Spring is here, which means it’s couloir season in Colorado. If you’re excited to put on your crampons and kick some steps, here are three easy Colorado snow climbs you need to check out: Juliet Couloir, Boudoir Couloir, and Whale’s Tail Couloir.
These classic Colorado snow climbs have a maximum slope angle of less than 45 degrees (though conditions vary a bit from year to year). They’re all great choices if you’re new to the sport, feel like easing into the season, or are introducing someone to Colorado snow climbs.
Snow climbing safety and gear tips
Colorado snow climbs are fun, but they’re definitely a step up from hiking and snowshoeing in the skill and risk departments. A few considerations before you go:
- Start early. Travel will be easiest and safest before the sun hits the snow. Your best bet is to approach in the dark and start your climb around sunrise.
- Know basic crampon, self-belay, and self-arrest techniques. (Want a good, inexpensive place to learn? Check out Colorado Mountain Club’s basic mountaineering classes.)
- Monitor the weather and avalanche conditions for a few days before climbing. Also, if you’re going to be a snow climber, you really should take an avalanche course.
- Wear a climbing helmet to protect yourself against rock fall.
- Solar radiation can be extreme on Colorado snow climbs, so take drastic sun protection measures. A couple folks in our Boudoir Couloir party swear by the Buff UV Headband and wear it over their faces like a balaclava.
- Snow blindness sucks, so glacier glasses are also a good investment. (I’ve been wearing Julbo’s women-specific Monterosa glacier glasses during this crazy climbing season, and so far, they haven’t let me down.)
1. Mount Neva – Juliet Couloir
Round-Trip Distance: 9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,700′
Max Elevation: 12,814′
Trailhead: Fourth of July Trailhead, Indian Peaks Wilderness (directions and info). The road to the trailhead is rough, but passable by most high clearance vehicles.
This was actually one of the first Colorado snow climbs I attempted after taking Colorado Mountain Club’s Basic Mountaineering School. The couloir itself is short — about 400 feet total — making it ideal for novices. We actually had a beginner on our trip who had never put on crampons before, and she really loved it.
From Fourth of July Trailhead, follow the Arapaho Pass Trail for about 3 miles. At the trail junction, follow the Caribou Pass Trail west to Lake Dorothy. From the lake, you will be in a beautiful glacial cirque looking up at the northeast face of Mt. Neva.
Make your way around the south side of Lake Dorothy to the apron of a broad snow field. Perhaps the hardest part of this route is identifying which of the routes looming above you is actually Juliet Couloir. Hint: it’s the one on the far left closest to the summit. Juliet Couloir has a distinctive hourglass shape, and unlike other couloirs on the ridge, it’s usually NOT corniced early in the season.
(By the way, if you’re looking for other great Colorado snow climbs, the Desdemona and Phoebe Couloir routes on Mt. Neva are supposed to be pretty awesome. Note that they’re a bit steeper, and you’ll need to wait later in the season for their cornices to collapse.)
The Juliet Couloir route is pretty straightforward. If you’re climbing later in the season, you may need to scramble over a band of exposed talus about halfway up. Be careful, especially in your crampons.
Note also that this is an east-facing couloir that gets lots of early morning sun. For a safe and pleasant hike, consider approaching in the dark so you can hit the apron just as the sun comes up.
As with all Colorado snow climbs, be alert for rockfall on this route. (If you do see rocks, shout to your group, face down, and hug the snow.)
Once you exit the couloir, Mt. Neva’s summit is about 300 feet to the south (left).
There are a few possible descent routes, depending on the conditions. Our group chose to scramble down the south ridge to the saddle between Mt. Neva and Mt. Jasper. From there, we glissaded and plunge-stepped down a snow field toward a pair of unnamed lakes and made our way back to the Caribou Pass Trail.
Additional trip reports and beta
2. Horseshoe Mountain – Boudoir Couloir
Round-Trip Distance: 7.4 mi. (from 2WD parking)
Elevation Gain: 2,730′ (from 2WD parking)
Max Elevation: 13,898′
Trailhead: Leavick Trailhead (directions and info).
Gerry Roach wasn’t joking when he called Boudoir Couloir a classic among Colorado snow climbs. It’s in a unique setting, surrounded by Horseshoe Mountain’s vertical cliffs. The views from the high, rounded summit are stunning. This route is probably the most challenging of the three, standing about 1,000 feet high and approaching 45 degrees at the exit.
When we climbed Boudoir Couloir on May 13, 2017, Route 18 was passable to 0.8 miles below the Leavick Ghost Town. From here, we hiked another 0.8 miles to a fork in the road, took a left up a snow bank, and followed the road upward through the trees into the cirque.
