TR: Snowboarding James Peak (13,294′)

PART ONE: Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The first of March brings about a turning point in my snow activities. After three solid months of ripping through endless powder lines at ski areas like Highlands, Vail, Breck, Keystone, Telluride, Steamboat, and Monarch, I slowly withdraw myself from the chairlifts and begin to think big…”teener” big.

For my first big mountain climb of the spring season, I chose a local classic: James Peak. This prominent mountain west of Denver is named after Dr. Edwin James, the botanist who happened to be the best climber of Stephen Long’s expedition of 1920. Among many prominent climbs, James is most known for his climb Zebulon Pike’s “highest peak”, on which he made the first successful summit of a 14er in Colorado. While the formal naming of that peak went to Pike, the peak that was named after James is no less important. In fact, with its intimidating east face complete with 5 classic snow routes, I believe it holds a much more important place in Colorado mountaineering history than Pikes Peak.

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James Peak, as my friend “Snowsavage” would say “Mini-AK, bro!”

On Tuesday, March 3, I made a solo attempt of James Peak. Because I was alone, I had no intention of challenging any of the couloirs on the east face. Instead, I planned to skin up St. Mary’s glacier and up the broad south shoulder of James Peak, and stop to check out the conditions of the couloirs.

I arrived at the trailhead around 10:30 and the weather was very clear. However, as soon as I started up the glacier, I encountered the wild winds that the front range is known for. I pressed forward, and as I crested the top of the glacier, I encountered two mountaineers taking a rest on their hike down. I stopped to talk to them a bit, exchanging stories. I was excited to hear about their successful climb of the Trough Couloir of Long’s Peak last week. As for James Peak, they told me they were planning to attempt a climb of the east face, but turned back due to high winds. I thanked them for the information and continued onward.

The bane of any skier or boarder attempting this route is the mile long flat, grassy tundra between the top of St. Mary’s Glacier and the foot of James Peak. The last time I had been here, during the much snowier winter/spring of 2007, we were able to skin across. This time, I had to remove my splitboard and hike across the meadow.

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Looking across the grassy tundra. Mt. Bancroft is on the left and James Peak on the right.

Although the hike was annoying, the scenery was beautiful, as I had some great views of surrounding mountains like Evans, Bierdstat, Grays, Torreys, Quandary, and even Pikes Peak far away in the distance.

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Gray’s Peak, Torrey’s Peak, and Grizzley Peak

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Pikes Peak, over 100 miles away!

Finally, I reached the foot of James Peak and was able to skin again. Unfortunately, the snow again ended after the first steep pitch. Since I wanted to check out the couloirs, I scrambled up to the southeast ridge to continue the climb on foot. As I groveled up the ridge, I first checked out Starlight, which had a few rocks in the middle of the entrance. Then I found the entrance to Shooting Star. Somehow, I had missed Sky Pilot, which I can never seem to find.

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Gaining the ridge for the first view of James Peak’s east face couloirs

Finally, I gained the summit of the mountain around 2:30. Although I’ve climbed this same ridge and splitboarded the Starlight Couloir before, I had never been to the summit until now. I celebrated my achievement and snapped some more photos of the Gore Range to the west, Arapaho Peak and Longs Peak to the north, and I even think I could see Mt. of the Holy Cross far away to the southwest.

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Summit achieved

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Shooting Star Couloir?

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Clear view of Denver!

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Is this Mt. of the Holy Cross? Someone help me out

The descent was less than perfect. The heavy winds had scoured the shoulder of the mountain, and most of my turns were made on the hardpacked snow. Then, as I had dreaded, I had to walk back across the grassy tundra to the glacier. On St. Mary’s Glacier I encountered the most interesting snow of all: sharp frozen waves of sastrugi. Because the top of the glacier wasn’t steep enough to toe-side my edge all the way down, I was forced to make turns all the way down. If I could describe it like anything I’ve done before, I’d say it is like trying to water ski on Lake Michigan. :thumpsup:

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Battling the relentless sastrugi

PART DEUX: Sunday, March 8, 2009

This time around, a partner recruited me to take the same ascent route, but attempt to descend the Shooting Star. This time, thanks to daylight savings time, we had more daylight and an earlier start. Unfortunately, 40 mph wind gusts made for an entirely different experience. On the glacier, the easterly wind was blowing snow straight down up on us, it was all that we could do to keep pressing forward, up the glacier and across the tundra.

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Three skiers moving up the glacier ahead of us

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Battling the wind up the glacier

On the south slope, there was a little bit more snow than there was five days earlier. Although I was able to skin up much farther than before, I still had to skin over some rocks that were barely covered with the light dust.

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View back towards my partner on the grassy tundra

We continued to press ahead, and the time was burning away. Because of our battles with the intense wind, it took almost six hours to move as far as it would normally take four hours. Finally, just a few hundred feet below the summit, we turned back. In the words of my partner “I felt a wind gust actually PICK ME UP OFF THE GROUND!”

Although I was pretty bummed about aborting Shooting Star, I thought we could at least do Starlight. However, my partner reminded me that we would again be battling the wind as well as waning daylight when trying to hike back up out of the bowl below the east face. Cutting our losses, we descended the shoulder and made the all-too-familiar walk across the tundra, and painful descent down the glacier. :(

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Close up shot of the east face

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View of the entrance to Starlight Couloir

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Superstar–the steepest of all the couloirs on the east face

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Pretty cool picture of Arapaho Peak in the foreground, and the flat-topped mountain behind it that reminds me of an ancient Mayan Temple: Long’s Peak

After my third trip up this route, I’ve written it off. If I had to advise anyone who is attempting the east face couloirs, I’d suggest the route from Mammoth Gulch out of Rollinsville. From that route, you get the advantage of actually seeing and climbing the couloirs, and can make the descent directly back to your car without dealing with the annoying flat tundra.

(and now…some new trip reporting tricks I’ve developed using this cool software my girlfriend bought me :headbang: )

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Route topo

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Route profile

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3 Responses to “TR: Snowboarding James Peak (13,294′)”

  1. Thomas Armento Says:

    Yeah, what an interesting day. I checked with my photos from last year, and that’s definitely Shooting Star (can’t say the same for Holy Cross though). We’ll definitely have to go back soon and just air it off the cornice on top of Super Star for bonus points.

  2. PiedType Says:

    I particularly enjoyed this report about James Peak. My brother built (literally) his house on the west side of Sugarloaf outside Boulder so that it faces James Pk. He must have had some great adventures up there. Your pictures are great, btw.

  3. Adam Reiner Says:

    Yes, once you can identify it from the great plains, its hard to miss James Peak. He must have had an awesome view of the east face.

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