Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Elk Mountains, Castle Peak, East Face.

Dropping into the East face, Castle Peak (14,265'). Photo: Niels Davis
     On our last break of the year, I decided to ski instead of going climbing.  This choice has become less rare, especially as we learn some of the better spots.  This is the first time all year that the steeps have given us full-on green-light conditions. Mike, Andrew, Niels and I went to the Elk Mountains and straight away decided to skin 6 or 7 miles up to Castle Peak.   We made good time getting to the face, and snapped some beta photos.  The upper section of the face features some very steep, blind rollovers, and to pick a safe line you need to extrapolate your position from above.
Andrew, Niels, and I climbed a couloir to the looker's right of our descent line, and then scrambled the north ridge with skis on our backs.  By 12:30 we were on the summit.

On the Summit, with the Bells to the west.
 We zoned out on the summit for a while, stared at the maroons, and grabbed a bite.  The feathery mare's tails of icy cloud signaled coming weather, and indeed, it would storm on us for the next couple days.
     We locked our boots in and began a steep descent on soft but variable snow.  Most of the face was fun, dense, responsive wind-powder.  Lower down we found soft snow in the middle of spring transformaiton, aka. mashed potatoes. Here it took some real effort to stay on-top.  Every rollover brought a bit of mystery, but we knew where to go.  Since I had the camera, I picked my way through the cliff-band first and found a safezone on a snowy rib.  I shot Niels and Andrew as they took more aggressive lines.  This was one of the best days any of us have had on skis, and the East face of Castle is truly dream terrain for mountain skiing.
Andrew drops in.


       Edward met up with us, and in a merry group of 5 we did another day trip near marble.  This time we did a couple of laps on the north face of Justice peak.  The sun eventually turned crisp powder into soup with a tendency to move.  By about 2pm, the face was coming loose.  Point sluffs were turning into moving slush trains, gaining alot of mass but never alot of speed.  I'm not sure if I would call this activity avalanche, since outrunning and even skiing through it was easy.  The efforts of these little slides to swallow our skis were hilarious. It was a strange and surreal experience, like petting a bear cub.  It was hard to remember that the real, grown up thing is powerful beyond reason.  Once the sun sluffs had stripped the powder, we took another lap on a peak to the northwest, skiing a leg-pumping shot of corn straight back to the road. 

Andrew givin 'er on the north side of Justice Peak. 4 turns in 600 ft.

The same face after some sun action.

The good weather started to go, and we called it off and went back partway to the springs.  On saturday, in a storm of sorts, we skiied the silver couloir on Buffalo Mountain.  It hadn't seen much sun so most of it was steep and chattery hardpack.  Not the best day, but still a chance to get out and do a continuous ~2600ft descent.  
   In the afternoon my friends regrettably found out about a free concert and spend the afternoon reveling in some sort of played-out 90s blues-jam scene at Breckenridge.  We should have just taken another lap on Buffalo instead, but alas, now I have Blues Traveler lyrics and harmonica solos drilled into my head.  The only cure I know is more vert and lots of dry electronic music.  I vow never to return to 'breck' for any reason.  And for that matter, summit county.  Although the Silver Couloir was a fun ski, it was a bad weather day and everyone(and their dog, and their mother's dog) was still stacked nose-to-ass on the skin track.  So crowded.
   We will have to make it back to the Elks though.  The approaches are prohibitively long for most, and the terrain is perfect for the kind of skiing we do.  This combination makes for big solitary days in the high mountains, and it might be as good as it gets here in Colorado.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pikes Peak: Y-Couloir

     We had a killer day on the mountain: all ten of us.  CC went gorillas on Pikes Peak this weekend.  I made last minute plans with Chris Dickson to ski the Y-Couloir.  I had no idea that we would be such a huge crew, but it was all the merrier with enough steep and sweet turns to go around.
   10 of us cruised the hero traverse with the golden Corinthian Column above and an 800 foot wall below. Hanson and Matt were climbing, and they started their way up Blind Assumption, a great mixed route.  8 of us continued into the Y-Couloir and found wind-sculpted powder and hard sastrugi.  Chris and I dug a pit and tested the windblown mess.  Our layer of concern was a strange localized layer that that showed up suddenly this season.  About half a meter down there was some reddish dust, blown from who knows where, at a clear interface.  We isolated it, whacked it, whacked it some more, and found the snow to be well bonded.  Springtime at last!

Traversing below the Corinthian Column. Photos: Chris Dickson

Climbing through the ski crux.  Photos: Chris Dickson
  We were unable to believe that it would be powder(ish) conditions on this mega classic(and local) line. We boot-packed it, not even needing crampons.  Parker went right, climbing the steeper variation to the Y. At the end of the couloir we made it through a loose, dry, and scrappy section, topped out, and scored some doughnuts in the tourist's lodge. I filled my nalgene with mountain dew from the soda machine, wanting to get the full-on backcountry 14er experience.  We kicked out some platforms after descending the rock section, and dropped in for one of the best ski descents on the front range.

Photos: Chris Dickson

The mixed top-out. Photos: Chris Dickson
Nate, Andrew, and myself on the summit. Photos: Chris Dickson
Clicking in. Photos: Chris Dickson
Pike's gave us the best. It may not be the real back-country, but it sure feels like it once you're on the north face. The snow was soft and forgiving.  Everyone skied well, making it through the dicey sections with grace.  On the way up, we came to the consensus that someone would take a direct line through the crux cliff mid-height.  On the way down, while myself and the rest threaded around to the side, Andrew DesLauriers stepped up and aired out the cliff without hesitation, making it look casual and linking big turns.
Photos: Chris Dickson
Photos: Chris Dickson
     It was a great day out, and a chance to get a good feel for the steeps before (possibly) heading to the Maroon Bells next week.  I am impressed every time by the skill and the psyche in the CC community, and I feel lucky to share in a day like this.