Peak(s):  South Arapaho Pk  -  13,397 feet
Date Posted:  06/07/2010
Modified:  06/09/2010
Date Climbed:   06/05/2010
Author:  centrifuge
 Skywalker in the Wind  

As Kelly and I left Denver at 330am, were both a little bit concerned about the heat that had hung around during the evenings, and how that might have affected the snow on Skywalker Couloir. It had been the prime topic of conversation most of the week, as we looked at the forecast daily hoping it would change and give us a solid freeze. Checking the morning of the climb, the National Weather Service reported it was only going to get down to 46 degrees, but there would be wind.

We decided to head up anyway, and if the snow was crap, hit the standard route up South Arapaho. We had forgotten about the closures on Highway 36, delaying us quite a bit, and pulled into the parking lot at the Fourth of July Trailhead at 530am, and it was warm. I asked some climbers heading out and they confirmed 50 degrees. Frustrated, I was ready to say screw it and leave my heavier mountaineering boots in Kelly's truck, but it took very little convincing for me to be ready to give it a shot.

Normally, I really dislike strong winds. But as we moved up the trail, the wind was like a siren song telling us that maybe it combined with the clear skies overnight had let the snow re-freeze. As Skywalker came into view, its dramatic line, cutting through the face of the mountain.

Skywalker is in the distance, the line running up the peak

We stopped at the bottom to put on our crampons as quickly as possible, and counted 5 climbers on the couloir, and 2 that were just starting. The wind was blessing us with some powerful gusts that were moving the heat off the surface of the snow. I was actually doing a good enough job, that both Kelly and I were forced to add layers as we geared up.

Kelly entering the couloir

The nice thing about having so many climbers ahead is boot tracks. They were just deep enough to make it easier, but the snow was solid enough that I still felt the needed to add a little bit of a kick.

Kelly 80% of the way up, the exit is above her

Kelly took this photo of me as I caught up to her from the photo above. You can see the runnel in the background

The lower half of the climb was mellow, and cluttered with rock fall debris. A 3 foot wide, 3ish feet deep runnel split the lower half of the couloir. While I felt like I was moving slow due to the stabbing pains that plague my toes on climbs like this we were moving closer to the climbers ahead, and could see them get closer to each other as they made their way up the exit pitch. The sun briefly made an appearance, but was quickly obscured by the clouds that were blowing in from the West. We pushed through with no breaks, stopping only to take out our second tools at the last large rock before the exit pitch.

As we made our way over to the center of the pitch so that we could move as quickly as possible up the final steep stretch of snow, I caught sight of a skier standing at the top of the shoot above us. I was praying that at this point, he would let us finish. He was directly above us, and with only 50 feet to the bottom of the shoot that creates the exit I knew that anything knocked loose, or if he were to fall we would be the direct beneficiaries, and unfortunately I was proven correct.

As he moved to make his first two turns I watched snow sluff and start to move, but it wasn't so bad at first. I envisioned him cutting climbers right to keep himself from coming down on top of us, but I was very wrong as I watched him make cuts directly above me, the last of which broke several inches of sluff loose. As I watched the snow slide onto me, I leaned hard on my axe, and watched my hands disappear under the snow as it slid past, praying that this wouldn't trigger a larger slide. As the snow settled, Kelly, myself, and the skier were all ok and the snow slide was limited to the sluff that make up the top crust of the snow. This was with out any doubt the most anus cinching moment I have had on any climb in years. The skier apologized, and it was obvious he meant it. He explained that he had thought the snow would be firmer then it was and It was clear to me he had no idea that it was going to send that much on top of us. This made me feel better, and killed the intiaial anger I felt. However, the experience gave me the adrenaline to power through the last stretch of steep climbing.

Looking back at Kelly just after I took lead, she was standing on some nasty snow there

Photo by Kelly (Moonstalker) of me as I passed

Photo by Kelly (Moonstalker) of the last little bit to the exit

Looking out at the skyling one we entered the section the is framed by 2 cliff bands, one on either side

Kelly topping out

I took lead since Kelly wanted to get some shots, and while the second tool was not necessary, it made movement much faster as I moved past the steepest section, about 60 degrees. We had to kick our own steps at the top, as most of the previous tracks had been filled in by the skiers descent and topped out on the summit at 10am.

We had originally planned on making the traverse over to N. Arapaho, but the winds quickly changed our minds. Instead we chatted for quite a while with a couple of friendly climbers that had topped out ahead of us for a bit and headed down. On the way down, the highest gust Kelly measured was 49mph, but she was not able to get any of the ones that knocked us over. There was definitely something headed our way, and we could see clouds that resembled August noon time mountain thunderstorms building and headed our way. We made quick work of coming off the ridge, glissading most of the way to the base. The only casualty of the climb that day was my First Ascent beanie that got taken clean off my head by one of those gusts, it peeled it right off my head and I watched helplessly as it spun wildly with the wind away from me and out of sight. I really liked that beanie!

This last photo was taken from the bottom of the ridge looking back, nice clouds rolling in! There is a close up, and then a pano behind it



We took our time, taking a nice break on the way down to adjust layers and eat some food. The snow was amazingly stable, and I was glad the snowshoes stayed at home. Most of the trail below treeline was dry, and the snow that was there held our weight well. Overall it was an amazing day in the Indian Peaks Wilderness!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions

A Great Day and Report
06/07/2010 15:43
You bumped into my friend and I as we were strolling back to the TH and chatted a bit. The wind nixed our plans to head over to N Arapaho also, but at the same time glad to have them with the warm temps. I guess it gives us a good reason to go back. Great pics of the day!


