The Alpine Ballroom

Action and contemplation— never one without the other.

—Gaston Rebuffat, Starlight and Sform

Climbing frozen waterfalls offers the ice climber the same sort of opportunity to sharpen technique as crag climbing offers the rock climber. But to the alpinist, the skills and strength gained on the waterfall are primarily important in their application to major new routes in the high mountains. Training on winter waterfalls actually makes normal alpine ice climbing easier. The proof of this came fast on the heels of early waterfall ice developments. In the summer of 1971, having just made the first ascent of Mahlen's Peak Waterfall the previous winter, my brother Creg soloed the Black Ice Couloir on Wyoming's Grand Teton in two hours. In 1976 John Bouchard used his water ice experience to advantage when he soloed a hard new route on the North Face of the Grand Pilier d'Angle on Mont Blanc, one of the most impressive Alpine ice walls. In 1974 Mike Weis and I were aided by confidence acquired on Bridalveil Falls and other winter ice climbs in the ascent of the Grand Central Couloir on the North Face of Mount Kitchener.

The first ascent of the 3,500-foot North Face of Mount Kitchener was made in August of 1971 by Chris Jones, Gray Thompson, and me. Our line, the Ramp Route, was a very satisfying experience and a difficult climb in its own right. But for me at least, the face held an even greater attraction: the great central couloir that falls from the broad summit of the mountain like the tail of a white comet. I doubt if anywhere else in the Rockies there is a couloir of equal size that is at once so beautiful and steep and singularly imposing. Perhaps I should add dangerous as well, for it is the natural path for rockfall and is often capped by a huge cornice. On my first encounter with the slopes below the couloir in August 1970, with my cousin George Lowe, the weather was warm and the couloir rumbled like Grand Central Station on Christmas Eve.

For several seasons following the ascent of the Ramp Route, yearly attempts were made on the Grand Central Couloir. Brian Greenwood, George Homer, and Bob Beal managed to work a way up the ice and rock buttress to the left of the couloir in 1973. They were actually attempting the couloir, but rockfall forced them to follow a more protected line. In the winter of 1975, at least two determined efforts were made, doubtless in the hopes that the winter cold would reduce rockfall. In the end, the short winter days, brittle ice, and avalanches confined both attempts to the lower half of the face.

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