Classic Couloirs of the San Juans
Gilpin Peak’s North Face Couloir
The San Juan Mountains are blessed with a lifetime’s worth of climbing and mountaineering challenges in all seasons. One of the most overlooked times of year to climb in the San Juans are the months of May and June. Ample winter and spring snow is an excellent recipe for spring climbing conditions – especially on some of the area’s classic couloirs. One such classic climb is the North Face Couloir on Gilpin Peak.
Gilpin Peak is situated high in Yankee Boy Basin, directly across from the massively popular Mount Sneffels. The North Face Couloir is unmistakable, as it splits the steep North Face of Gilpin Peak directly down it’s center. Timing is a very important consideration on this climb, as at this time of year, the couloir comes into the sun at first light – so start early. For the climb on this day, we left Ouray at 0430.
The couloir gradually steepens as you climb, eventually reaching a sustained 55 – 60 degrees in steepness during the last 3rd of the climb. There is a choice towards the top to climb either the left finish or the right finish to the couloir. The left finish typically sports an overhanging cornice which makes that finish more difficult and much steeper at the crest of the ridge. The right finish is narrower and also steep, but doesn’t typically have much of a cornice at the top. We opted for the right finish on this day, and found excellent climbing conditions in that part of the couloir.
We brought a few pickets to protect some of the long steeper sections of snow, and then a few cams for protection in the narrower section of the couloir. I found a good spot to belay the steepest section of snow right where the rock that splits the upper part of the couloir meets the lower part of the couloir. A .75 Black Diamond Camalot offered excellent protection in that section.
After you crest the ridge, the last 100 vertical feet to the summit are quite easy, and end on the huge, flat summit of Gilpin Peak. As with most peaks in the San Juans, there are fantastic panoramic views of the entire range, with the Telluride Ski Area seemingly only a stone’s throw away. The descent heads down the ridge towards Blue Lakes Pass, then loops back into upper Yankee Boy Basin and basically involves class 2 walking.
Overall, this is one of my favorite couloir climbs in the range because of it’s steepness, aesthetics, positioning, and time-friendliness (we summited at 0800 and were down by 10am).
Dropped Belay Device?
Use the Munter Hitch!
If you’re a rock climber, chances are you’ve done some multi-pitch rock climbing or are at least thinking/planning to do so in the near future. On multi-pitch climbs, you carry a lot of gear with you – cams, nuts, draws, slings, carabiners – and of course your trusted belay/rappel device. Over the years, I’ve seen people drop gear on climbs more often than you might imagine. The reality is, you’re going to drop some combination of your gear at some point in your climbing career so it pays to be prepared when you do. To be sure, dropping your #2 Camalot is a big deal as well, especially if your route offers up plenty of hand crack, but in most cases you can make do with other gear and plan your protection strategy for each pitch accordingly (if you’re climbing a trad route that is). Dropping gear like a cam, nut, or quickdraw does not normally require a higher level of technical knowledge or expertise. Conversely, dropping your belay device is a whole other matter. Your belay/rappel device is arguably the most critical piece of gear on your harness. So what happens if you drop it 3 pitches up the climb?
You can easily imagine a number of scenarios where dropping your belay could occur at the top of whatever pitch you may have finished or somewhere else along your climb. If this happens, you’ll need to be able to improvise another way to belay your partner up the pitch you’ve just finished.
Perhaps the best way to do this is with the Munter Hitch. I often use the Munter Hitch exclusively in alpine terrain because it is fast, and requires only a locking pear-shaped carabiner to build and use properly. It’s less desirable to utilize the Munter Hitch systematically for multi-pitch rock climbing, the reasons for which I’ll get into later in this article. But if you are unfortunate enough to drop your belay device 3 pitches up, it makes for an excellent solution for both you and your partner.
