Cornice Busting on Southpaw Couloir

Mountain: Torreys Peak – 14,267′
Route: Southpaw Couloir
Date: July 3, 2015
RT Distance: 8 miles
RT Gain: 3,000′
RT Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Climbers: Speth (speth), Adam, Jeff

This snow-climbing season was disappointing. Between major life changes, a new puppy, a minor finger injury and the unsettled weather, I accomplished almost none of my goals. I hardly climbed at all in May and June, even missing the Spring Gathering and the past several happy hours. “Stir crazy” doesn’t even begin to describe it. With Friday off for the Fourth and an acceptable forecast, I pinged Speth and Adam about climbing Mt. Edwards via the Goatfinger Couloir. They immediately agreed.

The need for an early start and time constraints (this spring’s theme) Saturday led to us driving up Friday night to bro out around a campfire at the Stevens Gulch Trailhead. It was car camping at its finest, complete with a brick-walled fire ring and wooden benches. A few IPAs, many Dave Chappelle quotes and a magnificent sunset later, we were ready to crash in anticipation of a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

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First light saw us high in Stevens Gulch staring at a half-dry Goatfinger. Lost Rat was melted out at the top as well, and Dead Dog appeared to be limping along. Looming beautifully in front of us, however, was a fat-looking Southpaw.

This couloir, which is shorter and steeper than the more famous Dead Dog, is seldom climbed because the exit is guarded by a menacing cornice. We stared at it for a while and decided that, this late in the season, a few reasonable options existed to surmount the final obstacle. All I knew about Southpaw was that it wasn’t supposed to be terribly steep and that Moonstalker wrote an excellent TR a couple years back. We set off without a ton of beta, and like any such adventure, the result was equal parts joy, laughter, terror, adrenaline and accomplishment.

Southpaw begins with a long, mellow 30- to 35-degree apron. We were shocked and thrilled to find surprisingly good snow conditions. The angle gradually increases as you ascend, culminating in a 50ish-degree finish to the vertical cornice.

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The climb itself was simply amazing — supportive snow, attention-keeping yet easy terrain, and copious jokes relevant to 30ish-year-old “grown” men. As we neared the top, the two exit options looked to remain feasible. We hugged the right side of the couloir to avoid an unstable Volkswagen-sized block and eyed a less-than-vertical ramp just to its right for our escape.

Adam, in the lead, was the first to reach the cornice. The ramp we’d chosen comprised only about four-to-six feet of 70-degree snow. A couple swings, a few kicks, and we’d be over the top. It quickly became apparent that our optimism was going to go unrewarded. Unlike the rest of the couloir, the snow on the cornice was 100 percent pure garbage.

IMG_4637After Adam deemed our intended finish too dangerous, I started peering over my shoulder and weighing our retreat options. The first 200 feet or so was steep enough to require face-in downclimbing, and the snow conditions were deteriorating rapidly. Still, it seemed reasonable.

A horizontal two-foot-wide ledge of snow, ice and scree also caught our attention, as it led to a spot where the cornice was only about three feet high. If we could reach it — which would require several delicate moves across exposed Class 4 terrain — it seemed like it would go. Speth led across first, balancing on crampon points and grasping for anything that resembled trustworthy rock. He made it safely to the ledge and disappeared around the corner. Adam went next, talking himself through the balance-y moves. Only a few tiny islands of solid rock interrupted the 50- to 55-degree scree and snow. Without much in the way of handholds, it was a mental battle to trust your frontpoints and shimmy across. A few sections of thin ice that took a pick or point provided extra security.

Adam reached the ledge and talked me through the traverse, which I completed with only minor whimpering. A couple deep postholes kept the pucker factor high while crossing the snow ledge, but before long we found Speth standing on terra firma above the cornice. He offered a hand to help us over the final waist-high wall, and we all collapsed into a heap on the standard trail near two frat bros sipping PBRs. Welcome to summer on Grays and Torreys.

IMG_4638We stayed put for a while, giddily releasing adrenaline, before taking off our climbing gear and finishing the trudge up to the summit The Big T. Awaiting at the top was the standard July fare, including summit signs, selfie sticks and trail-runners in Colorado flag bikinis. Kelso Ridge was a popular route choice on this Friday, and it was cool to watch party after party come up, basking in their accomplishment.

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Thanks to Speth and Adam for yet another fun day out. Southpaw Couloir isn’t climbed much for a good reason — unless conditions are perfect, that ever-present cornice is a monster. If you catch it right, however, I could see it being an absolute classic. I suspect that only happens for a week or two every couple years, though. Happy hunting.

P.S. Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrdddddddddd.

