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Little Brother

In late June, I was posed with a very difficult question on where to head to get my shred on. I was still a bit bitter about the lack of options and rapid melt brought on by the two month period of mid-March to mid May, with things falling apart right when prime season finally comes. I was still trying to catch up from a spring of many plans, but little action to match (I had some really big plans…) But finally in June there was a couple weeks of good snow up high, and that weekend looked like another good chance to get up high and get something done I should’ve been doing in the spring. Plans changed though, and as the forecasted freezing levels rose, so did my objective. Finally, I decided that giving Bryce north face was maybe not such a stupid idea.

Snow makes this more pleasant...
Snow makes this more pleasant…

After finally deciding on an objective the night before, I got off work early and got packing. Then out the door early-ish, for a guy that works weird shifts and then up the Bush. I had been scouting Bryce north face from the valley to the north a few weeks back, and scouted the access road (Rice Brook) during that time. Fortunately for me, logging concerns had decided to clear out the passable deadfall on the road, and the un-passable rockfall on the traverse up the canyon. So I was already a good 5km and 500m up the road from where we had to start from last May. Then some walking, a river crossing and up the charming loose scree slopes of the access route. Once in the south basin, the melt line was actually above the toe of the south glacier.

Bryce's summit peers over
Bryce’s summit peers over
The south cirque
The south cirque

I started climbing the south couloir a bit later than ideal, but there was cloud hanging around the summit of Bryce, keeping the east summit face of the mountain in check (it funnels into the couloir) and all the terrain below that which had recently received snow, which would be all too eager to move with a kiss of hot June sun. I started up the couloir, all too aware of my conclusion a year ago that it would be really hard to haul overnight gear up this damn thing and onto the upper glacier.

Finally I made it though, the cloud doing a perfect job. After finding a decent place for camp under the col between Bryce and Bryce Center (a lesser peak to the east), I decided I had time and energy to have a go at a nice looking couloir up the south face of Bryce Center peak. I traversed high from camp, over the continuous bergshrund running under the south face to the glacier so I wouldn’t have to cross it going up. After going to the right spot for the ascent, I was convinced it was actually back the way I came, past the last rock ridge coming off the face. So I skinned back up, past the right spot, convinced it wasn’t nearly wide enough to be the right spot. So I ripped skins and went down past where I was last time, finally seeing the continuation of the couloir to where it turns into a steep chimney lower down. So then a little skin back up the way I came brought me to the right spot. I guess the schrund doesn’t like the taste of stupid scrawny dudes that play ontop of it, lucky me.

Once I was convinced I was in the right spot, a short skin ascent got me onto the traverse ledge, and once the dribbling water off the cliffs above got the snow too weird to skin, I somehow convinced myself to keep going, bootpacking. Then up the south couloir to the summit, I took the climbers right since it seemed to be the most direct of the four or so diverging options, going straight to the summit.

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Kemmel Mountain’s NW couloir on the left, attempted in March (slid to ice), then Icefall’s tasty N face in sunlit glory. Imposing mountain in the back is Laussedat, the closest 3000m peak to Golden
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Mt Bryce, SE face on left and the upper quarter of the north face on the right, second quarter is occluded by the icefall. Bryce- Bryce Center col at the base of the ridge. Traversed from col to the minor ridge under the north face icefall, where it’s snow-covered.

The summit was pretty awesome, great views all around, plus a very seldom-seen view of Bryce itself. For going down, I decided the narrow couloir I ascended for the upper portion was going to be no fun, I’d have to mash down steps on the skis to not be riding wet sluff. I thought the climbers left side of things looked alright on the way up, and was maybe less wet from meltwater raining in from above that the couloir had. I had to traverse once on the steep, exposed snow above a cliff to get over to the snow heading down. Once there, the snow was just as slippery, and I had to mash each step anyways. I was hoping that it would at least have the decency to sluff down to something decent with some coaxing, but the wet layer I could get to release would just quickly congregate inwards, then ride ontop of the slightest hint of a forming crust instead of having the decency to propagate and clear a lane for me to ski.

I came to terms with the fact I wouldn’t be getting any interesting turns on this, but rather just surviving it with whatever moves the mountain demanded I do. Then the line went onto some ice and I stuffed a pole under the pack, and pulled an axe from its place on my hip strap. I would swing into the ice to steady myself and protect a couple sidesteps downhill, then trust the edges and re-set the axe a bit lower. Although this thing, in these conditions was absolutely even scarier than Aemmer couloir in poor condition, I maintained absolute calm throughout. I’m still trying to process if that’s a good thing, as in I’m more capable and have better cognitive ability in tight spots, or bad, as forming an addiction to it can obviously go quite badly.

In any case, I got into the much more reasonable lower part, and the couloir was starting to build a skin of crust on the top, which skied awfully, but at least it was skiing in a way more legit than just having skis on. Then back across the diagonal face and away from the steep, narrow snowless gully the couloir ends in, across the scrund and then a short skin back to the bivy.

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Bryce Center from Rostrum in May. Yes, the peak had undoubtedly picked up snow in the intervening six weeks.
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Bryce Center looking fat in the pic that inspired me to go for it. Photo: Steph Abegg, http://www.stephabegg.com/

I decided not to get out of bed as early as my alarm shrilly beckoned, since it was now the coldest it had been all night. The next time I opened my eyes, the sun had finally reached my little fortress, so I made some oatmeal and made the short ascent to the col before skiing down the other side to the north. The descent was on pretty hard snow, and reservations were already creeping in. The col was true north, high, and steep. After hopping the schrund and traversing to the decision point for the north face of Bryce, I had still yet to ski on some of the magic pow I came for. The crust seemed to be a couple inches thick, with the magic locked underneath. It took a lot of doing, but eventually I convinced myself it would be probably like a repeat of Rostrum, steep crusty slope with faint spines. And a foolish man just trying not to die, instead of having fun skiing. The only alternative was waiting a few hours in addition to the ascent time for the crust to break down enough to be good skiing. At which point, the crust bridging over the rain soaked snow on the south couloir I had to descend to get back out would be done for, getting back down to town before the next morning would be impossible. Hemmed in on one side of the weekend by rain and weather, the other side by the other W word, work.

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Looking up and down from the ridge beside Bryce N face

So with many reasons saying no, and nothing but ego saying yes, I pulled the plug. The south couloir to get back off the snow and ice of the mountain was already turning to mush on the more easterly aspects on the ski out, it was undoubtedly the right call to get out of there. But it was still heartbreaking, especially when traversing the charming loose scree on the way back down. Builds character, I guess.

3 thoughts on “Little Brother”

  1. Wow, right on man. Question tho; all this solo stuff, normal for you? I’m skiing more this winter and wondering about safety aspects!

  2. Good question joe. I’m afraid he’d dead now. He was one of these easterners that move out west with way too much enthusiasm, I guess it’s because living in real mountains does that to people from the flat east. If he moved out west after college and passed at 27, that means he had about five years in the Canadian west, not a lot of time. Sad.

    1. He passed away travelling with a partner, perhaps the outcome would have been different HAD he been on a solo trip. I don’t see the relevance.

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