May 1, 2009 - Christo Couloir
Quandary Peak was not on my list of 14'ers to repeat but after a 9 week climbing drought it was well past time to get out and start getting into Spring snow shape. The weather report was calling for good weather in Summit County while the Cheyenne was supposed to get rain and fog. Add to that a trip report on 14ers.com speaking of great summit to car ski conditions on Quandary and I figured I'd give Quandary's Christo Couloir a shot after all.
The route offered a 2500 foot snow climb at the end of a two mile road march. I packed my skis, my snow shoes, and my spring hiking boots so I could decide at the trail head what I would take in the way of gear. It was certainly different from the aborted trip I did to Quandary with Bob as on that trip I forgot my boots and we were skunked from the get go. Yes, at 48 years of age and 25 years of climbing, I am still able to forget my boots (and admit to doing so).
This would be a solo trip as G is recovering from an ACL repair, Bob was working and I did not decide to go until about 4 pm the previous afternoon. I wasn't sweating the solo aspect as I was betting I would not be alone following the mentioned trip report (and a lime green beacon in the bottom of my pack) I left Cheyenne at 2 am and was parked at the trail head at 5 am sharp. I geared up and was walking up the snow closed reload to the Blue Lakes by 5:30. I chose to skip the skis as I hefted the boots, shook my head and just put them back in the trunk. I looked at the snow shoes, stomped and kicked at a snow bank near the car and also left them in the trunk. I put on the Gore-Tex hikers and gaiters, hoping I was early enough to find crampon conditions and that I could climb and descend before the post hole witching hour. I kept the pack light and headed around the snow roadblock and on up the road toward the Blue Lakes.
The guide said that the walk to the Blue lakes was two miles and I was done in an hour flat, sitting at the uppermost dam, putting on my crampons. Most of the road was melted out enough to avoid too much snow hiking but there were still a few drifts here and there that would stop a truck from getting up the road this weekend. Then above the first dam there was a big 100 yard long drift that will be there for a while . . . for sure. I shot a Goo, put on the crampons and started up the initial steep slope that leads to the base of the couloir climb proper.
The couloir is steeper than it looks in most pictures but that is no surprise as most of my camera work seems to flatten the pitches, so I figure others have the same problem too. I had read that it was a "moderate" snow climb (30 to 45 degrees) and I would say that is exactly the case. The couloir is really more of a big snow filled swale but you can choose your route to steepen or mellow the snow angle to suit your own tastes. I laid out a route more to the left side and tried to dial in a 35 to 45 degree climb, maxing the angle where I could.
I started up at 6:30 and found great cramponing snow, in fact I'd almost call it neve with a touch of sharp ice from the prior days melt and freeze cycle. The point of the axe only went in about one half inch to an inch and the snow took the crampons wonderfully. I wasn't worrying about an arrest in case of a slip but it was hard enough that I'd want to be fast in the process. Needless to say, I'd have gone home disappointed if I'd not brought the crampons as at that early hour, I would not have climbed without them.
The couloir has enough rock outcrops for me to play the mental division game as to thirds or fourths or whatever one may fancy. I'm kind of an 800 foot interval guy and at the end of the intervals I'll drop the pack for a minute, take a sip and Goo before moving on. No long stops, just a quick hydration and energy break to keep the legs moving steadily upward. I found the snow started deteriorating by 8:30 (it was 26 degrees when I left the car) and I summitted at 9:20, having found myself taking breaks more often as I ended up with steps instead of just a firm snow climb. It never got to the point of the drippy snowball but I'd have preferred cramponing the whole thing with little evidence of my route over leaving two or three inch steps through much of the last quarter of the climb. Of course that would have called for an even earlier departure from Wyoming and 2 am is about as alpine as my starts get at 48 years. There was a bit of a false summit effect as I topped out on the snow as there is just a bit more rise to gain the actual summit. I wended my way through the talus to get to the top. I was still solo at the top with no other climbers in sight, but this was Friday morning so I figured there was some chance of a solo summit on this popular peak.
Another slug of water and Goo and I was plunge stepping my way down the couloir, basically retracing my ascent route and staying out of the center of the couloir. I squeezed snow and still did not get any drips but it was heading onto 10:00 am and I was ready to get off the warming snow. I passed a group of four working their way up with skis and boards and I was content to have come up when there was still a bit of chill in the air. I was back at the dam in short order, the crampons came off and I hoofed my way back down the road to the waiting car. It was a short two miles up and an equally short two miles back down, with a tad bit of rubber in the legs from the climbing drought. Having sworn off Quandary as just inescusably boring and then having pulled the boot stunt this winter in an effort to help a new climber score a winter 14'er, I had come back one more time and ended up with a bit of PT, a good snow climb, and a day away from work on a mostly blue sky first day of May . . . not a bad deal after all.
I was at the car by 11:00 and headed for Cheyenne and sure enough I caught up with the predicted rain and fog as I dropped off I-70 to make the run to Golden through Clear Creek Canyon. Rain, fog, and drizzle all the way to Cheyenne.
An alternate route . . . Quandary's East Ridge Tourist Trail