Peak(s):  West Sheridan - 12,962 feet
Aetna, Mt  -  13,745 feet
Turner Pk  -  13,233 feet
Mt. Elbert  -  14,433 feet
Date Posted:  05/18/2021
Modified:  10/12/2021
Date Climbed:   05/07/2021
Author:  123tqb
Additional Members:   Alexisfoster11, WhitW
 The Valley Sampler   

The Valley Sampler

It's summer break for CU students, and you know what that means! Summer skiing! Wait, you mean to tell me it's still technically spring through June? Well never mind that, summer is just a mindset anyways. Having all the time in the world meant I could finally plan the trip to the Arkansas Valley I'd been wanting since skiing the Angel of Shavano a year prior. After posting an invite to the CU Backcountry Club, the group was formed. With a foolproof plan and solid partners, what could go wrong!


Day 1

  • Date: 07 May, 2021
  • Peaks: West Sheridan
  • Route: Northwest Gully - Northwest Couloir
  • Mileage: 3mi
  • Vertical: 1900ft
  • Time: 6 hours
  • Partners: Alexis, Whit

I picked this line after browsing through Fritz Sperry's guidebook to the Tenmile-Mosquito Range. With the predicted snow conditions, any east- or south-facing lines would take the alpine start to end all alpine starts. Leaving from Denver at 2:00 really didn't sound appealing to me. Since West Sheridan's couloir has a northwest aspect, I figured we would safely be able to meet around 8:00, giving us plenty of rest before the full week we had planned ahead.

Whit and I carpooled to the trailhead. We must have gone a bit faster than predicted, because we ended up in Leadville half an hour before we were supposed to. When we encountered the dirt transition on CR 2B we decided to continue up as far as we could, and promptly got my zero-clearance Honda Civic stuck in the snow drifts. Fortunately there was a hiker headed to Mt. Sherman right behind us, who brought along a tow rope in her much-more-capable Subaru. One quick pull and a touch on the accelerator and we were free! After wishing each other luck in our days, Whit and I headed to park lower down while she continued to plow through the snow. We were still fifteen minutes early, so now all we had to do was wait for Alexis to show up.

It's hard to see, but the snow just appearing further up is where we got stuck.
A close-up of our objective. The couloir is hidden in the center, the gully just right.

Around 8:10, Whit and I decided to give it another 5 before putting on our gear and heading off, guessing that Alexis could have slept through her alarm (as I had done once or twice throughout the semester). Not five seconds before Whit was going to close the trunk, we see her bright white car coming down through the snow up the road. What had happened was, Alexis was even earlier than we were and had made it past where we got stuck. The hiker that pulled us out had passed her and explained that we were waiting down the road. After playing a quick round of the blame game, we hopped in Alexis' car.

When we couldn't go any further, we noticed that the hiker from earlier was walking down the road with her dog. Just like us, she had gotten stuck in the snow a ways up, and needed some help pushing her car out of the soft snow. She headed back up to her car while we put on our skis. Conveniently, she had gotten stuck right where we were planning to turn south off the road! We got together and pushed on her front bumper while she revved the engine in reverse, and after some physical effort and a few different attempts she was un-stuck. Not wanting to get stuck again she continued driving backwards down the road, and we continued on our way. After an already-eventful morning (with no pictures to prove it ever happened, I suppose), the day was feeling exciting. We dropped into the gulch and crossed the stream on our way to the NW gully.

The experiment...
The results.

Whit attempted crossing the stream on his skis, since he needed the flotation to stay on top of the wet snow on the other bank*, and couldn't make it up. He took off his right ski and instantly sank his foot to the bottom of the creek. He is pictured here draining his boot in the aftermath. We eventually figured out a path that involved going through the willows and made our way to the base of the gully to start climbing.

* I realize this means bad stuff for avalanche conditions, however we considered this when we picked a north-facing line.

Whit wrings out his sock while Alexis and I take a snack break.
Spot the skiers in the bushes!

