Approach: 3-4 Hours
Rating: 5.6 III 1700'
...with Luke Dauner and Liza Kimberly.
We met in the public lot while it was still very dark. By the time we got to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead the East was lightening up, and by the time we were at the Falls visible at the belly of Teewinot we could hike without headlamps. We leapfrogged hiking for a bit with another group - two folks from Massachusetts climbing the East Face - but eventually pulled away. At the top of the Apex we heard some Elk bugling, and then saw the lonely bull in the basin to the North, just below Crooked Thumb Couloir. We stopped to try and view the spot where we were supposed to cross the Northeast Ridge. Mixed opinions...the route isn't climbed much, so the beta in the book is pretty cryptic but no one cares. "We'll figure it out when we get up there."
Up and up, through the stunted conifer forest the trail got steeper. We passed just to the North of the Worshipper and Idol and I asked Luke if he thought there were any routes up them. They'd be great to climb, but there's nothing on MountainProject yet...
Just above the Worshipper and Idol the 3rd class terrain turned to 4th and we stayed right of the large central chimney system that is the handrail for the classic East Face route. We stayed close to mitigate the potential of serious rockfall injury, as the terrain was fairly loose. A few high 4th class moves between grassy benches on which there was a well-worn trail, and we detached from the classic route, right, to the North, and toward the Northeast Ridge where we thought our route was intended to go.
I approached the ridge on a large bench with beautiful white-granite blocks, yelled back to Luke and Liza "This is it!" and when I topped out the ridge my stomach dropped. No "downward trending ramp" as the book had said, just a cliff, perhaps a thousand feet. We met up and looked together. I scrambled down a bit on the most terrifying combination of materials: loose rock, grass, snow, and ice. Crooked Thumb Couloir was visible hundreds of feet below, but the passage to it seemed impossible. "This can't be it, can it?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe? Lets look around." I scrambled back and scouted higher. Luke scouted lower. Liza laid on the edge of the cliff and took in the exposure.
There was nothing higher, just more scariness. Luke came back. "I didn't see much, but there might be something lower down." Inside of me was the dangerous and sneaking desire to just 'make this work'. A sinister mountain desire that has gotten too many past and future mountaineers killed. I thought for a moment..."Yeah, let's go back. Let's go lower and check it out, do our best, and if we really don't feel comfortable just climb the East Face to the summit." Liza was making passive comments hinting uncryptically that she was uncomfortable, a little scared, and just wanted to climb the straightforward East Face. The straightforward face on which two girls fell to their death last year leaving the third in their party in a sticky situation.
We down-climbed some 4th class terrain and gained a larger grassy bench that crossed a couloir before rounding the Northeast Ridge below a fat overhanging cliff. Around the corner there was a grassy ledge that seemed to make its way all the way to the white ribbon of snow still painting the depths of the Northeast facing Crooked Thumb.
We corralled together again and I asked if they felt comfortable with the ledge. There was a few hundred feet of exposure to the right, some light snow on the ground, and surely some spots where the ledge tapered out to about a foot wide. In exposed terrain grass is the devil. The friction coefficient between shoes and grass is wildly unpredictable, especially when some of it is dead, some alive, some snow-covered...its the worst.
I went ahead to see how I felt on the terrain. It felt good. There was some fear in Liza. Luke seemed his always-cool. I called back, "It feels good. How do you guys feel." Liza nervously giggled and then followed. The ledge was about the length of a football field and mostly large, again, with some touchy spots. About forty feet from the safety of the snowy couloir the ledge tapered out to almost nothing and required a two short crawls below overhangs. The first was still about forty feet above the snow and a fall would almost surely result in a non-fatal fall to the snow and then surely fatal slide down the refrozen icy Crooked Thumb Couloir, another thousand-plus vertical feet to some talus shitshow.
The second crawl was much lower consequence and I found a sling from another party that had likely rapped over the snow. It was probably the folks from the Love Letter to the Tetons blog.
