Savage Peak resides in the Holy Cross Wilderness 6 miles southwest of Holy Cross itself. Though there are some good summer hiking routes to its summit, a wild and aesthetic couloir on it’s northeastern flank makes for a good reason to lug skis back in there. Savage’s namesake couloir runs roughly 1,200 ft from near the summit down to Missouri Lakes, and is a line Brian found inspiring enough to include in the Sawatch section of our guidebook. Having not skied Savage yet myself, it sat high on my wish list for the spring and we were fortunate enough to ski it a couple of weekends back. Well, some of us at least. More on that later.
In an effort to be transparent and provide an example of a day that didn’t go exactly as planned, I’ll focus this TR on lessons learned as opposed to glossing it all over. A later-than-prudent start time and completely inaccurate weather forecast had Carl, Marc, Brian and I pushing the pace on the approach up through Missouri Creek to try to get to the base of the line before it heated up too much. We were anticipating an overcast day and what we got was bluebird sun and scorching temps.
Carl and I were in the lead at the base of the Savage and became concerned about the state of the snow higher up in the couloir. We made the decision to split off from the Savage and climb an auxiliary couloir that was more north-facing and shaded, reasoning it’d be a viable way to get to the summit without being exposed to the warming cornice up above. Trouble is we had no idea what to expect at the top of this couloir – whether it’d be straightforward to jump out onto Savage’s east ridge, or not.
Carl and I reached the top and quickly discovered, sure enough, there was no easy way out of the couloir. We wound up climbing a hairy class 4 pitch of loose rock and ice, not fully aware of how tough the moves were until we were already committed. Brian and Marc came up behind us and made the decision to turn around and ski the chute back down, which was the prudent thing to do all things considered. Carl and I, now above the difficulties and with zero desire to downclimb what we had just climbed up, were more or less forced to continue along with our plan. It was clear the most reasonable and efficient way off the peak at that point was to head up to the summit and ski the Savage back down into Missouri Lakes. So we bee lined it up to the top, took a breather for just long enough to shove down some Honey Stinger gels and crank down our bindings, and dropped into the Savage around 10:30am.
As it turned out, the snow in the couloir was more manageable than we were anticipating. Sticking to skier’s right as much as possible put us on a more northern aspect, which in my opinion, skied great. Carl’s recollection was a tad less positive, but deep down I know he enjoyed it.
POV footage of the descent I put together:
Carl and I shot out of the bottom of the Savage and located Marc and Brian, who unfortunately had run into even more issues on their way down the other couloir. The gist is that both gentlemen parted ways with their flotation, one of them on purpose and the other accidentally. Thankfully all manner of skis and snowboards were eventually accounted for, and we were able to ski out of Missouri Lakes as a group with relative ease. If you are looking for a greater level of detail than that, feel free to reach out to Marc or Brian directly for the complete story 😉
At the parking lot we enjoyed a sixer of IPA, some analysis, a few laughs, and ultimately a check mark in the win category as we all returned healthy and with all gear accounted for. Bottom line, I’m ready for summer.
A few notes/takeaways from the day for those interested in some Monday morning self-analysis (ok, it’s actually Monday afternoon):
- The snowball effect so common to mountaineering accidents was definitely in play on this day. Our first error was an easy one to identify (a late start) and was motivated by several factors. As a result we found ourselves in a bit of a rush, which spread the group out and made for tired legs once we reached the actual couloir.
- Because we felt we were late, we made the decision to climb an unknown route thinking it’d minimize risk. In making this decision we arguably subjected ourselves to more risk due to the nature of the loose, steep climb out of the couloir.
- We wound up skiing hot snow down the Savage about 45 minutes later than we would have had we just climbed it directly, which exposed us to the same danger we were trying to prevent by climbing up the auxiliary couloir in the first place (although, for considerably less time).
- All of the above considered, the main lesson here is that when the original plan isn’t working out, sometimes its better to just call it a day than to go with an unknown. I’ll admit to wanting to ski the Savage Couloir on this day, which probably pushed me to take on a higher level of risk to gain the summit of the peak. It’s been said countless times in this sport/hobby – the mountain isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes reminders are needed.