Peak(s):  Arkansas Mt - 13,795 feet
Date Posted:  05/10/2022
Date Climbed:   05/07/2022
Author:  bangerth
 Going with the alternative   

The plan had been to climb the north-east couloir of Mount Arkansas. The plan did not come together.

It all started with the fact that the previous few days had been quite warm, and there hadn't been a good frost overnight. We had set 4:30am as the departure time, actually only left around 4:50am, and then made the poor choice of not watching where we were going and following the road along the valley floor for too long. When we noticed, we first tried to cut right up through the forest and realized what would be the theme of the day: Snow too soft. By the time we got up into the high basin below the couloir, it was 7am, the sun was illuminating most of the couloir and we could see that (i) there was a large cornice at the top of the couloir, (ii) the snow around us was soft, and (iii) the couloir and all sorts of slopes around it had been shedding soft snow aplenty over the past few days. Bummer.

Mount Arkansas in the center, with the NE couloir leading straight up just to the right of the summit. See how there are a lot of recent wet slides everywhere?

More reckless, younger, or less attached folks would have just said "f*** it" and gone for it anyway, and a handful of others indeed did that day. I'm too old for this stuff, and my partner for the day is, like me, very much on the cautious side. So what to do?

I have long wanted to explore mountains in ways not so constrained by existing trip reports. At this point, I'm at some 25 14ers and 45 13ers, and I've learned to appreciate ridges, couloirs, and other maybe not so well trodden routes. I think I've built the skills (and so have my usual hiking partners) to improvise, and one of my dreams is to just walk up to a mountain without any prior knowledge and just figure out how to get to the top and back. This was going to be the opportunity to put these skills to the test.

So it's time to zoom out and look around:

Mountainscape. What's the best way up?

There are a couple of couloirs to the left of the line we had meant to take. They were mostly in the shade, facing more or less north, and probably pretty solid. But they are also deeply incised into that ridge, and who knows whether one can get from the top of the couloir to the summit from there. To the right of where we wanted to go up, the dark rock band blocks easy access and, regardless, the steep slope above it neither looked easy nor particularly safe: It had shed a lot of snow in recent days as was obvious at first sight.

So, further right: There is that broad slope, nicely covered in snow. That looked reasonable, doesn't it? We could either go right around the end of the rock band, or maybe through the first gap. Not much discussion was needed, this looked solid, and we both had mentally already come to the same conclusion: That slope would take us to the ridge, which we'd then follow left over to the summit. Good plan? Good plan!

Blue line: no go! Orange line: Yes!

The line did, as expected, not present any substantial challenges. Since we felt deprived of steep snow, we took the little gap through the end of the rock band, rather than walking right around it. The gap might have been 35 or 40 degrees, the rest at a more modest 30 or 35. Nothing that presented a problem, and the snow was pleasantly grippy and easy to walk up in crampons. On the other hand, the sun really baked down on us from behind, and with no wind to speak of (something that was about to change), I was dripping with sweat.

In any case, though, the slope also gives a good view over to the left where we didn't go:

The east face of Mount Arkansas. That wasn't going to go. The first group of people trying to head up the couloir had given up, traversed left instead, and tried the next couloir over -- but also without success. A second group of three is climbing up to the entrance of the couloir.

From where we came out at the top, it was a short jog over to the point where Arkansas's north-west and north-east ridges separate, and that's where the fun begins: We needed to head over south along the north ridge to the summit. This is also where the forecast 30-40 mph wind finally started -- it's not a hike in wintry conditions if you're not being blasted by the jet stream for at least a couple of hours.

The ridge has a number of towers one has to get over or around. We headed up the first one on the direct route:

First tower. My partner tried the left side, but only found deep and loose snow. Right of center, with more rocks, proved easier.

From there, the rest of the route eventually reveals itself in bits and pieces:

Rocks and snow, snow and rocks along the ridge.
More rocks and more snow.

