Pikes Via Little Italy: A Newfound Respect for Wind Slab

Pikes Via Little Italy: A Newfound Respect for Wind Slab

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Apr 7, 2011
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering
Seasons Season: Spring


Pikes Pk (14115')
"Devil's Playground Pk (13070')
9.6 miles RT, 3000' gain

April 7, 2011
Via Little Italy Couloir & Crags route
From Glen Cove (11460')


I was in need of an altitude fix, so decided at the last minute to work on my new route project on Pikes and finally hit the Little Italy couloir. I glissaded it with my BMS class with the CMC, but never climbed it. Little Italy is a short climb of about 800 feet or so that tops out just north of the Devil's Playground area above Glen Cove, which is the brake check spot on the toll road. It is a popular line for skiers because you can get in multiple runs with a car shuttle.

The Pikes Peak Highway doesn't open till 9am until Memorial Day. I arrive at the gate early and the lady tells me they are plowing the road after some light snow fell overnite. She lets me go a bit after 9 and I start my hike around 9:45 from Glen Cove. I chat with the ranger and tell him my plans. He kind of looks at me in disbelief when I tell him I'm going for the summit!

Pikes from Crystal Creek reservoir:

Should Have Stayed Left

I followed the road to the first switchback, then headed up from there. I went sans snowshoes for the short approach, but the postholing was more work than anticipated. I was already losing time. I had a deadline of summitting by 2pm, because the road closes at 5 and you have to be down to Glen Cove by 4. If you don’t make it out, you get fined! Stupid rules!

I crampon up at around 11900' and put on my hard shell as there will likely be some spindrift up high. The snow is in much better shape in the couloir with a fresh layer of about 4 inches on top of a firm layer. I can tell the snow is shallow as my axe occasionally hits rock.

Entrance to Little Italy:

I cut switchbacks efficiently up the couloir as kicking steps comes with ease. I feel pretty comfortable with the conditions as the new snow is generally only 4 to 6 inches deep and seems to be bonding well with the older snow. There are no visual signs of instability, although as I climb the new snow is getting deeper, probably mid calf. I try to stay on the firm snow where it is available as wind loading is definitely a possibility with the recent high winds that have been the norm for days.

Looking up Little Italy:

As I near the top, I decide to get out of it as soon as possible and exit right. Big mistake. The snow on the right side is in a bit of a convex bowl with slope angle probably in the upper 30’s on a northeast facing aspect, which is not a good combination. Rocks are poking out of the snow just a few feet to the left. If I would have shot up the left side, the snow would have been just fine.

Looking across the top of the couloir to the left side:

Just a few seconds after I took that picture, a slab broke loose and I was suddenly on top of it heading down the couloir! I think I was only in the avalanche for 5 seconds or so and just tried to get off it ASAP! Luckily, the slide was moving very slowly and was pretty shallow, but it sure caught me by surprise even though I ignored the warning signs. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. The crown was about a foot deep and propagated at least a 100 feet across. It was very shallow, but there were a few large blocks that broke loose. I didn’t think it went far because it was moving slow, but the ranger later told me he saw the whole thing and the debris ran the length of the couloir! Looking back from Glen Cove, I couldn't see any debris further down. I think there was enough new snow that it gained some momentum. I’m not sure if it was large enough to be buried, but it sure would have been scary riding that any longer!

I’ve been up a lot of couloirs in the last few years and have taken an avy class, but I still have a lot to learn with snow science. It seems these wind loaded slabs are tough to pin down as they lurk beneath the surface and are isolated. A pit wouldn’t have helped in this case since the area was so localized. Overall, I thought the couloir was pretty stable. I should have taken heed of the subtle warning signs. Even in shallow snow, an avy can gain momentum and do some serious damage.

Well, I paid $10 to drive up the road, so I might as well try to salvage the day. I got to the top of the couloir around 11, so I would have to make haste to get to the summit. Over Devils Playground I went, then I hit the drifted road for a bit and then took the trail around the east side of Little Pikes. The wind as expected picked up as I took the trail up the ridge, but the gusts were probably no more than 40mph, not enough to break out the balaclava.

Following the trail through the snowy talus was hideously slow and exhausting, but I still managed to top out earlier than expected at 1:35. I took the road down for the most part and the wind began to be more consistent. There were plenty of drifts to plow through and ice to avoid. I finally made it back to Devil’s Playground, then took the road with its many switchbacks down to Glen Cove. The ranger drove up and turned around when he spotted me. I had to cut a few switchbacks to get down just a few minutes before the 4pm cutoff!

Pikes revealed:

The north face looking mighty thin:

Little Italy popping into view:

Zoom of the top of Little Italy, avy debris is visible:


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