Monday at the Cathedral

      12 Comments on Monday at the Cathedral

The East Face of Cathedral. The line cuts up the face diagonally from right to left. Click for route overlay.

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.

Skinning near Cathedral Lake.

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.

The Pearl Couloir extending up through a series of jagged rock formations.

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.

Rick working the booter low in the couloir. It was hard not to be distracted by the views all around us.

Rick and Jon higher up on the face. This photo shows the steepness and scale of this route well.

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.

Rick and I had just enough time for a summit gaper selfie while Jon readied his skis.

…and a shot looking into the heart of the Elk Range is always a must.

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.

Jon making cautious turns just below the top of the route. Photo by Rick.

Rick lower down. The snow through here seemed to have softened perfectly and we were able to open it up a little more.

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.

Looking down the face over my skis. The choke is down and to the left.

The lower we skied the better the corn got. Photo by Jon.

Rick making a dramatic jump turn that I somehow caught on camera.

Jon skis out the lower portion of the face and apron, which required working our way through a hundred feet of thick avy debris. Photo by Rick.

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.

The apres ski.

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.

The trail winds through a beautiful Aspen grove. Spring is in full swing at 10,000 feet.

This one seemed worthy of a pitcher from Aspen Brewing Co.

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…

12 thoughts on “Monday at the Cathedral

  1. Brian

    Nice report Dr. Conners. Nice trip down memory lane. People should take note of this post as THE way to play hooky or use your “sick day”. Wet slide management is the name of the game for Spring 2014. Just gotta hope the sun bakes the snow so much that the chicken heads are soft when you run in to them.

    1. Ben Post author

      Thanks Mr. Miller. I tried to imagine you skiing this line in ice/sastrugi conditions in June, and could’t really do it. Nice work and thanks for the inspiration. By the way, I took a day of PTO. It was legit!

  2. Dillon

    Benny Goat! Well done. I’m commenting now since it’s Memorial Day weekend and I hope to have a beer in hand at some point soon. Excellent job all around my friend. I know this was tops on your spring ’14 list and I’m really glad that the “PTO” and weather gods cooperated for you! You take a mean shot with that GoPro. Keep it up! That Aspen IPA probably tasted even better than usual on this day. 2014 is shaping up nicely buddy!

    1. Ben Post author

      Thanks buddy! To be honest I like it more out of the can than on tap. Never thought I’d say that about any beer, but there it is. You and Dave need to go get this one while there’s still some snow on it!

  3. Floyd

    Looks like an excellent day out you guys. It seems the weather cooperated quite nicely after the weekend in the Never Summers. That basin holds many treats. There is another line on the NE side that I had thought was the Pearl but is different than what you labeled as such. You’ve got me curious as to what I saw and if its been documented anywhere.
    Caution Ben, the planks will soon need to be stashed for the season and you may have to slum around with us hikers again. Lets get out when that time comes.

    1. Ben Post author

      I’m ready for the change I think! A significantly lighter pack and (fingers crossed) more stable weather to get some peaks done sounds refreshing right now. I had a great time up at Nokhu, thanks for looking out of my wife 🙂
      Re: The line on the northeast side of Cathedral. I know the main couloir up there is Pearl but it’s definitely possible there’s another. That mountain has lines all over it!

      1. Floyd

        Pearl? I just took another look at my picture and we may be talking about the same line after all. Here it is (sorry for the quality). The topography seems to be the same, but it looks drastically different from this angle. Mine was taken from the summit of Leahy at the end of June 2011 (the big snow year).

  4. Brandon Chalk

    Sold work, Ben & Rick! Well done, guys.Your day of hooky worked out much better than mine a few weeks back 🙂
    Glad you got that line, guys. Hope to see you guys soon.

    1. Ben Post author

      Thanks Brando, likewise man! Maybe we can do a last ski in the Gore once the Piney Road opens up (or has it already?).

  5. Michael R.

    Nice! Glad this worked out so well for you guys while sitting in my sunny office on Monday after our snowy weekend in the (very appropriately named!) Never Summers. Its been a great May!


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