| Mountain Porn: The X-Rated Couloir
Climbers: Carson Black, Mike (Chicago Transplant), Steve Knapp, Scot (Floyd), & Darin Baker
(l. to r.) Carson, Steve & Mike, Scot
Sayres Benchmark (13,738’)
Trailhead: Lake Creek ( same as La Plata TH)
Route: X-Rated Couloir, N Face
Distance: ~13mi RT (roundtrip)
Elevation Gain: ~4050’
Gear: daypack w/Essentials, snowshoes, ice axe, crampons, helmet, avalanche gear (beacon, probe, shovel)
Resources Used For Trip Planning: NOAA weather forecast & trip reports by Kevin Baker & KansasBoarder
Carson is down to a handful of bicentennial peaks left to climb, so what better way to check off one of those peaks with a climb up the X-rated couloir on Sayres BM!! The aesthetic north face is truly a beauty, and it entices the climber to explore its multiple snow lines. We chose the direct line in the center of the N face, and it was a line that did not disappoint.
Putting a Team Together
Members of 14ers.com were planning a spring gathering this same weekend, and I was hoping to be able to join them for part of their gathering.
I had posted on the forum that Carson and I would be in the area to climb Sayres, and Mike (Chicago Transplant) saw my post and he expressed interest in joining us. Upon telling some of his friends of his plans, others became interested as well. Our party of two grew to five, and soon the plan was in place.
Carson and I drove to the TH on Friday night and camped in the Westfalia. Mike, Scot, and Steve would arrive later during the night to car-camp as well. The plan was for a departure at 4am with hopes for a good overnight freeze.
4am came, introductions were made, and we were off down the trail (straight from Hwy 82). Our hiking boots sufficed for the first stretch until the summer time TH for La Plata, but soon enough, one by one, we were each stopping to put on snowshoes. Mike held out the longest, but not without post holes. (I think he masochistically likes post-holing his way along!) With snowshoes on the snow was supportable for most of the time. Later in the day it would be a different story.
This was my first time using this approach, therefore I was not familiar with the “trail.” Traveling in the dark by headlamp can have its challenges, but luckily a few of the guys had well selected waypoints programmed into their GPS to help with navigation.
Dark-thirty in La Plata Gulch…
5:50am and our objective comes into sight…
Dawning light on Lackawanna…
Steve and Mike scoping out our line…
As we entered the southern portions of La Plata Gulch, we had discussions of which line we wanted to climb. I think for the most part we were all looking at the same line: straight up the face, with a bit of a curve to climber’s left at the end. This exit would avoid a cornice along the E ridge near the summit, and we would be minutes from the summit itself.
Mike, Steve, and Scot had plans of continuing on to other summits after Sayres, so they were doing a carry-over with their snowshoes. Carson and I had different ideas though, that being we hit our objective and descend back into La Plata Gulch. Therefore we stashed our snowshoes for a later retrieval.
Mike, Scot, and Steve approaching our giant…
Three hours after leaving the TH, we were at the bottom of the apron, gearing up for the climb up the couloir. To this point the snow was in decent shape; a little crust punchy down in the basin floor, but overall signs of a safe climb were looking good. There was no sign of instability or of recent slides, other than one small surface point release on an E aspect. The N slopes didn’t show signs of any slides.
Mike getting ready for our climb, which can be seen above and behind him…
As Mike and Scot finished getting ready, Carson set off in front heading up the apron. I followed, with Steve in tow. Kicking steps in the firm snow was fairly easy starting off. The texture of the snow was still soft, almost winter like, but with better cohesion than winter snows. Plunging my axe in to the head, I didn’t feel layers, but a firm steady resistance.
Carson led for a while up the apron, and then I took over and continued to assess the snowpack by feel as I went up. Near the base of the couloir proper, the surface felt slabbier so Carson and I both started to dig into the snowpack for closer inspection. Mike came up to give his opinion as well. There was a ~4” windslab on top of ~2” of powder (i.e., weak layer). At the interface, the powder was not bonded well. However, the top slab felt strong but we did not do a stability test. Instead, we continued up feeling confident in the early morning strength of the cold slab.
