North & South Arapaho Peaks, 13,502 and 13,397 ft

Skywalker Couloir (with Princess Leah Finish) & South Ridge, class 4 , ~8.5 miles, 3500 ft, May 2006 (Jared and Dave Pneuman)

Skywalker Couloir

After last summer I realized that not only was I not bothered by steep snow but that I actually quite enjoy it.  Nothing gets you to the top of a peak faster than a nice, solid, snow filled couloir. I look at them like alpine escalators. Since this season (2006) seems to be bringing snow routes into shape rather early I have been knocking off climbs whenever the time and a partner presents.  I've wanted to do the Princess Leah finish on South Arapaho's Skywalker Couloir for quite awhile but it tends to come into shape only briefly and I had missed the route last year.   I'd been nagging Dave Pneuman to hit some snow with me for awhile but he really seems not to like snow routes.  He isn't afraid of snow (he kept his axe in crane position until around 55 degrees whereas I start in the self arrest position at about 10 degrees) but rather simply prefers rock routes.  Fortunately for me he decided that he would give it a shot to see if he liked snow more than he remembered.

We were pretty excited about the climb and, due to beta from Kevin Craig and a friend of mine who lives in Nederland stating that the road approach was snow free decided to head up to the 4th of July Trailhead.  I had been training for this climb with a rigorous blend of drinking, fishing on the Gulf of Mexico, and getting four or less hours of sleep a night for a week during a trip to Florida from which I returned the day before the climb. DISCLAIMER: This training regime is not recommended and results in severe patience requirements on the part of  the athletes partner.

Anyway....  Dave drove to my house around 4:30 AM, May 25th, 2006.  We headed up to the trailhead and arrived somewhere near six in the morning.  We decided to forgo any rope or pro but I did bring along a set of ice tools with the thought that we could each use a tool and an axe in the steep parts.  The trail up to the base of the climb was mostly melted out with intermittent patches of snow.  No flotation was brought and none would have been helpful.  

We arrived at the base of the climb somewhere around 6:45 or 7:00 and put on our crampons.  I was quite surprised how short the climb appeared to be. Basically you go up a rather shallow angled broad snow field (20-40 degrees) before it eases up and then enters a brief constriction (20 feet wide = not that constricted). Above the constriction the climb broadens and steepens and you have several options as to how to top out.  

Looking up the Climb In The Constriction 

We headed up and made decent progress.  I've learned that rest steps are an important part of going up couloirs.  Basically you want to go a set number of steps and pause and rest before continuing, full out climbing gets tiring.  Behind us was a solo skier (a guy named Andy) and a separate party of two. The skier was hauling and only a crampon mishap prevented him from smoking us.  We made decent time up to and through the constriction.  I can't recall what the angle of the slope was but it seemed to be well less than 45 degress.

Looking Down after the Constriction

After the constriction the slope became steeper but still seemed quite gentle.  I'd take my measurements and musings with a grain of salt though, generally people overestimate slope steepness, on this climb I didn't notice it at all so am probably underestimating it.  Past the constriction the skier passed us and began climbing up towards steeper terrain.  Both Dave and the skier stayed towards the right while I, nervous about rock, snow, or ice falling from above stayed to the left. Below is a picture of the skier about 50 feet or so before the steep part.  Right before the steepest part I noticed several rocks starting to flutter down towards us.  Being a good climber I yelled 'Rock, Rock, Rock!'  after the rocks took off and flew away I realized my sunglasses are not prescription and amended my warning to 'oops, bird, bird.'  We had no rockfall on this trip :)

A Solo Skier Climbing Into The Steep Part

Right before it became steeper Dave pulled my tools out and we each took one.  I can not recommend this strongly enough for unroped, steep snow travel. With an axe and a tool you are never disconnected from the slope.  I would plunge the axe, pull the tool out, sink it in a foot or two higher, kick, kick, and repeat.  I've never felt so comfortable on snow in my life.  Up until the steep portion the snow was firm and an axe could be sunk a few inches but for the most part you were cramponing up perfect snow on your tips.  The snow was solid enough that the duckwalk sufficed even on 45+ degree snow. We also took our time  getting to the stepper portion so we could kick decent steps up it.  The picture below shows me before the snow reached the seriously steep part.  You can see the slope ramping up.

