The Components of a Quick Grade IV Hot Lap: Triple Couloirs in 12.5 hours

A few weeks ago, Eric and I spent a pleasant Monday skinning the Bridge Creek Road and then blasted up neve on the Triple Couloirs route on Dragontail. We covered the 6,800ft and 19.3 miles from car-to-car in 12.5 hours, all during daylight in March.  It was one of those perfect days, where you realize just what you are capable of.  I am sure plenty of people have done the TC faster, but there are also quite a lot of things that went well for us that are worth discussing. I think successful fast and light outings like this are the ultimate test in puttingit all together.  I love climbing in this style.  It is just fun, fun, fun.

I am still trying to get it right the first time, which we did here (Eric and I had never climbed  the route before), but there seemed to be four factors in our success story: a strong understanding of the route conditions, technical skills that exceeded the difficulties of the terrain, bringing just the right amount of gear to climb in that style, and adopting an all-day pace from start to finish.  Here are those elements in detail.

Nailing the route conditions

I’ve learned over time that conditions are everything and information is priceless.  My successful outings are nearly always preceded by several hours spread over several days of checking weather forecasts, looking for recent trip reports, and tinkering with weather station data.  That OR good luck. 

If you don’t already have a keen sense of what to expect on a climb or ski based on preceding weather, you should start building this skill now. It is one of the easiest paths to improving your chances of success on each outing.  Ensuring that each outing goes smoothly is the easiest way to cruise through that tick list of yours – you won’t be leaving a trail of routes where you had to bail half way, and thus need to go back to.

The best way to improve your head on judging conditions is to understand the processes at work. Make a hypothesis about the conditions you expect to find before you even leave the house.  Freeze-thaw conditions  – ice?  Lots of snow around – well consolidated snow or neve.  High winds with some recent snowfall, that might change things, but how? Think about the impacts of aspect, temperature and altitude.  The key is to then take the hypothesis you’ve made out with you, observe all the new information you find, correct your assumptions as you go, and learn from them.

We didn’t decide to go for the Triple Couloirs route until a night or two before.  I had been watching the temperatures, precipitation totals, wind gauges, and cloud cover for the last week.  Every night, I checked the conditions and I had a strong hunch of what we would encounter.  We expected a significant amount of snow and neve covering the mixed steps but no ice. This was my guess, but collecting data didn’t stop there.  Even while driving through Tumwater Canyon and skinning up the road from the car, and we were still debating exactly what we might find, taking in little pieces of information as we went.

Eric above the runnels at the base of the second couloir. There was a lot of snow around which made travel in the runnels easy.

Mastery over the terrain

On the route, we found exactly the conditions we expect, which made for easy travel from top to bottom.  Near the difficulties in the “runnels”, hard neve, elsewhere sometimes a bit softer snow, and even some punchy stuff.  Perfect – this is exactly what we were hoping for. We DIDN’T find ice that would require more technical movement, or deep snow that would zap our energy.  Eric and I knew how to cover this type of terrain quickly AND safely.

With these kind of conditions, Eric and I decided to leave the rope behind.  We were very confident in our ability to climb without falling.  This was the right decision for us given our skill set and experience level.  For your own car-to-car adventures, figuring out your on comfort-level for moving fast and light is important. You cannot strip down your rack, go for something at your limit, and expect to be faster.  More likely you’ll end up going “light and slow” with this kind of cavalier attitude. You’ll end up second guessing run-outs or trying to zip it up on a single rack and a 30m piece of floss (you won’t get very far!) Once you figure out what you are conformable with, then decide what to bring.

Trimming the Kit to the Essentials

And I really do mean ESSENTIALS.

The lightest my pack is felt in a long long time.  Not even in Chamonix does it get this light.

