From the Mt. Huntington base camp, a climber cannot fail to see the ice
couloir that bisects the north face of Peak 11,520 (3511m). At the end
of the day, its ice reflects a blazing orange alpenglow back toward base
camp. In fact, this line had been so fetching it inspired Jay Smith to
name it The Shining, while he was climbing The Phantom Wall on Mt.
Huntington decades ago. Yet it remained unclimbed. On May 17, 2005, I
left at 10 p.m. on May 16 from the Mt. Huntington base camp and skied
two miles to solo this couloir. I crossed the bergschrund at 1 a.m. with
three ice tools, six screws, two slings of carabiners, two-dozen
v-thread cords, two snow pickets, 100 oz. of beverage in a water pack,
some energy gel, my parka in a stuffsack clipped to my harness, and two
200-foot ropes for rappelling. After 200 feet of steep snow, I reached
The first constriction in the gully at 600 feet provided the initial
difficulty. I chose a left line over a short step of thin eighty-degree
ice. After much more perfect seventy-degree alpine ice, I encountered a
second constriction at approximately 1,600 feet. This time, I chose the
right side of a giant granite disk, serrated like a Chinese throwing
star, which divided the narrowed gully in two, and I climbed a short
section of eighty-eight-degree ice. Above me, seemingly interminable
seventy-degree ice formed an open parenthesis-shaped arch around the
last remaining rock outcrops. This feature provided shelter from the
enormous cornice that caps the couloir and the pale blue seracs that
hang like pyramids just to the east of it. The final 800 feet eased in
angle, and the ice gradually became snow-covered. The shape of the upper
section indicated that the seracs do in fact drain down the couloir.
I reached the west end of the cornice and asked myself, “What the hell
are you doing up here without a belay?” Slowly and quietly I climbed
down and burrowed into the snow to build a v-thread for a rappel anchor.
I made three rappels before realizing I was once again directly under
the hulking mass of cornice and seracs, so the next four rappels were
made off a single screw in order to expedite my descent. I resolved to
stay as close as possible to the rock outcrops on the west side of the
gully to take refuge from anything falling from above.
On the eight rappel the rope got stuck. I had almost pulled it through,
with the knot in my hand and the entire 200 feet of the second rope
threaded through the anchor and hanging below, but the upper rope
stopped. I winched it with my rappel device, but it had obviously tied
itself to the thread at the end. Not wanting to climb back up 200 feet
into the firing line, I cut two sections off the stuck rope and resolved
that the remaining cords would be adequate for however many 100-foot
rappels I would need to make. I focused on the task at hand: rappel,
build a v-thread, bounce test it, pull the rope carefully, rappel and
When I solo, each placement, each breath and each move becomes my world,
and my mind does not wander outside it. The rappel, however, is the time
for self-reflection, self-doubt and self-loathing. Tears well up and
then subside again repeatedly. I think of my daughters. I think of my
relationship. I demonize myself for soloing. Yet, the harmonious and
otherworldly seeming exchange between a climber, a mountain and the
weather inexplicably justifies this sort of absurdity to me.
I retained my focus: rappel, build a v-thread and DON’T FUCKING MISS!
Bounce test it and pull the rope carefully. I continued to rappel, and I
didn’t miss a single v-thread. As my supply of cords thinned, I realized
I would still have enough. Finally, with only two screws and one section
of cord remaining, I made the last 100-foot rappel over the bergschrund
from a snow picket, plunge-stepped down to my skis and packand skied
rapidly out from below the face. It was 9:45 a.m. By 11 a.m. on May 17,
I returned to Mt. Huntington base camp, thirteen hours after leaving it.
Jack Tackle informed me that forty-eight hours after my ascent, the
couloir ran from top to bottom leaving a pile of serac debris at its
base. The Shining was one of the least prudent outings of my
life and one of the most exhilarating.
Will Mayo, Northfield, Vermont