We got a little more than we bargained for when we set out to climb Argonaut Peak via the NE Couloir this weekend. The plan was to hike in and camp below the couloir, climb the next day with a carry over to Colchuck Lake and hike out. This is I guess what happened, but it unfolded rather differently from what we had in mind.

The road to Stuart Lake TH (Eightmile rd) is still not opened. So we began early on Saturday to get past the 4 mile road walk by mid morning and get on the real trail. Stuart Lake Trail is pretty beat down from all the traffic and there were a fair amount of folks on the trail with us. We unfortunately were passed by couple with two dogs. There are signs all over the TH stating that no dogs are allowed which kind of irked us. Damien mentioned it to them, but the gentleman arrogantly retorted “Not when the road is closed.” Sometimes even in the wilderness you can’t escape jerks.

At the Junction with Colchuck Lake TH we put on our snowshoes. The Stuart Lake Trail was not very well beat down from here as everyone funnels to Colchuck. We were happy to remove weight from our packs. Both of us were carrying a twin rope for the long rappels. We hiked for about 1 mile to the clearing where Argonaut becomes visible looming over the valley. From here we hiked .2 more miles before cutting left off the trial and into the trees.

Bushwhacking off trail became very tedious business. The snow was melting leaving lows of hallow areas and unstable snow bridges everywhere. It was like walking through a giant booby trap. This ate away a far amount of time. Furthermore we had to cross Mountaineer Creek 3x. The beta often makes it sound like there are plenty of stable logs to cross. However, with the creek running fast and 6ft deep in places and the logs not as grand as expected this also became time consumer. The first crossing was over a thicker log which, though scary, was stable. We had to search around when crossing the area where the creek folks and found only borderline acceptable crossing. In fact, after Damien leaped across some rocks that were too spread out for my much shorter legs he built me a bridge of logs! He said this was my early birthday gift.

After the final crossing we were able to vaguely see the open slopes of Argonaut through the trees. We trudged on. My back had been killing me ever since our Liberty Bell Group Ski Tour when I had to cart my skis on back down the road making for a total load of about half my weight (60lbs). I was really really looking forward to taking off my pack. The tree began to break and Argonaut loomed high above us. We opted to climb up some of the lower slopes and look for a place to camp. Luckily Damien came across a nice flat area in the snow beside a big flat rock perfect for cooking. This made a lovely home for the evening as we admired 360 degree views of the surrounding Mountains including Stuart, Sherpa and Colchuck as we enjoyed a fine meal by Mountain House. We turned in before dark prepared to wake up early the next morning to begin the trek up.

At 4am when the alarm rang we could hear a gentle pitter patter on the tent fly. Rain. The forecast had said there was a slight chance of snow/rain overnight that wouldn’t amount to much. Still we didn’t want to pack water soaked gear and lug it over the mountain in the carry over. We decided to wait to out and began getting ready to leave at 5am.

As light spilled over the snow covers sloped of Argonaut and illuminated the surrounding craggy peaks we slowly snowshoed up the steep slope toward the NE Couloir which is the left obvious couloir. We roped up on a narrow rocky ridge above a huge avalanche debris field.

Damien lead easily to the base of the couloir. We used the full length of twin ropes due to the double rope rappel needed on the way down. The couloir started out wide. we used the axes dagger and deadman style and the climbing went quickly. Damien place don picket. Further up the walls grew closer funneling us into the narrow couloir. Damien placed some mid- sized nuts, cams, a piton and a tricam in this seemingly endless and steep area. Snow condition were continuously changing and inconsistent. There was snow so hard we had to swing at it like ice and about an ice away might be snow was with softer like Styrofoam. Basically we used a mixed bag of swings, dagger and deadman tool placements. Note that as the couloir got narrow debris from the upper climber falls at whistling speeds down these runnel areas. staying on the side near the rock and out of these trenches provided good protection, but sometimes crossing was required so I ran across. About 3/4 of the way up Damien ran out of pro and built a gear anchor. We swapped leads and I began the final pitch.

The couloir got wider, but the gear grew scarce. I didn’t see any good rock placements on the sides. I placed the first picket and looked above me. I had one more picket left. I decided I would climb the next steep section which seemed to be about in 30-40ft. After that the angle eased up… or so I thought. The closer I got the more I realized that the easing angle was some kind of illusion from below. And the top of the couloir seemed to be somehow the same amount of distance away. Oh endless slopes. I placed the final picket and resigned myself to not falling.

About 4 yards from the top i spotted from slings on my left. I almost used them for my belay anchor, but after an inspection I’m not convinced I didn’t trust the rock or the old slings. I put in a came and moved to a flat rock square beside some crack on the right wall. I was able to build an anchor here and belay Damien up.

Damien passed me, crested the small col and disappeared on the other side. He called that there was a ridge and he had found a tree. He belayed me over the other side where i scrambled over rocky exposed terrain. The final 250ft of Argonaut reared up on on left looking ominous in the sudden darkening sky. When I left my belay stance the sky was blue, but now grey clouds were furiously rolling in and the winds were picking up. We decided that going for the summit would not be wise in the deteriorating weather and the time 3:30pm. Carrying the extra carry overweight had really slowed our normal progress speed. Instead, Damien belayed me down to a thick tree with wrap slings so I could peak over the edge at the rappel. Going back the way we had come was also an option but not recommended since it is very sketchy. Instead it is better to do a rappel down sheer rock wall ridge. Damien wanted me to see if our two 60Meter ropes would reach the snow. I wasn’t convinced they would. Of course as I said this snow began to fall from the sky and swirl around us in the fierce wind. Hypothermia set in for both of us almost immediately and we delayed all decision making until we had more layers put on.

