After roping up, we quickly made our way up the main glacier to what we guessed (correctly) was the entrance to the Notch Couloir.
Well, Robin guessed it; I just doubted it. But I’ve learned that when we have differing opinions, he’s always right. Immediately, the snow thinned, steepened, and softened as the first rays of morning sun graced it’s dirty, hollow, apparently-hasn’t-snowed-in-months surface.
The climbing was fun, “safe,” and offered protection whenever we felt it necessary (for the most part). Mostly, though, we practiced the infamously safe simul style of climbing, which favors 2 dead climbers over 1. In this way, if 1 climber falls, his partner has the pleasure of tumbling down shortly thereafter, attached (literally, at the hip) with a rope characterized by virtually ZERO chance of breaking.
I lead and Robin followed. I placed precautionary rock, ice, and snow protection. Maybe we carried more gear than “necessary.” Maybe not. We didn’t fall.
After a few hours of climbing, we hit the “notch” in the afternoon sun. This couloir doesn’t reach the mountain’s summit, but instead heads to a notch that is a few hundred feet below and to its West.
The weather was bluebird and beautiful. The notch allowed us, for the first time, to see South, beyond Granite Peak and into the surrounding mountain range. Clouds were in the distance and the views were spectacular. We put the ice and snow gear away, removed our crampons, put on chalk bags, and got stoked to rock climb.
But first, of course, I had to have a problem. I, undeniably, have some sort of circulation issue with my fingers, and they tend to get unbearably cold at the least convenient (and most random) of times. For example–12000 feet above sea level, 2000 feet above the ground, with only one direction to go: up. My left hand was unbelievably cold. I could not seem to warm it up. And when this happens (rarely), it is the most insanely painful sting I’ve felt. Robin realized this, eventually grabbing it and rubbing the heck out of it to give me some feeling back in my hand. As quickly as the pain had come on, it disappeared. In mountain boots, I began to climb with Robin belaying. Soon, though, I realized how off-route I was, and that I was trying to climb some hard finger crack, in a freezing, strong wind, with boots on. Downclimbing was super sketchy, and I was happy to see that Robin had placed a “jesus-piece” of protection near the bottom of the pitch. I regrouped, and started climbing a better direction.
I’ve never had to be more careful of dislodging loose rock. It was SO loose, and I had a constant fear of kicking something onto Robin. I paid more attention than ever to every place my body contacted the rock. Even the loosest of rock seemed to connect with each hand and foot in such a way that allowed purchase without movement. We simuled a bunch of pitches, and made similar progress.
In fact, we were soon within sight of the true summit.
Before we knew it, we were standing on it. Exhausted. With clouds closing in FAST. We’ve both spent time in mountain ranges with really volatile weather, but the speed with which it approached was crazy.
We sat at 12,799 feet and watched our day become a bit more interesting.
With the weather on its way in, we started to roll out.
Within 10 minutes of leaving the summit, snow started to fall.
According to the summit registry, no one else had been atop Granite Peak that day. That late in the day (after noon), we assumed no one else would be climbing. We were tired. We found the first rappel station (descending the normal route, per our plans), and I threaded the rope. As I took my first step on rappel, though, an uncomfortably large rock dislodged from between my feet. I couldn’t believe such a big and loose rock was sitting at such a frequented location. EVERYone stood at this spot to rappel. As the rock made its first moves, Robin and I heard a soft voice from out of sight, below us. I know that Robin heard it as well because, without as much as a glace at one another, we screamed “RRROOOCCCKKKKKK” at the top of our lungs, horrified at the thought of someone in the rock’s trajectory. The rock began to tumble, first down the vertical cliff we stood atop, and quickly out of sight. It reappeared, 50 feet in the air, having bounced upon initial impact. A minute later, when its bouncing sounds finally subsided, we yelled at the mysterious voices from below, fearing the worst.
“ARE YOU OKAY!?”
“Yeah. WOOOOHOOOO!!!! We’re good!”
“We should really get down there, and quickly,” I said, rappelling quickly and lightly, super embarrassed and worried by what just occurred.
While climbers often have this serious and “all-business” mentality, way of climbing, and communication, Robin and I…don’t. While committing full attention to our climbing, we tell stories, freestyle in Spanish, and make fun of general outdoorsy-ness. But when things begin to go awry or demand a quick shift of perspective, we, luckily, are able to flick the switch concurrently, immediately, and without discussion.
Because the rappel was overhanging, I was able to glance down and between my legs to see the climbers standing against the face at the bottom of the pitch. Before my feet were on the ground, we were talking. Mainly, though, it consisted of just me apologizing. I felt as though no rock that size should ever be knocked down a popular climbing route, and I couldn’t express how badly I felt. But, surprisingly, they were mellow about it. They quickly brushed off any apologies I offered, and calmly and casually explained what had happened, from their point of view.
As I listened to them and Robin rappelled above us, snow fell lightly upon their t-shirt-covered arms. They were building a belay anchor for their final pitch of climbing to the summit.
“We didn’t know anyone was above us. But as soon as we heard you yell ‘rock,’ we just pushed ourselves into the wall, knowing it was overhanging [ed note: a reasonable and practical decision, thankfully]. Because we stood with our back against the wall, we were able to watch as the rock hit exactly where we had been standing just nanoseconds prior. Bro, that was crazy. But we ain’t maaaaadd atcha!”
They were 2 guys, 1 of them maybe even younger than Robin’s and my 23 years. They were happy to hear that they were now on the last pitch of the climb, and looked forward to getting off the mountain, having been there for 3 DAYS after getting lost on the approach.
So, crisis averted. My bad.