South Arapaho Peak
Skywalker Couloir from 4th of July TH
Saturday June 14, 2008
I got myself on the road by 4:00AM under clear & starry skies. I drove out Route 36 from Louisville and into Boulder to Canyon Blvd via Broadway from the Baseline exit. Very few cars on the road this early on a Saturday and the drive up Boulder Canyon went smoothly. Nederland was still asleep as I rounded the rotary and headed towards Eldora ski area. Took the right hand turn to Eldora then proceeded past the High School, Eldora, Hessie TH and on to the 4th of July TH where there were lots of people camping but everybody was still asleep.
With a westerly breeze already starting to blow and the skies lightening by the minute I made ready my day pack, donned my gaiters and started up the trail at 5:40AM. I saw two single hikers and a group of four heading up the trail ahead of me, all with skis on their backs. The trail gains elevation gradually via a few short switchbacks then proceeds due west through the forest. Many sections had snow drifts covering the trail and I lost the trail a couple of times along the way and made a wrong turn towards Diamond Lake at the sign not realizing I should have gone to the right. I quickly corrected my error after seeing people on a trail above me and retraced my steps until I was back heading towards Arapaho Pass.
Dawn was breaking sunny against the snow-covered easterly facing peaks of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and the wind kept things rather cool heading up the trail to the abandoned 4th of July mine. I saw a group of hikers huddled in a small pocket getting relief from the wind in what little remained of the forest. I crossed a small creek and came to a sign that pointed right for Arapaho Pass near the old mine where all that remains is a rusted-out boiler sitting on top of a couple of mounds of tailings. Here the trail totally disappeared under drifted snows and South Arapaho peak dominates the view to the right. I climbed up to the old boiler and tried to get my bearings from this higher vantage. Skywalker Coulior was plainly visible with several people well up on the steep, snowy chute in the morning shade.
I could immediately see that route finding was going to be a chore as there were really no references as to where the trail was. I crossed a snowy clearing and walked along a small thawing creek and made my way along some rocks and snow as I made my way through the bushes as best I could and out above tree line. I walked across the rocks and tundra directly to where the very bottom of the couloir begins. I know that walking on the tundra is “verboten” however I didn’t feel that I was leaving anymore of a footprint than a herd of deer, sheep, or goats; and so this day would be.
I had fitted my crampons at the house the night before and “aerated” the lawn a bit, but soon found I had some real problems as the left one fell off once and the right one twice before a finally got things stable. Walking on angled snow is the only true measure as to how things fit and I spent about 30 mins total before I was confident they’d stay put, which they did throughout the climb, thank goodness. Up the coulior I went on perfectly hard-packed snow with my ice axe in hand, a first true attempt for me.
The angled pitch starts fairly gradually for about the first 1/3, then begins to get much steeper as I climbed up the shaded chute with the wind actually pushing me up the couloir. I was now finding that it takes a bit of getting used to walking and taking an angled or “side-step” approach seemed to work best for me. A group of four was now gaining on me fast and the one guy (Eric Holle I believe) was very helpful and showed me more of a traversing method where I took several angled steps one way and then the other in a zig-zag pattern while changing hands with my axe always to the up-hill side and driving the spike end in as I went up to where it was now very steep. I took my time and patiently progressed to about the 2/3 point in the couloir. Another group was now over-taking me and another guy (Amish…SP?) also offered sound instruction as to how to hold the head of the axe and drive the pick end in while using the toes points of my crampons to climb the much steeper section quite successfully. Good stuff.
I was using muscles in the calves of my legs that don’t get a work-out like this otherwise and I needed to find a rock to sit and rest on from time-to-time as I found it impossible to just “dig-in” in the middle of the couloir and get a good rest. Now nearing the top I angled off to the right verses proceeding up the steepest exit and found an un-traveled slightly wider section having more rocks where the steepness seemed to stay constant. This route didn’t seem any less difficult but with more rocks allowed for me to rest as required. Before long I was right below the summit and found a good place where the snow ended to remove my crampons and stand on rocky, firm ground again. I’d made it!! I scrambled up and onto an empty summit in about another 5 minutes. It was 10:30AM.
Soon many others arrived and we exchanged pleasantries and took each others photos as is customary on any alpine summit. My camera batteries had died and a guy named Todd took my picture and gave me his email address so he could forward it to me, very kind. I met-up with Amish again and we formally introduced ourselves. He would be skiing back down after the snow softened along with a good many other people. Others would make the traverse over to North Arapaho and then back down. I would be heading back down the trail as I didn’t feel I had the time (2+ additional hrs.) nor the “suds” to accomplish this feat; perhaps another time. I spent about 45 mins on top enjoying the splendid views on this beautiful day.
On my way down I met another guy (Dave) and he said he had some good photos and would be posting them on 14’er.com. He gave me his member label and I said I’d be in touch. He gave me a heads-up about the softening snow and where to watch for post-holing problems which helped a good deal as I went back down. The way down was also pretty confusing without being able to see the trail in a lot of spots but I managed my way back to my truck by 2:25PM. A rather long day but rewarding just the same. My first alpine summit of 2008 and my first snow ascent ever…………sweet!!
Skywalker is like taking candy from a baby compared to Little Bear. Much more challenging, we did it with snow a few months back and it was still a little on the edge. I wouldn't like to be there w/o snow becuase of loose rock. But, many, many people do it during the summer.