The Hookah Smoking Caterpillar – Mt Alice Massif


(note: I asked around and nobody seemed to know any history for this line.  It might be the first ascent/descent, but it might not.  It is still a rad couloir, so I slapped a name on it)

For the past 10 or so years I have been a climber much more than a snow slider. With the amazing ski conditions in the rockies this year, it was time to swing the pendulum back.

Now, while I’m not usually one to complain about endless days of powder skiing.  It seems pretty obvious that the real reason to be a skier in the front range is the spring skiing.  True spring was quite reluctant to come this year, but in the last few weeks, the bigger lines have finally opened up.

This brings me to the point of classic ski lines; Unlike most climbing lines that really must be seen and attempted to appreciate their status, quite a lot about a ski line can be appreciated from a simple topo map. Nowhere is this more evident than couloir skiing. The recipe is very simple:

1) Look for U-shaped contours on map. The deeper the “U”s, the more classic the line
2) Evaluate length of the couloir. The longer the couloir, the more classic the line
3) Evaluate the angle of the couloir. Generally steeper is better, to the extent you can still ski it.

With this mindset, I passed a few hours of our never ending winter staring at maps of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The fruit of my labor looked something like this:
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deep “U”s – check

couloir length = 1600′ + 1000′ of bonus ripping – check

~45 degrees – perfect fun steepness

The next question was whether the line might be continuously skiable, or even held snow. This line turns out to be in a fairly remote region of RMNP; The west aspect of Mount Alice has surprsingly few pictures. Extensive google sleuthing revealed exactly one image:


But, the image revealed what I hoped for. A line choked with snow, even in the middle of summer.

Now, the next challenge was how exactly to reach this line.  It is in a fairly remote region of the national park. There are no trails to the base, or even near it for that matter. Thus, the options included:
1) Skiing to the divide from Bear Lake, then descending to the base (~20 miles RT, ~9000′ vert)
2) Skiing to the summit of Mount Alice from Wild Basin, then dropping in blind (~20 miles RT, ~8000′ vert)
3) Skiing up the North Inlet from Grand Lake (~19 miles RT, 5000′ vert)
4) Skiing up the East Inlet from Grand Lake then dropping in to North Inlet drainage (~18 miles RT, 6000′ vert)

We chose #4, although in retrospect, #3 may have been easier, and would have certainly been a safer exit in the warming afternoon.

The final two ingredients were a stable weather forecast, and a willing partner. I floated the idea to most of my ski partners. Everybody was tentatively interested, but they also had various summer activities getting in the way.

Finally, a free weekend with a good forecast showed up.  I floated out the plan to previously-interested parties, but Joe was the only possible taker.  It took some convincing to talk Joe out of climbing ice in 90 degree temps, and instead having a nice suffer fest on skis.  Joe hasn’t skied much this year, and probably never on a line like this, but he was still game for the adventure and a chance to scope out a less-visited area of the park.  So, we left Boulder on Friday night at 9:30 PM and drove the long way round to Grand Lake.  We arrived at the trailhead around 11:30, then packed our bags and turned in for a whopping 2 hrs of sleep.

2AM – the alarm goes off and we get stirring.  A few minutes later an officer does his rounds through the parking lot.  Luckily we are already awake, so our short nap goes unpunished.  Around 2:30 we set off.

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It was awesome getting to see so much new beautiful terrain.  All sorts of ideas for ice climbing, rock climbing and skiing were inspired.

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The approach is long, but mostly flat (+2k/8miles) to spirit lake.  From there we followed a minor drainage up to the saddle between Mount Alice and Pt 12,241.  The views opened up even more!
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From the saddle, we made a descending traverse to the west aspect of Alice.
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We passed more skiable lines along the way, but these were not what we came for.
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I misjudged the map a bit, so we ended up doing a bit more booting on the traverse than I expected.  Still this saved us dropping down further and having more vert to regain.
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Finally, we got our first view of the line.  The lower half looked great, but it quickly split and disappeared.  Hopefully the lines were continuous and we were in the correct spot.
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Soon we were starting up.  There was some wet slide debris that I though might ruin the descent a bit.  Mostly the couloir provided easy and aesthetic climbing, with a few sections of 45 degree or so snow.
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At the top, I threw down my pack and took a nice break.  Joe followed came along shortly.  Joe was pretty exhausted at the top, and he decided he wasnt up for skiing the couloir.  We discussed alternate descents, but I didnt really want to descend the couloir and ascend the saddle alone in the afternoon warmth.  Thankfully, Joe decided to down climb the couloir while I skied.  The snow stayed perfect the entire run.  The skiing is extremely classic, with steep rollovers and turns revealing more and more beautiful skiing.  Because of the aspect and deep walls, the skiers left side softens more than the right, allowing you to choose whatever snow consistency your prefer.
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After clearing the mouth of the couloir, Joe decided to rejoin the fun for the bottom 1000′.
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At the bottom, we got a nice partial view of the line, and found a great watering hole to hang out for a few hours.
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The final crux of the day was navigating the wet slide prone slopes back up to the saddle and down to spirit lake.  This wasnt fun, but it all worked out ok.
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The long ski and hike out was a bit painful.
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However, an 18 hr day does have its perks.
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We also saw a moose and my first CO bear, which helped seal the deal.  Thanks to Joe for coming along for the suffering.  Hopefully you will forget the pain soon, and be up for another adventure.
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3 Replies to “The Hookah Smoking Caterpillar – Mt Alice Massif”

  1. Good work gentlemen. This couloir looks super rad. I commend your vision and determination.

  2. Great outing! I love stuff like this. Not sure exactly where you went. The little square of topo you included does not give me a definite sense of your route. Could you send me a larger view that includes the summit of Mount Alice, North Inlet and East Inlet, please. I would like to describe your route in my new guide to RMNP.

    THANKS

    RR

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