Jason Hummel has raved about the North Buttress Couloir on Colchuck Peak since he skied it with his brother Josh and Ben Manfredi four years ago. Now the mere mention of Colchuck, Peak or Lake, is guaranteed to have him waxing poetic about the North Buttress Couloir (NBC) before inevitably finishing with, "I really think that route's a classic."
Jason's penchant for hyperbole aside, the route does show signs of classic status. It's a beautifully direct shot up from Colchuck Lake, at 5,570', to where the NBC meets the North Buttress at an 8,000' notch. From there, the route takes Colchuck Peak's North Face to its 8,700' summit. Ross Peritore skied the couloir from the notch with Jason Cassarino the next winter, which confirms its full value, given Ross's bent for all that is burly. The route begins next to the Colchuck Glacier and features full alpine ambiance. Finishing on a face to the summit, as Jason says, "It has a little bit of everything."
A mediocre forecast that looked more promising east of the crest drew my attention to Colchuck Lake. Having finally skied my long-term project in the area last spring, Mt Stuart's Ice Cliff Glacier, Jason's repetitious raves about the NBC finally came to fruition. Repetitio est mater studiorum.
Eric and I left Seattle at 2:30 am Saturday morning with our new ski buddy Mike Z. Seeing lots of stars from some combination of coffee, speedy driving, and clear skies had us all stoked. We left Icicle Creek Road (elevation ~2k) toward Mountaineer Creek via skins and skis after 5:00 am.
Taking a direct line from Mountaineer Creek to approach Colchuck Lake, we reached the lake by 9 am. We had smoked the approach. Nevertheless, looking at the mighty north face of Dragontail Peak with Triple Couloirs in very thin condition made me feel like I might if I were the Planters Mr Peanut mascot trying to retrieve my eyepiece in the midst of a herd of ravenous elephants. Ross, I really think you should apologize to everyone for what you did, you sicko. Crossing the frozen lake on skis was quicker and more pleasant than following the summer trail.
The couloir had a narrow crux near its middle. It was filled with boot-top windbuff snow, an ideal compromise for skiing and climbing. I kicked steps up the couloir with neither crampons nor ax until I reached the crux. When I reached the crux, it looked short and manageable so I only grabbed my ax and neglected crampons. Several steps later, on very thin ice over rock, I regretted that decision, but moving through it seemed no more difficult than retreat. I recommended crampons to Eric and Mike for their turn.
Toward the top, I was vigilant for a windslab somewhere below the notch. Ross released a dangerous windslab when he and Jason climbed and skied the couloir. Fortunately, only the top inch or two of the snow showed wind effects, and we reached the notch without a problem.
The face above the notch looked thin. This area could use some gentle spring storms. Winter's winds have left the high faces without much snow. We decided to just ski the couloir, which offered ample reward with a beautiful 2,500' descent to the lake.
The snow in the couloir was quite nice. Nice enough that, having lost my fear of any windslab, I started linking turns more aggressively down its middle. Then I did something new for me in a "no-fall zone." I caught a tip under the windbuff, fell head-over-heels, and lost a ski. I did all this right above the rocky section. (2010 note: fatter skis with some tip rocker for better FREERIDE STEEZE, yeah boyee)
I was able to regain balance on my left ski and stop after one tumble. Luckily, my other ski had augered itself into the snow just below me. Good to get a fall out of the system: a nice reminder that safety comes before style when ski mountaineering. I'd rather be lucky than good.
We enjoyed the rest of the couloir without further incident. More good snow and a little more caution on my part made it easy. I sidestepped into position for an easy jump into soft snow below the icy crux bulge. Eric did the same. Mike managed to traverse through the rocks to the other side of the couloir, where he pointed his skis into the gut without ever leaving the snow.
The ski from Colchuck Lake to the car was a very quick 7.5 miles and 3.4k. A very good first outing with Mike. Ever the mentor, I'm glad I could give him a couple good examples of what not to do. And yes Jason, it is a classic. But give it until spring if you want to ski the face above the notch. Either that, or Ben and the twins were just 'core.
My compliments to Eric for not crying about his foot condition.