A classic among the classics, a bucket list climb of ours since the beginning, Skywalker couloir rose above us, steep and unrelenting. Unsure of whether or not the direct finish, known as the Princess Leia, was possible, we geared up and began up the steep snow climb. One of the steepest pure snow climbs in Colorado, the couloir can reach a staggering 70 degrees. Unfortunately for us, the weather had been unseasonably warm and we were already an hour behind schedule.
Despite this, the snow felt solid, so we continued up the ever-steepening apron. Every 300 feet or so, we would be able to traverse to an exposed cliff to rest our calves from the constant kicking of our crampons into the snow. Our previous mountaineering escapades onto Dead Dog and Dragon Tail had prepared us for this climb. It would be the culmination of everything we’d trained for, requiring confidence in our tools and our skills. About 500 feet up the climb came the decision point. Either we descended now and chalked it up to bad timing, or we take our chances and hope we can beat the heat before the snow became to soft to hold us on the steep angle. We chose to roll the dice and continued up.
The first two-thirds of the climb became steep and sustained, but did not present any difficulties. Right before the upper bowl, the work became laborious, the snow ice hard, and no safe resting area in sight. Imagine sprinting as fast as you can for about half an hour while an angry bear runs after you and will eat you if you stop. That’s what this part of the climb was like. The constant exposure with only 4 one-inch steel spikes tethering your body to the side of the mountain began to take its toll on our nerves.
Upon entering the upper bowl, we thought there would be an island of saftety to make an assessment of the exit we should take. This island of safety did not exist, and we continued into the even steeper bowl. Below us, 1200 feet of air opened up into a beautiful landscape of mountains, snow, lakes, and trees. Unfortunately, the idea of taking out a camera and losing it down the couloir prevented me from taking pictures of the beautiful view. After another 200 feet of airy climbing, we reached a small rock outcropping where we could sit together on a narrow ledge above a 100 foot drop.
The views were spectacular, but the sun was now on us and the snow was already becoming a mushy death trap of unsupportable snow. Above us lay the even steeper Princess Leia, already exposed to half an hour of sunlight. Off to our left was the seldom travelled Han Solo, and to our right was the exposed Escape Route. Another 100 feet above us, there should be a large crevasse that would allow us to belay each other across the soft snow. I volunteered to go first, praying with every breath that the snow would not give way and cause me to slide off the cliff below. Every step required multiple kicks to consolidate the snow enough so as to safely move up. A few minutes of hard work led us to the safety of the large crevasse. I straddled the knife-edge snow, a steep drop on one side, and a large 10 foot deep hole on the other. I called James up and he quickly joined me. At this point we debated our options. We could belay the Princess Leia, and hope the snow would be solid enough to stop a slide. Our second option was to belay from here across the steep snow above the cliffs to the Escape Route. Thirds was just to make a mad dash across the snow and hope neither of us slipped. As time was short, and every minute made the snow less safe, we opted to forgo our anticipated Princess Leia finish, and took the escape route one at a time without the rope.
The traverse was not quite as steep as the climbing below, but it was above a very large cliff. I moved as quickly as I could across the ever-softening snow. Below was a very narrow cliff band that led around the corner. Our original plan was to descend to this cliff band, and continue around the corner, hoping to rock climb the rest of the way up. The problem was we had no idea what was around the corner and how hard it would be.
Once above this cliff, I took a single step down, and then hesitated. Shortly above me, the snow seemed to disappear, as though it would level out somewhere on the slopes above. I yelled over to James that I was just going to check where the snow topped out and if it would be easier than descending. Ten feet of climbing and I let out a yell of excitement. We had made it! The snow abruptly ended on a level slope that would undoubtedly lead to the summit. James let out a whoop as I climbed to the top and let out a sigh of relief. James followed quickly behind me and we savored the views and the extraordinary climb we had just accomplished.
After about ten minutes we hiked up to the breath-taking summit of South Arapaho Peak. To our left was the steepest snow climb I had ever seen: the fluted south-east face of North Arapaho Peak. Unfortunately (or fortunately for our sakes), the climb was illegal as it was above the Boulder watershed. A quick lunch and we descended the loose trail back into the sweltering heat of the trailhead. We had just accomplished one of the bucket list climbs of our careers. A great climb, and great preparation for climbs ahead.