Central Elk Mountains Backcountry Skiing - Chapter 8

 

Introduction
Central Elk Mountains

Section 1, Upper Castle Creek

Routes in this section are reached from the last few miles of the Castle Creek Road out of Aspen. For other routes available from Castle Creek, see other website sections. See introduction for trailheads.


Green Mountain from Express Creek

Climb rating: Harder skins
Ski rating: S3
Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring
Starting elevation: 9,498 feet
Summit elevation: 12,054
Elevation gain: 2,556 feet
Round trip distance: 7 miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South East
Photo: [see photo of Peter Kelley on Green Mountain, also see Braun Hut chapter with a photo of Express Creek ]

Don’t mistake this for the Green Mountain near Independence Pass, or for that matter any of the other 598 Green Mountains in North America.

This route is often used as a side trip from the 10th Mountain Markley Hut. It’s also a good daytrip. Park at Ashcroft (see section introduction).Ski up Express Creek (see route in other section) until you’re next to the creek several hundred feet before the Markley Hut. You'll be across the creek from the obvious narrow gulch dropping north down from Green Mountain.

Head over to the Markley Hut area and climb ½ mile up through the conifers on the right side of the gulch. At 10,800 feet, cross to the left side of the gulch to avoid an avalanche slope on the right. Stay left, and climb over a few hillocks into the larger basin left (east) of the drainage. Continue up the basin to a distinct saddle (11,440 feet) on Green Mountain's Northeast Ridge.

Continue up the ridge, veer slightly left at several steep sections, and follow the ridge to the summit. Enjoy the views here, including a unique angle on seldom-seen Star Peak’s north face.

You have several options for descent. With avalanche danger, descend your ascent route. If you deem slide hazard to be low enough, enjoy steep glade skiing on the north face or descend the Northwest Ridge. With very low hazard, ski the gully and drainage from the summit. (Note that there is another Green Mountain in this guidebook, located near Independence Pass.)

Star Peak—West Side

Climb rating: Harder skins, Intermediate snow
Ski rating: Advanced, S4
Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring
Starting elevation: 9,498 feet
Summit elevation: 13,521
Elevation gain:
Round trip distance:
Day trip?
Maps: Elks South Middle, Elks South East

Star Peak is a stunning thirteener (Colorado’s 242nd highest mountain) that dominates the southeastern part of the Elk Mountains. It forms the backdrop for Friends Hut and Lindley Hut (see chapter 10), and provides everything from springtime extreme descents to alpine ridge runs that work for any season. This route is the most efficient for a winter climb but also places you in a great deal of avalanche terrain. Thus, only do this route during times of lowest avalanche hazard.

The mountaineering part of this route starts from Lindley Hut, which you reach this way: Start from Ashcroft (see section introduction). Continue up the Castle Creek Road 2 miles from Ashcroft to the Y intersection where Pearl Pass Road heads right (there may be signs here). Rather than heading for Pearl Pass, take the left fork of the Y and follow a snowcovered road to a bridge over Castle Creek. Cross the bridge and ski up Iron Mine Road (the obvious road that’s cut into the east side of the valley). Follow Iron Mine Road 1 ¼ miles past the bridge to the first switchback (10,500 feet). From the apex of the switchback, contour S into the valley for several hundred yards. Lindley Hut (10,440 feet) will be a short distance below you here, hidden in a conifer grove. You don’t need to go to the hut, but it’s good to know exactly where it is. For the satellite dependent, hut coordinates are 39 00.254’ N, 106 48.296’ W.

From Lindley Hut, climb rough terrain SE and S into the main drain dropping from the west side of Star Peak. Don’t enter this drain right away; climb the terrain east of the drain to about 11,100 feet. Trend right (E) here, enter the drain at about 11,200 feet, and climb the drainage to a low-angled area (12,800 feet) at the foot of a steep couloir leading to a saddle on Star’s north ridge. Climb the couloir to the saddle (13,240 feet), then continue up broken ground on the ridge S to the summit. Descend your ascent route.

