| Independence Couloir
Route: Independence Couloir
RT Distance: 3.6 miles
Vertical Gain: 2,286 feet
Participants: stevevets42, jmoney
Finally, a free weekend to do some climbing in the mountains. With the snow rapidly deteriorating in the San Juans, I wanted to get in there and get a couloir while they are still good, settling on the Independence Couloir of American Peak. Thanks to 14ers.com, I got Jay (jmoney) to come along for his first ever snow climb!
Looking at the north face of American Peak from the trailhead. Couloirs from left to right: Patriot, Independence, and Traitor (the deeply inset, steep, narrow one going right up the middle of the cliffs in the right half of the photo)
Looking back on American Basin
Hiking along the trail
We left from Gunnison a little after 3:00am and arrived at the 4wd parking lot in American Basin shortly after five. It was already starting to get light out so we got moving pretty quickly. The approach to American Peak is short though somewhat steep; we lost the trail under the snow after a while and just buggied up some low angled snow instead. This brought us to the base of some big piles of talus which I would recommend going around at all costs... climbing over them was not fun. Still, we were at the base of the couloir in no time. The weather was pretty good, only a couple snowy squalls now clearing up, and the snow was already getting a little sunshine. With no time to waste, we got our axes out and put on our helmets and crampons and started climbing.
Handies Peak in the early morning
Independence Couloir in front of those nasty rock piles... go around!
Looking towards the summit of American Peak from the base of the couloir
Jay getting ready to climb
Looking up the couloir from the base
I put Independence Couloir right with the Lost Rat on Grays as far as steepness and length. I think it's about 700 feet high angling in the low 40 degree range. It is very constant and the views are awesome. On that particular climb the snow was a bit soft, with a small layer of fresh powder on top; not ideal snow climbing conditions but not too bad either. Jay did excellently, especially with a snowboard on his back!
Jay climbing up the couloir
Looking across American Basin from the couloir, Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Uncompahgre barely poke up beyond the ridges
Jay enjoying his first couloir...
...and performing well!
Topping out on the ridge, we were suddenly exposed to the high winds. Once again we wasted no time, got our crampons off, Jay left his snowboard there seeing that the rest of the ridge would be pretty rocky, and we started hiking along a climbers trail headed for the summit. In a matter of minutes we were at the top of the Patriot Couloir, the easiest of the four couloirs on American's north face. The conditions here were similar to that of Independence Couloir, but the very top was literally a ridge of snow, almost a cornice hanging to the south side of the ridge, and at first the snow seemed very punchy and a little unstable. I tested it, moving just a couple steps away from the rock, and it got firmer. I could also see that the angle at the top was almost non-existent. I decided it was safe enough to cross. Jay got a bit nervous about the crossing and stopped there, promising to wait until I got back from the summit.
Looking down Independence after topping out
The couloir angles down at the very top. There is no cornice
The ridge leading towards the summit, which is about ¼ mile from here
It only took around ten minutes to get to the top from there, and like the rest of the climb, I didn't stay stopped for long. I signed the register (which, by the way, was placed in 2001. This peak sees very little activity, considering its classic snow couloirs!), took a few pictures and a video and then started back down. I was back with Jay after maybe ten more minutes and we returned to the top of Independence. Time for the descent.
Jones Peak and Niagara Peak from the summit
The Central San Juans... Vestal, Arrow... ruggedness!
Uncompahgre, HANDIES, Redcloud and Sunshine
The top of Patriot Couloir. You can see my footprints where I crossed, and Jay on the trail behind it for scale
This is about the steepest terrain I feel comfortable glissading, but the snow was soft enough that I had a somewhat hard time picking up much speed anyway. I carefully slid my way down to the bottom of the couloir and got my camera out to catch Jay's snowboard descent. He ripped down the couloir making some very smooth looking, quality turns and I kicked myself for not bringing my skis.
Jay snowboarding Independence Couloir next to my lousy glissade track
Jay was able to board down quite a ways so I had to catch up with him. In the process, we noticed some small slide activity, but all were point-release and the biggest was not nearly big enough for a burial. Still, we were glad to be getting out of there no later than we were. I would recommend an earlier starting time for this reason. At any rate, we were back at the car at around 10:45. Another awesome day in the mountains! Congrats to Jay on his first ever couloir climb and for an awesome descent!
Independence Couloir, now graced with our tracks
To see more pictures from this climb, please visit my online photo album at: http://picasaweb.google.com/coloradoclimberguy/
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):