Peak(s):  Quandary Peak  -  14,265 feet
Date Posted:  05/10/2009
Modified:  05/11/2009
Date Climbed:   05/09/2009
Author:  centrifuge

 A Busy Day on Cristo  

Since the brilliantly extended snow climbing season in 2008, I have been itching to get this season started, and have really wanted to introduce some of my buddies the wonder that is spring couloir climbing. Both have an incredible amount of summer mountaineering experience, but had always stayed away from snow climbs, which I thought was a total shame. Of course, the climb that was at the top of the list was Cristo Couloir. I was familiar with it from the climb I had done June 2008, and felt good about its combination of good runout, moderate angle, and the amount of climbing provided. If all went well, I knew that this would start a snow climbing addiction for them.

Given the fact that this would be the first snow climb Mike and Mike (Wiz) had done, making sure it was in good weather was fairly important to me. This weekend presented the first combination of good weather and availability we had for a the past 2 months, so we jumped to take advantage of it.

We were supposed to meet up at 345am, but because I am chronically 10 minutes late to everything, so we all met up at the Stegosaurus Commuter Lot just outside Denver at 355, and headed off. We were really happy with our choice to take a 4-wheel drive vehicle as Wiz drove his truck over snow banks that would have incapacitated my little Honda Fit. We stopped to pick up a climber who was walking the road before reaching the snow bank that blocked the road. The best news of the day was the fact that we made it to the turn off for the lower lake, and the Dam was within spitting distance.

This photo was taken after our climb, but the red circle shows the place where 4x4's had to call it quits

We got our gear together, and headed out at 6am, making short work of the hike up the road. When we got to the dam, we quickly decided to climb up the rock instead of donning our crampons there and climbing up the snow next to the dam. I was certain if we did, we would end up dry tooling until we reached the start of the climb. As we approached the bottom of climb, we could see a large number of people already making their way up Cristo.

mike getting his crampons on before hitting the couloir

Wiz taking a quick break while I messed with my camera a little ways up

The climb started on solid snow that stayed with us through most of the ascent. The most interesting moment of the day was a climber who was glissading down the lost control and took quite a dramatic tumble and flipped completely out of control for at least 50 feet. He was very lucky that he came to a stop before he hit any rocks, and that he walked away without any major injuries. His stopping point was only 20 feet from where we were taking a quick break at about 13,000ft. We made sure he and his partner had things under control before Wiz climbed up to collect the gear that he had lost on his way down. We asked several times if he was alright, and if they needed any other help before moving on. This served as an excellent reminder that no matter how straight forward a climb is you can loose control and potentially get very hurt with little or no warning.

Mike and Wiz climbing to lower half of the Coulior

Looking down to the dam from the same spot as the above photo

As we approached the rock band area, the effects of the sun baking the snow pack was starting to have an effect. I took a second to knock out a couple photos of a large CMC group that was making their way past the false summit at the top of the couloir.

The CMC Group heading over the false summit

Mike taking a quick break at the rock band area while I jacked around with my camera again

Mike and Wiz heading out for the last section to the summit (just past the false summit you can see in this photo

We pushed ourselves to get as quickly as possible to the summit given the softening snow pack. We were greeted at the summit by a nice breeze, and a well deserved break. One of the CMC climbers was kind enough to take a photo of the 3 of us before we headed down.

Left to Right: Wiz, Mike, Me at the Summit

The short time we had spent on the summit had given the snow enough time to soften significantly. We down climbed to about 13,200ft before beginning our glissade. It did not take long to get down, and unfortunately, Mike lost his crampons out of his pack at some point during the lower part of the glissade, but we did not realize this until we were back at the truck. Overall, it was a great first snow climb of the spring season on Cristo!

A photo of the Coulior from the dam taken after we got down


Wheeler Peak as seen from the dam

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

I am that guy
02/05/2011 00:22

This is a nice report and a good description of the conditions and the day. I am the guy you reference who lost control during the glissade. Your warning is an excellent reminder, and a point anyone climbing on snow should heed. As much as you know in your head how to arrest and what to do to maintain control, if you do lose control it will be virtually impossible to regain it.

It is rare in life that we have learning experiences where we teeter on the verge of disaster and learn from a mistake without experiencing the negative consequences. Since Saturday I’ve reflected on my circumstance and replayed my recollection of what happened, and the thoughts that ran through my mind.

