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).