Island Couloir is fully visible from Lewis Lake. It is one of a few couloirs rising above South Gap Lake to the ridge that leads to the summit of Medicine Bow Peak, but it holds snow longer and more consistently than its neighbors do and offers a moderate snow climb with a steep section at the upper end. I have nicknamed it thus because just below where the couloir narrows in its center, there is a prominent rock outcrop completely surrounded by snow.
Except for one stretch in the middle, this couloir is fairly broad and open and feels more like a small basin or cirque than a true couloir, but I use couloir for lack of a better term. This route has a short approach and easy access and is in a very popular area, but it sees very few climbers relative to all the hikers and fishers who visit.
Getting ThereAbout 8 miles south of Saratoga, WY 130 intersects WY 230, which goes south. Drive WY 130 to the turnoff for the Sugarloaf Recreation Area, which is 29 miles east of the WY 230 intersection. The other end of WY 130 is in Laramie, and those approaching from Laramie will find the Sugarloaf turnoff 12 miles west of Centennial. Drive one mile to the end of the road at Lewis Lake, which sits at about 10,700’. There is a fee of $5 per vehicle. The main road may not open until June, and snow may block the road to Lewis Lake into late July or even August.
Route DescriptionFrom Lewis Lake at 10,700’, the full loop I describe is about 5 miles and climbs approximately 1300’. The snow climb itself, depending on conditions, can be up to 600 vertical feet. It was about 450 vertical feet when I did it in mid-July in a dry year.
Hike to the 11,000’ saddle between North and South Gap Lakes and then traverse left (southwest) to the base of the couloir above South Gap Lake (app. 10,900’). It is about one mile to the saddle, and it should take 15-30 minutes to traverse to the start of the climb.
The climb to the “island” is on an easy grade, and in warm conditions you may not even need an ice axe or crampons here. It gets a little steeper past the island, though, and it is better to go around the left side of the island so that you will be closer to an easy escape option and more in a direct line with the path of the couloir.
The route narrows dramatically at and above the rock island but soon opens up. To the left there will probably be a dirt slope to which you can exit if the conditions in the upper section are not to your liking. The dirt is probably moist (mud) and not fun to hike up, but it does not carry the risks of a serious fall.
There will be a cornice or a vertical headwall of snow at the very top. You can head right to what looks like Class 4 or 5 rock or head left on an easier grade and pull up a final vertical snow wall of eight feet or so. Once up top at about 11,550’, you can walk north and find a Class 2 scree descent back to the saddle or hike south for about 1.5 miles to the summit of Medicine Bow Peak, from which you can take a trail back to the parking area. If you choose the latter option, you may find yourself on the receiving end of interested and respectful glances, comments, and questions from hikers atop the peak.
Caveat: I climbed this in July and found conditions very suitable. I cannot speak for conditions at other times of the year, especially during avalanche-prone months.
Essential GearIce axe and crampons.
I did this without crampons and did not have to bail out to the adjacent dirt slopes, but I would have preferred having the crampons. Having them probably would have helped me avoid my fall above the last section of exposed rock near the top; before I had time to react, I had already slid about 20 feet back down the snow and onto the rocks, which stopped my fall but gave my right arm some nice scrapes. Fortunately, that was the worst that happened.