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Archive for May, 2009

Post work on Friday I drove up to the Stevens Gulch trailhead and marveled at how much the ruts had grown since my last visit. It may not be long before I shy away from driving that road.

While camping at the trailhead I ran into some of my former classmates from the Colorado Mountain Club’s High Altitude Mountaineering School (HAMS). Turns out they were meeting there with nearly the same plans I had – to climb the Lost Rat couloir on Grays Peak. This would be one of their training climbs for a Mount Rainier trip in a month.

I had planned a post 4am departure from the trailhead, but decided to join the HAMS group and their 3:30am start. Thankfully, the stars and milky way were out and the temps cooled down to the low 30’s so the snow was pretty well frozen. Gabe and I led out from the bridge along the trail, following the packed foot path via headlamp until it was time to leave the trail and make our way to the base of the Lost Rat Couloir.

After passing through a wet marshy area we hit snow and sunrise found us donning crampons and helmets for the ascent.

The group was planning to take the longer, but slightly lower angled left branch so of course the steeper right branch called to me. I started up first and headed straight for the right branch when a previously hidden option revealed itself.

A far-right option looked even steeper and might contain some alpine ice instead of just snow. It was definitely shorter, but the challenge was attractive and luckily I’d brought an ice tool besides my axe. After checking that snow and ice falling out of the couloir wouldn’t hit the group, I let them know my plans and started up.

The snow turned out to be very variable. Some was wonderfully sticky alpine ice that solidly held pick swings. Then 2 feet later the whole mass would become rotten snow and I’d have to plunge the shafts in, or even resort to mixed climbing on the rocks surrounding the snow. I was moving very slowly to make sure every placement was good.

At least all the foot placements were solid, mostly in snow, and only on rock in the most rotten sections.

An old cornice had melted out at the top to about 5 feet high and 80 degrees. After mantling over the snow I popped out in the sun and yelled to the rest of the group to let them know I was okay.

The group was continuing to Gray’s summit, but with two previous ascents I wanted to do something else. So I dropped back down the main trail and then hiked up to the low saddle between Torreys Peak and Kelso Mountain.

I was feeling more tired than I should have, so from the saddle I took the easier option of only 1,000 feet of scrambling to Kelso Mountain’s summit. The other way provided twice the gain to Torreys and someday I’ll come back to do that route. At least the first few hundred feet provided some fun scrambling until I was left with a simple class 2 slog to the top.

To descend I took a fairly direct snow field back towards the trailhead, doing a butt glissade on softened snow that was easy to control with my heels and ice axe. However, it was still snow and cold so my butt was wet and numb by the time I returned to the car.

After a 45 minute wait the rest of the group showed up and we drove down to Idaho Springs to wait an additional 10 minutes for Tommyknockers brewery to open.

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With the recent experience of getting buzzed on the summit of Dolores Peak, we waited another day and decided to try and resume our aborted traverse of Middle Peak and Dunn Peak. The weather looked better at the start of the day as we headed for the saddle between Middle and Dolores peaks.

There was less new snow low down, and the scree and talus we had to pass through weren’t so steep. Plus we found some solid snow to quickly kick steps in and aid our upward progress. On par for the weekend we also followed some coyote tracks along the way. A few isolated patches of clouds were a little worrisome, but we had also experienced bright morning sunlight.

As we neared the saddle between the peaks we headed more directly northwest towards Middle Peak’s summit. In mostly clear skies we had a great view of Dolores Peak.

With some concern I noticed a lenticular cloud above the other building clouds on the nearby peaks of the Wilson group. Unfortunately, until we got higher on Middle Peak our view to the west was blocked and we didn’t know what the incoming weather looked like.

Once we gained the ridge we realized that while we were only 100 vertical feet below Middle Peak’s summit, we still had just under a half mile of undulating ridge to walk to reach the true summit.

The weather looked iffy, but we started hiking westward. Very shortly it seemed clear to Sarah and I that the clouds weren’t looking friendly today. I could see vertical building of the cumulus clouds to our east. We briefly discussed hunkering down well below the ridge and I said I was just as happy to bail back the way we came. Even a little below the ridge I felt we’d be pretty exposed and if we continued on there wouldn’t be many good places to rapidly descend until we’d reached the summit.

We shouted our decision to Dwight who was more willing to forge ahead and then we all turned and fled back the way we’d come.

On the descent we were able to follow the snow more often and plunge stepped rapidly downwards. The terrain wasn’t steep enough to get in a good glissade.

