"Hokey beta and ancient guidebooks are no substitute
for a good ice axe in your hand, kid."
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A long time ago in a trailhead far, far away...
Oh who am I kidding? When you're writing about climbing the Skywalker Couloir, especially after having taken the Princess Leia finish, there is no shortage of corny opening lines. So I'll spare you all that and cut right to the chase. Chris, Mike and Marella were playing hooky on Tuesday to climb the famous Skywalker Couloir on South Arapaho Peak. I weighed my professional obligations and dwindling supply of paid time off against the opportunity to do an ultra-classic route with some kindred spirits on one of my favorite peaks in Colorado. It was a short debate.
One day shy of the summer solstice, even a 5am start is light enough that we didn't need headlamps. We covered the two miles of trail to the 4th of July Mine in good time watching the spectacular sunrise on Mts. Jasper and Neva. Skywalker hove into view as we rounded the shoulder of the ridge to the north. It narrowed down pretty well in the middle, but the top part appeared wide and free from cornices. There are three documented exits to the route: Escape (the easiest), Han Solo (4th class rock) and Princess Leia (a 60+ degree "snow/ice hose"). The bottom few hundred feet of the 1500' tall route had melted out leaving a large slope of talus and wildflowers which we picked our way across. It was still early in the morning and our legs weren't quite awake yet.
The south face of South Arapaho.
Chris, loaded for bear.
Skywalker is rather unusual in that it's south-facing, yet doesn't receive direct sunlight until fairly late in the morning. Given the conditions encountered on my most recent snow climb, I was a bit gun-shy of steep snow on sunny slopes. The timing of the climb would be important; hard snow is safer from an avalanche standpoint and is easier to protect, but moderately soft snow is much easier to climb and has much less risk of a slip.
At the base of the route, we discussed logistics and geared up while waiting for things to warm up a bit. Mike and Marella are relative novices at snow climbing while Chris and I each have half a dozen or more snow climbs under our belts. The snow at the bottom of the climb was rock-hard. Given this, we donned crampons immediately and roped up, tying in at 50' intervals the combination of my 100' and 50' glacier ropes. Chris added my two home-made pickets (think of giant tent stakes) to his two long, commercial units, donned a small rack of rock gear, and took the lead. Mike followed in line with Marella behind and me last.
The bottom few hundred feet of the snow served as a nice shake-down for the steeper sections above. We stopped after 200' on a rock and made adjustments. Chris's ankles were bothering him and he needed to adjust his crampons and one of my boots were too loose. Thus adjusted, Chris lead the second pitch pounding in a picket or slotting a nut every 50 meters or so, kicking steps as possible. The rest of us followed along slowly and I pulled each peice as I got to them. Pickets are easy enough to deploy -- reach behind you and pull them out of the side-slots on your pack, then jab and/or pound them in -- but they are a real hassel to remove and rack efficiently. My short (20") pickets are just short enough that I can clip them to my pack where they are fairly out of the way, but Chris's long (36") aluminum bars clattered and whacked me in the shins every time I moved. There has got to be a better way.
Marella, Mike, and Chris working their way into the middle section of the climb.
Emerging from the narrows and into the sunlight.
At length, Chris had placed all four pickets and a couple nuts as well. He pulled up to a nice bergshrund and set up camp while the rest of us arrived. We were about half way up the climb and it had taken us an hour and a half; not a stellar pace, but kicking steps was taking a long time. The deep shadows in this, the narrowest part of the couloir, cooled us quickly and we couldn't enjoy our perch for long.
Chris and I traded gear, I deployed my second ice tool, and I took off on lead for the third pitch. The slope had increased to a healthy 45 degrees and the transition from comfortable belay nook to diagonal slope was sudden. I made an effort to kick steps as I went, but the snow was still incredibly solid. My crapon points went in okay, but my ice axe spike would sink no more than an inch. I found that daggering (using the picks of my tools rather than the shafts) was far more secure than the traditional approach. It was very reminiscent of the conditions on Lambs Slide last year and I was very glad to be roped up. But full sunlight was shining at the top of the couloir and promissed softer snow to come.
