Posts Tagged ‘couloir’

Trip Report: Splitboarding Torrey’s Peak ‘Tuning Fork’

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Torrey’s Peak (14,267′)
“Tuning Fork” Couloir

‘Tuning Fork’ is a front-range classic. While it is not overtly steep and doesn’t have scary ‘no-fall’ cliffs to navigate, what makes this climb so challenging is its intense size. With a total elevation gain of almost to 3000′, this couloir provides one of the longest snowboard descents in Colorado. However, only those with the highest levels of endurance can reap the rewards of the descent.

I have snowboarded this line before. I remember a long, sustained slope. So long, in fact, that we encountered just about every different kind of snow condition: powder, crust, corn, and hard-pack. However, I’ve never climbed up this route (instead, we had skinned up the standard hiker’s route to the summit and dropped into ‘Tuning Fork’), so I had no idea if I had the endurance to make the entire climb.

My partner and I pulled off of I-70 at the Bakeville exit around 8:00. Fortunately, the road up to Grizzly Gulch was packed down by vehicles and snowmobiles, so we were able to drive up to the trailhead and save ourselves a few miles of skinning.

At the Grizzly Gulch trailhead, we could see the early morning sun start to light up the summit of Torrey’s Peak.

Torrey’s Peak in the morning sun. ‘Emperor’ is the craggy face in the center. ‘Tuning Fork’ is on the right, and flows down the diagonal grade along the western shoulder of the mountain.

Although my partner and I had discussed ‘Tuning Fork’, we hadn’t made the ultimate decision on whether or not to attemp the ‘Emperor’ . As we skinned up the gulch trail for a few miles, we could had an up close view of ‘Emperor’, and it looked very good. However, when we reached the base of it, we decided to continue on to ‘Tuning Fork’. (I look forward to coming back for ‘Emperor’).

While ‘Tuning Fork’ is somewhat hidden by the north ridgeline of the mountain, we didn’t see the magnitude of the line until we arrived at its base. There was a short, steep headwall directly at the start, and then a plateau. Beyond that, looming in the distance, the couloir climbed up towards the sky.

The couloir is named its distinct ‘forked’ shape

A close-up of the couloir

I thought at first we could skin up the moderate part of the mountain. However, the slope was steeper than I remembered, and shortly I traded my splitboard for my crampons and ice axe. I felt much more confident now, although I was worried as to how much the weight on my back would affect my stamina after a few hours.

At the base of the couloir, we were happy to discover that someone else had climbed it recently, and left us with a staircase already punched into the snow. No doubt that this sped up the first part of our climb.

When the couloir ‘forked’, the boot tracks went up into the right line. I chose to take the left variation, because it would come out closer to the summit and had an aesthetic ‘choke’ in the middle of it.

Approaching the ‘fork’

After we made it past the ‘choke’, it looked as though we were on the home stretch. My estimates couldn’t have been more wrong. The couloir steepened, and the remaining 1,000 feet of this climb felt like an eternity. After leading the entire climb up to this point, I moved over an allowed my partner to lead the final pitch.

At this point, I was almost completely gassed. I focused my eyes on the step directly above each foot, and counted off each step at a time, forcing myself not to look back up until I had reached twenty steps, and repeated. Every time I looked up, I felt discouraged. It looked as if the couloir would never end!

The end was in sight, but it never seemed to get any closer

Finally, we reached the end of the snow and I collapsed onto the Talus. Rocks never felt so comfortable! We still had a couple hundred feet to reach the summit, but I was relieved to take the splitboard off my back and scramble up, unburdened.

Although the most direct line to the summit would have been up to the west ridge, and then a short hike from there, I scrambled over to the ‘Kelso Ridge’ on the east side, to scope out the entrances to ‘Emperor’ and ‘Dead Dog’. (which, as I discovered both top out in the same location on each side of ‘Kelso Ridge’) After checking them out, I made the short walk up to the summit and took in the view.

I was all alone on the summit. However, when I hiked back down a few feet to check on my partner, and then returned, I almost fell off the mountain in surprise when four other residents suddenly materialized on the summit!

Four gendarmes guarding the summit

The team achieving the summit

View to the west of the 10-Mile Range and Breckenridge ski area. In the center, far off in the distance, is Pacific Peak

It was nearly 4:00 by the time we left the summit. It had taken us nearly 5 hours just to bootpack the couloir.

As we scrambled down the steep talus to our ski gear, the locals kept on eye on our safety

Looking down at the descent

While we encountered a few clouds during the climb, the weather had held for us all the way to the summit. However, it didn’t appear as though the sun had warmed up the snow surface much, so we were forced to descend on some variable conditions (reminicent of my previous descent on this line).

Like before, the middle section of the couloir held the best snow, and the angle was moderate enough to take a few high speed turns with associated ‘whooping’ along with them.

Making turns down the couloir

Approaching the ‘choke’

The descent was so long, we had to stop to take a few breaks. Finally, we reached the bottom and returned to the snow-covered road. We reached the car roughly 8 hours after we left it in the morning, totally gassed out. ‘Tuning Fork’ is not a climb for the faint of heart or weak of legs. However, the rewards are worth it on one of the most classic descents in Colorado.

Also worth noting was that I had realized early in the morning that we were climbing this route on March 20: the last day of winter. This gave me a strong boost of motivation, to make my first ever ‘winter ascent’ of a 14er.