Building the Munter Hitch
The Munter Hitch is best created using a large pear-shaped carabiner like a Petzle Attache or a Black Diamond Rock Lock. This gives the hitch plenty of room to set itself properly on the carabiner and insures maximum efficiency for both belaying and lowering or rappelling. For belaying your partner up the pitch (standard top down belaying) it’s important to clip your Munter Hitch carabiner directly to the master point/equalization point/hot point on the anchor, and when doing so make sure that the gate of the carabiner is facing down and out (towards the climber). Orienting the carabiner in this fashion is an important step in using the Munter Hitch properly and will insure you have the best ergonomics for your belay.
Next, simply clip the rope running to your climber through the carabiner. If you’re at a ledge, you can actually do this right away without the need to pull up any additional slack in the rope like you normally would when using your traditional belay device. The pear shaped carabiner makes for a handy little ratchet the as you pull up the rope it will stack itself very neatly on the ledge – something that’s advantageous if you’re continuing up or heading down (organized ropes are important!!). After you’ve pulled up all the slack, what will become your brake strand will either be coming out of the left or the right side of the carabiner depending on how you are oriented at the belay. It doesn’t really matter which way you’ve set this up, just realized that if it’s coming out of the left side you will be using your left hand as the brake hand, and vice versa.
Next, you need to create the twist in the rope to create the loop which will then go on the carabiner to make the Munter Hitch. The written word can be difficult to explain this, so see the attached picture and/or video to get a better feel for what this looks like. In essence, using what will become the brake strand, simply make a loop/twist in the rope where the rope lays on top of itself and then rolls on to the carabiner. Once you’ve done this, you have created the Munter Hitch are are ready to belay your partner. Always remember to lock your carabiner before you start to belay!!
A Few Important Considerations about the Munter Hitch
A critical piece of information to consider when using the Munter Hitch to belay or lower your partner is that it is NOT a hands free belay device. Devices such as the Black Diamond ATC or Petzl Reverso are very common self-locking belay devices that many climbers use on multi-pitch climbs for good reason, as they allow you to operate the belay and perform other tasks all at the same time. Not so with the Munter Hitch. Never let your hand leave the brake strand while using the Munter Hitch to belay!
Another disadvantage of the Munter Hitch is that it will introduce twists into the rope – especially when you place it under a load such as a rappel or lower. Used systematically, you’ll definitely start to notice that your climbing rope will start to twist and generally be more difficult to deal with over time.
Dropping your belay device 3 pitches up a multi-pitch rock climbing can and probably will happen to you at some point in your climbing career. Practicing and mastering the use of the Munter Hitch can make the difference between successfully completing your climb, or figuring out a convoluted solution in a potentially stressful situation. In that case, you’ll also be glad you brought your cell phone and a headlamp. You’ll need them!
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
Ham n Eggs Success!
SJMG Guide Andres Marin called in yesterday evening and reported that everyone was doing great and that they had successfully climbed the Ham n Eggs route the previous day/night! Their new plan is for 1 of the climbers, John McIntire to head home and then Andres and our other climber – Brian Quinif, are headed over to Mt. Huntington to give the West Face Couloir route a go.
We’ll give another quick update once they’re installed at their new basecamp!
Current Snow Levels in the San Juans
A few of us have been out and about in the San Juan Mountains during the last week – including Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness. Recently the area has experienced a few significant storms that had a decidedly winter component to them. Below average temperatures and above average precipitation has been the general weather pattern for the past few weeks and the mountains are really starting to show it.
Based on the current forecast and amount of snow already on the ground, I would suspect that the majority of the snow of shaded aspects will remain there for the rest of the season – eventually being buried by subsequent snow storms that are sure to effect the area in the month of October. This can be good on a number of levels, including the potential for an excellent early season ice cycle. The ice climbs around Silverton and Ouray above 10,000 feet are dependent on ground water and robust melt/freeze cycles. With all the recent snow above those altitudes it’s setting up to be a banner November/December for early season backcountry ice climbs.
