Note: This trip report is part of the TetonAT Trip Report Contest. Aaron is now in the running to win a FREE pair of Black Diamond skis based on viewer response and the TetonAT panel of judges! Good luck Aaron!!
Aaron rides Cathedral Peak with the Elk Mountains in the distance.
The Elk Mountains of Colorado offer delights for ski mountaineers beyond what has been published in the guidebooks. The winter of 2007-08 delivered one of the deepest mid-continental packs in recent memory and by May, the couloirs were ripe with corn. In the last few years, the number of skiers out climbing and skiing summits rising above the arbitrary elevation of 14,000 feet has risen astronomically. It so happens that there are many peaks that don’t quite reach that height, but never the less, have aesthetic snow lines worth exploring. Identifying a sub-fourteener with desirable couloirs nearly ensures that you will have the descent to yourself. One of these is Cathedral Peak, elevation 13,948 feet. This mountain divides Conundrum Creek from the Cathedral Lake drainage and is connected to Castle Peak by a long north-south running ridge. From its summit, the central Elk Range provides a spellbinding view.
Cathedral Peak from Cathedral Lake.
Cathedral Peak is known for one spectacular line known as the Pearl Couloir, that has been popularized by Louis Dawson in his “Colorado Backcountry Skiing Vol: I”. It is truly an Elk Mountain classic. A few years ago, we noticed a dramatic line off the east side of the mountain as shown in the photo published by Dawson. As far as the guidebook was concerned, this had not been ridden or named. In the spring of 2007, Dawson posted on his website, a trip report in which he described the climb and descent of this awesome line. On the last weekend of May 2008, we went to see for ourselves. The approach trail doesn’t reveal its magnificence of the Cathedral Lake Cirque until you are very nearly at the shore of the lake. From here you can see north, west and east facing aspects. Some are broad snow fields and many are steep, narrow lines amid towers of crumbly Elk Mountain metamorphic choss. We hiked in on Saturday morning. Upon gaining the lake, Pearl Couloir showed off its intimidating pitch and length. While it is indeed a beauty, there was a blemish in the form of a large overhanging cornice. This caused us some concern and encouraged us to look to the northern aspect of the mountain to check on the unnamed line. It was loaded and free of obvious objective hazard.
The Google Earth version.
We set up camp and accomplished two descents before the slush cycle set in, routes 1 and 2 indicted on the Google Earth image. The modified Google Earth image is illustrated with red lines for ascent routes and blue lines for descent routes. The ascent/descent routes are numbered in order of completion. The number appears at the top of the route.
We decided on a quick climb and ski of two lines on the northeast aspect of the north-south ridge that connects Cathedral with the unnamed point 13,848 as indicated in the Dawson guide. Each was a pleasant surprise, providing more that 1,000 feet of descent each. Route 1 took us through two tight spots with broad snow fields between them. Route 2 was on the huge northwest aspect of Malamute Peak on an expansive snowfield. Although it was getting late, the slope angle was low and the aspect doesn’t get direct sun. Kicking steps and making turns were done under the supervision of the visibly intimidating line, route 3, reserved for the next day. The couloir on Cathedral beckoned and frightened us at the same time.
Rising before sunrise we prepared for an exciting day. Loading packs with crampons, ice axe, water and snacks, we nervously wondered about the conditions we would find. The crisp snow under the pre-sunrise light turned out to be ideal. There had been a thorough overnight freeze. The early morning glow on the towers and buttresses adorning the cirque filled us with a wondrous awe, but as always, the line loomed above us. Reaching the steepness we attached our crampons. The hallway narrowed and the pitch increased. We took turns being in front, finding the route was not hard, all we had to do was ascend the fall line between the rocks.
Booting up Cathedral Peak.
At the top of the chute we were greeted with a dazzling array of snow lines contained within the central Elk Mountains. Of course the well-known peaks jumped out at us. The Maroon Bells, Castle and Conundrum Peaks were obvious and along with them a seemingly endless array of unnamed lines waiting for an aspiring crew of corn enthusiasts. Taking in the scenery was quite nice, however, buckling in the for descent brought us to another immediate level of aspiration.
The first few hundred feet included a roll over section that caused the terrain to disappear. Our edges were biting into the sun-softened corn nicely giving us confidence on the 45 degree plus terrain.
Aaron on some technical terrain.
We regrouped and readied for the crux. Chris went through first and positioned himself with the camera. The turns were incredibly tight and the consequences of a fall immediately present in the rocks beneath and to the side. Evan showed an impressive level of grace on his telemark skis. I followed on splitboard with axe in hand and eyes on the sequence of mandatory turns ahead. The surface of the snow was smooth, with not enough melting yet for runnel development. We proceeded one at a time down the broadening line across the apron and onto the easy slopes of the bowl. The timing had been impeccable, the conditions made for an ideal descent and we weren’t finished yet.
Across the bottom of the bowl and rising on the north facing aspect was a narrow slot that led to a long east-west running ridge, route 4. We knew that on the other side of this ridge was a huge bowl that we could descend if we hurried to beat the afternoon 7-11 slurpee machine. Quickly booting up the line we gained the ridge. This proved to be a rather sporting traverse as the ridge was comprised of stacked and chossy dinner plates. With exposure on both sides we proceeded carefully. The reward was over 1.800 feet of corn down to the edge of the lake. In marked contrast to the steep and narrow line off of Cathedral, this unnamed bowl was wide open with rolling terrain. We had two huge descents in before noon and were well pleased with our efforts.
Once down at the lake, we could see that there was more to do. Malamute Peak (Slate Mt.) offers a huge northeast facing 25-30 degree snowfield. We had skied this the previous day (route 2) and very much wanted to sample it again.
Since we were on our way home that day, we decided to pack up camp and then go ultra-light up the northeastern edge of this slope, and get into one of the shallow couloirs at its edge (Route 5). We left the packs at the bottom and went for it. The biggest problem was what to do with our skins once we took them off. We had no packs or jackets to stuff them into. Evan surfed the slush without a shirt and jammed his skins in his shorts. Chris and I kept our shirts on, but we also shoved our skins in our pants. Picking up the packs on the way down, we were able to slide out most of the way down the canyon.
It had been two days of monumental skiing. None of us had been to the cirque before, therefore all the terrain was new. The weather was ideal and the snowpack was generous. Since we had not heard of a name for the route on Cathedral, we called it the “Crypt Couloir”. It seemed appropriate for a Cathedral to have a place to put the dead people. We of course were anything but ready to be put to rest in the crypt. Rather, we were invigorated and feeling very much alive about the discovery of this magnificent cirque.