| Snow Lessons Learned: Part I
Columbia Point (13,980)
UN 13,580 A
From South Crestone TH
Approx 10 mi, 2900 ft backpacking; 7.5 mi, 4500 ft climbing
Climbing Columbia Point via the Outward Bound Couloir has been on my mind ever since last November's backpack to Willow Lake. This year as winter came to an end, I began formulating my snow climb wish list for the season and this route ended up among my top three picks. For the past few weeks I've been playing the waiting game.
Given that the Sangres haven't received any new snow in a while, this weekend finally seemed like a reasonable time to check it out. The forecast for Saturday called for cold, wind, and perhaps a bit of precipitation – not the conditions I prefer for a possibly technical climb. Sunday's forecast looked much better, but with the very warm predicted temperatures we knew we'd have to start and finish the climb early. Hmm, lets see…does that mean we'd have to leave the trailhead at 3am? 2am? 1:30? Yuck! And what can we occupy ourselves with on Saturday that isn't too time consuming and doesn't sap our energy for the big day?
"How about we backpack to Willow Lake and climb those other 13ers by Adams on Saturday?" says Dominic. Brilliant! We scramble around Friday after work trying to get our gear in order. Getting ready for a backpack always seems to take forever when its been a while since the last one. It became apparent that our packs wouldn't be light to say the least – in addition to the "normal camping stuff" we packed a 60m rope, rock pro, pickets, helmets, crampons, ice axes, harnesses, snowshoes, and our -25 degree sleeping bags because we're wussies. Shortly after 6pm we were finally ready to drive to the South Crestone TH where we'd spend the night.
When the alarm went off at 4am on Saturday morning, the sound of rain hitting the car was disappointing. Deciding that it was too early to resign to getting wet in the rain on the backpack in, we hit the snooze for an hour and hoped for the best. 5am came and the rain had pretty much stopped so we got ready, packed up, and started up the trail under very cloudy skies just after 6am. Our loads seemed terribly heavy and our pace slow but that's what they built all of those ridiculous, never ending switchbacks for I guess. The trail was more or less dry to about 11,000 ft but after the creek crossing there was still a lot of snow. Since it was so cold and overcast, we got by without our snowshoes with limited postholing. We lost the trail where it begins to flatten out about ¾ of a mile from the lake but finding our own route worked well enough. By 10:15 we'd found a nice spot and began setting up camp.
An hour or so later we were ready to set out for our intended climb of UN 13,580 and possibly UN 13,541. The clouds were dissipating quickly and it was turning into a beautiful day. We chose to leave our snowshoes at camp and didn't regret that decision. Recalling what we observed while climbing Mt. Adams last November we predicted that ascending UN 13,580 would be safe and easy – and it was. From the lake we hiked north up the steep slopes to the basin below the Adams – UN 13,546 saddle. The surrounding ridges were plagued by nasty, uninviting spindrift. From the basin we veered east and continued up the fairly dry, rocky drainage toward UN 13,580. Our legs were a little knackered from the haul to Willow Lake, but the ascent was easy and it was only a matter of time before we found ourselves on the summit. The wind was cold and very much a nuisance and there was no shelter from it anywhere but we had to stop for a snack because we were starving. This gave us a chance to ponder the Outward Bound Couloir across the valley. There was no evidence of avalanche activity in the area and the route was looking rather inviting and manageable. I hoped the north facing inset couloir wasn't harboring any surprises.
It was still early in the afternoon and time to decide whether to give neighboring UN 13,541 a shot. I thought I remembered reading that the traverse can be tricky and exposed, but it didn't look so bad so we decided to investigate. The initial descent off of UN 13,580 went without a problem, but we soon ran into difficulties. The ridge crest became very exposed and with the spotty snow we weren't comfortable staying up there. We then tried to descend and bypass the difficulties, but the terrain was very slabby and cut by deep, snow filled gullies. We gave it a valiant attempt, but after about an hour of making very little progress we decided that it would be wise to save UN 13,541 for another day – perhaps on a return trip to climb Kit Carson's North Ridge in dry conditions. Now, how to get down? We could re-climb UN 13,580 but that wasn't very appealing. It looked like we might be able to descend from where we were, but the slope was very steep and we couldn't be positive we wouldn't cliff out. We picked our way lower, crab walking down the slabs. There was a nice snow gully just east of us and with some exploring we found a way to drop off of the slabs down into it. On went our crampons and we cruised down to the basin. I don't recommend this route and am not even sure if it would go without snow. We made it the short distance back to camp after some moderate postholing.
The night was a little restless as we listened to some weird noises that sound like muffled, distant fireworks. I would really like to know what this was! My super-paranoid mind kept thinking it sounded like avalanches, but tens of avalanches going on in the middle of the night was a ridiculous thought.
