Ugh, this route! I’m 0 for 3 on it. This past weekend, Nov. 20th & 21st, was my third attempt, and third turnaround.
At least as of Nov. 21st, the Cascade River Road is indeed drivable to milepost 20, the normal summer trailhead for Eldo. (And gated after that.) The log crossing has changed again already (at least since this past April.) We used a smaller log that’s about 150′ downstream from where the river is closest to the road, which worked out just fine. (Not that you need coordinates for it, but if it makes you feel better: 48.493061, -121.123988) It’ll probably be different again by next spring.
On Thursday, Nov. 18th, fresh snow fell that exceeded what was forecast, managed to stick as low as 3000′, and has draped the boulder field in a 6″ to 12″ blanket of unsupportive fluffy powder, turning it into a rocky posthole nightmare that took 3 hours to cross. Above that, snowshoes could be used, but mostly deep fresh snow still made for tiring trail-breaking, limiting average pace to about 500′ of gain per hour. Despite leaving the trailhead at 7am, we made camp where dusk forced us to at 4:45pm, at only 6700′. (Testing with an avy probe indicated snow was just shy of 5′ deep there.) The math no longer made sense for our summit-day schedule: we were too far below our planned camp, and travel times were clearly taking longer than our planned schedule accounted for. Most of all, we feared that the NW Couloir itself would be full of this same unconsolidated snow, potentially turning it into a sketchy 55°-60° wallow with no good holds, no good sticks, and no good pro.
Even Starting An Attempt is Hard
It’s already been a long history of unsuccessful endeavors chasing technical winter alpine climbs for me. It’s just so challenging to get everything to line up correctly. Just the basic conditions to allow a winter alpine ice climb to even be possible already requires hitting the bullseye of a 3-way venn diagram:
- a reasonable weather-window,
- pretty good avy conditions,
- a hope that some ice has formed on your route and that there’ll actually be a thing to climb when you get there.
Beyond that already-rare line up of things you cannot control, it’s still kinda challenging to also line up your personal details, all those things you (theoretically) can control:
- You have to be physically ready. Let’s be realistic, staying in tip-top physical condition for big days in the alpine is not as easy during the wetter & grayer months. You don’t get the “free” conditioning of summer where you’re naturally active every weekend, so you have to be more deliberate about doing less-fun exercises in less-fun conditions. And to succeed at a winter route, with shorter days and more trail breaking, you have to be more fit.
- You have to have partners lined up who both have the necessary skills/experience/fitness for winter technical (which is naturally a smaller pool of partners than I’m willing to draw from for summer objectives, due to the harder requirements,) and who actually want to do this sufferfest that is winter alpine climbing, with it’s chilly belays, spindrift, and just generally everything being harder.
- You and your partners have to be available when the opportunity happens. Not everyone can take off days from work anytime at the drop of a hat. Those of us who mostly can are privileged, and even then, the odds that someone will have an unmissable commitment in the front-country are high. So, you gotta have enough people interested that if one person can’t make it, it doesn’t sink your attempt.
I think one of the biggest challenges to winter alpine climbing is: It’s a lot harder to build & maintain the planning-stoke for a thing that is unknown, and un-guaranteed. Maybe the trip will happen, maybe it won’t. What dates do we expect to go? Who knows. If we obsessively check weather forecasts every day for months, maybe we’ll get a one-week heads up before it’s suddenly go-time, end even then the forecast could shift last minute and cancel things on us. In the meantime, let’s make sure we’re all exercising long in advance as if this trip will happen, even though it might not. And don’t make too many other hard commitments on your calendar. All of that makes working to keep the stoke full feel like ladling water into a leaky bucket over a long period of time. It affects my recruitment of partners somewhat, but even more so, I find it’s a mental struggle for myself, to make sure that I keep myself engaged & diligent about exercising & checking the weather week after week after week, in the face of so many doubts about when or even if it will pay off.
