Descent Route: West Face To East Couloir
The Needles Group
West Face to East Couloir
May 8, 2006
On the climb over from Sunlight and Windom Peaks to ski Mt. Eolus, I wanted to hit North Eolus first. While this summit is well over fourteen thousand feet, it is not considered an ?official? fourteener on most people?s lists because it is so closely connected to its higher brother to the south, Mt. Eolus. But since we were there, I had to do it. Climbing North Eolus was a challenge, involving cramponing on steep snow for a little section, and then a fifteen-foot section of rock moves to gain the ridge. We had climbed from the bottom of upper Chicago Basin to the summit of North Eolus in two hours, and I was starting to feel fatigued. It was 2:30 in the afternoon, and the weather had changed from crystal clear, blue skies, to dark clouds and obvious precipitation over many of the high peaks. Scott Putnam, a skier not with our group, who I met on the summit of Sunlight Peak, joined me on the summit, and then dropped in down the West Ridge that connects with Mt. Eolus. Talk about a small ski world, Scott?s sister is married to Paul Guimond, one of my close contacts and friends at Salomon. Scott also grew up ski racing at GMVS and Dartmouth, so we had many friends in common. He skied snow off the summit for a hundred feet, then removed his skis and down climbed to a saddle, where he could ski into the basin again. I skied the same ridge, but then cut through a small, snow-covered traverse out onto the South Face proper, and skied a tenuous line on bad snow down this face. Fortunately the face was short, although steep, and I was able to get off this crappy snow quickly. I then skied out into the high basin that sits between North Eolus and Mt. Eolus (South Eolus). I continued traversing on skis to the west for half a mile, and skied right up to the base of the East Couloir of Mt. Eolus. This steep, direct gully would be my ascent and ski route off of the mountain.
Jon Hagman had skinned around a separate basin to join Scott and I for the final summit of the day. At this point I was tired, but was so close to pulling off my goal of getting all four peaks in a day that I was super motivated. We booted up the fantastic East Couloir, doing some filming and taking photos along the way, and then crested the South Ridge at 13,700?. The ridge proper was all rock, but Scott decided to climb that anyway. Jon and I headed out onto the snow and booted up the upper West Face directly to the summit. Standing on top of my fourth peak of the day was thrilling. My two week push through the Sawatch Range, Sangre De Cristos, and San Juan Range had yielded fourteen summits and ski descents, and this was the last one for the San Juan Range, and the last one for this road trip. Jon and I enjoyed every moment on this summit, taking many photos of the surrounding peaks, including the incredible Vestal and Arrow Peaks to the north, Pigeon and Turret Peaks to the west, the amazing Mt. Kennedy to the south, and Windom and Sunlight back to our east. Among these peaks I have spied new lines to ski, and will definitely be back next year to attempt to ski some pretty wild terrain on them. Fantasies aside, the reality of our position set in. It was time to make our ski descent. We stepped into our skis and began working our way down the rocky West Face. After several hundred feet we traversed left and walked for twenty feet across big boulders to the top of the East Couloir. This couloir is beautiful and direct, and Jon filmed it from the top. I dropped in and skied great snow, especially on the north facing skier?s right side, all the way out into the valley. Then I watched as Scott, and then Jon, ripped fast turns down the line. With the couloir completed, all that remained was a cruiser ski out the bowl and back down to camp in lower Chicago Basin. The snow down here was melting fast and was punchy, and we sank in to our knees a few times along the way. Back in camp, the mood was celebratory. I was now done with all of the San Juan fourteeners, and could go home to Aspen for the first time in two weeks to see my family. For the rest of the group, they had experienced the serenity of skiing the high peaks in this remote and wild area. Our film project got a great story out of this trip, what with the train ride, camping mission, and such a great group of friends.. This film is really going to be something special, and it?s my hope that we do really well with it at the Banff Film Festival. We hope to have a DVD out this fall as well.
For those of you interested in a grand ski mountaineering adventure into some of Colorado?s wildest terrain, go hit the Needles soon. The train ride is fantastic, and the camping in Chicago basin is absolutely tranquil. The snow however, is marginal this year, and won?t last long. But I?ll come back here next year, and the year after that, because, as I said, there are many other great lines to ski in this basin aside from the fourteeners.
Thanks once again for reading my reports. I hope you have enjoyed them. I?m taking a few days off here at home, and then will set out to ski Holy Cross, the Front Range peaks (Longs, Evans, Pikes? ) and two more in the Sawatch. I am watching the weather closely and hoping for more snow up high. In the last month I have skied twenty-one fourteeners. If this was a great snow year in all of our mountain ranges in Colorado I now feel confident that I would have had no problem skiing all fifty-four peaks. But I?m in this game with Mother Nature, and it seems she wants me to come back in the fall to finish up, so that is what I will do if I have to.
Stay tuned for more reports from the Front Range.
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