Arapaho Basin. We can see see it from just around the corner of our house, an ever present patch of snow in the distance. The basin, which itself is off-limits for water-protection purposes (I'm trying to stay clear of politics here!), is flanked by North and South Arapaho Peaks. It has been calling us.
"Jesper, Jen, ... Come on up. Climb me."
This weekend, we answered that call, ascending South Arapaho Peak via Skywalker Couloir. I read the description of the route, over 1,500 feet of snow with slopes exceeding 65 degrees, but it didn't really sink in until I saw it.
For once, I'm somewhat at a loss for words to describe this snow climb. It was so beyond what Jesper and I have done on our own (i.e., without a guide) to date. It was so unbelievably steep. It was so completely out of our comfort zones (and those who know me know my comfort zone is pretty wide!). It was such an indescribable sense of accomplishment. I know the words will fail to capture the whole thing, but I'll try.
I'll start from the beginning. We awoke at 3:45 am to drive up to the Fourth of July trailhead. You need to get up that early to be on the snow and off it before it gets too much sun. Sun turns the snow soft and dry, not good for climbing. This may seem odd to my family and friends from back east. In the east, when the sun comes out, snow gets mushy, heavy and wet. Not so out here in the Rockies. The sun and ever-present wind dry out the snow and make it airy and soft; soft and airy snow does not provide a secure purchase for crampons and ice axes. In addition to the snow danger, thunderstorms can develop in the afternoon in the Rockies, so you really want to be in position to be off the mountain by 1:00 pm.
So, we got up in the middle of the night, a night with a gazillion stars. As we drove to the trailhead, the sun began to rise and illuminate a clear, crisp day. Carrying packs loaded with crampons, snowshoes, ice axes and more, we embarked up the trail. It was a cool 37 degrees F but we quickly warmed up as we made our way up the trail. With the trailhead starting above 10,000 feet, we soon encountered snow patches and eventually put our crampons on.
Jesper had prepared GPS waypoints for us to navigate with and our route to the base of the couloir was very efficient. We ended up passing a couple groups who had been in front of us but took a longer route. One of the groups was planning to ski/snowboard down the couloir after the ascent. If you understand how steep this couloir is, you will be impressed with that!
We arrived at a beautiful high alpine meadow located at the base of the couloir, surrounded by majestic mountains. I know the word majestic sounds kinda hokey, but the rugged peaks, a mix of rock and snow that jutted up all around the meadow, were nothing short of majestic. We are continually impressed when we find such remote and extreme wilderness so close to our house. Dam we live in a great place!
As I looked up from the meadow, I wasn't exactly sure what snow field we were going to go up. There was a fairly steep cirque that looked climbable, but it was a cirque, not a couloir.
Then there were a bunch of skinny threads of snow that ascended straight up the mountain facing us. Surely we weren't going up one of those?!?!?
However, we kept heading toward one particular column of snow; very skinny, very tall and very steep. It was certainly a couloir, but that couldn't be what we going to climb!
Skinny thread of steep snow; we weren't going up this, were we? (this photo does not portray the steepness)I said to Jesper, "We're not going up that, are we?"
He replied in the affirmative, somewhat amused. I thought about it for a minute, and then declared, "OK, let's do it!"
We took a little break to eat and get the rest of our gear on before heading up the couloir. While we ate, we were visited by a very friendly marmot who seemed quite accustomed to people. He sat about 7 feet away from us, munching on vegetation, not bothered at all as we talked and moved around. Marmots are really cute!
We headed up the couloir right behind the guys who were going to ski/snowboard down, with two other guys a little ways behind us. It was nice to be tackling that thing with other people around. Not that they could help us much, but the presence of other people somehow comforted me.
The bottom of the couloir started out at 40 to 45 degrees. The snow was good and we were able to make good progress with crampons and one ice axe each. Then the slope began to get steeper and somewhat icy, as the sun had not yet warmed the snow. We grabbed our second axe each and continued, a little more carefully.
I went straight up the middle of the couloir, where footholds from the previous climbers made upward progress easier and more secure. I began to be aware that a fall would be very bad, as I would slide down the snow, gaining speed for several hundred feet until I being stopped by a large rock outcropping or maybe going over a cliff, unless I was able to self arrest with one of my axes. I became even more focused on my foot and axe placement.
