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South Brother (6866 ft.)

South Couloir - June 12-13 '99

South Brother
Summit Image (pc:GS)

Party: Maureen Sheely, Della Quimby, Tracy and I. Yeah, me and the girls. Oh boy!

Weather: An increadibly accurate forecast... a first perhaps in the Northwest. We had mixed sun and clouds on Saturday heading in to camp. The weather deteriorated saturday night with a couple spatters of drizzle throughout the night. Sunday morning we woke to a little rain and began climbing in spurts of light rain, expecting it to clear up toward the afternoon. The clear sky and warm sun had reached us by 10AM in time for the enjoyable trip down and out.

In this report I intend to give a little more detailed route description, since I was annoyed at the lack of clarity in the three descriptions I had with me (Olympic climbing guide, and the mountaineers basic and intermediate climbing guides)... Through a combination of tidbits from each guide, we were successful on the route finding, but if one of these is used alone, it might be a little more difficult.
The Approach: The hike up to lower Lena lake was warm and dry with no snow on the trail. Beyond Lena Lake, we were expecting snow, and sure enough it was there. The trail was totally obscured within a mile from Lena lake. Into route finding mode, we had to try to stay close to the creek edge in order to find the log-crossing points. Anyone who has done this knows that that makes for a much longer trail approach, weaving in and around trees, up and down slopes. The trail on the East side of the creek goes through the "valley of the silent men", which I took to be the valley of increadible log blow-down. Picking our way through this area was fairly time consuming as the snow level was right at the log surface level, meaning punching through, jarring steps, and near stream-soaking experiences. Just before the Lena creek forks, the creek is covered by a broad thick snow bridge. The foot steps we were trying to follow generally headed across to the west side of lena creek at this point. I was concerned about having to find another crossing point over the west branch of the forks, so insited in sticking to the trail description, forcing us to look for a crossing point on the East branch. I had expected there to be a well build log crossing, like all the previous crossings, but there is not. We chose one of our three crossing options over the east fork and then back-tracked toward and up the north side of the west fork.

The normal camp area is written to be at the lena forks. This is a nice flat area close to running water, so would be a good choice.... if you were confident about where the route goes from there. We were not, so I wanted to head up the West fork and camp close to the base of the South Couloir start, enabling a faster start in the morning. I mention with reservations that this route finding episode required some confident selling to my partners. I had to guarantee with 100% confidence that we were going the right way.... If I was wrong, I at least guaranteed them an adventure... a different adventure than planned. Anyway, the route proved correct, and we camped directly at the base of the South Couloir, nestled into some trees at the end of the increadibly devastating avalanche fan-out. As for the route to the base of the South Couloir, the description in the Olympic climbing guide is the closest... it mentions coming out into an avalanche meadow, crossing it and a minor treed ridge and then up the couloir. The first meadow is obvious, the minor treed ridge is even less minor now.. more due to the loss of trees. The avalanche destruction here is quite serious.... trips later this year will have a significant struggle making their way through here when the snow melts. It will probably take some significant trail work to clear whatever "indistinguishable" path is normally there.

The climb: We woke up, well the alarm went off, at 4AM Sunday morning. This being the first alpine start of the year, the body some convincing to be done. OK, I fell asleep again until 4:30, easy to do to the sound of rain on the tent fly. At 4:30, I fired up the stove for Della and started to get ready. In general, we all (but Della) had a slow start and didn't get going until a little past 5:30. In the rain, fairly heavy at times, we didn't have a large motivation for the summit. Thoughts of water logged avalanche slopes were on my mind. We decided to just head up the couloir (a snow ramp between the trees at this point)to see if we were at least in the right spot, and second to see the top. When we got up the first ramp, the view opens up into a basin and clear views up the slopes to numerous gulleys and couloirs. Which one is the right one? Ok, well go a little farther (the rain has stopped) and see if that notch opens up to the right couloir...(staying toward the right hand shoulder) Before we knew it, we were at 5000ft, below the narrow constriction of the South Couloir, at the point we needed to head East over the rocks to the shoulder. We scrambled up and across on the rocks, at which point it was clear that we could have continued on the snow to this point. Heading East on the "ledge" to Lunch Rock, supposted to be below a patch of small trees... well how small are small trees? These trees were clearly a small clump of trees, but they were good 50-100 ft conifers if you ask me. Turning up and headin north we passed the "possible bivy sites" where sure enough, a group had bivied there the night before.... the team from Boalps were attempting the Brothers traverse. Near the top of this slope (more than 200 yards), an easy traverse to the left gets you back onto the main South Couloir. Kicking steps up the couloir on slopes up to 42 degrees (measured), was straight forward. The snow was perfect for step kicking, and as we later found, wonderful for plunge stepping on the way down.