Jared, Right Before Things Really Get Steep

Leah was in great shape on the left but Dave and the skier reported some deeper power and flaking ice on the right.  I had inadvertently stayed left in what turned out to be the steepest part with the best snow and quickly passed both guys at this point as my route had bomber snow in it.  I was really enjoying myself  and thought 'Wow, this climb is overrated, it isn't even that steep.'  That is until I looked over at Dave and noticed he was standing almost parallel to the slope, I then looked down between my legs and realized that it was, in fact, REALLY steep. I wish I had a camera to take a shot but unfortunately did not. I wouldn't recommend this climb until someone sees how they like snow because  I could see it sketching people out.  After my mistake of noticing the angle of the slope (~ 70 degrees) I decided to go back to concentrating on the snow in front of me.

After a short time I popped out (the cornice is small and easily avoided, it is in fact, a non-issue).  The two pictures below show the group of two coming up past the constriction and then one of them utilizing our stairs into the steep part.

Looking Down From The Top

Another Climber Utilizing Our Freshly Installed Steps

While the guidebooks mention variation on Skywalker it seems that Princess Leah is the natural line.  It would be a shame to climb another one unless safety necessitated it.  Bring a second tool and go for it.  The picture above is taken directly overhead of the climber, if you note his body postion and the pull of gravity on the tailings on his bag the steepness of the slope becomes more apparent.

Skywalker drops you off a couple hundred vertical from the ridge connecting the Arapahos.  Dave and I congratulated each other and wished the skier luck before heading off.  We gained the ridge and immediately set off for North Arapaho.  It was here I starting feeling poorly, my aforementioned training regime was not working.  I figured I'd go on anyway and eat at the peak.

Dave, Right Before The Traverse To North Arapaho

The ridge itself is pretty straightforward if you are comfortable with 3rd and 4th class scrambling.  A great description of it can be found in Dave Cooper's excellent Colorado Scrambles (A 5 star book in my opinion).  In my opinion the exposure is negligible and the views fantastic.  There were two sections I'd put at 4th or very low 5th class.  The first is a scramble up a slab about a third of the way across the traverse.  This is 4th class if you are taller and 5.0-5.2 if shorter.  In plastic boots it felt like 5.0 to me.  As a total aside I don't believe there is any real difference between 4th class and 5.0, it really depends on so many factors that it is quite difficult to separate the two.  After this crux the ridge was pretty easy 3rd class but had enough slabby sections with water and snow that care was necessary.  The final crux came right before the final push to the summit of North Arapaho and required climbing up a short (15 -20 feet) but steep section of snow to a corner/chimney which we pulled over.  Once again class 4 or 5.0.  From here it was a short scramble up a rock and dirt gully to the summit.

North Arapaho

The views were incredible and we both took a break to eat and relax.  I think we topped out around 11:30 but this might be wrong.  There were very few signatures in the register but I believe a couple 14erworld members and a soloist in April had been up.  Unfortunately my condition was going South.  I can't believe the difference a week at sea level with no sleep makes but I was gasping for air up there.  I'd been up a tougher route a few days before Florida with Jen and hadn't sucked wind anywhere near to that bad.  My muscles were fine but my heart and lungs were racing.  Dave was very calm with the frequent breaks I had to take to catch my breath which made the trip back bearable.  We girth hitched three 48" runners together to provide an assist down the chimney crux but otherwise freed the rest of the ridge.  Along the way I had taken my helmet off and proceeded to bash my head into a rock which added a nice headache to my breathing issues.  Dave showed me a decent breathing technique which helped get me back over to South Arapaho and to the descent.  

Looking Back Towards South Arapaho

Once past South Arapaho we skipped the trail and angled in the general direction of the car.  I've become increasingly more comfortable with using a topo and intuition to guide me back to starting points.  This method is more interesting and scenic.  We had spotted the route on the approach so as to avoid cliffs on the descent.  When we came to a huge snowfield we followed a ridge next to it down to a gully, scrambled down the gully, plunge stepped down several hundred feet of soft snow, and scrambled back to the trail right where it meets the second waterfall.  Losing elevation did me a world of good and I was soon happy and breathing well.  We made quick time back to the car and headed home.  Hopefully Dave and I will hook up for the Super Star Couloir on James Peak in two weeks.  Other than that I expect to hit Dreamweaver and the Bell Cord  this month.