Snowshoes were invaluable for the early part of this hike, as snow was still deep in the trees. The cirque and the area above the lakes also had wide patches of lingering snow. We skirted around the lakes to the right and climbed a gentle snow field to reach the apron of Boudoir Couloir.
Boudoir Couloir is east facing, meaning it’s best climbed early in the morning before the snow softens in the sun.
Unfortunately, we arrived a little later in the day than expected. Fortunately, we all had avalanche training and equipment, and one of our group was a certified AIARE I instructor. We dug a pit, performed a few stability tests, and agreed that it was reasonably safe to proceed.
We climbed the left side of the couloir in order to avoid a rather ominous overhanging cornice guarding the right side. The snow was softening at the surface but stable, making it easy to kick solid steps. Our party of six ascended Boudoir Couloir in under two hours.
Boudoir Couloir’s exit brings you to a balcony just below the summit of Horseshoe Mountain. From here, scramble over a shallow snow bench to reach the ruins of a ranger cabin. Then take an easy walk to Horseshoe Mountain’s rounded top.
Standing 13,898′, Horseshoe Mountain is a Colorado centennial, meaning it’s one of the 100 highest peaks in the state. From the summit, you have great views of Pike’s Peak, Mount Elbert, and the entire Sawatch Range. (Unfortunately, my GoPro crapped out, so you’ll have to go and see it for yourself.)
Most climbers choose to descend via Horseshoe Mountain’s gentle northeast ridge. However, for a little added fun, we descended the Boudoir Couloir itself. This involved plunge stepping down to the second rock band where the slope angle eases and the runout expands. From here, we removed our crampons and glissaded several hundred feet to the base. Snow conditions were great, and the ride was a blast.
As we were approaching the lake on our descent, we heard a rumbling noise behind us. We turned to see a biggish (D2?) wet slide avalanche raining down from one of Horseshoe’s south-facing cliffs, bringing some rocks and dirt down with it. It didn’t cross our path, but was a nice reminder to always be vigilant of changing avy conditions throughout the day.
Additional beta and trip reports
- 14ers.com (includes map and downloadable GPX file)
- Dave Cooper for The Denver Post
- Summit Post
- Through Polarized Eyes
- Ice and Trail
3. Whale Peak – Whale’s Tail Couloir
Round Trip Distance: 10 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,500′
Max Elevation: 13,078′
Whale’s Tail is a wide, striking couloir about 700 feet tall near Kenosha Pass. It’s rarely climbed or skied, so finding beta on it can be difficult. But make no mistake, it’s incredibly beautiful and you’ll likely have the whole thing to yourself.
This was our Rainier group’s first Colorado snow climb together. We were looking for something moderate that would feel comfortable for all skill levels. Whale’s Tail Couloir turned out to be a perfect choice.
From the trailhead, hike about 2.2 miles to Gibson Lake. When we did this hike May 6, 2017, the trail was mostly under snow, and there was no boot pack. GPS may be helpful, especially if you’re navigating in the dark. Snowshoes were also a lifesaver in the trees.
As soon as you emerge from tree line, you should have a nice view of Whale Peak. The Whale’s Tail Couloir is the thick ramp of snow left of the summit.
At the lake, we stashed our snowshoes, took out our axes, and started making our way up the snowfield at the far right side of this picture. Once on top of the bench, it was an easy walk left to the snow apron at the base of the couloir. As an extra treat, we saw a pair of mountain goats up here.
An early start is essential for this one. Whale’s Tail Couloir faces east and really cooks in the early morning sun.
We started up from the apron around 7 a.m. By the time we reached the top around 8:15 a.m., snow conditions had started to deteriorate, and we were getting a little nervous about wet slide avalanches.
Also, we were sweating like crazy. Whale’s Tail Couloir was probably the hottest I’ve ever been on snow.
The route itself is a straight shot. You can pretty much see the top of the couloir from the apron. We stayed to climber’s left to avoid some old wet slide debris, which you can see in the pictures.
One awesome aspect of Whale’s Tail Couloir: the steepest section is actually about halfway up, so just as your calves start burning, it eases off a bit.
We were a little worried looking up that the top might be corniced. But the exit was easy and just involved scrambling over a small lip of drifted snow.
Once you gain the ridge, it’s less than 100 vertical feet to the summit, which is visible just to your right.
To make an easy descent to Gibson Lake, head south on the ridge following a climber’s trail. The ridge looks a little gnarly from a distance but doesn’t exceed class 2.
Once you reach the saddle between Whale Peak and the unnamed peak to the south, descend the grassy slope to Gibson Lake. There’s one cliff band you’ll need to skirt around at the base. To do this, head east toward the woods, then cut left toward the east end of Gibson Lake.
Additional trip report
- 14ers.com (includes a downloadable GPX file)