PEAK11,520

Posted on: December 1, 2005


From the Mt. Huntington base camp, a climber cannot fail to see the ice couloir that bisects the north face of Peak 11,520 (3511m). At the end of the day, its ice reflects a blazing orange alpenglow back toward base camp. In fact, this line had been so fetching it inspired Jay Smith to name it The Shining, while he was climbing The Phantom Wall on Mt. Huntington decades ago. Yet it remained unclimbed. On May 17, 2005, I left at 10 p.m. on May 16 from the Mt. Huntington base camp and skied two miles to solo this couloir. I crossed the bergschrund at 1 a.m. with three ice tools, six screws, two slings of carabiners, two-dozen v-thread cords, two snow pickets, 100 oz. of beverage in a water pack, some energy gel, my parka in a stuffsack clipped to my harness, and two 200-foot ropes for rappelling. After 200 feet of steep snow, I reached seventy-degree ice.

The first constriction in the gully at 600 feet provided the initial difficulty. I chose a left line over a short step of thin eighty-degree ice. After much more perfect seventy-degree alpine ice, I encountered a second constriction at approximately 1,600 feet. This time, I chose the right side of a giant granite disk, serrated like a Chinese throwing star, which divided the narrowed gully in two, and I climbed a short section of eighty-eight-degree ice. Above me, seemingly interminable seventy-degree ice formed an open parenthesis-shaped arch around the last remaining rock outcrops. This feature provided shelter from the enormous cornice that caps the couloir and the pale blue seracs that hang like pyramids just to the east of it. The final 800 feet eased in angle, and the ice gradually became snow-covered. The shape of the upper section indicated that the seracs do in fact drain down the couloir.

I reached the west end of the cornice and asked myself, "What the hell are you doing up here without a belay?" Slowly and quietly I climbed down and burrowed into the snow to build a v-thread for a rappel anchor. I made three rappels before realizing I was once again directly under the hulking mass of cornice and seracs, so the next four rappels were made off a single screw in order to expedite my descent. I resolved to stay as close as possible to the rock outcrops on the west side of the gully to take refuge from anything falling from above.

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On the eight rappel the rope got stuck. I had almost pulled it through, with the knot in my hand and the entire 200 feet of the second rope threaded through the anchor and hanging below, but the upper rope stopped. I winched it with my rappel device, but it had obviously tied itself to the thread at the end. Not wanting to climb back up 200 feet into the firing line, I cut two sections off the stuck rope and resolved that the remaining cords would be adequate for however many 100-foot rappels I would need to make. I focused on the task at hand: rappel, build a v-thread, bounce test it, pull the rope carefully, rappel and repeat.

When I solo, each placement, each breath and each move becomes my world, and my mind does not wander outside it. The rappel, however, is the time for self-reflection, self-doubt and self-loathing. Tears well up and then subside again repeatedly. I think of my daughters. I think of my relationship. I demonize myself for soloing. Yet, the harmonious and otherworldly seeming exchange between a climber, a mountain and the weather inexplicably justifies this sort of absurdity to me.

I retained my focus: rappel, build a v-thread and DON'T FUCKING MISS! Bounce test it and pull the rope carefully. I continued to rappel, and I didn't miss a single v-thread. As my supply of cords thinned, I realized I would still have enough. Finally, with only two screws and one section of cord remaining, I made the last 100-foot rappel over the bergschrund from a snow picket, plunge-stepped down to my skis and packand skied rapidly out from below the face. It was 9:45 a.m. By 11 a.m. on May 17, I returned to Mt. Huntington base camp, thirteen hours after leaving it.

Jack Tackle informed me that forty-eight hours after my ascent, the couloir ran from top to bottom leaving a pile of serac debris at its base. The Shining was one of the least prudent outings of my life and one of the most exhilarating.

Will Mayo, Northfield, Vermont



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