The eagle screeched a banshee howl as his grappling hook claws reached for my eyes. With terrified moans I batted him with puny hands. Then I woke up.
At one in the morning the squall of an alarm clock is never easy on your mind. My eyes feel like that eagle was real, and my body feels like the fight was lost. Downstairs, then brew some tea. I’m waking up now — thinking about where we’re headed.
Cathedral Peak is rowdy hunk of stone rising in the Elk Mountains between Aspen and Crested Butte. The rock in this area is a grungy metamorphic hodge that makes for crumbly summer hiking, but errodes to countless couloirs that make for endless ski descent options. Cathedral has one traditional line, Pearl Couloir, that was first skied in the 1970s by Bob Perlmutter and Kirk Lawrence. Other lines on the peak look tempting, but one stands out. When doing aerial photography for my guidebooks, I’d noticed a unique couloir on the north westerly side, in the upper reaches of a cirque. It looked straighter and deeper cut than most such slots. While somewhat wide, you could tell it was steep enough to qualify as a goal.
Perlmutter is still skiing out of Aspen, and we’ve formed somewhat of a partnership in going for first descents on classic lines in the Elks. We spot stuff, make lists, I drive up from Carbondale to Aspen for an early start, and we try to do a one-day wonder. Not being content with the status quo, we’ve also upped the anti by trying for two or more descents each day we go out.
I blundered a half hour up the valley in my Suburban, and picked up Bob at his Aspen apartment. As usual the boy is ready and psyched, skis and backpack leaning by his front door. Next step: see who’s winning our running pack-weight contest. always try to load Bob’s pack into the car, because I have to see who’s winning our contest. This time Bob takes the prize, with a tiny rig no bigger than my wife’s purse, weighing in at what feels like about eight pounds. At least I’m carrying more water than he is.
We motor 12 miles up the Castle Creek road and park at the trailhead. It’s still ink-black dark, but the trail is well defined, and we make quick progress up the Cathedral Creek drainage. The sky lightens. We’re trudging up through aspen groves, booting on dirt, then consolidated snow. Leahy Peak rises to our right, the creek gurgles to our left, and just a few hundred feet beyond that is the south wall of the canyon. This steep hanging valley is an inhospitable place in winter, but with a spring snowpack it’s a steep stairway to some of the Elk Mountain’s best alps. We relish every step, taking us higher, each to be a turn coming back down.
When my foot drills a knee-deep hole in the snow I know it’s time for skins and skis. This morning mode-change, from foot to plank, has become somewhat of a ritual for me. I like to hit the trail hard off my tailgate, grunt and sweat up the foot trail, then let the snowline dictate that oh-so-sweet first stripping of fleece layers, gulping of water, and chawing of a Snickers bar or some equally hideous corporate sugar hit.
Skis take us to timberline, where a steep hillside blocks access to the hanging cirque of Cathedral Lake. We snap on our ski crampons, and make good time up into the sun.
We get our first view of Cathedral Peak, rising from across Cathedral Lake, a gnarled hump of broken stone iced with white.
It’s been a few hours now. I gulp athletic drink, and try to energize for the real climbing ahead. We slog up a pile of avalanche debris, and switch to crampons. The sun goes to bake mode. I’m trying out some new sunglasses without side-shields. No good. Out comes the duct tape — glasses are modified.
I follow Bob as he stomps steps up to a saddle, and we scramble the last rock steps to the summit.
The top of Cathedral is like the tip of a knife. Awsome views. An abyss at every point of the compass. Bob shares his tea while I fiddle with my Ham radio. We can see dozens of lines we’ve visited over the years, but talk turns to what we have not done, as it often does between Bob and I. When I get home, I’ll scrawl a few more ideas on my to-do list.
The couloir we’re after doesn’t leave from the summit, but we like to ski everything from the top. So we make an awkward carve over a 60 degree swale, then traverse to the access point. Rock walls on either side of the entrance look like driveway pillars at one of the mansions up near Aspen.
First glance down the route takes my breath. It’s incredible to be on a descent you’ve never done, and dreamed about for years. Such feelings are intensified when you know that it’s unlikely anyone has been there — that you could be the first humans to ski this particular piece of ground.
The route turns out to be an interesting anomaly as couloirs go. Since it’s slanted somewhat from south to north across Cathedral’s west side, it’s less steep than one would assume. More, on this day we skied the nicely textured powder one sometimes finds at Colorado altitudes around 13,000 feet. But those things don’t necessarily make for an easy day. Once at the couloir exit we were faced with either continuing down into Conundrum Creek and doing a mystery slog to civilization that could have required a shiver bivvy, or instead climb out and over Cathedral’s southerly ridge (to Electric Pass) and rejoin Castle Creek. The latter option worked, and while the day was long Bob and I kept the smiles on our faces and enjoyed the afterglow of a truly beautiful exploration. I stole prerogative as a guidebook writer (sorry Bob) and named the couloir after my wife. Anyone doing new routes should name something after their spouse or significant other, right?
Here is a condensed route description from my books, and from my guidebook website backcountryskiingco.com
Cathedral Peak — Lisa Couloir
Recommended seasons: Spring snow
Starting elevation: 9,680 feet Summit elevation: 13,943 feet Elevation gain: 4,263 feet
Round trip distance: 9 miles
When you view the north face of Cathedral Peak from other high points in the Elk Mountains (Highlands ski resort, for example), you’ll notice a classic slanted couloir that splits the westerly side of the north face. First skied in 1999 by Lou Dawson and Bob Perlmutter, the “Lisa Couloir” is as interesting up close as it looks from a distance. It includes an exciting access route from the summit, while the main couloir is a stunning band of snow enclosed by rock walls and tilted at its steepest to just around 45 degrees.
To reach Lisa Couloir, climb Cathedral Peak via Pine Creek and Cathedral Lake. Ski or downclimb from the summit about 200 vertical feet down a small section of broken westerly terrain. Traverse north to an obvious slot in the ridge. Pass through the slot, and the Couloir is obvious. Enjoy the descent, then prepare for pain.
With exceptional snowcover, you can continue northerly down the vicinity of Cataract Creek for an amazing 2 mile run to Conundrum Creek, then exit via the Conundrum pack trail. This option looks attractive from above, but Cataract Creek joins Conundrum via a steep gulch, and the hike out the trail could ruin anyone’s day. A better egress option is to submit, climb to Electric Pass (see other routes), then ski down to Cathedral Lake and down your Pine Creek climb route. If you’ve got the energy, make a three-banger day by descending from the summit of Electric Peak to Leahy/Electric saddle. Continue on the ridge easterly to Leahy Peak, then drop one of the sweet couloirs north from Leahy’s summit. For egress from the three-banger, descend the American Lake Trail to Castle Creek.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.