Peak(s):  Rito Alto Pk  -  13,794 feet
Date Posted:  02/19/2016
Date Climbed:   02/14/2016
Author:  moneymike
 Rito Alto Winter Ski   

Location: Northern Sangre De Cristo mountains.
Summit Elevation: 13,794'
Minimum Elevation: 8,623'
Elevation Gain: 5,441'
Round Trip Distance: 17 mi
Round Trip Time: 8:26
Conclusion: Safe winter ski that's easily done as a day trip.

I couldn't find any info on whether this peak had any safe winter ski lines, so I thought I'd share my experience.

Rito Alto has a very obvious skiable line down it's aesthetic east face, but I considered this line to be out of the question this time of year, especially following the recent large snow fall and subsequent wind loading.

After a bit of research, I concluded that there could be a skiable line from the summit and down its low angle south face. The only question would be if the south face held snow or was too scoured.

At the south end of Westcliffe, I took CR 160 until I reached a well signed fork in the road. CR 160 was dry, but shortly after taking the left at the fork, the snow quickly became too deep for my vehicle. Only a snowmobile had recently made it further. I parked at the fork and began skinning up the snowmobile packed road, at 6:45 a.m.

I was able to make quick progress for the first three out of the eight miles, following the snowmobile track. After mile three, trail breaking was entirely on me.

Breaking trail with Eureka in the distance

The approach up the valley, to the saddle point to the south of Rito Alto Peak follows a jeep trail. I don't want to overcomplicate the approach since it is very straight forward, but I will mention a couple tips. The road is very low angle and if you are on skis, you can make your approach (and ski out) more direct by cutting several of the switchbacks (you might also find some nice powder skiing in the trees).

One other tip I will give is to leave the road at 11 800'. The road curves to the right, hugging the base of some steep slopes, but instead of following it, head south west through a flat section of meadows (check out the map at the bottom of the report). You can pick up the road again at the far end of the meadow. By doing this, you can avoid some potential avy slopes. Even if the avy danger is way low, you can avoid having to traverse somewhat steep slopes (that can be very annoying while skinning).

Leave the road here and head toward the flat ridge in the distance

The meadow at 11,800'

The road cuts across the base of these steep slopes

The road does cross two other major avalanche paths prior to 11,800', however, the slopes are south facing and low in elevation. Even with the above average snow pack, there wasn't nearly enough snow in the chutes to be concerned about an avalanche running to the valley. When the avy danger in the chutes is negligible, take the avy paths (sections with sparse and short trees) to cut the switchbacks.

Just above tree line, the road switchbacks up to the top of the ridge. The road is low angle and the slope was mostly wind scoured. There was no avalanche danger here, and I was able to skin a connected snow slope straight up to the top of the ridge.

Eureka's east face dominates the landscape

First view of Rito Alto near the top of the switchbacks

I followed the ridge to the Rito Alto/Hermit Peak saddle, where my moderately windy day came to an abrupt end. The air was warm, but the more-or-less sustained 50 mph winds forced me to cover up all exposed skin and move quickly up the ridge to the summit. I was, however, elated to see that the south face was covered quite nicely.

On the west side of the south ridge

Approaching the summit ridge

I made the summit in 6 hours 14 minutes.

After a few pictures, I transitioned and began the descent. I knew from my experience on the ascent, that the east face most likely had very reactive, thin hard slabs. So, I wasn't too keen on the idea of venturing too far onto the east face, to avoid the rocky, wind scoured west face. Fortunately, I was easily able to follow the long summit ridge on top or only slightly onto the east side (which is low in angle at the very top).

On the summit, looking south along the summit ridge

Peering over the loaded east face

At the south end of the summit ridge, I dropped down the south face, and skied moderately enjoyable low angle, sastrugi down to Hermit pass.

After a short boot hike back up to the pass, I put my skis back on and didn't have to remove them again until I got back to my car more than 7 miles away and 4,000' below.

With only a couple detours off the main road, this can be a very safe winter ski tour. I probably didn't need to make the detours, but since they didn't cause any real inconvenience, why not? Better safe than sorry. In fact, the only real concern for my safety, that day, were the consequences of not making it back home in time for Valentines day dinner (that's, actually, a danger not to be taken lightly, and it weighed on my mind all day). Fortunately, I made it back to the car by 3:11 p.m. and made it home early enough to avoid getting into any trouble.

I admit that my fear of the trouble I would get in if I didn't make it back home in time for Valentines dinner probably caused me to move a bit faster than the average hiker. However, the fact that I had to start as low and far away as possible during the winter, and still did it in about 8 hours suggests that this easily done as a day trip. Unless you are going out after a big storm, you are probably likely to be able to drive up to 9,000' elevation or slightly higher, which knocks off about 2.5 miles or more.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
02/19/2016 17:36
Enjoyed your report moneymike. Thank you for posting.


You're welcome
02/20/2016 08:41

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