If you feel like gaining a big summit in record time, or you want to take the route less traveled, then consider kicking your ass up a snowy couloir.
When it comes to hiking 14ers, pre-dawn starts are par for the course. But when you start a 14er snow climb from Fort Collins, then be prepared to leave your warm bed PRE-pre-dawn.
Sam and I packed food, water and gear the night before, set our alarms for 2:30am and got out the door by 3:35. My fuzzy brain couldn’t tell my right foot from my left at such an ungodly hour, but I didn’t care. Sam was taking me up my first snowy spring couloir – pronounced “koo-lar” or “kool-wahr” or “steep mountain gully” and I was excited.
The half-day snow climb required stiff mountaineering boots, crampons, helmet, sunglasses, trekking pole, ice axe and loads of sunscreen. It also demanded that I mentally prep myself for trying something new – a morning climb up Cristo Couloir: a 30-40 degree pitch up the south gully along the west ridge of Quandary Peak, a 14,265-foot mountain near Breckenridge.
We checked weather conditions and recent trip reports on 14ers.com and pored over the week’s history of freeze-thaw cycles to avoid wet slide avalanches. Spring is actually prime time to boot up avy-prone couloirs like Cristo because of favorable temperatures and consolidated snow conditions.
We drove past the trailhead parking lot for the standard route, parked our car on the road east of Blue Lakes Dam and started hiking up the road at 6am. Once we got to the gate, we strapped on our crampons and worked our way up to the base of the couloir.
With a trekking pole in one hand and ice axe in the other, we booted up the couloir – sometimes kicking our crampons into the tracks ahead of us, sometimes blazing our own trail. Along the way we saw several Ptarmigan darting in and out of the rocks and snow, their mottled plumage camouflage changing color for spring. Sam Zoolander lured the birds closer to us by striking his Blue Steel pose. (What is this, a couloir for ANTS?)
To give you a sense of the different routes, Cristo (blue) has an elevation gain of 2,575 feet and a round-trip distance of two miles. The standard east ridge route (green) has a gain of 3,300 feet and a round-trip distance of six miles. Because we went on a Saturday with near-perfect couloir conditions, our gully had about 20 people on the route – mostly skiers and boarders, and some hikers like us. That’s a busy day on Cristo.
While crummy weather was hammering Fort Collins and the Front Range, we enjoyed bluebird skies and warm sunshine in Summit County. After a lot of front kicking and sideways French stepping and jazz hands, Sam made the summit around 9am and I made it by 9:15. Tons of people came up the standard east ridge route, so there was a mob at the top snapping Which-Wich selfies (Note: I’m told that if you take your photo at the top of a 14er with a sandwich bag from Which Wich, they give you a FREE sub the next time you go in.) Anyway, the wind was picking up on the summit, and we wanted to head down before the sun turned the snow into mashed potatoes, so we started our descent at 9:30.
Here’s where the trip got weird for me. I had just tackled my first couloir, no prob, and summited a Colorado 14er on a gorgeous day. But I was feeling grumpy on the mountain, which is rare for me. I felt disconnected and I just wanted it to be over. As skiers started to fly by us, whooping it up on perfect corn snow, I stopped to catch a tear rolling down my cheek. Sam asked if I was OK, and I sobbed, “I’m not hiking with joyyyyyyyyy-wahhhh.” Poor Sam.
Here I was in the mountains on a beautiful spring day with Sam, and I couldn’t find my joy. It scared me. I mean, if I couldn’t be joyful standing on top of the world with the man I love, then what would it take?!
I took a few deep breaths and thought about it. The snow climb didn’t ring my bell on this particular morning. It might next time, it might not. So what if it didn’t? Life would go on and I’d find a bunch of other fun stuff to do. Then I realized I was hungry and working on three hours of sleep. Yeah, that might have something to do with my mood.
Sam broke into my thoughts to ask, “So how do you want to get down, babe?” We had a choice of booting down or glissading. Booting down in our crampons would be slower. Glissading, or turning ourselves into human sleds using our ice axes as rudders and safety brakes, would be fast and fun. Right? Right.
Sam and I glissaded most of the way, which got us down the majority of the mountain in about 45 minutes. Not as fast as skiing down, but way faster than booting down step by step. Some people love glissading, but, well, I think Sam described it best in this Facebook post:
“Go glissading” they said. “It’ll be fun” they said. Turns out “glissade” is French for “ice enema”.
The good news is I got loads of self-arrest practice, which was actually pretty cool. I’m not sure what I was expecting for my first glissade. I think I was picturing sliding down like Frosty the Snowman with a big smile on my face, shouting at the bottom “Let’s do it again!” or “Merrrrrry Christmas!” I don’t know. Instead, glissading was a hurky-jerky, stop-and-GO-REALLY-FAST-and-stop-HARD, painful wedgie ride down the side of a mountain. No one ever told me it could physically hurt. Without gaiters, the icy snow scratched my legs until they were bleeding, and nothing could stop the snow chunks from ramming up our backsides. Thumpity, thump-thump, thumpity thump-thump look at Becky pull snow out of her underwear. I was very glad I had a helmet as skiers and other hikers were kicking ice chunks down on our heads as we were laughing, “I thought this was supposed to be FUN. This sucks!” But we got back to the car by 10:55, so in the end (ouch) we LOVED glissading, YAY!
And nothing takes the sting out of a sore backside than lunch and a Bloody Mary in Alda at the “Highest Saloon In The USA.” I really want that sign to say “Sunday, Bloody Mary Sunday.”
We drove home through Fairplay on 285, which was a nice alternative to the I-70 ribbon of death. On the way back to Fort Collins, I thought about my little post-summit meltdown and what the day taught me.
- You can have an off day even when the sunshine is glorious and the conditions are perfect. Not a big deal. Let it go.
- My chemistry teacher was right. Alcohol IS a solution. (I stole that one off a greeting card, but it’s applicable.)
- You might not experience a deep connection with nature each time you explore the outdoors, and that’s OK. Nature still loves you, and you love it back. You two are good.
- When you’re not feeling it, just focus on the good stuff about the day and think about that burger you’ll get on the way home.
- Be kind to yourself when you’re tired, hungry and doing something challenging.
- Laugh about it later. It makes for a good story. Perfect adventures are boring.
- If you’re lukewarm about an activity on the first go, maybe give it another shot. If the second time doesn’t float your boat, then no biggie. Explore something else. Pat yourself on the back for trying.
- Put some food and sleep into your body. Seriously! Sleep and food deprivation are proven torture methods, and when you’re being tortured it’s harder to enjoy the moment. Set yourself up for success next time by taking care of your body before you start hiking.
- Don’t forget to bring gaiters next time. And iron-plated underwear. And non-nutritional cereal varnish so you can glissade like Clark Griswold.
Although we made this particular trek back in mid-May, there’s still some time left in the spring couloir season if you want to boot up and give it a try. Check out routes, trip reports and weather conditions for Quandary at 14ers.com. If Cristo is too thin, there are other couloirs you can check out. But with ever-increasing temps, avoid any couloir with classic signs of loose wet avalanche conditions. You can always get a wedgie next spring.