I’d been planning the trip for months. Research, gear, recruiting someone to go with me.
The goal of the trip: Climb Mount Shavano’s Angel of Shavano couloir and any other snow fields we could find to the top of the 14,229-foot peak.
I had one taker, long-time climbing buddy Johnny Hunter, of Shawnee. We’d climbed Mount Yale the year before and had taken numerous forays into the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma.
This trip would be different. I purposely planned the trip for mid-June, hoping the weather would be favorable but also that the mountain would still have snow on it. Both of us have battled some injuries and health issues lately, and neither of us had any experience climbing through snow.
Sound ludicrous? Maybe. But we did the best we could in researching what it would take to make the climb a success, getting the right gear and picking the right peak. We’d initially thought of going for three peaks in the Missouri Gulch basin near Buena Vista, but later settled on Mount Shavano. Good thing, too, because reality would set in pretty quick.
Mount Shavano is plainly visible from Salida, Colo., and is part of a large chain of peaks in the Sawatch Range. From the east, the Angel of Shavano is also visible — a long, thin snow-filled couloir that features two upstretched arms that lead toward the higher reaches of the mountain. The idea was to use the couloir to ascend as high as we could go.
Ascending Shavano from this point is not difficult. The trail never gets too steep, but in some sections the trail is more or less a collection of rocks sticking up at various angles intermingled with loose stones. This isn’t a big deal going up, but going down after a long day is another matter.
Low on the trail, we passed through some very scenic aspen stands before the forest gave way to pines. As we went higher, we got some rewarding views of the surrounding peaks and could peer into Salida below us.
Had we chosen to do so, we could have camped higher up on the mountain. The trail passes by an excellent stream and had plenty of flat areas that would be perfect for camping. Some people camp at the trailhead, but the better spots are higher on the trail.
A couple hours in, we realized our conditioning wasn’t really all that great. I’d hoped to reach the Angel by 8:30. That wasn’t about to happen.
Somewhere just shy of 12,000 feet, we popped above treeline. The trail eventually rounded a bend to where we could finally see our first target: The Angel of Shavano. If we continued to follow the trail, we’d miss it entirely, so at this point we cut across and down to meet the snowfield. Once there, we stopped, ate some food and drank Gatorade, then put on our crampons and got our ice axes out. I also wore a helmet, just in case I slipped in the snow. Rock vs. head is never a good idea.
THE ANGEL OF SHAVANO
The couloir gets its name from an Indian legend about a woman who sacrificed herself so that her people would have enough water. As the angel melts, it is said that her tears supply the people with all the water they need.
For our purposes, it would be our path to the saddle just below the summit. We broke out of the trees above the bottom of the snowfield, but there would be more snow above us that would give us further opportunities for climbing in snow later on.
I personally found the climb in the snow much more enjoyable than the hike to get there. It was new, different and interesting. It was also steeper, but as we kick-stepped into the snow and used our other tools to ascend, we found the new experience to be pretty invigorating. We also made good time, giving us hope that we might be able to tackle Shavano’s adjoining peak, Tabeguache. More on that later.
One thing that also added to the experience was the wind. When we were below treeline, we could hear it whipping the treetops. Once above treeline, we met it full force: 30 to 40 mph winds, with gusts at 50+ mph. Gratefully, we were dressed right and never felt cold. But it did make the going a little harder, as it was right in our face. A few strong gusts even threatened to knock us back. Call me weird, but the added challenge of fighting the wind was enjoyable to me.
THE FINAL PITCH
Once on the saddle, we had a decision to make. Take the crampons off and work around the remaining snow or keep them on and use the snow to go up the peak. Shavano’s south face was blessed with a long run of snow that looked like it would take us to the top.
Johnny opted to lose the spikes and proceed on the rocky ridgeline, a decision he later said he regretted. I kept mine on and examined the south snowfield. It was steeper than the Angel, and would likely be a tougher task.
The snow on the Angel was soft but mostly stable. I didn’t posthole much, but the flatter snowfields on the saddle with thinner, softer and more prone to postholing. It made the going kinda slow as I approached the summit pitch. Once there, the steeper grade provided more substantial — and stable — snow.
By this time, Johnny had passed me and was waiting patiently as I kick-stepped upward. Again, I was having a blast ascending through the snow. But the going was more difficult due to the steeper conditions, higher altitude and fatigue that was beginning to set in. But with the summit in sight and incredible views all around, I found myself energized enough to yell out some celebratory words as the ascent neared its end.
We got to the summit late: 1:30 p.m. Normally, you want to get to the top before noon. Luckily, the weather held out for us. I’d been up this mountain once before, but that was five years and 15 pounds ago. It was also during August, so there was no snow then.
The reward was spectacular. The skies were bright. We could see Tabeguache Peak to the west and Mount Antero to the north. Far to the east was Pikes Peak. To the south, the Sangre de Cristo Range’s sharp summits were in view. Chipmunks and marmots checked in on us, hoping for some free grub (we declined).
More than anything, though, was the personal satisfaction of seeing all the planning and research into this climb pay off. It would have been easier with a guide teaching us the finer points of snow climbing, but there’s no one or no place in Oklahoma where that’s available. We did the best we could from books, Web sites and other sources, and it worked. It’s a satisfying feeling and left me wanting more. So more snow climbs are in the future.
Due to the lateness of the day and our overall tiredness, Tabeguache Peak would have to wait another day.
I suffer the most during downclimbs, mainly because my knees aren’t very good. My legs are plenty strong, but the joints have taken a beating over the years. Johnny recently had knee surgery, so he was suffering as well.
We went down the east face, rejoined the trail then headed down. We were already pretty spent. Not helping matters was the rocky nature of the trail below treeline. It’s better than bushwhacking, but both of us felt pretty beat up as we descended. I might also say that stated 9.25 miles from the trailhead to the summit and back seems a little short. But that may be the flatlander in me talking.
There were slightly over a dozen people on the mountain, including two people who were about 90 minutes or more behind us. As alarming as that was, we also ran into a guy who was on his way up as we approached treeline. We talked for a bit, and he thought wiser of it and turned around.
As the hike down dragged on, we looked for landmarks — the stream, the upper campsites, and further down, signs marking the Colorado Trail. By the time I heard the braying of cows in the distance, we knew we were about done.
Too beat to do much of anything else, a celebratory meal at a local pizzeria would wait until the next day when we could actually enjoy the meal and stop walking funny.
WHAT WE DID RIGHT: Our clothing choices (lots of layers) were perfect. Despite temperatures in the low 40s above 12,000 feet and blistering winds, we never felt cold. Our food choices — bananas, granola bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, plus Gatorade, also kept us going. We smartly decided against getting Tabeguache. Our pre-trip research and gear choices also paid off.
WHAT WE DID WRONG: We started a tad late, and our conditioning issues made us slow. Thankfully, that didn’t cost us. However, forgetting to apply sunscreen (a seriously rookie mistake) made for some pretty bad sunburns and windburns. That won’t happen again.