Descent Route: North Face Couloir
North Face Couloir
April 8, 2006
Jon Hagman and I left the sleepy communities of Chama and San Luis and headed north, our goal the Sierra Blanca group of peaks, Ellingwood, Blanca, Little Bear, and Lindsey. Having just skied our first peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we were keenly aware of the lack of snow here this year. Drought is an appropriate word, or ?extreme drought? if you?re a local farmer in this region. We hit Highway 160 in Fort Garland and turned east towards La Veta Pass. After twenty miles or so we took a left off the highway onto Pass Creek Road, a back road and short cut into the hilly ranchlands of Huerfano County. This is a rarely visited area of Colorado, and I?m sure I never would have had the pleasure of driving through here if it were not for pursuing fourteeners. There are beautiful properties all over the place here, and I could certainly see a quiet life in this area being desirable. After an hour our road turned to dirt and we began to climb into the Huerfano River drainage, passing several private ranches tucked into this tight valley. At 10,000? we hit our first snow patch, but continued on until the snow was drifted in and impassable. Here we made camp in a south facing, grassy meadow, and prepared for a morning trip up Mt. Lindsey.
We have done quite a bit of camping on this project so far, and now that it is April, temperatures at night are really pleasant, no more shivering in a minus 30 sleeping bag. We awoke at 6 a.m., a reasonable hour since we were attempting a north- facing route. Quick breakfast in bed then put the boots on and fired up the snowmobiles for the 3-mile cruise up the road to the trailhead. At the trailhead, I started the logbook on my Suunto X9 HR wristop computer. I have logged the entire vertical climbed and skied on this project, along with the hours and runs, and it will be cool to add it all up (actually the computer does this) at the end of the season. Jon and I made quick progress into the Needle Creek Basin, and by 11 a.m. we stood on the saddle below the West Ridge of Lindsey. She was looking pretty wind hammered, with no snow at all on the West Face, very little on the summit ridge, and some lines filled in on the north side, although these are difficult to see. Some friends of mine from Crested Butte, including Sean Crossen and Pete Sowar, had skied Lindsey two weeks earlier, and they had quite a bit more snow for skiing and climbing. We would have to make due.
Jon had broken his binding on the approach, and was also feeling a little fatigue from the previous four days of effort. So he climbed up the face a little ways with me to do some filming, and then headed back to the opposite ridge to get some shots of my ski descent from their. I continued climbing alone to the summit, enjoying the solitude and focus that comes with such a position. The climb went quickly, and as I approached the summit I could finally get a good glimpse of my ski route down the North Face, a fat couloir that looked like it had caught much of the snow that the wind had tried to strip off the mountain. I spent some time taking photos on the summit, and, as always, enjoying the view. The summit register was not buried in snow, so I signed that. I always enjoy reading these registers and seeing all the diverse places people who climb fourteeners come from.
The snow in the couloir was wind packed for the first 300? vertical. While I would prefer powder, this snow was solid and safe, and I could make turns with confidence, something that is reassuring when you are skiing a big line alone. As I skied lower in the couloir, the snow became wind-deposited powder (see photo) and I could have skied this snow for miles. Nearing the bottom I banged a hard left out of the couloir, and began a long climbing traverse back up to the saddle where Jon waited. This was a really fun descent and one that I look forward to sharing with a group of friends in the future. Jon and I met up and enjoyed a long ski out into the valley. The day was quite warm, so the snow was sticky on our skis. But we made it back to the sleds by 3 p.m. for a round trip time of just under eight hours. My wife, Jesse, had packed coolers full of good food before we left Aspen, and we continue to feast on fresh snacks after all of these trips. So a special thanks to Jess for keeping us fed.
We hit the road again this afternoon, headed north. After stopping quickly in Gardner to grab a six-pack from the smallest liquor store we had ever seen, we continued up Highway 69 and into the impressive Wet Mountain Valley. I?ll talk more about this region in our next report, but it?s an amazing, high valley bordered to the west by the impressive (albeit dry) Sangre de Cristos. Right now we are at a hotel in Westcliffe. It is 7:00 a.m. and we are gearing up to head into the Crestones for a climb of the South Couloir of Crestone Peak tomorrow.
Talk to you then,
P.S. I have said it all along on this project? If it?s a great year for snow in Colorado, then I should be able to pull off skiing from the summit of every peak. If it?s an average year, then the chances of doing so are maybe 50/50. If it is a below average snow year, as it is here in the Sangre?s, the Front Range, and parts of the San Juans, then completing the project in one season is impossible. Since I?m trying to duplicate what Lou Dawson did, ski from the exact summits of all the peaks, I will wait for the conditions to be perfect. Skiing from the top is the ONLY way to claim a ski descent, and Lou is the obnly one to have done this. Others have skied ?on? all the fourteeners, and ticked those peaks off their lists, but that is like saying you have climbed them all when you didn?t reach some of the summits. Anyway, enough about conditions and ethics, we are headed north to South Colony Lakes and the trailhead for the Crestone Peaks.
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