Shooting Star and Star Light couloirs (James peak, with maps and climbing diagram)
What a difference a couple weeks and good info can make! We tried to get Shooting Star couloir 2 weeks ago with above average temperatures, but decided against when the cornice above the route partially collapsed as we were starting up. Also we found the description of the approach in the Cooper book “Colorado Snow Climbs” lacking – probably adding an extra hour by using a circuitous approach. So I ended up climbing Star Light couloir then. This time, with cooler weather (there was a hard freeze overnight at altitude) and a direct approach we were able to get Shooting Star itself. I have added some intermediate waypoints in my maps, that should make it easy to follow the direct route to the base of the Star couloirs. I’ve also created some route and climbing diagrams from some of the pictures.
Like the last 2 weeks, the morning weather featured fog over the Front Range metro, although this time mostly in the north, i.e., Fort Collins. There was no rain squall at sunrise to slow us down (like last time), rather it was clear in the predawn and sunny all of the early morning. It did not warm significantly at the summit, because it clouded over 30 minutes after we arrived. I have to say I was surprised to see the first alpine flowers on James peak, even in the exposed grass close to the summit.
The car thermometer was at 36 degrees F at the parking lot. We found solid (frozen) snow at St. Mary’s lake and above. The surface of the snow did soften (the first few inches) during the climb, with a hard base underneath. Because this was a bit slippery, we used the ice ax –and- ice tool combo to ensure strong placement. There was plenty of snow, even featuring some cracks from flow, on the route. It also helped that the overhanging cornice was no longer present above the route, two weeks later.
The most climbed Star couloirs all fork out from a trifurcation point above the Star base. Since climbing it 2 weeks ago, I could see that Star Light has had a good amount of ski and snowboard traffic (down to its own base). The Shooting Star route starts at 37 degrees, approaches 45 degrees above the trifurcation point, and maxs out at about 52 degrees in the Shooting Star couloir itself. There was evidence of loose and fallen rock (from the cliffs above the route) in the snow and a substantial runnel through the Shooting Star couloir. Most debris that day, however, was icicles (which were formed overnight) falling off of the cliffs above the route. Despite suggestions from other sources, the majority of fallen rock consisted of small stuff (helmet-safe) that had fallen off the rock bands along the route into the adjacent snow . The rock adjacent to the route is predominantly broken throughout (no big monolithic faces). Still, you might find some places where you could place small & medium cams. We did not use any snow, rock, or other pro on this climb, however.
Times: Wake up in Den at 2am; ready to go from St. Mary’s lot at 4 am; reached top of St. Mary’s snow field at 5:15; put crampons on, and started traversing to ridge above couloir base at 6 am; starting up couloir from Star base at 7:45; reached top of couloir at 10:45; back at car at 12:45. We followed a relaxed pace, especially on the way up, because of am stomach ache then. Faster groups could probably execute the route 30-60 minutes later than we started, after a similar cold overnight.
The trip on 2014/5/31 started when it clouded over west of James peak, with freezing rain for the first hour of the trip. We could see most of the sunrise, so lot of the rain was not from above us - instead it was blowing over from the west as the moist air rose out (or was forced along by the am wind) first thing in the morning. The rain was definitely unpleasant, and the combination of poor visibility and wind slowed us down considerably on the snowfield. Friday was pretty wet, but it did clear out overnight. While it cleared out before we parked, the cloud to cloud lightning as we were driving up was probably the first hint of morning weather. Wish I would have packed my rainpants, which thinking about it, are perfect for wind in spring snowclimbs. It had cleared up by the time we got to the top of the snowfield, where the rain had frozen on the grass; there was a hint of fresh snow higher up.
It was colder than expected at 36 F when we arrived at the parking lot, so I was expecting good frozen snow. Instead, the rain at dawn warmed up the air, also softening the snow. While there was plenty of snow to make for easy travel, it was all pretty soft at the surface. We generated a good amount of pinwheels and the like traversing around to the base of the east face. The snow on the east face was quite soft by the time we arrived at 9am.
After topping out the St. Mary’s snowfield, we proceeded to the NW edge of the alpine plateau at N39.84871 W105.67725. In retrospect, it would have been much quicker to continue up a little bit and traverse NW along the ridge to most directly approach the base of the climb (possibly with a short glissade near the base). Instead, we circumnavigated around, then, down, then up the drainage from the base of the climb. The routefinding of circumnavigation also added considerable time to the approach.
A large part of the cornice above Shooting Star and Sky Pilot collapsed as we started up the couloir. The snow on the cornice faces east, and is situated on rock, which can warm quickly after sunrise. There were rumors of rock fall danger on the Star couloirs, however I did not seen any evidence to identify this was any greater risk than other couloirs I have climbed. Upon seeing the debris flow down the channel by our feet, no one was feeling comfortable continuing that route. Rob, Josh, and Emily were further up than me and less comfortable with climbing at that point. I spotted the Star Light couloir, which had no evidence of slide or other activity above the lowest 1/3 of the chute. There was a debris line down that entered from a more east facing aspect at 1/3 of the way up. There was not a significant cornice above Star Light. I followed up to the left of the chute to avoid any debris, and also found the hardest snow of the day there – it stays in the shadow of the channel for a couple hours after sunrise. It turned out that Star Light is a good backup plan on the warm day or in the event of a late start. The maximum angle at the rollovers on Star Light is 43 degrees; the coulir gains 750’ from its base at N39.85201 W105.68474 to its top at N39.84936 W105.68621 along the ridge to James peak summit.
We got up in Den at 2am to meet at 3am in the T-Rex lot. From the Dinosaur lots, we got to the lot of St. Mary’s at 4 am to get going at 4:30. There is a $5 fee to park in the lots at St. Mary’s; there is a restroom facility located there. We reached the top of the snowfield at N39.83968 W105.65502 at 6am, and started to circumnavigate at 7 am. We reached the base of Star couloirs at 9 am. I started from the base of Star light at 9:30, I topped out Star Light at 10:30. Back to St. Mary’s lake at 12:30 and cars at 1pm. In retrospect, camping at St. Mary's lake, which is only like a mile from the parking lot, might be a good option to save a couple hours sleep and make sure you are close by for an early start.
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