My History On Eldorado
I’ve summitted Eldorado 4 times before, all via the Basic Route (walking up the east ridge.) My very first time up the mountain was a winter overnight ascent, during February 2015, a memorable trip with Sherrie, Greg L, and Evan B. (However, the 2015 winter was a very weird low-snow year, and the majority of the boulder field was snow-free making it notably easier, very uncharacteristic of February.) I’ve led two Mountaineers Basic climbs up it, a group of 7 in July 2018, and a group of 9 in September 2019, both with car-to-car times that were 13 hours and change, which I’d say is pretty good for that group size and with some students for whom it was their very first time on a glacier. Finally, in April 2021, just Jessica and I did it in a day on skis, plus some bonus road-walk with the gate closed at milepost 18. (Our April timing proved perfect, with no snow until maybe 200’ before the boulder field, and then pretty good coverage & compactness on the boulder field that we could actually skin across.)
I’ve also made two attempts at Eldorado’s NW Couloir, prior to this recent one. Both were with an excellent climbing partner and friend, Jacob W, in the 2018-2019 winter season. We already understood that you couldn’t plan dates ahead of time for winter alpine climbs, so long before winter started, we made a pact that when good conditions appeared to line up for it on a weekend, we’d drop everything and go for it. The first weekend that lined up for it was December 1st & 2nd, 2018. We knew that the Cascade River Road was gated at milepost 18, and we thought that arriving there at 8am would be an earlier enough start. However, that meant it was 9am when we reached milepost 20 (the traditional Eldorado TH,) then 11am by the time we reached the start of the boulder field (i.e. we gained that 1800’ in the forest in 2 hours, which I felt was decent considering we had 52lb & 53lb packs.) However, the boulder field was that worst-case scenario of snow cover: enough to hide the gaps, but not enough to support you, so picking our way up it was slow going and painful (sometimes literally, when a leg would post-hole 3+ feet deep into a snow-obscured gap between the boulders, which led to some minor blood & scrapes on our shins.) Although we had been moving at just shy of the benchmark 1000’ per hour before the boulder field, it suddenly took us a full 3 hours to gain the next 1000’ in the boulder field. By the time we got to the small waterfall that marks the upper end of the boulder field, it was 2:15pm. Knowing that sunset was about 2 hours away, and that there was no chance we’d get anywhere near our planned camp spot up at 7600’ (at the toe of the east ridge) in that kind of time, we opted to throw in the towel and turn around at that point. We knew our chances of still getting to climb the couloir were pretty much nil by that point, so we might as well go home to warm beds rather than endure a winter overnight for no payoff. It took us 1h45m to walk in our own fresh tracks back down to base of the boulder field, 1h15m to descend the 1800’ in the forest, and 45m to walk the 2 miles of closed road back to my car at milepost 18, arriving there at 6pm. In our retrospective of that trip, we identified the short daylight hours as one of the main things working against us. Within a month of winter solstice, the sun is only up for 10 hours, and down for 14. The days were just so short that there wasn’t any forgiveness at all in schedules for things like the boulder field taking 3 hours to cross because of difficult partial snow cover. And on mountaineering trips, there’s nearly always something that causes an unexpected delay somewhere, that eats up more time than it ideally should. We decided we needed to wait to try again sometime when there were more than 10 hours between sunrise and sunset, which meant waiting until at least the end of February.
The weekend of March 2nd & 3rd 2019 showed a high-pressure system in the forecast, with promise of delivering both stable avalanche conditions and bluebird days on the weekend itself, so Jacob and I were on for a second attempt of the NW Couloir! We were especially stoked that dawn was 6:20am and dusk was 6:20pm, giving us an even 12 hours of no-headlamp-time, which we felt would really up our chances. However, we couldn’t get clear beta about where Cascade River Road was drivable to. When we got out there, we found that there was snow on the road itself. We put chains on my Forester at milepost 10, and got the car stuck entirely a little past milepost 16. After some shenanigans, we managed to back it out and return to a pullout by the Mineral Park Campground entrance to more properly “park” the car. Unfortunately, by then it was 9am. We still went ahead and booted the 4 miles of closed snow-covered road, reaching milepost 20 & Eldorado’s summer-trailhead by 11am. This time the thicker snow cover made the climbers trail through the forest much harder, it was fully buried and we lost it constantly, ended up full-on bushwhacking instead. Realizing that we were going to be even worse off than our previous attempt, we made the call to turn around. At the embarrassing low elevation of 3000’, at 12:30pm. Again, nothing we could do then would salvage our chances of climbing the couloir the next day, so again we opted to shed the sunk cost, and return to Seattle and warm beds for the night.
