Peak(s):  Eureka Mtn A  -  13,507 feet
Hermit Pk A  -  13,350 feet
Rito Alto Pk  -  13,794 feet
Point 12,671
Date Posted:  04/22/2021
Modified:  04/29/2021
Date Climbed:   04/10/2021
Author:  supranihilest
 Eureka!: A Brilliant Couloir   

Since it's now spring I have snow and couloir climbing to look forward to. Scrambles might have the number one spot on my list of mountain joys, but snow climbing is a close second. There's something so simple and beautiful about it, and couloirs especially are sometimes the most direct way up a mountain. It doesn't really get much better than stepping into a pair of crampons, grabbing an ice axe (or two, if steep enough!), and blazing one's own trail straight up a snowy peak.

I was thus inspired by Dad Mike's trip report for the Eureka! couloir, since there's not a ton of well known, great snow climbing in the Sangre. When conditions finally "green lit" the Sangre as being safe enough I drove down to Westcliffe and part way up Hermit Pass Road. I only made it as far as the National Forest boundary, which is six miles via the road from the pass. I also wanted to add Hermit Mountain A and Rito Alto Peak like Mike did, but instead of continuing on to Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak I would do Rito Alto Peak as an out and back and then add Point 12,671 along the east ridge between Hermit A and Rito Alto. Usually thirteeners are a higher priority for me, but I didn't want to orphan this poor twelver and it didn't make much sense to add it any other way, so I'd just have to come back for the other thirteeners. Climbing the couloir was the point anyway, so it was all good!

I woke up at 4am and was hiking at 4:30am. I generally despise these alpine starts despite knowing they're necessary and despite having extensive experience where an alpine start is the only way to success and where they lead to great days in the mountains. Nobody will ever convince me that getting up ass early still doesn't suck. I had both my snowshoes and mountaineering boots strapped to my pack, opting to begin the hike in trail runners. I figured the road would have melted and frozen and would make for a quick ascent to where I needed to turn off for the couloir. Trail runners would be faster and more comfortable than boots. I made good time up the road.

21010_01
Sunrise in the Sangre is always special.
21010_02
Early morning view of Eureka Mountain A. Eureka! couloir is the obvious one on that starts on the right and curves up and left.

It took me almost exactly two hours to reach Hermit Lake, having passed the signed Hermit Lake trailhead and departing the road there.

21010_03
Eureka on the left from Hermit Lake, with part of the couloir visible. My approach route to the bench went up the snow gully on the right. Left was potentially an option.

Shortly past the lake the snow began to turn crusty and punchy, and after just a few postholes I stopped and switched to boots and put on my snowshoes. With the sun beginning to come up the snow would soon be softening anyway, and I couldn't afford to have wet feet all day. I headed towards a snow covered wall between me and the benches below the couloir and had to curve back to a steep, snowy gully that made the most sense for access. This wasted a little bit of time - staying on the road probably would have been better, and I could have left higher up where the road met the bench. In any case I was able to keep my snowshoes on until I reached the lower of two benches, then I continued on slightly higher to the second bench.

21010_04
On the lower of two benches, with the upper dead ahead and a possible escape route if snow was poor or warming too quickly.
21010_05
Rito Alto Peak and Hermit Pass Road.
21010_06
Point 12,671.

This was another small mistake - the upper bench was canted slightly and meant a bunch of sidehilling in snowshoes. The lower bench was flat and would have been easier on the ankles. Both got me where I wanted to be, so it was of little consequence in the end.

21010_07
Irritating sidehilling.
21010_08
Getting closer, with basically the entire climb in view.

I snowshoed to some exposed rocks at the bottom of a rib and transitioned to crampons and ice axe.

21010_09
Looking up the bottom section of the couloir from my transition point.

With sharp spiky thingies on I began up the couloir. To this point the snowshoeing had been easy and the snow solid, so I expected that kicking steps up the couloir would be about the same. The wind sculpted snow provided just such great step kicking. One kick into perfect styrofoam, plunge the axe higher, kick with the other leg. Stability of the snow wasn't ever a question on this climb, even this early in the year.

21010_10
The mountains are always in motion.
21010_11
Perfect cups on the up and up.

I had made a mental map of the couloir before launching. It headed slightly left for a few hundred feet at the wide bottom, constricted and split at a wall, then headed farther left before swinging back right again.

21010_12
Above the wall.
21010_13
The majority of the right angling snow.

There had been several possible escapes to Eureka's north ridge along the way, but snow stayed good and I found myself in the upper bowl below the summit. There were a few different options to reach the summit from here, a scramble dead ahead or a thin finger of snow to the right. I crossed the exposed rocks and took the latter. The last 50 feet or so held sugary snow that required a little bit of wallowing, but it was minimal.

21010_14
Scrambles ahead and to the left, continuous snow on the right. I went right.
21010_15
Around rocks and up the snow.
21010_16
Tops out just a few feet from the summit.
21010_17
Looking down from the flat top out. Das juicy!

Eureka has two small summits of nearly identical height so I scrambled between the two and called it good. The wind had picked up top as well, so I threw on a shell before continuing north towards Hermit A.

21010_18
South towards the Crestones. The large ridge bump is not the second summit, as the two summits were maybe 50 feet apart at most.
21010_19
Point 13,054 and Groundhog Basin.
21010_20
North down the broad ridge to Hermit Peak A (top of the left mid-ground triangle), Rito Alto Peak standing high, and 12,671 just off frame to the right.
21010_21
13,020, 13,060 A, and 13,062 A to the northwest.
21010_22
Hermit Basin, with Hermit Pass Road, 12,671, and its descent route (long snow tongue from the summit) I took back to the basin.