This was a fun climb and I'd recommend it to anyone  who is very comfortable with steep snow.  I'd also suggest people get a move on as high temperatures may melt this route out soon.  

Skywalker Couloir (with Princess Leah Finish) - South Arapaho Only, ~6 miles, 3250 ft, May 2007 (Jared and Brian Hynek)

I've decided that certain climbs are worth doing over and over again and Skywalker Couloir on South Arapaho certainly fits the bill.  Furthermore it is close and can be done from door to door in seven hours of my house.  Given that I am also pushing to get back into shape for either The Grand Teton or Mt. Rainier it seemed like a good way to start a random Thursday morning off.  I'd been up in the area just a few days before to climb Mt. Neva and had noticed that Skywalker looked to be in perfect shape.  This trip report illuminates how quickly things in the high country can change.

Brian and I met in Nederland at 5:00 A.M. on Thursday, May 31st, 2007.  We work well and quickly together and planned to climb Skywalker then be back at work by 11:00.  We arrived at the trailhead by 5:30 and set out by 5:40.  We made quick time and soon found ourselves at the base of the couloir.  We quickly donned our crampons and pulled out our axes.  We also each had an ice tool for the upper parts. The bottom of the couloir was bullet proof neve and we made good time moving up it.  The whole time we were moving up it it was clear that the wind was blowing pretty hard up top.  This should have been a clue but the snow fall in the last couple days was so minor as to be forgettable.

As we moved up the couloir we came upon sections of soft powder over the hard neve.  By the time we had climbed into the constriction the powder was much more prevalent.  By the time we were nearing the steep stuff it was ubiquitous.  At the steep point we pulled out our ice tools.  They were really the only thing giving us much purchase as the mountaineering axes were not biting.  We found ourselves wallowing up through steep snow which consisted of a wind loaded powdery layer over a hard layer.  We made sure to kick in deep and swing our tools with each step.  By the time we reached the beginning of the crux it was clear that this couloir was likely to avalanche in the next couple days.  There was simply to much wind loaded powder on top of hard neve.  We weren't exactly worried it would happen while we were on it since the sun hadn't hit it yet but still moved with extreme haste.   The last part was maybe 60 degrees or so and we skipped the steeper stuff a few feet to the left.  We had to swing out axes and tools deep down into the powder to connect with the surface below and made sure to kick our points deep as well.  By the time we reached the top we agreed that a some sun warming would make the wind loaded snow wet enough to slide.  I was happy to be off.

This trip was in stark contrast to my last easy jaunt up Skywalker.  All it took was a couple inches of snow to wind load the couloir from 6 to 24 inches.  I'll bear this in mind in the future.  Fortunately our practice of being off stuff before sun hit was enough to keep us safe. We quickly headed over to the summit of South Arapaho then followed the ridge line down until we could drop into the trees a couple hundred yards from the car.  I much prefer traversing along the ridge and getting all of the views to taking the awful switchbacks down to the trail and with all the snow up high it made for a knee saving trek.

We arrived back at the car just 4 hours and 40 minutes after leaving and headed to work.  I think I'll climb this one yearly.  It is steep, long, and close to home.  It is such a classic that there is no good reason not to get on it frequently.

Skywalker Couloir (with Princess Leah Finish) - South Arapaho Only, ~6 miles, 3250 ft, June 2008 (Jared, Jen, Brian Hynek, & Lisa Mayhew)

Skywalker is a couloir I try to climb once a year.  As far as snow climbs go it is my favorite in the state.  My friend Brian and his girlfriend Lisa were planning a trip to the Cascades in a few days and Brian wanted to see where Lisa's comfort level was so we decided that we should do a couple's climb of Skywalker. Jen had been bugging me to do Dead Dog on Torreys but I try to avoid the tourist routes on 14ers like the plague these days so I figured an even better snow climb was in order.  As it turns out Skywalker is now a tourist route as well, there were 20+ people on it the day we did it.