The recent new snow however can become “old snow” – but at this point in the season likely only on aspects and areas where the snow has blown in deep enough to eventually be buried by subsequent storms. This old snow, especially from the first few larger storms in October and November, can become problematic later in the winter as the faceting process starts to take over, helping to hasten the creation of the all-to-familiar depth hoar we commonly see at the base of our snowpack – the cause of many early season avalanche cycles here in the San Juans.
Below are a few photos taken of the Chicago Basin area, Engineer Mountain, and views of the Sneffels Range and Ice Lakes Basin from a distance. All photos were taken between 9/24/13 and 9/27/13. As always, watch the forecast, plan accordingly, and travel safe in the mountains. Late fall/early winter storms are nothing to be trifled with in the San Juan Mountains.
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
100% Success on the Kautz Glacier
Earlier this summer, July 28 – August 1 to be exact, myself (Nate Disser) and Dave Ahrens successfully led 4 climbers to the summit of Mt. Rainier via the Kautz Glacier Route. Things started off for our team in Ashford, WA, the best place to meet for groups climbing either the standard Disappointment Cleaver Route or the Kautz Glacier Route. An afternoon gear check left us hungry for a pre-trip meal and we decided on the Copper Creek restaurant – a very worthy place to get a great meal before the climb.
The Climb Begins
The following morning we all headed up to Paradise and after registering at the Ranger Station we were off on the trail towards our first camp for the evening. Starting off from Paradise is always a bit of a circus, as countless other day hikers and climbers adorn the trails heading out from Paradise. Most folks are headed up towards Panoraman Point, or perhaps even Camp Muir, but our destination was Glacier Vista where we would drop down onto the edge of the Nisqually Glacier. The lower Nisqually Glacier must be crossed in order to reach the Kautz Glacier, and after cramponing up and roping together for the glacier crossing we were making quick work of the day. Crossing the Nisqually is relatively straightforward, save for a few end runs around large crevasses and is much easier with good visibility. Having crossed the Nisqually many times previously in white out conditions, I was enjoying the fine weather and classic Northwest July high pressure system that typified our trip.
Skills & Forward Progress
We settled on a camp for the evening at about 7800′ and enjoyed fantastic views and a beautiful sunset to the south. The following morning we awoke somewhat lazily as our goal for the day was only to travel to a popular camp known as The Castle at about 9600′ and only 1800′ above us. After some snow and glacier travel skill practice in the morning, we headed up to The Castle, gaining the Wilson Glacier in the process. The next day we rose to more fine weather and barely a breath of wind. After more skill practice – this time on crevasse rescue protocols, hauling systems, etc. we packed up and headed onwards to high camp at about 10,800′. High camp on the Kautz Glacier Route is accessed via the Turtle Snowfield at the top of which there are a collection of campsites scattered amongst the rocks. Making this high camp puts you in excellent position for the summit bid the following night/morning.
The Summit Climb
After a lazy afternoon, everyone turned in early in anticipation of waking early that night/morning for the summit bid. Our team decided to leave camp around 1:30 am, planning on a 6.5 hour one way trip to the summit. A slight change in the weather gave some cause for a heightened sense of awareness for the summit climb. However, upon leaving camp precisely at 1:30 the stars were visible and very little wind could be felt. After about 20 minutes of walking, we reached one of the technical challenges of the day, the rock step which requires a lower/rappel to access the Kautz Glacier proper and subsequently the often intimidating Kautz Ice Chute.
Our team made quick work of the transition and we were all very soon making our way up the steeper ice sections of the ice chute. A combination of short pitches and short roping led us to the top of the ice chute in about an hour. Climbers had the opportunity to swing two tools on the climb this year, as the route offered more and steeper ice than other times I had done the route. Overall, the Kautz Ice Chute is a very fun, engaging, and unique aspect to the Kautz Route.
