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Home / Articles / Adventure / Adventure /  Climbing Colorado’s couloirs
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Thursday, June 3,2010

Climbing Colorado’s couloirs

By James Dziezynski

By definition, a couloir is a steep gorge cut into the side of a mountain. Couloirs constitute the artistry of the hills, carving out massive grooves that often define the character of a mountain. Some peaks are lined with sheer vertical streaks, capped off with precarious cornices that loom like an alpine sword of Damocles, while others gently weave their way up with all the charm of a Chutes N’ Ladders shortcut. As winter snows fill couloirs, they become dangerous and exciting places. Avalanche and rock fall danger are amplified by diamondhard ice and punishing natural wind tunnels. But as spring’s warming sun condenses and bonds the unstable snowpack, FREE $25 Team Hat couloirs become a mountaineer’s delight. For those who frequent these snowy expressways, there is a particular thrill in climbing the ephemeral passages of Colorado’s grand peaks. With a little knowledge, gear and training, scrambling and climbing couloirs are in reach for those ready to evolve their hiking into mountaineering.

Where to start

Couloirs offer an exciting option for ascending many mountains that come with a certain level of risk. It is vital to have the ability to read snowpack and determine the avasee lanche potential on a given slope. The beauty of late spring is that much of the pack stabilizes as precipitation diminishes. While it doesn’t eliminate the potential for slides and rock fall, it does stack the odds in your favor. (Check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center at avalanche.state. co.us/index.php for up-to-date avalanche conditions).

In order to catch the safest window of couloir climbing, you have to be up long before the early birds. Camping out at the base of a route and beginning your climb pre-dawn is good style. The cooler night air chills out solar-radiated slopes and helps solidify slush. Waiting too long to get on the mountain can have perilous results. Even as early as 8 a.m., especially on south- and eastfacing slopes, the snow may be too mushy to hold protective pieces or to kick solid steps. Add to that, snowmelt often frees rocks and ice chunks that can hurtle down steep chutes with horrifying speed. Get out there early to ensure optimal conditions.

It always helps to go with a partner who has mountaineering experience. There are many places to get your mountaineering chops down. The Colorado Mountain Club and the Colorado Mountain School are two places to meet people and take courses to learn the basic skills of self-arrest with an ice axe, how to belay on steep snow slopes and how to place pickets and other essential pieces of protection. It is worth noting that many lowangle routes in Colorado don’t require ropes.

Gearing up

Besides the requisite snow-condition hiking gear (waterproof pants and shell, gaiters, etc.), you’ll need a few pieces of specialized mountaineering gear. Sturdy boots are a must.

Crampons (spikes you affix to your boots) are also necessary. Mountaineering crampons are often designed to attach to special boots, though there are quality crampons that can strap on to most types of winter footwear. An ice axe and leash are also required, along with the proper knowledge of how to use them. A climbing harness, helmet, avalanche beacon, snow pickets and an alpineready rope round out the technical gear. While not all routes require extensive rope skills, experience is vital for safety and confidence — start with more moderate and non-technical routes and work your way up.

For those who want to ski/snowboard down the couloirs they climb up, there are special skins and ski crampons available.

Colorado couloir primer

Once you have your skills down and your gear ready to roll, Colorado offers a myriad of incredible routes. Dave Cooper’s Colorado Snow Climbs is an excellent resource to help you find routes of all levels throughout the year. For a list of some wonderful intermediate couloirs that are close to the Denver/Boulder area, read on.

Skywalker Couloir on South Arapahoe Peak is accessed via the 4th of July Trailhead out of Eldora. The galactically named couloir has three different exit options and tops out on the 13,397-foot summit of South Arapahoe. Advanced climbers might want to try the North Star Couloir on North Arapahoe Peak and complete an exhilarating class 4 traverse between the north and south peaks.

Queen’s Way on Apache Peak can be reached via Brainard Lake and offers the perfect primer for those new to the mountaineering game. Once you’ve practiced your self-arrest skills on St. Mary’s glacier, head up to James Peak and try Sky Pilot Couloir, the mildest route on James’ east face. Advanced climbers can try Shooting Star or Super Star for more fun on James. Dragon’s Tail Couloir out of Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park reaches the summit of Flattop Mountain with a class 4 or 5 move thrown in for good measure when the conditions are right. Dreamweaver on Mount Meeker is another classic climb that may require a bit of rock climbing gear/skills in the mix.

Finally, 14ers have their share of awesome routes. Try the Holy Cross Couloir or Angelica on Mount of the Holy Cross. The Angel of Shavano on Mount Shavano is another all-time favorite with great ski descent potential. Getting out there and climbing the elegant lines of Colorado’s mountains is without a doubt one of the more thrilling experiences in the mountains — and the season is in full swing.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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