| Mount Audubon and the Crooked Couloir
I love my ice axe for good reason. For one, it makes music when electrically charged. It provides a sense of security when hiking in the dark. And it makes one hell of a grab handle when the going gets steep.
It's now three days later and my hands still hurt. I clutched that axe for hours. Push down, pull up, push down, pull up - ever higher and higher in a self-belay. My life depended on that axe - I wasn't letting go.
I was being adventurous like an eager wide-eyed child blinded by a new experience. I had asked friends to join me but no one took to my idea. Some even said I was crazy. I just don't know anyone who has the desire to snow climb (I know a few people who quit snow climbing. Children, family, work, and various adult responsibilities seem to be the common cause.) So I studied the books, the forums, and the videos. I practiced on mild slopes. And since I won't deny myself a rich and full life - well - I just went out and did it on my own.
This was my first snow climb.
About half-way up the Crooked Couloir - nearly 800 feet above Blue Lake - I looked down. I questioned my sanity. I questioned my ability. I won't lie - I was scared. I traversed the steep snow field. I gained hard rock and scrambled up rotten scree for another 600 feet. I was almost there. About 200 feet from the top I returned to the couloir and climbed on snow to the very top. The couloir ended gracefully as it rolled onto a flat snow covered ridge. I fell into the snow, relieved to be alive. Very alive.
Whew. My stomach is still in my throat.
I enjoyed a moment of clarity on the mountain. I was on the couloir, staring freakishly at the head of my axe like nothing else mattered and ignoring the absence of flat ground anywhere near me. I realized the cut in the adze of my axe is shaped like a bottle opener and I laughed. I needed that laugh. I needed that simple goal - a beer. I wanted to wait for a helicopter to save me from that mountain but the promise of beer seemed much more palatable. I kept going and I earned that brew.
I was a bit ambitious for a first-timer but I have set a worthy goal. I need more experience on shorter snow climbs. Someday - after I'm more comfortable - I will return to climb the Crooked Couloir from top to bottom. I think next year is going to be good.
Peak: Mount Audubon (13,223 feet ASL)
Location: Indian Peaks Wilderness in Arapaho National Forest
Trailhead: Mitchell Lake (10,500 feet ASL)
Route: Crooked Couloir (1,600 feet, 40-45 degree max)
Round-trip Distance: 7.52 miles
Vertical Gain: 2,723 feet
Start Time: 6:18 AM
Finish Time: 3:15 PM
Actual Moving Time: 3 hours, 50 minutes
Weather: Clear and cool sky the night before, clear sky all morning, partly cloudy in afternoon. No storm activity.
Trail Condition: Wet, muddy, and packed snow.
Snow Condition in Coulior: Hard packed to the top, no ice. Couloir gets a late sun hit (approx. 8 AM).
The GPS track of my route:
My route elevation profile:
Captions on top of photos.
The view west from Brainard Lake at 6 AM. Pawnee Peak tries to hide on the far left, Mount Toll is center-left, Pauite Peak is center-right, and bulky Mount Audubon is on the far right. The very top of Crooked Couloir pokes above the southeast ridge of Mount Audubon.
The Mitchell Lake trailhead sign greets me with a warning.
The trail crosses fading snow drifts.
The creeks are gushing.
I cross the wilderness boundary.
The trail continues through dense forest. Route finding is easy.
A creek crossing.
The trees thin as the trail gains altitude. Mount Toll (left) and Pauite Peak (right) appear.
To the right of Pauite Peak is Mount Audubon and the Crooked Couloir. It looks good to me. Plenty of snow, no cornice, and still in shade.
I continue up the trail toward Blue Lake and the couloir. Wild flowers dot the landscape. Soon they'll be everywhere.
I arrive at Blue Lake. It is snow-covered and mostly frozen. Mount Toll dominates its shoreline.
A close up of Mount Toll. Three climbers are in the snowfield at bottom-right.
I pass the lake, cross a snowfield, and now stand at the base of Crooked Couloir. This is the entire couloir, from bottom to the top - 1,600 feet of 40 degree snow.
What the heck am I doing up here?
I start up the couloir.
Behind me, the view expands. Pawnee Peak and Little Pawnee Peak dominate the view.
I make good progress on the lower section. I'm pleased and suprised at myself. I near the crooked section of the couloir. I'm approximately half-way up! But now the snow gets considerably steeper. I look down and crap my pants. I follow a previous climber's tracks across the couloir. The rocks on the other side look more hospitable for scrambling.
Whew. I traverse the slope.
I gain hard rock near the crooked section. I remove my crampons and start to scramble up big boulders and loose scree, always careful and deliberate in my footing. I don't want a 100-pound rock to smash my foot.
The view continues to expand the higher I go.
Loose and steep - I continue up rock next to the couloir. The pucker factor has dropped and my heart rate has slowed - I'm ready to get back on the snow.
I'm 200 feet from the top. Navajo, Apache, and the Arapaho Peaks appear behind Pawnee.
I can see the end.
Looking down from near the top.
Whew. I can't believe I did this.
I collapse in relief and joy.
The class 3 ridge to Pauite Peak.
The summit of Mount Audubon is a 1/4 mile to the east. I climb talus to the summit. There were 10-15 people on top. I enjoyed the fortress-like wind shelters. I imagined a canon hiding behind each one.
I enjoy a snack and soak in the moment.
I start down the standard trail from the summit. The upper section of trail crosses a huge scree field.
Life in miniature. The Mount Audubon summit is at top of photo.
The scree ends and the long grind back to the parking lot begins.
I discover a huge snowfield. Time for some payback - a long fun glissade.
I get close to Mitchell Lake. The view of Mount Toll and Little Pawnee dominate the lower section of trail.
And another fine day in Indian Peaks comes to an end...