Because we had a strong guess as to the condition of the route, we were able to leave A LOT of stuff in the car.  Instead of starting with a list of what we brought, here are all the things we left behind:

  • rope, pro, harnesses, cams, ice screws, nuts, pitons, and slings – Most of this stuff would have been useless given the amount of snow around. We could have taken pickets with us but then it all quickly adds up again.
  • beacon, shovel, probe – If the climbing conditions were as we expected, there would be minimal avalanche risk, otherwise we would probably just have turned around. There was the possibility of finding small, isolated wind slabs on the other side of the summit or on route.  We would manage them accordingly.

After dropping all this weight, our packs were pretty small. In addition to ice tools, skis, poles, skins, and crampons, Eric and I each brought:

    • Just enough food for the day (I had 100 calories an hour for 1300 total) + some Nuun
    • 1L of water in a “single-use” bottle (i.e. a Gatorade bottle or similar – lighter than a Nalgene, just make sure it doesn’t crack in your pack)
    • Goggles (a little bit of margin in case of spindrift or weather settled in)
    • A second set of gloves (I had a thin pair for approaching and climbing, and a thicker pair for the ski)
    • A headlamp
    • A phone for GPS + beta, and of course, photos

   For layers, we went pretty light, using our own movement to stay warm:

    • Eric and I both approached in a long-sleeve base layer and soft-shell pants.
    • We both climbed in a Ferosi hoody – in my biased or unbiased opinion, the ultimate active soft-shell layer
    • At the top, I threw on the Uberlayer and he had OR Transcendent down hoody
    • In case of wet weather (very unlikely) we both had a light shell.

Between the two of us, we carried a small multi-tool, sunscreen, extra batteries, a small bit of tape.

Thats it.

Adopting an all-day pace

Remember the story of the turtle and the hair from pre-school?  I would say that describes the best approach for long all-day climbs.  You should be moving forward and upward at a pace which prevents you from getting depleted. It’s easy to be excited out of the gate, or as you start the first pitch, but force yourself to remember how far you have to go. 

Now by slow and steady I don’t actually mean slow, I mean working at an intensity level where you are predominantly using fat as fuel.  Because you can store a lot of fat on your body, yo’ll be able to go at this pace all-day long (for many days if you really had to).  For some of us early in our training career, we won’t be able to move that quickly without breaking into glycolytic (carbohydrate-based) energy production processes.  Others will be able to move at a very fast pace while still maintaining a conversation.  Determine what your output level is that allows you to move all day, breaking into higher-intensity levels only when necessary.  This type of measured clip will prevent you from bonking in the 9th hour.  It can be challenging to do, as it might require putting the ego aside and admitting to yourself that you just aren’t as fast as those other guys.

Moving slow and steady, even when you can barely contain your excitement and you are the only ones around. Photo: Eric Wehrly

Eric and I skinned from Icicle Creek road to the base of the Triple Couloirs, and it was important we arrived there feeling like the tank was still pretty much full.  We took several breaks to eat food, hang out, and shoot the shit. We filled up water. We were not rushing.  Science on aerobic capacity aside, I find that when I try to skin too fast, my skis start to slip out, or I end up sliding backwards on kick turns.  These moments end up being huge waste of energy as I then engage all my abs and core to recover.  Going slow and steady calms my mind and allows me to focus on just putting each foot in front of the other.

Even if your going fast, its still nice to enjoy a well-earned lunch in the sun at the top.  Mount stuart in the background.

The above four components made a hot lap on Dragontail possible for us.  While it was still a big day, our level of fitness, the conditions on route, and size of our packs made it possible to complete without being a zombie for the rest of the week. Maybe as you start to figure out which big objectives you want to aim for, these insights will give you a little perspective of how to manage weather and strategy to make it a success.  The other key is not to overdue it.  Just because many routes can be done in a day, and you can cram huge missions into the weekend, doesn’t mean this is the tactic you should take every time.  Big days like this put a huge load on your system.  Congratulate yourself, rest afterwards, and get in some small outings afterwards to ease back into things.  Its the long tail of time spent outside and training that make the big trips possible. 

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