Star Peak—North Face

Climb rating: Harder Skins, Advanced snow
Ski rating: Extreme, S5-
Recommended seasons: Spring snow season
Starting elevation: 9,498 feet
Summit elevation: 13,521 feet
Elevation gain: 4,023
Round trip distance: 11 miles
Day trip? Yes
Maps: Elks South Middle, Elks South East

Obscure and hard to reach, but worth exploring, this route takes you to the alpine “nordwand ” of Star Peak. Ski to the Lindley Hut (section introduction and see huts.org.) Climb SE from the hut up rough timbered terrain. Use a drainage as a general route, but make a series of traverses to find routes up through headwalls and around snags.

As you climb higher, keep in mind that the basin above divides into two drains. Stay near the right (west) drain as you climb. Continue to a low-angled area (12,400 feet) below Star’s north face. You’ll be sure to notice the face is riven by an attractive couloir. Climb the couloir to Star’s north summit. If you’ve got the time, make a short ridge run S to the main summit. Return via your ascent route. This route is best done with a compacted spring snowpack.

Cooper Creek to Pearl Pass

Climb rating: Harder skins
Ski rating: Expert, S3+
Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring
Starting elevation: 9,948 feet
Summit elevation: 12,705 feet
Elevation gain: 2,757 feet
Trip distance: 6 miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle

Usually, the best way to Pearl Pass is via the snow covered Pearl Pass Road from Ashcroft (see route above or in other section). But with ultra-low avalanche hazard, this direct route from Lindley Hut is an option if you happen to be at the hut, or you merely want something different. Keep in mind that the route finding challenge, terrain difficulty and avalanche danger on this trip are all several orders of magnitude greater than those of the jeep trail route.

Follow the normal road-route to Lindley Hut, then head up the left side of Cooper Creek. The climbing gets more brutal the higher you go, and a series of headwalls force you to think. Depending on snow conditions, part of the route may best follow the creekbed at certain points. At other times, it’s best to never touch the actual drain, with most deviations best done to climber’s left. After about 900 vertical feet of intense misery, you’ll arrive above timberline in a large bowl. Swing S and climb to Pearl Pass. Continue on to Friends Hut. You can make an interesting day by climbing to Mace Saddle via Cooper Creek, then climbing Mace Peak (route 8.1.7route?). With compacted spring snow, good glisse descents can be made in the couloirs leading from Mace Peak into Cooper Creek.

Pearl Pass from Ashcroft

Climb rating: Moderate skins
Ski rating: Intermediate, S3
Recommended seasons:
Starting elevation: 9,948 feet
Summit elevation: 12,705 feet
Elevation gain: 2,857 feet (varies with exact route)
Round trip distance: 18 miles
Day trip? Yes
Maps: Elks North East, Elks South Middle

This is the main highway to Pearl Basin, Green-Wilson Hut, Tagert Hut, Friends Hut and scores of fine summits, couloirs and bowls. Start from Ashcroft (section introduction). From Ashcroft ski, walk, drive or snowmobile (depending on conditions and desires) 2 miles up the Castle Creek Road to a Y intersection. Park snowmobiles here. Head up the right arm of the Y, usually signed as Pearl Pass Road (possible sign for Tagert Hut). Stay on Pearl Pass Road as it passes under various fearsome avalanche paths. You’ll come to the private Mace Chalet at 10,860 feet. From this point on, the route changes from a valley and road tour to a more alpine challenge.

Continue up the road from the Mace Chalet. It cuts through forest, then crosses Castle Creek at 11,000 feet. You’re exposed to huge avalanche paths here. Stay on the roadcut as it climbs to a switchback, then heads back SW to another switchback at 11,120 feet. Continue up the road for a few hundred feet. There may be a sign here indicating the route to Tagert Hut. You have two choices here. To reduce avalanche exposure, leave the road via the route indicated by the sign, then as soon as possible ski to the left (S) and climb the tree cutline up the edge of the avalanche path. Doing so will lead you to a small bump that people often have to sidestep up. Just past the bump you’ll come to the huts.

