conquering the couloir

Last week our friends Eric & Lara suggested a climb up Gray's Peak (a local 14,000' mountain). They wanted to do a snow climb up a couloir to get to the summit, and wanted to get started at 2am Saturday morning so the snow would still be good. A jumped right on board. I was a little hesitant. I thought it would be a lot for Roux to do, and was completely unconvinced that I'd be happy doing the snow climb. I have a deep rooted fear of heights and have had near panic attacks climbing with A before, so have tried to avoid situtations where I feel like falling will result in iminent death. But the group talked me into it, assuring me it didn't look so bad when you got up there and I'd be fine.
If you don't know what a couloir is (I didn't know for a long time), you can find out here. And here is a picture of the one we did:

Getting up at 2am wasn't as awful as I'd anticipated, and the morning was actually really gorgeous. The alpenglow was worth the early start and the hike in to the base of the couloir was smooth sailing.

I continued to feel unsure about the steepness, but was reassured again that it wouldn't feel so steep when I was actually on it. The four of us + Roux started up it and within the first ten minutes there were two rock falls. The general consensus was that turning around would be smart, but Roux would have none of it. I can't say I blamed her, the way down looked pretty terrifying and going down is a heck of a lot harder than going up. Except that going up means a lot more time on the mountain. Still, A and I really had no choice but to keep going up.

I spent a solid 15-20 minutes in complete panic mode. I thought I was either going to puke or cry, or both at the same time. I felt like a squirrel clinging to a wall, terrified that with each step the snow under me would slip and I'd free fall all the way back down. We had cramp ons and ice axes, but I didn't feel confident in my knowledge of how to use either to be sure I'd be able to stop myself if I fell. On top of that Roux was a little freaked out, so I was worrying about her. Eventually I realized that panicking was going to make my chances of misstepping and falling a whole lot greater, so I buckled down and focused.
Here I am, focusing on trying to hold still long enough for A to snap a photo. Holding still was difficult considering every cell in my body wanted to keep moving forward - the faster you go, the faster you're done.

All in all the couloir was about 1,000 feet of elevation gain and reportedly around a 40 degree angle. I never looked down after my intial panic attack - until we were at the top and on solid footing. I never felt comfortable with the situation in the least bit and had so much adrenaline pumping through my system that I never once felt tired or wanted to stop and rest, either.
Here's the view down (photo by A, of course). Something about the quality of snow makes it difficult to tell how steep something is, so take however steep this looks and multiply that by 100. And then you'll know how steep it felt.

Weirdly, I did catch myself at one point almost enjoying myself. Apparently there is some tiny part of me that would like to do snow climbs more often - the extreme focus appeals to me, I guess. But the other 90% of me would be happy never to set foot on a hillside that steep again. Still, by the time we finished I felt I had accomplished something. I conquered my fear, climbed the mountain, lived to tell the tale. There's something undeniably empowering about that, and although I was furious with A at the beginning of the climb, by the end I wanted to smother him in hugs. Roux, too.

Roux was a champ all day. That little dog hauled up the couloir, finished climbing Gray's Peak and then ran along side me while I glissaded back down the mountain. (Glissading = sliding down the mountain on your bum).
Just look at how cute this little trooper is:

1 comment:

Wonder Net said...

congratulations on your amazing feat!