Descent Route: South Face Couloir
South Face Couloir
May 1, 2006
Ellingwood was one of the more special ski descents of my project, not for the snow, route, or weather, but for the company. Lou Dawson joined our group for this mission into the Sierra Blanca Mountains, a sub-range of the Sangre de Cristos. For those of you who do not know who Lou is, he was the first and is still the only person to have skied all fifty-four Colorado fourteeners. He is a wonderful author, having written the premier guidebooks to the fourteeners, as well as ?Wild Snow?, a beautiful book on significant ski descents and history in North American ski mountaineering. He also authors one of the web?s best ski related blogs, www.wildsnow.com . This past fall Lou was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame. To have Lou join us on this part of our project was nothing short of an honor.
We met Lou at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, one of my favorite parks and campgrounds in the state. Lou had being trying to hook up with me earlier this season on some peaks, but it just hadn?t happened. This week he had been down in the San Juans near Telluride, and made the big drive over to the San Luis Valley to join us for an attempt on Ellingwood Peak and Blanca Peak. These two fourteeners, along with Little Bear and Lindsey, form the high summits of the Sierra Blanca, and tower 7000? over the sweeping San Luis Valley. From the sand dunes, its only twelve miles to the Como Lake Road, our access point for these peaks. Because the approach is long and has a lot of vertical gain in it, we chose to hike in the afternoon before and camp at Como Lake. Now, let me say that the Como Lake Road is no road, more a rock crawling jeep track. This track even has named sections like Jaws I and Jaws II. It us considered the third roughest jeep road in Colorado. We drove our trucks a little way up the road, then parked and lifted our immense packs. Imagine your standard camping pack: tent, stove, sleeping bag, pad, food, clothes, headlamp, water, cup, bowl, and camera. Now add your ski gear: skis, boots, shovel, probe, beacon, poles, skins, and helmet. Our packs with this load were getting close to eighty pounds. (Ben also had a 16mm Arriflex camera, two lenses, a battery, and a big tripod? 90 pounds easy) We managed to get this load up to Como Lake, where we set up camp next to the lake.
I knew that two of my Aspen friends were going to be up at Como Lake during this time, and sue enough, I ran into Chris Carmichael and Sean Shean, camped at the other end of the lake. These guys were up there for three nights, and had just done Ellingwood and Blanca today. Tomorrow, when we were headed to Ellingwood and Blanca, they were going for a hard line on Little Bear Peak, although not with skis, since Little Bear is a ?little bare?! It was really cool hanging out with Chris and Sean up there, and with them we were nine people from the Roaring Fork Valley (Aspen, Snowmass, Carbondale). After a stunning sunset on the flanks of the Little Bear-Blanca Ridge
(see photo), we ate dinner and spoke easily next to a campfire alongside the lake at 11,700?. Because we were in position near the base of our destinations, we woke relatively late, at 5:30 a.m. and brewed tea, coffee and oatmeal. By 6:20 the crew was geared up and we hit the trail, all seven of us skinning quietly towards our first peak of the day, Ellingwood Peak. There was virtually no snowpack in this high basin, and the summits and ridges were dry as well. We hoped to see some snow on Ellingwood?s South Face, but I wasn?t holding my breath for any great lines. We were fortunate that a storm had dropped six or eight inches two nights earlier, but in some ways all that did was cover up the rocks. As we climbed above Blue Lake and got our first good glimpse of the South Face, my heart sank. The face was a rock garden, holding no seasonal snowpack. Then we turned to the south and stared at Blanca Peak?s Northwest Face. It looked worse, with no skiable lines at all. After all our work and effort to get here, plus the fact that Lou was with us, we were pretty desperate to get something done. One couloir on the face looked like it might go, so I led across the face and up into the couloir. The higher I got the more surprised I was at the amount of snow in there. It wasn?t great by any means, but definitely would allow some turns. Near the summit, we had to traverse across shallow talus slopes, and then struck more snow on the summit; I was totally relieved that this route would go, albeit with some rock skiing involved. When a mountain range is sitting at thirty percent of its normal snowpack, you sort of have to relax your ethics on skiing these peaks, so while we still skied off the summit, we had to ski across snow covered rocks to access the top of the couloir. Lou and I had some nice discussions about the ethics of skiing on the fourteeners. This is an important topic as more and more people attempt ski descents of these peaks. Others who have attempted to ski all the fourteeners before have used more relaxed ethics when skiing on the peaks, sometimes not skiing from the summit. I think a lot about the unwritten rules of this game, and the only one I definitely live by is skiing off the summit. Otherwise I try and get down the most aesthetic and continuous route possible, which on this peak involved the rock skiing section.
Once we had all made it across the rocks, we got in position to ski the steep couloir. Ben was set up across the valley, on the face of Blanca, to film. Danny and Jon filmed on the slope, and Lou, Will, Nicky, and I skied the heinous crust and slop down the route. I haven?t fallen more than once or twice during this project, but I did a couple good high-sides on my run, and could here Ben laughing across the valley. Lou made it look easy, snapping quick, ankle driven turns. After the hike up the road yesterday, he was feeling it in his legs, and chuckled that he had chosen such a hard peak to accompany us on. I was hoping to ski Blanca Peak as well, but that was not to be. I?ll have to come back next fall, when there is some snow, to get Blanca and Little Bear. Back in the basin, we skied our way through the moraines and meadows back to Como Lake. The crew was beat. We all sprawled out next to the lake and relaxed. While nick snored his way through a nap, Lou and I did an interview for the camera, discussing everything from the ethics and history of ski mountaineering, to our ski careers and their parallels. Lou is so laid back and easy going. He speaks fondly of his mission to ski all the fourteeners, and it is obvious that he has not lost an ounce of passion for the sport over the years. I can only hope that I have that zeal with me when I?m his age.
We shouldered our charges and made our way down the road, our pack straps cutting into our hips and shoulders. Two hours later, back at the trucks, we could finally reflect on what a great trip this had been. We drove back to the sand dunes and our RV. Lou packed up his jeep and took Danny back home with him. Will, Ben, Nick, Jon, and I are headed to Durango tomorrow to load up the rig with food, and get ready for our next push in the fourteeners, the Wilson Group (North and South Wilson and El Diente), and the Needles (Windom, Sunlight, and North and South Eolus) After these six descents I?ll head home, finishing a two week road trip and fourteen fourteeners.
Stay tuned for more updates in three days from the Wilsons. We are in Durango, getting ready for some more great San Juan skiing.
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