Since then, Jacob ended up moving to Colorado. A good move for him, but it did create a bit of a barrier to us making future Pacific Northwest weekend plans together. I stayed in Seattle, but also had a move of my own to a new place in December 2019, after seven years living in my previous apartment. Even though I didn’t go far, actually accomplishing the move took my full bandwidth, and climbing was off my radar for at least a month before & after it. It seems that led me to miss an unusually perfect weather opportunity for snagging the NW Couloir during November 2019. Before I started recruiting new potential partners who’d be capable of this route for spring 2020….. well, we all know what happened in spring 2020. With a new virus sweeping the world, my girlfriend and I more or less didn’t leave our house for 2 months straight. It was hard to watch a lot of beautiful weather spring weekends go by while we stayed indoors, but there was so much that no one knew back then, including how transmission worked, so we didn’t want to in any way risk being part of the problem. So we did nothing, and hung out with no one. Until May, when we formed a bubble with one other couple and finally started venturing outside again, although we stuck to hiking & backcountry skiing as our only sports. We did do some cool glacier travel and scramble alpine objectives during summer of 2020. As far as technical climbing though, I did next to none. I didn’t feel that the risk of climbing indoors at my old regular gym, Vertical World, was worth it until we were finally able to get vaccinated, in April 2021. And during that time of not having the base-fitness of gym climbing every week, my arms were pretty weak and any outdoor climbing quickly proved demoralizing, so I didn’t do much. After getting vaccinated, I was back to the gym, and within a month or so I was climbing stronger than ever on outside rock, finally feeling comfortable on old-school 5.9 trad routes, which is a lot for me. But by then it was mid-June, with talk of a “once in a 1000 years” heat-dome phenomenon coming in the forecast; not exactly the season for the NW Couloir, so I mentally filed away any plans of returning for the coming November.
Coming in to November 2021, Eldorado NW Couloir was high on my mind, with dreams of finally pulling off a trip similar to those CascadeClimber trip reports from Nov. 2019. However, this November was hit with atmospheric river after atmospheric river, and the rain was relentless for weeks. I believed sooner or later an opportunity would come, and I forced myself to train, doing I-90 hikes in the rain, and really struggled to not let my spirits dampen. Finally, hope for a weather window appeared, with long term forecasts suggesting there might be 5 days with minimal or no precip, from Wednesday Nov. 17th through Sunday Nov. 21st. Perfect, that lines up with a weekend, simplifying things a bit. It was on Thursday the 11th when I first realized that window might be coming, so started emailing a few potential partners here and there, but couldn’t get any takers. Finally, late at night on Tuesday the 16th, I decided to just cast a wider net and post about it on the Mountaineers website and on Facebook. I got a lot of different responses, the usual mix of “Don’t do it!” and “Do do it!” and “I have no climbing experience but can I come?” (No.) The first person to reach out with both legitimate interest and a solid climbing resume for this was Ryan C, followed a bit later by Brian H. I was stoked to find some good partners, and we made plans to go as a party of 3. Another friend of mine reached out too, but she was a bit later, and had another climbing partner that she wanted to include too, and I couldn’t quite stomach turning us into an official party of 5, so I reluctantly told her no. Separately, I also heard rumors that a friend of a friend, named Grant, had been inspired by my facebook post and was likely going to organize his own attempt for the same weekend, so we might see him out there, but didn’t need to coordinate on anything. So Ryan, Brian, & I worked out the details of our own plan and watched the weather.
