“Definitely a BIG day, not quite epic, as I rarely feared for my life.”
Josh, you and I have different opinions of what it takes to make a day “epic”. I on the other hand prescribe to the belief that the sheer fact that the day took 20 hours is enough to consider the day epic.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. It was an adventure, and an incredible one at that.
The Black Hole Couloir is a 4000’ vertical foot couloir that rises pretty much straight out of the valley floor, running all the way to a notch at the top of Bandit Peak. It is an incredible line, just begging to be ridden. The problem – Bandit Peak is not exactly the most accessible mountain in the all of the Cascades. The allure of standing at the top, with views of Glacier Peak in the distance, was enough to convince me that it would be a worthwhile endeavor.
Our day started Friday evening around 8:30. Mike and Josh picked me up and we hit the road. Making good time, we were at the trailhead by 11:30 – just in time for a quick nap. We weighed the pros and cons of just starting right then; Josh forgetting his sleeping bag was going to make for an unpleasant bivy in the parking lot. We all ultimately agreed that a couple hours of sleep, three to be precise, was better than nothing and we would be thankful later.
We hit the trailhead at 3:25 am. I recently watched a TED talk on why 4 am is the most miserable hour of the day. At 4 am we were well on our way deep in the woods, having passed several “Private Property, do not enter” signs, a motion activated camera, and a sign that simply read “Shooting Range. No access to road”. By 5 am, we hit the stream crossing. Thanks to previous trip reports, we knew it was coming. The reason we traveled through the private property, was to avoid a much larger river crossing. Thankfully we were following a snowshoe track that seemed to know where they were going, leading us to a makeshift crossing. It wasn’t the best crossing I have ever seen, but it would do and at 5 in the morning, I didn’t have any desire to keep looking for something better.
When the snowshoe tracks disappeared and a skin track emerged, we came to the conclusion that we were following the tracks of someone who knew considerably more about the area than we did. Snowshoes would have made the initial slog through the woods WAY easier. In a similar vein, ski crampons would have made the next leg of the traverse much more enjoyable as well. Hiking through the west bank of the valley, we had the pleasure of dealing with an enjoyable melt-freeze crust that was broken up only by the numerous slide paths full of icy debris.
Despite the conditions, we made good time. We were at the base of the couloir by 10:30. The sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day. As we sat there, eating a quick snack and preparing for the climb, Josh said exactly what I had been thinking, “My body is ready to turn back.” What he didn’t say, what he didn’t have to say – we weren’t going to turn back. The fun part was just starting.
We threw on our crampons, pulled out our axes, and started to climb. From the base, the couloir didn’t look like much. Small kinks and turns in the col kept you from seeing much more than a couple hundred feet ahead at any given point. The base of the couloir was full of avi debris. The warm weather of the past few days was causing the mountains to shed snow, we were just hoping the couloir would be protected from the sun and we would quickly pass the debris. The debris did not end anytime soon. In fact, after climbing for over an hour and a half, we were still in the avalanche path and still climbing. I paused, looking down at our inevitable descent. It looked miserable. The only thing I could hope is that the afternoon sun would hit it and the icy boulders would soften up considerably. Wishful thinking, I am aware.
Eventually we did make it above the avalanche path and found some good snow. The upper couloir was well protected from the sun and was staying nice and cool. The snow was surprisingly light. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing the snow around modestly and a wind slab was forming. It wasn’t enough to cause us to turn back, but it did give us pause.
After nearly 4 hours, we made it to the top. Well, as close as we were going to get. We decided to not make the final push up a steep narrow constriction, the snow just wasn’t worth it.
The view, was incredible. Glacier Peak was sitting prominently in front of us and steep rock walls guided our journey back down to the valley floor.
We leapfrogged down the upper col, though even going last the snow still rode well. I never felt comfortable opening up and really charging. Between the wind slab up top and the huge debris field below, staying safe was on our minds. On a day with better snow, man this would be one hell of a line.
I borrowed a camera to document the adventure, so in a rare treat, I have more than just a few pictures to share. Enjoy!
I stopped filming once we were back in the debris field. Well, that’s a lie. I actually filmed all of it, but I don’ think anyone wants to watch three guys side slipping an icy slope for 30 minutes. It was, without a doubt, the worst snow (if you can actually call it that) that I have ever had to ride. The icing on the cake was we were coming down in the afternoon, when the west faces were all getting sun. Just as we were getting to the main slide path, a slide came down the mountain. Had we gone 5 minutes earlier, we likely would have been caught in the middle of it. We spent the rest of the journey out of the couloir anxiously taking turns going from safe zone to safe zone. There was a huge sigh of relief once we made it out at the bottom.
But our day wasn’t over yet. We still had the trek back to the car. For the most part it was uneventful. Apart from losing our skin track several times, it was just long. Everyone got quiet and we settled into a rhythm, one foot in front of the other.
At some point we hit a clearing and stopped. I looked up at the stars, which were now out in full. The night sky is stunning. I couldn’t help but lay down for a minute and gaze up into the dark abyss. I could feel every muscle ache, but it didn’t seem to bother me. I just stopped, reveling in what we had just accomplished, and the sheer beauty of where we were. It could have been 1 minute, 5, or 30, I have no idea how long we stopped for. But soon enough we got back up and continued on our way with our heads down, putting one foot in front of the other.
It was around 10 when we hit the stream crossing. The last thing I wanted was to be soaking wet for the last hour and a half of the hike out. But the crossing wasn’t bad so I wasn’t particularly concerned. It was just an obstacle breaking up the monotony of hike. But, the day had different plans for me. So, with my board strapped to my back, I started to climb down to the shore so that I could get onto the log which crossed the stream. No more than 2 feet from the ground, my foot punched through the snow and, left off-balance, went tumbling head first towards the water. The exact last place I wanted to be heading. Somehow out of sheer dumb luck, I landed perfectly between two large boulders. My headlamp fell into the water, as did the tips of my boards, but apart from that I was dry. Lucky me.
The rest of the hike out was uneventful, we passed the friendly welcoming signs, joking that it was probably good that we were getting back so late. Finally, we arrived back at the car at 11:30, exhausted.
In the end, we traveled over 23 miles, climbed over 6,000’, and it only took us 20 hours. Not bad for having only taken a 3 hour nap beforehand!