| Arapaho Peaks: Skywalker Couloir & Traverse
North Arapaho Pk (13502')- CO Rank 253
South Arapaho Pk (13397')- unranked
"Old Baldy" (13035')- CO Rank 616
June 9, 2007
10 miles RT, 4140' gain
Via Skywalker Couloir & traverse
Participants: Dave Gibson & Kevin Baker
I was looking for a couloir climb to cap off the spring season, and the Skywalker couloir on South Arapaho looked like a big challenge. I haven't been to the spectacular Indian Peaks Wilderness other than the James Peak group, so I was looking forward to this adventure. Dave Gibson and I drove to Denver in hopes of meeting up with Brian Kooienga, but he understandably had to bail after a long day on the Notch couloir on Longs the day before. We had read reports of hard snow on Skywalker, so we wondered if we still could get by with just an axe instead of the added comfort of an ice tool. We were hoping to take the "easy" exit at the top of the couloir, but that was wishful thinking!
Skywalker: Hans Solo Finish
We setup Dave's tent at the Buckingham Campground at the 4th of July campground west of Eldora and got a few hours of sleep, awaking at 3:45am. After some breakfast and breaking camp, we were off at 4:50am just as dawn was about to break. The approach to the couloir is a short 2 mile hike up the Arapaho Pass trail to the 4th of July mine and then up the Arapaho Glacier trail a short distance to the obvious apron of impressive Skywalker. It looked mighty steep, but it always looks worse than it turns out, or so we hoped! My batteries on my camera were dead, so thanks to Dave for the pics of this spectacular climb. I piddled with it for quite some time to no avail. We took a long break gearing up at the apron and set off 6:48am.
The snow was very firm as expected, the hardest snow I have ever climbed. We could plunge the shaft of the axe in only an inch or so in most spots, but we both felt comfortable early on as it wasn't too steep. We were surprised to not see anbody else on Skywalker today as most pics I have seen show it very busy. As we made our way up, conditions improved as we enjoyed a soft layer from the storms earlier in the week, but this was short-lived. This gave us excellent conditions to kick steps and plunge our axes. We now could see the Princess Lea "direct" finish right in front of us, but the snow was way too hard to attempt this with just an axe. Normally when a couloir faces south, it will get early sunhit. This wasn't the case on Skywalker, so we should have started an hour or so later so that the snow softened up a little. Here's the steep Princess Lea, which goes at 60 degrees +.
We brought a rope, but the odds of one of us stopping the other in a fall were slim. I led the next section, the conditions of which I did not like. We had to plunge the pick of our axe before moving our feet because the snow was so hard. We didn't have an inclinometer and I am not a good judge of slope angle, but I would guess it had to be 50-55 degrees because you could rest your knee on the slope without bending it much. I had the various Star Wars themes dancing through my head heading up Hans Solo as I had listened to them throughout the week to get pumped for this climb.
We decided to head right and look for the "easier" Hans Solo finish, which would put us on rock quicker. Traversing across the slope and looking for the escape finish to the left would have been tough. I aimed for a trough in the snow near a rock band so we could take a break and assess things. Dave joined me and led the next section up a mixed class 4 step. Here's me on the class 4 step.
Once we were above this, the steep snow was now more confined by rock ribs on each side, so we felt more comfortable. We could finally see sunlight above us and knew the ridge was near! After a brief class 3 scramble, we made it to the ridge at around 9am, just below a false summit of S. Arapaho. Here's the finish on the Hans Solo variation:
The view of the traverse over to N. Arapaho looked pretty daunting with cornices and many ups and downs, but as is usually the case it ends up being easier than it looks. The half mile traverse when dry is class 3, but with snow things get a little more interesting. Here's Dave on a step on the ridge:
We used our ice axes, but were able to get by without crampons as a good portion of the ridge was dry. We climbed the crux of the ridge without any problems, a 10 ft sloping class 4 slab. A fall here wouldn't be bad because it isn't exposed. We avoided cornices and other obstacles on the west side as the exposure wasn't bad over there. The standard cairned route to the summit of N. Arapaho is up a steep, narrow 100 ft chute that was still filled with snow, maybe from the latest storm.
We scouted around for other options but we didn't see anything. I started traversing over to the other side of it, but didn't feel comfortable without crampons. We put crampons on and felt real secure kicking steps up the chute. Once cresting the chute, it's a gentle stroll to the summit. We arrived at 10:32, completing the traverse from the top of the Hans Solo finish in 1:18. This would go much faster for most folks when the snow is gone.
We took a long break on the summit since we hadn't eaten much so far and we had to keep our guard up. The weather was looking great as I was hoping to make it over S. Arapaho and over to gentle ranked 13er "Old Baldy." We were not looking forward to descending the steep chute though and it indeed looked pretty steep. Holy Toledo, we climbed that!
Dave led the way, making our kicked steps bigger for me. We were able to get decent axe placement downclimbing it, but looking down to the Arapaho Glacier way below us was unnerving. The only crux we had left now was the sloping slab. We thought we had somehow bypassed it by going below the ridge for awhile, but we didn't. It wasn't a problem though, just a little awkward. From here we were home free to the summit of S. Arapaho, arriving at 12:30, a 1:25 traverse due to our careful descent of the chute. A group of three was relaxing on the summit as we arrived. It looked like the weather was going to hold to cap off the day with "Old Baldy"!
Old Baldy & Descent
We followed the standard route down to the saddle and stashed our packs for the short hike up the mellow tundra of "Old Baldy." The Arapaho's and the traverse are spectacular from this vantage point.
We topped out at 1:25 and quickly headed back down as clouds were building. We took advantage of some snow fields and found our way back to the trail, but lost it in the basin. After some chest high willow and juniper bashing, we found the trail again at the 4th of July mine. On the way down, we met quite a few day hikers and backpackers enjoying the day. We arrived back at the car at 3:33pm. I must say I probably won't be climbing a couloir that steep when the snow is that hard anymore, but Skywalker would indeed be an awesome climb with better snow.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):