We still have a long way to go when it comes to highly technical testpiece ski lines in the Rockies. Consider the kind of outright gnar that sees descents on a near daily basis in Europe’s steep skiing meccas and many of our big classics seem pretty straightforward by comparison. There are, however, exceptions.
When I first took a decent look at the north couloir on Popes Peak, I thought it looked rather burly on its own. Admittedly, I think I was about 12 years old. Imagine my amazement when I realized, a number of years later of course, that Jon Walsh and Chris Brazeau had laid down a descent of not just the couloir, but the direct summit line above. Everything about it caught my interest – from the hard (to me) sections of alpine climbing to the new school technical, steep skiing to the roadside adventure feel that so accurately characterizes the Rockies as a range. It seemed to embody everything about the skier and mountaineer I hoped to become and I was nowhere near ready for it. So, on the back burner it stayed for years. This season though, I’ve been chasing technicality in my skiing more than ever. Back in late April, after getting a good look at the line from our big day on Narao, Joel and I decided it was time to see how we measured up.
Just to be clear, I’m still not a particularly good climber and Joel, while stronger then I am on ice, is a few years removed from a season in which he climbed very much of it. With that in mind, we packed the kitchen sink at the trailhead. Two ropes, cams, a set of nuts, some pins, full on ice tools. Oh, and enough screws to build a deck. We surely inspired a bit of conversation among the handful of other skiers at the trailhead as we set off.
Narao Shoulder felt warm as we ascended, but once in the hanging valley below the line things turned positively chilly. Perfect. The closer we got, the more attainable our objective looked and we thought, maybe, just maybe this was going to work.
We skinned over the schrund, and Joel got to work kicking steps into the couloir. As we pushed upwards, travel conditions went from good supportive crust to frustrating, wallowy breakable. Given our already substantial pack weights, I’d opted to leave the ascent plates behind. With a sizeable serac looming above and our progress slowing by the minute, that felt like the mistake that could be our undoing.
While swapping leads on the way to the top of the couloir, we had named the serac Tim, and told ourselves he was a docile fellow with little ambition but plenty of staying power. It didn’t help, but it did occupy the mind until we could get above his range and hide out in the cave below the full line’s obvious waterfall ice crux.
There was no hope of getting so much as a pin in there to belay off of, so I traversed out to the ice to fire in some screws while Joel: designated leader, sorted out his rack. For my trouble, I was drilled with a wave of spindrift as I tried to sink a viable anchor into the hollow ice. Eventually, I got a single screw in sideways. We were getting absolutely pelted now, but we were also both in full send mode. The spindrift hell we were venturing into certainly merited a discussion, but we decided to try the pitch. Ideally, we’d soon be out of the firing line.
I wish I’d gotten photos or video of the next hour or so, but I likely would have damaged or destroyed a camera. I would have chanced it with my GoPro but I couldn’t feel my hands, so operating it while belaying was right out of the question. There was no way to make a protected belay so my long suffering hemet was the unwilling recipient of every dinner plate that Joel cleaved off, plus the near constant spindrift.
I had the good job.
Joel was taking the hit to make the play on lead up there, bottoming screws, clanging tools off rock and being fed slough at a now mildly alarming rate. I was impressed, especially when I started to follow and realized what a battle it really was. Only about WI4, but hollow, thin and utterly miserable. With skis on the pack and a cold upward wind recycling a constant cascade of snow the pitch was far from trivial on toprope, let alone lead.
The decision to call it from there was instant and unanimous. The wind had picked up and the rate of slough was now unacceptable. Any more and a retreat from this point later could well be impossible, leaving only a few strategies for escape – each more dangerous and less pleasant than the last. We were too late. Too slow. Or the timing was just wrong. Regardless, it was a bitter defeat. As far as we could tell we were through the serious difficulties. Summit snowfield salvation was no more than 100m away.
Our fingers screamed. Gingerly, we rappelled off a snow anchor and returned to the cave to dry off, transition and attempt to resuscitate our extremities.
Despite being exhausted from the savagery above, the descent was excellent. Skiing always feels so effortless, regardless of any difficulties that came before. Just lefts and rights, flowing into the landscape. As defeated as we felt, the line from the cave down is as classic as any other Rockies couloir. Nobody wants the consolation prize, but this one happened to be excellent.
It took less than a week before we came back for round two. Our rack was pared down, we were faster, earlier and the forecast was better. We rallied back to the base, where it became immediately obvious what would happen to us if we went up there.
My late friend and ski partner Trevor Sexsmith said sometimes that the fun ended when he turned from a bold, confident skier into a mere foolish man, trying not to die. Well, it was clear that up on the line Joel and I would be foolish men trying not to die. Heavy winds aloft were blowing curtains of spindrift across the face. If we thought it had been bad on our first attempt, it would be infinitely worse now.
We ate breakfast, turned tail and left the hanging valley for the season. There would be no more windows before an exceptionally warm spring thrashed the lower couloir. After 11 years, Walsh and Brazeau’s testpiece would hold up for at least one more. Our attention turned to other objectives. Popes Peak will stick in our minds for another year – all the more vividly now for how close we came. Maybe we’ll climb a few preparatory pitches of ice next season. No doubt we will be back, stronger, smarter, fitter and more prepared.
So it goes. If it were easy, we addicts would have given it up long ago.