Posted on April 06 2015
The Pearl Couloir is an amazing and aesthetic line beginning from a saddle just below the peak of Catherdral, elevation 13,944 feet. The great part of skiing the Pearl is you get a real big mountain descent that goes at very manageable 45 degrees in a beautiful high alpine setting.
From Redstone Colorado, where I was living, to Ashcroft and the Cathedral lake trailhead it was over an hour drive. So, I elected to do this the night before and sleep in the Element to get a jump on the early morning. At 5 am Steve Denny rolled into the parking lot and we started the approach. Early April is an ideal time to attempt this and we only had to remove our skis to boot over bare ground on the most sun effected aspects of the trail. There is some great beta for the approach on Chris Davenport's site Centennialskiers.com. My only additional advice would be to stay near the stream as you approach the last steep pitches before the lake. You can certainly cut some time by shooting directly for the peak, but it hardly seems worth the bushwhack when the stream gets you there with only a little additional skinning.
Right before the lake we met up with a telemark skier who had out passed his splitboard comrades that we had seen wallowing on an icy side hill a little while ago. He joined us for the rest of the journey and did well to keep up with Steve and I on our lightweight ski touring setups. I was spending only my second day on the Atomic Backland Carbon Light boots paired with the Atomic Ultimate 78 skis. So far for the long approach it was definitely the perfect choice.
From Cathedral Lake the basin opens up to incredible views with more skiable lines and short and skinny couloirs than you can shake a ski pole at. It was our first glimpse of the Pearl snaking away from the saddle and disappearing out of view behind some rock spires. As we traverse around the base of the mountain gendarms loomed like centennials in front of the solid rock masterpiece, truly earning its name Cathedral. From the foot of the Pearl you see the wide chute start to narrow as it dog legs lookers right and realize that there is still a long way to go.
Throwing the skis on our packs we began booting up an established boot pack from a few days ago. I was seriously regretting choosing this tour as my growing head cold was undoubtedly enhanced by a cold drafty night at the trailhead. Even though I do most of my ski touring between 10 and 12 thousand feet, knocking on the door of 14,000 feet is a whole other hypoxic animal. Although the elevation and steepness of the boot pack made taking even 40 steps at a time ambitious, it is amazing how fast vert goes when you are sending STFU at a 45 degree angle.
We reached the saddle a little before 10 and the views of the Elk Range were incredible. The summit loomed just a few hundred feet above us, but as we booted through rotten snow and exposed rock onto the face, it just was not in the cards on this day. To truly ski from the summit you would have to time conditions just right and suffer some significant damage to your ski bases. We retreated to the saddle to eat, drink and wait for the snow to soften.
Skiing the couloir is a blast. The first couple turns are spicy and approach 50 degrees as you navigate a steep cornice that is a perpetual feature of the route. Once in the chute my legs found their strength again, my nerves settled and I enjoyed the 1200 foot descent to the apron. From there, traversing back across the flats, we angled high and right and were rewarded with good corn turns all the way back to the stream and the trail. Returning to the car the round trip took us just under 7 hours and gets my recommendation as a perfect intro line to ski mountaineering in the elks.