Humble Pie in the Apocalypse Couloir
Posted 4 years, 3 months ago by AJ Linnell
After the huge success of my trip into the Tetons with NOLS in January (check out my last post,) I was super inspired to get up into the higher peaks at the core of the range. Unfortunately, my next foray wasn’t quite as successful–after leaving the house at 2am, my buddy Jake and I turned back from the East Face of the Middle Teton within 250′ of the summit. Totally frustrating (especially as this was my third attempt at the East Face) but with deteriorating weather and the trickiest part of the climb right in our faces, we had to call it a day.
As it was, we got some amazing 55-degree turns on chalky powder for ~1200′ down to the glacier below. And fat powder down the glacier and out Garnet Canyon.
So that was the setup when we decided to tackle the Apocalypse Couloir on Prospector’s Mountain a few days later. Having just been denied the summit of the Middle, we probably had some extra “human factor” preying on us when we set out across Phelps Lake with the Apocalypse in view. I like to think that I’m pretty good at staying objective in my decision-making in the mountains. Perhaps not super conservative, but thoughtful.
In any case, the trip into the base of the couloir took longer than expected–goofy route-finding and unclear directions from a different parking lot than where I’ve started in the past.
We ran into a couple of moose right where we wanted to cross the creek in Death Canyon–cool wildlife encounter, but it definitely took us a bit of time to skirt around them. After leaving my approach skis tucked under a rock below the couloir, we began the long bootpack that would ultimately place us in the cave at the apex of the couloir. Nice powder varied from ankles to knee-deep climbing into the couloir proper, and then firmed up as we approached the ice in the narrows.
The Apocalypse is an hourglass-shaped couloir with a ~40′ section of mixed snow and ice in the narrows, requiring mild climbing technique to continue moving up, and a rappel or downclimb for the return trip. Above the narrows, as the upper funnel opens up, the couloir takes a hard left and continues for another 1000′ to the cave at the top and steep rock continuing to the summit of Prospector’s. My understanding is that Stephen Koch and Mark Newcomb named it the Apocalypse when they made the first descent because of the unreal amount of ice hanging over the lower half of the route, presenting the very real possibility of being crushed under icefall if things warm up. Little bits and chunks of ice rain down as you climb; it’s quite a relief to climb past the narrows and into the more standard couloir-skiing hazards of moving snow and rockfall.
We chose a cold day with light snowfall in the hopes that low temps would keep the ice in place. In that assessment we were correct; nothing much was moving up there, just wispy little spindrifts pouring off the rocks above and blowing apart in the light breeze. The trailbreaking in the upper couloir was great–firm and fast–with the exception of three pockets of ridiculously deep powder.
As in belly-button-deep. Brutal, and it should have been a clear sign that conditions weren’t as safe as we’d thought. My instinct was telling me that something wasn’t right, but we were working so hard to get to the top and we had just turned back from the Middle and all we wanted was to finish this thing, so we kept going.
We took some time in the cave at the top to eat and drink, replenishing ourselves after the 6-hour push to get there. Then Jake took a couple of pictures and set up to shoot me making the first few turns down our line.
On my tenth turn, I pulled out the first slab. It pushed me around a bit, but I rode off of it and yelled up for Jake to ski the bed surface down to me. It turned out those deep pockets were slabs waiting for the right shear force to cause them to fail. On my sixth turn of the next pitch I pulled out another, deeper slab. Probably about 40cm deep, it was moving with some serious force and it took me a while to get off the side of it. I don’t often experience real fear when I’m out, but as the slab carried me downhill and piled up on my shoulders I was scared. All I could do was try to carry momentum to the side and toss myself into the rock wall bordering the couloir. Ultimately, I got out of it and watched the debris speed by as it slid down and around the corner. At that moment, I wanted more than anything to be safe at home with my wife and our dog.
After Jake skied down to me again, we discussed what to do from there, how to manage the last pocket, and then made cautious turns down to the main fork of the couloir. The last pocket was totally wiped clean by the slab I had just knocked loose, so we actually had pleasant, firm 50-degree turns down to the narrows and then more powder below the downclimb.
It was a pensive, sobering trip out of the mountains. I hate the feeling that I had so lost perspective of the stability up there, and lost control of my own safety. We were driven to make it go, had the blinders on, and easily brushed aside obvious changes in the snow conditions. As Jake put it, it was a cheap lesson: pay attention when things change, keep the drive and ambition and commitment out of my decision-making. It would have been catastrophic to be carried the full length of the couloir. Today I got by with a healthy serving of humble pie.