Daniel Smith and I were talking about possibly doing a trip together, and we had settled on something in the Stuart Range since the weather was predicted to be so warm. I had also been talking to Matt Perkins seperately, but by the end of the week the plan included all three of us. We decided to go into Colchuck Lake and attempt a route in there. The stated objective was NE Buttress Couloir or N Buttress Couloir on Colchuck, but we were trying to keep an open mind should Triple Couloirs or the North Face of Dragontail be in good shape.
The weather report was favorable, though warm. We all met in the Seattle area early on Saturday morning and proceeded to Leavenworth. The approach was hastened with the aid of my snowmobile, which we parked and left at the normal trailhead. We skied the last 5.5 miles into the lake, breaking trail for 2/3 of the way. Dan battled his slowly deteriorating climbing skins to make it to the lake. The snow was wet and sloppy, and there was not much of it at all!
At the Lake we were stunned to find very lean snow conditions. I have never seen so little snow at Colchuck Lake in winter, there is only maybe 2 feet on the ground. On the Colchuck Balanced Rock side were two 1-2 pitch WI3-is ice routes. Triple Couloirs looked well-iced, but very little snow in the couloirs proper. The North Face of Dragontail (the face to the left of Backbone and right of Triple Couloirs) was continuous, but looked like shallow snow on rock.
We made camp, using a tarp matt brought and digging a trench for sleeping bags. It was still mid afternoon when we arrived at the Lake, so we settled into melting snow and putzing around. Dan brought a fair sized sausage to eat! The weather was benign. The range of sleeping accomodations was pronounced, from the lightweight synthetic summer bag Dan brought, to Matts comfortable dryloft down sack, to my gore-tex -30 down bag I was trying out for the first time. We made some dinners and went to sleep pretty warly.
We got up at 6, burned up the last of the fuel for breakfast. Started the approach, though lots of windcrust and tough skinning made me and Dan ditch the skis down lower, while Matt persevered. He intended to bring the skis up the route and ski down the back side of Colchuck and then the glacier. We traversed past the North Buttress Couloir to the entrance of NE Buttress Couloir. I started out and climbed steadily up steepening obvious gully system, taking some obvious turns, to about a pitch from the summit. While I had been strong the first half of the route, I was getting tired toward the top and let Dan and Matt break some trail above the halfway point. Only spitting distance from the top, we set up a belay for a hard-looking rock step. Dan valiantly tried several variations, including tunneling under a huge boulder, but it was no go. Matt tried leading it briefly, but gave up quickly. Dejected we started down climbing. About a 1/4 of the way down we traversed a minor rib looking for another way up. Here Dan found a smallish step of very thin WI2+ that led to the exit couloir. Dan soloed the ice, then dropped a rope for us two following. This was thin ice, 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick in spots. Matt moved up past Dan's belay and set up another belay at a small corner. Here he led a shortmixed pitch with good belays, and we finished snow to the summit ridge.
We went down, but got disoriented and ended up on the West Ridge, overlooking Mt Stuart and Stuart Lake. Matt had fortunately brought a map, compass, and altimeter. We quickly re-oriented and started traversing.
The scariest part of the trip happened next: Dan slipped on some boilerplate steep snow and went for an uncontrolled slide which he somehow self-arrested after several hundred feet! We all donned crampons again. We traversed back to the correct side of the mountain, descended the glacier without incident, packed quickly, and got out at a decent hour, despite many spectacular crashes on skis through the trees and on the trail!
All images courtesy Matt Perkins, copyright 2002