Sunday, June 27, 2010

Split Mountain,14,006 feet, via St.Jean Couloir, Class IV

On this quest to top all of California's fourteen thousand foot peaks Dave Rivas and I have chalked up another success. Split Mountain let us sign the register. This was not a "fun run" up a big mountain. Not at all, and by the end of it I had to admit that climbing Split took just about everything I had in the tank. Of course, we didn't pick the easy way to go up. A Class II hike up a peak isn't how I want to remember summiting. Dave Rivas and I want to do these peaks in the early season, ascend by a mountaineering route, and not have it just given to us. This is how we climbed Split.Dave and I set out on the 17th for Bishop. We picked up our permits for both Split and Middle Palisade, hit a couple of stores, took a bath in the Keohe hot springs, and headed back to Big Pine to rendezvous with the road to the trailhead. The drive out was interesting and the rumors about wanting four-wheel drive for this "road" are, I believe, understated. As we drove under the gaze of the Palisades, passing through sub-alpine pasture land and climbing into true desert, we got our heads around the idea that we would soon be suffering somewhere up there. The trailhead for Split was just a dirt turn-around, buggy and boring. Tomorrow the games would begin.We started hiking at 06:30 and immediately got off to the wrong start. The trailhead was poorly marked and ascended a steep hill, but we didn't know this so we just followed some trails made by fisherman and animals up the canyon, eventually linking back up with the real trail. It all worked out in the end as the path we had chosen was really no worse than the actual trail. Hiking up to Red Lake and Split is very tiring. The trail just sucks, averaging 45 degrees of angle and tipping frequently into the 60 degree range, with bugs and brush thrown in for fun. If I were to compare the Red Lake trail with other nasty ones such as Shepherd's Pass, I'd say that every bad thing about those other trails was compressed and amplified, and by late morning we were flogging it. Slogging over those last several hundred yards to Split Lake is an experience I can barely remember as I had slipped into a fugue state characterized by agony and exhaustion.
At the edge of Red Lake found a nice little site to set up for the next two nights. So far, so good. We threw together some chow, organized our gear for the summit, and flopped down for the night. At this point, I'd like to point out that Dave Rivas had just come off working 5 nights in a row, and the morning before we left I was on-call and had to go into the hospital at 03:15 and had never gone back to sleep. So, we were already operating on a sleep deficit, and waking up again at 04:00 to climb a big peak led us to bed early.We woke in the pre-dawn of the 19th, chugged coffee, and saddled up. We had to pick our way around the lake shore and up through a bit of talus before reaching the first snow fields below the peak. Staring upward it was clear that the entire route was going to be a snow-fest so out came the crampons. We picked the most direct line across up the snow and went to work.In the small bergschrund at the base of our route, St. Jean Couloir, we took a break to examine our options. From the schrund we could only see the first several hundred feet of our line, as the couloir was more of a weaving ice chute than a straight shot (this lack of ability to see the end of the chute became more than a little frustrating as the morning wore on).By the time we started kicking steps up 50 degree snow it was 08:00 and the sun was straight at our backs. We were in it for keeps. Dave and I swapped leads, trying to kick the most efficient line. This pounding, clawing scramble for elevation just dragged on and on. At times the angle was 70 degrees steep and we just kept hacking away. We had descended into the mountaineer's work-horse mentality...kick, step, sink the axe, kick, step,... Once in a while a few rocks would pinwheel down the gully, ensuring that we were awake. Kick, step...
The angle really tipped back near the end of St. Jean. I mean it got steep. I slipped once and took about 20 feet of fall before I was able to self-arrest. No big deal. By this time the snow was really soft, requiring more effort and care. We were dog tired and the summit ridge seemed so far away. Throwing ourselves back into it we busted out the last stretch of steep snow and were finally able to scramble out of the couloir.
Crampons off, we made a straight shot up the summit ridge. This is usually my favorite part of a climb but on this day, I just don't even remember the ridge. I only remember suddenly being there, looking out from 14,00 feet at the expanse of the Sierra. I located the summit register and just sat my ass down. Rivas popped onto the summit about 15 minutes later, and guess what? He just sat his tired ass down too. We were all in. Cooked. Done. Nuked. 36 hours ago we were at sea level. Now we were dead tired at 14. It was such a nice day I think we both kind of dozed on the summit for a bit before the inevitable discussion of the descent route.We had two options for the descent, down the way we came up, or walking down the standard Class II easy route which would take at least 3-4 hours. We agreed to take a look at St. Jean for a glissade descent. A glissade is potentially dangerous sleigh ride down a snow slope. Your butt is the sleigh and your axe is the brakes. I've done a number of glissades but I had real concerns about trying to ride down what was essentially double black-diamond extreme skiing territory. Rivas did not, and as I gazed speculatively down St. Jean Dave just walked to the edge, sat down, and within 30 seconds he was out of sight down the chute. Well, shit. Unless I was having auditory hallucinations, Dave was somewhere down there talking to me on the radio, so he was apparently still alive. Well, I thought, what the hell. I sat down, took a deep breath, and launched.This glissade was one of the scariest things I've ever done. Imagine bouncing down a ski slope full of rocks and chunk ice, on your butt, with the illusion of control guiding you ever downward. A couple of times I was 100% out of control, being sucked down the mountain into a terrifying well of gravity. At these times I would roll face down and put everything I had into sinking my axe as deep as I could and clinging to it for dear life. Several times I would come to a complete, jolting stop that left me dangling at the end of my axe leash. I'd have to kick back up to the axe pick, gently loosen it's hold, and then I'd be shooting down the mountain all over again. At one point I went over some rocks that had fallen from above and stuck in the snow. Several of these rocks got dislodged and went zipping down the couloir ahead of me, being chased down by my screams of "Rock! Rock!". One rock, a block the size of two bowling balls, missed Rivas by feet. He had heard my panicked cries and gotten off to the side of the chute, safely out of the way. By the time we got to the base of the peak we had descended in 45 minutes what took 7 hours to climb. Hairy. I was so beat that I went down twice within 300 yards of our campsite. It took a good hour of food, Gatoraid, and no boots to be able to perform normal tasks. We both slept poorly that night, whether due to aches and pains or subconsciously reliving the scares of the day I do not know. We woke the next day and slowly descended to the trailhead. Success! Yes! But tempered with exhaustion. As we drove out our thoughts were turning to a different, bigger mountain... Middle Palisade.


  1. Great pictures. I don't know that I will ever get in shape enough for that kind of a climb. For now, I'll stick to hiking at the lower levels. But it's great to look at the views you experienced. Thanks.

  2. Glissaded St. Jean's you guys are nuts. I remember standing at the top of the couloir and joking with a buddy about glissading that, we had a good laugh. Glad to know it can be done lol

  3. I love the write-up of your bagging Split - and to bagged it the St Jean way --- how so awesome. Would it be possible to get a copy of your gpx ?