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Archive for May, 2008

With all the snow in Colorado this winter I was determined to get out on a good snow climb. Taking a day off work I signed up for a CMC trip headed for Quandary Peak’s north face couloir – a long, but moderate route.

I met Dave and Diana at 4am and we drove up to Breckenridge in the pre-dawn darkness. Three other climbers were meeting us in Breckenridge, including two that Dave said had plans to ski the mountain. Strangely, I noticed a nearly identical vehicle to my own, only gray and with mountaineering skis on the roof rack that we leapfrogged throughout the drive. Sure enough, right after we pulled into the meeting spot, the gray Hyundai showed up as well. Chris and Vern were the two skiers while John waited in another car.

The trailhead had recently melted out enough that we could nearly approach the summer parking area. McCullough Gulch Road had melted out quite a bit since I’d been here last week and with the early start (6 am) we were able to stay on top of the frozen snow (mostly). Once we reached the summer trailhead for McCullough Gulch Diana and I resorted to our snowshoes for the rest of the approach.

Dave had previously scouted the trail and we could follow his old tracks somewhat – melted and refrozen as they were. As we neared tree line we finally had a view of the couloir.

We didn’t expect to belay anyone on this climb, but we were carrying two 30 meter ropes and some pickets, so on the off-chance that someone required assistance from the ropes, we went ahead and put on our harnesses at the base of the couloir. The beginning of the couloir was moderately angled and we kept our snowshoes on until we reached some bare rocks were we switched over to crampons.

Chris started up the couloir, kicking steps in the snow with his ski boots and the rest of us followed his lead.

John took over step kicking after a little while as we switchbacked across the slope, slowly gaining elevation. The couloir narrowed and steepened just above where the lead was passed to me.

Unweighted by skis and wearing my light boots I was able to move up the couloir fairly quickly. Initially, I tried to follow some old tracks from a previous climber. However, that climber was easily 6 inches taller than me with huge steps or lived his whole life on a Stairmaster. Those steps were refrozen hard and we found it easier to kick in our own steps rather than endure the thigh burning sensation of following in the giant’s footsteps.

While switchbacking across the slope I heard a clattering from above and saw a dinner plate-sized rock bounding down the rocks to our left and headed for the couloir. I yelled “ROCK!” repeatedly to alert the others then watched the stone smack into the soft snow about 5 feet from my tracks and come to a rest. I avoided getting too close to that side of the couloir for a while.

Our group was getting a little spread out, so Dave called for me to find a good spot to take a break. Remembering the rock, I chose a spot below a rock outcropping that would provide some protection from other flying missiles.

Dave and John took turns leading out after our rest break and navigated around some bare rocks.

Near the top, I took another turn kicking steps and finally exited the couloir. Across the slope I could see a few other parties ascending the normal east ridge route.

We had talked about descending the south couloir, but the day was already very warm and the snow on the more protected side of the mountain was already soft. None of us wanted to chance going down the south side, so we made a quick visit to the summit then started down the east ridge.

The snow was getting very soft as we headed down and even with snowshoes on we still occasionally sunk in past our knees. In a few spots the snow had melted clear and we waddled across bare ground to reach more snow.

Back in the trees the snow was possibly even worse. We slipped, slid and plunged into snow pits before eventually finding ourselves back on the McCullough Gulch Road with a short walk back to the cars.

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After two days of rain the weather was starting to look up. Perusing the CMC website I found a post-work rock climbing session here in Golden. I meet Bob, the trip leader, at the CMC offices and caught a ride with him up Lookout Mountain Road to the climbing area. Margarita followed us and Wayne was waiting at the pullout already. The weather wasn’t perfect however, a few clouds threatened rain and we got a few drops as we put on helmets, harnesses and shoes.

Bob setup the first top rope anchor and I rappelled down to the base of the climb. Wayne and Margarita followed while Bob setup a second rope.

