By Courtney Ley
It was dawn. Admittedly, there was some anxiety. I was well aware I was alone. The winds blew crystallized snow in my face at a high rate of speed, accompanied by the occasional gust with enough force to move my body. It was freezing. Gearing up felt like it took hours because I’d have to warm my hands back up after I took off my gloves in order to gain enough dexterity to tighten my boot laces or figure out what the hell to do with those long pesky ends to my crampon straps. All the awhile, I stood at a base of a route I’ve never climbed unroped before. Not to mention alone. I looked up at the ice. Things always look more daunting when they are dimly lit, right? I was familiar with the route. I knew what was around the next corner and above the next bulge. On the start to this day, however, for any or none of the reasons stated above, it required that conscious effort to turn my brain off and just start climbing. So I did just that and I took my first swing into the ice of Pinnacle Gully.
I had entered this world of bizarre ice formations, undoubtedly from the few freeze-thaw cycles of late season, but I didn’t quite feel like I was in Pinnacle Gully. The clouds hung low and it was snowing, obscuring my views. The familiarity of the ravine left me quickly. I suddenly felt like I was in a strange place. I had not yet reached the top of the first ice section when it happened. My tool hit the ice and the result was a very loud CRACK followed by a large vibration that felt like the ice was shifting underneath me. I don’t remember what my first thought was besides envisioning the entire ice route collapsing with me in tow, but I do remember starting to climb over and away from where I was to find more solid ice. I also tried not to be hesitant swinging hard for a good stick, for obvious reasons, but I was slightly shaken. When I reached the top of the first pitch, I was never so relieved to see a pathetic little ramp of broken up snow.
The rest of the gully was anything but straight forward, but at least the large areas of unbonded snow and ice were obvious so I could maneuver around the sketchiest sections. I feel more comfortable making delicate and tricky moves then climbing a large blob of ice without having much idea whats under it, for example, a large amount of air. So my focus was easily regained and I topped out to the usual hurricane force winds of the alpine garden.
I wished I remembered to bring my balaclava. Views began to open and then close up as the winds also knocked the clouds around. I took a little time to watch the horizon appear and disappear before my frozen face asked that I please move out such an exposed place. South Gully is a fairly quick descent as the grade gives way towards the bottom and I could quit down-climbing and simply walk down. The distance to Odells was short and the sight of the no frills and thrills gully was welcoming. The forecast called for decreasing winds and “in the clear under sunny skies” later in the day, so when I topped out of Odells, I patiently walked across the lip of the ravine in the same strong gusts hoping I wouldn’t have to endure that all day. I had a lot of questions on my mind walking under the starry yet snowy skies of pre-dawn. My headlamp gave me an idea what was about ten feet in front of me, but I wondered what was 2,500 feet higher than me. One of those questions was what lower Diagonal would look like in such scant snow, late April conditions. The last time I used Diagonal to descend was in a high snow year and negotiating around Harvard and Yale bulges was a no-brainer. It turned out I needed to traverse all the way across in some bushes to the start of Damnation Gully in order to reach the fan safety and not get cliffed out. That was ok with me at the time because I was heading toward North Gully.
I stopped at the base of North for the first time since I left my car at 4:00 a.m. and ate a few things. It was now around 9:00 a.m. I decided to take the path of least resistance into the entrance of North so I skipped the bottom half of the ice. Going up the subsequent ice bulges, it was clear they were feeling the heat from the previous days as they began to levitate off of the snow. I didn’t feel like anything was going to collapse but I did feel better when I was able to reach my tool passed the hollow ice over into the hard snow. The snow gave way to rocks and vegetation eventually and I wound my way in between boulders and bushes to Nelson Crag. By the time I topped out, the winds started to decrease, the clouds all blew off and the sun began roasting the ravine. The ice in the alpine garden was disappearing rapidly. With three more routes to complete, I was wishing for those cloud to return.
On my way down Diagonal, I exchanged hellos with three climbers on their way up and headed towards Damnation Gully. Two years ago when I was attempting this same plan, I looked up at the first ice step from the start of the route and my immediate reaction was that I didn’t want to climb it unroped. Sticking with that initial feeling and knowing that it would never be a wrong decision, I never even climbed up for a closer look. This year, with more experience behind me, I didn’t hesitate to climb up to the first ice step for a look. In this gully, the snow moats were big and getting to the ice required a lot of careful steps. The ice itself was big and of questionable quality. I lingered at the base and almost talked myself out of climbing it but once I took a few swings, kicked my feet in and worked a few moves up, it seemed solid enough for me to continue. When I reached the crux ice step, I thought less and climbed more. But maybe that was due to the fact that the snow bridge was crumbling under my feet and for the first time, the ice was the safer medium. The ice all over the ravine looked nice and soft, but every time I was fooled. The forgiving spring ice was rarely encountered.
The sudden change from vertical to horizontal hit me again as I topped out on Damnation Gully. This time, as I reached the huge rock cairn at the start of the summer trail, I sat down for my second short break of the day. I may have just been delaying the inevitable tediousness of down-climbing Diagonal again.
