Sahale Armor

During the brief sunny window offered on Monday and Tuesday, I went to the North Cascades in search of seasonal ice. While guiding Sahale this summer, I noticed this extremely narrow slot of a couloir dropping down the east face from near the summit; the Scurlock photos of course added to my excitement. I couldn't tell if it was a ski run or a climb, but I felt compelled by the thing.  The storms of late September and early October gave me hope that some magic had taken place, and I convinced my friend Kurt Hicks to go have a look with me.

The gentle trail to Cascade Pass went quickly with our eyes pasted on the north face of Johannesberg. I think we talked about every line we had ever dreamed of climbing or skiing.  We passed a pair of utterly fearless ptarmigans, just three brown feathers left on each wing. They were scuttling about in the heather and a rather fresh set of bear tracks (you can just make them out in the photo above). Later the tracks lead up Sahale Arm to a tight stand of hemlocks where the bear had bedded down. The patchy snow broke our rhythm and made my pack feel heavy; the bear, too must have grumbled at all the berries too soon covered by snow. Life can be hard in the in-between times.

We pulled into our camp at the toe of the Sahale glacier and shook our heads: we would be camping on new snow. We both agreed that the year had offered exactly one calendar month without a night spent sleeping on snow. The sun went down over the vastness of the cascades to our south, and we set our alarms for 3AM.

At 3 it was warmer than at sunset. Still, the stars shone and we agreed we should at least go for a walk. We wandered down in the dark, the land dropping away in mysterious slabs and gullies, the moonlight only suggesting that poor choices might well be possible this morning. We took our time, a little convinced that the route wouldn't be in. Two hours brought us down into Horseshoe basin, up onto the Davenport glacier and over to the base of the route.

The first pitch took an hour. A tall fin of last season's snowpack stood in the center of a vertical chimney. I tried climbing on the right, chimneying between the rock and ice. An overhanging exit made me back down. Kurt sent me over to the left side, where a similar chimney scheme got me up to an exit through a little hole and the easier terrain of the couloir. You can see Kurt popping out of said hole in the photo above.

As I had hoped, the couloir was exceedingly narrow. The snow was still pretty soft and made for some real work. I think it averaged 50 degrees with some steep bulges. Ice crept up here and there, with the occasional good tool placement offering some solace in the face of the constant rain of ice bits from the walls around us. We belayed again at the exit, where sugar snow and an infant cornice offered a fun mantling problem.

A quick scramble up the summit and we were able to change out wet gloves in the sun, eat some food, and chuck the ropes down the south side. I felt lucky that I love such a strange thing as mountain climbing, and luckier still that I have friends who share in my strangeness.

On the hike down the Arm, a powerful wind picked up, and we had to lean into it in order to keep walking a straight line. I thought of Johnny Cash's song, "Outside the leaves are falling, a cold wild wind has come." Here's to the in-between times.