Colorado's Coolest Couloir?
Among the most familiar test pieces in Colorado snow climbing are 4 large couloir systems that line the Longs-Meeker amphitheater: Dreamweaver
on Meeker, the Flying Dutchman
on the Prow, Lambs Slide and the Notch
on Longs East Face, and the Martha Couloir
on Mt. Lady Washington.
Holy Cross, the Bell Cord, Potosi North, Sneffel's Snake, Dragon's Tail, the Savage, Naked Lady, Ypsilon's Y. All are inspiring. But for length, steepness, variety, and beauty, it's hard to look past Dreamweaver or its smaller twin Martha.
Dreamweaver and Martha
A week before Memorial Day weekend a late Spring storm dumped enough new snow to leave a 12 inch layer ready to collapse and slide near highways and freeways. One snowboarder lost his life
near the usually safe-in-late-May “Dead Dog” couloir on nearby Torrey Peak. Nearby Arapahoe Basin ski area offered up the possibility that they might end the ski season on Fourth of July.
After the last storm, a long stretch of weather reaching in the high 80’s in the Front Range was finally getting its chance to consolidate the many large layers that had accumulated over the winter, reserving most of the remaining danger for really big slab avalanches that tend to only happen late in the day when the surface snowpack is at its heaviest. The window had finally opened.
Dreamweaver is sometimes described as a great “Introduction to Alpine Climbing”. While there is sometimes controversy over whether this is true (along the lines of what differentiates an “Alpine Climb” over a technical rock climb, snow climb, ice climb or mountaineering trip)
1) Above tree line
2) A route where it is probably a good idea to rope up in places because the consequences of a screw-up could be bad.
3) A route where if you brought your dog along, it would look at you in several places to ask, “What the F? You’re kidding, right?”
One of the climbers we bumped into during the day still proved the route could be accomplished in shorts. Good job Micah. Giri-giri boy shenanigans are definitely more fun than austere gravity and pseudo-Euro-serious of “Respect for the Mountains”.
The pre-crux: 3 am alarm for a 4 am start. Sun-hit in June at the base of Dreamweaver is around 5 am in the morning. Conditions are softening by 8:30 am and can be slushy and treacherous by 9:30 am in the lower and upper couloirs. Timing is everything. I was grumbling that it took us an hour to get from truck bivy to trailhead.
The approach to Dreamweaver is the standard easy hike from the RMNP Longs Peak trailhead 3.5 miles through trees and lower moraine to chasm junction where a trail sign, set of hitching posts, and rustic bathroom mark where the trail splits off left into the Longs-Meeker amphitheater and right towards the Boulder Field at the base of Longs Peak’s North Face. Take the trail left into the amphitheater. Follow the trail along the south bench of Mt. Lady Washington until you reach the base of the Loft--the large snowfield that splits Longs Peak from Mount Meeker. Dreamweaver heads up the snowfield just to the left of the flying buttress rock formation--past the base of the Loft.
In the summer the hike to chasm junction from the Longs Peak trailhead is an easy 1 ½ to 2 hours. In the Spring and early summer there is no way to judge in advance the firmness of the snow or the development of the boot track along the approach hike. Our approach to the base of Dreamweaver took 2 ½ hours in a fairly firm and incompletely formed boot track. We camponed-up where the tree line met the moraine.
Dreamweaver is a solid, aesthetic line starting at the snowfield at the center-base of the north face of Mount Meeker, forming a chimney of snow, rock and ice that hugs the cleft between The Flying Buttress and the glacier-polished North Wall of the face. It looks dramatically steep from a distance, but closer up is a moderately steep, undulating slope that passes through five very short rock and ice crux points before topping out on a small summit snowfield.
The cruxes protect well on Dreamweaver. The first crux is mostly rock with small patches of alpine ice and a good crack system on the left side wall for small chocks or cams. The second crux is mostly a small alpine ice flow, too thin to place a solid screw but, again, offering a good #2 cam placement into connecting boulders on the right. Cruxes 3 and 4 run along a chimney with a large seam, offering abundant opportunities to place gear if needed. The final crux is a short ice flow that finishes on semi-smooth quartzite granite lip with a good set of rock horns at the top to place an alpine belay. Pickets are handy in the steeper section and near the top of the couloirs when the snow starts getting really soft. In early June it is mostly snow with patches of Alpine ice and rock. As the summer goes, so increases the alpine ice.
The most spectacular vantages on the route are the views looking down at the jagged spires of the flying buttress as it stands above the chasm junction area below. The route to the summit ridge is committing but not terribly arduous. The descent can be time consuming, arduous, and confusing if you have difficulty finding the Meeker ledge that connects to the loft (as we did, despite having climbed up it from below once before).
The summit ridge of Mount Meeker is a blocky knife edge. Crossing it is a third class scramble back and forth between the North and South faces. It is best to traverse the entire summit ridge to obtain easy dirt and talus trails down to the loft instead of trying to scramble across slabs and talus on the north face of Mount Meeker in a more direct line.
Once at the top of the Loft, it is possible to descend the loft from the top via the southernmost edge, but this makes for steep down-climbing. The easiest way down is to descend the talus to the south of the Loft to reach a snowfield that leads to a ledge that exits out lower down. On our particular descent we found cairns everywhere that were not good indications of where to reach the descent ledge and spent an additional 2 hours more than planned rappelling off of various rappel stations beneath the ledge to obtain the Loft. Time permitting, a return trip would be a good idea to ascend the access ledge and do some “cairn cleaning” for the benefit of future climbers.
Good weather, good snow, short ice and mixed cruxes, and a more time consuming descent than anticipated. 4am at the trailhead, on top of Meeker at noon (rope work always slows you down), off the loft and at chasm junction by 5:00 pm. Down my 7:00 pm. Not much else to say.
Oh. Yeah. We were pretty wiped out. After maybe 4 hours of sleep, two cups of oatmeal, a package of shot blocks, and a liter of water nothing sounded better than boots off, a cold Corona, a quick dinner, and sleep. ..only…
Only we had invited some friends to meet us up at the Longs Peak campground for a Sunday climb of the Martha Couloir
on Mount Lady Washington. OK. Get ready for round 2.
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