7 Ways to Hike with Your Dog Off Leash (and Not Be a Jerk)

(Note: This article is specific to 14ers and other backcountry zones. I’m always for keeping dogs leashed in crowded foothills/city parks, especially if mountain bikers are present, with the exception of dedicated off-leash areas.) 

It’s one of the most heated debates during summer 14er season. Multiple times every year, an online wildfire ignites as people argue the merits and horrors of hiking with off-leash dogs. On one side are the anti-canine crusaders who cite laws and regulations, biting incidents, dog-on-dog aggression, jumping, food stealing, wildlife harassment, safety, tundra trampling and general annoyance as among the reasons to keep canines on leash or leave them at home altogether. In the other camp are the dog-lovers who roll their eyes at the aforementioned blowhards as they happily let their twin huskies Dollop and Mr. Sprinkles chase pikas all the way up Grays Peak.

Obviously, those are the extremes. Most trail users fall somewhere in the middle. The truth of it is, there’s no going back. We live in Colorado. Coloradans have dogs. Coloradans swarm the mountains. With the exception of the most difficult summits, the likelihood of hiking a 14er in 2015 and not seeing at least a dozen off-leash canines is pretty slim. The issue isn’t going away unless a peak steward is stationed at 500-foot intervals on every trail in the state. I doubt even that would help. The anti-dog crowd can scream about leash laws all they want, but it’s ignoring the reality.

So, how can the gun-toting dog hunters and Susie’s gaggle of mountaineer pugs coexist?

It’s important to note that while many areas do require a leash, in others owners are only obligated to have voice restraint. Not many people are aware that leash laws aren’t ubiquitous. Whether or not you choose to abide by them, know the rules and regulations of the area in which you’re hiking. If you’re a dog owner, prioritize the places where off-leash romping is legal. The guidelines included in this blog, however, also apply to those areas.

Anyone that knows me, or can view these pictures, knows the side of this debate on which I fall. Regardless, trails are a public space that attract people from all walks of life. I respect the right of everyone to spend a day in the mountains free from annoyance and fear, just like I enjoy the ability to hike with my four-legged adventure buddy. As with most raging debates in the hiking community, the solution doesn’t have to be that hard.

(Hint: Everything can be resolved with mutual respect. In short, don’t be an ass.)

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1. Train, Train, Train

Put in the effort to raise a well behaved dog or don’t let it off leash in the mountains. It’s that simple. A mountain dog should come when called, stay mostly on trail, exercise restraint around wildlife or other pups, not jump or get underfoot, not beg for food, show no aggression and, yes, walk comfortably on a leash when the situation warrants. Every dog has its quirks, despite any amount of training. It’s the owner’s job to understand, assess and manage those behaviors to avoid a conflict.

Some dogs are just not meant to be around other dogs or people without a leash. That’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. No one knows your dog better than you. Be honest with yourself about your pup’s tendencies and make responsible decisions.

2. Your Dog Is Not Perfect

You’ve had Grumblebutt since he was an 8-week old puppy. You’ve spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars on training. He’s under tight voice control. He doesn’t jump or chase animals. He can solve basic math problems, walk your cats, cook Easy Mac, set up a tent and bag his own poop.

Guess what? He still does something that will make someone else out there uncomfortable. Don’t fall into the all-too-common mindset that your pup can do no wrong. Always be willing to admit that Grumblebutt’s tendency to pee on the legs of teenagers might be frowned upon, and act accordingly to control your dog. (Unless said teenagers have a selfie stick, in which case it would be deserved.)

As a more serious scenario, I know several hikers who are afraid of dogs as a result of a previous attack. Grumblebutt might fart rainbows and occasionally sprout angel wings, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a living nightmare to a stranger. You love your dog and everything about him. Not everyone else does. Practice some empathy.

3. Exercise Common Sense

Are you and off-leash Capt. Cuddles approaching an on-leash German Shepherd with his hackles up and a straight tail? How about a family with a small child that acts fearful and hides behind her mother’s legs? A bearded redneck with a Duck Dynasty vest and his finger on the trigger of one of four barely concealed pistols? A skittish horse? A herd of mountain goats?

Call your dog to your side, put her on a leash and give a wide berth. Once you’re clear, Capt. Cuddles can happily go back to running 15 feet ahead of you, plopping down, and licking her genitals while giving you side-eye.

If you’re on a trail that’s crowded enough that this is happening every 30 seconds, such as an Open Space park or a Front Range 14er in July, just keep the dog on leash. It’ll be less annoying for everyone involved.

