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Friday, June 27, 2008

Pacific Peak

So Lubin calls me last night and suggests we go climb something. I'd been browsing Dave Cooper's Snow Climbs book and seen the North Couloir route on Pacific Peak so I suggested it to Lubin. He wasn't familiar with the route, but it sounded good. Our plans were set.

I realized after we talked that I never really read the route description all the way through, and I hadn't checked other sources. I didn't have to read long to find out that the North Coulior is a serious climb, with 60 degree slopes, possible alpine ice, and a need for some gear we didn't have. I called Lubin back to give him an update and we decided to head to the couloir anyway. The trip there should be a spectacular hike and if we didn't like the looks of the couloir, we'd find another way to the top.

We met just off of Highway 9 at 6:30 and took Lubin's car as far as we could up the road. The four-wheel section is rough but was passable in Lubin's Suburu Outback. We finally had to stop at an avalanche debris field that probably still holds 6 feet of snow. Hiking by shortly after 7, we headed up towards the lakes past some great old mine ruins and it took a while before we got a view of Pacific Peak. I knew we wouldn't get any view of the North Couloir until we were almost directly in front of it, so we'd have to be patient.

The approach should not be underestimated. Reaching the very top of the valley takes time, and postholing in some of the snowfields doesn't help. Thankfully, much of the snow was solid and made travel considerably easier. We rested at the top of the valley around 11:00 and quickly dismissed any thoughts of climbing the North Couloir - not only were we underprepared, the branch of the couloir to the right of the notch was sporting an ugly cornice. We opted for a gentler, cornice-free option on Pacific's north ridge, approximately 500 feet of snow climbing that never exceeded 45 degrees. Once on the ridge, it was a slow scramble to the top, which I reached about 1:00. On the way up we passed the cornice we had seen from below, and it had a bergschrund-like crevasse nearly a foot wide. It might sit there for a day or a week, but it's going to come down and I hope nobody is in that couloir when it does.

Our best bet for heading down was to head east off of Pacific's summit down to the broad, flat bench that holds one of Colorado's highest lakes. We wanted to make a lot of easterly progress and find a suitable glissade slope. I had only glissaded a couple times before, earlier this month on Mt. Sherman, and that wasn't nearly as steep or long as what I faced here. I had my ice axe and knew how to self-arrest. What could go wrong?

It turns out that my glissade skills need some work. I got going pretty fast and before I knew it I had turned sideways, caught a boot, and then began tumbling down the slope. The axe had left my hands and was now a threat to injure me, but somehow mid-tumble I managed to gain control and stop myself. I had probably done 5 or 6 somersaults and snow had filled in behind my glacier glasses, so I really couldn't see anything. Lubin missed the whole thing, as he was still descending ahead of me. Later, on another slope, he did get to watch me have similar problems on a shorter slope. It could have been much, much worse, but I survived without a scratch and I'll be sure to get some glissade practice on a kinder, gentler slope.

The rest of the trip out was much less eventful, navigating around the lakes and encountering several groups of people headed for the lakes, the first people we'd seen all day. We made it back to the car just before 5 and headed home. After 10 hours on the trail, we were beat!

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