We all crawled through and corralled up in the moat on the south side of the couloir's snow ribbon. Liza had never used an ice axe before and the consequence of a slip on the traverse would be something between zero and fatal. Frankly, this was probably the least considerate moment of the day. I just took out my axe and led out in my approach shoes across the snow with a half-baked intention to talk Liza through snow travel and self-arrest once on the other side.
I kicked steps. The snow was perfect neve. Once on the other side I yelled back "It feels good." Liza had been silent through the whole process. Luke followed out confidently and met me on the other side and then Liza was on the other side alone. "You got it Liza."
"Uh, okay." A few steps out onto the snow. "This is kinda scary." We vacuously consoled her and didn't think about what the consequences would be if she slipped. Zero to fatal. No clue. She'd figure out how to self-arrest if she slipped, right? I just kind of watched for a bit and then she was on the other side with us. Great...
Once on the North side of the couloir we put our axes away and scrambled up some 3rd and 4th class terrain with wildly varying rock quality. Beautiful orange granite transitioned to sandy crap and then loose ball-sized rocks. It got steeper and then we crossed back over to the South of the couloir to the base of the 5th class section. The guidebook had a picture of some guy making the first move on the wall and we saw that beautiful block and knew we were in the right spot.
We met up just below the beautiful block and stunning rock. The granite was a striated white and grey. We dumped the gear we'd each been carrying and talked about some different rope systems we could use.
After some deliberation we decided on one where I would lead up on one end of the rope, Liza would tie in on a Butterfly twenty feet in from the other side, and then Luke would be on the other end. What that means is that on a 60m rope I would still get 180ft of climbing before needing to make an anchor, and that Liza and Luke have to simul-climb while I belay them from the top. If Liza takes a slip it is no different than her being belayed normally from above, but if Luke slips he would likely pull Liza around for a ride.
I led off. Luke belayed because Liza didn't have a belay device. The first forty feet of climbing were beautiful alpine 5.6 on incredible rock, but quickly tapered off into loose unprotectable low 5th class bullshit, which was fine. About thirty feet below the Grandstand ledge I ran out of rope - "That's me!" - and made a quick three-piece anchor in some marginal rock.
It took Liza a bit to get through the first section. The sun ran out and it got very cold quickly. A few minutes later Liza came into view, then Luke. "Rock!" Liza kicked off a baseball-sized rock directly toward Luke twenty feet below who, in one of the most incredible mountain moments of the recent past, like a badass snowball fight fighter, caught the rock in his right hand. "What the fuck, Luke, did you just catch that?!"
"Yeah, I guess so? That was crazy."
"What the fuck kind of reaction is that, Luke?"
"Yeah, I don't know?"
I laughed. Liza did too.
They made it up to the anchor and then I led up to the Grandstand. They followed. It was cold and the sun was only in spots. We ate peanuts and gummy bears and some other things. The North side of mountains are always colder and scarier, steeper because snow holds longer and glaciers do more damage to the rock. They are always dark and shady. The most notorious climbs in the world are almost always North faces.
I Kiwi-coiled a bunch of rope on myself so that there was about forty feet of rope between Liza and I and then still twenty feet between Liza and Luke. We proceeded up the Grandstand toward what is noted in the guidebook as "a bunch of convenient forth class ledges." At the top of the Grandstand there was another stomach-dropping moment when we unknowingly approached another thousand foot cliff. Maybe it was a couple hundred...at the top of the Grandstand it feels like you're on top of the world. Cascade Canyon is a couple thousand feet below. It looks so lush. There are tourists taking pictures. And then you're up on the scary shady North Face of Teewinot. The contrast is intense.
In college I studied Neuroscience, and one of the classic accidental discoveries of the field back in the 80s was what is referred to as "mirror neurons". I'll spare the story that involves some lab chimpanzees and peanuts, but the concept is that there is a subset of neurons in our head that react sympathetically to others. They allow for us to experience other's pain, ecstasy, hunger, etc. Taken a bit out of context, this locus of neurons is the seat of sympathy in the animal brain. Why is this relevant? Because when I showed up on top of The Grandstand I was feeling more fearful than I typically would in this type of terrain, and some of that I contribute to the very real fear that was palpable in the body language of the others, especially Liza.