We met Brian at his house at 4 AM on Sunday, June 15th, 2008 and picked he and Lisa up.  We then headed up to the 4th of July trailhead and started hiking by 5:00.  The approach is one of the best parts of the climb and we made it to the base of the couloir by 6:15 at a very leisurely pace.  For the first time I have seen it there was actually a lower left branch of snow which added a couple hundred vertical feet to the whole climb.  The snow was very hard and as it was Lisa's first climb we decided to take our time before getting going to let the snow soften up some.  As it turned out Brian had told Lisa the climb was a moderate snow climb to get her interested.  Funny,  I never thought something that reached 55 degrees consistently and could hit 70 degrees was moderate :).

While a single ice axe is sufficient to comfortably climb Skywalker I tend to be one of those types of people that feels a bit of extra weight is well worth it if the gear takes you from comfortable to 100 percent confident and safe so we all brought a set of ice tools to climb with.  I also put Jen and Lisa in diaper slings and brought along a snow picket and a couple lockers and Brian brought a rope in case either of the girls wanted a belay.

We started up the Couloir around 7:00 in the morning and Brian and I coached our significant others on how to use tools to climb snow.  We made slow but steady progress up the couloir making sure to take our time so that the women were comfortable.  The snow in the couloir was in the best condition I have ever encountered.  It was solid cramponing snow the entire way up to the Leah finish.  At no point could you kick a step in until the end but the firmness of the snow coupled with a set of ice tools made it one of the most solid snow climbs I've ever done.  

About 2/3rds of the way up the couloir we were passed by a party of six which include Gary Neptune.  Prior to this group their had only been one guy in front of us who looked like he was having a minor epic near the top of the couloir (kicking five or so times before moving up a foot).  After the party passed us I noticed Jen was antsy to keep moving and I was getting a bit nervous about her being on the steeper stuff longer than she needed to so I checked with Brian and Lisa to see if I should give them the picket (they said no) and then headed up.  

The snow was still very firm as we approached the upper part of the couloir and steepened to 50 or so degrees.  Once we entered the Princess Leah finish though it was considerably softer (although still good)  and we followed a boot track left by the party that had passed us.  We had to place our tools out to the sides to get good sticks and I stayed very close to Jen (husbandly nervousness, I figured I could arrest her fall if she slipped) as we made our way up the 55-60 degree finish.  Usually the snow is much steeper in this section but the conditions were so good I didn't mind a shallower exit.

Once on top we waited for Brian and Lisa to come up and chatted with the group of climbers some.  When Brian and Lisa topped out she got a round of applause from the people because we mentioned it was her first snow climb.  Lisa did very well on her first climb and was completely comfortable once she figured out how to use the tools early on.  Neither Jen or Lisa ever felt like using a rope and I was proud of how comfortable Jen was during the whole trip. Down below us were at least ten more climbers coming up so we headed up to the summit of South Arapaho, hung out for a spell, then headed down.  AS usual Brian and I took our own improvised route down to the car.  It took a bit of convincing the women to follow since they thought we were taking them on a bushwhack but when we got back to the car before a group that left the summit 15 minutes earlier than we did we felt vindicated in our route finding choices.

After the climb we headed back To Brian's house for a bratwurst, rib eye, corn, and bean lunch and a brief foray into his hot tub before heading home.  

It was another fantastic bluebird day in the high country but I'm amazed how many people climb Skywalker these days.  The Internet really is crowding out the climbing world these days compared to just a few years ago.  I'm also happy to have successfully gotten up something since Jen, Brian, and Myself failed on an attempt on the North Couloir on Pacific due to 5 foot visibility just a few days before this trip.

Starting Out

Approaching the Climb

Jen Starting Out

Jen, Higher Up

Jen, Jared, & Lisa

Lisa in 4WD

Crowded day, at least 20 people on Skywalker this day

Nearing the top, not so steep this time

Lisa, topping out

On the summit, Brian, Lisa, Jared, and Jen

Jared coming down

Lisa and Jen

Lisa and Jen

More Lisa and Jen

Back To My Other Mountains Page