Eureka Mtn A - 13,507 feet
Hermit Pk A - 13,350 feet
Rito Alto Pk - 13,794 feet
Eureka Mtn A - 13,507 feet
Hermit Pk A - 13,350 feet
Rito Alto Pk - 13,794 feet
|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.
It took me almost exactly two hours to reach Hermit Lake, having passed the signed Hermit Lake trailhead and departing the road there.
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.
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.
I snowshoed to some exposed rocks at the bottom of a rib and transitioned to crampons and ice axe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I again continued north towards Hermit Pass, this time having to take some care on some moderate and bulletproof north facing snow.
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.
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.
The trail and road were both covered in hard ice but progress towards my turn-off was quick on the gentle terrain.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself)
Total distance: 17.06 miles
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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