Colorado hiking and climbing: Angel of Shavano couloir, Mount Shavano

There are a couple of views on when is the best time to tackle Colorado’s 14ers.

The common view: Mid- to late-summer, when all the snow is gone and the temperatures are a little warmer.

An alternative view for me: Late spring, when the snow is consolidated, avalanche danger is down and using those snowfields as a path to the top.

But how do you cross that bridge from a normal summer hike to a spring snow climb? By climbing the Angel of Shavano.

Mount Shavano seen from Salida, Colo.

Mount Shavano is a 14,229-foot peak just west of Poncha Spring, Colo. It has a couple of sub peaks around it, including one to the south which helps form a saddle and couloir where, when filled with snow, creates the Angel.

The Angel is a skinny, long strip of snow that rises to the mountain’s saddle, splitting into two arms that rise upward like a person reaching up to the sky. If you catch the mountain at the right time, the arms link up to other snowfields higher on the mountain that will take you to the top of the peak.

None of the snowfields angle up 30 to 35 degrees, earning the rating of easy to maybe moderate snow. It makes it the perfect mountain for an introduction to snow travel.

A look at the Angel from the standard route trail.

Me and my climbing buddy Johnny Hunter caught the mountain at just the right time, with the snow conditions on the tail end of leading us all the way to the top.

The hike at the beginning of the route is fairly mild if a bit rocky in spots, starting out in a mixed pine and aspen forest until it gives way to strictly pines higher up.

As we approached treeline, I noticed that the winds were whipping through the treetops at a pretty good clip. But I had no idea how hard they were blowing until we were free of the woods and out in the open at the base of the Angel.

At this point we took time to stop, eat and gear up. Although the slope steepness is pretty mild we still had the need to use some equipment for safety – a helmet, crampons and an ice axe. A slip on a steeper portion of the snow could turn into an accelerated slide into the rocks. So head protection, a braking system (the axe) and traction (crampons) would mitigate those hazards.

At the top of the saddle, looking toward the summit.

The hike up the Angel was pretty straightforward, but the winds barreling over the saddle and into our faces were hitting 40 mph with gusts up to 50-plus. That proved to be a challenge, and I wound up getting a pretty good case of wind burn at the end of the day. Shame on me for not preparing for that little contingency.

At the top of the saddle, somewhere just shy of 13,000 feet, there was a patchwork of snowfields that would lead to a more solid band of snow that would lead to the summit. That path was steeper, with deeper snow but more rocks protruding through the crust. The going was tougher here, and my conditioning (or lack thereof) was shining through. Pacing ourselves slowly, we reached the summit and it amazing views of the valley below.

Me trudging up Shavano's summit slope (Johnny Hunter photo).

From Shavano’s summit, you can peer down into the nearby towns of Poncha Springs and Salida. To the west was Tabeguache Peak, another 14er connect to Shavano by a snowy ridge. Many people will bag both peaks in one day, but we were a bit too whipped to pull that off. Further north, more of the Sawatch Range’s giants came into view: Antero, Princeton and Yale.

The route felt a little longer than its advertised 9.25 miles, and we especially felt it on the way down. My hope was that we’d start early, hit the Angel by about 8:30 a.m. and top out before 11. The going was much slower than we thought, however, and we didn’t summit until after 1. It was after 5 by the time we got back to the trailhead. It made for a pretty long day, but I have to be honest – the aspect of snow travel and the curveballs the weather threw at us made this one of the most enjoyable ascents I’ve ever experienced.

Looking down and east from the summit

ROUTE INFORMATION

On U.S. 285, one mile north of the U.S. 50 and U.S. 285 junction near Poncha Springs, turn west on County Road 140. From there, drive 1.7 miles and turn right on County Road 250. Drive 4 miles to a Y junction. CR 250 goes right and Forest Road 252 starts on the left. Stay left and continue 2.9 miles to another small junction near a cattle guard. Cross the cattle guard and drive 0.2 miles to the trailhead.

From here, the trail is easy to follow and well-marked. Follow the trail for a little less than a mile until you get just over 11,000 feet. From here you have two choices: You can continue to follow the trail above treeline, then cut across tundra to the Angel as it comes into view or, below treeline, veer left off trail and hike toward the bottom of the drainage. Once you get to the drainage, hike up until you clear treeline and the bottom of the Angel should appear.

Ascend the Angel all the way to the top of the saddle, then head north toward the summit’s south slopes. In the right conditions there will still be snow all the way to the top.

Self portrait.

The hike is rated a Class 2 ascent, with easy snow on the Angel, maybe borderline moderate on the final summit pitch.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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