Once back down we could see the clouds growing darker and building even more. By the time we’d driven back past Ridgeway we’d observed several lightening strikes and a lot of heavy rain.

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Dolores Peak

After another dinner in Silverton, Sarah handed over the wheel to me (fresh with a nap) for the drive towards Telluride. We pulled into the Burro Bridge campground and spent a wet night. Unfortunately, the normal morning clearing didn’t happen and we had a delay of game.

Kevin needed to be back to the front range tonight, so without an early start he bowed out of the day’s hike and started back. Around 9am we decided the rain had stopped long enough to start an attempt on Dolores, Middle and Dunn peaks.

The fresh snow made hiking a little more difficult but the vegetation was struggling against this late spring snow.

In very low visibility we headed above treeline and found the combination of 2 inches of wet snow atop loose scree to be very unpleasant. Our ascent seemed very labored and slow. Dwight quipped “We’re lost, but at least we’re making good time.”

Sarah kept pointing the way through the clouds with the GPS and on a micro level I was scouting for a route through some rocks when we saw a snow gully. Not knowing where we’d end up, I started up and the pleasure of steep snow climbing gave me great satisfaction. Probably the only 10 minutes of the hike I can say I really enjoyed.

The gully ended on a ridge just a short distance from the summit and thankfully not in a line of cliffs. As we headed up to the high point we experienced a brief hole in the clouds which showed some building clouds that had me worried about possible thunderstorms.

At the summit we sat down to eat in the clouds when suddenly Sarah launched herself into a prone position holding her ears. I was confused by her action and for some reason thought she’d lost a contact. Dwight was telling her the sound was just sleet on her rain jackets when I felt the static electricity on top of my head.

With less dignity than your average cockroach we scurried off the summit staying slow and sliding down snow and rocks a hundred feet or so. Intermittently I could still feel the buzzing static on my head as we crouched and covered our ears. Dwight said he could hear the rocks buzzing just before we left the summit. We waited for a while, then Dwight ran back up to toss down our ice axes (making dodging sharp metal objects another hazard of the day) and carried down our packs. A large bag of Sarah’s food was left on top for ravens or the next ascent party.

For a couple hundred feet I tossed the ice axes down the slope ahead of us as we quickly descended until we felt safe to take the axes in hand to aid the descent.

Once well down we found the snow covered scree far easier to descend than to climb up and we were soon back in the meadows.

Heading back to camp we decided to stay here another day and try to finish the loop with Middle and Dunn peaks on Monday.

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After departing from Castle Peak, Sarah, Pete and I traveled down to Silverton and scouted out some possible 13,000 feet peaks to climb on Friday. We found a camping spot on county road 22 right by the Animas River and while sleeping, Dwight and Kevin arrived near midnight.

The next morning the weather didn’t look great, but we decided to set out anyway, hiking up to the road and finding the barely-there trail that Pete had noticed the night before. Near an old wrecked car we doubled checked the maps and soon found the trail leading up Hermatite Gulch.

The clouds would occasionally part enough to reveal the peaks to our south: King Solomon Mountain, Galena and Green Mountain.

Around 11,600 feet we hit the snow line from the recent weather and trudged on towards Hermatite Lake. We spotted a coyote running across some snow fields at the head of the basin.

From near the lake we headed southwest to climb up to a ridge leading towards our first peak of the day: Macomber Peak.

The right edge of the ridge ended in huge cliffs leading straight into Hermatite Basin. We stayed well back from this demarcation as we climbed upwards.

After a brief break on the summit of this unranked peak, we headed north to follow a ridge towards Tower Mountain.

Along the way we picked up a set of fresh coyote tracks and followed them right to the summit of Tower where the coyote had marked its territory on the summit cairn.

From the summit we headed east and then north to a saddle that would give us access to Cataract Basin.

I started to kick steps down the snow slope after verifying that the new white snow hadn’t formed any cohesive slabs. It hadn’t bonded well to the older snow which was covered with a dust layer, but winds had been light and only a couple inches had fallen. Once in the basin we tried to traverse below a jagged ridge line towards Dome Mountain but found walking in a white out difficult. The leader would stagger like a drunken sailor since you couldn’t distinguish the sky from the ground and never knew where your next step would go.

We ended up descending another 100 feet to slightly less steep ground and then finished our traverse below a saddle to the west of Dome. Then it was straight up to the ridge ending with a short 5 foot old cornice wall to climb.

Once on the ridge we found ugly loose and wet rock to climb all the way to Dome’s summit.

