West Face Snow Couloir on Mt. Elbert
We arrived in Breckenridge on Saturday, June 12th, 2010 after stopping in Wheatland, WY to have an early dinner with a friend. Our plan had been to scout the approach the next morning, then go to bed in the afternoon, get up around 2 a.m. Monday morning and climb the snow couloir on the West face. We were concerned about two stream crossings on the approach and wanted to get a look at them. The guidebook says there are bridges over the streams, but trip reports on the internet indicated that the bridges had washed away. With rivers flooding all over Wyoming, we were concerned about high water levels.
Checking the weather on Sunday, we found that snow and t-storms were predicted for Monday morning. Since Tuesday morning was supposed to be clear, we decided to delay the climb by one day. We went up to scout the approach and were glad we did. The bridges were indeed gone. We were able to wade the first stream. The water was fast, COLD, and above the knee, but we tied trash bags over our legs and put running shoes on over the trash bags.
Unfortunately, the trash bags ripped and we both got very wet, but it was good to find the flaws in our plan on the scouting day instead of the climbing day. We wrung out our socks and hiked about a mile up some switchbacks to take a look at the second crossing. It was much worse than the first one, basically deep scary whitewater raging down the mountain. Someone had thrown two logs across in such a way that we could balance on the lower log while using the upper log as a handrail. However, while we were trying to move the lower log into a better position, it snapped in half and we had to find another log to throw across. Bill hiked around until he found one and then we got it in place with some difficulty. We tested it and it worked, but falling off was definitely not an option. Bill was able to balance the second log up against the first one so that it was mostly out of the water and we didn't have to worry about it being washed away. He also found a third log and left it by the water's edge as a backup.
We went to bed around 5 p.m. on Monday and set the alarm for 1 a.m., since the drive to the trailhead was longer than we'd expected. We were at the trailhead at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning and did the first stream crossing with three trash bags on each leg. It worked and we changed into our spare socks and hybrid mountain boots on the other side. When we reached the second crossing, we found that someone had moved our lower log back across the water and thrown the backup log beside it. Thanks to this, our lower log was covered in ice and we had to put on crampons to get across.
With the stream crossings behind us, we hiked a mile and a half up a rocky old mining road, until we could see the couloir on Elbert's West face. There's also a large cairn by the side of the road, which we assumed marked the turn-off. We hiked up to the couloir and started up on good, hard snow at 11,750ft. We didn't need crampons. The slope angle was unintimidating and we held a decent pace.
The snow remained good until about 13,500 ft, where we found a winter snow-pack - slab on an ice layer on consolidated snow on depth hoar. We moved close to the edge and continued up to cross at the top of the slope and escape onto the shoulder.
From there on, the going was rough as we were either in soft, deep snow or negotiating snowy rocks. Apparently this has not been a good year for snow in Colorado. We were feeling the elevation but neither of us got AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) this time
After a couple hundred feet of rocks, we were back on decent snow for the final push to the summit. We reached the summit feeling good, with lots of energy to spare.
We hung around for a half hour or so, then headed down. We stayed on the ridge for a good part of the descent, to avoid getting under that sketchy snow.
When it seemed reasonable, we went back down into the couloir and glissaded about 1200 ft to the base. We hiked out and arrived back in Breckenridge feeling great.
For more route pics, visit this page on my website:
West Face Mt. Elbert