Hitting the right window for weather and conditions is everything for winter technical climbs like this, so to recap what had been happening with the weather: For a solid month, I don’t think we had gotten more than a 24 hour break from the rain, it seemed interminable. The weekend of Nov. 13th & 14th was no exception, with oddly warm temperatures, pushing freezing levels all the way up to 9000′, very unusual for mid-November. So much rain fell that it led to tragic & devastating flooding in northern Washington and in British Columbia (my heart goes out to anyone affected.) I wasn’t sure that Cascade River Road would still be there for us to drive on or not, but if it was, at least those crazy-high freezing levels should have eliminated any trace of low-elevation snow on Eldorado, likely making the lower half of the approach easy, while likely making the ice formations at higher elevations all the fatter; all good news for a potential climb. We just needed enough of a precip-free window for avy conditions to settle down, then allow us to actually climb. Going into the week of Nov. 15th, the forecast looked like it would give us exactly that on Wednesday through Sunday. Wednesday the 17th indeed turned out to be dry and sunny. Thursday the 18th was overcast, and I knew some snow would fall in the mountains, but earlier forecasts had suggested that it would be just a dusting, nothing significant. Unfortunately, day-of on Thursday, updated weather forecasts were now saying around 6 inches of snow were falling that day for Eldorado (no longer just a dusting,) and with a freezing level that dropped way back down to 3000′ or maybe lower. Not what I had planned on, and I knew that it would make things less ideal, especially for the boulder field, but you never know exactly what conditions you’ll get unless you go out there and experience them first hand, and it’s not like we were going to get another weather window for this route this year anyway, it was this or nothing, so we stuck with the plan to give it a try. Friday was overcast, but at least no more precip came.
Finally, Saturday morning (Nov. 20th,) we met up at 65th St. P&R at 4am. This time I wasn’t wasting any minute of daylight, having learned that lesson from prior attempts. (Like my first attempt with Jacob, we were facing 10 hours of daylight, and 14 hours of darkness.) I was thankful that the Forest Service now lets you file for a winter camping permit in the North Cascades over email, so we didn’t need to stop in person at the Marbelmount Ranger station, helping us save time on the drive. Even better, by some miracle, Cascade River Road actually was drivable all the way to milepost 20, the summer Eldorado trailhead, getting us there by 6:45am, 15 minutes before dawn, perfect!! Definitely the best start I’ve had yet to an Eldo NW Couloir attempt. We circled around the tailgate of Ryan’s truck, sorted out some last minute details about the pieces in the rack by headlamp, and got our packs together (50.2lbs for mine this time, including one of the twin-ropes,) and were on the move by 7:10am with full daylight.
Back in April, seven months prior, there had been a giant log held in place by steel cables that made an ideal footlog over the river. This time, I was quite surprised to see that artificially-secured log gone already, but we soon found a smaller one about 150′ further downstream, and we were fully across the river and into the forest on the other side by 7:25. We moved really well on the trail up through the forest for the next 1800′, knocking it out in a quick 1h30m, with patchy bits of snow starting to appear here and there on the ground about half way up, around 3000′. By the time we reached the boulder field at 8:50am at 4000′, it was draped in a blanket of fluffy unsupportive powder 6″ to 12″ deep. It made the boulder field a rocky posthole nightmare that took more than 3 hours to gain the next 1000′. Helmets felt purdent given how slippery everything was, and rubber gloves and a trekking pole were very useful through here, since it was constantly uneven trailbreaking, often keeping my balance by with my hands all over the snowy rocks around me, quickly soaking any glove that wasn’t rubber. Unfortunately, both of my gaiters had their stirrup straps break while working through this section, thanks to blind postholing into powder-obscured gaps between boulders, with the sides of my legs scuffing against the rocks a ton. This led to snow working it’s way up my gaiters from the bottom, then down into the boots over the course of the day, leading to some soggy socks & toes later that night. On the bright side though, we were getting to observe quite a few icicles and thin ice curtains formed on visible cliffsides nearby, which boded very well for the presence of ice 4000 feet higher where we’d actually care about it, so it kept us excited. Plus, I was feeling a lot of emotions from my long history of not-yet getting to climb this route already, which really lit a fire in me for breaking trail up the boulder field. Still, it was 12:30pm by the time we finally reached the landmark little waterfall at 5200′ that marks the end of the boulder field. There, Grant and his partner, Chris, caught up to us. They had started an hour later than we had, and had really benefited from the trail we packed down through the boulderfield. We stopped to collect some liquid water from that waterfall and Aquamira it, both so we could carry a bit less water from the start, and so we’d need to melt a bit less once we reached camp that night. Grant & Chris went ahead, taking over the trailbreaking job for little bit.
