One of my goals this spring was to meet more ski partners, as my best ski partner of the last two seasons is sitting this one out due to a bad knee injury, and I am not a big fan of skiing by myself. Thankfully, everybody wanted to get out and ski on the Memorial Day weekend, so putting together a group - or two - or three - was not a problem. With the exception of Michael, with who I had already shared a few ski descents this spring, I met everybody else for the first time.
Day 1 - Elbert (Box Creek couloirs)
Elevation gain: 5,000(?) ft - forgot my GPS
Ski line length: ~2,500 ft
Distance: ~8(?) + miles
Time: ~8 hours
Route: combo of East ridge, laps in Box Creek couloirs and bushwhacking thru the willows
Partners: Michael, Gareth, Mark, Matt (dubsho3000) and I
Most of the group drove after work on Friday night and car camped at the 2WD South Elbert TH. Summit temps on Saturday were forecasted to be in the 50s, so an early start was in order. We left the lower TH shortly after 4am, drove up to the 4WD TH, geared up and were on the trail by 4.50am. Funny how it always seems to happen in the dark, but we somehow missed the turn and started ascending a drainage instead of East Ridge. Soon though we caught our mistake and regained the East Ridge route near 11k. We were hoping to find snow for skinning, but none was found until about 12.5k.
Michael is hiking up the dry East ridge near 12k
Given warm temps, my original plan was to head up the East Ridge route, get asap to the summit and wait for the snow to warm up. Gareth would have none of that. By about 12.5k, he convinced most of the group to head up the Box Creek couloir route - which I thought would be time consuming - but not with this group. So off we went and found ourselves at the bottom of the couloirs by 6.30-7am.
Approaching the Box Creek cirque
We found a great booter track in the middle couloir, from where we could observe Otina's (bergsteigen) tracks from the previous day. Since I didn't bring crampons and it was the first couloir climb of the season for me - and with skis, the boys let me hang out in the back. So I did, enjoying the views, taking pictures and measuring the slope, which for a brief moment hit about 50 degrees.
Climbing up the couloir
Topping out on the couloir. Photo credit: Gareth
We topped out of the couloir around 8am, where we were met by strong winds - so I had to concur that Box Creek cirque not only proved to be a much more scenic route than the East ridge, but also provided a welcome respite from the wind.
Skinning to the summit
Natalie on the summit with La Plata behind - bundled up because of the wind. Photo credit: Michael
Group photo on the sumit L-R: Michael, Matt, Mark, Gareth, Natalie. Photo credit: Gareth
We skinned the rest of the mellow slope to the summit, where we topped just before 9am. Given the forecasted temps, I was really hoping to lounge on top for a while, but alas, with strong winds, this was not meant to be. By 9.22am we skied back to the top of the couloirs on hardpack snow, but we knew that the picture would be quite different in the couloirs.
Since we were not sure about the snow temps, Gareth suggested we ski a less committing line on skiers' right, and if we liked what found, do another lap on a steeper line. I thought he was kidding – who am I – John Prater – to do laps on a 14er?, but that couloir looked as good as any, so down we went.
Upper portion of the couloir
Lower portion of the couloir
It was definitely the best skiing of the day, which left us hungry for more. So four of us traversed over to the bootpack, and up we went. Three of us eventually topped out, while Michael skied down from a spot about 2/3s up the couloir.
Heading up for the 2nd lap
Matt & Gareth topping out for the 2nd time
I was eyeing the line Otina took the day before, and managed to convince the guys to give it a shot (they wanted to ski another line). We were so glad we did – we had a total blast, and at 10.30am the snow was in perfect condition.
Photo credit: Gareth
Photo credit: Gareth
Great skiing. Photo credit: Gareth
Matt skiing. Photo credit: Gareth
Matt skiing. Photo credit: Gareth
We regrouped down at the lake and headed back to the East Ridge.
Again, Gareth wanted to add some spice to our day. Instead of hiking back the dry East Ridge, he suggested we milk the snowfield in the drainage and see how far it goes.
Regrouping on the East ridge and deciding on the further course of action
Descending the drainage
How far will it go?
Ran out of snow
Well, the snowfield did not go really that far - maybe a few hundred feet - but we sure had fun bushwacking through the willows (they were prevailing at some point), but eventually we merged with the same drainage we mistakenly ascended in the morning. We probably stayed on the East Ridge for about a mile total. Back at the car by 1pm.
After a nice lunch at Coyote Cantina in Buena Vista, Michael and Matt headed back to Denver, while myself, Gareth and Mark relocated the camp to the Missouri Gulch TH, where we were joined by Boyd in the evening.
Day 2 – Missouri (North Face couloirs)
Elevation gain: 4,500 ft
Ski line length: ~3,000 ft
Distance: ~9 miles
Route: Standard thru Missouri gulch, ascent – steep couloir to the left of the summit, Main couloir descent
Time: ~9 hours
Partners: Gareth, Mark, Boyd and I
Sunday temperatures were expected to be similar to the ones on Saturday, so another early start was in order. After a restful sleep of about 7 hours or more, we were on the Missouri Gulch trail by 4.45am. The guys were hiking in trailrunners or hiking boots, while I decided to tough it out in ski boots. Trail was mostly dry/the snow was mostly avoidable almost to the base of the couloirs, so we ended up carrying our skis for the most way to the summit (I probably skinned for about 200 feet in total, so skins were pretty much useless on this route).