The three of us took turns climbing the crack Bob called “Hands and Feet Crack” for it’s width. It was a moderate 5.8 climb. Meanwhile, Bob hiked down to the base of the cliff and I belayed him up the “Thin Fingers” climb – a harder route rated 5.10. I then took a turn on that route while Wayne and Margarita worked on the slabby climb to the left of the Hands and Feet Crack, rated about 5.9.

Feeling hungry, I hiked back up to the top and dug out the sandwich I’d prepared. When I came back down I saw Margarita working on another slab climb to the left of the Thin Fingers route.

Bob gave me a belay while I worked on the 5.9 slab that Margarita and Wayne had been climbing earlier. Wayne decided it was time to leave before another crowd of climbers showed up and I went ahead and caught a ride back to town with him. Wednesday evening climbing at Lookout Mountain might be a regular event this summer. . .

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Fletcher Mountain

Helen was feeling a little better and wanted to try getting out. However, we didn’t want to go very far from a road in case she had more breathing issues due to the allergy attack she’d been suffering with. I picked out one of Summit County’s taller mountains, but not one of the over-popular 14’ers. Fletcher Mountain was 49 feet shy of the magic 14,000 feet that guarantee’s overuse in Colorado.

I’d already scouted the Blue Lakes road and knew that we could get close to the summer trailhead at the dam on Monte Cristo Creek, but not quite all the way there. A few wide spots in the road just prior to snow cover were already busy with cars and skiers – all who seemed to be headed for Quandary Peak’s Cristo Couloir (Quandary is one of those magic 14’ers). The Cristo Couloir is deservedly popular this time of year – excellent skiing and very close to a road.

After hiking to the dam and then under the couloir, we continued traversing along the south side of Quandary’s slopes to the west. A rubble slope of loose rocks took some time to cross with our skis balanced on our shoulders, but we found snow on the other side and clicked in to start climbing up. However, the snow was still frozen and steep enough that I soon slipped when my skins lost traction. I stopped myself easily enough with the ski poles, then got out of my skis and went back to kicking steps in the snow while shouldering the planks.

Helen and I reached a patch of rocks sticking out of the snow and she decided she wasn’t feeling well enough to continue on. Her balance was off and she was feeling very low on energy. We decided that she’d take Torrey back to the car and nap there and wait for me to summit Fletcher and return. Helen took off her skins and prepared to ski back down while I held Torrey to keep her away from Helen’s edges. Once she’d reached more level ground I released the hound and Torrey took off like a rocket down the slope.

I turned around and continued to kick steps until the snow slope angle eased off. Then it was back to skinning. Shortly, I found another steep slope and gingerly headed upwards until I slipped back again. I measured the angle at 37 degrees then proceeded to tire myself out by shouldering my skis once again and kicking steps up the slope.

The ridge eased off into a broad, semi-level slope with lots of bare rocks around 12,800 feet. I decided to leave the skis behind here and continued up with my ice axe. Walking across the rocks I spotted a ptarmigan just a few feet from me. It was mostly white with a few brown spots – turning from its all-white winter coat to a summer camouflage. If it hadn’t moved, I’d probably walked right by it.

The weather was holding well, lots of sun but a few strong wind gusts would remind me I was in alpine terrain. I stopped at the base of the final 600 foot climb up Fletcher and took a quick rest and snack break. It was 10am when I walked across a low spot to attain Fletcher’s southeast ridge. Luckily, the snow in this low spot wasn’t so deep that I post holed more than a couple inches. Above that the snow was pretty solid and nearly perfect for step kicking and I moved quickly upwards. I spotted some old boot tracks in the snow – partly wind eroded, but their presence reassured me and I felt a little less lonely. Later, I wished there had been no tracks so the experience of being out there and alone would have been stronger.