I dropped my coils. We talked for a bit and decided that we were surely not going to simul-climb through the ledge system. We'd pitch it out. The consequence - atop a thousand foot cliff - and the likelihood - with snow and verglas covering all the rock - both too high for a simul-system.
"I'm going to lead out and see how it feels."
"Sounds good." Liza's voice was rattling. I had seen Liza afraid before. We'd skied some lines that terrified her, climbed some things that made her cynical, but I'd never seen her afraid like this. And so when I left the Grandstand out into the snow there was a pit in my stomach. I went one direction and Luke added that I should maybe go another. I paused and listened, headed higher into a steep 5th class chimney. All the rock was loose. What wasn't loose was covered in ice. There was no protection, nothing that would hold a fall...
"I'm gonna downclimb and try another route."
My hands were frozen. I looked around the more exposed option and it was covered in some combination of rotten snow and verglas ice. Just looking at it my stomach dropped. So fucking unstable, so unpredictable. I looked down at the two of them and Liza laughed the most nervous laugh I'd ever heard. I stood and looked up at the route for about 30 seconds without saying anything.
"What are you thinking, J?"
"I'm just trying to process what I'm feeling; trying to sort my emotions and thoughts"
I knew I was feeling fear. I wasn't sure whether it was sympathetic or fully internal and it didn't matter. I thought through what the commitment of continuing would be. Its a hugely exposed traverse. If we needed to bail we'd have to downclimb. Bailing from traverses is notoriously difficult. You can't just rappel...I wondered if either Luke or Liza would have the tools to bail safely if something happened to me. The answer was no, which meant the answer to the question of, "Should we proceed?" was no too. If either the climbing or the bail was more straightforward we could have continued, but neither were going to be easy. As a group, our skillset didn't match the complexity of the route.
"What's up, J"
"We should go down."
There was a bit of silence. I sensed disappointment in Luke and ecstatic relief in Liza. As I climbed down to them Luke said, "Yeah, that's the right call." We downclimbed together down to the low point of The Grandstand. The rope between us kicked off some rocks, which could have been avoided.
Atop the 5th class section we'd climbed earlier the rock was horrible. There was nothing to build a rappel off of. I looked over the edge. Down and left the rock looked better. Luke put me on belay and sat down in a depression in the ground. I downclimbed on belay to where the rock looked better, and it was. Luke belayed Liza down to me as I built the bail anchor and then I belayed Luke down. Since we only had two belay devices I gave Liza my ATC and rappelled on an extended Munter with a Prussik backup. The rope didn't make it to the ground so I made a three-nut anchor at a nearly-hanging station. I gave Liza a fireman's and then Luke too. We rappelled back into Crooked Thumb and reversed the route I outlined prior.
Once we made it back to the East Face and the sunshine I put in an order to Black Diamond on my phone for the pieces we'd left. We sat and drank water and ate the rest of the gummy bears. They were sweet. Luke was leaving for California and then China the next day. Liza was happy to be alive. I was thinking about the day...
The question that came to mind is whether it was a successful day. In some ways this question is a waste of time because we were all alive and had had a true adventure in the mountains. We'd learned a lot. Luke and Liza had never bailed from a route, and seeing that process, which we later talked about, is actually quite important in building comfort in the mountains. Knowing that getting down is possible makes climbing more enjoyable. And ultimately, the mountains don't care about successes. If one comes to love the mountains the importance of summits dissolves. The conqueror mindset is dangerous, not only to the life of any individual mountaineer, but the future of our species, and days like this remind us of that.
Let the mountains teach: Be humble. Keep your emotions accessible. Be honest with yourself. Admit and identify weaknesses. Enjoy friends. Keep exploring.