MOUNTAIN: Quandary Peak
ROUTE: Cristo Couloir
RT DISTANCE: ~5 miles and 3,000 feet
RT TIME: ~7.5 hours in bad conditions (all times severely estimated)
CLIMBERS: SurfNTurf (Jeff), Steve L. + six others from a Meetup.com group
Quandary Peak (or Mount Quandary Peak, as the hilarious sign near the trailhead will have you believe) is widely considered one of the “easiest” 14ers. Even so, it holds a special place in my heart. It was the first mountain I climbed as a Colorado resident after I moved here from the East Coast (fifth 14er), it was my first winter ascent, and after yesterday, it was my first true couloir climb.
To say I was concerned about avalanche danger would be an understatement. I obsessed over weather forecasts, sporadic CAIC reports and snowpack evaluations for hours upon hours last week. It didn’t look good. I’d originally planned on a solo climb, but with the expected conditions that made me a bit uneasy. I was able to convince my buddy Steve to join at the last minute, and I also learned a Meetup.com group comprising a few 14ers.com friends (nkan02 and FireOnTheMountain) would be on the hill at exactly the same time. Feeling a little better, I decided to at least get to the base of Cristo and make a go/no-go decision from there.
Steve and I left Denver at 4 a.m., powering through drizzle and fog and diminishing optimism. Once past the Eisenhower Tunnel, however, the skies cleared and we realized we were in for a beautiful morning. We hit the trail at about 6 a.m., just as the Meetup group was starting to gear up.
On the road to Cristo Couloir
Steve skinning at first light
The road to the dam wasn’t plowed, and we had been forced to park very close to the standard East Ridge TH. I snowshoed and Steve skinned about 1.5 miles on the gradual, mostly flat road to the base of Cristo Couloir. The Meetup.com climbers caught us pretty quickly, as Steve had to fiddle with his skis. We started up the couloir at about the same time and basically became one large party.
Looking up Cristo from the base
Steve starting the climb
The early morning snow was firm; even after we switched to crampons we weren’t sinking in very much. About halfway up the climb, however, I was sporadically punching through to my calves/knees and immediately scooted over to the rock band that splits the couloir. The other climbers did the same or moved to the far left near the ridge. Sticking close to the rock bands on wet shallow snow, we made our way slowly upward.
nkan02 and Jill make for the center rock band
Meetup climbers sticking to climber's left
Sea of clouds
Jill switchbacking up, skirting the center rock band
Jill nearing the first of a few false summits
Climbers on the ridge
Slope angle nearing the summit
It was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever had in the mountains. The sun was shining, the wind was light, and over our shoulders was a literal sea of clouds obscuring the lower valleys. Given the wet conditions, though, it was extremely hard work. I was pouring sweat. We topped out at about 11 a.m.
Steve approaching the top
Me on the summit
Goofing around with an OK view, I guess...
Steve celebrating his first trip up Quandary (my third)
Steve is recovering from a recent surgery and had decided to stash his skis with my snowshoes to save weight during the climb. We took in the excellent summit views for as long as we could (roughly 30 minutes), but wanted to start down before the afternoon sun made snow conditions even more dicey. We stuck to descender’s right, along the ridge a few others had climbed to avoid the deep wet snow in the middle of the couloir. It was mostly a plunge-stepping cakewalk, with the exception of one 30-foot section we downclimbed facing in and kicking steps.
Looking alllll the way down
Steve starting the descent
Me, about to start the 30-foot steep downclimb
Kickin' steps on down
We made it down to the base of Cristo shortly before 1 p.m. and reclaimed our snowshoes/skis. The hike out on the road sucked on extremely wet and heavy snow; Steve called it “one of the top five worst skis” he’s ever had. I slipped and slid and cursed as I sidehilled until the road finally evened out and I dashed to the car. We also passed a pretty sizeable slide that almost engulfed the road.
Last look up Cristo
Steve skiing on out while I hated life sidehilling on snowshoes
That wasn't there in the morning...
Yes, we summited. Yes, it was a glorious day – one of my Top 3 ever in the mountains. But driving back through Breckenridge at 2:30 p.m., sizeable wet slide activity was obvious nearly everywhere we looked. The snowpack isn’t what’s typical for mid-May, and climbing Cristo yesterday straddled the line of my acceptable risk. We were the only party on the route. Cristo probably needs a bit more time to set up, especially if you’re a skier (we did see about five people complete ski descents after climbing the East Ridge, but they too stuck near the rocks for the most part). I personally will be taking at least this next weekend off. Please be careful out there!