TR: Snowboarding James Peak (13,294′)

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Summit achieved

Shooting Star Couloir?

Clear view of Denver!

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:

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.

Three skiers moving up the glacier ahead of us

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.

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. :(

Close up shot of the east face

View of the entrance to Starlight Couloir

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

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: )

Route topo

Route profile

Dragon’s Tail Couloir

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

February 16, 2008 

Thousands of people from all over the world come to visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year. Ninety-nine percent of those people have no idea the quantity, quality, and caliber of extreme skiing & snowboarding that God has given us there. It is not just my favorite place to ski and climb, but also just to hike and enjoy the scenery. The thing that sets this backcountry destination apart from the millions of acres of national forest and wilderness areas is that every one of those visiting tourists pays a fee that goes into a system of improvements that creates some of the most easily accessible snowriding lines in the state.  Since we live 150 miles apart during the week, my girlfriend and I wanted to get away somewhere special for the weekend after Valentine’s Day. I quickly thought of the Park, since I hadn’t been there in almost a year, and I’ve never been there in mid-winter.

Excited about ripping some new terrain, I started researching some mellow lines off of Flat Top Mountain. However, past TR’s about the Dragon’s Tail Couloir caught my attention. As I did more and more research, I discovered that while the Couloir was mostly traveled in the spring snowpack, it WAS possible to ski the line in Winter, under the right conditions. A quick call to the Burly Dude confirmed my suspicions. Apprehensive about the current snowpack, my mind was made up when I was directed toward Eli Helmuth’s website,, an EXCELLENT resource for up to date information about the Park. 

Off to a late start, we arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot around 11 AM. However, the skies were clear and I knew we had a short approach, so I was not worried.  Bear Lake sits at an elevation of 9475 feet and is the final stop on the Beaar Lake Road, which makes it one of the most heavily visited areas in the Park. It was no suprise to me that we saw dozens of people of all types unloading snowshoes out of their minivans and SUVs. All eyes were on us as we pulled up in the Subaru and started unloading snowboards, ice axes, and a climbing rope. “Only in the Park”, was an expression I frequently told my partner.

Gearing up in the crowded parking lot.
From the trailhead, there is a well marked trail that heads from Bear Lake to Dream Lake, and then finally Emerald Lake. In the winter this snowshoe trail has many offshoots that people have taken to other places, but with a little navigation we were able to make it to Emerald Lake by 1:30. The view of the upper cirque from the lake was incredible. Far up the valley we could see Hallet Peak (a classic trad climbing destination) and Tydall Glacier (a classic spring ski).

Snowshoeing towards Emerald Lake. Hallet Peak rises on the left; Tyndall Glacier farther up left-center. The Dragon’s Tail is the middle of the three jagged spires in the center, with the obvious couloir up the right side.

From Emerald Lake, we branched off North of the main valley and set forth up the apron towards the Couloir. On the way, I talked to some skiers that had come down the upper gorge, and learned that the snowpack was bomber, although the ski conditions were variable. No one had ventured up the Dragon’s Tail today.
Looking at the couloir from Emerald Lake
We made it up the steep apron on snowshoes and stopped under a large boulder. I decided to rope up for a variety of reasons, and we entered the couloir at 2:00. I had mandated a 4:00 turnaround time, so ensure that we would be back to the car by sunset, and I had good plans to top out by that time.
Beginning the steep section

The Dragon’s Tail was much steeper than I had originally thought. I knew that it had been warm the day before, and wasn’t surprised to find a thin “melt-freeze” layer on top of the snow. This made for excellent climbing, but I was less enthusiastic about the snowboarding conditions. No worries, it would still be we worth the effort to ride the classic line. As my partner and I switched leads all the way up, I marveled at the majestic scenery around us. I kept my eye on the top of the couloir: the blue skies had started to haze over with clouds.

Inside the couloir, looking up at the clouds moving in.

By 4:00 we had just made it to the part of the couloir that splits into two opposing diagonal lines. We were completely exhausted (I had really underestimated this thing!) The sun was gone and it was snowing, so we made an easy decision to ride down from that point. The descent was steep and fun! While there were crusty spots, I was excited to find patches of powder dispersed throughout the couloir.

V, starting her descent

We rode down a good 1000 vertical without incident, and then made the flat trek across the frozen lake as the snow fell harder and harder. Not wanted to get lost in a whiteout, I hastened up the pace, only to slip on the ice (should have bought those Malamutes!) and land directly on my left shoulder. Crying out in surprise, I was lucky not to have broken anything, and I slowly crawled back up to the laughter of my partner.

The author

It was almost 5:00 by the time we headed out, which was good because the previously crowded snowshoe trail was now empty. Once more, a nice fresh layer of snow had fallen on it, which made it an excellent little luge ride on the snowboards and back to Bear Lake. From the car, I looked up towards the Dragon’s Tail and could barely make it out in the storm high up above tree line.

“Damn,” I said, “I sure am glad we’re not still up there!”


On Sunday, we took a much less burly hike up Flat Top Mountain Trail and rode some incredible terrain right in front of Bear Lake. The powder here was excellent, and the cliff-hucking opportunities were endless.

The “Terrain Park” in front of Bear Lake, and the Dragon’s Tail rising far out above.