At the same time, Jesper had veered off toward the left side of the couloir and started to go up a little spit of snow on the other side of a large rock outcropping. It appeared that the snow would continue and he would be able to come back to the right after passing above the large rock outcropping.
So, Jesper suggested that I continue up the middle and he would go up the spit of snow and join me when his section reconnected with the main part of the couloir. Unfortunately, his snow section began to peter out and he got onto thin snow and ice over rocks. His progress slowed as he tried to figure out the best way to move upward and back over to me. At this point, I stopped to wait for him. It's not easy to hang out on a 50 degree plus pitch of snow, trust me.
Then I heard a yell and saw Jesper sliding fast on his belly, feet first, toward a cliff. He must have slid 25 feet. Mere feet before he went over the cliff, he managed to get a grip with his crampons and axes on the rocks. I had visions of his body rag-dolling over the rocks and was sickened by the thought. This was the closest call we have both experienced and it scared us pretty good.
I sat perched halfway up the couloir helpless, while Jesper got his shit together and his adrenaline back down. Jesper decided not to go back up the way he had tried before. He felt his best option was to down-climb a little bit and then traverse over toward the middle, going below and then over the large rock outcropping. It took him quite awhile, since he wanted to make sure he didn't get himself in a pickle again. At one point, he disappeared below the rocks for a few minutes. I strained my ears to hear above the wind. Was that the clink of an ice ax? Good, he's still there making progress. It's been quiet too long. Did he fall without me hearing him above the wind? I was so relieved when I saw his helmet finally pop into view over the rocks!
Once back on the good snow in the center of the couloir, Jesper and I made speedy progress up toward the last several hundred feet; the steepest part of the climb. Jesper got ahead of me again and we methodically kicked in our feet and placed our axes in the quickly softening snow. Somewhere around the last hundred feet or so, the snow got really bad; super soft and airy, almost like fake snow or granulated sugar. It was so unsubstantial. The pitch was so steep. Not good.
We knew we had to get off this snow soon. We opted to go toward the left, which we have since learned is an "easier" route than the very center (the Princess Leia Route). From my view below both routes, our route didn't look any less steep than Princess Leia, but it did look shorter.
The snow was horrible for climbing. You had to lean in continuously because the ice axes were not really holding onto anything. Each boot kick had the potential for sinking down to were you started unless you kicked in a bomber boot hold. There was no other way but up and no way anyone else could really help either of us. I'm not sure I have ever been so focused on a task before. Oddly, although I was keenly aware that what I was doing was super dangerous and I would probably die if I fell, I was not nervous, scared or freaking out. I stayed calm and very controlled in my movements. I cannot describe my sense of relief upon finally reaching the top of the couloir!
Understandably, there are no pictures of the last sketchy section of the couloir ascent.
After getting off the couloir, Jesper and I hung out on the rocks, eating and talking about what we learned and what we would do differently the next time. We certainly learned a lot and we will not mkae the same mistakes again!
But our day of adventure was not done yet. We still had to scramble a few hundred feet to the actual top of South Arapaho Peak and then make our way back down to the trailhead.
Most climbers do not go back down the couloir (I'm not sure HOW you would even down-climb it). We missed the two guys who skied and snowboarded down it, but we saw their tracks (beautiful S-Curves) later from below. All I can say is those guys have mad skills and cajones the size of Texas!
The views from the peak were amazing! We peered down into Arapaho Basin, which is much bigger and deeper than it appears from down in Boulder.
Massive cornices hung off the sides of the Basin and the entire area was ringed, once again, by majestic mountains.
The scramble along the ridge down from the peak and along the Arapaho Glacier Trail was fun in a much lighter way than our ascent up Skywalker had been. We caught glimpses of Skywalker Couloir as we descended an marveled at what we had just climbed up.
We arrived back at our car hot and hungry, but full of a huge sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction.
I simply cannot convey how steep the couloir was, or how soft and unsubstantial the snow was, or how it felt being on that snow with virtually no support, or how much of a sense of accomplishment Jesper and I felt after completing this climb. I know my words and the pictures do not come close to portraying this amazing snow climb, but I hope they give a glimmer of the essence of it.
Check out Jesper's write up on his blog.