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Black Ice Couloir Trip Report

Nate Brown cruising the iconic Black Ice Couloir, GTNPIn June, 2001, after making a solo ascent of the Black Ice Couloir, the iconic alpine ice climb on the north side of the Enclosure in Grand Teton National Park, I told myself that I probably didn't need to go back there. It was my second solo of the route, my third ascent ever, and I figured I had seen and experienced what I needed. But two Saturdays ago saw me, Nate Brown and Andy Dorais front-pointing our way up perfect, if not brittle, alpine ice choking the Black Ice.

Battling demons of the past

The ascent ten years ago took place under less than ideal conditions. My good friend and fellow Exum guide, Hans Saari, had died that spring while skiing in Chamonix. I bivied at the end of the Valhalla Traverse, staring at the start of the route all night. I was alone. I kept thinking I was having a bad feeling about the climb, that I should just walk back around to the lower saddle. My mind was restless. I slept poorly. 

But as the sky lightened and the route came into view near dawn, I decided to go over and have a look. From my vantage point looking straight across to the start, the first pitch looked intimidating. This did not help my mood. But as I dropped down and traversed past the Enclosure Couloir and onto the rock shelf leading to the first pitch of the Black Ice, I started to feel better. And as I booted up the crusty snow tongue leading to the 5.7 rock pitch entrance to the ice proper, all concerns fell away. 

There was something liberating about committing to the initial moves onto the rock. I left my crampons on and felt very secure. The climbing is not hard there but the exposure is high. That area of the range feels very remote and foreboding. But I was moving easily, smiling to myself, laughing almost at how I nearly turned around before I started. 

I turned the corner into the couloir and ice climbed my way up. It was a lean year in 2001 and the crux chock stone was dry. I had to dry tool and stem my way around it, the sugar snow above it making me feel slightly insecure. But I eventually found some better ice under the snow and topped out in about 2 hours from the start. I had climbed it in fat conditions (twice) in 1996 and boney conditions in 2001. That was enough… or so I thought.

Present Day

On Saturday, there I was again. But it's different with partners. There's enough distraction to drown out any ill feelings. I don't think there were any anyway. I probably annoyed the hell out them with my constant spewing of anecdotes related to my experience a decade ago. Felt like therapy to me.

Nate, Andy and I left the Lupine Meadows trailhead around 12:20 am. It was going to be a long, hard day. Thunderstorms and rain greeted us as we drove into the park but it was clearing as we started walking. I had considered bailing but Nate would have none of it. We started off in running shoes, intent on putting on big boots later. I brought some aluminum Katoola crampons for my tennies and managed to get the Lower Saddle with my boots still in my pack.

I was at the Saddle in 2:40, arriving a little ahead of Nate and Andy since they changed shoes when we hit the snow at the Meadows. After refilling my bottle, I walked up to the Exum hut hoping to see a familiar face that would allow me sanctuary inside. I was dressed lightly and shivering now and a few minutes indoors would be nice. It was pretty funny walking into the hut. The usual shell-shocked clients stumbling around in every piece of clothing they have, trying to choke down breakfast at 3 am didn't know what to make of this Lycra-clad nut job in a T-shirt plopping down on the floor in front of them.

Nate and Andy showed up and stepped inside. Great, more men in tights. But we reorganized quickly, put on some layers and continued. Nate and I both vaguely remembered the trip around the Valhalla. It's always more complicated that you think it should be. Andy was stunned at how far it was. We wandered around the rock towers in the Idaho express but finally found the trail leading to the shoulder of the Enclosure. From there, it was a straight forward traverse around. 

Andy on the perfect neve, Valhalla TraverseThe snow field was firm and the urge to turn in and front point across was difficult to resist. It was just steep enough. As we neared the Enclosure Couloir, the rock gets steep and the way through a little cryptic but we found the start with little trouble. Daylight helped. 

Traversing between the Enclosure and Black Ice CouloirsThere was a nice tongue of neve leading 50 feet up the first rock pitch of the route. After some discussion, the group collectively decided to simul-climb the rock while roped. Nate led the way and placed a few pieces of gear. I started as soon as the rope went tight and Andy followed in turn. We belayed at the start of the ice and group soloed from there.Easy neve on the first pitch

Andy belaying at the first rock pitch

Now, the decision to solo the route together took some discussion. The Black Ice acts as a funnel for debris coming off the West Face of the Grand Teton. The easiest route on the mountain, the Owen-Spaulding, starts near the top out of the Black Ice. It is not uncommon for climbers on the O-S to accidentally kick rocks down the gully. This is terrifying for those climbing in it. There is some theoretical safety provided by being on a lead or follow rope and getting beaned by a rock. On the other hand, being roped slows the ascent considerably. We decided that speed was safety and we would solo.Andy finally on the ice

For most of the route, the ice is wide enough for us to stay out of each other's way. The ice was cold and brittle and plenty was going down range with each swing and kick. Near the crux, we decided to climb one at a time. Andy and Nate ropeless and down to business

Andy and the author in syncheHaving soloed the route twice before, I led straight away ropeless and pulled over on a small ledge 40 feet above the chock stone. Apparently, Andy felt that his increasing fatigue from constant night shift work as a emergency medicine resident and lack of real sleep made soloing through the steeper crux an unnecessary risk. He and Nate roped up and easily pulled through to my ledge with a few pieces of gear between them.Andy through the crux chock stone

Sure, we're paying attention

Nate and Andy near the top of the Black Ice CouloirWe continued to the top from there and finally relaxed at the Upper Saddle. After some food and water, we assaulted the Owen-Spaulding, en masse, giving Andy his first taste of the route. After the obligatory stop and pictures at the summit, we headed down to the rappel and back to the gear.Another trip up the GT (Nate's really not that short)The day was catching up with us and each transition was becoming more relaxed and prolonged. There was no real hurry anymore. The only thing pushing us along was Dr. Dorais's need to get back to SLC for his next shift. 

Fueling the effort

One interesting side experiment I conducted involved my food for the day. (Warning: shameless product plug coming…). In spite of the expected length of the outing, I decided to bring only Gu products and not muddy the tank with anything else. I had a mix of Gu gels, Rocktane, and Chomps. I put down between 200-300 calories an hour. At the top of the Black Ice, I couldn't believe how good I felt. I powered up the OS as fast as I ever had in spite of starting the day at 11pm and having been on the go for ten hours. Interesting. I think there is something to the Rocktane hype. I will continue to experiment.

The experiment stopped at the lower saddle once Nate pulled out the smoked salmon, however. Mmmm, salt and grease. Good. It was a nice change of pace. In spite of my super energy levels, something savory was appealing. This little feast was followed by the two hour and change trudge back to the car. At 15 hours car to car, we didn't set any records but had a fun day in the mountains on a classic route with great partners.


Camp X600 pack

Petzl Dartwin crampons

Petzl Quark hammers

Camp Alp 95 harness

Scarpa Omega boots (rentals) 


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Reader Comments (2)

Very nice! I will be over there in a week or so. Hoping that the NW Couloir on the Middle is in the same shape as the Black Ice is now! Your pics almost make me want to sack up and attempt the Black Ice, too...

August 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph S.


I think you will find the NW Couloir on the Middle a cruise. I haven't looked up it lately but it might still have some neve in it. You won't find it that steep. The Enclosure Couloir might be a nice compromise between the NW on the Middle and the BI. You can either rap out from the top or continue up the the NW ridge and finish with a classic rock climb. Very nice.

August 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrian

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