With the end of Diagonal in sight (again), I stopped for a minute to look back up the gully and noticed a climber hanging out at the top, perhaps waiting for me to finish before he started down. The snow had turned slushy under the suns rays and a fleet of battle-ready snowballs rolled off with each step downwards. Whether or not he was waiting for me to finish before launching his snowball attack, I wasn’t sure. I was glad that my next gully was right at the bottom of Diagonal. Less down meant less up. My heels had been in a lot of pain going up North and Damnation. For some reason, my usually comfortable boots decided to revolt and I was getting hot spots. I stopped for breaks frequently on my way up for some relief. When I was getting ready to head up Yale, I noticed the climber on top of Diagonal was already down, having jogged his way to where I was. He was having a lot of fun doing it and it made me crack a smile. Diagonal, for me, felt too steep and I was feeling tired, so I chose to down-climb it each time. We had a quick conversation and when I told him about my day, he was psyched for me and it boosted my energy levels.
I bypassed almost every ice section on Yale because I felt like I’d pushed my luck enough on Pinnacle and Damnation. The heat of the day was waning but the sound of running water was still everywhere and the occasional sounds of ice collapsing could be heard, especially on Harvard bulge. Going up the snow ramp riddled with moats and crevasses was enough excitement for me. It was around 2:30 pm as I was halfway up Yale and for the first time I started allowing myself to feel like I could complete what I had set out to do. I was glad to see the top out on Yale covered in some snow and before long I was staring back down Diagonal. Before I started down, I walked over to the top of Central to take a look at the conditions. I saw a line of safe passage and I deemed it ‘good enough’. My only motivation to start down was the fact that this was the last time I had to do it. I’m not sure why, but down-climbing murders my wrists. Maybe it’s from my carpal tunnels, but just as it was necessary for my heels, I had to stop frequently for pain relief.
I met back up with the the climber who had skipped down Diagonal. He went over to Damnation after we parted and did some climbing in there. He offered me water and some encouragement. Then later I heard some cheers once I started traversing across to Central. Continuously climbing for nearly 12 hours straight was taking it’s toll and his cheer was energizing. Now with him heading out, I was alone again in the ravine. Since the safest way back to fan from Diagonal was to traverse all the way over the Damnation’s start, I was not looking forward to hiking it all the way back across in sub par snow conditions. I just put my head down and walked slowly and deliberately, keeping in mind not to stop under Harvard Bulge. I dug deep for the willpower to just keep moving towards Central and not bailing. Someone had skied across and I used their tracks as a narrow sidewalk but my feet would slide occasionally. I took the time to create a good step before I put my weight on it. It may have been unnecessary to be that cautious but I figured I still had plenty of daylight to take it easy.
It was 4:00 pm when I looked up at Central’s first ice bulge and attempted to muster the energy to walk towards it. I took my third and last short break of the day and fueled up. By this time, the sun had fallen low enough and most of the ravine was in a shadow. I was glad the snow and ice in Central had an hour or two to freeze back up by the time I reached it. I followed an existing boot pack, as I did on some of the other gullies which saved my calves. The first ice bulge was, for a change, straight forward. This came after I had to step across a deep crevasse that reminded me of a glacial bergshrund. The last ice. I thought I was home free. I had gotten that quick glance of the top of the route and there would be some loose rock to pick through in order to exit and the snow was broken up but it looked ok from that vantage point. I wasn’t ready for what I saw. It wasn’t a snow slog. It was what looked like a mile of low angle ice waiting for me. All of the snow had melted out and glazed over during the past week. I put my head down for a moment to collect myself. I took a deep breath. It was a fight up until the very last moment. I was forced to swing my tool into the hard ice which sent pains from my wrists down my arms. My calves suddenly decided they had had enough as well. Refusing to be casual on this top section was my top priority. With nothing to stop me from sliding all the way down to the base of the route except for large pointy rocks, I climbed slowly, making every stick and kick bombproof despite whatever pain I was feeling.
In a perfect ending, the sun hit my face at the exact second of topping out. I had removed my sunglasses about two hours ago but gladly squinted at the sudden beam of light. I stood on top of Central looking at my shadow across the ravine. It was 5:00 pm. The top of the ravine was now all bare rock as the passing afternoon had melted the ice away. Spring felt like it just arrived. It marked the official end to my winter and my ice climbing season. I felt overwhelming satisfaction and contentment. The wind had completely died off and the still air made a silent moment even quieter.
I spent 15.5 hours, from car to car, climbing snow and ice in some of the most bizarre conditions I’ve seen. It was clear.. I was in Huntington Ravine. A place that immediately drew me in from the first time I saw it not too long ago. And every time I step out into the floor of the ravine, I am struck by its intense nature. It is a place of raw beauty. A place where that beauty can turn savage almost without warning. A place where I can dream up seemingly endless challenges for myself, push my limits and continue to discover my boundaries as I change as a person and as a climber. That is what Huntington Ravine means to me. And for those who know me well, know what this day meant to me.
(All of the photos from the day – click to enlarge)