| Grand Couloir Ski Descent
Peak: Mount Aetna
Route: Grand Couloir (South Face)
Miles Traveled: 6.6
Elevation Gained/Descended on Skis: ~4,000 Feet
Participants: Jay, stevevets689
It's been a long while since I've written a trip report. In truth, I still haven't reached a summit since January. However, this trip is important to me, mostly because of the ski descent. It was also my first snow climb with skis on my back and crampons on my ski boots.
Our original plan was to try to hit Redcloud and Sunshine, but we could not determine that the Cinnamon Pass road was open far enough for this to be feasible. So, we looked East instead to the bicentennial Mt. Aetna, a peak which gets most people's attention from the top of Monarch Pass on US HWY 50. The Grand Couloir appeared to have great coverage from recent reports, and how better to start the snow season than with a nearly 3,000 foot high couloir?
We left Gunnison at 3:00am after grabbing coffee from Love's. It was the weekend of graduation for Western State College and even at such an ungodly hour, there were lots of people grabbing goodies at Love's. It always feels funny to know you're starting your day before others have even ended theirs.
Jay skinning up the road in the dark
At 4:30 we were starting up the road. A few lengthy drifts forced us to park about 100 yards up Forest Service Road 230, which is about what I expected. We carried our snow equipment on our shoulders for maybe a quarter mile before reaching continuous snow that allowed us to skin, and but for a 6 foot section the snow went all the way into the couloir run-out. Skinning felt good and it took us until around 6:00am to reach the bottom of the Grand Couloir.
Our first view of the Grand Couloir
Jay skinning up the initial part of the couloir
Looking up the couloir, it didn't seem that big, and I definitely underestimated how high it really was. We skinned for a ways further up the run-out before I got hungry and we stopped for breakfast. So far we had been blessed with little wind and no clouds. We could see the tops of the peaks to the south and east starting to get sun hit.
Sunrise on neighboring peaks
Making progress from the bottom
Looking up from just below treeline
After skinning for a ways further, I slipped a couple times and, being more familiar with traveling on foot, I decided to go ahead and strap the skis on my pack. Jay preferred to stay on his splitboard for a while so he continued on. This was, however, the first time I had fitted my strap-on crampons to my alpine ski boots and I initially had some troubles with them staying on. It probably took me a half hour break to transition completely, but I did at last have my skis on my pack and my crampons well secured to my boots. I continued up. Jay had skinned over a roll in the couloir and I could no longer see him.
Jay was way ahead of me thanks to my crampon difficulties
Looking back from maybe halfway up
Jay with his board on his back, starting up the last, steeper part of the couloir
I booted up for a while and eventually came over the roll to see Jay still skinning quite a ways ahead. I kept stepping up the undulating couloir, trying to keep my pace up so I might catch him. As the couloir started to steepen, he finally started slipping and stopped to transition into snow climbing. During that time I gained some distance on him but he was still ready to go before I could get to him. I waved him on and headed to his boot track.
Looking southwest at Clover and Vulcan Mountains
It was about that time when I heard a couple voices coming from behind us in the couloir. I thought they had started a bit late but didn't think much of it. A while later I looked behind me and saw two skiers skinning up, heading left towards the broad ridge to climber's left side of the couloir. Maybe a half an hour later I saw them again, but this time they were well above us on the ridge, moving rapidly toward the summit. It seemed like minutes later when they were skiing down. I couldn't believe how fast they had ascended, but as it turned out they were a couple elite Gunni local athletes and learning that fact afterward made me feel a bit better.
Jay climbing near the summit
The couloir definitely steepened a fair bit towards the top but we were moving slow. The snow started to get soft and my crampons kept balling up horribly. It was easier following Jay's boot pack, but nonetheless it was about 10:30am when I reached about 13,650 feet under blazing sunlight and practically no wind. I decided the snow to be too out of condition to continue. Jay was about halfway between me and the summit and decided to fly up to the top as quick as he could. While he climbed up, I took my skis off my pack, set them into the snow, and got ready to ski. I waited briefly as he waved to me from the top and then transitioned into his snowboard descent. He rode down to me and announced that the condition above us was definitely better than what we had seen, and that maybe we could've even let it soften up a little more. I was a bit agitated that I hadn't reached the summit, but I guess that it's better to play it safe on the judgment calls.
Where I got ready to ski. It definitely felt steeper than it looks!
The view from where I stopped. Mount Ouray is the prominant peak in the distance
Looking down the long descent from where I stopped
The closest view I got of the summit, about 100 feet away.
I took a minute getting my skis off to make sure I didn't accidentally send one down the mountain without me, and once I was on my skis I started out very slowly. The pitch was steeper than I expected, and I could finally feel how tired my legs were. We headed skier's right onto more open terrain and I started turning a bit more confidently, though I still kept it pretty slow and had to stop a lot to ease the burning in my legs.
Jay boarding in the upper part of the couloir
Me skiing in the lower part of the couloir
As the pitch decreased, I gained a bit of confidence and started moving a bit better. We enjoyed some corn followed by slush on our way back to the road, and when we finally made it we stopped and looked back up. Wow, what a face! I had definitely underestimated the breadth of what we had done.
Looking back up after getting back to the road
We took a break to shed layers and replenish our energy before skiing out on the road. When I made it back to the car, my legs were pretty wobbly. But considering the ski descent I had just accomplished, I felt pretty good. I stretched, ate and drank, and we headed back to Gunnison. On the way back, we stopped briefly on top of Monarch Pass to admire what we had just done. I hope to head back there and actually get a summit descent one of these days. But for now, I'll wait out this May snowstorm and see if I can descend something else in the coming weeks.
Mount Aetna and the Grand Couloir from Monarch Pass
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