James Peak, Starlight Couloir

On Saturday I hooked up with some folks from the Colorado Mountain Club to head up James Peak and scope out some couloirs. The experts in the media were scaring the whole city into thinking another blizzard was headed our way. However, we set out on 6th Ave at 5:30 AM and it was already a very calm 60 degrees without a cloud in sight.We headed towards the trailhead at St. Mary’s glacier, which is up a winding road north of Idaho Springs, past dozens of beautiful valley houses (many for sale). We hit the trailhead almost at 7, a bit later than we had planned, and well after sunrise.
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“That’s the Dragonforce!!” the Burly Dude said. “Turn it up!”..and so we did, making sure it was loud enough to generate a buzz into any of the surrounding skiers and mountaineers, and canines that were already amass at the trailhead. Strapping on the climbing skins, we headed up to the lake below St. Mary’s glacier, already scoping out lines that we planned to hit 8 hours later, under a presumed bright and clear late afternoon sun.

Heading up St. Mary’s Glacier

To get to the shoulder of James Peak, we took an obvious route up around St. Mary’s onto an endless apline tundra. For the next 2 hours, we hiked along the plateau, talking, laughing, taking in the panoramic views of Mt. Evans, Grays, Torrey’s, the Front Range, and beyond. The Burly Dude spoke again of the unavoidable onslaught of weather that was in store for us, but I didn’t believe it. I was certain that the bluebird sky would last throughout the day.

What’s up Dogger?

Summit in sight

Gray’s & Torrey’s

At around 9:30 AM we hit our first roadblock. Not a physical terrain roadblock, but rather a battle of conflicting opinions about the route. 6 people is a lot to keep together on a ski mountaineering trip. It is more that I’ve personally dealt with, so when the egos started to fly, I just sat back and watched it unfold. The resulting route planning discussion should be studied many times by anyone looking to head into the backcountry with a group of heated minds.After finally settling the issue we headed up the ridge towards the summit. For the first time that day, at around 11 AM and well near 13,000 feet, was the first time that entire day that I had to put on my softshell jacket. The clouds were starting to roll in, and for the first time that morning I started taking this shit seriously.The plan was to hit the Starlight Couloir, a narrow chute on the side of James Peak. Looking over the edge of my skis almost made me a little uneasy. But I got this far, and there was no other way I was going down the mountain but via the couloir. I was also snowboarding with an ice axe in hand for the first time.

Looking down Starlight

The Burly Dude jumped down the couloir first, and after a very quick kick turn, all we heard was a very loud icy scrape from the edges of his Burton! “No worries” he said, there would be sweet soft pow below. Bri-guy followed on skies and I took the rear on the Voile. We started off by riding from safety spot to safety spot. About 300 feet down, the tail of the Burton finally let loose and sprayed white fluffy flakes of snow onto the rocks beside. The whole middle section of the couloir had great snow, and at what seemed like at least a 45 degree slope. The kick turns gave way to fast quick cuts in the surf. After the third stop, we bombed the skirt down to the valley below, and looked back up at the behemoth mountain above.
James Peak from the cirque below
After meeting up with the rest of the group, and making sure to get in
plenty of more turns, we started to head back out, when the weather finally hit. Suddenly the bright blue tundra that we traversed a mere hours before had become a blanket of white. White snow, white sky, with nothing to differentiate the two, other than the faint outlines of my comrades ahead, leading the way down to safety.
The remains of a 90′s model pickup truck. Strange!
Navigating in a white out was very sketchy, but a great learning experience. After making out the brown boulders of “Argument Rock” we were able to navigate out, bomb the planks down St. Marys, and back to the parking lot.

Thanks to www.mountainproject.com for hosting my pics! Please visit their site and contribute!

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