After signing the register and commenting on the awful weather, we started back to the saddle. Strangely, we found the rock easier to descend than climb up. Maybe the slightly clearing sky helped our moods?

Several glissades took us down into Cataract Basin where we explored a rock formation near the lakes.

Then we followed the stream’s path as it descended into Cataract Gulch. At first we mostly dealt with loose scree and talus but less than a 1000 feet from the Animas River we found a tight gorge had been carved by the river. Breaking all wilderness travel protocol we ended up splitting up with Dwight finding a class 3 downclimb on the east side of the gulch, while I took a class 4/low 5th route down mostly solid and dry rock (which is to say some was loose and wet), while the others found a largely class 2 route high and west of the creek.

Once down safely and imprudence of splitting up was argued we returned to camp and headed into Silverton for dinner. When we walked into Handlebar’s our conversation with the waitress went something like:

Waitress: Are you all bikers or runners?
Us: No.
Waitress: Well, what are you?
Us: Hikers I guess.
Waitress: Well, you must be extreme hikers. You’re all so lean you look like you run the Hardrock 100.

I wasn’t sure if she meant it looked like we’d just finished the Hardrock 100 (100 mile footrace around here later in the summer). Did we really look that bad? Or did we just look like potential competitors?

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Luckily, the rain stopped overnight to motivate us to live up to the 6am departure time we’d set. Kevin was able to get us up to nearly 11,000 feet on the road to Little Giant Basin. I began to wonder if there were any ethics involved in climbing the 13’ers. Was there a 2,000 foot rule like the “standard” of having to climb at least 3,000 feet to gain a 14’er? Sarah quickly set me straight – there are no ethics on 13ers.

Since we were following a good road higher to the basin, I could practically sleep walk the next 20 minutes. That’s about when I realized I really could use a nap or some more sleep. So I tried to keep to the back of the group where I could just follow and not have to think.

We passed some interesting mining structures and a lake working on melting out, but couldn’t see the peaks above us to have a good idea of where to go.

We decided to head steeply uphill and catch a barely visible path that seemed to head for the saddle and avoid some steep snow fields.

Once we hit the mining trail we could easily follow it to the saddle and then partway around a false summit on Little Giant Peak.

Eventually the GPS units told us we were pretty much below the peak. Kevin lead us through the rime ice encrusted rocks to the summit.

The group decided to head over to unranked King Solomon Mountain and I realized that I was still very tired. Still, I followed and tried to pay extra attention to my steps since I didn’t feel very alert.

Kevin told us a bit about King Solomon but I think misquoted Song of Songs with the line “thy bosom like a gazelle”. GPS elevation readings confirmed that Solomon was an unranked peak (less than 300 feet of rise) and we headed directly down to the lake.

The clouds had started to lift a bit and we finally had a view of Little Giant across the basin.

Kevin, Sarah and Dwight were planning on moving to another basin and climbing an unnamed 13,000 foot peak. Since our return route was taking us near camp, I asked for the keys to Sarah’s vehicle and then to be let out with a quarter mile walk back to lunch and a nap that I sorely needed. Dwight lobbied for the whole group to stop at camp so he could make a sandwich, a request summarily denied by Sarah. Dwight said he hoped I’d enjoy a nice lunch as I left the car so I talked up the double-decker sandwich I’d create and consume shortly.

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Back in November I’d won the use of the Tagert Hut in a silent auction for one night. With many avalanche paths on the approach hike I decided to use the hut in the more stable spring conditions and combine it with a climb of Castle Peak’s East Face.

Pete, Sarah and I drove up Castle Creek road to just shy of the 10,200 foot creek crossing then started our hike in.

We bypassed the normal turn off into Montezuma Basin and continued on Pearl Pass Road for a short distance to the Tagert Hut.

Exploring our new digs we discovered a sled in the outhouse and soon ran a few laps on the slopes south of the hut.

Afternoon sun proved a lie to the dismal forecast as we relaxed on the deck wearing the hut’s collection of miss matched Crocs.

Kurt and Jim showed up a little after 5pm, just before the sun went behind the tall ridge to our west. Several beers were consumed, jokes told, dinners cooked, plans hatched and water fetched from the stream.

Sarah had argued strongly for a 4am departure from the hut to follow guide book author Lou Dawson’s advice “Snow climbers should start early after a cold clear night and time their ascent to be off the route by sunrise.” The rest of us tried to bargain to a later time but she stood firm. Now we just needed a cold and clear night. Our forecast was for 31 degrees at ~13,000 feet, but cloudy.