Above the ice chute, we transitioned back into glacer travel mode and made our way to the Wapowety Cleaver which separates the Kautz Glacier from the upper Nisqually Glacier. At about 13,000′ our team took a nice long – yet predictably cold – rest break prior to setting off on the last stretch across the upper Nisqually to the crater rim of Mt. Rainier. At this point, we started to experience a more dramatic shift in the weather with higher upper level winds helping to form a “cap” or lenticular cloud over the summit of Mt. Rainier. A lenticular cap in such instances is quite typically the harbinger of an approaching storm. However, our team pushed on towards the summit, navigating increasing winds and decreasing visibility as we climbed. Adequate safety margins were maintained throughout the ascent though and all of our team members felt strong as we neared the summit. Finally, after a long (1.5 hour) stretch from our last break we reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. Once inside the crater, the winds abated considerably and we enjoyed a nice long break with plenty of food and water prior to the descent back down to high camp. A few team members who had not previously summited Mt. Rainier before this trip decided to make the extra effort and climb to the Columbia Crest - literally the highest point on the crater rim of Mt. Rainier.
An Efficient Descent
As we descended, the weather began to improve slightly and we were able to make it back down to our camp with relative ease and minimal hassle. After a 2 hour nap, our team decided to make the effort to move camp further down the mountain in anticipation of leaving early the following morning and reaching Paradise in the early afternoon. It’s tough to resist the temptation of a hearty meal after such effort on the peak, and visions of cheeseburgers certainly provided additional motivation to maintain our focus and efficient style all the way back to the parking lot – the true summit of any mountain climb.
Overall, the trip went off without a hitch – the perfect combination of good planning, great weather, and an efficient, motivated climbing team. When it all comes together like that, it just doesn’t get much better. I can’t say enough what a pleasure it was to climb with Rhon, Kevin, Brant, and Brian and spend 5 days in the mountains sharing life stories and the requisite compliment of tasteful jokes as well. Both Dave and I look forward to climbing with them in the future – most likely in Ouray this winter!
Stay tuned for our Mt. Rainier dates for 2014!!
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
Back in High Camp
Elias called to report that he and his two clients successfully summited Alpamayo and were back at high camp, preparing for the rest of their descent back towards basecamp. Elias will write up a full accounting of the summit day in the days to come. Congratulations everyone!
As you can imagine at San Juan Mountain Guides we can never get enough steep frozen water. So as we watch the ice here in the San Juans melt and the trees begin to bud, we book our plane tickets to the Alaska range where winter is far from over. Some call it an addiction others an infatuation. What ever the case our love for frozen alpine environments draws us to the wild granite faces of peaks that, while relatively short in terms of altitude have no shortage of spectacular adventure.
My partner Sam and my trip to Alaska started off lucky. We serendipitously registered on a fee free weekend and were forgiven the $10 park entrance fee, a good omen. After an incredibly scenic flight into the Alaska Range, our ski plane landed on the Ruth glacier one hundred feet from our camp. Alpinists call it plane camping, like car camping complete with burgers bratwurst and a nip of whiskey or two.
Sam and I hit the ground running. After establishing our base camp we packed a light bivy kit and headed up to the Root Canal Glacier below the Mooses Tooth (note: the official spelling of the peak’s name lacks an apostrophe due to a cartographer’s error). Day one we climbed the classic Shaken, Not Stirred (V AI 5) a Jim Donini (Ouray local) line to the west summit of the peak.
After a windy bivy and a little sleeping in waiting for the day to warm up, we launched up Ham and Eggs (V 5.9 AI 4) one of Jon Krakauer’s non literary contributions to the climbing world. We rappelled the route and made the long descent back to the Ruth Glacier where we had cashed our skis. From their we trekked across the flat glacier back to our base camp at the foot of Mount Dickey. It was a big couple of days that ended with my using my headlamp for the first time ever climbing in Alaska to ski back to camp.
