“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
Buster and I left the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 330am. Our skinned skis sounded like laser guns, gliding along the snow which was well packed thanks to the hoards of people who come to the gorge to cross country ski and snowshoe into that majestic section of Rocky Mountain National Park. Our goal was The Big Mac Couloir on McHenry’s Peak. Both Buster and I had failed before to send this “route,” with Buster having bailed off the top of the 1st pitch and me having abandoned a previous attempt due to a late start. With the end of the calendar winter approaching fast, it was time to strike.
We kept our skis on for about 2.5 hours until we had emerged from the black lake cirque into the grandiose alpine amphitheater at the back of Glacier Gorge. Besides being home to some of the best alpine rock in CO, the gorge also offers gnarly mixed alpine routes and classic waterfall ice. McHenry’s peak presides over the Western side of the gorge. Its dramatic eastern aspect is defined by 3 main gully systems; The Snow Bench, Big Mac Couloir, and the The Right Gully.. All 3 require the climber to ascend 2-3 mixed pitches (about M2-4 R) whose level of sketchiness (LOS)* range from 3-4 depending on snow conditions. We ditched our skis about 3/4 miles from the base of the route, and boot packed through varying snow the rest of the way to the base. On my previous attempt at Big Mac, I had tried to exit Black lake via the slabs to the North of the West Gully ice flow…BIG MISTAKE, LOS4 due to stupidity. The safest and fastest way to get anywhere in the gorge is to exit black lake via the snow gully on the East.
We stood below the base of McHenry’s at 815am, roped up and ready to depart on our sketchtastic voyage. Since Buster had already climbed the first pitch (although it was an ice variation to the North), I offered to lead the first block. My first obstacle was avoiding a 20-30 foot death hole beneath the snow, a sort of bergshrund. The snow at the start was horrendous. Anywhere from 3 inches to 3 feet of loose powder clung precariously to the granite slabs. The most solid moves I could manage came when I was able to excavate some snow and find frozen moss underneath, which offered decent placements for my ice tools and single point crampons. Buster had just taken an avalanche course and was quick to point out, in newly learned technical terminology, just how sketchy the snow beneath my feet really was. The next pitch had the worst snow on the entire route and all I could find for a belay was a slot for an orange master cam and a piton connected by a sliding X. I lead the 3rd pitch, taking us up the bottom of Snow Ramp, and angling right at the first chance into the base of The Big Mac, belaying again off a small cam and a piton.
By this time the sun had muscled its way through the overcast sky and began to warm things up a bit. We were also now on a southeast facing aspect, and the snow went from Sketchasauras Rex to not so shitty. Buster swung into the lead and set a belay just below what would be the defining crux pitch of the route. I belayed below a steepening chimney constriction for the next hour while Buster skillfully made his way up some strenuous and loose terrain. He negotiated a dirty rock chimney with crusty ice runnels and a precarious snow mushroom to boot, probably rated M5-6.
By the time I made it up to his belay, it was 130pm and we needed to start moving if we hoped to avoid getting benighted. I suggested we start simulclimbing since the terrain ahead of us looked like mostly steep snow climbing with possible rock protection along the sides of the gully. I lead the simul push for the next 350 feet or so through decently packed steep snow and a step or two of mixed rock with frozen moss. I set a belay about 100 feet below the cornice that defined the summit ridge of McHenry’s from the East. I then lead a final 200-300 foot simul-pitch until I surmounted the huge buttress that separates the Big Mac Couloir from the Right Gully. That’s when I saw the weather coming in.
One pitch away from the summit plateau and a subsequent quick descent via Stoneman pass, retreat was not an option, and Buster quickly lead a short rock pitch to the summit plateau. Here we packed up the 8.5mm rope we had used as a single line the whole time into a pack and scrambled to the top.
By this time “groppel” had begun to fall, which is like soft little hail balls, which the early native Americans believed to be the Parmesan cheese of the weather spirit. Buster informed me that this “Groppel” was usually associated with lightning, which is usually associated with death, and not a welcoming thought when you are at the summit of a 13000 foot mountain. We quickly descended the 3rd-4th class ridge to Stoneman Pass, which still faintly held my tracks from 3 weeks prior when Asa Firestone and I had settled for a quick summit of the peak when our attempt of The Big Mac had been thwarted by a late start. We made it down to the pass in about 45 minutes, and hung out there for a while since the weather was easing up. A quick glisade down to the main cirque was followed by a hike back to our skis and then back to the car. P=G!
8.5mm dynamic dry rope used as a single for leading and simul-climbing
7mm tag line for bailing, never used
single rack of cams from blue TCU to #3 BD
set of stoppers
4 pitons (very key!)
2 ice screws, never used
8 slings, 2 double length slings, 2 x 30 foot cordalettes
ice tools, single point crampons
black lake 530am
base of route 720am
back to skis 530pm
*Level of Sketchiness ratings
1. Sketchy in spots if you’ve never encountered such conditions (Most of Colorado)
2. Unanimous sketchness, but ample protection (Ouray Ice Park)
3. Wussies (combination of wimp and pussy) need not apply, little protection and questionable conditions (any “Scotty Vacation”)
4. Delicate climbing needed to avoid death, protection sparse, survival takes precedence over style (Big Mac)
5. Major Cajones required, little to no protection, poor conditions, bad weather, luck is a key factor in avoiding catastrophe (A bad day at the Ouray ice park)
6. In order for a route to earn a LOS6, something bad has to happen during the climb and someone has to live to tell about it