On the shoulders of giants: Left Mendel Couloir aka Ice Nine

"If I have gone a little faster, pulled a little harder, and seen a bit further, it is because I have tread in the steps kicked by Giants." A couple of days after climbing the oh-so ephemeral Death Couloir on Mt. Morrison, I found myself in a bar in Mammoth with my partner from that climb, Allen, who was leaving town for Yosemite the next day. In reality, I was trying to convince him to stay and search out more ice in the Sierras. I tempted him with prospects of Alpine Glory, opportunity, and the lure of badassness. But he was not hearing it, and visions of me soloing a big alpine route in the sierras began swirling around my head, fueled by overconfidence, past success, and the various forms of alcohol making thier way down my gullet and into my bloodstream. The route I had in mind was the legendary Left Mendel Couloir, aka Ice Nine. Thats when I saw Andrew, a guide for the Sierra Mountain Center, who I had met the previous year while climbing in Mammoth. Having attempted the Minaret Traverse, I knew that Andrew was willing to suffer in the mountains. It didnt take much convincing, and after 5 minutes of chit-chat, we decided we would go for Ice Nine 2 days later, car to car.

I figured out a while ago, that one can avoid rediculously early alpine starts by hiking and climbing faster, going lighter, and telling yourself "its all good." Sure, our planned day involved about 16 miles round trip with over 7000 feet of elevation gain and 1000 feet of technical climbing, but the lure of an extra couple hours of sleep was just too tempting. So we decided that a semi-prudent plan would be to hit the trail by 4am and go light and fast. 4am turned into 420am, and we started hiking, not from North Lake as planned, but from the road closure about 30 minutes down the road. As we snowshoed up through the forest, a fiery sunrise cast the trees in silhouette, and we were glad our small amount of gear did not put too much strain on our young backs.

Sunrise in the forest

We had decided to go "Colorado Stylie," with a single 8mm, 60m rope, 7 ice screws, and less than a full rack of rock gear. This would prove to be just enough to get by. 4 hours of endless snowshoieng brought us to the freezing and windy Lamarck Col.

on the way to Lamarck Col

We brewed up some hot drink and admired out planned objective which sat still and ominous across the huge basin.

route in red, descent in yellow

Mt.Mendel rises to 13,710ft and is situated along the Evolution crest. While many hike below its southern aspects along the John Muir trail, far fewer make the trek over Lamarck Col and catch a glimpse of its spectacular North Face. A large "glacier" sweeps up the base of the North face and branches into 2 Couloirs. The right branch is a classic Sierra mountaineering route, and the left branch, while just as classic, is known as the harder line. When it was first climbed in 1967, it was the hardest ice route in the Sierras, and a decade later was named Ice Nine by Doug Robinson and Dale Bard, who climbed the direct ice line, with straight shaft ice tools and a slew of other gear which would not even be recognized by today's mountaineers toting curved axes and ice screws. Andrew and I discussed this point of history as we dropped into the basin from Lamarck col, commenting on what it must have been like venturing into the alpine unknown.

"Ice-Nine had always been one of those routes shrouded by an aura of mystery...Due to the ephemeral nature of ice, a climb like Ice-nine is never out of shape; it just slides along and ever thinning scale until it becomes a rock climb."

Dave Nettle from Sierra Classics

From the Col, the Mendel Couloirs looked like they would be cruiser snow climbs in firm snow, and the daunting face was reduced to a quick jaunt by my naive imagination. We roped up in the bowl below the face and began to simulclimb up the steepening snow.

roped up and ready to go

I was in the lead, and passed a short section of mixed climbing, after which I continued up and set a belay for Andrew. I was already feeling fatigue from the looong approach, and vocalized my hopes that we had passed the crux...I was very wrong. Being the more experienced mixed and ice climber, we decided that I would gun the entire route. I had started up the right side of the couloir and realized I had to traverse left in order to gain the system that lead to the top.

