Take your skiing and splitboarding to the next level this spring with these Colorado big-mountain lines.
When conditions consolidate in the spring, lines in the Colorado backcountry that were once too dangerous become doable. Freeze-thaw cycles bring morning corn, a.k.a. “ego snow” that’s stable and makes everyone feel like a hero on the steeps. Winter can pop back up at any time in the Rockies and you need to be cognizant of wet snow slides. Never forget your avalanche safety gear, get good training, and have the appropriate mountain skills for your objective. Then get out there and enjoy these, some of our favorite runs.
Tick Off a Fourteener: Quandary Peak
Ready to tackle one of Colorado’s highest peaks? At 14,265 feet, Quandary is Colorado’s twelfth highest summit and the only fourteener in the Tenmile Range. Approach via the East Ridge route (avoiding avalanche terrain by sticking to the crest), which climbs 3,500 feet in under 3.5 miles. Drop the eastern slope’s open bowls, where soft powdery turns await. Then shoulder your skis or board for a short climb back to the skin track and follow your ascent route or navigate through the trees to your car. Experienced skiers and climbers will dig the Cristo Couloir, a south-facing gully that drops sharply toward the east end of Blue Lake.
Lose the Crowds: Mount Aetna
When you crave an off-the-beaten-path adventure with some thrills, hit Mount Aetna, the 13,745-foot sentinel that dominates the view along with Mount Taylor as you descend from Monarch Pass to Salida. From the Boss Lake Trailhead on U.S. 50 20 miles west of Salida, enjoy a gradual forested climb to reach the large run-out below the Grand Couloir, a spectacular gully that defines Aetna’s south aspect. Skin 3,000 feet up to the north on a fairly consistent 35-degree slope. Take care boot-packing up the short but intense crux leading to the ridge and summit. Views along the way encompass Mount Ouray as well as Clover and Bald Mountains. From this highpoint, the Sawatch Range—from Shavano to Princeton—stretches out in front of you in all its glory. Dropping into the Grand Couloir can be intimidating, but after the first turn or two, you’ll hoot and holler through sweeping curves the rest of the way. You’ll clock 7.5 miles round-trip and ascend (and descend) 4,100 feet.
Rocky Mountain Highs:
Dragon’s Tail Couloir and tyndall Glacier
From the accessible Bear Lake Trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park offers two challenging winter adventures for those willing to brave the elements: Dragon’s Tail Couloir (5 miles roundtrip, 2,500-vertical foot-gain) and Tyndall Glacier (8-9 miles roundtrip, 3,000 feet). For both tours, head west for 1.5 miles to reach Emerald Lake, an enchanting body of water enveloped by a rocky cirque. From here, look ahead and slightly right to scope out two obvious couloirs, Dragon’s Tooth (left) and Dragon’s Tail (right). Skirt Emerald Lake and ascend 1,800 feet to reach the pinnacle of Dragon’s Tail Couloir. Not to be taken lightly, this climb requires route-finding, skills to skirt a rock band crux, and the skiing ability to tackle 50-plus-degree slopes. Those seeking a less-intense adventure can skip Dragon’s Tail and continue up-valley toward the southwest corner of Emerald Lake. From here, follow the obvious gully, ascending steeply at first, but then leveling off, and delving deeper into the Tyndall Gorge. Stay right to ascend the forgiving 30-ish-degree slopes of the Tyndall Glacier before topping out on the 12,300-foot saddle between Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. Ski directly down into the Glacier, sticking to the same route you came up.
Take It From the Top:
Skiing Colorado’s highest peak may sound intense, but it offers options for all ability levels. Our favorite is the Box Creek Couloirs, a.k.a. Box Creek Cirque, a steep northeast face offering multiple narrow rock chutes that feed into an open bowl. To reach it, start at the Upper South Elbert trailhead (before the road melts out you’ll need to park where you can on the 4WD road and walk to reach this spot). Follow the South Elbert Trail through the forest and along the east ridge. Near the crest of Elbert’s East Ridge at 12,400 feet, you can continue skinning up the east ridge route or split from the route and head toward Box Creek Couloirs (not visible from this vantage point) for a slightly spicier yet attainable mountaineering adventure. To do so, hike north over the ridge, contour left (northwest and then west) into the Box Creek cirque, and climb to get a full view of the couloirs. Study the slope ahead to choose the ideal route. The center chute, which averages under 35 degrees and tops out at 38 degrees, is the easiest, but not always safest. After dropping the couloir of your choice and cruising the bowl, hike or skin up to the south/southeast to hit the ridge that will eventually lead you back to the trailhead.