Trip Report: Independence Pass, CO – Couloir Skiing on the Last Day of Summer

Clay Malott | BackcountryBackcountry | Trip ReportTrip Report

The fall equinox was today (September 22, 2020), marking the official end of summer. What better way to send off summer than with a great day of couloir shredding in the high country?

Two weeks ago, a late summer storm brought the Rocky Mountains up to two feet of snow in some places. The wind-loaded chutes and gullies with up to four or five feet, and despite warm temperatures since the storm, wind loaded areas held snow impressively well. With the help of recent satellite imagery and a scouting mission up Highway 82, we found a beautiful couloir running about 500 vertical feet off the top of Mountain Boy Peak (13,198′).

Mountain Boy’s North Couloir from Highway 82. Photo credit: Clay Malott

This morning, we woke up at about 6:30 am and hopped in the car to begin the 45-minute drive to the top of Independence Pass from home in Snowmass Village. We got to the top of the pass, and while the couloir can be accessed from Mountain Boy Ridge straight off the top of the pass, we decided the Mountain Boy Gulch route may be easier. We drove down to the second hairpin on the Leadville side of Independence Pass and parked.

We slung our skis and boots onto our packs and got going. The beginning of the hike to the snow was difficult at first. Shrubs near the creek made travel difficult, especially when the tails of the skis would get caught among the branches. Eventually, after we descended into a large ravine to cross the creek, we found some sort of game trail that took us further up the drainage towards our objective.

Working our way through the shrubs up to the couloir. Photo credit: Clay Malott
Continuing to work our way up to the couloir. Photo credit: Clay Malott
Photo credit: Clay Malott
Moving towards the couloir across the tundra. Photo credit: Clay Malott

After following the trail for about an hour, we came across some old mining stuff, which included a collapsed cabin and rusty cans. It took us about 15 minutes more to reach the bottom of the tongue of the couloir.

Near the bottom of the couloir. Photo credit: Clay Malott

We got on our ski boots and boot crampons and began to make our way up the couloir. The slope wasn’t very steep at first, so we kept the ice axes on the pack. The snow was firm, but not icy, which made the ascent quite pleasant.

Starting up the face. Photo credit: Clay Malott
Approaching the crux. Photo credit: Clay Malott

Eventually, we reached a point where the couloir forked into two different chutes that met up together again at the top. We chose to do the right chute since it looked easier, but we were wrong. The slope was about 50 degrees, so we got out our ice axes for fall security. The real reason we regretted choosing the right-hand side was that the snowpack was so shallow that our crampons would cause the snow to just slide right off the rock.

Finally, we got out of the crux of the couloir and it began to mellow out a little bit more towards the top. A few steps later we topped out and crested onto the ridge, where we put away our ice gear, switched into downhill mode, and stepped into our bindings for the descent.

Final steps to the top. Photo credit: Clay Malott
Topping out onto the ridge. Photo credit: Clay Malott

This was my second day on my new DPS Pagoda skis, and I was initially a bit worried about how a sub-1500 gram ski would perform on such firm snow. However, the first turn in the couloir proved my worries wrong. The ski was buttery smooth even on the worst snow, and damp enough that I barely noticed the chatter.

The top of the couloir was fantastic, but after a few turns in, I reached the first crux of the descent. It was a small rock band with two chutes of snow that were about two feet wide each. I was originally going to just make a hop turn and hopped beyond the rocks, but I decided to commit and keep my skis on the snow, which got me moving pretty fast. I slowed down by using a quick speed check before entering the second crux.

The second crux of the couloir was less technical than the first. It was essentially a rock minefield that just had to be navigated slowly. Once I was out of the second crux, I was home free. I linked some relaxed turns down the large apron, and down the tongue of snow to the bottom.

After skiing, clouds began to mount, which made us nervous about rain. Minutes later, however, we were greeted by intense snowfall. What a treat! The snow lasted for only about 20 minutes, but got me super stoked for winter to return!

September snowfall! Photo credit: Clay Malott

We switched back to hiking boots and packed up our ski stuff and got going back down to the road. We loaded the car back up, and drove back home, where I made it back in time to log onto Zoom for math class.

Today checked off my 16th consecutive month that I’ve skied. I vividly remember my September 2019 skiing, which was on Conness Glacier near Yosemite. The snow was absolutely bulletproof and all-around horrible. It makes me so grateful that we got so lucky with conditions this year!

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