Inexperience in the Kirk Couloir

Inexperience in the Kirk Couloir

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 37.97970°N / 105.6019°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jun 20, 1998
Having grown up in the San Luis Valley, I looked at Kit Carson Mountain nearly every day for years. After an earlier trip in which we were forced to descend due to a thunderstorm, my brother Piers (18 at the time) and I (14 at the time) decided to attempt an ascent of the Kirk Couloir.

We were experienced hikers but just getting into actual mountaineering. Piers had his own crampons, while I decided to try the climb without them. We left the Willow Lake trailhead at around 3 in the afternoon and reached the lake by early evening. We opted for a high camp, above the falls, so that the approach would be easier in the morning. After a dinner of freeze dried spaghetti and some exploration above Willow Lake, we called it a night.

At 4:30 the next morning the alarm went off and we pulled on our clothes. At this point I was unaccustomed to the alpine start and was considering sleeping for another six hours or so, but one look at the brilliant stars outside persuaded me otherwise. After a Clif Bar and some hot jello, we were headed toward the couloir.

The snow was frozen and solid, and, although sketched out by the steep angle, we made careful progress up the couloir. By sunrise, we had reached the steepest section. Piers, having crampons, led the entire coulouir, while I followed his trail, making good use of my ice axe. Looking back, I realize the stupidity of attempting a route like this without proper gear, but at the time I had yet to learn this lesson.

We reached the saddle and, after a short break, continued down Kit Carson Avenue. We made the mistake of not descending far enough, and took a shorter, albeit steeper, gully to the top. The class 4 scrambling on icy rocks was enough to scare us into finding the proper route on the way down. We spent a while, perhaps too long, on the summit, enjoying the views of Crestone Peak.

After an uneventful descent of the correct gully (marked clearly by cairns) and re-ascending the Avenue, we reached the Kit Carson-Challenger saddle once again. We drank some water, chatted with some other climbers, and decided to head down the Kirk Couloir. This provides the quickest descent from this point, but we were unaware of how much the snow had softened. Piers and I climbed out to the the point where the slope drops off, and decided that a glissade would be the fastest way down. I watched him slide over the edge, and, hearing no screams from below, I did the same.

By this time, around 11 a.m., the snow was pure slush, and within seconds I was out of control. My attempts to self-arrest were futile, so I dug my feet into the snow in an attempt to slow down. My feet caught and my body went over, beginning to catapult down the near-50 degree slope.

Piers had encountered similar conditions and stopped himself by digging not only his axe into the snow, but both of his entire hands. He lost the skin on both knuckles and even managed to get snow shoved under his skin on his right hand. He looked up in time to see me fly by, airborne and upside down.

I had let go of my ice axe while falling so as not to stab myself with it. After this point, it was a total free fall. I recall bouncing in the snow many times and a complete inability to control my body. Several bounces were on my head. I came to the conscious realization that I was going to die. Without any warning, though, I stopped. My feet were planted in two large sun cups and I had suddenly gained my balance. I made the victory sign so that Piers, who was perhaps 1000 or 1200 feet uphill, would know that I was okay. Looking down, I realized that I was less than 30 feet from an outcropping of rocks which would have certainly broken or killed me, had my fall not stopped. I was shaken up, bruised and cut in a few places, but to my amazement, still alive. Nothing was even broken.

Needless to say, we were in mild shock for the rest of the day. After Piers re-climbed the couloir a few hundred feet to retrieve my axe, we made our (slow) descent back to camp, hung with the marmots for a while and packed up our tent. We returned to the trailhead and to our house Saguache that afternoon. We decided not to tell or parents about the adventure, and our friends, to this day, don't believe us. Oh well. Lesson learned.

As a side note, I have heard reports of numerous other falls in this couloir. The year after our fall, a group was downclimbing in this same chute, a man fell the same line as me, but his fall took him over the rocks, where he died.

Please be careful on this route. In summer, the sun hits the slope directly and softens the snow considerably.


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