While being the lower-angle approach to West Sheridan, the NW gully is still pretty steep! After some billy-goating and slipping backwards down the hill, Alexis and Whit decided that booting was the preferred method of ascent. I stubbornly continued on my skis. One way or another we all made it to treeline, where we met up to skin to the west ridge.

Ice axe out. Wouldn't want to slide all the way back to the bottom!
The skis go back on as we make our way looker's right, to the west ridge.

What had began as a beautiful, clear day had suddenly turned a bit sour. Behind us in the valley there were now what looked like storm clouds. I figured it was probably just some incoming snow — the forecast predicted a major storm the following day anyways — but to us it looked like it might even be raining! Lightning while up at 12k would be problematic, so every fifty feet or so we would look back just to make sure we weren't about to get stuck in this less-than-ideal scenario. We pushed for the summit, full-well knowing that if we saw any evidence of lightning we would attempt to make the speediest transition in history and straightline down the gully. With a switch to booting only for the last fifty feet, we luckily made the summit in no time. After twenty minutes of being on the ridge, we had been fortunate that the clouds had all passed us by, only experiencing mild winds in their wake. Scoping out the couloir from the summit, we now felt pretty good about hitting our intended line and not having to ski back down the way we came.

On the west ridge, looking at the storm clouds as they pass by.
Clearly this flawless selfie is what I should use for my social media profiles.

We made our way down to where the snow was continuous to put on our skis, where it was still pretty icy. A few turns later, and the snow transformed into gorgeous wind-deposited goodness! We picked out a stopping point at the top of the choke, and took turns making our way down about 700ft of perfect skiing conditions. (Like an idiot, I wiped my SD card before retrieving the videos I took, so the action shots for this trip will be few and far-between unfortunately). We all made it to the stopping point above a large rock (not a very safe spot to stop for future reference, on a rollover), and we skied the now-slushy snow in the tight chute at the bottom. Skiing over wet slide debris reminded us that, even though it was spring conditions, we very much need to be careful in our snowpack evaluation before skiing. We made it through and met just above the creek, and crossed to make our way back to the road. It only being 2:00 meant that we would have the rest of the day to relax before a big line tomorrow!

Wet slide debris at the bottom of the couloir.
Tricky crossing the stream again. No foot casualties this time around!
Our tracks down the line.

Day 2

  • Date: 08 May, 2021
  • Peaks: Mt. Aetna
  • Route: Grand Couloir
  • Mileage: 6mi
  • Vertical: 3800ft
  • Time: 9 hours
  • Partners: Alexis, Whit

I'd had Aetna on my mind ever since I first began ski touring. The Sawatch had always piqued my interest with their sheer prominence and vastness, and The Grand promised awesome views as well as fun skiing. Considering how early we saw corn the day before, we wanted to get an early start. We left Buena Vista at 4:15 and were headed up the road at 5:00. About half of CR 230 was bone dry, with the latter half consisting of patchy, dirty snow with the occasional step across melted-out, chunky road.

Whit did not enjoy the crappy approach I made him go on!
Only right below the couloir runout did we have to boot.

After two hours of having to pick lines up the dry road, it felt good to finally be on continuous snow. We still had plenty of time before we needed to head up, and we were in a fairly low-consequence, medium-angle spot, so we decided to get a little self-arrest practice going. The mountains lit up around us in the sunlight, making for a very pleasant break.

Whit stares up at the massive couloir climb ahead of us.
Practice makes perfect!

We had gotten onto a snowfield that wasn't connected to the main couloir, so from here we had to boot across an island of talus before being able to put our skis back on. This bottom section was super steep! Every step was taking a chance, in that every time you shifted your weight you might just slide all the way back down the mountain. While I wasn't looking, both Whit and Alexis took falls that ran out a few feet before they could stop themselves. Because of this, similar to the day before, Alexis and Whit took off their skis to boot while I continued as far as I could. We rendezvoused a few more times on the way up, me skinning and them booting for the most part. At the rock field below the choke, Whit made a decision that today didn't feel like his day. He had been having boot troubles for the whole morning, and had dropped his water bottle during his fall, and took it as a sign that he shouldn't push his luck. He went looking for a safe spot to watch us descend. Alexis and I continued on, with a hard turn-around time of 11:30.

