I’ve been immersed in the high-altitude mountaineering world since January. And to be honest, it’s getting a little testosterone-y. At this point, I seriously don’t care what 8,000-meter peak you’ve climbed or $3,000 tent you own or how fast you can do The Incline. I just want to have fun without everything being a goddamn competition. So I was thrilled to find a few girlfriends who were interested in climbing the Angel of Shavano Couloir.
I was thinking this might actually be the “rest” week in my Rainier regime. But with 4,600′ vertical feet, it actually turned out to be an excellent training climb.
Plus it’s freakin’ beautiful. Our group had everyone from a beginner on her first couloir to an expert who’d just climbed Dreamweaver, and we all insanely loved it.
So if you’ve got basic crampon and avalanche skills, I totally recommend climbing the Angel of Shavano. Here’s some beta to get you going.
Angel of Shavano trip stats:
Date climbed: June 4, 2017
Trailhead: Shavano/Tabeguache (details)
Distance: 7.5 mi.
Elevation gain: 4,600′
Max elevation: 14,229′ (summit of Mount Shavano)
Start time: 3:30 a.m.
End time: 12:30 p.m. (includes generous summit siesta)
Recommended gear: Ice ax, helmet, mountaineering boots, crampons, avalanche gear, GPS
Angel of Shavano Route Description
The Angel of Shavano is an “easy” (<30 degrees slope angle) snow climb on the east face of Mount Shavano, a Colorado 14er in the Sawatch Range.
According to legend, the angel is a Native American princess who sacrificed herself to bring rain to her people during a drought. Each spring, her meltwater “tears” fill the rivers and water the valley below.
Here’s what the angel looks like from US 285 near Salida. A friend who lives there says that when the couloir is “in” (usually in May and June), the angel looks a little fat. We thought it actually looked preggers, but whatevs.
Parties climbing the Angel of Shavano need to choose an arm to ascend. Climber’s left (which we took) leads to the Mount Shavano Trail, which is the standard summer route. The chute to the right takes you up to Shavano’s east ridge, which requires a short scramble to the summit.
While you were sleeping …
Angel of Shavano is an east-facing couloir, so it’s best to get on it early. As a rule of thumb, try to be at the bottom around sunrise to get the best snow and avoid avalanche danger.
We left the Shavano Trailhead with headlamps at 3:30 a.m., which seemed ridiculously early at the time. But when we signed the trail register, we were surprised to see two groups ahead of us! One party had left at 2 a.m. (Freakin’ overachievers.)
Our first big challenge of the hike was route finding off trail for about a mile to the base of the couloir. To do this, you need to leave the trail and hike west up a drainage with an obvious stream in the bottom. Should be easy, right?
Wrongo. A couple of years ago, a microburst totally crushed this part of the forest, leaving thick deadfall everywhere. Our first foray off the trail ended in a retreat, with all four of us thoroughly scratched and snagged.
Here’s the secret to avoiding the worst of the deadfall.
Props to the “fat angel” friend in Salida for this great beta:
- Stay on the trail a bit longer than indicated on older GPX tracks. At around 11,200, the trail approaches a steep slope, then makes a switchback up that slope. (It’s clearly visible on topo maps.) Leave the trail just before this switchback.
- Head up the drainage, cheating to your left. You may feel like you’re going out of your way, but you’ll avoid the worst of the downed trees.
- Follow the boundary between the forest on your right and talus slopes on your left.
- At first, you won’t see the angel, but it’ll gradually come into view. And as it does, the route will become obvious.
- GPS is super helpful for this part, especially if you’re approaching in the dark.
We didn’t use snowshoes on the approach, but they might be helpful if you’re climbing the Angel of Shavano early in the season (May).
Climbing the Angel of Shavano
At the bottom of the angel, we all put on crampons and took out our ice axes. Some trip reports mention people climbing the Angel of Shavano in boots or snowshoes. We saw one guy heading up in Kahtoola microspikes. The final decision should probably depend on the snow conditions and the group’s skills and comfort level.
The steepest slope angle is near the start of the climb, and it probably doesn’t exceed 30 degrees. You can get an idea by looking at this shot of Meg (Instagram: @adventuresoffoxintheforest), and also the second photo looking back down the couloir.
The snow was bomber — cold, crunchy, and perfect for crampons. After a few hundred feet, the slope angle eased. But the fun wasn’t over. At least another thousand feet of snowfields stretched up before us. Climbing the Angel of Shavano went on forever!
Both “arms” of the angel had plenty of snow. We took the one to climber’s left which carried us all the way to the saddle at 13,400′. If you look carefully, you can see the main Mount Shavano Trail on the right side of the photo.
We took off our crampons for the final push. But the snowfield just below the summit turned out to be quite steep and crunchy! We worked hard to kick in good steps through this section.
Off to our right, we saw a pair of skiers ascending the angel’s right arm. They look like little ants, but if you follow the ridge line down, you’ll see them.
I won’t lie. Climbing the Angel of Shavano kicked my ass, and I was dragging through the last hundred feet. But then suddenly the snow disappeared, and we scrambled over some rocks to the summit.
As Meg likes to say, stoke level: 14,229′!
We thought about scrambling over to Mount Tabeguache, another Colorado 14er that shares a ridge with Mount Shavano. But when we peered down into the saddle, it looked like a major snow slog. So we just did an epic photo shoot instead.
It was a warm day, and around 9 a.m., crazy water condensation started swirling in the air above the valley. We could actually see steam rising steadily off of the Angel of Shavano couloir. That was our sign to pack up the cameras and head down before the snow cooked too much and got slidey.
An Insanely Fun Glissade Descent
The snowfield below Mount Shavano’s summit actually looked super steep from the top! Amazingly, as the rest of the mountain was simmering, the north slopes were still so frozen we could barely plunge step. I opted to descend with a pole in one hand and my ice axe in the other.
We gradually made our way across the tundra to the angel’s right arm. From here, we could have spent an hour plunge stepping down 1,500 vertical feet of snow. But for serious. Where’s the fun in that?
As it turned out, the snow was perfect for a glissade descent.
Not sure what that is? Check out this video.
At the base of the couloir, we glissaded through a bunch of guides from Noah’s Ark Whitewater Rafting, who were out for some team bonding. We loved that they told us we were “badasses.”
On the hike out, we kept turning around to admire our handiwork. Now that’s a pretty sweet butt track!
As always, the hike back to the trailhead seemed to take forevs. Again, GPS totally saved our asses when it was time to rejoin the trail.
Ten minutes later, we stopped to stare in awe at the solid wall of deadfall we’d tried to bash through in the dark. In some places, the fallen trees were stacked 15 feet high. No wonder it had almost defeated us!
We finally rolled back to the cars around 12:30 p.m., lazed in the sun for awhile, and then headed to Brown Dog Coffee in Buena Vista to fuel up for the long drive back to Denver. I ate a breakfast burrito there. It was seriously the best thing I ever tasted.
The next day, I got this text from a friend who was climbing the right arm while we were coming down:
Overall, climbing the Angel of Shavano was a blast. And sliding down it wasn’t too bad either. This could definitely become a yearly girls weekend tradition.