It was also at this point that Mike took over the lead for a while…
Mike approaches the dark side…
Looking down on the dark side…
Once into the shadows of the couloirs, the snow turned into mid-shin deep powder. Mike earned his lead on this section! Because of Mike’s efforts, Steve and I were able to keep with him, and eventually would do our part in kicking steps up the couloir. Carson and Scot brought up the tail.
Carson and Scot…
When we got into the heart of the X, the snow turned back to a harder surface, with a bit of soft stuff on top. It was also where I measured the slope at its steepest (of what I measured) and it was roughly 42 degrees. I think for the most part, the couloir is a sustained 40 degrees. (Note: I only measured it a few times, but each time it was in the 40’s.)
Mike and Steve finishing the climb up the couloir…
Steve leads the final summit pitch…
Mike approaches the summit…
Carson is still all smiles!
We were on the summit by 9am, almost two hours after starting from the apron. There was a chilled wind, but otherwise it was a sunny and warm summit. After a fantastic aesthetic line, we deserved a short break to take in the views.
To the north...
To the south...
Steve had other ideas…
After our break, we set off for the sub-summit of Sayres BM, where Steve had been sitting on some dry rock, soaking up the rays. From there we descended off the N ridge; for Carson and I, we were looking for our first opportunity to drop off the ridge to descend back into La Plata Gulch. For the rest, they were off to summit 30 or 40 more peaks. They said something about upping their LOJ stats. ;)
Side view of the N face of Sayres, taken from the saddle between 13,200’ and Sayres…
At the first saddle, Carson and I thought we could descend from there. Probably not a good idea. It has a cornice that runs the length of the ridge at this saddle.
It wasn’t until after 13,200’ and at the next saddle that a safe ridge exit was found. Here we departed from out partners for the day as they went on to more summits.
More Mountain Porn...
Carson and I got in a couple of short glissades on softening snow, and finally descended all the way back into the gulch. We grabbed our snowshoes and were headed N in hopes of hitting the snow while it was still firm.
Carson leaving behind a great climb, with only 4 more to go to finish the Top 200…
Our trek out was somewhat uneventful.
Well, other than Carson hitting a soft spot (i.e., post-holed near a tree-well on a steep bank) that sent him head first onto his back facing downslope, with his snowshoe stuck in the well! It was funny, for me anyway. ;) I had to dig him out.
The next eventful episode was route finding. I was convinced we got off route after we left the gulch. We were no longer on our track from the morning, and we hadn’t come across the bridge crossing yet. And I thought we somehow overshot the road that goes into McNasser Gulch. Plus the terrain didn’t feel right. Dumbass.
“You hiked through here in the dark! That’s why it doesn’t feel right! It’s daylight now, of course it’s going to look different!”
That is what Carson said to me. I know. I couldn’t believe he would talk to me like that either. I may have shed a tear, I’m sensitive.
Ok, not really. That is what I told myself. Dumbass.
Had I shown another minute of patience on our original track, we would have come to the bridge. Doh!!
11 hours later, back to the van. What a day!!
Hindsight & Personal Notes
This was my first time climbing with Mike, and my first time meeting and climbing with Scot & Steve. Gentleman, it was a pleasure to do this climb with you! Thanks for joining Carson and me on a memorable climb! Mike & Steve, thanks for putting in some kicks up the couloir, and spotting our exit off the ridge. I guess you didn’t want to see us down climb our other choice? ;)
If I were to change anything, it would have been to let Mike lead the whole damn couloir. Why make anything hard on myself?! I mean he offered to lead it all! Lesson learned. ;)
This is a great climb, and I’m glad Carson was open to the idea that we do it as a snow climb. Thanks Carson, and I look forward to hitting a couple of the remaining peaks on your list!
Thanks for reading,