It's a fun ridge, but I haven't quite gotten comfortable with crampons on rocks, and so the balancing acts of spiky metal objects on unstable rock surfaces is something I didn't enjoy as much. It also just feels so wasteful to feel your crampon points being ground smooth by the rocks. Nothing was particularly difficult, though, it just required slogging it out, sometimes on the ridge, sometimes a couple of dozen feet below it on the west side.

Eventually, though, we got to the top of the couloir where two others had just exited, and from there by a quick jog up to the summit. The views from there are simply spectacular, with the immense 2,500 foot tall west face of the McNamee-Traver-Democrat-Buckskin ridge just across the valley. One day, finding myself a couloir that goes up that face to the ridge would be a fun exercise.

Mount Democrat and its immense west face across the valley. McNamee and Traver on the left side of the face, Buckskin on the right. Along the ridge down from the summit on the right lies Mount Tweto.

With the uphill over, the puffy and the big gloves came out to counter the ferocious winds. Crossing the top of the couloir again at the start of the return trip, we also got a reminder that skipping the couloir was the right choice: My partner stepped into a hole, postholing style, leaned forward to extricate himself, and within seconds was swallowed whole by a hole whose entrance had grown to two feet wide and four feet long. Standing next to him, I instinctively reached for his backpack and helped him out -- which then revealed the depth of the hole: It was some eight feet deep, rock on one side and snow on the other -- a "bergschrund" where the top of the cornice had already separated from the mountain, ready to collapse into the couloir, with only a shallow snow bridge covering the gap. We hadn't been particularly tempted to glissade the couloir, but any desire to do so was instantly snuffed out, and we made a mental note to stay on rocks wherever we were close to a cornice.

The remainder of the way back was less eventful. We followed the ridge north, where it splits took a left onto the NW ridge, and then hoped to glissade down into the bowl north of the mountain in hopes of finally getting out of the wind that made walking along the ridge unpleasant. We just couldn't find a good entry point, the ridge was guarded by a large cornice for a very long stretch and we had to walk nearly to the end of the ridge where it points east again before we managed to find a place where we could safely get over the lip. It looked a bit steep at first, but the snow was what skiers would call corn, and speed control was not an issue. It was 11:30 by this time, and the sun had been beating down on the snow for hours by then, softening everything up. Just a couple of hundred feet lower, the soft was so snow that our butts often sank deep -- the glissade was definitely over when I found myself seated like in a bathtub, with snow up to my armpits.

Not enough of a glissade, if you ask me. I love this way of descending, but the cornice on the left had prevented us from getting onto the slope earlier.
Looking west up the bowl. The large cornice had forced us to walk the ridge for a long distance, rather than glissading into the bowl.

The state of the snow -- unsupportive -- did not portend well for the last mile back to the car. It's all downhill on a fairly steep slope, and the prospect was for a lot of postholing. In the end, it wasn't all that bad, there were often skier tracks from a few days ago, that provided a modest amount of support, and we only ended up deep in the snow every hundred feet or so. Not exactly what we all enjoy, but manageable, and by 12:30 we were back to the car -- a relatively short and still fun day, even though things didn't go to plan!


  • Left car at 4:45am
  • Back at car at 12:30pm
  • Distance just under 6 miles

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
05/10/2022 13:36
Sorry you didn't get the couloir but thanks for the info. It's such a good ski couloir but definitely not dog-friendly.

And you can bypass the cornice on climber-left when you get near the top.

Not dog friendly
05/11/2022 21:56
Ha, yes, no kidding :-) The dog wasn't mine or my partner's (though part of the overall party), and didn't make it to the top either -- dog and owner stayed in the valley.

The cornice was bypassable on the left, and that's what the people who took the couloir did. It gets a bit steeper there, but probably no more than 50 degrees -- entirely manageable. The concern was more with whether the cornice was going to be stable in view of all of the stuff that had come down in recent days, and the presence of the bergschrund was a good reminder that it might not. Of course we were mildly disappointed with not being able to climb the couloir, but we made it to the top and had a great day nonetheless!

05/10/2022 16:17
Beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

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