Monday, October 10, 2011

Dragonstail Couloir Ski - 5.16.2010

Rachel Ertz, Jordan Scheremeta, Ben Kugel, Nick Allen, Ethan Vimont, and I set out to ski Dragonstail Couloir three days after a large upslope hit the Front Range back in mid May of 2010. This is one of the top 5 best spring descents I've ever done, so as you can imagine I've been wanting to put it up here for a while. But I've kept dragging my feet about it, I think the reason for this is because looking back on it I'm still not sure if we should have passed on it for another day.

The route
Like I said above, on the 13th a large upslope pounded the Front Range of Colorado. The eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park is favored for high snowfall totals in these events as much as anywhere. On the 14th Erik Mehus, Jordan Scheremeta, and I skied a mellow day on Meadow Mountain bowl on the southeastern corner of the park. That day I observed generally good stability with incredibly fast snow consolidation which I attributed to the warm new snow temperatures as well air temperature and height of the sun in the sky. With a sunny day on the 15th I thought that the south facing Dragonstail would have essentially consolidated or at least developed a melt freeze crust by the 16th.

Starting at the Bear Lake parking lot we quickly reached timberline following the trail that leads to Flat Top through the woods. At timber line we were greeting with amazing views on Rocky Mountain National Park plastered in new snow. The clear spring air of the bluebird day allowed us to see much farther than normal, and I spent most of the skin drooling over amazing lines in every direction. To the south, the massive summit block of Longs Peak was framed in thin, wispy clouds, and its north face was covered in snow. Across the Tyndall Gorge, the east and north faces of Hallet looked incredible.

The Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda & Chiefs Head
Rachel, Nick, Ben & Longs Peak
Mount Ypsilon
Hallett Peak
Longs Peak
The skin up the east ridge of Flat Top is easy and went incredibly fast, however, with every step higher the winds got stronger and stronger. Ethan and I reached the entrance to Dragonstail shortly after 10:00 and the rest of the group joined us by a little after 10:15. By the time we switched from uphill to downhill mode, selected an entrance, and got ready to drop in it was 10:45.

In the high winds it felt really cold and without dropping into coulior itself we could not get an accurate feel for the snow stability as we could only reach a drifted pocket at the edge of the entrance without fully committing ourselves. I mentally reviewed my observations from a few days before on Meadow Mountain, the aspect and elevation we would be skiing, the weather the previous two days, and decided based that the couloir would be stable. One of my main concerns was a very slight graupel layer that preceded the storm that I had observed on Meadow Mountain. However, Meadow Mountain is about 1000 vertical feet lower than Dragonstail and felt that the graupel had probably not fallen at this elevation.
Looking down the couloir
I then entered the couloir and put in a gentle ski cut across it. I immediately realized that it was WAY hotter in the couloir than we had anticipated, I had been fooled by the wind. This is something that I will always remember to think of from now on. Although the snow itself had not yet become unstable due to liquid water I was very concerned about one of the enormous cornices above falling, or a wet slide lower in the couloir. Further, there was no sign of the melt freeze crust we had been planning on. The snow certainly wasn't 10% water content pow, but it had a long way to go before becoming Névé. I felt extremely uncomfortable sitting under those huge cornices, and did not feel it was safe to take the time to dig a full pit. However, my quick hand and pole pits showed no signs of instability at the bottom of the new snow.

It was time to move FAST. I either needed to figure out if I was going to be able to climb back out or we needed to start down immediately. I relayed my thoughts to the rest of the group waiting at the entrance. Jordan, Ethan, and Ben decided they felt it was safe to ski while Rachel and Nick called it off. I have no doubt in my mind that Rachel and Nick made the right decision by saving a great line for another day.

I skied first and every turn released a flood of sloughing snow. There were no slab releases, but the volume of flowing snow was enormous and could have easily knocked any of us off our feet and carried us. We worked our way down from safe spot to safe spot each time letting our slough pass us. Despite this, the skiing was great: the line sustains its pitch forever and the rock walls on the side of the couloir are amazing.

Whats that little dot down there?
After the top 500' vertical feet the pitch let off a little and the couloir opened up with more safe zones. At this point the sloughing reaching more manageable levels and the skiing became much more relaxed and safe.
Its Ethan!
As we worked our way down we continued to see the telltale signs of the warm spring day including substantial releases of loose snow from hanging snow fields far up on the couloir walls.
Snow releasing off warm rock
Ethan lays it over
Whats so awesome about this line is it just doesn't stop and it stays steep until the apron.

In the apron we passed a slide, which we later found out was from earlier that morning, that had traveled about 400 vertical feet and consisted solely of storm snow. I think that this slid because of the weakness associated with the graupel that fell at lower elevations. Regardless this was a sign of instability.


Ethan and Dream Lake, Frozen Elk and Dragonstail behind
At the bottom of the apron, returning to the trailhead involves the easy process of following the summer trail across several lakes down the Tyndall gorge back to Bear Lake.

The west and east entrances to Dragonstail
Longs, Keyboard of the Winds & Pagoda
Looking back on the day, obviously the safest decision would have just been to turn around and wait a couple more days. I learned a valuable lesson about not letting the winds fool me about the air temperature. Although I think the odds of triggering a slab that day were very slim, the consequences of if such an event had happened still worry me. Also, like I mentioned before I was also quite off with my forecast of the snow metamorphism. I think the reason for this is that I did not take into account, that even with the warm spring temps and the southern aspect, how long it would take 30 inches of snow to settle. I'm still not sure why no freeze crust developed on a relatively low south facing aspect in mid may. Perhaps the previous day was more cloudy than forecast or air temperatures just never got that high?? This is one of those days that we should have gone and skied an area without terrain traps where triggering a slab or a large slough in the storm snow would have been manageable.

Snow stability and decision making analysis aside, this is a GREAT line that I would highly recommend. It is long, steep(consistently over 50 degrees at the top), aesthetic, and has ridiculously easy access. I have yet to ski anything else that has the same vertical payoff on the way down for every step taken on the way up, this is a classic line.

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