Ski southerly past Tagert Hut (an A-frame), continue past Green-Wilson Hut a few hundred yards farther, and again you’ll be on the cut of Pearl Pass Road. Use the road as a route to timberline—it’s usually well-traveled by hut users.

After timberline, the route to Pearl Pass requires careful map reading. A GPS unit could be useful as well, especially for travelers new to the area. In general, the route follows the summer road to Mace Saddle at 12,160 feet. It’s important to note that Mace Saddle is actually a pass on the divide between Castle Creek and Cooper Creek. Several somewhat clueless skiers have mistaken this for Pearl Pass and ended up in the deadly confines of Cooper Creek.

From Mace Saddle you can see Pearl Pass for the first time. Keep that in mind, as it’s easy to be tempted by other passes as you climb into the basin above the huts. Drop a short distance S from Mace Saddle, and ski a southerly contour at about 12,100 feet around the head of Cooper Creek. Pick your route to avoid several avalanche prone rollovers, generally by trending a bit left into the Cooper Creek bowl. Your ultimate goal here is a long humped moraine that appears to lead up the center of the upper bowl to the base of Pearl Pass’s final headwall. Use this route to avoid avalanche danger on steep slopes to either side of the bowl.

The steepest and most avalanche-prone part of the route is the final 250-vertical-foot headwall leading up to Pearl Pass. At times this is loaded and dangerous; other times it is wind-scoured and safe. The slopes just west of the pass slide most frequently, with the safest line being a fairly direct line up the headwall to the pass (as indicated on the photo herein). Do not gang ski this slope, and use all other avalanche safety procedures. Near the top of the headwall, you’ll usually find the last few feet of the jeep trail blown clear of snow. A large sign indicates you are actually on Pearl Pass (that same sign looks like a person when viewed from Mace Saddle). Note that for the most part, the route from Mace Saddle to the Pass does not follow the summer road.

Mace Peak—East Bowl

Climb rating: Moderate skins, easy boots
Ski rating: Intermediate, S4-
Recommended seasons: Spring snow season
Starting elevation: 9,948 feet
Summit elevation: 12,023 feet
Elevation gain: 2,075 feet
Round trip distance: 8 ½ miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle

Mace Peak is the highpoint on the divide between Cooper Creek and Castle Creek. It rises from the head of the Ashcroft Valley. The peak is named for Greg Mace, a mountaineer who volunteered tirelessly for a local mountain rescue group and died in a 1986 climbing accident on the Maroon Bells. Greg was the son of mountaineer and dog musher Stuart Mace, who raised his family in Ashcroft from the 1950s through the 1960s.

This route doesn’t reach the summit of Mace Peak, but rather takes a small north-facing cirque on the east end of the ridge. It’s a good route for a spring morning when you can drive a little closer than Ashcroft.

Follow Pearl Pass Road (route 8.1.5) to 10,400 feet, where you enter a large meadow. Leave the road here by heading up S and SE through light timber. You’ll soon break timberline, where a clear route leads up a steep bowl to a saddle on the ridge. For a daily highpoint, boot east to a small bump. Descend your ascent route.

Mace Peak from Pearl Basin

Climb rating: Moderate skins, Harder boots
Ski rating: Intermediate, S3-
Recommended seasons: All with snowcover
Starting elevation: 9,948 feet
Summit elevation: 12,528 feet
Elevation gain: 2,580 feet
Round trip distance: 12 miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle

With good route finding, you can do this ascent without crossing any avalanche starting zones; thus, it can be a reasonable mid-winter climb. Start in Ashcroft (see section introduction) and ski Pearl Pass Road to Mace Saddle (route 8.1.5???). Do a short and sometimes knee-deep boot climb up the ridge NE from the saddle (most groups leave skis at the saddle). The first summit you reach is where most people stop. The true summit is the intimidating rocky bump farther along the ridge; reaching it requires a bit of 4th class scrambling. Descend your ascent route. For extremists, several interesting couloirs drop to the north from the ridgetop (all rated S4+ or greater).