crossing the first mixed step

I ran out of rope, and told Andrew to break the belay and start simulclimbing. I traversed over scant snow covered steep slabs, and encountered a snow chocked chimney, which I struggled to get through knowing that my last pro was far away and that I was simulclimbing. "That MUST have been the crux" I said after Andrew got to the belay. Wrong again. The snow was sugary and made the going slow, necessitating much excavation in order to find protection and solid holds for my tools, crampons, and wet gloved hands. I cursed the snow for being so soft and myself for bringing so little rock gear. If I had wanted to climb skecthy mixed ground with loose snow I could have stayed in Rocky Mountain National Park!

surmounting the snow mushroom

The next pitch involved a classic Colorado technique...chimneying between a blank slab and a precarious snow mushroom. This was followed by standing on said snow mushroom and placing a stopper (thanks Doug Robinson!) before tackling the overhang above. "That had to be the crux," I once again told myself, but my next belay was below a chockstone in a chimney no wider than my hips, with a thin smear of dirty Alpine ice in the back. Scrappy moves lead behind the chockstone and I stood on top of it, hoping that it would stay put.

passing the chockstone, getting into the business

Now I was face to face with the first real ice on the route. Too thin to swing at, I was forced to lightly tap at it with my tool, and then use the small holes for both my ice tools and crampons. I managed to get my shortest screw in the fattest section I could find and then committed to a 30 foot runout up the chimney. Claustrophobic moves squeezing up the chimney, and a horrifying topout put me onto a thin strip of snow. To my horror, the 5 inches of loose snow covered even thinner ice, forcing me to swing hard and blindly trust my tools. The ice beneath the snow started calving off in giant chunks which tumbled down the gully towards poor Andrew. With my tiny selection of rock gear and no protectable ice, our strategy of light and fast had turned into "light and scared."

I kept reminding myself how the "old schoolers" had clawed their way up this route with the tools of the day. "You got this," I kept telling myself, "focus on technique, pull smarter."

Many folks idolize those at the top of their game, from Micheal Jordan to Tommy Caldwell. Also inspiring are the titans who developed those games...Yvon Chounard, Doug Robinson, Galen Rowell, Rhienhold Messner, Norman Clyde, Layton Kor...the list goes on. But I have been fortunate enough to actually climb with those I idolize and look up to...Scott Nelson, Buster Jesik, Austin Curnow, Charles Ince, my mom, Nathan Ricklin, Shay Har-Noy, Mathew Othmer, Josh Higgins, Jacob Felderman, Jack Holbrook, Alex Lowe, Albert Lin, my dad, Logan Cobb, Toby Guilette, Chris Sheridan...and the list goes on. High on Mt. Mendel and short on rock gear I thought about the man who directly inspired me to climb this route...Asa Firestone. In fact, this was the only route Asa had ever attempted to climb in the Sierras, and he succeeded. Now I was less than a hundred feet from the top, faced with tough conditions and no option for retreat, runout, and exhausted. I dug deep for strength, and what I found was the glory gained from walking shoulder to shoulder with those who inspire me the most and encourage me in all my pursuits. Waiting on the other side of Lamarck Col were the titans of MY inspiration, and in my hands and feet were the lessons they have taught me, both on and off the mountain.

I glanced up ahead at more thin ice, capped by a loose looking rock roof. I told myself I was in control. I told myself I had the skill and the balls to get to the top. I took 3 deep breaths and stopped my leg from shaking. Then I fired to the summit.

executing the pose with Mt. Darwin in the background

I brought Andrew up, and we enjoyed a windless summit with the great Sierras spreading to all horizons, snow covered and awe-inspiring. Now that the climb had ended, it was time for the real suffering to begin. We traversed towards a low-point in the notch between Mt. Mendel and Mt. Darwin, found some fixed cord and made one rappel to some loose 4th class and then the snow. Crossing the whole basin and climbing over 1000ft back up to Lamarck Col was not fun. We arrived back at the car, just as total darkness set in, 17 hours after we had left. I stripped down and immediately fell asleep in my van...content.

parting shot, sun getting low

For more info on how to be a badass and an all-around great read, check out Doug Robinson's book, A Night On the Ground A Day in the Open, and stay tuned to Pullharder.org for tales from us mere mortals.