Alexis is ready for a snack break after the difficult bottom section.
Whit stayed off-camera right, while Alexis and I headed for the choke.

It took us longer than we would have thought to reach the steep part of the climb. It was hopeful thinking to expect that we would summit with only and hour and a half to do a thousand feet of climbing. Nearing our turn-around time, I asked Alexis if she would rather just cross the rock to the left and get to a more open portion to ski. She agreed. We did a few feet of loose mixed climbing, where I continued on to the cornice, and she stopped just below. Now it was time to ski! The snow remained pretty firm, but the weather had gotten cold while we climbed and we didn't want to keep Whit waiting for us any longer. I dropped off the cornice and carved my way down through perfect wind-loaded snow. I had mistakenly dropped in above a pair of snowboarders who were still climbing, so I signaled Alexis to hold off for another minute and skied over to apologize. I then made my way down to Whit. What wonderful skiing, yet again!

Alexis crossing the rocks to make our way skier's right.

Alexis caught up and we all got ready for what would likely be a perfect-corn descent. We party-skied the flat section, and went one-by-one down the steep bottom. In terms of snow, we were right!


At this point we had no idea where to go. We grabbed Whit's water bottle and attempted to ski through the trees to skier's right. However, sinking in slushy snow and making jump-turns around small trees is not a good combination. Whit came in clutch, finding an open gully hidden a bit further to the right. We came out of the trees at some old cabins, and began to ski down the road. Taking off our skis was the last thing we wanted to do, so there was some duck-walking with heels clicked in and attempts at jumps over dry patches (some successful, others not) on the way down. We hiked down the dry half of the road, trying not to think of how sore we'd be tomorrow. Despite not making the summit, it was a great ski day! I'll have to come back to complete it, and I sure won't be complaining.

Threading the needle through tight trees and sloppy snow.
Not sure what these cabins are...

Day 3

  • Date: 10 May, 2021
  • Peaks: Turner Peak
  • Route: Southeast Face
  • Mileage: 6mi
  • Vertical: 3200ft
  • Time: 10 hours
  • Partners: Alexis, Claire, Whit, Zak

Taking Mother's Day off was absolutely the right decision, looking back. Having the right amount of sleep and eating real food does wonders! Like Aetna, we were preparing for a long climb, and hopefully a long ski back down too. Since everyone in the group was staying in the valley for the night, I proposed we wake up a bit earlier to ensure we would safely be able to summit later in the day. We arranged a meetup time of 4:15 at the Denny Creek Trailhead.

After acquainting ourselves with each other and putting on gear, we headed up CR 306. The road was entirely clear. We must've been moving faster than anticipated, because we reached the turn-off much closer to sunrise than I thought we would. It was at this point that Whit mentioned his boot was still troubling him, and that he'd have to turn back and spend the day figuring it out. Claire had slept in her boot liners to stay warm and was having trouble fitting them into her shells, so she decided to turn back as well. Now only Alexis, Zak, and I were left.

If the gate weren't closed, this would've made a very easy approach!
Of course the snow appeared right as we were about to leave the road.

I was pretty confident we were going to be able to skin up through the trees, since I had already successfully done so off of Cottonwood Creek in 2020, around the same time of year. Boy was I wrong. What came after we parted ways with Whit and Claire was a miserable hours-long bushwhack. The snow faded away only a stone's toss from the road, and the short, dense aspen growth meant that you could barely take a step without your ski edges catching on their branches. All we had to do was joke about it for the whole ascent, or else it would really have been a bad time!. Alexis asked me several times on the ascent, "Why do we do this again?" Each time I had to remind her, "You'll find out in a few hours." I think that conversation sums up ski mountaineering pretty well. At least I got a cool photo out of the whole ordeal.

No matter what route you take, you'll be doing a lot of this.
This inversion made for a dope photo.

