The night before, Peter skins to the base of the cliff at the bottom of our line to collect water from a little waterfall. As this ant-like figure make his way up the bottom of the face, I get a physical idea of how big our line is: 1900 meters (6230 feet).
We wake up a 2:30am as usual. Finally clear skies! But for myself, immediately shit goes wrong. I’ve lost my headlamp again. Two guys over six feet tall, with all their wet ski gear piled everywhere in a one man tent, makes it hard to find stuff. For only the second time in almost 15 years of expeditions, I totally lose my patience. The claustrophobia of the tent finally gets to me. I’m soon tossing all my stuff out onto the snow, and I don’t care if it gets wet, or how cold I get eating breakfast outside. I’m just done with that tent (sorry for the freakout peter).
After finding my headlamp, packing my stuff for the day, realizing my crampons had somehow loosened since I last wore them, and swearing at tons of other random shit, we set off up the face. As soon as the climbing begins, my mind settles and I focus on my pacing.
The line sits on top of 500 or so feet of seracs and cliffs, but we find a route on the left side. The day is slowly dawning and our progress is even slower. This thing is huge! An hour and a half after starting, we gain a snow-bench that leads to our hanging glacier. From our reconnaissance, we’ve spotted at least 5 major bergschrunds. Each one will have the ability to end our day if the chasm is too big to cross.
‘Schrund #1 is easily crossed. ‘Schrund #2 is a massive gaper at over 10 feet across and at least 100 feet deep. It cuts across the entire face, and it’s bottom edge is 15 feet higher than the top edge, so all debris / skiers falling off the face will get swallowed by it. Luckily after climbing steep snow and ice to its lip, I happen upon the only bridge across it.
‘Schrund #3 is a classic. About five feet across, with the upper side being a 20 to 30 foot ice cliff. Peter pokes around, and is soon stumped. But the main debris runnel has created a considerable debris fan. Peter slowly tip-toes on top of the fan. With all his length, he stretches out and swings his axes as high as they can go. His legs briefly swing over the chasm and his crampons get purchase on the other side. Soon he mantles into the debris runnel and scampers as fast as his legs can carry him. With 10 foot tall sidewalls, there is no way he can jump out if a slide comes down. I’m soon following, glad that I am well over 6 feet tall as well. As soon as we find a section where the sidewalls are not vertical, we climb out.
The sun begins to rise and the views are amazing. We soon see our high-point on Tetnuldi from the week prior. The manky frozen snow starts to transition to lighter ‘powder’. An amazing amount of birds are chirping and singing among the cliffs. After several more hours and five more bergschrunds, we finally approach our couloir. Chatyn is built like a fortress with countless ramparts leading to pointy spires, all stacked upon each other with snow gargoyles perched on every outcrop. Our position among the towers is beyond impressive.
A 5 to 10 foot ice runnel dominates the bottom of the couloir. Sections of the couloir are thin enough, that not much of the 55 degree sidewalls are left. Hours are spent navigating upwards, crossing into and out of the runnel.
The terrain will be funky for skiing. Ice mixed with sugary snow, with some refrozen powder on top.
In climbing terrain, learn what you are able to ski and learn to assess it’s ‘skiablity’ quickly. All it takes is a quick glance down the slope, and I know immediately that I can ski it, regardless of the ice. Don’t linger on what’s below, dwell on the exposure, or question your ability every few steps. Your mind will begin to crumble if you do. Use all your mental energy for climbing safely. Making each ice axe and crampon swing perfect.
About six hours in, we come to an impasse. This will not be a complete ski descent. The couloir chokes with a 4 foot wide runnel, and a 15 foot near vertical wall on the side you ski down. After Peter climbs through this section, I down climb into the runnel. As soon as I try to run up the 3o feet of runnel, my right leg spasms. I’m momentarily stuck, clinging to my axes and scream in a good deal of pain. Luckily Peter is too high to hear me. After shaking out the leg for 10 seconds I start to head up. Luckily no snow came down while I was incapacitated. Soloing the steep ice is fun, and we’re soon half way up the couloir.
Finally we’re done with the runnel, as the couloir doglegs and the top half is smoother. As predicted, the clouds start to move in. Visibility is reduced to less than 10 feet at times. My body isn’t doing too well. My hamstrings are starting to cramp again when I lead the climb and have to do any high-stepping. Peter valiantly charges ahead and leads the climb to the top, although I can see that his legs aren’t functioning well either.
From across the valley, this upper portion of the couloir seemed to relent in steepness, but this is not the case. 50 degree averages gradually upped to 55 degrees and beyond. Sections alternated between ice runnels and wallowing breakable crust. But we were still lucky since past photos we saw showed that the couloir was a swath of glacial ice for much of the year.
After a couple of hours of seriously digging deep, we approach the summit ridge. But not before the slopes steepness ramps up a little more for good measure.
Almost 9 hours of climbing later, we arrive on our precarious stance on the ridge. A cornice prevents us from going the last few feet. With no visibility, I can see the faint outlines of the West and main summits in either direction. But they comprise of knife-edge ridges and lots of rock, with little elevation gain, so we’re satisfied that this is the highest skiable point of the couloir.
The gravity of the situation cannot be overstated. With no visibility and a possible storm brewing, we have to get off this peak fast. As we quietly contemplate our situation a group of five hawks comes out of the fog. For several minutes they swoop in and out of the view. In the high mountains, birds are always a good sign.