I belayed Damien to the tree and after some discussion we decided that we should execute the scary rappel. If the ropes didn’t reach the snow we hoped to find some kind of left behind mid-way anchor or, worse case scenario, build our own gear anchor. The slings on the stout tree looked pretty good, but we decided to leave behind our own cordaette and rap rings. Damien went down first. It took forever. I shivered again the wind and snow feeling very very much like an alpine climber. I was also gazing toward Colchuck Col. We would have to traverse under a rock buttress and then back up to the col once we finished the rappel. It all seemed very very far away. Damien had estimated we’d be home by 1am. I wasn’t convinced, especially when i watched the col disappearing in a momentary whiteout.

Finally the rope went slack and Damien called up that he was off rappel. The echo bounced all over the rock walls around me. I clipped in, triple checked the system and undid my PA. This was the rappel of rappels. I hadn’t used my training for rappeling off of roofs since my first climbing class 4 years ago, but here they were. Roof after roof. I tried to lower my butt first as far as possible, but my heavy pack made me off balance so it wasn’t a very graceful descent.

Damien was standing on a tiny ledge in a small open book crack system. He was clipped into four nuts, someone previous anchor exactly where we needed it. Luck. We prayed that the ropes would pull clean and by some miricle they didn’t get held up in the many cracks above. However, we wouldn’t get of this mountain without some trouble. Our twin ropes seem to have a habit of tangling into complicated bird’s nests.  It didn’t matter how careful were were; they kept getting into a knotted mess as were coiled. This was a huge time eater. Finally we were able to toss the ropes. Damien’s threw clean and mine got help up were the rock met snow. I rapped first since i was on a lower ledge than Damien. This rappel was somewhat easier since it didn’t involve roofs. I did have to navigate over some moats as the snow creeped up on the rock. More of the rap was through the snow though and I took it until the rope’s end.

With Damien on the ground beside me we began the long traverse to Colchuck Col. We had to go down and around this small buttress and then back up again to get to the col. I was doing well until I had to start going up again. I had 300 calories in bars left so I wasn’t eating much. The storm had blown by but the cold remained. My back ached with the weight of the pack and my whole body suddenly felt drained. Still we plodded on in snowshoes to the top of the col. Only it wasn’t the top of the col. It was just a hump. The real col laid beyond at what seemed, at that point, to me like an impossible distance. Wearing every article of clothing I had as my body lost it’s ability to maintain temperatures we continued our march to the col.

We sat down and removed our snowshoes on the rocks of the col. It was 8:00 and the sun was beginning to set. The snow was growing hard in the evening cold. Originally we had planned to glissade down to Colchuck Lake 2000 feet below, but in icy conditions this would not be safe. We decided to try and plunge step and french step our way down to the tiny distant lake. So so far away.

Damien tried to glissade at one point, but the icy shrapnel  flying in his face made him abandon that idea quickly. I switched back down, but found my leg growing weak. I found an old glissade track and tried it. Not too bad so long as I buried my axe deep for control. The snow was softer here too for some reason, though not exactly fluffy. More like soft ice. But I didn’t trust my feet anymore. I found that if i dug hard enough into the snow with my axe I could glissade slowly enough to feel safe. It was tedious going and completely darkness fell just as we reached the bottom.

We now faced a decision. Try to hike out exhausted, unfed, dehydrated and with muscle fatigue or sleep for a few hours to at least have some of the exhaustion relieved. Also, since i feel a few times coming down the slope when i was trying to walk down (yay for successful self arresting) it seems like the more logical decision as my legs weren’t happy with me. I think it was the almost zero calorie input and high energy output that really did me in the most.

We set up and camp and melted some snow on the side of the lake before Colchuck Col. Before settling in for a deep and hard sleep we agreed to walk up at 2:00am to complete the journey out. Of course those 4 hours felt more like 5 minutes. Our bodies were stiff as we crawled out of our sleeping bags and tried to rub the sleep out of our eyes. I had slept with my rain-gear on since my body was having issues maintaining temperature. But will all the goretex i stayed warm enough.

We packed up and follow the stamped out trail by the light of our headlamps. The walk around the lake to the trail down was a bit of a maze, but by choosing the track that was the most stomped down we were able to slowly move around the lake and get to the descent. We had assumed that the trail down would be easy and well stomped out. This was true.. except there were several trails to choose from. With many folks in the road so to speak we kept looking at the gps and trying to choose the right one. Sometimes the track we followed wasn’t on the summer trail though which made it difficult. It was at one of these off the summer track junction that we turned left in the direction the main trail was. It ended up being a trail that descended steep embankments and harsh terrain. Not something we wanted to deal with when each of us had consumed about 150 calories for breakfast. However, we did eventually find a better trail and our way down to the creek crossing. We took off our packs here and filtered water admiring the gorgeous colors of sunrise. It was light now and Monday. No one else would be on the trail we assumed. Solitude. It was kind of nice to have the wilderness to ourselves and we endured sore muscles, dehydration, exhaustion and hunger. I definitely felt worse than Damien. But it is suffering that makes us better alpinist. And it is suffering that teaches us to endure all the trials of life.

But before I could trying appreciate all this pain and suffering and we had to continue down. We once again shouldered our packs. My steps were pretty quick up until .75 miles after the next bridge crossing. Then my feet felt like led. It seemed to take ages to get to the Trailhead parking lot. We wished that the road was open and that our car was parked there to greet us. But there was only snow patches. Instead we had to walk another 4 miles along the road back to our car on Icicle Creek. The journey seemed endless, but we made it.

We might not have summited Argonaut, but this goes down as one of the greatest adventures I’ve had in the alpine. Bad weather, harsh conditions, obscure route, technical climbing and technical decision making… and above all a test of physical and mental fortitude. This is what makes a true climber. VIEW VIDEO

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