A rock band stretched across the slope below the summit, and I had to gingerly work my way through the loose and partly-frozen in rocks and the weak snow warmed by the rocks underneath. Above the rocks the slope steepened and the snow was harder. I suddenly wished for crampons as I found myself traversing above the rocks and knew that if I slipped there was a chance I couldn’t self-arrest quick enough to avoid hitting the rocks. It certainly wouldn’t kill me, but it could easily twist an ankle or worse. Being alone, I told myself to slow down and take it easy, kicking each step multiple times to enlarge a platform for my foot.

By 10:35 I found myself on top with an amazing view in all directions. The sun was still out, but a few clouds were starting to build up. I prepared myself for the downclimb and was a little nervous, but reminded myself to take it slowly and safely. Facing in to the slope, I would kick toe holds into the snow after securely planting my ice axe to immediately arrest any slip. Once past the rocks I could breathe freely again and glissaded a short stretch of snow. The snow here was perfect for plunge stepping and I was quickly back to the low point and then slowing down as I climbed upward back onto the rocky and partly snow-free area.

Less than an hour after leaving the summit I was back to my skis and nervous again. I’m a poor skier and the slopes below me were the equivalent of black diamond runs in the resorts, except the snow was un-groomed. I side stepped a little lower, then finally committed to some turns and got in a quick rhythm and started to somewhat enjoy myself. I’d still probably be more comfortable on snowshoes, or just in my boots, but I soon found myself back down where Helen had turned back and followed her tracks back to the dam.

After the climb up to the dam I started walking the road back to the car. Some of the road was snow covered enough that I could have skied, but I ended up continuing to walk with the skis on my shoulder. Ahead I saw someone throwing a stick for a dog and realized it was Helen. As I walked up, she said “I knew it was you, since you were walking and not skiing”.

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Since Helen was still sick, but feeling well enough to take Torrey out, I signed up at the last minute for a Saturday hike with the Colorado Mountain Club. The group was heading to Grizzly Peak (13,427 feet) starting from Loveland Pass. If the weather was good we’d even continue on to the 14’er Torreys Peak (namesake of Helen’s dog).

The morning started out sunny as we gathered and geared up at Loveland Pass. 11 of us started hiking up and passed by a few other hikers returning from earlier starts – none had made it to Grizzly, they’d all gotten into whiteout conditions up on the ridge.

The wind picked up as we climbed higher and clouds rolled in closer to us as we reached point 12,915 where a few stone windbreaks provided a little shelter. Mount Sniktau lay off to our left, and was a possible climb if Grizzly wasn’t obtainable.

Pressing on we quickly descended to a gap in the ridge line then began climbing up to “Cupid” a 13,117 feet bump on the ridge line. The group got strung out on the climb up Cupid, so we waited and got cold for the whole group to show up. The clouds also joined our gathering and soon visibility was down to about 40 feet. Leaving Cupid we tried to find the correct ridge leading to Grizzly Peak and when we began contouring to the north I stopped the leader to double check where we were headed. No one wanted to believe my tiny watch-mounted compass so GPS units and “real” compasses were brought out which all confirmed we were heading back north unintentionally.

After a brief consultation the group decided to head back rather than risk getting lost in a whiteout. When we reached point 12,915 again someone measured the wind speed as 39-41 mph (sustained) with gusts higher than that.

We decided not to attempt Sniktau either (a mountain I’d climbed already) and returned to Loveland Pass. Most of the group (9 of us) decided to drive over to Grizzly Gulch and hike along the road (snowed in after Stevens Gulch) to get a few more miles in.

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Mud Season

I’d never been in Colorado during the mud season and didn’t know what to expect. Helen and I had originally planned an extra-long Memorial Weekend around summiting some more 14’ers. Unfortunately, she came down with a really bad allergic reaction and the weather didn’t look very promising. So we ended up in Breckenridge and I took off each day with Torrey to see what was available during the mud season.

