| Skywalker in the Wind
As Kelly and I left Denver at 330am, were both a little bit concerned about the heat that had hung around during the evenings, and how that might have affected the snow on Skywalker Couloir. It had been the prime topic of conversation most of the week, as we looked at the forecast daily hoping it would change and give us a solid freeze. Checking the morning of the climb, the National Weather Service reported it was only going to get down to 46 degrees, but there would be wind.
We decided to head up anyway, and if the snow was crap, hit the standard route up South Arapaho. We had forgotten about the closures on Highway 36, delaying us quite a bit, and pulled into the parking lot at the Fourth of July Trailhead at 530am, and it was warm. I asked some climbers heading out and they confirmed 50 degrees. Frustrated, I was ready to say screw it and leave my heavier mountaineering boots in Kelly's truck, but it took very little convincing for me to be ready to give it a shot.
Normally, I really dislike strong winds. But as we moved up the trail, the wind was like a siren song telling us that maybe it combined with the clear skies overnight had let the snow re-freeze. As Skywalker came into view, its dramatic line, cutting through the face of the mountain.
Skywalker is in the distance, the line running up the peak
We stopped at the bottom to put on our crampons as quickly as possible, and counted 5 climbers on the couloir, and 2 that were just starting. The wind was blessing us with some powerful gusts that were moving the heat off the surface of the snow. I was actually doing a good enough job, that both Kelly and I were forced to add layers as we geared up.
Kelly entering the couloir
The nice thing about having so many climbers ahead is boot tracks. They were just deep enough to make it easier, but the snow was solid enough that I still felt the needed to add a little bit of a kick.
Kelly 80% of the way up, the exit is above her
Kelly took this photo of me as I caught up to her from the photo above. You can see the runnel in the background
The lower half of the climb was mellow, and cluttered with rock fall debris. A 3 foot wide, 3ish feet deep runnel split the lower half of the couloir. While I felt like I was moving slow due to the stabbing pains that plague my toes on climbs like this we were moving closer to the climbers ahead, and could see them get closer to each other as they made their way up the exit pitch. The sun briefly made an appearance, but was quickly obscured by the clouds that were blowing in from the West. We pushed through with no breaks, stopping only to take out our second tools at the last large rock before the exit pitch.
As we made our way over to the center of the pitch so that we could move as quickly as possible up the final steep stretch of snow, I caught sight of a skier standing at the top of the shoot above us. I was praying that at this point, he would let us finish. He was directly above us, and with only 50 feet to the bottom of the shoot that creates the exit I knew that anything knocked loose, or if he were to fall we would be the direct beneficiaries, and unfortunately I was proven correct.
As he moved to make his first two turns I watched snow sluff and start to move, but it wasn't so bad at first. I envisioned him cutting climbers right to keep himself from coming down on top of us, but I was very wrong as I watched him make cuts directly above me, the last of which broke several inches of sluff loose. As I watched the snow slide onto me, I leaned hard on my axe, and watched my hands disappear under the snow as it slid past, praying that this wouldn't trigger a larger slide. As the snow settled, Kelly, myself, and the skier were all ok and the snow slide was limited to the sluff that make up the top crust of the snow. This was with out any doubt the most anus cinching moment I have had on any climb in years. The skier apologized, and it was obvious he meant it. He explained that he had thought the snow would be firmer then it was and It was clear to me he had no idea that it was going to send that much on top of us. This made me feel better, and killed the intiaial anger I felt. However, the experience gave me the adrenaline to power through the last stretch of steep climbing.
Looking back at Kelly just after I took lead, she was standing on some nasty snow there
Photo by Kelly (Moonstalker) of me as I passed
Photo by Kelly (Moonstalker) of the last little bit to the exit
Looking out at the skyling one we entered the section the is framed by 2 cliff bands, one on either side
Kelly topping out
I took lead since Kelly wanted to get some shots, and while the second tool was not necessary, it made movement much faster as I moved past the steepest section, about 60 degrees. We had to kick our own steps at the top, as most of the previous tracks had been filled in by the skiers descent and topped out on the summit at 10am.
We had originally planned on making the traverse over to N. Arapaho, but the winds quickly changed our minds. Instead we chatted for quite a while with a couple of friendly climbers that had topped out ahead of us for a bit and headed down. On the way down, the highest gust Kelly measured was 49mph, but she was not able to get any of the ones that knocked us over. There was definitely something headed our way, and we could see clouds that resembled August noon time mountain thunderstorms building and headed our way. We made quick work of coming off the ridge, glissading most of the way to the base. The only casualty of the climb that day was my First Ascent beanie that got taken clean off my head by one of those gusts, it peeled it right off my head and I watched helplessly as it spun wildly with the wind away from me and out of sight. I really liked that beanie!
This last photo was taken from the bottom of the ridge looking back, nice clouds rolling in! There is a close up, and then a pano behind it
We took our time, taking a nice break on the way down to adjust layers and eat some food. The snow was amazingly stable, and I was glad the snowshoes stayed at home. Most of the trail below treeline was dry, and the snow that was there held our weight well. Overall it was an amazing day in the Indian Peaks Wilderness!
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