The Best Alpine Climbs in Colorado Citadel to Pettingell Traverse via Snoopy’s Backside Couloir
Never have I ever climbed a route so perfect in every imaginable way, except the approach, but now isn’t the time to think about that. I’ve had my eyes on the Citadel (13,294’) for a few years now, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to give it a go. Originally, I just thought I would summit The Citadel during the summer, via the standard route which involves some steep scree followed by awesome scrambling on the twin summits. But after rappelling down the Chamber of the Basilisk and working on my outdoor sport climbing game, I decided what better way to do this long-awaited climb than to combine a little snow, airy rock and rappelling. Here’s an in-depth trip report of the Citadel to Pettingell Traverse via Snoopy’s Backside Couloir.
The Approach of Doom
Squirrel and I got to the Herman Gulch Trailhead at around 4:15 am, well before the sun started to ignite the day. This year’s snowpack was uninspiring, but that didn’t keep it from rearing its ugly head along the approach. Squirrel and I read some beta that you could reach the lake at the end of Herman Gulch and traverse the hillside to the base of the couloir. Whoever wrote this was an utter idiot. They even made a topo of the route too, which is just sad.
We should have bounced off the trail while it was still in the gulch and followed the marshy lowland to the base of the climb. I volunteered to carry the rope first and just couldn’t keep my balance. I fell hard on three separate occasions creating bad vibes from the get-go. Eventually, I put on my crampons and stuck to the hard snow.
Snoopy’s Backside Couloir
After about three and a half miles we made it to the base of the couloir. From the bottom, it looked utterly intimidating and the sun was already starting to cook the dying snow. We swapped rope duty, got out our axes and set to work. The climb is relatively straightforward, even with the punchy snow, we didn’t feel a need to set any pro. The climb’s crux was at a 38 to 40-degree angle (we measured). Although I was fine with a single ax, I wouldn’t have minded another tool for a brief moment towards the top. The nice thing about this climb is there was no cornice to navigate.
After just over an hour of climbing, we reached the saddle between the twin summits. Once you top out, there isn’t much room to sit and chill. Squirrel and I managed to find two perches to swap out our snow gear, grab a snack and enjoy a hard-earned break. As we sat there resting, we decided to nix the Citadel’s west summit. It looked like a simple scramble up the grassy, rock-ridden backside and opt for the spicy looking east summit instead.
The Citadel’s Spicy East Summit
The fun had only just begun. After some noshing, we set our eyes on the east summit. This summit doesn’t offer much room, maybe a two-square-foot wide rock top that the daring could perch themselves upon. Summit Post rates this climb a class 3 and I’m not too sure that’s accurate, the west summit ramps up to class 4 pretty quick. Be prepared for plenty of exposure, and if you plan on making the traverse, then this is certainly a sustained class 3/4 route with a few lower 5 bits until the rappel station (stay high for higher climbing grades.)
We were greeted by a guardian of the gate, a marmot perched atop the summit. The exposure here is very real folks. Your next move consists of traversing a series of rock tops that are about two feet wide with a substantial 50+ foot drop on one side that would send you shooting down the couloir and at least a hundred foot drop on the other. You would wish for a fall here to be fatal. Check out the video to see more.
We opted to stay high on the knifey ridge until we reached the rappel station. There were a few obvious points where we dropped low, and you could certainly lower the exposure and class by dropping lower than we did, but the rock was better higher up (although loose in spots) and climbing more challenging. Some bold moves involved stepping over a series of ledges with some substantial spice. Hand holds remained bomber and we both felt good about the airy route.
An Airy Rappel
After about 45 minutes of sustained scrambling, we reached the final hump where the rap stations are located. There are two on this summit. The first looked to be a bit pointless. There is a class 5 downclimb (probably a 5.5 or so) in a protected chute nearby. We felt confident with our climbing and opted to downclimb the chute – it’s low-fifth class terrain, but it’s a little heady. It’s a bit slabby at the end, but you can easily slide on your butt to the nearest foothold.
The knob levels out to a steep grassy knoll, at the edge of which is the second rappel station. Perched precariously on the edge of a 70-plus foot vertical drop, this rappel station takes some gusto to access. Take care to leave your pack in a safe space on the grass. This area is pretty steep, but manageable. We inspected the existing anchors and they were in great condition. We opted to send our packs down first, in order to have a better time on the rappel.
With our rope set (we used a 46m rope we’ve had to chop up), we were good to go. There’s nothing more thrilling than rappelling off of a perch in the high alpine!
Bailing on Pettingell
After stretching all of our favorite mountaineering muscles, the climb quickly changes to easy class 3 and class 2 rock. Looking up at Pettingell, we opted to bail at the saddle. The spicy part of the climb was over, and neither one of us were interested in a hill walk with some rock hopping just to gain another summit.
We eyeballed a steep snow slope on our way up, marking that as our bail point. The slope of the snowfield was substantial, not something I would glissade normally, but the runout was filled in and even had an uphill at the end to slow us down. With the soft punchy snow, I figured it would be easy to arrest if we got going to fast.
What I failed to realize is I would pick up speed at a tremendous rate, now that I had the added weight of the rope. With gravity giving me an extra yank and my energy starting to fade, I struggled to keep my glissade under control. It took everything in me and three self arrests to stop me from zipping into oblivion.
The Long March Home
Afterward, we regrouped and begrudgingly put our snowshoes back on for the mile or so snow walk back to the trail. At this point, the snow was so soft we would occasionally posthole up to our waists, with the shoes. It was slow going and we were feeling the burn. Instead of getting into our usual grumpy ruts, we made jokes about how horrid it is to posthole in snowshoes. After a seemingly never-ending descent, we made it back to the car, all smiles from one incredible day in the mountains.
Here are a few quick facts about the technical route between the Citadel and Pettingell Peak.
- Distance: 9.75 miles
- Time: with so many gear changes and post holing this route took us 9 hours to complete
- Elevation: 3.533 feet
- Couloir: around 900 vertical feet. Starting gradual and working its way up to 40-degrees. Most of the climb is around 35-degrees or higher
- Class: We took a deviation from the standard route and enjoyed mostly class 4 rock with a couple of quick class 5 downclimbs. This route has SERIOUS pucker factor. You can avoid some of it, but why?
- Gear: Ice ax, snowshoes, crampons, helmet (we heard several instances of rock fall), maybe 10 feet of webbing (didn’t use) and a 40m rope. We used a 46m rope and had about 12 feet of excess on the rap.
- Trailhead: Herman Gulch, right off of I-70. The last exit before Loveland Pass.