloir. An island of rock divided the gully in two at the bottom. The left branch was steeper and shorter, so it seemed the obvious choice. Ice coated the whole thing, but it was quite thin in places and despite cautious swings, the picks on my ice tools were blunted by the time we exited onto the long ice slab beyond the branch gully. All the while, we simul-climbed, keeping 2-3 pieces of gear between us at all times. The terrain was moderate, solo ground really, but the occasional small rock sailed past. Nothing deadly, but some large enough to knock you off if they hit just right.
Some snow had built up at the bottom of the icefield, allowing us to stand flat-footed, sort of, so we stopped and sharpened our tools. It wasn’t much of a break, but it looked like the best we would get for a while. Several hundred meters of featureless alpine ice followed, with a small step at the top. Cresting the step, we got our first look into the upper gully.
I stood there looking for a long time. I didn’t see any Doyle-Blanchard ice strip. We thought we could see ice from the road, but standing below it now, all I could see was snow-plastered rock. Well, there was always the corner. It was the original line, but I had heard stories about that corner, bad stories. I began climbing hesitantly toward the base. I looked up frequently, but the ice never appeared. At the bottom of the crux wall, a few pitiful scrapes with the tool confirmed it: no ice, just powder snow over verglas. Still, the corner looked much better up close. The rock was relatively solid and I could see several opportunities for protection. Some snow mushrooms and a small roof were question marks. However, they too looked manageable from our belay stance at the base. As I moved up, the climbing did prove reasonable; it was moderate mixed with a couple of ice screws and a slung chockstone to keep things stress-free.
Then came the snow mushrooms. Sometimes, these things are consolidated snow with a core of ice or ice layers within. Sometimes they are mounds of fluff with the consistency of old shaving cream, like these were. I scraped away at the left edge of the first bulge until I found a foothold, and then pounded on the main body of the thing until it packed down to a state solid enough to hold weight. Two steep moves and I was over the first blob of overhanging snow with my breath steaming off the second blob. Getting over this one required another awkward maneuver akin to the technique used to mount a fat pony bareback. I stood up on the mushroom and plugged in a cam quickly, remembering just how much of the formation was air versus frozen water.
Now I was just below the little roof. I hunted around and found a couple more good pieces of gear. I hated to park Chad on top of this chunk of fluff, but it was a good anchor, the stance was comfortable as long as it lasted and I was running out of gear. Despite his critical comments regarding the rock quality and the difficulty of the climbing, Chad followed quickly and we were soon facing the next problem. Another snow mushroom plugged the corner right at the top of the little roof, but our brethren had blessed us. Just out of reach at the lip of the roof was a fixed nut slung with a piece of beautiful, powder blue webbing through the wire loop. The webbing swayed in the breeze ever so slightly, proving it was supple enough to have some strength left in it. The cable loop itself was taped open to accept a hook, so its owner had used it just as I was about to use it. Chad ducked under the left side of the roof, away from stray crampon points, and I started working my way up to the blue sling. Just as the hold under my right hand changed from a side-pull to a mantle, the pick of my left tool snagged the sling. It held and soon I was standing on top of the block of snow.
A line of fixed pitons led upward. The climbing was steep but fairly solid. I passed another chockstone and came to the end of the fixed gear, a pair of warthog ice pitons driven into the rock back to back. A few more feet, a chock placement, and I’d set the little cam…
The next 15 feet go well and now I can see the rest of the way ahead. There is no ice. There is no ledge. My right foot rests on a slab inclined at about 70 degrees and composed of shattered black limestone which resembles nothing more than a mass of children’s alphabet blocks glued together face to overlapping face, all sloping down, of course. On the left, the corner now forms a fin with a sharp, crumbly edge. The crack in the back of the corner is a groove filled with yellow dirt/rock â€” shale I suppose. A couple of plates of the same stuff sit wedged in the groove above, the only visible opportunities for protection. It’s another 20-foot run out to get there. Surprisingly, I’m not scared, just mad. I try to hook on the blocks, climb the slab. My picks skate off repeatedly, so I clip the tools to the harness and grab the edge of the fin. I can’t keep enough pressure on my right foot as I move up and my front point and secondary point pop off the unfavorably sloped corners and edges, forcing me to hang onto the fin alone while I get my feet reestablished. I turn around to look at the underside of the fin. This solves the problem in the Guano Chimney on the Grand Teton, but not here. There are no holds, and the edge is too fragile to push against. I stand there for a few more minutes, my mind scrabbling over the options again and again, but I finally have to admit, I can’t climb this without risking a bad fall. I back down to the cam. Chad lowers me. Goodbye little yellow alien, we’ve been through a lot together, now you just have to do this one last thing for me. I’m so wasted, I don’t even consider whether or not the ropes will reach. They do, with a bit to spare.
We are about to be punished. The conversation is matter of fact as we prepare to rap from the top of the snow mushroom. What is there to say? I’ve failed, not because I held back or listened to my fear, but because I emptied out my arms, my legs, my entire bag of tricks and just couldn’t climb it. I don’t think I’ve been left with absolutely no excuse before. I didn’t think it would be so devastating. I begin sliding down the rope like a zombie, but about halfway down, a loud snap calls me back to attention. Feeling as though it were a proper part of what’s to come, I watch my tool bounce down 3,000+ feet to the base.
“How am I going to down-climb the glacier with one tool?”
It’s a rhetorical question, but Chad answers anyway, “Very carefully.”
I get the first V-thread. It goes OK, but I miss the second one and it quickly becomes obvious that I’m worthless now, functional, but no more than that.
“Do you mind taking over?”, I ask.
Chad manages things through the next 15?, 18? rappels, the ingenuity and ‘mountain sense’ that distinguish a good alpinist on full display. But by the time we reach the glacier, he is slowing down. It’s been dark for a while now and we decide to take a rest and wait for morning light before we continue through the crevasses. We find a ‘schrund with a bottom to it and stamp out a platform. Out comes the Mylar blanket, as we sit down on our packs and try to sleep. Actually, we do sleep, but it’s the sleep 15 minutes, shiver 15 minutes affair typical of these situations. Even a little rest helps, though, and I feel better as the sky turns gray, then light blue and we begin to pick our way down again.
Soon we are back at the tent, drinking coffee and packing up. Back on the flats, I can hear a high, lonesome sound and that sound follows me to the campground, to the highway, to my house. I know it’s the corner calling me. OK, I know I’ll go back to finish the Grand Central Couloir, but in another season when conditions are better. I’ll just plug my ears with beeswax and climb the ice.