Location: Weeks Creek, East Humboldt Range
Conditions: Actually good, though probably wind wrecked now
Snowpack: Reasonably deep, and actually (surprisingly) quite a bit deeper than our previous visit. Seems like that last storm dropped 1-2 feet depending on aspect and windloading. Speaking of which...there were absolutely some weird and spooky wind layers and slabs forming.
Story: Our previous visit to the East Humboldts had been a fruitful mission, skiing a very steep couloir and getting eyes on many more intriguing lines. So many more that I was left dreaming all week at work, and finally convinced Connor and Will (#2) that it was worth a return visit. I was especially enchanted by a long dogleg couloir to the south of Lizzie's Basin (off an unnamed peak), which we had only seen from a distance on our previous trip. It looked like it would go through in one continuous strip of steep snow, but also...my iphone pics were shoddy. With that in mind, we prepared ourselves for any possible difficulty.
Will #2 in Weeks Creek Cirque. Our desired ski line can be seen to the left, with desired ascent options (ice falls) directly above.
After an exciting day of bushwhacking and ski breaking the day before, we had crashed out along the Humboldt River next to a huge bonfire of great Nevada proportions. Luckily, Will #2 had showed up around 9PM with an extra pair skis for me to use -and a strong desire to go ice climbing (plus extra gear for Connor and I). He would later prove undeterred in his mission to conquer steep ice, a reasonable desire, since we had steered him away from some classic Eastern Sierra ice in exchange for the promise of NV ascents (a first?).
On Sunday morning we woke at a frosty 4:30 AM, and began the long drive to Wells. Although we were already past Winnemucca, Wells is truly the middle of nowhere Eastern Nevada. Its a long ways on 80 from anything (in both directions). A while after sunrise and we were finally zooming south along the East East (Humboldts), consolidated into one vehicle and eagerly scoping lines for the day (and future missions).
After passing a more than a few cows, we cruised the road to Lizzie's Basin, and were skinning up the snow-covered road in no time. As we crossed sage slopes we caught glimpses of our line. Connor and I salivated over the beautiful couloir, while Will #2 alternated between salivating and puckering over the three obvious ice falls we were to climb. A few other beautiful lines lurked above us as well...food for another day. What an amazing place! Towering cliffs, couloirs in all directions, huge steep snowfields, truly a magical and remarkable NV ski destination.
Connor eyes up another beauty on the north wall of the Weeks Creek drainage -a 2000 ft. unnamed shot
After some significant scouting and pondering, we decided that our couloir was in fact one continuous snow strip, and that it would be an excellent descent! We also thought that we might not need to use the rope we'd brought -at least to rappel into the couloir. Furthermore, Will #2 was stoked about leading the ice, and we all thought it would be a great way to get up the mountain (not that that rugged peak had many other options anyway).
Soon we were skinning up the steepening headwall below the icefalls, navigating a mix of windslab, firm, and chalky fresh with our heavily loaded packs. It was cold AF in the shaded spots, but not very windy and much warmer in the sun. With that in mind I opted to switch over to booting on a nice sunny ledge, enjoying some warmth before the shady belay I was prepared to give Will #2.
At the base of the leftmost icefall, conditions looked good. The flow was maybe 40-50 feet tall, frozen hard, and not too steep. A few short inclines were separated by flatter spots throughout, and the bulging ice had a beautiful blue sheen to it when I looked closely. Will #2 remarked that he thought it would be a great beginner ice climb for Connor and I (since this was to be our first time). Everything was seeming good.
The setting for our epic freeze. We were attempting the icefall on the right -the short easy one.
Then, just as I was sorting things in my pack and preparing to belay, I dropped my mitten. Dismayed, I watched it tumble down the slope -quickly out of reach, and then nearly out of sight. It fell off a small cliff band below us, and then I watched a gust of wind propel it further out onto the apron of the slope. Just a small black dot 1,000 feet below, I knew that it only made sense to get it later.
I contemplated my options. I still had on a glove liner -would that be sufficient to keep my hand warm while ice climbing? The optimistic side of my brain thought, "Maybe!". The realistic side of my brain thought, "you're fucked buddy!". I cringed. Luckily Will #2 offered me one of his skinning gloves (which he wasn't planning to wear while climbing). It was another thin glove liner, but I sucked it up and put it on. Unfortunately my own liner had gotten slightly damp, and ended up sandwiching quite a bit of snow and moisture in between the two gloves. Oh well, we would be warm and sunny again at the top of the ice flow -just a short distance above! Then we could ski down the couloir and go grab my mitten at the bottom (I peered down the slope to make sure I still saw it far below).
I put Will #2 on belay, and he plugged in an ice screw at the top of his reach. Good. All of a sudden a huge gust of wind kicked up, sending an inch tall avalanche of spindrift snow down the ice chute and onto us. We paused and tucked our heads down, not knowing that this was the first sign of change. Standing next to the bottom of the flow, Connor and I put our hoods on as Will #2 began hacking at the ice.
Will #2 about to get pelted by an incoming snow maelstrom.
