For several years now I’ve been slowly chipping away at the Centennial 13ers, trying to do them each in what seems like the most reasonable fashion. Peaks like Vestal and Dallas in the San Juans, for example, seem most reasonably climbed as a summer backpack/alpine rock scramble since their approaches are long and they both hold classic alpine rock routes. In contrast, peaks like Grizzly and Cronin in the Sawatch seem most reasonable to ski during spring snow season, since they both have classic couloirs/faces that make them unique.
One Centennial that most certainly strikes me as a skier’s/snow climber’s mountain is Cathedral Peak (13,943 feet) in the Elk Range outside of Aspen. During the summer months this peak is a loose and dangerous pile of rock, with the standard route necessitating a climb up a steep choss gully. Like other high Elk Range peaks, this loose rock can and does claim lives occasionally, and it seems to be best avoided by waiting until it gets locked into place by spring snow cover. In April, May, and June, with stable alpine snow and good coverage, Cathedral transforms into a snow seeker’s paradise. Numerous chutes and lines drop off it’s east aspect, including the well-known Pearl Couloir and of course the standard route gully.
Perhaps slightly less well-known is the challenging and aesthetic East Face Couloir, first skied by Lou Dawson and Bob Perlmutter in 2005. Brian skied this same line in 2011 and felt inspired enough to include it in the Elks section of our recently published guidebook. With good information in hand, and a hunch that Cathedral would be in decent condition, we made the decision to go for it this past Monday.
Rick and I met our friend Jon Bloomfield at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead on Sunday night after making the 3 hour drive from Denver. The next morning we started at 4am and made good time up the first mile and a half of dry trail leading up towards the lake.
While the face may look pristine in the first photo above, in reality it seemed to have been peeling off for some time. The mouth of the couloir was chalked with around a hundred vertical of unavoidable avy debris, and much of the lower couloir itself had peeled down to the dust layer. That said the choke was still well filled in and the upper-half of the route was in excellent condition for skiing.
We topped out on the summit ridge just before 10am and bee lined it to the summit as we knew the face was heating up in a hurry. Rick and I looked at possibly skiing the face direct, but a series of good-sized cornices guarded easy entrance onto the steep terrain below. Concerned about how warm it was up there and the potential for a cornice collapse onto steep terrain above a cliff, we made the easy decision to head down the ridge.
Once down the ridge we peered over the top of the line, exchanged nervous/excited glances, and dropped in. The skiing up top was excellent and the turns exhilarating.
The crux of the couloir seemed to be the terrain just above the rock choke about half way down. Here the chute rolled over to an angle of at least 50 degrees, maybe steeper. Once below the choke the angle relented to a comfortably 40 degrees or so.
Once below the face we skied down to the top of a roll and took a long break. All of the various culinary options came out of the packs and a small feast ensued. It was great to just sit in the basin and admire Cathedral, Malemute, and the spectacular beauty of the Elk Range in general.
We were able to keep the boards on down to around 11,000 feet. As much as I hate hiking down dry trail in ski boots, just being in this area again seemed to make it all better.
All in all I’m convinced doing Cathedral as a snow climb/ski descent is the way to go. The abundance of routes on the East Face alone is impressive, not to mention the Pearl. It had been a long time since I skied a big Elk Range line. Feeling much more confident on skis than I did years ago, I had an absolute blast skiing this line. Jon and Rick, thanks for helping me make it happen this year!
And thank you for reading…