Descent Route: Y Couloir
North Face-Y Couloir
May 15, 2006
Ski Descent #42
After my quick ascent and ski on Mt. Bierstadt on Sunday the 14th, Ted Mahon and I drove down to Colorado Springs and headed up Route 24, through Manitou Springs, and to the base of the Pikes Peak Toll Road. Pikes must certainly be one of the more famous fourteeners in the state, what with its rich history, powerful physical stature, and the fact that the mountain is climbed not only by foot, but also by vehicles and a cog railway. The Ute Indians made the first ascents of the peak during hunting and gathering outings from camps in the plains. They were followed by the first Anglo ascent in 1820. In 1888 some enterprising businessmen built the toll road to the summit, which was originally designed for horse drawn carriages. The road was modified in 1915 to allow automobiles to ascend, and the first car race to the summit was held in 1916. The cog railway carries thousands every summer to the peak and was finished back in 1889. So for well over a hundred years people have gathered on the summit of this grand mountain. I?m not sure when the first ski descent was made, but with such great access my guess is it must have been one of the earliest fourteeners descents in the state.
Ted and I camped in the RV at the bottom of the road, waiting patiently in the morning for the 9:00 a.m. opening. The fact that the road opened so late allowed me the rare pleasure of sleeping late. (7:30 wake up!) Our intended route was the Y Couloir, a deeply notched gully on the steep and rocky North Face of Pikes. As you can see from the overview photo of the face, the line begins directly on the summit. You can literally step out of you car, into your skis, and drop down the couloir. We employed the ?reverse trailhead method? on Pikes. Instead of parking at the bottom, climbing up, and skiing down, we parked at the top, skied down, and then climbed back up to the car. It may seem unethical to drive to the top to ski, but really it is just the same. We just did the climb after the ski.
Ted and I were among the only people on the summit when we clicked into our Fritschi?s at 10:00 a.m. There are several routed down the face to choose from, but only one appeared to be filled in with enough snow to allow a reasonable ski descent. The Front Range, and in particular the Pikes Peak region, is having one of the driest years in decades, and it is obvious driving up Pikes? totally barren slopes. Thankfully the wind had blown what little snow existed on the mountain directly into the Y Couloir, so with this gift we began our descent. After a few turns some talus boulders got in our way, requiring a few sidesteps. We could see only a quarter of the way down our line, and were pleasantly surprised because the lower we got the better the skiing became. By the time we were a few hundred feet below the summit the skiing was actually great, with soft snow in a forty-foot wide couloir at an angle of exactly 45 degrees. Ted and I took a bunch of photos as we worked our way down the unexpectedly sweet run. Two-thirds of the way down we encountered a short cliff band that intersected our line. On a good year this cliff would have been huckable, but this year it was too risky. So Ted found an exit skier?s left, and we made our way over to this line around the cliff. The bottom of the Y is called the Bottomless Pit Cirque. Normally one would be able to ski all the way into the cirque, but because of the snow situation, we were forced to stop maybe seven hundred feet shy of the bottom, at 12,750?. After a quick PB&J, we strapped on our boards and began the task of climbing directly back up the run we had just skied.
The weather today was picture perfect, with light winds, warm temps, and fluffy clouds building, then dissipating, over the summit. Climbing back up the 1300? to the summit was smooth. We actually choose a slightly different line for a few hundred feet so that we could include some steeper snow and rock moves in our line. If there is one thing I have enjoyed during this project aside from the skiing, it has been the more technical climbing on peaks such as El, Diente, Capitol, Pyramid, Crestone, and Sneffels. I love the feel and sound of my crampons on rock, and take pleasure in ascending this terrain with skis on my back. Fortunately my boots (Salomon E2) climb really well and feel secure on even the scariest rock. As we made our way higher and higher in the couloir, we began to see people on the summit. At one point we witnessed a couple out on a rock outcrop, releasing ashes from an urn into the wind. From our vantage point these ashes took to the wind as one might visualize a spirit soaring into the air. We were silent and captivated for a moment watching this ritual. Nearing the top (AKA parking lot) we ran into Colorado Springs Gazette journalist Dave Phillips. Dave is doing a story on my project and drove up to the summit with his friend Sondro to meet us. Dave write a cool outdoor blog at http://gazetteoutthere.blogspot.com/ We chatted with these guys for a while before making the pilgrimage inside the restaurant to sample the much hyped ?World Famous Donuts?. The thought of some couple from Tulsa driving up to fourteen thousand feet in their Buick for a couple of the crappiest donuts I?ve ever tasted is hilarious. I think the restaurant needs a better gimmick? maybe corn dogs?
All in all, our ski descent of the Y Couloir on Pikes was a good time, if not out of the ordinary. Skiing from the parking lot on this massive mountain was a unique experience, and I would recommend our line and the others on the North Face to any skiers looking for a steep and direct descent. (Although I don?t recommend it this season) These lines are as challenging and difficult as most on the fourteeners, and can provide many days of great skiing for motivated ski mountaineers. As we drove down the road we admired the face and our line from many a switchback. There may not be a fourteener face that gives one so many great and different views of a ski line. Back at the RV, we packed up and headed north, bound for Denver and the RV company, where I would return the rig after a great month of adventures around the Colorado mountains with it.
Thanks for reading,
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