3am. I’m already kind of awake in my nervousness, but the dub step alarm tone thumping from my phone makes it official. I linger in my warm cocoon trying to convince myself that I’m up too early. That I’ll get to the top too soon, in the dark, if I leave now. But I have to get moving and the view will be worth it. Besides, arguing with oneself is a crappy way to snooze. I managed to find some time yesterday to prepare my pack so it doesn’t take long for me to get up, throw on my puffy, inhale some pop tarts, remove my puffy, and get moving. I decide to start out without crampons, but the snow is smooth and rock hard so I struggle for traction even on the modest gradient adjacent to camp. The moon is out, dimmed behind some high cloud, casting pale shadows on the boulder-studded tongue of snow. But then it is gone, dipping below the eastern ridge of the mountain so that the shadows darken and rise up to consume me. The stars are still bright, but I am confined to the small pool of red light emanating from my forehead, focused on one kick at a time. In my, admittedly light, experience doing this kind of thing, the scariest part of climbing in the dark is what you can’t see. Uncertainty about the route above or the bottomless fall below. It’s less about what you’ll hit if you slide all the way to the bottom. It’s more about falling into the darkness just feet behind you and closest when you turn your back. But I wasn’t quite worried about that yet. I had only gone a hundred yards before I got tired of slipping on the low-angle slope and stopped to don the crampons.
Now climbing with sharp daggers on my feet to match the sharp daggers in my hands, I made quick work of the remaining moraine, steepening to meet the bottom of the couloir, before pausing to catch my breath and gaze right up at my shiny road to the summit. Even on full blast, my headlamp couldn’t find the end. 1,000ft down, 2,000ft to go. I found my rhythm in the dark, alternating stabs with my ice axe and pole in turn with my foot kicks, always sure to keep three points of contact with the slope. I couldn’t decide between pushing straight up or throwing in a little fancy switchback action, so I awkwardly transitioned freely between the two to accommodate each newly developed area of fatigue. The calves, the toes, then right leg, left leg. Repeat. With no point of reference in the darkness, the passage of time was even more abstract than usual. Distance as well. I plugged along, happy to focus on the simple motions and to observe the subtle differences in appearance between firm snow, like Styrofoam, and energy-sapping soft snow, like crusty sugar.
The Northeast Couloir is pretty wide, as these things go. Maybe 15-20 yards across on average, but expanding to much more on occasion. The slope angle averages around 45%, but bumps up to 50% at a couple pitches near the top. It feels big too. I felt small. Like a bug on some perverted treadmill. I rarely strayed from the middle of the wide slope, thinking that any rocks falling in the dark from the cliffs above would tumble along the sides. Ludicrous as that seems now, I wasn’t too worried about my logic at the time because I was starting to have fun. Turns out that this classic climb is pretty sweet! I monitored my altimeter and watch, anxiously trying to gauge if I had my timing right. These tools made up for my lack of sight, proving the rapid beating of my heart was accomplishing something. Although I really really really wanted the sun to come up, I had to get to the top before it did.
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