West Pearl Mountain from Pearl Basin

Climb rating: Harder skins
Ski rating: Advanced, S4-
Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring
Starting elevation: 9,948 feet
Summit elevation: 13,312
Elevation gain: 3,364 feet
Round trip distance: 12 miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle

There are two Pearl Mountains you can reach from Pearl Basin. West Pearl Mountain (13,312 feet) is the tempting snowy peak you view looking south from the Tagert and Green-Wilson Huts.

Pick a day with low avalanche danger for a climb and descent of West Pearl Mountain (preferably with a compacted spring snowpack). From Tagert and Green-Wilson Huts, ski the Pearl Pass Road (route 8.1.5) to about 11,800 feet in Pearl Basin. Leave the Pearl Pass route and keep heading toward West Pearl Mountain, with slight variations through a series of small depressions in the basin. Once at the foot of the peak, either do a series of steep traverses on skis or boot up a wind-blown rib. Descend lines you spotted on the way up. The broad slopes are classic, and a fine couloir drops from the summit a bit farther west.

East Pearl Mountain from Pearl Basin

Climb rating: Harder skins
Ski rating: Advanced, S3+
Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring
Starting elevation: 9,948 feet
Summit elevation: 13,312
Elevation gain: 3,364 feet
Round trip distance: 14 miles
Day trip? No
Map: Elks South Middle

This is the true Pearl Mountain. It’s a bit far for a day trip from Ashcroft, so this route is usually done from the huts or during a connector tour between huts. Attain the upper reaches of Pearl Basin via any appropriate route herein, and ski to the basin south of Mace Saddle (see text map and other descriptions). Identify East Pearl Mountain by map and compass. You’ll notice an unforgettable jagged arete that drops north from the summit. This arete forms the east side of an interesting narrow cirque which forms a perfect glisse line from the summit. Climb it. Descend it. Only tackle this route during times of lowest avalanche danger, preferably on compacted spring snow.

Montezuma Basin

Climb rating: Harder skins
Ski rating: Advanced, S3
Recommended seasons: Spring or summer
Starting elevation: 9,948 feet
Summit elevation: 13,400 feet
Elevation gain: 3,452 feet
Round trip distance: About 12 miles, varies with road closure
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle

One of the largest permanent snowfields in the central Colorado Rockies, Montezuma Basin is nothing less than one of the Elk Mountain’s 7 Winter Wonders. It’s a terrific place for summer skiing and yields access to several fine 14,000 and 13,000 foot peaks.

You can get to Montezuma Basin in the winter, but spring and summer are better times to visit because of avalanche exposure. Follow Pearl Pass Road (section introduction and 8.1.5). After the steep switchbacks just past Mace Chalet, you’ll come to a Y intersection where Pearl Pass Road turns left (W) and the Montezuma Basin Road continues straight ahead. If you’re on foot during snow seasons, take the road into the apex of the basin (11,600 feet). From here simply follow the path of least resistance up to the cirque at the head of the drainage, below Castle Peak’s north face. A logical stopping point is a flat area with a classic glacial tarn (13,400 feet). If your skill and conditions dictate, climb Castle Peak (see Dawson’s Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners for ‘teener routes.)

After the roads melt off (June or late May) you can 4-wheel-drive to Montezuma snowfield, or at least partway. Pearl Pass Road to Mace Chalet is fine for any high clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle. The road above is still driveable in a standard 4x4, but is more dangerous and takes more skill. Do not attempt these roads with a low clearance “all-wheel-drive” type vehicle.

