A First Ascent in the Sierra Nevada (September 1984)

Up until 2008, our adventures were retained only as memories and on Kodachromes. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the Kodachromes haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring some of our past adventures into the 21st Century. These are some of those.

The LovedOne and I watched Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey (2017) the other night.  It was a very balanced and entertaining account of probably the most accomplished, influential, but not necessarily easy to get along with, climber of his time.  His absolutely singular focus on climbing and mountaineering garnered him almost 1,000 first ascents of new routes and of previously unclimbed mountains.  Watching the movie chronicle Beckey’s exploits dredged-up the memory of the one (and only and unintended) first ascent of my 30-year amateur climbing career.  While Beckey’s first ascents occupy the stratosphere of mountaineering legend, ours was a much, much humbler affair.  But it still seems like a good story…

It’s September 1984.  Larry was a climbing partner then and remains a friend to this day (I went to his wedding in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt; he was best man at mine in a three-piece suit with sandals and red socks). We wanted to do a moderate ice climb in the Sierras.  September was a bit late in the season for ice climbing but this was the only time our respective work schedules aligned.  We had the weekend but missing work on the following Monday couldn’t happen.  We picked the North Couloir (since renamed the Engram Couloir) on Mount Gilbert (13,106 ft / 3,995 m) out of South Lake as our goal – challenging but not epic.

These days the ice routes on Mounts Gilbert and Thompson (13,494 ft / 4,112 m) seem to be done as long dayhikes.  In those days it was drive up after work on Friday, sleep in the parking lot, hike to basecamp and catch-up on your sleep on Saturday, do the route, hike out, and drive home on Sunday, hopefully getting back early enough for a little sleep before work on Monday.  I don’t recall needing a permit in those days; if we did, we didn’t get one.

Morning in the South Lake parking lot
Larry catches-up on either his reading or his sleep

From camp, we got our first close look at the Engram Couloir on Mount Gilbert and it seemed as though its middle section had melted-out and was just wet rock.  It was not an inviting prospect. But from camp we could also see a series of couloirs in the ridge running east from the summit of Mount Thompson (today these are known as the Thompson Couloirs).  The left-most couloir seemed to be full of snow and ice that swept upward unbroken to the crest.  Although this couloir was not described in the 1976 Climber’s Guide, Larry and I decided to give it a try anyway – at least it looked like there was some ice in it.

(1) What became our first ascent, (2) Smrz Couloir, (3) Harrington Couloir

Sunday morning dawned bright, crisp, and clear – perfect climbing weather!  We were still too young and optimistic to be suspicious of such meteorological cooperation (that would change in the years ahead).  After stuffing our backpacks and camping gear under a large boulder, we churned our way across the broken rubble of the glacial moraine to the start of the climb.

A bright, clear sunny day – what could go wrong?

The climb itself was great fun – a mix of good snow with ice patches, culminating in a pitch of 5th Class 70°ice.  We topped out on Thompson’s broad southeast plateau around noon still in perfect weather.

An easy start into the couloir
Swinging leads with Larry
Almost to the steepest pitch

We hadn’t been 10 minutes into our walk toward Thompson’s summit when the weather went totally sideways – howling wind pushing sleet and snow flurries, mixed with an occasional thunderclap.  When someone tells you mountain weather can change fast, believe them!

So, there we were, getting wetter and colder by the minute and possibly just one discharge away from being reduced to large charcoal briquettes.  Oh, rapturous joy!  I frankly can’t recall what was guiding our judgment at that point (if anything) but we decided to descend the southeast side of the plateau and circle around to the low notch between Thompson and Gilbert.  Why we thought that would be easier than simply rappelling down the couloir (which is current practice, thanks in part to the placement of fixed anchors) I can’t recall.  But we were seriously motivated to get off that plateau before we got barbecued.

So off we went – now in a heavy rain – down the side of the ridge on 3rd and 4th Class ledges, across the talus-filled valley below, then up some 5.7 to the notch, ending with an 80-foot rappel down to easy ground.  Mercifully (or ironically) the rain ended and the weather cleared as we made our way back to camp.  There we found that the large boulder we’d carefully stashed our packs under had leaked and we now had two sodden, heavy loads to hump back to the trailhead.  Oh, rapturous joy (again)!

The weather clears as we get back to camp (our return route was over the notch in the center

Getting off the peak had eaten up a lot of time, so much of the trudge back to the trailhead – both on- and off-trail – was with headlamps.  Once in the car, Larry’s driving skill and lots of coffee got us back home by 0400 – for 3 hours of caffeine-addled sleep before heading to work first thing Monday morning.  That proved to be a long, long, long day – probably the hardest one of the climb.

Larry was happy it finally stopped raining

I wrote-up our little exploit for our local climbing newsletter (on actual paper in those days) and then mostly forgot about it.  Years later I was flipping through one of the current Sierra climbing guides when I spotted our route – now called the Knudtson Couloir (that name is another story) – listed as a first ascent!  Our retreat down the southeast face was listed as a first descent (it was certainly a descent into something…).  Who knew?  I’d thought this route wasn’t in the 1976 guide due to an oversight, not because it hadn’t been climbed before. 🙄 We did the first ascent in good style but the descent – despite being a first and all – was a bit of a kluge. 😳 Certainly not something Beckey would have done.  But thanks to him (in spirit) for reminding me to dredge up this ancient memory for Larry and myself! 🙂

(A) Engram Couloir we passed on, (B) Our first ascent, Dotted line is our first descent
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2 comments

  1. Thanks! Even then, most of us had already switched to the first generation of internal frame packs. Larry just didn’t want to spend the money on a new pack. 🙂 But a recent article in Outside Online suggested that external frames might be making a little comeback. For the retro backpacker I guess. 🙄

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  2. Always enjoy your posts of old adventures- Great photos and fun stories —— plus the pictures with the old style external frame packs bring back memories 😊

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