| Southwest Couloir
March 23, 2004
Fabio Grasso and I headed for Pennetente on Saturday, killing daylight on some sporto climbs.
Pulling into Crestone's Baca Grande subdivision, we camped out in the truck for the night near the water tanks.
At 5:15 we hoisted maxed out packs with snowboards to the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon. Patchy snow on the trail had us flip flopping skins or boots from the start. Even after losing the trail we were hesitant to commit to the snowy dark timber in the bottoms, trying instead, like fools, to fight the brown nasty south facing sidehills to the left. Eventually we sent ourselves to the bottom, and I wish it were a lot sooner, with still solid frozen snow to skin.
Moss hangs from the trees everywhere down here. The creek was often exposed, the valley grew tighter, and the willows thicker. Progress slowed. We took a route to the left side of the creek through a steep mess of boulders, following a small channel. Up above, we chopped through to purify water without fuel at 11,1.
We were getting pretty lazy after that, and perched camp below the headwall slabs for the night. We had lots of food, lots of eating to do. Fab recounted the riddle of two Juarez bar patrons.
The moon comes around half past four, and I struggled out of my soft dark paradise to make a blueberry tea / hot cocoa brew. It was a very cold and breezy night, which should have locked up the snow. We started from camp at six.
I suppose I should have just followed Fab to the draw far left, since it was his birthday, but we seemed to grant mutual independence for this pitch, regrouping in the basin above. Fab has been guiding kids on Wilderness Pursuit trips out of Western State College for a couple years, and it can be difficult to convince someone with actual credentials. I have a lot of respect for Fab not only because of his formal certs, but because we were the same animal when it came to riding style. However, in this case, it came down to doing the research. I was fully prepped for beta on this section, and seeing the easy weakness in the headwall above camp, I sprung. Well, in my preoccupation I had also left my water at camp this morning. In the basin, Fabio skinned up, saying we had gotten off on the wrong foot. I was impressed by his professionalism, and this gesture of humility caught me off guard. I don't know, maybe he just needed to take a crap. We continued together as a team from there. We were surprised to see the couloir in decent condition, and glad our efforts had bean redeemed. We put crampons on at 7:00. I was slow mounting mine. The strap buckles were in bad shape and in my anticipation, horcked way too hard on one of them, popping the hinge. I had some odds and ends for the fix. After a fit of cursing, and cold hands, it was repaired with some bailing wire. I also noticed that I managed to blow the heel of my boot on the way in. Grasso and I started from the base of the chute, through the broken lower sections. We made our way quickly to the rock ledge at mid-way, passing it on a small patch of ice to the right.
I was fighting a mild head cold that week, and was glad my ears were popping, but the thinner air did make the upper chute go a little slower. It was crusted with a thick and firmly frozen rime. There were a few cracks, but they were old looking. Still, a sign that heat had at one point, and could again, tip the scales with a warm afternoon. We had plenty of time on this aspect today. We made the red saddle by 9:30, and traversed to a crux for the summit block.
The views were crystal clear.
We down climbed off the summit block, and I strapped in just under it, being concerned about my boot, but that was understood as the summit standard at the time. Riding the East facing section, I was surprised again by how much more comfortable I felt on steep exposures with my board on, than with my board on me. It is after ten, and the rime is still frozen. Fab started from the notch. I yelled for him to get his axe out, continuing below to get in the chute. Fairly consistent snow, a little punchy to the right . . . Fabio's water bottle rockets past me. I looked up to see him sliding headfirst down the couloir, and then recover with an aggressive self-arrest. The La Sportiva Denali boots were not working well for him on this steep, firm snow. He explained that he had punched through the crust really bad, sending him. I managed to squirm past the rock-ledge midway down on an ice patch, and then pulled out to the left on the escape ledge. We put the axes away and blasted across the basin flats, a great run down through this area. We used Fabio's route to descend the cliff band back into the forest. I would still contend that it was easier to the southeast. Back at camp by 11:30, we spent the day relaxing, and using up supplies.
It was another clear cold night down to twelve degrees. I was a little chilled, and a little worried about getting a fever, thinking that the last couple of days of exertion above 10,000 ft may not have exactly helped in recovering from my cold, but it was more likely that I just had too much condensation built up in my bivy.
We got an early start again the next morning to avoid bogging down while riding out with the packs. Our descent through this wild mossy forest brought us a little closer to the creek than our ascent route, and we had to traverse back right once to avoid the icy gorge. We bypassed the boulder field to the left, split our boards, and rejoined our tracks. We stayed on the left side in the bottoms to avoid the nasty dry side hill, and made good time to the old trail cut.
I was having difficulty getting my left ear to pop, and by the time we reached the TH, it had become extremely painful. I was afraid I would lose an eardrum. Fabio took me to his Grandparents in Salida. Nan put me in the sun room to relax with a cotton swab of warm olive oil in my ear, and helped Fabio peel the shirt sleeve off his arm, bloody from wrist to elbow after the fall. In a few minutes, she had served pot roast, gravy, sausage, salad, eggs, beer, and three different kinds of home made breads: amazing. My ear finally popped by the next morning back in Gunnison. I had a bloody nose, but fortunately no lasting damage.
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