“You know, it doesn’t look all that steep”, I remarked to John as we stared up at Cristo Couloir from Blue Lake dam to the 2500 foot climb above us leading to the summit of Quandary peak. “I bet we can knock this out in an hour or so and be at a brewery by noon”. “Yeah,” he responded “Let’s get it done”. Of course, I knew better than to take any climb of a Colorado 14er for granted, especially a snow climb, and even more so when it’s the first climb of the season and I’ve spent most of the past month close to sea level.
In theory Cristo Couloir is only a mile long hike from the base at Blue Lake Dam to the top of 14, 265 ft. Quandary Peak. If you don’t know how to read a topo map, it’s just a quick jaunt up, far shorter than the standard route up the east ridge. Once you look at the elevation gain, you quickly realize that it’s going to be a lot more challenging than first thought. Cristo couloir is normally climbed in spring – early summer when the snow pack has consolidated into a stable mass, and the avalanche danger is low. It is also considered one of the better and easier to access back-country ski descents in the state. For this trip, we decided that we’d just climb it using our crampons and ice-axes, and then take the standard route back down. I’m not quite good enough to ski it yet, and I’m still waiting for John to get himself some back-country gear.
We started up the couloir in great spirits; it was about 8:00 am, and the snow was nice and hard making it easy to kick steps on the slope. We could see about four or five other hikers near the top, and at least two skiers working their way up ahead of us. We made steady progress, taking our time, but still gaining on the other parties. After a while, John was feeling pretty good, so he headed up ahead of me. Left to myself, I was really enjoying the exercise, alternating 100 foot sprints of elevation gain with a minute or so of resting and letting my heart rate recover. After 45 minutes or so I glanced at my altimeter and was pleased to see that I’d reached about 13,200 feet. Over halfway there, and the weather was holding out nicely; gorgeous blue skies, and just a nice gentle breeze. I kept going for another couple of hundred more feet, and quickly realized that what had started out as a an easy climb was quickly getting tougher in difficulty. At about 13,500 the steepness of the slope was increasing, and my lungs were definitely decreasing in their ability to get my muscles the oxygen they needed.
At this point I looked up ahead and saw John had caught up to the other climbers and was making his way up to the top. He’d been running a lot more lately, and the effort he’d been putting in was definitely paying off. I made a mental promise to myself to work on my cardio, gritted my teeth and kept heading up. My climbing was definitely getting slower and my rests were getting longer, but I kept myself going with mini-goals on the way to the top. 100 more steps till a rock band, 50 more steps till a pile of snow. Eventually I got over the main hump at around 14,000 feet and could see the summit proper. The summit must have had 20 people on it, nearly all of whom had climbed up the standard route. I forced myself to walk the rest of the way to where John was waiting for me at the summit without another break, and managed a grin as we high-fived. “That was a little tougher than I expected” I said, and was relieved to see that he thought it was a tough climb as well.
We hung out for a few minutes enjoying the view and taking summit photos while I started feeling more normal again. Eventually we headed down the east ridge, feeling better with each step, even as the wind started to increase. We ran into another climber we knew on the way down and chatted for a few minutes..I’m always surprised at how common it is to run into the same few people out in the mountains. It’s a small community here. By the time we got back to the cars, John and I were both pretty wiped out but happy with the way the day had gone. I’ll definitely call this a type 2 fun kind of day…that’s the type when it might suck while you’re doing the activity, but really glad that you did at the end of it. Looking forward to the next one!
Max elevation: 14229 ft
Total climbing: 5915 ft
Total Time: 05:49:12