Elevation Gain: 1,760m
Total Time: 12 hours 17 minutes
Date: November 14th, 2022
Elise, Andrea and I were looking to join up on a winter objective in early November and I threw out the idea of Rethel Mountain via the North Couloir. Another group had attempted it a few weeks prior but found hazardous conditions. Now that more time had elapsed I was hoping it would be in good condition for us to make a go of it. The North Couloir is notoriously difficult to time, as a massive cornice forms at the top of the couloir early in the season. To successfully ascend this route, one needs to ensure there’s sufficient snow in the couloir to boot pack up, but not so much that the cornice blocks the exit. Steven and his group had found great conditions around the same time a few years prior, but there’s no telling what we’d find. Nonetheless, Elise and Andrea were stoked to give it an attempt, so we planned for a Monday ascent. In order to safely climb up and down the cornice we decided to bring one 8mm x 60m rope and 5 snow pickets to facilitate a two person rappel and one lead down climb.
On Monday morning we swung by Elise’s for 3:30am and then made the two and bit hour drive to the Wedgemount Lake trail head. We started down the trail after a cold transition to our approach equipment. To our good fortune, the trail was hard packed and no traction or flotation was required at all. Elise set a blistering pace and raced ahead while Andrea and I made a consistent pace towards the lake.
By 9am we had reached the base of the lake, but Elise was nowhere to be found. I did a quick search towards the hut, but didn’t see any sign. Looking more closely at where we stopped I noticed Elise’s snow shoe tracks heading South and it became clear where we’d find her. Andrea and I donned snow shoes here as well and followed the circuitous path around the western end of Wedgemount Lake. Here we had a great view of the couloir and a partial view of the exit at the top. The cornice already looked huge, but the couloir twisted out of sight at the top so it wasn’t clear if the route was out or not.
I spotted Elise across the lake already, so Andrea and I continued along doing our best to catch up. Coming around the south end of the lake, there were a number of holes to avoid on the boulder field, but we managed to avoid most of them. Then we followed Elise’s tracks up the couloir’s outflow towards the entrance. The snow was quite wind affected here with small wind slabs forming in many places. This definitely heightened my concern for our route. I caught up with Elise waiting for us near the entrance and we went about assessing the snow. After doing some rudimentary digging, stomping and ascending higher up, we found the snow in the couloir proper to be in good condition. Around this time, Andrea caught up and we made the call to make an attempt for it. We swapped snow shoes for cramps on and then ditched our gear at the base.
Elise lead the way, boot packing a path up for us and we soon reached the narrow choke point that marked the start of the steepest sections. Despite how the angle looked from far away, up close it actually wasn’t too bad. Adding to that the snow was in perfect boot pack condition and we ascended up with relative ease. As we climbed higher, the cornice still didn’t look any better, but we committed to getting up close to see if a way out would present itself.
Now 3/4’s of the way up, I spotted two skiers quickly making their way up from the entrance below. By the time we were within 30m of the exit, the first skier passed us and offered to break trail the rest of the way. Elise and I followed close, finally getting a good look at the exit options. However, our attention was diverted as the skier reached the last 7m to the top. As he neared the base of the cornice, he triggered a decent size of wind slab and it went sailing down the couloir. A piece hit Andrea, but she was thankfully close enough that it hadn’t picked up much speed. This instantly spooked all of us and we were now on high alert. It was clear from the way the slab propagated that continuing up further from the skier was going to trigger an even bigger piece.
The skier wisely stopped where he was and his friend joined to ski down from a safe standpoint. Now we were left to sort out what to do. Climber’s left and right were free of overhanging cornice, however they were guarded by vertical rock faces veiled in snow. Perhaps another foot of precipitation and we could just climb out on steep snow, but at this stage it was going to require some mixed climbing. We’d come prepared with snow pickets, but no rock gear. The pickets would be useless near the top too as we found mostly sugar snow. Elise tried to wallow climber’s right to an exit ramp, but found tricky conditions. Given all the we’d observed in the last 10 minutes, we finally made the call to back off. No doubt, if we didn’t have a slab to contend with we may have gone for one of the bolder exit options, but it wasn’t an option for us today.
With that we started the down climb now that the skiers had cleared out of the couloir. It was steep enough that we had to face in, but we made a decent pace to the choke point where the angle eased off. Elise continued on to our gear stash at the entrance and I waited for Andrea to finish up her down climb. It was getting quite cold at this point and my three season boots were proving to be inadequate for the conditions. I held out though and Andrea eventually reached the choke point were we walked facing out the remainder of the way to Elise.
We swapped back to our snow shoes and then returned around the lake to the junction for the hut. Here ditched the snow shoes and Andrea donned some cramp ons and then we all made our way back to the truck. I gave Elise the keys to the truck so she wouldn’t have to wait and then off we went. There’s not much to speak of on the descent, but it eventually got dark around 4:30PM and we had to bring out the head lamps for the last hour.
The sting in the tail was finding out that from where we stood, we only had 30m of elevation gain to the summit. However, I think we made the right call given the conditions and I don’t have any regrets about backing off. The couloir route is fun and engaging and definitely a route I recommend if you can time it. I’ll be back some day, but probably via the western slopes for an easy plod up.