The Notch Couloir

Back in 1991, I split Moab in search of a hiatus, and found one in the form of a little cabin up in the back of Eldorado Canyon, near Boulder, Colorado. I shared it with two other dudes, Guy and Tony. I worked at a little bar downtown as a bouncer and had the whole upper canyon to myself most days. It was situated just past Supremacy Crack and The Web, was quiet, and out it’s front window, lay a million dollar view of the Rincon Wall. I spent most days in the canyon doing my usual soloing circuit or bouldering; but occasionally roping up for something worthy. Come February, there was a cold snap to be reckoned with and I figured if I was gonna be cold, I might as well be somewhere it didn’t matter, like high in the Mountains. So, at midnight, I left Boulder, in my old ’76 Chevy Van, and headed up to Estes Park and my goal of Long’s Peak, to solo the Notch Couloir on it’s East Face in Winter.

The Notch Couloir is a cleft on the left side of the East Face, interrupted primarily by the ledge system bisecting the face known as “Broadway Ledge”. To gain the Notch Couloir, one has to  start up a lower angle, but longer couloir, or gully, for 700 feet or so, then traverse Broadway for a spell, before entering the Notch Couloir proper. Sometimes this series of gullies and traverses are used by climbers looking to gain access to the  Diamond’s upper face, or conversely, it is sometimes used as a bailout for descent. In the summertime, when said rock routes are being climbed, these gullies do not pose much of a threat, the Lamb’s Slide, as the lower couloir is known, is generally easy snow early in the summer and by late summer most years it is a talus gully. The traverse across Broadway and the Notch Couloir itself, are generally rock and snow perspectively. However, by the end of August, the Notch Couloir turns to ice and a whole new animal is born.  It was this animal I was after.

The weather that fall and early winter was pretty mild, and it was reflected upon the number of routes I climbed in Eldo that season; it was no different up high in the mountains. In fact, the approach to the East Face was done almost entirely either on old, hard pack snow, or was simply snow free; no snowshoes or skis required.

As I drove up past Estes Park and into the realm of the Mountain Gods, my mind was filled with anticipation of the route. I figured the approach in the snow to be heinous, the Lamb’s Slide slog to be easy and cruise-worthy, the traverse out of Broadway straightforward, and the actual route of the Notch Couloir, probably Alpine Ice III, maybe up to 70 degrees or so… As it turned out, most of these notions were wrong.

I pull up to the trailhead around 2am and crawl in my sleeping bag and get an hour of shuteye. In those days, with an adventure mere hours away, a whole hour of sleep seemed like eternity and I awoke at 3 am, all fired up. I toss my axe, alpine hammer, and crampons into the pack, along with a few necessary clothes, snacks, and water, and hit the trail. I glance at the thermometer on my dashboard; 16 degrees F., about average for this time of morning, the second week of February, here in Colorado’s Northern Rockies.

Blazing up the trail in a couple of hours, I stop briefly at Chasm View Lake, and power down some calories before getting into the Lamb’s Slide. The slog to the base of the gully went by fast and soon I was happily slogging up the lower slopes, headlamp free and accompanied by the nearly full moon. Being here, in this place, alone, high in the mountains, with the moon lighting the distant peaks, an ice axe for company and the only thing stirring, my frozen breath escaping my mouth, is an extraordinary sensation.  It causes me to realize, once again, my own deep appreciation of these wild places and how small and fragile our lives and all lives really are. And of how deeply beautiful this planet is and of how fragile it really is.