We completed our water refill by 12:50pm, moved up a little bit from that waterfall at 5200′, and finally could put our snowshoes on, thanks to being out of the boulder field. We caught up with Grant & Chris again at 1:30pm, and at 2:00pm (5700′) I took a turn at trailbreaking again, pushing on up to the ridgetop at 6200′ by 2:50pm. Finally up here and looking down the gulley into Roush Basin, I had my team take off snowshoes for the downclimb, and get out one ice axe to have in hand. Grant & Chris opted to rappel. The little gulley may have looked a bit intimidating from the top, but it was actually easier/safer than it was in the summer, since the bottom runnout had a ton of powdery snow, so if you somehow fell you’d have a much softer landing than the summer. My group of three were all at the bottom by 3:15pm, right as Grant & Chris were ready to throw their ropes. Ryan, Brian, & I continued taking turns at the trailbreaking while Grant & Chris rappelled and dealt with their gear. They caught up to us again at 4:00 at 6400′, and they opted to make camp there given the late hour. At this time of year, headlamps would be required by 5pm. I kept pushing, really hoping we could get higher, but by 4:30pm and at only 6700′, I had to concede that it was time to make camp, at a somewhat arbitrary point mid-slope well before reaching the Eldorado Glacier’s flat “football field.” This was a long way from the 7600′ toe of the East Ridge where I had hoped to make it to that night.
We dug out a really nice shape for the inside of my floorless tent, creating a sleeping-bench for each of us along the three sides of the tent other than the fourth side with the door, with a small table of snow in the middle. It’s a lot of work to setup a winter camp, and it was 6:45pm by the time I could start to relax a bit and think about next steps in our plan. After downing our meal packs, it was time to discuss what to do about Sunday: do we still go for it? Or do we bail? Everyone was fairly on the fence. Points in favor of going for it included:
- We’re here, we’ve come this far already, and we’re in better shape for potentially climbing the route than any of my previous attempts have been, even if that is just relatively speaking.
- The weather was still supposed to be good for Sunday.
- And there was an outstanding moon: full all night, making for stunning nighttime visibility, so if we did want to make an even earlier start, travelling through the night should be somewhat reasonable.
However, points against going included:
- Obviously, we weren’t where we planned to be, we were camped almost 1000′ lower then planned. And given the travel times we were experience with the trailbreaking through all the snow, it would take 2 hours to cover that distance. So instead of the planned alarms at 5am (2 hours before dawn,) it would have required alarms at at least 3am (4 hours before dawn.)
- On top of that, given that we were finding travel times to take longer than accounted for in our original schedule, what else about the day would end up taking longer than planned? Even if we changed that start to 3am, we’d have to be perfectly on schedule from then on out to not end up epic’ing.
- The biggest discouraging thought of all: given how much fresh snow we’ve been encountering, what was the state of the NW Couloir itself? Would it be full of this same light, fresh, & deep powder, potentially burying all the things that make climbing secure (good rock or ice) under too much deep powder?
