With a solid snow year and warm temps in late March, the ski mountaineering season has kicked into gear here in the Elk Mountains of Aspen. An additional stream of unsettled weather in early April has also touched up the alpine, making opportunity for prime days on beautiful lines.
Nathan Baier and I had talked about putting together a two day locals ski mountaineering program. Yesterday we decided to give the classic line the Pearl Couloir a go – off the shoulder of Cathedral Peak.
When we drove up Castle Creek in the dark, flurries fell here and there but the stars shone through the thin clouds. At the abandoned town of Ashcroft a dusting of snow lay on the ground and skiers milled around with headlamps shining.
Lucky for us the weekends’ forecasted storm had been a bit of a dud, leaving at most 6 inches of snow in certain parts of the zone and the last bit of snow over Saturday night came with very little wind. Temperatures got cold, as well, with the top of Snowmass ski area reading 15 F when I checked the weather stations at 4 am.
As we set out skinning quickly down the road towards the Pine Creek Cookhouse we both agreed that with the good snow conditions it might be worthwhile to do a link up beyond the Pearl Couloir to get a little more out of the day. I was eager about the idea but also weary and thought to myself, “lets just see how the first objective goes.” After all I expected there to be dry snow in the Pearl Couloir rather than the more trustworthy melt freeze; and what if we saw something we did not like in the snow stability…
We soon arrived at the Cookhouse and skinned west into the dark aspen forest finding and loosing the summer trail here and there as we worked higher into Pine Creek. Soon the alpine-glow shone on Malamute Peak as we worked up and around cascading steep sections of the valley toward Cathedral Lake.
Once in the alpine we skinned over the frozen snowed-in lake toward the base of the Pearl Couloir. The clouds hung on through the morning making it a bit tricky to find the exact entrance to the Pearl, with the many couloirs and buttresses dropping down from the shoulder of Cathedral. I relied on the topo-mapping app on my phone to identify the Couloir, for sure. This program is excellent and I was able to use it later in the day to route find as we started free lancing through more terrain.
We skinned up to the mouth of the Pearl Couloir in 4 hours from the parking lot. Because the snow in the couloir was dry were were able to skin higher into the couloir than I ever have in the past. The trade off, however, was that once we transitioned to booting we slowed down considerably. The boot penetration in the snow was often boot top and sometimes knee deep. We did not have to use our crampons or ice axes and it took us 2 hours climbing the couloir before we finally passed the giant cornice guarding the notch.
We climbed through the clouds and the sun was strong through the thin clouds. The notch is the perfect platform to break and transition before the ski and luckily the clouds cleared for a moment giving us a clear view of the summit ridge to Cathedral peak. It felt great to be up in the mountains.
I have skied the Pearl Couloir three times now and I can say that this descent was definitively the best conditions I have seen. The snowpack was overall dry however the couloir does face predominantly East and some of the snow had a dampness to it and in spots there was a thin temperature crust underneath the final burst of dry snow from Saturday night. Overall the skiing was killer. Nathan and I leap frogged down through the couloir, tucking under rock outcrops to avoid the sluffing from each others’ turns.
By close to noon we were skiing out in the mellow basin. With the good feedback from the snow in the Pearl Couloir we decided to go for a link up. It is amazing to travel and explore new mountain ranges but there is also something rewarding about learning ones home terrain over the years. On several earlier ski tours this winter I had been in the basin on the North side of Leahey Peak. There I noticed nice north facing couloirs dropping down from electric pass. We decided to climb up the mellow south slopes of Leahey to link into these lines. I looked at the topo maps and saw it was an 800 foot climb and could see where we would want to trend to link into the lines.
As we climbed up out of the basin the clouds broke providing views of the spired ridge coming off of Cathedral. We skinned up a firm consistent south slope and went down to base layers as we baked in the sun.
In less than an hour we crested to the ridge and the views of the basin to the north opened up. We looked down into the steep north chutes we had accessed. Some were peppered with rock and we moved up to the furthest skiers left. It went clean and we worked over to an entry free of cornice where we could see all the way down into the basin. Nathan dropped first and cut across the broad entrance of the couloir to test the surface snow. Then he skied down through the choke and pulled up under a rock spire. I followed and took the skiers right variation on the choke. The snow was perfect dry powder on top of a strong consistent sub surface. We were able to elongate and drift our turns. It was fantastic and before long we skied out into the basin and looked back up at the incredible line we had linked into.
At this point it was at least 1:30 and we toyed with the idea of skinning up the east ridge of South Hayden to hit one more north facing chute, but reluctantly decided to call it a day and descend down to Monument Peak to ski it out to the car. Monument is a 12,000 foot peak with a prominent avalanche path that sits directly above Ashcroft. The beauty of this ski is that the avalanche path has fall line skiing right down to the parking lot so you avoid the forested exits you would normally take out of higher basins. We skied down the mellow basin to the west ridge of Monument and enjoyed a short ridge scramble to the summit.
We had a cool perspective of our previous ski line and South Hayden peak as we scrambled to the summit of Monument and distant views of Taylor and Star Peak opened up to the south. Our final ski was a long semi-gladed corn run down the east facing avalanche path of Monument that fed us into the cross country ski trails at Ashcroft. We glided out on these straight to the car by about 3pm.
Our day ended with burgers and beers at the Woody Creek Tavern where we talked about options for day 2 of our locals ski mountaineering camp this Wednesday. We are paying attention to snow totals and weather conditions and keeping it flexible. If the conditions allow we are hoping to go big!