My nearly overwhelming interlude of a greater appreciation for all that is in this haunting place, is suddenly interrupted by my ice axe, not sinking into frozen snow and neve, but instead, bouncing off of hard, blue ice. I swing again, and the tip of the old Chouinard standard penetrates a mere quarter inch. I readjust my mind to update my climbing style and mental awareness to meet these new, unexpected conditions. Adapt, adjust, prosper. Even though the angle of the ice is only 45 degrees or so, I switch to front pointing one foot and flat footing, french style, the other. Always my preferred technique on such a slope. Still with one axe, firmly planting overhead, front point, flat foot up, balance on free palm of other hand, remove axe, and repeat. I felt this was the best way to maintain my rhythm and speed; pulling out the ice hammer would have been awkward and, ultimately, I believe would slow me down by forcing another, slower technique of handling two ice tools on such seemingly moderate terrain. This seemed to be the ticket and I managed to gain a few hundred feet in the blink of an eye. I could see to top of the Lamb’s Slide from my new vantage point, and I could see the traverse to the right, leading overhead and onto the hopefully flat real estate of Broadway. As I moved upward from this spot, swinging the the old bamboo shaft in a truncated arc, I hear and see the tip plant itself solidly into the brittle, blue ice. I move my feet upward and balance. Suddenly, as I weight the axe, I hear the crack of the ice around my axe. I see an unusual sight as Vertical and horizontal fractures penetrate not only the surface of the couloir, but of my mind. Within a split second, my axe is no longer attached to the gully, but poised, in the air, mind fist tightly clenched around it. A plate of ice one inch thick, and a foot in diameter are still encased around the axe’s tip. I teeter there for a moment, as if the planet stopped spinning, and time itself seemed to freeze solid. But only for a millisecond. Then I was falling. Down.

Finding yourself in a weightless, gravity induced situation such as this is a funny thing, especially when it is nearly a given the end result will be certain death. The actual sensation is really one of euphoria, for lack of a better explanation. Time really does stand still, if only for a moment. A moment is all it takes…

At the moment of realizing what was happening, turn in my knees to keep my body facing inward, and try desperately to keep my knees bent to prevent my front founts from snagging as my body accelerated down the ice. The Lamb’s Slide has no real runout at the bottom, just a short bergshrund and rocky talus field below, which was 600 feet below me. As I slide, my life had mere moments left to live, and I struggled to somehow stop. Amazingly, stop is what I did; in a sea of ice, one lone atoll of softer snow jutted out from the Lamb’s Slide, as if put there for me to land. And land I did. Somehow. The patch, only a foot across, the slope, 45 degrees, and surrounded by ice, managed to field  a falling, sliding body, with sharp metal points sticking from it. Miraculously, I was totally unhurt, but badly shaken. My Axe was ripped from hand, leash and all; I could see it, high above me, maybe 200 feet up. It looks like I had fallen 500 or 600 feet total.

Then, another interesting thing happened: The sun, now beginning to rise, it’s bright crescent just barely surfacing the distant peaks, was like a second chance. It was life giving and rejuvenating to the point of tears to me. Somehow, I had managed to survive this madness. My drive and psyche had reached a peaking level, and without any more haste, I dig into my pack, sip some water, and untie my ice hammer. Only then do I gingerly move upward again, toward the old Chouinard Piolet. Going back to the same technique, I reach the Piolet, and now armed with two ice tools, motor up the Lamb’s Slide once again.

I move upward to the gullies’ top, and exit onto the rocky beginnings of Broadway. It is blocky and fifth class, so I rope up and throw in a couple of nuts for an anchor. This short pitch led to another traverse rightward, and I could now see into the Notch Couloir. It appeared to be hard ice and shot upward for several hundred feat, mixed, here and there, with a bit of rock for crampons to scrape. I attempt the second traverse, only to be thwarted by avalanche conditions on Broadway. Snow, piled at maximum angle, fluffed off for a thousand foot ride the moment I planted a foot. There seemed to be no way around this dilemma; I decide that enough is enough. Moving back to the anchors of the belay, I see that a rappel  will droop me straight down into the heart of the Lamb’s Slide., so down I go. Doing so, put me about 500 feet above the gullies’ start, which I down climb slowly and cautiously, as time is now no longer an issue. At the bottom, I scramble back over to Chasm View Lake, and sit there, quietly, and stare up at the mighty Diamond.

The drive back to Boulder and Eldo were totally forgettable, to the point I do not even remember driving. In fact, the whole next week was spent pretty much just hiking the canyon and being mesmerized by the towering sandstone walls. Climbing was not even considered at this point. A trip to Zion in another month to do a spectacular first ascent would change all of that… But that’s another story.

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