- Climbers: Zambo, Josh & Dillon
- Peak: Cathedral Peak (13,943 ft)
- Route: South Ridge Standard
- Distance: Approx 8 miles
- Vert: 4,150 feet
- Round Trip Time: 8 hours, 45 minutes
- Date Climbed: 5/21/16
The Elks are the sort of mountains that must have inspired early mountaineers. Man has always had a need to get to the top of things, but the Elks are one of those places where you look up and can’t help but feel the call of the hills. For those early explorers venturing into the heart of Colorado, I imagine they saw the iconic peaks here and were inspired.
Or at the very least, I know I certainly am.
I haven’t spent much time in the lower peaks in the Elks, but I have loved it every time I do. While these peaks do not cross the magical 14,000 foot line line in the sky, they don’t lack for adventure, aesthetics, or anything else that makes a mountain awesome. It is a special space. This is our story on one of those mountains – a trip to go elk hunting and find adventure on a new centennial.
The trip started like so many others: a rendezvous at the Dino lots, followed by a long drive to the trailhead. Dillon helped the drive pass quickly as he shared helpful life advice regarding assisting stranded Montana-ites, how to maximize the tax benefits of having a child, surviving wet slides in the Park, and all of the finer details of State College (or is it College State? College Station? Happy Valley? ex-Paternoville? I get confused with anything involving the East Coast).
As we rolled into the Roaring Fork Valley, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the jorts and bro tanks I saw walking down Main Street on a Friday night in Glenwood Springs. Questionable wardrobe choices aside, the attire signaled a trend that we would have to keep an eye on all day: it was warm. 60 degrees at 8:30 at night to be precise. Getting closer to Aspen didn’t do much to lower the temperatures. Already, the hope of a summit was floating away like a business card left atop a summit.
We nestled into bed a quarter mile below the Cathedral Lake Trailhead and were lights out by 11:00. As Dillon and Josh bivyed up directly underneath a fallen aspen (precariously being held up by a thin, dead branch on another tree) I hoped for the best as I set my alarm for 2:30, content to have a solid car roof above my head. We opted for a 3:00 start time in an effort to try to be at the base of the southeast crux couloir as early as possible.
The first few miles of walking in the dark went as expected. A semi-covered snow trail sloshed and slushed underneath our boots. As usual, Josh unintentionally set a torrid pace which, after an hour, flared up my cold and left me nearly puking at the first stop. It left Dillon delirious and somehow walking directly underneath slide paths 300 feet above us. It was probably just to escape the calf burn. But I shouldn’t complain – after a few hours (and an adventure with a 60 degree melted out slope which require multiple self-arrests into mud) we reached tree line right at dawn and right on time for pristine alpenglow in the Elks.
All morning we had been very apprehensive about the conditions. In fact, there were multiple times during the approach where I thought to myself, “There’s just no way we’re going to get this peak.” The snow was punchy all the way up to timberline, we had yet to see signs of sluffing or sliding from the previous days, and we were expecting to see the crux couloir loaded as we approached. In the feint morning light we assumed the worst.
In fact, as we took our first real break, we actually decided to bail. Without being able to see the couloir unless we ascended another 1,000 feet and went around the corner, we felt certain we would reach it and have to turn back. Wanting to get the most of the day, we decided to head for Electric Pass and Leahy Peaks instead – decent consolation prizes with safer access. We expressed as much to a group of skiers who caught up to us at treeline. They planned to go for the Pearl Couloir.
So, after some not-so-veiled shots about snowshoeing from the skiers, (“Hey, uh, it’s a whole lot easier with skis you know.” Thank you for those bits of wisdom), we trudged onwards towards Electric Pass with the sun breaking behind.
Within minutes of departing from the skiers, the sun rose and changed our perspectives entirely. We could now much more clearly see the upper slopes all around us. To our delight, we could see that many similar aspects to Cathedral’s standard route – including the Pearl – had slid. This was an encouraging sign: if the crux couloir to reach the south ridge has also run, we would have a much safer shot at being able to climb it. Further, the snow was finally starting to firm up more to our liking. With this knowledge in hand, we immediately pivoted on our previous bail decision and decided to go check out the couloir instead. We might have a shot after all.
I’m sure the skiers were thoroughly confused as we basically completely deviated from what we said we were going to do not 3 minutes and 100 yards prior. Snowshoers….
As we finally were able to see the crux, we got excited. The snow had a much better (albeit, not ideal) freeze at this elevation. Any wind slabs from the snowfall earlier in the week were long gone as the coulie was full of avy debris. And finally, we noted that this route actually has a southeast aspect, not east. As such, it stayed shaded all morning right up until we reached the base. Throw in a few wispy clouds and everything fell into place at exactly the right time. We decided it was good to go.
I had to practically beg Dillon to take off his snowshoes, such is his love for them, but eventually he relented and we strapped in for what would be a short and exciting tramp up the coulie.
The couloir proved to be in as great of condition as we could have hoped for. No doubt it was warming fast, but on our climb we found firm snow and excellent booting. The slide debris was especially solid and made for fast work on the 500 feet to the top.