Ryan & Brian were both pretty medium on the idea of going for it, I think they were pretty equally open to either possibility: going or bailing. At first I wanted to go, just because it’s been such a long history for me already, and I knew it would be a long time before I got to try it again. However, the more I thought about it, the more all the little “yellow flags” about our situation ate at me. It didn’t help my mood that it had been an exhausting day, with mostly dreary gray cloud cover and not much sun, and that my toes were a bit uncomfortablely cold & wet thanks to my broken gaiters. The biggest real concern remained the possibility that the couloir would be too snowy to offer much in the way of security or pro placements while climbing. One person’s discouraging facebook comment to that effect echoed in my head, for better or for worse. Whether this saved us from a truly dangerous accident, or was the last straw that prevented us from seizing a rare opportunity to succeed at a hard route, we’ll never know, since once we made the decision to bail, we knew no one would touch the couloir this week to know it’s conditions. We went to sleep agreeing that there’d be no alarm in the morning, we’d just get up whenever, and pack up & hike out once we did.
Sometime after 7am I was lying awake in my sleeping bag, enjoying the dawn light shining through the tent walls, when I heard footsteps pass by outside the tent. Holy crap, Grant & Chris were actually going to go for it?? I took me a while to extricate myself from my sleeping bag, get my boots on, and get outside of the tent, and by then they were well beyond conversational distance away. We watched them slowly work their way up the slope beyond us, eventually crossing out of sight at 7400′ at 8:30am. We knew how hard that trailbreaking was, so we understood their current pace, but didn’t understand what they were thinking. They re-appeared at 9:20am, coming back down, which made more sense. They passed by our camp as we were finishing our packing up, and got to chat with them a bit, and comiserate a bit about just how hard all of this snow made everything. They reported that the football field was rather wind-swept and therefore more supportive to walk on, and made for quicker travelling. They got to the bottom of the east ridge, looked around the corner at the snowy Inspiration Glacier, and opted to call it & turn around there.
Anyway, my team of 3 was packs-on for the hike out at 9:45am after a leisurely morning & pack-up. Today was much sunnier than Saturday had been, making it a more pleasant day. We got to the base of the gully for the ridge-crossover at 10:15am (man, going back down is sooo much quicker,) were all on top of the ridge-crossover by 10:35, back to the waterfall / top-edge of the boulder field at 5200′ by 11:30am. We got to the bottom fo the boulder field at 4000′ by 1:15pm. We reached the river at the bottom of the descent at 2:30pm, and were back at Ryan’s truck at 2:40pm. We capped off the weekend with a stop for burgers at Nutty’s Junkyard Grill in Arlington on the drive home. Ryan & Brian were both fantastic partners, I really appreciate them both giving his a try with me.
Thoughts for the Future
With three turnarounds now, all despite having already selected for really good weather windows and strong partners in the first place, yet ending up as a turn-around anyway, and across more than three years of history trying for this route, one takeaway common to all of them stands out. There needs to be less (fresh) snow for this route to go. I think I need to adjust my attempt-dates even further away from the core of winter, and further into fall or spring than they have been already. IMHO, climbing this route only makes sense in one of the following scenarios. Either:
- You catch it early enough in the late-fall that the boulder-field is completely snow-free. i.e. the ground is bare & dry up to at least 5200′. Probably by the middle of November most years that window has closed, and some years it’ll close even earlier. Even before this recent trip, I knew I had wanted to target early November, but with the continuous rain, there was no chance to this year. I wonder if late-October or maybe even mid-October could be feasible to aim for in future years? Though I’d be worried about the couloir at 8000′ sufficiently forming enough ice for reasonalbe climbing that early. It might be really dependent on some very specific weather history of precip and temps.
- You wait late enough into the spring that the Cascade River Road has fully melted out, but the boulder field is completely filled in with consolidated and therefore supportive snow. Probably no earlier than mid-March, probably ideal during April up until early May, when the boulder field probably starts to melt out and you lose that ideal complete-coverage.