Soon he was at the first rest spot, where he plugged in another piece and grinned. Things were looking good, Connor snapped some pictures, my mittenless hand was getting a little cold-but whatever. Suddenly we were pelted again by spindrift and falling snow. Will #2 hung on his axes and waited, completely hidden in a wall of white. Connor and I shivered. The wind abated, but only temporarily. As I slowly fed out rope, it seemed like we had our heads down more and more.
20 minutes later (and a lot of breaks/wind holds) we could see Will #2 near the top. I was stoked (kind of)...the sooner he finished then the sooner we could all climb and be reunited in the sunlight! Connor shivered next to me, an icicle growing straight forward out of his nose as the result of him being hunched over in the blowing snow for so long. Although we both wanted to be in the sunshine, we were also both quite nervous about holding onto cold steel and getting wind blasted like Will #2 was.
In a break from the wind and constant falling snow, I looked up, shivered, and then caught a glimpse of our heroic leader. He had both ice axes over the top of the frozen waterfall and his head was in the sunlight. We could distinctly see the snow ripping past his face, and the shadow of the sun on the snow cloud passing his body. It was remarkable. Stoic, valiant, lunatic, and absolutely terrify for us who had to follow. He wasn't moving upward, he was simply stuck. Taking it. Just waiting for a quick break in the onslaught, so that he could surmount the final few feet.
Seconds passed, then minutes, then what seemed like an eternity (probably about 15 minutes). I debated if we should start counting time by the number of shivers. Or if we would ever be warm again. Connor voiced similar thoughts, and we collectively built on each others misery. My hand was freezing! My other hand (in the mitten) was cold too. Connor's hands were cold. Everything was cold. How could we climb? We couldn't even look up do to the pelting snow.
All of a sudden, I heard a yell above the roaring maelstrom. "What?!" I yelled back. Faintly I heard a response: "Take!". I grabbed the frozen rope (the coil was now buried in a snow drift at my feet), and yanked it to tension. Then I heard the call, "Lower!". I knew that Will #2 was throwing in the towel -he simply couldn't handle any more time up there waiting. And the wind wasn't going to subside.
I slowly let him down, while he pulled out ice screws on the way -ultimately leaving 2. At the bottom he proclaimed, "Lets get out of here!" Connor and I agreed with fervor. Will #2 offered to put away the rope, so I bailed with haste, back to a small cave in the cliff that I'd seen on the way up. Huddled in the alcove, I desperately performed modified jumping jacks to warm up, and stripped skins. Connor and Will #2 weren't far behind, and the wind still pelted us furiously in the alcove. Things were intensifying, so we descended through the snow clouds as quickly (and safely) as would allow.
Myself on the descent (photo thanks to Connor).
At the bottom, I began traversing, looking for my missing mitten. My cold hand screamed at me (I had a horrible case of the barfees), reminding me of my loss. We spread out in our search, but the mitten was no where to be found. Still shivering, we threw in the towel after only a couple of minutes, and decided to call it quits for the day.
Will #2...you cold man??
We had been utterly defeated: smashed by winds, lost/left gear, and completely humbled. The couloir would have to wait for another day, and even though Will #2 had basically made it to the top of the icefall -he wouldn't claim a successful ascent. Tails between our legs, we retreated.
My final moment of catastrophe happened on the way out. Starting to warm up again, I was cruising on WIll #2's borrowed skis, and just starting to feel comfortable. We were back in the sun and visibility was good, snow was intermittently soft, and I was pushing the skis to go ever fast. Suddenly I was confronted by a patch of boilerplate ice -mid turn- and before I knew it both skis were off and I was tumbling through a mix of ice, pow, and windbuff. The borrowed skis only had leashes (no brakes), which ripped off both feet in the violent fall. As my snow cloud cleared, I noted that one ski was nearby, but the other was completely gone -unstoppable in its downhill momentum. I had also shredded the waistband buckles on my pack, which were now just two useless flat pieces of plastic attached to the straps. DAMN!
I found the track of the missing ski, and followed it downhill. For the second time that weekend I was on one ski, and actually had to travel quite some distance. After a few minutes of stumbling, falling, and awkwardly cruising on one leg -I came across the missing ski amongst some mahoganies in the bottom of a gully. Humbled, I put it back on my foot and slowly skied back to my friends at the truck.
Back at the car, we were all just happy to be in one piece, and without frostbite or hypothermia. We cranked on the heater, and prepared ourselves for the long drive back to Reno.
But, the misadventure doesn't end there!
In Wells, I dropped Will #2 and Connor off at Will's Prius. They wanted to get back quickly, while I was hoping to catch some warmth at a local hotspring before making the drive. I cruised to the spring and enjoyed some wonderful mountain scenery from the hot tub -the first time I'd been truly warm in hours.
Back on the freeway, I got a call from Connor. "Hey man, sooooo where are you at? We're in Winnemucca with two flat tires." They had hit a disastrous pothole on I-80, shredding both wheels. It being SUnday night, there would be no chance for expedient replacements. Luckily I was still a ways behind, so I made a plan to pick them up.
Finally around 8PM, we all loaded up into my truck again, and successfully made the drive back to Reno (without any more misadventures).
You can't win every weekend, especially with something as unpredictable as weather and snow conditions. This experience merely satiated our appetites, and I think its safe to say -we'll all be back for the couloir. Maybe next time without the ice climb first!