Slate Mountain

Climb rating: Harder skins, easy boots
Ski rating: Advanced, S4-
Recommended seasons: Spring snow season
Starting elevation: 9,948 feet
Summit elevation: 13,348 feet
Elevation gain: About 3,400 feet (varies with road closure)
Round trip distance: About 11 miles, varies with road closure
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle
Photo: [in collection]

Slate Mountain (AKA Malamute Peak) is the highpoint on the ridge forming the steep northern side of the Montezuma Basin drainage. The peak was named Slate Mountain by Otto Schniebs, who climbed it in 1938, mostly on skis, during his pioneering ski trip to the Elk Mountains that spring. Schniebs made high descents of Castle and Conundrum Peaks, and made what was probably the first ascent of Star Peak. He stayed at an old cabin located near the present Tagert Hut, and skied everything in sight that was possible with the gear and technique of the day.

You might not find the best skiing on this route, especially in winter, but it’s certainly an interesting climb with an unusual view of the Elks. Use the Pearl Pass and Montezuma Roads to begin your climb (routes 8.1.5 & 8.1.10). Unless you can drive high, use a high camp or stay at one of the huts. For a winter climb, take an avalanche avoidance route up Slate’s SE flanks, starting from about 11,400 feet on the Montezuma Road. You may not get to the true summit using this route.

In spring, head up the drainage toward Montezuma Basin (elevation?). At about 12,200 feet, swing N, climb past the ruins of Montezuma Mine to the ridge, then ridgewalk E to the summit. Descend likely terrain you eyed on the way up.

Leahy Peak from Pine Creek

Climb rating: Harder skins, Advanced snow climb
Ski rating: Advanced, S4
Recommended seasons: Spring snow season
Starting elevation: 9,680 feet
Summit elevation: 13,023 feet
Elevation gain: 3,343
Round trip distance: 5 ½ miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle
Photo: [none in collection]

This lower and closer thirteener is a good warmup for Cathedral Peak. Start at the Cathedral Lake Trailhead (see section introduction) and carefully locate the Cathedral Lake Trail. If you’re doing this route in spring you’ll probably be starting in the dark. In that case, a recon the day before might be prudent for first-timers.

Follow the Cathedral Lake trail as it climbs through forest to 10,800 feet in the Pine Creek drain. Leave the trail here and climb directly up Leahy Peak’s southeast face. A band of cliffs blocks the way lower on the face, and you start at 10,800 feet in order to pass these on climber’s left. Descend your ascent route, with variations you saw on the way up. You can also find a good line off Leahy down a couloir NW into American Basin.

Cathedral Peak—Pearl Couloir

Climb rating: Harder skins, Advanced snow
Ski rating: Extreme, S5-
Recommended seasons: Spring snow
Starting elevation: 9,680 feet
Summit elevation: 13,943 feet
Elevation gain: 4,263 feet
Round trip distance: 9 miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle
Photo: [in collection]

At 13,943 feet, Cathedral Peak is virtually a fourteener, and it feels that way. After a brutal climb up steep glacial valleys, sheer couloirs and airy ridges, you arrive at the summit wrung out. But once you hang your snowboard or skis over the vertical, electricity courses up your legs and zaps your fatigue away. Then you launch.

There is only one straightforward descent off Cathedral, via Pearl Couloir described here. Another descent (Lisa Couloir, 8.1.14) drops from the summit down the south ridge, then takes a couloir down the south edge of the north face. This latter option drops you into a sort of no-man’s-land in the Conundrum Drainage, and is only recommended for the fit, fleet and possibly crazy.

To reach the Pearl Couloir start at the Cathedral Lake Trailhead (see section introduction). If you’re doing this route in spring (as you probably should) you’ll probably start in darkness. In that case, a recon the day before might be prudent for first-timers. Follow the Cathedral Lake Trail as it climbs through timber into the narrow V of the upper Cathedral Drain. Where the valley narrows and looks impassable (about 10,800 feet), climb a bit right through stubby aspen thickets, then traverse back into a lower-angled part of the valley (11,200 feet). Here a steep headwall looms ahead. Take a climbing traverse W (the approximate route of the pack trail) to get around the headwall and continue climbing to 11,800 feet. At this point, you’ll be near Cathedral Lake, under Cathedral Peak’s pillar-studded southeast ridge.