Sunday morning, time for the main course. We left camp at 5am and headed up the drainage toward the base of the Outward Bound Couloir. The snow had frozen nicely overnight and we easily floated across the top of the snow that we'd postholed through yesterday afternoon. We stopped near 12,500 ft to gear up for the climb… crampons, ice axes, harnesses, helmets, and the rope. We decided to rope up from the start and practice the "team arrest" snow climbing style outlined in Freedom of the Hills. The couloir started out easy but we didn't know what to expect higher up. Roach rates the climb as "steep" and from what information I could scrape up it seemed like we may want to protect the final scramble from the top of the couloir to the summit if it was snowy or icy.
Dominic led the way up the firm snow. It was perfect for cramponing and our calves burned as we made our way efficiently up the slope. As the couloir became more deeply inset, the conditions changed from hard sun baked snow to some softer powder. For the most part penetration was only about ankle deep.
As we neared the Kit Carson – Columbia Point saddle we spotted the left branch that Roach describes. This allows you to escape the main couloir without having to deal with the small cornice at the top. The cornice was only a baby, but I sure was happy we wouldn't be going anywhere near it. At the base of the branch, the powder became deeper as the walls began to constrict around us. The snow still felt good, but I was a little uneasy and after Dominic got though it he anchored to some rocks before I climbed up through the deeper part. We estimated (but did not measure) the maximum slope angle to be no greater than 45 degrees.
Once in the very narrow left branch we did some easy, unexposed, mixed climbing over snow covered rock which brought us to the end of the couloir roughly 100-150 feet below the summit of Columbia Point. I had no idea that the couloir would take us so high and was pleasantly surprised.
The remaining scramble to the summit looked a bit sketchy but I knew it was only a short distance and we could manage it. When dry, the route is described as steep, exposed 3rd class. However, powdery, slippery snow was obscuring the rock in many places and protecting it was a no brainer for us. We were already roped up and ready to go. Even though chances are we could have climbed it unroped without incident, it just wasn't worth it because one slip could end it all given the exposure.
We made an anchor, Dominic led about half way up, set up another anchor, and belayed me up. For the most part it was easy but there were 2 or 3 places that were spicy because of the loose snow. From there the scrambling became easier so I just kept going above the anchor. A few second later I popped up on the ridge and realized I was standing only a few feet from the summit! Awesome! I had no idea the route was going to be so direct. Dominic scrambled up the final portion and joined me on the summit. It was about 9:15.
Despite the forecast for very warm temperatures, the summit was cold and windy. The views of Kit Carson, the Crestones, Humboldt, Colony Baldy, and the Adams group were spectacular though. After snapping a bunch of pictures and shoving down some Reese Peanut Butter Cups we knew we couldn't linger. The unfortunate thing about this route this time of year is that the most feasible descent route is back down the couloir. We needed to move efficiently to return before the sun did too much damage.
We spent a few minutes discussing our plan for the descent back to the couloir. In this situation we wanted to be as safe as possible, but we didn't have all the time in the world. I belayed Dominic from the summit as he climbed down, placing a healthy amount of pro along the way. He was able to return to the base of the climb in one go with just a few meters of rope to spare. I then climbed down, removing the pro as I went. It worked out well, except for the usual nut removing woes.
We remained roped up until we were down the steeper top part of the couloir. As the angle eased, we unroped and removed our crampons, hoping for a slow glissade down the powdery snow. That was a mistake. It went fine for a while and we were able to descend in a very controlled manner just braking with the shaft. Sometimes Dominic couldn't even get going and stood up and resorted to plunge stepping. Things seemed very safe. However, when I tried what I thought would be some easy arrest practice in the soft snow, I got a surprise. The harder layer under the powder didn't want to accept my pick and ripped the axe from my hands. A few scary seconds later I regained control of the axe and was able to arrest with much effort. I was a little shaken up after that so while Dominic continued with a very controlled glissade, I put my crampons back on and walked down the remainder of the slope. That was a good idea because I was surprised to find that the lower section of the slope that is more exposed to the sun hadn't softened up at all really – good from an avalanche perspective, but bad from a glissading perspective. In this lower portion the pick of my axe only went in about a half inch regardless of how hard I swung it. I had never had an axe ripped from my hands before and I'm still not sure if I was rusty in my self arrest form or whether conditions were just tricky and deceiving.
Shortly after 11 we reached the bottom of the snow slope and took a break to put away our gear. The walk back to camp was short and sweet. We packed up and started the dreaded hike out at 2pm. This time we followed the trail the whole way and I think it was worse than our improvised ascent route. Huge downed trees hindered our progress. Snowshoes were a must in the softened snow, especially with the extra weight on our backs. By 5pm we were enjoying a semi-cold beer at the TH in celebration of a great weekend.