This is where all the guide descriptions failed us. They generally claim that at the 6000 ft level, you are at the headwall of the assumed summit. going right to the ridge, you should be able to scramble to the summit. Now with that description, I was expecting to end up on the Eastern ridge to the summit and scramble back left to the summit. Not So! The head wall at about 6000 ft is a false summit, at which point turning right and heading to a ridge really gets you to a col between the false summit and the west ridge of the true summit. Once you are that close to the summit, all you see is a bunch of rocky spires and it is unclear which spire is the summit and therefore which gulley gets you there. I chose the left most gulley up the left side of the left spire. This gets you to a nice notch overlooking the Brothers traverse ridge on the right. Back down part of that gulley, and up another gets you to a nice exposed notch with steep snow down the north side, and an easy class 3/4 scramble up to the top of the spire, I'd been looking at. Well, its not the summit, at about 6600 ft according to the altimiter. Looking down the line east, it is clear that the summit is another two spires along. Down climbing the rock was exposed and therefore exciting. Since my other team mates had not commited to the scramble, they were getting cold. The excitement of the downclimb would have warmed anyones blood. Anyway, back down at the top of the S. Couloir, we bumped into the Boalps team, who had aborted their traverse attempt and decided on the south summit. We advised them on avoiding the wrong gulleys and directed them to the most promising, and apparently, the correct gulley. (I saw their trip report, in which they reportedly walked up to the summit from where we were. Needless to say, we decide we had had enough summit exploring. We decided to head down. The sun was out now, and the slopes were warming up. Getting down before they turned to mush became a priority. At the time I was satisfied with the climb... I had climbed to a summit, just not quite the intended summit. Well, how many people take the time to climb the subordinate peaks of main summits anyway? This is probably a first ascent right?

The Descent: was great. 2500 ft of either wonderful plunge steping, standing or sitting glissades. The snow was perfect. I wish I had my skis, though to haul them in on this trail would be tough. I rediscovered the ancient art of snow-boarding (Need the photo to justify this claim). We packed up camp in the sun, drying gear as we went. The trip back was a lot faster, knowing the way and having a more definite foot track to follow. We followed the track down the west fork and crossed over to the south side on a snow bridge. Note: there were no other suitable crossing points on the west branch, and the bridge we crossed probably wont last more than a few more days. SO... despite the temptation on the approach to follow the tracks over the broad, thick bridge before the forks... DONT!!! Continue up to find a crossing on the East fork. Also, the trip back through the blow-down was even more tenuous. The snow is melting fast and a few of the paths that wee took on the way in had fallen into the river by Sunday. In a couple weeks, I think this approach is going to be a nightmare when the snow level drops below the log level.

Lena lake looked inviting, but cold. The high-tech toilets were a pleasure to use. The trek down the trail to the truck was mostly uneventful, except for the childish games we invoked to pass away the drudgery. Wait. I forgot, there was an eventful moment. Being the environmentally sensitive and good summaritans at that, Tracy, Maureen and Della had started picking up garbage left by, no doubt, some of our hiking "friends". They had picked up some pop bottles etcetra and then came across another bottle partially filled with soda still. On trying to empty it, it was clogged, presumably with cigarette buts and such. A few good shakes however developed a small drowned mouse. Well, scream, shriek, scream some more, and threats of up-chuck: this was the first and last indication I'd witness this trip that I was travelling with the ladies. Needless to say, their garbage collection duties ended there.
The Photos - to come.
No pics yet... (pc:GS)

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Last updated: June 17 1999
Copyright © 1999 Gordon Schryer.