What is the condition of Fourth of July road?
06/07/2010 17:54
Is there still snow on it?


06/07/2010 18:57
@ pioletski - had he been a jerk about it, that would be a different story, but he apologized, and was totally cool about it which makes me feel a lot better about it. No reason to hold a grudge. Unfortunatly by the time we saw him up top, there really was only one safe area for him to be and it was to our right (his left) and that is where we assumed he would go, but for all I know the snow dictated where he went.

@ Heather - it was a great day! I think one of the photos I have has you guys way above us, but its hard to tell who is who.

@ WSN - nope, its clear of snow all the way to the trailhead


Lots of people up there!
06/07/2010 18:59
Nice climb! Skywalker looked crowded. The same day I headed over solo to do Snow Lion on Jasper but there were a number of wet slides on the upper face and poor snow lower that made me turn tail and run. I wished I had gone for Skywalker instead

moon stalker

Wind was the salvation of the day
06/07/2010 19:11
Even though the wind prevented us from going after N Arap, it‘s certainly why we were still able to do the climb with high temps over night.
That skier scared the livin crap out of me, that was seriously the most scared I‘ve even been in the mountains. He was nice about it, but still. I‘m glad I had two tools. Even though we didn‘t need it for the climb, it was really nice to hang on with two hands when that sluff hit us. I couldn‘t see how much was coming, so I wasn‘t sure if we were going to get knocked of or not. I‘m really glad it was just a few inches.
Anyway, it was a fun day. I wish I could have gotten some of those gusts that blew us over, but I was more concerned about breaking my fall than holding up my wind meter!
Sorry your climb got foiled Ryan. I was telling Trevor there was a climb on the other side that had something to do with a lion, now I don‘t have to look in the book to remember what it was called!


thanks everyone :)
06/08/2010 05:33
@ Kelly - breaking the fall is a way better idea!

@ Misirlija - no, I decided to use the money on a trip for me and my wife, delaying th South America trip to Acon in December 8)

@ Alpinista - I certainly would not claim to know for certain, but it makes sense to me.

moon stalker

I think the wind was helpful
06/08/2010 13:26
Alpinista, what you said makes sense, and honestly I can‘t come up with a reason that‘s it‘s not correct, except the following observation. The previous week, Friday night of memorial day weekend, the forecast did not call for freezing and it was not windy. I did the loft that Sat, and I can guarantee the snow was a lot worse. I WOULD NOT have climbed slywalker with similar crappy snow. Yet, the following weekend, with very similar forecast (acutally a few degrees warmer) but high winds, the snow was in much better condition. So, any armchair meteorologists out there that can explain?
Pilotski, yes we had a good day, and didn‘t dwell on what happened with the skier. Honestly, it‘s just nice to vent a little.


Use the force!
06/08/2010 18:34
As Skywalker was one of my more significant first serious snowclimbs back in the day, it still remains one of the most memorable and favorites. Thanks for posting this, glad everything turned out well. Beautiful photos!


Right on, Centrifuge -
11/30/2010 17:28
sounds like you both handled it well. Just sayin'. And I‘m glad you didn‘t let it ruin what sounds like a good day.


Nice little TR
11/30/2010 17:28
...of an area that has a lot to offer. South Arapaho was one of my first summits and will always be special to me. Some year I'll have to get back up there and climb this couloir. This year, I'm looking forward to the traverse to N. Arapaho, maybe in July.

I like your last photo of the rugged face of South Arapaho. Good TR, thanks.

Wind and temps
11/30/2010 17:28
Just a bit of a clarification (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong), but IIRC wind is actually a bad thing if you're hoping for firm snow conditions during a warm spell. On a clear night, much of the important heat transfer from the snowpack is through radiation to the night sky. This results in an air layer close to the snow that is colder than the ambient temp. Wind mixes the warmer air down to the snow surface which reduces freezing.

The wind makes, for example, 46 degrees *feel* colder to you because it increases the heat transfer FROM your warm (98.6 degree) body. The same effect increases heat transfer TO the cold (32 degree) snow and air layer near the snow surface.


01/05/2011 17:27
Nice job Trevor!
Are you heading down to Ecuador this summer?

Ridge runner

wind and temps...
02/01/2011 00:24
Alpinista and Kelly, from what I know about how wind affects the snow: it all depends. It mainly comes down to the temperature of the air and the temperature of the snow/ground. If the air is colder than the ground, wind is good. If the air is warmer than the ground, wind is bad. When you have a warm, sunny day followed by a cool night, winds will help transfer the heat from the ground to the open air, thus making the snow firmer. The ground/snow/rock can act as a heat sink and it takes them a while to lose their heat; wind helps that process (provided that the air is cooler than the ground).

Anwyay, congrats to Trevor and Kelly for a fine snow climb. Too bad you couldn‘t get the traverse, but glad to hear you made it safely.


02/05/2011 00:22
Good job, nice choice of line... gotta say, however, I'm not impressed with the skier's behavior. It's not kosher for him to be making turns directly above a climber, even if he thinks the snow is stable - there's always slough, and if he falls or ejects a ski you're in the firing line. However, there's no getting around the fact that sometimes there are climbers and skiers in the same line. In Europe it's simple, you go anyway and then have a loud raucous argument involving multiple languages so nobody understands what anyone else says. Here (ideally), communication is key - the skier should let the climber know that he is ready to ski, and wait; meanwhile the courteous (and safe) thing for the climber to do is to move aside into a safe zone and let the skier pass. I've only seen this happen a couple of times, though. FWIW.

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