| Harvard - South Face Couloir Ski
Summit Skier: me
Couloir Skier: Bill Middlebrook
Wished they had gotten more sleep: Caroline (USAKeller), Lance (comin2getcha)
Ascent Route: Standard - South Slopes
Descent Route: South Face Couloir
Elevation Gain: 4,600'
Vertical Ski: ~4,600'
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe – Catch a Sawatch 14er by the toe
After a few months of trying to get a 14er ski trip set up with Caroline and Lance, we were finally on the road heading for the Sawatch. Plan #1 was to go up the Antero road and climb a couloir on the north side of Tabeguache Peak to ski. But around Fairplay, the satellite phone call came in from Bill, no go on the road, drifts too big to navigate via ATV's. So a new plan was needed. Plan #2A: Harvard, #2B Belford/Oxford, #2C Missouri. Hmmm which to pick? Harvard is my favorite for views, so that was my choice. Didn't matter that I had only just climbed it again the previous fall.
So we met up with Bill at a gas station along the way, and drove all the way up to the trailhead. Even though it was 4pm by now, we saddled up our backpacks for the necessary shortening of the approach to the peak. Just as we were getting ready to start, a group of 4 were coming down the trail to give us some beta on the trail snow conditions.
We carried our skis for a short distance up the trail, before there were calls for my boot post-holes to be larger (sorry I have small feet!), and that they be farther apart (again, sorry I'm short). Very soon after the bridge crossing, we put the skis on, disconcerted that the pertinent question of why the other group boot packed for a few miles up the trail. The snow must have been very solid earlier in the morning. We could have skinned most of the way from the trailhead as it was.
We had intermittent sun and snow as the day's storm was moving through the area. It made for some interesting views along the way, as well as comfortable temperatures. On the way up, there were a few bare patches here and there, but nothing too troubling with skins on. The longest bare stretch was on the other side of the 2nd bridge crossing, on the north side of the stream. This would also be the area where the most melting would occur the next day as well.
Along the way, there were a few interesting small stream crossings. One in which involved balancing on a small snow covered log. A stream splash disaster at any moment if you lost balance or grip. Only Lance opted to take the skis off and cross the easy way.
The gaping stream crossing over the snowy log
Our group made decent time up trail, but we were racing against the descending sun. Eventually we had to stop before the treeline meadow area, so we could set up tents before it was dark. Basecamp would be at 11,2K. I brought my Bibler Tripod bivy, and needed the extra light to figure out the pole placement. Haven't set this up in a couple years! Dinner, water and then to bed, it will be an early 4am start the next day.
Day 2: Winter wonderland of fresh untracked snow
I wake up at 3:29 to hear: Wake up or I'll start throwing snowballs! Amusingly, a few seconds later, my alarm clock goes off. Thankfully it was a reasonably warm night, and getting out of the bivy wasn't too hard. Unfortunately Caroline had a very bad night, didn't sleep and never got warm. She didn't like her odds for the day, and called the climb before ever leaving the tent. It was too bad, as she missed an amazingly beautiful day.
So Bill and I start skinning up the valley in the dark, following the previous days' skin track, until it veers off towards Columbia. After that, the upper basin was untracked, and we had to plow through the snow that had fallen from the storm over the last couple days. We traded off lead as we went up, watching the alpenglow illuminate the surrounding peaks. Yale took on a rosy glow and it stood out from the sky behind.
Yale in alpenglow
At one break point, Bill digs a pit to check out the layering of the recent snow. We find 3 layers that break apart like a deck of cards if tilted. So we knew to watch out for the second of the storm layers above. Thankfully, the higher we went, the more we lost the distinctive layering structure, and in some places the snow appeared mostly unconsolidated above the old dirty snow layer.
Nice Shadows - Photo Credit: Bill
Following the skin track - Photo Credit: Bill
The downside to Harvard is that the main elevation gain comes at the very end. So it always feels like you're almost there. Up on the final hummock crest before ascending the ridge to the summit, we could get a good view of our descent couloir. It was the one just to the left of the rocky outcrop, and would stay out of the sun for the longest time. The slope angle would be ~32 degrees, so a reasonably safe descent option for our current snow pack.
Skinning up the final approach to the peak
Our descent couloir - in the shade - middle of photo
Skinning up to the ridge
Side view of our descent
Pano of the valley - half way up Harvard
Always looking to learn new things, I decided to try Caroline's 5-hour energy drink. For me, it works quite well. I felt rather strong as I skinned up the ridge. I knew I had the energy to make the summit, I just hoped I had enough time before the snow warmed up too much. Bill on the other hand, was more interested in skiing the couloir, and decided to save his strength for that. So after turning on the radios and coming up with a plan for meeting up at the couloir, I make the final push for the summit.
I thought I would be able to skin all the way up to the last rocky pitch to the summit. No go. Just before the final stretch to the ridge crest, is a very icy wind scoured section, where my skins/edges got no purchase. So I swapped skis and skins, for crampons and ice axe. Much easier! Though once on the ridge crest, I had to post hole through the wind drift on top to make it to the rocks. From there it was an easy rock-snow-ice scramble to the summit.
The final push to the rocky summit
Side view of my exit from the summit ridge
With Bill on the radio reminding me of the time, sun and warming snow, I race through my summit rituals. Spot OK message, photos, repack crampons and axe, skins off, click into skis, go! The transition was so rapid, my Spot never had time to send the first message. At least I had it on track before and after, and it happened to drop a point on the summit.
Summit Pano - South
Summit Pano - North
The snow is continuous off the summit, if you go slightly off to skiers left as you ski east on the ridge. Before the first ridge drop off, I turned back southwest to find the nice wide snowy exit off the summit ridge, that we had spied on the way up. It was go time!
Summit ridge snow
About to drop in!
I hugged the edge of the rocks as I curve to the southeast, skiers left, and meet up at the edge of the descent couloir. Bill was waiting on the far side, having dug a pit while waiting for me to make the summit.
First tracks off the summit
Looking down couloir
Bill made quite a few tests of the snowpack, with hard cuts and big jump turns, but no failure. We didn't want to charge the couloir as the snow had warmed enough to send balls down as we skied. So we descended one at a time in a few hundred feet sections. This was fine with me, as I was still tired from the summit push, initial descent, and not a lot of rest in between. While the snow had warmed up and wasn't as light and fluffy as we would like it, the skiing was really enjoyable, as can be seen by the perm-a-grin on our faces.
- Photo Credit: Bill
Perma-grin - Photo Credit: Bill
- Photo Credit: Bill
Once we had finally gotten out of the couloir, we took skiers right down valley, and kept high in elevation as we went down. We didn't want to get trapped in the bowl, if there was a bump at the end. From there it was a pleasant sunny descent back down to treeline.
Skiing off into the valley
The only thing marring the untouched landscape was the littering of a Harvard law school flag along the trail. We didn't know if it might be a marker for a group camping later, so we left the flag where it was. Should have taken it, as we realized later it was no such marker. The group that planted it was in tennis shoes and post holed through our nice skin track.
The lower we got, the slushier the snow became. We knew this would happen. The pack out from camp was not anticipated to be easy. Weighted down, on slushy snow, hidden rocks, rocks newly exposed, melted out stream crossings, bare spots and the inevitable flat and uphill sections awaited. But after the amazing ski descent off the summit and down the couloir, spirits could not be damped too much. The skis came of a couple times, as certain areas just couldn't be crossed. Other bare spots were easier. But once at the final bridge, there was no more snow and the skis were carried back to the awaiting vehicles.
Climb: left, Ski: right
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