- The two bullet points above suggest that this route simply does not go between mid-November and mid-March (without some really exceptional weather conditions occuring.) I think if you really want to climb this route during that true winter season, when the boulder field is anywhere in between perfectly-clear and perfectly-buried, you have to accept that overall it’ll be a 3-day climb, and plan for it as one. Though a 3-day climb would be rather unpleasant during most of that time, being so close to winter solstice, where the days are short and nights are long.
So note to self: don’t try again on dates that are after mid-November, or before mid-March. And even then, I was more excited for what I imagine the fall-character of this route to be (likely more of an ice & mixed climb,) as opposed to what I imagine the spring-character of this route to be (more of a snow-filled gulley, thus potentially less technical.)
I really do want to climb this route. For the rest of this, I’ll just post some info that I think will be useful for myself (and any others) next time I make an attempt on this route.
- Trailhead: 2200’
- Boulder field begins: 4000’
- Boulder field ends: 5200′ (a small waterfall here is likely a source of running water)
- Cross ridgeline from Eldorado Basin to Roush Basin: 6200’
- The “Football Field” (that giant flat area of the glacier) 7500’
- cross the north ridge to access west side: 8000′
- Summit: 8876’
A rack I keep packing & never testing
I’m torn on posting this. I prefer to post trip report rack recommendations based on my own personal experience on the route. However, on this route, more than three years on I still haven’t even gotten to rope-up for it yet, or heck even see it with my own eyes, so I certainly haven’t tested the rack. But, I’ve researched it and re-researched it enough times, I’ll at least write up what I’m pretty sure the rack should be at this point:
- Set of nuts
- 5 or 6 cams: BD Cam sizes #2 down to #0.4 or #0.3 (preferably ultralights)
- 3 pitons: knifeblades and a bugaboo. Just a mix for cracks that are too small for nuts
- 5 or 6 ice screws, preferably aluminum, like the Petzl Laser Speed Lights. Mix of sizes like 2x 13cm, 2x 17cm, and one or two 21cm
- 2 pickets
- Slings: 6 single-runners and 6 double-runners
Skis vs Snowshoes
I absolutely love backcountry skiing, and believe me, I’m happy to incorporate skis into a plan when I think they make sense. However, a lot of times for this route, I don’t honestly think skis make sense. Consider a few different parts of the climb:
- The first 1800′ in the forest: Regardless of time of year, skis would definitely require A-frame carrying them on your pack for the first 1800′ of gain, both up and down. (I cannot imagine that low-elevation forest ever getting thick enough snow coverage to skin or ski. Even when there was enough snow to get my Subaru stuck on Cascade River Rd, there wasn’t enough snow inside the forest for skiing.) In this were the only part you had to carry your skis for, and your pack isn’t heavy already I’d say it’s worth it. Doing a day-trip to just ski Eldorado’s Basic Route in later winter or spring can be a fantasti day. But doing so with overnight gear, plus ice tools, rack, & rope, can be a bit much. Also, as the winter/spring goes by, there’ll be more uncleared blowdowns to negotiate during this section, which can be tricky with A-framed skis.
- The boulder field. Ah, the boulder field. If the boulderfield is solidly snow-covered, then skis could be enjoyable through that section. But it’s a big if. If, instead, you have to keep A-framing the skis through the boulder field, it’s gonna be hell, and you should probably just turn around and go home before trying.
- Climbing the couloir itself: Remember that you need to carry whatever floation you use up and over with you. The traverse out to Dean’s Spire is long enough that you are certainly going to keep wearing your floatation out to there. And by that point, it’s going up and over with you. Plus you’ll probably want that floation anyway for the 1200′ walk-off descent down the East Ridge before you pickup your path in again. So which would you prefer strapped to you pack while you climb the technical portion of the NE Couloir, small snowshoes or big A-framed skis? Certainly some people do climb it with A-frame skis, but since I have yet to get the first-hand experience of how easy or hard the climbing is, I’m going to play it safe and chose to climb with the lighter weight option: snowshoes.