There is a good optional route that may work better than the pack trail. Climb the pack trail from parking to about 10,700 feet, where you break out of the trees into a classic hanging valley. Cross to the south side of Pine Creek, then climb rampy terrain that parallels the creek. Ramps and shelves will lead you to low angled terrain around 11,200 feet. Swing south here and climb an open bowl to a bumpy shelf at about 11,900 feet. You'll now be slightly above and a bit to the south of Cathedral Lake. Swing North and drop to the lake. If you're quick, it can be worth stripping skins here, then re-skinning at the lake.

From Cathedral Lake, climb the drainage leading N around the foot of the southeast ridge. Stay to the left once you’re in the drainage, and at 12,400 feet you’ll be staring up Pearl Couloir, which intersects Cathedral’s summit ridge just north of the summit. Climb the couloir. Reaching the summit involves a somewhat intricate ridge walk, which many parties forego. If it’s your first time here, consider planting your flag on the apex so you have full bragging rights. It’s possible to ski from the summit, but doing so may involve a great deal of fall potential. Thus, most descents start from the saddle at the head of the couloir. Pearl Couloir was first skied by Bob Perlmutter and Bob Slozen in the early 1970s.

Cathedral Peak--Black Pearl Couloir

Climb rating: Harder skins, Expert snow
Ski rating: Extreme
Recommended seasons: Spring snow
Starting elevation: 9,680 feet
Summit elevation: ridgetop, see map
Elevation gain: around 4,000 vertical feet depending on turnarount
Round trip distance: ~9 miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle

Next couloir to the right of Pearl is a narrow slot that's not often in skiable condition. To the best of this author's knowlege it's only been skied a few times, perhaps the first being that of Angus Morrison in 2014 (snowboard). While the name spins off of the "Pearl Couloir" it also alludes to a famous Aspen area rock band of the 1960s known as Black Pearl. The band had local renown and some national recognition as being a root band for punk and metal.

Cathedral Peak—Lisa Couloir

Climb rating: Harder skins, Advanced snow
Ski rating: semi-Extreme
Recommended seasons: Spring snow
Starting elevation: 9,680 feet
Summit elevation: 13,943 feet
Elevation gain: 4,263 feet
Round trip distance: 9 miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle
Photo: [none]

When you view the north face of Cathedral Peak from other high points in the Elk Mountains, you'll notice a classic slanted couloir that splits the westerly side of the north face. First skied in 1999 by the author 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 (possibly S5 depending on snow cover), while the main couloir is a stunning band of snow enclosed by rock walls and tilted at its steepest to just over 45 degrees.

To reach Lisa Couloir, climb Cathedral Peak via Pine Creek and Cathedral Lake (see other routes in this chapter). 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 a low snowline, you can continue northerly down 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.

 

East Face Cathedral Peak, Dawson Perlmutter Route

 

Cathedral Peak -- Dawson-Perlmutter Route, East Face

Climb rating: Advanced snow
Ski rating: Extreme, D12
Recommended seasons: Spring snow
Starting elevation: 9,680 feet
Summit elevation: 13,943 feet
Elevation gain: 4,263 feet
Round trip distance: 9 miles
Day trip? Yes
Map: Elks South Middle

Follow previous route descriptions from Castle Creek and climb the ever steeping apron to the east face of Cathedral Peak, trending to the left. Memorize your route before you begin as the lower part is obscured by a small headwall once you're close. The climb is straightforward and somewhat steep. Same for the skiing, which is mostly around 45 degrees with a steeper pitch at the exit.

The route was first done by Dawson and Perlmutter in May of 2005. Article here.