We would have probably halved our time up if it weren’t for my crampons. Idiot that I am, I didn’t remember until strapping in that my new boots are not exactly compatible with my Sabertooths. Great for ski boots, not so much for mountaineering. Dumb.
Thankfully, I was able to make a workable solution by directly front-pointing the whole way up. Stopping every five steps to readjust my straps was not ideal, but at least it made for some nice built-in breathers. Also, the angle was far less intimidating than expected: 40ish for an average felt about right – much less down low and steeper at the top. Regardless of the exact steepness, there was never a moment of real fear or apprehension due to the pitch. Fun booting all the way.
When we reached the saddle and finally got some views, Josh let out an audible gasp in awe at the surroundings. The views were all time.
We took a few moments to reevaluate our summit bid while at the saddle. The day was heating up fast. How would the snow hold up in the estimated 45 minutes it would take us to climb to the summit and back? There may have been some risk, but we came to a quick consensus to go for it. The great conditions on the way up, the blowing wind keeping the surface of the snow cool, the lingering clouds, and the relatively late sun-hit in the couloir were all positive markers.
From the saddle, a 500 foot, class 3 scramble along the ridge awaited us. The snow was perfect and the climbing pretty relaxed. As reported, we were able to drop on the sides of the ridge to avoid most of the main obstacles along the way. Thankfully so as I had opted to do the whole thing in just one crampon (not that I had much of a choice). Glad I brought the whippet. Twenty minutes of blasting finally brought us our trophy elk.
The top of Cathedral is one of the best. Elks abound in all directions. Spires and towers dotted the skylines below. The whole range was caked. And Castle looked as impressive as any 14er I’ve ever seen. The position was pretty spectacular.
We took five quick minutes to snap just a few pics and celebrate the summit. There were so many times on the way up we thought this one was out of reach that we felt especially happy to have gotten it. Well earned, we felt.
We saw no signs of the skiers. I suspect they bailed as the aspect of the Pearl Couloir would have warmed it quite a bit earlier. Also, given that it’s just a longer, more committing line, it probably wasn’t an ideal day for it. Bummer. I hope they still had a great day and found some good turns tho. I may or may not have wished to have my planks on the descent a dozen or so times…
We got back to the saddle in 15 minutes. Within 30 seconds we had thrown the packs on and started the descent. Taking careful turns down the slope, our fears were quickly eased. We really only worried about the top hundred feet or so, but that proved to be holding up nicely: soft enough to plunge step down, but not so much that it was mashed-potatoes scary. Even with staggering our descents, we were back to the snowshoes in 20 minutes.
At this point, it was time to breath a deep sigh of relief, enjoy Dillon’s celebratory cookies, and finally drink some water. The approach had been rough. We had an early start, soft and punchy snow had followed us all the way to 13,000 feet, every step felt like 1.5x effort, and we blitzkrieged the final 1,000 feet both up and down in a race against the sun. Nothing but slop waited us below, so this was a good chance to kick back and relax in what must be one of Colorado’s finer basins.
The trek back to the car went as expected. Soupy snow and lots of spring sun made this feel like typical late-May. We bumped into another skier at tree line who was headed up the mountain. After yet another healthy dose of, “Hehehe, boy I sure like my skis compared to what you guys did!” We couldn’t help but stare in disbelief and wonder. This dude was going up uphill at 11:00 with nothing but a messy, grabby, watery basin to look forward to. To each his own, I guess.
Anyway, we got back before noon, popped some beers, and plunked ourselves down directly beneath the precarious fallen aspen which had kept Dillon and Josh company all night. Whatever, it probably won’t fall at this very moment, right? We decided to just ignore the fact that another fallen aspen was currently keeping three vehicles trapped in the main trailhead parking lot until it could get chopped up by the forest service.
We took time to reflect on a great day. This one had been unique in that the mountain kept proving it was good to go. Usually it feels like you ascend these peaks and look for every reason why it might be unsafe. It is wise to look for all the reasons to pause and reconsider an otherwise assumed summit.
But on this day, we started with an assumption that we probably weren’t going to make it. The warm temps, slow going, and junk snow cast a dim prospect on reaching the top. But with each new turn, fortune and conditions seemed to go in our favor. Cathedral just kept showing that it was good to go if we were. Thankfully, following up on the positive signs ultimately led to a new summit for all.
All in all, another fabulous day in the hills. But spending time with these two bros was the real treat. As we feasted like savages at Aspen Hickory House, our conversation turned to life, finding meaning in the mountains, and what drives all these crazy exploits. I value those moments and the relationships forged in the hills just as much as any summit. Thanks for the awesome outing guys. It was a joy to climb with you both.
Thanks for reading if you did, happy climbing!
- Depart Vehicle: 3:05
- Stash Snowshoes; Start Couloir: 7:35
- Top of Couloir: 8:05
- Summit: 8:25
- Back to Top of Couloir: 8:45
- Back to Snowshoes: 9:05
- Car: 11:50
*This could have been done faster later in the season. We were slowed by a few things: terrible, sloppy snow, the need to take snowshoes on and off a few times, and my stupid crampons. Regardless, getting to the base of the couloir requires 3,000 vert and nearly 4 miles of travel. It fel longer than that to all of us. Start early.