4. Keep the Leash Handy

I use a dog pack that includes a harness attachment. It’s easy enough to keep a leash clipped on and shoved into a a pocket, where it’s out of the way but easy to grab. That way, when you encounter scenarios like those just mentioned, there’s no time wasted in securing the pup. If you’re a slave to your dog and not making it carry its own food and water, keep a leash in your hand or slung around your shoulder for immediate access.

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5. Communicate with Other Trail Users

This applies to both pro- and anti-dog hikers.

“Is your dog friendly?”
“Can you leash your dog while we pass?”
“Is Sgt. Snuggles bothering you?”

Hey, that was almost too easy.

6. Know the Truth About Dog Poop

Wild animal scat is 100-percent biodegradable. Dog poop is not, largely because most domestic pets eat a cheap and unnatural diet. Dog feces can also contain harmful diseases that are transmittable to other animals or even humans.

You might still be 8 miles from the car while Sir Poopsalot just had the canine equivalent of beer shits, but you should still bag it and pack it out.

There’s also no such thing as a Poop Fairy. No mythical creature is following you around and picking up the soggy bags you left on the side of the trail. This is another bonus of making your dog wear a pack — they can carry their own crap. Literally.

7. Understand the Risks

Dogs die or get seriously injured in the mountains on a regular basis. Something as “cute” as a marmot or mountain goat can kill even a large dog. Your best friend will try to follow you anywhere, even across a knife-edge ridge or up a steep snow gully. They don’t understand the hazards. They just want to be close to you, the center of their world. It’s heartbreaking that every year dogs die from heatstroke, falls, animal attacks, or other hiking-related incidents. They didn’t choose to be there. You made that choice for them.

I’m not saying to always leave dogs at home. Anyone who’s seen a happy pup running free in the mountains knows the rewards can outweigh the risks. Owners simply must put the wellbeing of their dog above their own ambition. In general, I don’t bring dogs on anything more difficult than easy Class 3 rock or 35-degree snow. That’s my personal comfort level. Every individual and every dog is different. Also, carry a dog first aid kit and consider an LED collar or reflective vest for low-light situations.

IMG_2615Now, can’t we all just get along? Dog lovers and dog haters can indeed peacefully coexist, it just takes a little effort and human decency. Happy trails!

Mountain Therapy

An Ode to the Constant

Life is chaos. Nothing ever stays the same. Regardless if it’s positive or negative, change often leads to stress, uncertainty and a whirlwind of difficult emotions. It’s the constants that serve as a lighthouse in the fog, helping us chart a course through the choppy waters of human experience. For some people, that constant is sailing. Others choose fly fishing, salsa dancing, surfing or storm chasing. These are places we can go that calm our minds and offer a deep internal sense of enrichment. They’ll always be there, whether we’re going through a divorce or changing jobs or dealing with the loss of a loved one. We bond with people over them, forming long-lasting relationships and even entire communities. They define who we are and how we perceive the world. Mountains are my constant. No matter what’s happening in my personal life, I can always find solace in the hills. It can be a simple stroll through the forest or a difficult ice climb; as long as I’m in the mountain element, my troubles melt away.

IMG_1945 Why do people climb? It’s a silly question. How can you explain to an uninitiated bystander the joys of graceful movement, breathing in the cool morning air from a campsite lightly wet with dew, the never-ending views from a hard-earned summit, the sound an ice ax makes as it plunges into perfect snow or the human connections that form through mutual sacrifice, suffering and success? Climbing, like any constant, leads to a sense of personal happiness and fulfillment. Sure, there’s the added element of risk, but acquiring the skills to mitigate it and gaining a fundamental understanding of how you react to adversity and fear is part of the allure. It’s comforting to know that I can always lean on the mountains. Even when the current steals me out of a sheltered bay and into white-capped open waters, a few hours in the alpine remind me that everything will be all right. It’s not an escape. I’m not running from anything. It’s that when you approach them with the right mindset, the mountains distill life to its most basic form.

IMG_2998 Most tasks in the real world come with ill-defined goals and even looser parameters. With climbing, the objectives are much simpler. You have yourself, the gear you choose to carry, a point on the map to reach and only one rule — return safely. You gain an understanding of what truly matters, as well as how to let go of situations you can’t control. You learn your capabilities and limitations. Most importantly, it affords you the opportunity to look at yourself in a figurative mirror and see a clear vision in return. So many outside influences affect how we perceive ourselves. Our self-esteem is too often based on the opinions and actions of others. Climbing brings everything back to center. Mountains recalibrate the soul.

The hills aren’t for everyone. Some people don’t get it. That’s OK. All I wish is that those folks have their own constant, whatever it may be. Life sure would be a lot harder without one.