After a few hours, we finally made it to the snow! Anxious to not be carrying our skis on our backs, we clicked pins in and started up the slope. We soon found out that the snow was much too icy, as we would slide back every other step we took. Only fifty feet after taking our skis out of A-frame, we were putting them right back on our shoulders. We booted up the remainder of this lower snowfield before reaching a rocky transition, where we could now see the peak looming over what looked to us to be good skiing terrain.

Alexis making quick work of the switchbacks that Zak tediously put in.
The peak is in sight! At least the skiing will be worth the suffering. Maybe.

Lucky for us, the snow was super supportive the rest of the way up. We aimed for a weakness in the cornice capping the ridge, taking it one step at a time. Not too much later we were sitting on the ridge, just below the summit. As soon as Alexis caught up to Zak and I and we all dropped our packs, the wind decided to pick up. I would occasionally get blown off balance, but not enough to be concerning, so we continued on. When Zak and I reached the rock portion of the ridge walk, Alexis chose to stay behind while we tagged the summit, not wanting to practice her mixed climbing in less-than-ideal conditions. We moved as quickly as we could through the Class 2+ terrain in our crampons. We summited, took a rapid picture, and headed back down the way we came.

Alexis and Zak climb the moderate snow as the weather worsens slightly.
We drop all of our gear to try and make the summit ASAP.
I'm on a roll with the truly flawless selfies this week.

We all put on our skis as fast as possible. The wind wasn't unbearable, but it was cold, and we'd prefer to at least be doing something fun to be putting up with it! I got my skis on first, so I was designated the avalanche crash test dummy for the day. I dropped in on the icy upper portion before it became more bearable further into the gully. I made my way back over to the rocks we had transitioned at and waited for my partners to follow. Alexis went next, and as soon as she hit the ice she fell, sliding about twenty feet in-between rock fields before being able to right herself. She then made her way to me, telling me it was one of the scariest things she's ever experienced (for good reason!). Zak brought up the rear, showing off his pretty-looking skiing skills. We then made our way through the rocks to the last skiable section.

Once we got to a spot where skiing was possible again, Zak and Alexis got right to it, clicking in heels and sending it through the tight portion up top. I, being stubborn, wanted more enjoyable skiing, and tried to traverse skier's right to end up above another cornice. On my way I lost my footing, of course not wearing crampons, and slid a good distance before landing my boots on the rocks below, only slightly scraped up. Yikes. Several lessons to be learned here, folks. A little shaken, I made it to the snow and descended in as clean a manner as possible, trying to keep up my image.

We made it back to treeline. Zak paved the way through the slushy snow, avoiding the sharks poking out, and Alexis and I followed suit. We eventually had to take off our skis of course, and stumbled our way downhill back to the road. The way down went much faster than the way up. We casually strolled back to Denny Creek to meet back up with our long-lost partners.

Day 4

  • Date: 12 May, 2021
  • Peaks: Mt. Elbert
  • Route: Northeast Ridge - Box Creek Chutes
  • Mileage: 8.5mi
  • Vertical: 4700ft
  • Time: 10 hours
  • Partners: Alexis, Claire, Whit, Zak

Due to some issues with the weather the group decided we wouldn't be camping out for the night after Turner. It was nice to spend the night in the heat, but we were still itching to get some early-season camping in. Instead of backpacking in and setting up a base camp, we decided we could get the same experience just camping at a trailhead. I suggested we ski Box Creek Chutes and camp at the North Mt. Elbert Trailhead. We would have a fire ring! Car camping is luxury.

We didn't want to miss our safety window, so we planned on leaving the trailhead at 4:00, to summit at 11:30 and ski at noon. There was snow on the ground from the parking lot, though very thin. We half-skinned-half-stepped-over-rocks for the entirety of the Colorado Trail until reaching the Mt. Elbert Trail, where we could finally do some gliding. The views were similar to Turner with low-sitting clouds, and by the time we we reached treeline we were making very good time.

Nice powdery snow with more cool pictures to be taken.
Sunscreen break, with Whit mid-yawn.

