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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spring at Cathedral Peak A

Date:   May 31, 2014
Mission:  Climb Cathedral Peak A (elevation 13,943')
Who:  Mark, Natalie, Jim, and myself
Length:  9 miles
Elevation gain: 4000 ft.

Mark and I discussed trying Ice Mountain's Refrigerator couloir, but Sunday commitments led us to a day hike instead, so Cathedral Peak it was. 

We arrived at the trail head at 10pm and exchanged greetings with Natalie who was still awake.  Jim was already asleep at this point.  We quickly settled for a short night of sleep before the 3:30am wake up call. 

Awake at 3:30am, on the trail by 4am we weren't more than 1 mile up from the trailhead when I nearly had a close encounter with a porcupine.  I was in front of the group and in zombie mode with the headlamp on.  When I saw movement directly in front of me on the trail, and jumped back with a slight yell of "holy f*%k!".   I was only 3 feet away from this porcupine who was walking down the trail at 4:30am.  I informed him politely that he was clearly misusing this trail, which had been clearly made for humans and not porcupines.  He acknowledged his mistake and headed off into the forest. 

We were all moving a bit sluggish on the approach.  Mark and I were also both experiencing some stomach issues too which did not help.  But as always, a good sunrise gives me energy.

Sunrise from near the tree line on Cathedral Peak

After crossing a pile of splintered and broken trees, we encountered a brief snow squall, but it stopped just as quickly as it started.  The avalanche debris we crossed was a quick reminder about the absolute power, and danger that lurks in the snow. 

As we hit the tree line, the early morning light made for some good lighting, but I was a bit concerned because it was already very warm, which could make the climb up the couloir a challenge with bad snow conditions.

Sun and clouds at war near the tree line.
Me and my shadow - photo credit Mark



Jim takes a quick rest above frozen Cathedral Lake.  Mark and Natalie can be seen in the distance.

Once above the lake, it's a leisurely stroll up some gentle slopes to the bottom of the gully.  This gully is commonly climbed in the spring due to the large amounts of loose and shitty rock that exists in the gully once the snow melts.  This is not uncommon for any mountain in the Elk range. 


Jim leading the charge towards the gully which can be seen just left of center.  The shaded gully, not the one to the left of it.  Cathedral Peak's summit is seen in the top right.


Evidence of wet slides are seen everywhere.

At the base of the gully, we stop to stash snowshoes and put on helmets and crampons.  The air was very warm and we were all pretty much down to our base layer only at this point. 

Natalie leading the way, followed by Jim, and then Mark.  Me (aka rock magnet) would be in the rear.

A zoomed in look to give you an idea of the snow conditions.

About 1/4 of the way up this gully is where I decided I was going to actually invest $500 on some mountaineering boots that will work better with crampons.  I made this decision when my right crampon came loose.  I stopped and put it back on only to have the same thing happen about 2/3 of the way up the gully.  The snow sucked for me too.  It was either bulletproof, rock hard snow or total slush material that I could make a Slurpee with.  Either way, it was tough going for me.  Natalie, Jim, and Mark made quick work of the gully and were out of sight by the time I was halfway up. 

Me starting up the gully.  Photo credit Mark



Just below the top of the gully, a pile of small rocks let loose above me, seemingly triggered by no one.  I looked up when hearing the sounds, which I know is stupid, but sometimes instincts beat education.  As a reward for my stupidity, I caught a rock about the size of a golf ball right off the right side of my face.  I then leaned into the snow and two more rocks, which sounded just slightly bigger bounced off my helmet.  This immediately made me stop and analyze my situation.  I was in this gully alone, on shitty and warming snow, with crampon problems, rocks bouncing off my head, stomach problems, and it was already 8:30am.  This is the time Mark and I were targeting for leaving the summit.  So, I made the decision to turn around about 50 ft. from the top of this gully.  A summit would've been nice, but I always have fun in the mountains regardless of whether I make a summit or not. 

I had less trouble on the down climb, since weighting my heels seems to help my crampons have less issues. 


Views from this gully are just breathtaking.

I waited at the bottom of the gully for Mark and the others.  Mark came down rather quickly after hitting the summit.  He informed me that Natalie had opted to try and find a different couloir to ski down, possibly the East face, that didn't have so much avalanche debris.  Jim had joined her, even though he was not on skis.

Mark finishing his descent and making his way to the snowshoe cache.


While waiting we saw Natalie up top near the summit, seemingly investigating options.  It was hard to tell.  The pic below was fully zoomed in and you can still barely see a person up there.

Natalie (top left) near the summit of Cathedral Peak. - photo credit Mark

We saw Natalie disappear behind the ridge again and assumed she and Jim were going to just go back to the summit and come down the way they'd gone up.  So we left Jim's s snowshoes near the bottom of the gully, so he'd have them when he got down. 

We then waited... and waited... and over an hour had gone by.  Thunder clouds were starting to build and it was 11am now.  Mark and I agreed to descend to the lake, where we could keep an eye on the gully, but be close enough to the trees should thunder and lightning start. 


Me in the distance while Mark and I waited above the lake. - Photo credit Mark

Nearing the lake on our descent, we see Natalie walking up the mountain.  She'd apparently descended a gully on the NE side and circled around.  Seeing the gully they descended, it looked incredibly gnarly.  It was probably at least a 70 degree angle, very narrow, and did I mention... STEEP.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the giant cornice on top.  Jim would tell us later of some giant rocks that whizzed past him in that gully.  Not a gully I would ever descend, but Natalie and Jim are in a league far crazier than me when it comes to mountaineering.  Either way, kudos to both of them for getting down it safely.   

After meeting up with us, Natalie went to re-ascend the 500 feet or so to retrieve Jim's snowshoes.  The rest of us waited near the trees.  Mark and I chilled at the tree line and Jim slightly higher.

Thunder could be heard, and the clouds were starting to threaten.
Mark soaking up some sun that was still owning the sky for the moment.

Natalie and Jim finally appeared in the distance and we gathered up our gear.  Natalie opted to ski a route that was off of our snowshoe path.  The rest of us made a quick pace now as the thunder was loud, the lightning cracking above our heads and a mix of snow, hail, and rain dropped on us.

We made it back to the trailhead at 2pm and Jim informed Mark and I that Natalie made it back shortly after. 

We stopped in Glenwood Springs and we met with a couple friends for lunch.  Another typical day in the mountains.  Fun, good company, beautiful views, adventure, constantly weighing risk vs. reward in making decisions, trying to stay out of lightning, and even some lessons learned.

As usual, I'm already planning and looking forward to the next one.









1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the write-up, Adam! I didn't realize you had crampons issue in the gully - crampon stability is definitely the key for spring climbs, those issues had turned many climbers around. Pearl wasn't 70 degree steep, but getting into the couloir was very challenging as the snow was unsupportive and the rock loose. Jim made it work much more elegantly than I did. Wish we had the radios on that one - it was difficult to know exactly what the other party was doing. Sorry about all that wait! Pearl indeed drops down on the other side of the ridge, so it was hard to see us. The East face is even harder/steeper line than Pearl, so I wasn't considering that as an option. Cheers! Natalie

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