My first hike was a snowshoe up McCullough Gulch on the north side of Mount Quandary. I was signed up for another CMC trip planned for next week to ascend a couloir out of McCullough Gulch and I hoped to get a glimpse of the route and check out the snow conditions. We had to park at the winter trailhead and hike the McCullough Gulch road a couple miles to the summer trailhead. Unfortunately, we’d gotten a late start (after noon) and the snow was soft and rotten. Even with snowshoes I was sinking several inches to knee-deep with most steps. Torrey and I then made it a little way up the normal trail before the wind picked up and dark clouds started descending toward us. Remembering the chance of afternoon thunderstorms, I turned us around and headed home.

I figured most of the summer trailheads would be inaccessible right now and the trails covered with snow. For our second day, I drove up to Boreas Pass road and hoped that the road was still snow covered. I brought along my nordic backcountry skis but ended up walking in the mud and dirt for the first mile or so with only occasional patches of snow.

Once we came to snow patches that I couldn’t see the end of I decided to clip into the skis. On-again, off-again went the pattern as I skied where possible and hiked the bare dirt. Thankfully, the nordic skis were quick to clip into and out of, much easier than either my snowshoes or my AT-style backcountry skis.

Just before we arrived at the Baker Tank (a restored watering tank for the trains that used to use this road) the snow was persistent enough that I didn’t have to remove the skis until we’d turned around and come back this way. I was getting into a nice rhythm with the skiing and enjoying these lightweight skis. The constant motion was more like hiking and the short glide was definitely enjoyable.

Still the weather wasn’t great, clouds dominated and we were snowed on most of the time. The wind was also strong as we discovered once we reached tree line. Torrey didn’t seem excited to go on, so we turned back again for a nice 8-10 mile trip. Sliding back was fun until we ran out of snow. On the way back to Breckenridge, I made a detour to check out how far up the Blue Lakes road we could drive. Maybe later this weekend I’d be able to do a hike or climb up that drainage.

I was feeling like I’d learned something about mud season, and found ways to work with it’s challenges and still find an enjoyable outing.

I enjoyed the nordic skis so much I looked for something similar for Friday’s outing with Torrey. We drove up Spruce Creek Road and were stopped about a 1/4 mile from the trailhead by a downed tree. Luckily, from the trailhead up the snow was still resident, so we only had to hike the little bit of the road. I skied up the unplowed road and then across the aqueduct road into the Crystal Creek valley. We’d come this same way on our Avalanche course back in January to Francies Cabin.

Above the cabin I followed the route of the summer trail as best I could. My goal was some old cabin ruins near the Lower Crystal Lake. Once again the weather was less than ideal – snowing, cloudy and windy. I was plenty warm switchbacking up the slopes toward the lake, but Torrey was getting cold by the time we reached the cabin.

The views from this spot are of steep-sided peaks in all directions – Peak 10, Crystal Peak, Father Dyer Peak and Mount Helen. After a short stop to eat and admire the view (somewhat indistinct from all the clouds) I decided to get back down so Torrey could warm up.

I went to clip into my skis and my boots popped right back out of the bindings. I struggled with them for several minutes, all while Torrey jumped on me (her way of letting me know she was cold and needed to get moving). Eventually, I discovered the bindings had iced up and dug out a key to scrap the ice away. Repeated scrapings (punctuated by being knocked down by Torrey) finally produced a satisfying click announcing that my boots were securely attached.

Torrey doesn’t behave well around downhill skiers – and today was no exception as she jumped on my, ran to close to my skis (we’d already had one incident of cutting her on the metal edges) or ran between my legs while I tried to turn. On an icy slope she knocked me down repeatedly as I struggled to learn to control these nordic skis on downhill terrain. In frustration, I took off my skis and was lucky that the snow was packed enough that I could walk down to lower-angled terrain where Torrey would be less of a menace.

Once past the cabin, I put on my skis again and kept my speed low enough that Torrey didn’t run too close to me. A few times I had to prod her way with my poles, but the worst was when she’d run between my legs and skis and then jump up hitting me in the crotch with her head.

When we finally made it back to Breckenridge, I asked Helen if she was recovered enough to take Torrey to the dog park tomorrow while I signed up for a CMC hike.

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