Since it was pretty chilly up high I didn't stay longer than it took for some photos. The very top of the peak required a little bit of slabby Class 2+ scrambling to reach the tundra on the fat part of the ridge, and then it was all just walking on tundra (preferred) or snow to reach Hermit A.

21010_23
Down past the initial scrambles.
21010_24
Looking back up at Eureka A from the flats below.

The elevation drop between the two was significant, but because Hermit A was nearly 200 feet shorter than Eureka it wasn't a tremendous amount of gain to reach the former's summit.

21010_25
Easy terrain up Hermit A.
21010_26
Some sidehilling on broken rock to reach the summit at the far end.

Hermit A was easily the weakest of the four summits for the day. It was easy but felt like it was more in the way than anything, and didn't really offer much new in the way of views.

21010_27
Eureka A on the left.

I again continued north towards Hermit Pass, this time having to take some care on some moderate and bulletproof north facing snow.

21010_28
Snow that was as hard as a rock and continued to the pass.

I skidded down the snow to the pass, where I left my pack, and continued up Rito Alto. The reduction in weight was awesome, since carrying all that junk up a few peaks already had made me tired. The lower third or so of the ridge was dry, and when snow began it was consistent to the summit.

21010_29
Initially dry slopes up from the pass.
21010_30
Start of the snow.
21010_31
Nicely bootable snow.
21010_32
Summit.
21010_33
Peak of the Clouds in center and Pikes Peak far in the distance.
21010_34
Northern Sangre and southern Sawatch.
21010_35
13,020, 13,060 A, and 13,062 A from another angle.
21010_36
Eureka A and Hermit A have almost identical shapes.
21010_37
Crestones kissing the sky.

The wind hadn't relented so I quickly began my descent back to the pass. Only one peak remained, and I figured it was probably easy but didn't know much about it. Back at the pass it was clear I could follow the trail and road for a ways before heading east towards 12,671.

21010_38
From Hermit Pass, with 12,671 right of center. I followed the road to the first switchback.

The trail and road were both covered in hard ice but progress towards my turn-off was quick on the gentle terrain.

21010_39
Rito Alto's east face. Looks like it could make for some exciting skiing or snow climbing!
21010_40
Hermit A's east face.

Most of the ridge to 12,671 was easy, though there were two or three little bumps to scramble up and over. The western side of each was talus, and the eastern side of each contained some minor scrambling. The first was the most difficult and came in around Class 3 with snow.

21010_41
Class 3 down climb off one of the bumps. Head-on was too steep for my tastes, so I went down looker's left where the small bits of snow are.
21010_42
Typical terrain on 12,671's west ridge.
21010_43
More talus on this one than any of the others, which had significantly more snow cover.
21010_44
Last easy bit to the bulbous summit.

As a summit 12,671 was also kind of lame, but it provided the finest view of Eureka A and Eureka! couloir, and the only view of the full climb from basin to summit.

21010_45
Eureka! Brilliant!
21010_50
With route topo. Red is the route I took, blue would have saved some sidehilling on the upper bench, and green comes in from a switchback on the road.
21010_46
Hermit Peak and Rito Alto Peak from 12,671.

There were a number of options to get down from 12,671, all of which involved descending steep avalanche chutes into the basin (except returning the long way back to the road, which was far away in the wrong direction). Had I gone slightly west I could have descended a shorter amount before reaching the road, but as it were there was a massive chute immediately southeast of the summit that was dry enough for me to feel comfortable descending it, and it led directly to the road anyway. It was incredibly loose and somewhat steep, so I decided to try the snow after a few hundred feet, and that was waist deep slush. The margin between the two was pretty wet and miserable but better than pure snow or pure dirt.

21010_47
Normally an avalanche chute, this was also the quickest way down to the road.
21010_48
Avalanche chute from the road.

I stopped in the shade of a tree alongside the road and put on my snowshoes. What was solid snow in the morning was now deep, wet slop. I would be eating postholes for the next couple of hours even with snowshoes, but at least they weren't waist deep. I ground out the miles back to my van and packed up and headed for Boss Lake trailhead to climb Mount Aetna's Grand couloir the following day. Eureka! was a perfect start to spring snow climbing this year, and to that I say Eureka! Brilliant!


Statistics

Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself)
Trailhead: Hermit Pass Road, six miles below the pass at Forest boundary

Total distance: 17.06 miles
Total elevation gain: 6,930 feet
Total time: 10:26:47
Peaks: Three ranked thirteeners, one ranked twelver

  • Eureka Mountain A, 13,507'
  • Hermit Peak A, 13,350'
  • Rito Alto Peak, 13,794'
  • Point 12,671

Splits:

Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Forest Boundary Hermit Lake 2:00:15 2:00:15 0:00
Hermit Lake Base of Couloir 1:22:24 3:33:39 0:00
Base of Couloir Eureka Mountain A 1:06:45 4:29:23 6:56
Eureka Mountain A Hermit Peak 1:19:09 5:55:30 3:21
Hermit Peak Rito Alto Peak 0:48:50 6:47:40 0:00
Rito Alto Peak Point 12,671 1:31:36 8:19:16 0:00
Point 12,671 Forest Boundary 2:07:31 10:26:47 Trip End

Version history:

Date Notes
April 22, 2021 Initial publication.
April 29, 2021 Fixed typos.

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
weakenedwarrior
Amazing area
04/23/2021 13:21
Thanks for the report, I did the Rito Alto 4 Pass Loop last summer and this is such a beautiful area (once you get done with the road at least). I was wondering if there was a nice way to link up a bunch of the peaks in the area (from Rito Alto to Venable, going through 13,062, etc.) but it seems that there's just many and it would take a couple of trips to do so.



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