Alexis and Whit were, understandably, hurting a bit. I had put them through a number of ski days already. However, they were dedicated to making the summit, so they pushed on. With Zak and Claire breaking trail we were cruising up the northwest ridge, only taking one snack break to get some views of the chutes we wanted to ski. We made a few switchbacks towards the top, decided that booting was probably safer and more efficient while it was steep, and made it to the false summit above the Box Creek Cirque.

First views of the lines, with the false summit on the right.
Booting to the false summit was faster and safer, though a bit windy.

Making it to the summit was easy-peasy after the effort required to get this far. It was pretty much flat. Once we could see the north face of Elbert and no incoming weather, we knew we were in for an enjoyable summit.

Claire making her way up the ridge, with sights of the north face.
Summit photo!

We enjoyed a nice, sunny break at the highest point in Colorado for as long as we could. We had seen the snow softening up a bit on the ascent, so we knew we didn't have a ton of time to dilly-dally. We made our way down the rocky upper ridge to the top of the chutes. The snow so far had been absolutely perfect, and it looked like there was another group headed up the ridge, so we'd better shred for the audience! I headed down first to get some footage (still upset I lost it all), after scouting out the lines and reporting back the options via radio. Everyone but Zak took the second-to-last chute on looker's left, who took the steeper option to the right. While Alexis and I were waiting to descend, I saw below Zak's chute that he had caused a wet avalanche! I went through the process in my head, ready to boot over and ski down to dig him out if necessary. Luckily he had triggered it under him and safely skied out of the way, before waiting for it to stop and skiing past it. I radioed up to Alexis to watch out for wet slides, and we all descended to a safe spot far into the drainage. Looking back, the slide was a pretty good size. We skied down at 10:30, much earlier than planned, which obviously is too late to be skiing on a hot May day like the one we had. Good to know for future reference.

Avoiding rocks on the upper ridge.
Zak making his way around the avy debris.
A look back at what we skied, with the avalanche below Zak's option.

With that helpful reminder to be careful of timing in spring, we made our way back out to the northwest ridge. We didn't have to take off our skis, although the snow was beginning to grab our edges a bit. We separated into boys and girls to group-descend the steeper sections, and made it back past treeline. The snow was really sloppy now, but as long as we stayed high up the Box Creek drainage would take us back to the Colorado Trail. Looking back, we should have used one of the north-facing aspects in the drainage to find the trail, so the snow wouldn't be so bad. The skiing involved lots of bullshittery around tight trees, in quickly-disappearing snow. We overshot the CT, having to boot back up a few feet, but we ended up on a dry trail for the remainder of the day. With skis on our backs we hiked out, rounding out a great day to cap a great trip.

If you look close, you can see Alexis' bright yellow jacket and our sketchy line choice through the trees.

More Photos

The views on Aetna did not disappoint!
Right off the road below Turner, the snow just disappeared. (We didn't know that yet).
The rocky transition on Turner, above the first snowfield.
Zak kicking up some snow during our off-day on Monarch Pass.
The campsite was gorgeous. As it turns out, an ice axe doubles as a stake mallet.
The last switchback on Elbert's false summit before we booted the talus on the right.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Dave B
Nice work
05/19/2021 09:45
That's a productive couple of days there, nice TR!

Fun trip
05/19/2021 15:32
Looks like you guys had a great trip! Good to hear that Fritz's book and particularly the West Sheridan section thereof is still getting some attention. ;)

Road Conditions?
05/21/2021 12:18
Did you drive into Mt. Elbert via Halfmoon Rd? Wondering about road conditions and how close you were able to drive to the Mt. Elbert TH / Elbert Creek Campground.

Re: Road Conditions?
05/21/2021 12:23
@BWEBER we drove all the way to the Mt. Elbert TH on Halfmoon Rd. It was totally dry, although the campsites still had some snow.

Great report!
07/21/2021 10:15
Thanks for posting! Looks like a blast and it sounds like you were well prepared for the trip.

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