Cathedral Peak (13,943ft) & Pearl Couloir
Cathedral Peak, at the top of the Pine Creek drainage in Ashcroft, Colorado offers some of the most classic couloir descents in all of Colorado. It’s summit, sitting at 13,944 ft is one of the highest non-14ers in the state and is certainly one of the most spectacular as it is surrounded by beautiful spires at stands above the beautiful Cathedral Lake.
The above picture shows Cathedral Peak (13,944ft). It’s summit, in the upper left, is accessed by several different routes. Our route would be up the classic Pearl Couloir, center of the photo, which wraps up and to the right, with a steep climb just before the top of the couloir accessing a ridge to the summit.
3:30 AM Start
The 3:30 Am start time, Easter morning didn’t phase myself or Jake O’Connor, my ski partner. We left our truck in the Ashcroft parking lot and were immediately skinning toward the Cathedral Lake Trailhead under a spectacular near full moon. The light of the moon allowed us to skin without headlamps and easily find our trail with only a bit of bushwhacking in areas that hadn’t had any snow.
Jake and I were both worried that we would encounter a major slog on the way into the alpine, with huge sections of no snow, causing us to transition numerous times and slowing our pass toward the Pearl. However, only was transition back out of our skis existed and within three hours we had worked our way up the valley, into the alpine and beneath Cathedral.
At the top of the alpine, the mountains began to glow, the moon setting beneath the peak and the sun rising behind us. This was one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever experienced.
With the sun rising so were the temperatures and we made our preparations for the climb before the snow softened and made the climb more difficult.
The Sun was Rising Quickly
As the sun was rising quickly, we skinned about as high as we could. A fresh wind crust from the breezy conditions over the last few days made the steep skinning difficult and we transitioned over to boot packing.
The snow was absolutely perfect for putting in steps. The wind crust was easily breakable but provided the perfect amount of support. No crampons necessary. Perfect.
I set the boot pack with Jake trailing behind. I couldn’t help but stop a few times to get pictures of the incredible vista. These views are absolutely spectacular and certainly some of the best in the Elk Mountains.
We made quick work of the couloir before getting to our decision point. Continue left, through a steep, hollow and rotten section of snow to gain the ridge and make the summit, or top out on the Pearl.
Being pretty exhausted from the steep climb but with some energy remaining, I decided to give it a shot and told Jake I’d see if I could set the booter to the ridge so we could access the summit. We knew time was running out, as it was getting warmer and we worried about wet slide danger on our exit. We wanted to stay within our 9:30am ski time.
After several attempts to gain the ridge, we made the decision that time was of the essence. The snow was too hollow, the slop too exposed our are body’s too tired from the climb. A fall was not an option and I down climbed the steep section of snow back into the Pearl, topping out at just about 9:00 AM.
The view from the top of the Pearl is amazing. The valley were we ascended, the couloir beneath our feet, the perfect vista. I was of course a little disappointed I didn’t make the summit. This is the second time I’ve tried but turned away. However, you can’t beat an incredible view and a great line like the Pearl. We had made the right decision.
We dropped in just before 9:30am
Jake took the line top to bottom!
We made up a lot of time as the exit still has a lot of snow. With just a few sections of dirt, we took off our skis, down climbing/hiking back into the valley. Cold beers awaited.