Missouri's North Face comes into view
We were moving a bit slower than the day before, but the cloud cover was a bit wider than on a prior day, so it worked out perfectly. We found ourselves at the base of the couloirs by about 8.30am. I climbed (but not skied) the leftmost couloir – which looks like Y - two years ago, so I was eyeing another line. I recalled the traverse from the left side to the summit would not be much fun in ski boots, so I lobbied for the couloir line as close to the summit as possible.
The Elkhead pass
Starting on the couloir. Photo credit: Boyd
There was no pre-existing booter, but couloir was in perfect cramponable shape, and Gareth made a beautiful job of kicking steps – my “French” technique was not doing anybody any favor – lol.
Gareth is kicking steps
Boyd & Mark
I hanged out in the middle, swapping places with Boyd and taking pics. Although it was my second time in the couloirs, I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time – Missouri makes for a fantastic snow climb. The couloir we picked was very scenic, rather steep (up to 45 degrees in spots) and narrow.
Boyd & Gareth
Natalie topping out of the couloir. Photo credit: Boyd
Boyd topping out
Natalie on the summit ridge - secretly pleased that we didn't have to traverse the ridge behind in ski boots.
Boyd within striking distance of the Missouri summit
The team - Green, Orange, Orange, Blue
After much lollygagging and admiring the line we topped on the summit sometime after 10am to find another group of skiers who started from the TH an hour before us and ascended some variation of the standard route. They upped our stoke by skiing the Main couloir just off the summit.
First group down - we are next!
Gareth and I went back and forth on what we wanted to ski – I was really intrigued by the couloir we ascended, but that would mean splitting up the group and traversing back to the couloir, as there was no continuous snow on the ridge. Eventually, I was convinced that we would be skiing down the Main couloir, not C, and I was ok with that, so down we went.
Snow started within a pole distance from the summit cairn
Finishing off the steep part (Natalie). Photo credit: Boyd
The lines: bootpack to the left of the summit, ski line to the right
It was a great ski and we all had a blast. Boyd called it “the best day of skiing of his life”, and while I would not go that far, it sure was one of the tops. We skied down in high spirits, enjoying the scenery until we bumped into the waning snowfields in the willows. Here came the decision time – carry the skis or make it thru the willows on skis. The boys decided to put their skis on the packs, while I managed to piece the patchwork of snowfields together and made it almost to the cabin (~11.3k) on skis. All what remained was about 2 mile hike back to the car, which we reached around 2pm.
Gareth after a successful stream crossing - all smiles!
Day 3 – Horseshoe (Boudoir couloir)
Elevation gain: 2,600
Ski line length: ~2,400
Distance: ~7 miles
Route: Boudoir couloir climb and ski
Time: ~4 hours
Partners: Gareth, Mark, Matt (mbourget) and I
Going into a big ski weekend like this, Horseshoe was more of a pipe dream. I’ve never done more than 9k vertical on skis before. After having a great day on Missouri – energy-, weather- and skiing-wise – I was relieved to hear that Gareth and Mark were still up for Horseshoe on Monday. A last-minute addition, Matt (mbourget) rounded our small group. After learning that Matt skied Grand couloir on Aetna two weeks ago – the same day I did - I knew we will have a very strong addition to our motivated, but somewhat depleted group. Monday temperatures were supposed to be chillier and windier than on previous two days, so we opted for a later start. After sleeping at the Leavick TH the night before, and meeting Matt in the morning, we were on the trail by 6.40am. I was not going to bother with the real food for breakfast and just decided to live on “GU” that day – and it worked. Continuous snow coverage started just a short ways from the parking lot – what a welcome sight – and by 8 am we were rolling into the upper Horseshoe basin, in time to get a glimpse of the group of 4 already topping out on the couloir.
The Boudoir entrance
The winds were rather considerable in the basin, so we were pretty comfortable with our delayed start time. Gareth tried to put a strong showing for our group, so he and Matt took off and ran up the staircase, while I decided to hang out with Mark in the back, enjoying the views, snapping pictures and taking slope measurements.
Matt and Gareth charge ahead
Horseshoe amphitheater with Sherman in the background
The couloir was on a mellow side – about 35 degrees, but the constriction point measured just around 40 degrees. Maintaining a leisurely pace (and waiting for the snow to warm up a bit more), Mark and I topped at the top of the couloir by 9.30am.
Mark in the constriction
On top of the Boudoir
The summit cornice of Horseshoe is somewhat reminiscent of Rainier
All that's left was a short skin to the proper summit, where we enjoyed great views of the basin. We saw no sign of the previous group, except for their boot tracks, so we assumed they continued on to other peaks in the basin.
Ruins of the mining cabin on the summit ridge
Summit views - Horseshoe, Sheridan, Sherman
Matt is getting ready to ski
We started skiing down around 10am. We timed the snow perfectly! The skiing was great, and gave just enough of the workout for the tired legs.
Matt is dropping into the couloir
Another look at the line
Our four tracks
Matt led the group on the way down, and he was able to find the line that took us almost all the way to the car. That was a fine 4 hour effort to “nab” a Centennial - I'll take it!
Only time will tell if I found another great ski partner (or two), but I sure enjoyed meeting new people and skiing some classic lines in fine spring weather. Many thanks to everyone who joined me this weekend. I enjoyed skiing with every one of you.
Weekend totals for Gareth, Mark and myself – 24 miles of hiking/skinning, 12k vertical gain on/with skis, ~8k of skiing - a new PR for me. Thanks for reading!
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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