“The best alpinists are the ones with the worse memories”-Jimmy Chin

That pretty much describes the past weekend. After last years arduous episode ascending the NE Couloir of Argonaut Damien and I had both claimed that we would never, ever make an attempt again. And yet we found ourselves skiing up Eightmile Rd once again last weekend for our second summit bid. Not to mention this would be our 5th week walking up Eightmile Rd in a row!

We were much more weighed down this time as we walked up the Lake Stuart Trail. Our packs were overflowing with ice and trad gear, but our spirits were pretty high. We were hoping for good snow/ice conditions on the route. The avy was moderate and the weather seemed promising with sunshine and intermittent light snow. Finally we had a window to attempt a climb. We hadn’t had the opportunity to go for a summit since January with all the crazy weather this season.

When we reached Stuart Meadows and turned off the trail toward Argonaut. We crossed Mountaineer Creek immediately over a solid log bridge. This early crossing prevented us from having to cross 3-4x like we did last year since the creek branches further up (plus the crossing were much sketchier). The higher snow level also made thing much easier in the forest since low brush was covered. It is about 2 miles of cross country travel the where the tree open on the lower slopes of Argonaut. We switchbbacked up the slopes passing the large rock we had camped on last year and continuing to a meadow at 5400 feet where the slope angle will more gentle. We found a flatish spot here and, after some escalating of snow and leveling, we engineered a platform and windbreak for the tent. By then it was after 6 and we ate dinner admiring some excellent views of Stuart, Sherpa, Colchuck and Argonaut.

It was a bit windy at camp when we turned in, but it really picked up overnight, waking us up as gusts slammed against the tent. This was unexpected and made us wish for our 4 season tent. We woke up at 3am to find low visibility, high winds and driving snow. We decided to give it another hour. At 4am the wind and snow was the same, but visibility was better. We shouldered our packs and headed into the darkness up steep, crumbled avalanche debris. The thing about the slopes are Argonaut is that they never let up. Every time you this you are getting to crest the hill and reach a flat spot you a greeted with a slight decrest in incline followed up a even steeper hill! The debris field was enormous. Larger than last year. We found that climbing on the clean slide was easier than on the debris itself when we had an option. the snow felt stable, but not great underfoot. It was just “off” somehow in a way I can’t quite describe. Damien’s crampons kept getting snagged up, that was mostly due to crampon comparability with his ski boot, he had never tried combining this set before. He used a ski strap tto secure the crampons though and that seemed to help.

The wind was still blasting us when the sun crested the horizon. Heavy clouds and mist moved in and out concealing and then revealing the mountains thats surrounded us. Argonaut’s upper North face moved in and out of view with the clouds and snow that stung our faces. Every now and then the sun would peak out and some blue with appear in the sky, but the clouds always closed in again.

We took shelter from the wind as best we could by a large boulder to take a break and examine the couloir. It was definitely more filled in with snow this year. It looked clean. Almost too clean. We wondering if there was an upper wind slab that hadn’t broken free yet. We knew there was a wind slab danger on the NE aspect in the area. The filled in snow would also possibility make protecting the route with rock gear challenging. But heck we didn’t want to turn back on this route and have to start all over again on a third attempt either! Where these concerns legitimate? As we pondered if we should proceed a particularly heavy gust of wind somehow manged to lift Damien’s food bag out of his backpack and send the bag down the mountain. One more thing to add the the “going wrong list”. Yikes.

In the end we decided that “we don’t want to have to do another attempt” was not a good enough reason to get into the couloir. Too many things were wrong. Even if the couloir went well the wind on the ridge would be murder. We reluctantly decided that we would have to retreat. Slowly we made our way down following a trail of kind bars that were scattered over the slopes. Snow continued to swirl in the gales and snow hammered us like little needles in our faces. Camp was a welcome sight indeed!

We broke camp after a nap. The wind never let up and the weather continued to vary between stormy and clear. We made the right call just considering the weather factors alone. This was definitely the best adventure we’d had in a  long time. Sometimes the summit isn’t the most important thing. Sometimes the best adventure is the journey and being exposed to the alpine elements. If you get every summit you set out for, you’re not setting hard enough goals. I guess this climb has become poetic to me. And I have the feeling that enough though right now I fell like I am done attempt the NE couloir that I will find myself on the approach again.

 

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