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
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
The last couple weeks have flown by! Here are some of the highlights…
Shawn, Nick and I climbed Sunlight(14,059′) and Windom(14,082′) in Chicago Basin.
I met Ken, Daniel and Aaron in Telluride to climb Wilson Peak(14,017′). While waiting in the gas staion parking lot at 4:30am I got to see who was making a mess by knocking over all the trash cans, and going through the contents. We were surprised to find a 1/2″ of fresh snow on Wilson Peak. It quickly melted as the sun came up and started heating up the rock.
Lastly Bob and I hiked up Noname Basin to climb Jagged Peak. We ended up climbing the rarely attempted Peak 6(13,705′) instead.
It was great climbing with all of you! Its hard not to have fun in the San Juans this time of year. Hell any time of year is great!
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!
Robert just came out and joined me in some Fast and Light climbing. I had planned a standard solid itinerary but in quickly became apparent that standard was not what Robert came to Colorado for.
Day 1: We drove up to Andrews Lake and hiked into Snowdon planning to climb it on day 2. We got to our campspot ahead of schedule and decided to go for the summit. On the way down we went over snow school(self arresting, snow anchors, etc.). A full day ahead of scedule we decided to nix the day 3 plan of climbing North Twilight and go rock climbing at X-Rock and East Animas instead. So we packed up and headed down to Andrews Lake to camp for the night.
Day 2: We got up early to drive to Durango and get gear. We were climbing a 2 pitch route at X-rock by 7:30am. A few more laps and it was time to drive across the valley and head up to East Animas. A few more laps and a few trad leads for Robert, and it was time to head to Ouray and get ready for the Snake Couloir on the north side of Sneffles.
Day 3: We were walking away from the car at 5am. The Snake Couloir was in great condition we were on top at 11:15am. Much welcomed glissading down the East Slopes route got us back down to Blaine Basin. From there a short hike and we were back at the car.
All in all it was a great trip that goes to show the more you put in, the more you get out.
Thanks for working hard Robert!
Keith had climbed Snowdon multipule times but had never been up the West Buttress or down the Northwest Ridge. We decided to make a day of it. Keith left Farmington early in the morning and picked me up in Durango on the way North to the mountains. The route was in great condition and the weather was perfect, it’s hard to not have fun with a combo like that. Below are a couple pics from the day. Enjoy!
Julie is training to climb Nun and Kun in Kashmir this summer. Julie came up to Durango and climbed with me in January during an Intro to Mountaineering course. She just returned last week for some more. We started out with two days of ice climbing. Day one in Cascade Canyon going over the basics, and day two in Ouray at the Skylight area and a little in the Ice Park. We then headed up to Snowdon to learn some crevasse rescue, how to ascend a fixed line, team rope travel, make a summit bid, and do some winter camping. On the fifth day we made a summit bid, but turned around part way up because of the avalanche conditions. We hiked back to camp, packed up, and were back in Durango by noon so we switched out gear and went rock climbing at X-Rock for a few hours. The last day we headed back to Cascade Cayon for some more ice climbing, before Julie started the drive back to Flagstaff.
Great climbing with you Julie!
Tim has wanted to climb Pigeon and Turret since he first saw them years ago, but Pigeon and Turret are big peaks deep in the Weminuche. Just getting into Ruby Creek at the base of the peaks is a big day. The weather didn’t look great but looked like it would offer us a window to climb the peaks. Sure enough we got rained on hiking in and out of Ruby Creek but were blessed with only sun on the climbing day. Hiking out we figured we ascended around 9,800′ in the three days.
Great trip Tim!
Below are some photos of our trip.
Gary had been into Chicago Basin back in the 70′s, and had left with unfinished business. He had climbed Jupiter and Windom but bad weather denied them Eolus and Sunlight. Since the 70′s Gary has climbed peaks all over the North Cascades. When he decided to return to the Weminuche to finish the peaks in Chicago Basin, he wanted to make it a combo trip and visit Vestal Basin as well.
We started out the 7 day trip with a day of rock climbing at East Animas in Durango, finishing day one with a two pitch climb called Angel Dust. Day two we took the train into Elk Park and hiked into Vestal Basin where we were greeted with a great show from two moose. The next morning we woke early and climbed the amazing Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak. On the way down from Vestal we decided it was early enough in the day to climb Arrow Peak as well. The next two days were spent hiking over to Chicago Basin for the second part of the trip. We decided that it was most efficent to climb all the 14,000′ Chicago basin peaks in one day so again we woke early and climbed Eolus then Sunlight and were at 13,800′ on Windom when the weather started coming in and forced us down. Not bad for one day! The final day of this great trip was spent hiking out of Chicago Basin and catching the train to Durango.
Check out some photos below!
- Climbing ‘Yellow Pages’ at East Animas.
- On the hike in. Vestal and Arrow in the background.
- The two moose.
- Climbing Wham Ridge!
- Climbing Arrow Peak with Wham Ridge in the background.
- Hiking on the train tracks through the mud slide.
- Sunrise on Eolus.