I was about ½ a second too late in setting my pick into the snow when I rolled over to arrest. Being just a split second too late, my axe extended above my torso, and in this position it is virtually impossible to exert enough force to arrest. Since the angle was extended, I lost grip on my axe. I use Craig Connally’s recommended tether leash (The Mountaineering Handbook, p. 188 ) and attach the lanyard to my climbing harness HMS carabiner. Reflecting on my tumble, the fact that the lanyard had sufficient length extending from my waist, the axe dragged behind and remained below my feet. As I tumbled I was aware of the danger of a flailing axe, but somehow it never struck my legs, torso, or head.

I think the entire slide probably lasted about 6 or 7 seconds, and I estimate I reached a speed of maybe 30 mph. Once I lost grip on my axe I somehow flipped around so I was sliding downhill, headfirst, with my helmet providing protection. Two thoughts flashed through my mind in rapid succession – first – “you are going way too fast and have lost control", and second – “this is not a good scenario – there is a rock outcropping below you." It was about that time that I tried to relax, and then began the tumble. The force of the tumble pulled off one of my gloves and tore my glasses from my face. One of my climbing partners postulated that the chunks of snow from a previous skier probably slowed me, and kept me from the rocks. I came to a stop about 15 feet to the side of the rock outcropping. At one point when I realized I was not in control another thought flashed through my mind - “this must be what it is like to be caught in an avalanche."

By God’s grace I walked away from this accident with no broken bones, no injuries, and only a couple of bruises...


I am that guy - (part 2)
11/30/2010 17:28
Wanting to learn from this experience and provide others the opportunity to learn as well, here are a few recommendations:

1. Always wear a helmet, gloves, and other appropriate clothing.
2. Arrest at the onset of any glissade, and never lose control of your axe.
3. If you start to lose control, do whatever you can to minimize your surface area on the snow. Had I attempted a Hands-only self-arrest, I perhaps could have regained control. However, it all happened so fast that I couldn't even think about exercising this technique.
4. Never glissade while wearing crampons. Had I been wearing mine, I probably would have broken a leg.
5. Practice, practice, practice! Choose a location to practice that has a moderate slope and ample run out with no obstacles. Consider placing duct tape over the pick and adze before you practice (a recommendation from Connally).
6. Practice with others, observe one another, and provide feedback.

For others in the couloir last Saturday that witnessed my tumble – learn from me, and do everything you can to avoid my mistakes.


I‘m glad...
11/30/2010 17:28
you made it down safely, it looked like one helluva fall! It's actually really nice to hear what had happened because it was hard to tell what precipitated the slide from where we were. Thank you for adding this to the comments in my report as a way for people to learn from what happened.

Ridge runner

02/01/2011 00:24
Glad you are ok and thanks for posting what happened. But I did have a question about your #3. I have never heard of trying to minimize surface area on the snow... is that to increase the pressure of the points that are touching? I‘m guessing that it‘s related to arching your back away from the slope to increase pressure on the ice axe as it‘s digging in?

Centrifuge, nice report and great photos!


RE: #3
05/12/2009 13:32
You are correct in that when you minimize your surface area it provides points with significantly more pressure digging into the snow. I have heard to use elbows and knees.
Glad you are ok!
Nice report and just so you know I am really jealous that you have already gotten to climb snow and I keep getting stuck working! See you on Memorial day weekend!


To slynn - minimizing surface area on snow
05/13/2009 12:48
SLynn - Regarding your inquiry about my #3 - this also comes from Craig Connally in The Mountaineering Handbook (ISBN 0-07-143010-5). In Chapter 16, Climbing on Snow and Ice, he has a good discussion of arrest techniques - hands-only, ax, and trekking pole arrests (pp. 196-201). Just before his discussion of the Hands-only arrest technique (which he considers to be most effective), he gives this recommendation - Try not to end up as you often see illustrated: lying flat on the snow and thereby turning your body into a sled, which minimizes stopping power. Don‘t waste time if you lose your grip or if your ax pulls out. Instead, get your body prone, facing uphill, as rapidly as possible and dig in your toes and hands; get your butt up so your stomach is off the snow. In other words, initiate a hands-only self-arrest.
In my description above of the initial moments losing control when I lost the grip on my ax; had I been able to react in a slit second and apply this technique, no doubt I would have averted the fall. Connally spends about a page describing the hands-only self-arrest, and also exhorts his readers to practice, practice, practice. His point is this: if you have to run through a mental process of how to arrest it is too late; you have already built up dangerous speed. I can attest to that - by the time I was thinking I was out of control, moving fast. He encourages practice so you can ”execute it reflexively.”

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