After Mike, now third in line, came off the ledge, I pounded in a picket and from then on I tried to put in something shortly before Chris (now last) arrived at my last peice. From a rock climbing perspective, this kind of runout is very bold, but snow is a bit more forgiving since ice-axe-enabled self-arrest is your first line of defense in case of a fall. Even with 100' or more between gear placements, I was quickly running out of gear. I had finally reached the sunny part of the route and the snow became marginally softer. I could kick steps a bit better, which was good because the slope had ratchetted up from steep to very steep. The peanut gallery below commented that their legs could use a break (and I was running out of gear), so I pulled up on a small ledge on the right side of the couloir and brought everyone up.
The top was clearly visible perhaps 300' above us now and looked straight-forward but daunting. The broad snowfield at the upper portion of the route ended in a set of short cliffs with a 20' wide channel of snow between them. This, then, must be the Princess Leia exit to the route. I relieved Chris of the pickets (he confirmed my annoyance at having to carry them) and set out for the fourth and final pitch.
Kicking steps. Princess Leia is the narrow strip of snow above me. (MC)
Looking down from the middle of Leia.
Fortunately, the sun had warmed things quite a bit by now and the number of hearty kicks required to form a good step had dropped from a dozen or more (with supplemental adze-chopping) to half a dozen to only two or three. I spied a crevasse in the direct line of ascent and detoured right to pass it. The snow here was quite soft and I worried that we might break through into the unknown rocky depths below. Not trusting a picket in this, I found a thin band of ice along the bergshrund and placed a short ice screw (my first on-lead screw placement, whee!) before traversing back left to line up for my attack run on Princess Leia.
The final 100' was simply stellar -- by far the most fun I've ever had on crampons! The snow was soft enough for good step kicking but firm enough that I could climb with axes in tool mode. Swing, swing, kick, kick, lather, rinse, repeat. This rocked! Looking down, I saw how fearsomely steep it had become but and felt exhilarated rather than scared.
All too soon, I reached a nearly flat stretch of snow close enough to the top to be all but academic. Having sunk all the pickets already, I used an ice tool for a quick belay and retreated to a balcony of stone overlooking the finish to belay and take pictures. Marella worked her way up the last 50' exclaiming in wonder the whole way. Mike soon followed with Chris, clanking and swearing from a full load of pickets, bringing up the rear. Safe! The time was 11:20 and it had taken us just under four hours for the whole climb.
The final 200 vertical feet to the ridge and summit were an easy scramble over loose talus. Flowers, a marmot, and spectacular views all 'round. Along the way, we discussed the planned double-traverse to North Arapaho and back and found that there was somewhat less enthusiasm than there had been at the start. The weather was looking a bit questionable and we didn't want to commit to two hours of 3rd-class scrambling on already-tired legs. Instead, we trooped up to the stone shelter on the south summit and had a leisurely gnosh and kibitz.
Starting my attack run. Holy cow that's steep! (MC)
Marella, Mike, and Chris gettin' er done.
Marella lead the way down the east ridge over surprisingly rough ground until we got to the saddle overlooking the Arapaho Glacier. It's a spectacular cirque featuring the largest glacier in Colorado, but it's also closed to the public for the most specious, arrogant, and Boulder-politikal of reasons. Feh! We shared a few choice thoughts about elected officials doing the will of the people and continued down the easy trail. Bright sun, strong wind, countless wildflowers in yellow, white, and blue followed us on our leisurely way.
The final hundred feet to the summit.
Descending from the Arapaho Glacier overlook. (MC)
At length, we got back down to the mine and retrieved our hiking poles for the two miles back out. Skywalker, now fully illuminated, hung impressively on the south face. A certain smugness filled the air. And a surprisingly restrained littany of Star Wars references. We trudged back down to the trailhead passing various hikers on the way up. As always, the hike out was far longer and more tedious than the hike in, but it wasn't so bad. Certainly better than a day at work!
The force is strong in this one! No midichlorians neccessary. What a fantastic climb!
The Wilderness Journal