I had never thought that a day in the mountains would bring so much disdain for enjoying the outdoors. This is a concept I am unfamiliar with, as even the most enduring experiences have brought enjoyment in many ways. Sometimes, in the blind lust of seeking completion of the 'list' one must be periodically humbled and made to realize that even the easiest of the peaks climbed by the most physically adept individuals can still present the unexpected.
Though the actual climb was uneventful and may not warrant a full TR, the lesson learned may prevent others from being caught in the same predicament.
3 Elk Creek TH was accessible by my Outback with no problem. Some rocks/ruts but they were easily navigable.
Snow patches didn't appear until about .5 mile in. Continuous skiing was possible just past the Colorado Trail intersection. The depth hoar / sugar snow supported by weak basal facets was for the most part frozen on our ascent which began ~ 8am.
Some collapsing occurred every 20ft or so depending on sun exposure.
We made our way up the drainage to the south of the creek as we lost the faint tracks when they crossed the creek. Then once we got up where the coverage was thinner there was only one obvious choice to skin up.
This is normal for June (I mean March right?)
Real good skinning
Walking on the 'real' trail
Here is a picture of the upper headwall south of Columbia.
Through some conversations with 14ers.com members who had been in the area about 10 days prior, our attitude regarding skiing this peak was skeptical at best with hints of optimism (necessary for committing to carrying skis on your back for any prolonged period). When we finally got a view of what might be "in" for skiing our plans changed. In the next photo is the only continuous line from the headwall.
It looked super thin from the recon shot/zoom I did on our way up. We were also checking out the line the Davenport and friends skied a number of years back. It looked continuous if you wanted to try really hard. I'm not that much of a stickler for the sought after "summit ski" and there didn't even appear to be any line from the summit.
Davenport's line = maybe?
With that information in hand, the longer uninterrupted couloirs/gullies originating from Columbia's false summit to the east looked more inviting for a descent, and ascent for that matter.
Better looking lines
Up we went with the following mantra. Skiing downhill >>> skinning > booting > walking on talus with ski boots and skis on the pack Skinning up 3/4 of the main gully worked well and the snow was on its way to becoming corn. It was certainly not the buttery smooth corn of June..more like freezer burned frozen corn with a crunchy outside. We decided it would still provide some fun.
Skinning up the gully
We could have skinned all the way up if we wanted to but we decided to try an alternative means of upward movement that didn't involve switchbacks.
After attaining the false summit and confirming our disappointing suspicions that there would be no summit ski we ditched the skis/boots at the top of our future descent and due to relentless wind we quickly went up to tag the summit.
Looking to the Elks
Back at the stash point... on to what we thought might be the best part of the day: late March corn harvest. To our dismay, the ski-able corn substitute had now developed a refrozen surface from changing sun position and increasing winds. "Whatever"
I skied the eastern gully and Ben skied the gully we ascended. Halfway down it softened to the brand of corn that we all have come to know and love. I'll take it!
Video of the lower section which skied the best of the day.
At this point, a combination of the first 14er of the year, unrewarding snow conditions, general despair pertaining to this past winter, our energy level and attitude had shifted to "Let's just ski the hell out of here." Little did we know that the circling of the drain was about to commence.
It began as my ski tips inadvertently took a dual nose dive into 3 feet of depth hoar (from now on referred to as sugar). Ok not a big deal...maybe it was a bad pocket of snow with some willows or something. We continued on to locate the 'trail' left by previous skiers on the north side of the creek as we figured by this late in the day we'd encounter some unconsolidated pockets lower down if we weren't on a packed path. It soon became evident that sections of post-holing on skis would be a problem. Totally manageable...we've dealt with this before. Maybe if we go fast enough we won't sink. WRONG
Periodic tip dives gave way to frequent tip dives which gave way to ski-length sections collapsing which inevitably led to ski burial every few yards in 2 feet of the poorest level of consolidation I've ever encountered. Pulling my skis out of each of the burials felt like I stabbed a bag of sand with my ski and was lifting it. The GPS indicated that we were just under 3 miles from the TH....let the soul degrading begin. Our descent speed now was slower than our ascent speed had been. What is going on ?!
The decision to put the skins on in hopes of making better forward movement helped only minimally and made the skis just that much heavier to pull out of the snow with each step (at least it did in my mind). Like any backcountry enthusiasts would, we put our intuition to use and began to skin down only in precisely calculated shaded areas in the creek valley which had never seen any sun. This worked only until our elevation became such that every square foot offered no support whatsoever. The conditions were likely all a product of the lack of any measurable snowfall in months.
At this point we were out of options and making very little ground. The clock was ticking and it was now 5pm. Where had the last 3 hours gone???? Also, I remembered I had run out of water before treeline. Not good. Our descent time (including the fast ski) was now exceeding the time it took to summit and there were still a few miles left. A last ditch attempt to find dry south facing terrain and revive our optimism by crossing the creek worked until the dry ground ran out. This time we left the skis on the pack and continued to post hole waist high with boots. It just so happened to be equally as degrading mentally and physically. Who would have thought?
Finally we met our packed trail from the morning which decreased the post-hole frequency by half and we slowly skinned our way down the endless trail. The transition was made to hiking boots at the Colorado Trail under the influence of dehydration induced delirium. I thought the moment would never arrive. The descriptor changed from traipsing to stumbling and we finally arrived at the car in the dark.
Whether this situation was a product of naivety on our part regarding current snowpack conditions or by the late time in the day who knows. I've skied plenty of spring snowpacks before and have experienced afternoon softening but NEVER the sugary maximally unconsolidated mess that this winter has produced. I hope to never have such a sour taste of the mountains left again.
Let this be a lesson to anyone who wishes to venture into the area. If you value your time spent in the mountains, no 14er is worth that type of day. Even for the masochists in us all who value tough days achieving high goals, a day like this is just not fun.
~To better trips in the future~
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. 14ers.com and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless 14ers.com and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the 14ers.com Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.