We used the ensuing mediocre weather to rest, eat, and make a quick run up mount barill via the Japanese couloir (III 70 degree snow) a very aesthetic snow climb up a gorgeous peak. In addition to Ham and Eggs and Shaken, Not Stirred, and many other routes in the area, the Japanese couloir makes for a phonmenal objective for climbers looking to be guided through some of the most spectacular alpine snow and ice climbing in the world.
SJMG is one of the few companies with the permits and a guide staff that allow us to share these kinds of trips with our guests.
While we climbed the Mooses Tooth, below us, on the Ruth Glacier, we spied a north face streaked with ice. We asked around at camp and no one had ever heard of the face having been climbed. After a couple of days of recon and allowing the weather to settle, Sam and I launched up the face into unclimbed terrain. After climbing for 24 hours straight we reached the summit ridge and completed our new route, Gangster’s Paradise (V AI 4 M6 A2) named for one of the many random songs stuck in our heads as we navigated the verticle maze. It was, without a doubt, one of the wildest and most commiting adventures I have been on. We returned to camp, made and ate some pizza and went to bed after being awake for 36 hours.
For the last leg of our trip we were picked up by our air taxi Talkeetna Air Taxi and flown to the rarely visited Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. Despite its proximity to Denali Base Camp this cirque held only two (now three) routes. We climbed a new line, Welcome to Thunder Dome (V AI 4 M5) amidst the sweeping ice flutings on the north face of Mount Thunder. We climbed the roughly 2,000′ face, bivied at the ridge and on day 2 climbed the last 1,800′ of steep snow couloirs to the summit ridge. Due to poor snow and sketchy cornicing we neglected to go to the true summit. After 14 rapelles and 12 of which were v-threads (pay back for my habit of v thread free loading) we were back at the base about two hundred yards from camp.
As with any good climbing trip I Ieft with a tick list longer than the one I came with. I can’t wait to go back next year. Ouray-Cody-Ruth Gorge-North Cascades: yeah, that’s a schedule I can live with…
Ski Mountaineering Guide Tip
Andrew Klotz – AMGA Ski Guide
Spring is here and the snow is stabilizing so it is time to hit the big lines that you’ve been waiting patiently for all winter. This is the first installment of a mulit-part series on getting kitted out for a multi-day ski mountaineering trip. Of course, the ideas also apply to single day outings as well.
Getting the most out of your spring skiing season also means being prepared with the right gear and tools for the job. Particularly with spring skiing, choosing the right gear on the right days can mean the difference between a fantastic outing and a day of “survival skiing”.
In addition to choosing your gear wisely, selecting the right aspect and timing your descent on that aspect is critical to both safety and enjoyment in the mountains during the spring season. As always, be sure to consult your local relevant avalanche forecast and utilize good terrain selection and travel techniques in the context of your objective for the day. Below are just a few considerations when it comes to gear for spring ski mountaineering:
Although fat skis are the rage, I think short narrow waisted skis are the ticket for ski mountaineering. They allow you to more directly pressure your edges and control your skins for difficult frozen morning upskins and give you the same direct edge pressuring confidence for technical descents. I like skis in the 70-80 mm waist range. It is also a good idea to get your skis a size shorter than you normally ride them. First short skis are lighter on your pack and on your feet. Second, they are more maneuverable in tight skiing conditions often found skiing technical lines. Finally, I think a shorter ski will give you more longitudinal control over the tip and tail, again, an important consideration for technical ascents and descents.
Go for a softer three buckle boot, possibly removing the powerstraps. This streamlined set-up makes the long days in the skin-track more comfortable and makes any technical climbing that you might need to do easier as you are able to move more naturally in a softer boot. Yes, you give up some skiing performance, but skiing skill always trumps gear and skill weighs nothing so think about developing skills rather than relying on gear. Make sure your boot has a beefy mountaineering type sole and that your crampons fit properly and tightly. You end up spending a lot of time out of your skis and in your boots so it also a good idea to size them a bit larger and make sure you have a comfortable rather than a performance fit. Consider utilizing a custom foot bed as well for the best fit for your ski boots. There is nothing worse than feeling as though your boots don’t fit right at the top of a big descent. Most reputable outdoor shops offer some type of custom foot bed option.
