Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ghost Dancers

Punishing but rewarding. That sums up the long day that Jack Roberts and I "enjoyed" in the Indian Peaks on June 6. The target was the northeast face of Paiute Peak (13,088 feet). I've never seen a record of any ascent of this face, though it's quite likely that it has been climbed—it's a big target and not very difficult. But the face is hidden from the east, and the approach is arduous. The only practical way to get there during snow-climbing season is to climb over a high shoulder of Mt. Audubon (or its summit), descend into the Coney Lakes basin, and then traverse to the base of Paiute. This is not an easy thing to do.

Jack and I mounted our bikes at the gate on the Brainard Lake Road just after 5 a.m., rode to the trailhead, and then hiked up the east ridge Audubon to a saddle at around 12,700 feet. Because of some illness issues, we were moving very slowly, and it was after 9 a.m. before we crested the ridge. The view to the other side was stunning but discouraging: We would have to traverse nearly a mile across broken ridges and frozen couloirs, while descending more than 1,000 feet. To make matters worse, a brutal, cold wind whipped over the saddle. Our hands were freezing, and we nearly bailed, but instead we decided to "take a look." In the end, it required nearly two hours of hard, somewhat dangerous work before we could reach the base of Paiute at around 11,500 feet. In hindsight, I think the best approach would be to continue over Audubon's 13,221-foot summit to the Audubon-Paiute col, and then descend to the north from there, or to drop straight down one of the Coney Couloirs from Audubon's east ridge and then walk up the valley floor to Paiute. Either way, it's a big approach. It took us more than six hours; a fast party would likely still need four hours.

By this time, the snow had softened significantly (much of the face was still in the sun until after noon), so we didn't need a rope as we kicked shin-deep steps up the central couloir. We had carried a rack because of the big headwall at the top of the face, and even just a few hundred feet below the top we still weren't sure where the route would go. But just when we were wondering if we'd have to escape by rock-climbing to the left or right, a hidden, body-length-wide slot snaked up to the left. We roped up partway along this for a short ice step and then carried on to the top, popping out within a few vertical feet of Paiute's summit. Good stuff!

A long glissade, snowshoe trudge, and bike ride awaited. But it was all downhill now. By the time we reached the car, we'd put in a 12-hour day, of which less than two hours was spent actually climbing. This route may have been climbed before, but we think it deserves a name, and we propose the Ghost Dancer Couloir. It's a superb outing...for those who don't mind a little punishment along with their rewards.

1 comment:

Michael Doyle said...

Ah, even as a flatlander (well, Virginia's Appalachians), I noted this face somehow some years ago and have had it "on my list" since. Glad to hear that y'all had good fun on it....