Saturday, November 30, 2013

Eleven O'Clock Couloir

The three ingredients of hubris are turkey, stuffing and gravy... at least that's what I found out this Thanksgiving. I know most people want to sit around and do nothing after the gluttonous feast, and I did too. However, the next day I looked out the window at clear, blue bird skies and decided that obviously the forecast, calling for cloud cover with a chance of rain at high elevations, was dead wrong. And obviously now was a good time to haul a big pack of camping and climbing gear into the Three Sisters Wilderness and try to climb the mountain that has shut me down three out of three times in the last two winters. Well, at least I know I can still learn something.

I roped my friend Chris into coming, and I'm sure he was wondering what he'd got himself into as we skied/snow shoe'd out there in warm weather with clouds moving in. I had come to the conclusion, after three failed attempts, that to give yourself the best chance of doing anything on BT you needed to camp out the night before so that you can maximize the early morning temps in the south facing cirque. We reached a suitable camp site, just south of the cirque at around 7,300', an hour after sunset.

South Sister emerges from cloud above Green Lakes in the predawn. Taken from the top of the Eleven O'Clock couloir on Broken Top.

We crawled inside our tent and ate Thanksgiving leftovers (what else?)! I then realized that A: I had forgotten an extra pair of socks (not good when snow camping), and B: I had forgotten the cook pot and we could not use the stove and fuel that we had packed to melt more water (whoops). Well it's the first winter outing of the season for me so I guess a couple kinks are to be expected, and it gave me the chance to problem solve. For instance, I found that putting gloves over your toes keeps them very warm, especially when they are relatively new and well insulated. I also found out that if you pack snow into your partially filled dromedary bag, and cuddle it like a teddy bear, your body heat will do a great job of creating water. Although you have to snuggle up to a big, red, squishy ice bag, which is way worse than an already warm squishy bag. But I digress.

We awoke on and off through the night to various "piter-pater" sounds on our rain fly. It appeared that the precipitation varied between rain, sleet, and ice crystals. We awoke for the final time at 4am and ate a quick snack while pulling on our shell pants and boots, and went outside to a blessedly clear sky filled with stars. The temperature was warm and we made quick work of crossing the (now practically non-existent) Crook Glacier. During our approach the previous day we had seen slide debris in the High Noon gully, but could see that the Eleven O'Clock couloir was fully snow covered, so we made that our primary goal. We ditched the skis and snow shoes beneath a rock wall and broke out the climbing gear. We had hauled quite a bit of pro, not knowing what the conditions would be. "Oregon High" lists the route as 500ft of 50 degree snow with the chance for near vertical snow in the last 10ft as you approach the cornice. The more recent "Best Climbs Cascade Volcanoes" lists the less helpful and more ambiguous rating of grade II, class 4-5, AI2. In the end, 500ft of 50 degree snow was dead on. It got slightly steeper and less consolidated up top but the low snow pack at this point in the season meant no cornice.

The Eleven O'Clock couloir after we climbed it. I took this shot from a rock buttress near the entry to the High Noon gully.

Once out of the couloir, we started traversing toward the Northwest ridge which provides easy access to the summit. The terrain was a weird mix of exposed volcanic scree-mud and deep drifts of sugar snow. This was only Chris' second time climbing in winter mountains (he soloed Hood via the Old Chute the week prior), and he looked uncomfortable on this terrain. I stopped on a snow fin before what looked like a waist-deep wallow fest and waited for him to catch up. After discussing our options we traversed back to the couloir and down climbed. We never used the rope or any of the pro.

Chris traverses back to the top of the Eleven O'Clock couli with Peak 9094 in the background.

Chris prepares to descend the Eleven O'Clock couloir.

Chris downclimbing the upper section of the Eleven O'Clock couloir.

Chris downclimbing near the bottom of the Eleven O'Clock couli.

We scouted several potential routes on the way out but nothing looks to be in good condition yet. High Noon has lots of exposed rock up top, Nine O'Clock is thin snow, and harder potential lines are still iceless. The skiing was equally horid, no thanks to the wet precip. The snow was mostly 2-3" of hard crust on top of airy sugar. Down lower it was wet and soggy.

Peak 9094 on the western crater rim. Taken from the Elven O'Clock couloir. The obvious left trending snow ramp has had loose dry snow on it both times I have investigated. It is NNE facing and could be a good moderate ice line or a gnarly ski line depending on conditions.

Looking down on the Crook Glacier from the ridge climber's left of the Eleven O'Clock couloir.

Looking up the High Noon gully. In ideal conditions this route is supposed to climb the rock walls above on 60 degree snow and ice. Obviously we need a lot more snow.

We returned to the car by noon and I derived some satisfaction from passing spandex clad cross country skiers with my full pack and a rando setup. I was curious why my feet hurt so much on this trip and found out I had gotten blisters for the first time in almost four years; big matching bubbles on the inside of my heels. I guess a second set of socks might have helped. Although we didn't summit I was happy to have topped out the crater rim for the first time and gotten a closer look at other possible routes. Every time I go out there I learn something and one of these days (gosh darn it!) I will send a route that does justice to those steep craggy walls of rock and ice.

Looking back up into the Crook Cirque from our camp. The Eleven O'Clock couloir is just visible below and to the left of the cloud bank obscuring the main summit.


  1. Hope your feet feel better soon. Great photos. Nice way to spend the day after Thanksgiving!

  2. just slightly jealous of your early season suffer fest, but only slightly, glad to see you giving that Sisters country the business

    1. I know, it wasn't exactly prime time... but it's snowing in Bend right now and its not supposed to get above freezing this week. The gnar will be shredded in due time.