Descent Route: Box Creek Cirque Couloir
February 28, 2006
I raced out of the house at 5:30 this morning trying to beat an approaching storm and get one more 14er in. Mt. Elbert was the call for the day, and I went to climb and ski it alone. While I absolutely like sharing these peaks with partners, there is something very powerful and spiritual about being up on a big peak all by your self. I was into it today. Elbert is the highest peak in Colorado as well as all of the Rocky Mountains. Although it is somewhat unassuming in visual stature, it more than makes up for that with a huge vertical drop of almost 5000 ft. I was at the South Elbert (Twin Lakes) trailhead (winter) parking. This trailhead lies at 9700 ft., so I was looking at 12 miles and 4700 ft. of climbing to reach the summit. A warm and strong wind was with me all day. I could hear it freight-training up on the mountain as I made my way through the Aspen forest. It's an ominous sound and one that makes you wonder if you'll make the summit.
After two hours in the trees, I crested treeline and worked my way up onto the East Ridge, the standard Mt. Elbert trail. From the East Ridge I had a great view of the Box Creek Cirque (see route line on main photo), which looked nicely filled in and wind packed. Snow always has a certain look about it, whether it be fresh or old, sun baked or wind packed, scary or inviting. It's always up to us as the skiers to take in all of the little clues that Mother Nature shows us and form an opinion as to the safety of the situation. I think education and experience can give you a certain amount of intuition in the mountains, and its usually best to listen to it. I liked the way the cirque and its five or six couloirs looked, and decided to attempt the steepest of them, far skier's left.
The climb above treeline was super windy. I was actually blown over twice. I'm not sure what wind velocity will blow down an adult, but it felt like 60 or 70 mph. I tried to carry my skis on my pack for a while, but they just acted like a sail and made the simple task of hiking a balancing act. So I threw on my new Fritschi ski crampons (thanks Colleen, Penn and Black Diamond) and they performed amazingly well. I reached the summit in exactly four hours. The summit of Mt. Elbert has a couple wind blocks made of boulders that allowed a little break from the tempest. I geared up, took the requisite photos, chowed a Clif Bar and stepped into the skis.
The top 700 feet of skiing was on firm wind pack, at a low angle. I worked my way down to the top of the Box Creek Cirque, and immediately found the entrance to the couloir I was looking for. It was pretty narrow, no more than 30 feet wide, and had a nice layer of wind deposited powder in it. I dropped in with a couple ski cuts, and the snow was perfect, soft with a firm base under it. I proceeded to ski it to the bottom and all the way out to a small pond in the flats below the cirque.
The ski out to the car was nasty. The temperature was way above freezing at this point in the day, so as soon as I got below treeline, the snow had turned to complete slush, and would not support even my weight as I skied over it. (isothermic to the ground) I did a few full face plants as my tips dove to the ground, and took out a few good sized Aspen branches as well. And the dust layer sitting on top of the old snow makes for terrible gliding. So I finally made it back to the car at 2:00 pm after a fantastic day on Colorado's highest peak.
p.s. I found a black Burton glove up there if anyone lost it. (previous two skiers?)
Big storm tonight and tomorrow, so a well needed rest day. I'll be back at it this Thursday.
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