Adjustable skiing poles can be shrunk down and fit neatly on your pack if you need to use your hands for climbing. Consider replacing your pole(s) with a Black Diamond whippet or two. These nifty devices may allow you to leave your ice axe at home (depending on your objectives) and at least give you a fighting chance in what otherwise might be a nasty fall. As a final note, I prefer aluminum to carbon poles for multi-day trips. If carbon breaks it literally explodes and shatters is essentially non-repairable, whereas aluminum can be field repaird and will often bend or dent instead of breaking.
Make sure your glue is good. Skin glue problems tend to wildly exacerbate themselves on a multi-day tour. Make sure you have some parts and repair strategies for tip and tail connections if these critical elements fail.
As always, travel safe in the mountains and enjoy the gettin’ while the gettin’ is good!!
I recently had the opportunity to climb with three great guys – Kevin, Brant, and David – all of whom were long time friends prior to the trip, and had previously had some mountaineering experience on Mt. Rainier and Denali (Mt. McKinley). Their mountaineering experience led them to become curious about gaining more technical climbing skills and ability, to perhaps qualify themselves for future objectives such as Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier or other technical alpine routes in Alaska.
Being that none of the three had any previous ice climbing experience we naturally started from the beginning. From learning the use of ice specific crampons to swinging a technical ice tool. Our progression started with top-roping in the South Park climbing area at the Ouray Ice Park – and began with a few laps on lower angled ice to solidify the nuances of footwork and techniques associated with proper balance on the ice. We then progressed and integrated the use of ice tools – first one tool, then the second tool.
Over the years we have found that utilizing this progression is very helpful for developing the kind of “good habits” with regard to ice climbing technique that allows climbers to advance quickly in terms of their climbing ability on ice. Our established and time-tested curriculum is well known for helping people to become better ice climbers in a much faster time frame than they may have anticipated or expected prior to committing to the sport.
Our second and third days climbing were spent in the Scottish Gullies area of the Ice Park – working on developing steeper and steeper ice techniques, as well as other associated technical skills and knowledge. A winter storm made for some classic and picturesque climbing the entire weekend.
Kevin, Brant, and David are considering coming back later this summer for our Kautz Glacier Climb on Mt. Rainier or next winter for one of our Ecuador Volcanoes Expeditions as they continue to gain experience in the mountains and prepare themselves for more climbs, trips, and fun in them there hills.
Andy and Scott recently joined me on an 8 day Alpine Leadership course.
Day 1: We started out at X-rock where we rock climbed in addition to learning climbing technique, belaying, rappeling, basic anchors and traditional gear placement.
Day 2: We climbed Snowdon via the West Buttress and descended the Northeast Ridge to the Northwest Couloir. All in all a great day where we learned about the basics of short roping and the kiwi coil. That afternoon we drove up to Silverton and hiked into Ice Lake Basin.
Day 3: We woke early and learned about self arresting, and cramponing technique, before climbing Fuller and Vermillion.
Day 4: We started out the day by climbing Golden Horn. We then descended and learned about snow anchors, before heading back to camp and hiking out to the van. Lunch in Silverton, then driving up the pass to camp at the trail head for Vestal Basin.
Day 5: We hiked in to Vestal Basin and set up camp. Then learned about/practiced knot tying, and cravasse rescue techniques.
Day 6: We climbed Vestal Peak via the Wham Ridge. Then learned about navigation in the mountains.
Day 7: We hiked out to the van, and headed back to town to switch out some gear and take a shower.
Day 8: We drove up to Ouray and climbed an apline ridge just south of town called Lightline. Andy and Scott got to practice the skills they had learned throughout the week, anchors, short roping, belaying, rappeling to name a few.
Great trip guys! I hope to climb with you both again in the future!