It was with great surprise and eager anticipation that a 12:30 bathroom visit featured a clear night sky full of stars. At 3:15a alarms began to sound around the hut and hot drinks were quickly produced before we made good on the 4am start.

From the hut I navigated by headlamp along Castle Creek’s south slopes through the trees then up a packed avalanche slope then along a bench. Finally we neared the 13,000 foot level at a basin beneath the east face where we broke out ice axes and crampons.

We started up a debris fan at the base then entered a shallow couloir.

The sky had lightened but clouds had re-gathered and kept direct morning rays from being a worrying influence on the snowpack.

Partway up the face I turned over the lead to Jim then Kurt in succession.

Finally, I resumed step kicking to reach the southeast ridge of Castle Peak where we regathered.

The summit was only a couple hundred feet higher and we soon strolled on top of the Elk Range.

To descend, we headed northwest to the saddle with Conundrum Peak.

After glissading into the Montezuma Basin we headed toward Malamute Peak.

After hitting some solid snow on the traverse to Malamute’s west saddle we stopped at some rocks to strap on our crampons again before continuing upwards.

Once on the ridge Jim and Kurt took over leading the third class rock towards to the summit.

From the summit we had a great view of Castle Peak’s East Face in near-profile. Whooa, did we just climb that?

Most parties appear to have descended back via the west ridge, but a steep snow couloir just east of the summit attracted our attention.

Eventually the snow ran out and our descent was finished on scree and mining relics back into the basin.

From the basin we descended back towards the main fork of Castle Creek and then returned to the hut to relax and repack for the hike out.

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After a night of acclimating in St Louis, Missouri I spent 12 hours driving to Golden, 1 hour re-packing, then several hours making my way past Leadville to meet up with Pete and camp over 10,000 feet near the 14’er La Plata. For being un-acclimated after two weeks back in Indiana I slept pretty well.

The next morning we joined John and Renata at the Willis Gulch trailhead at first light. The spring melt off was in full swing and Lake Creek was running strong.

I was anxious to stretch my legs again, but put myself at the back of the group so I could concentrate on a nice slow pace as I huffed and puffed at altitude.

The others had all been out on Saturday, hiking up multiple 13’ers so we kept a slow pace up several trails leading to Big Willis Gulch Trail. We found a few pockets of rotten snow in the trees but never wished for snowshoes. Higher still, where the trees were thinner the snow was completely gone.

Most stunning was the view of Mount Blaurock to the south. Its north face still held plenty of snow and several enticing looking couloirs.

Pushing up to 11,600 feet I was really working to catch my breath. I wondered how I’d fair on the remaining 2,000+ feet to Rinker’s summit. John had spied a snow field or shallow couloir in a trip report from the previous weekend and so we selected one a little south of Rinker’s summit that looked more continuous than the other options.

We walked up some low angled snow and past some willows while looking back up the valley towards Willis Lake.

At the base of the steeper snow we stopped to break out the ice axes and crampons.

Then it was time to start up the couloir.

The first break in the snow soon arrived and melt water was showing through a gap surrounded by slushy snow and a little ice.

A short scramble led through the rocks left of the flowing water and we returned to the meditative pattern of snow climbing.

We’d been comparing this slope to the Angel of Shavano route, but looking down I thought this nameless route was steeper. Getting out the compass I measured the slope at about 38 degrees – a bit steeper than Shavano’s famous snow climb.

A loose scree slope provided the second break in our snow ribbon and the rotten, shallow snow nearby provided a workout of postholing. Maybe it has to something to do with my love of snow routes, but I was feeling better now than down in the valley and led the entire snow slope to the ridge crest.

Once I poked my head over the ridge I was greeted with the huge sight of La Plata across the valley and looming over us.

The others quickly arrived and we took a break to enjoy the views.

We still had a few hundred feet to gain to reach Rinker’s 13,783 foot summit. So we started back north and took the more defined eastern rib leading upwards.

This part of the hike was mostly class 2 dirt and rock but the views were ever expanding and amazing. Pete and John identified the myriad summits.

We took a break on the summit for lunch and looked at the route towards the unranked Twin Peaks to our north.

We headed down some snow and mostly rock to the Rinker-Twin Peaks saddle.

Then it was back up again as we scrambled on the ridge to the top of Twin Peaks.

After a shorter break we reversed our route to the Rinker-Twin Peaks saddle then headed down the Big Willis Gulch side to a snow patch we hoped would offer better travel than the loose scree we were traversing.

I started a half standing glissade, half side slip down the slope while the others decided they’d rather traverse further south looking for a more reasonable descent route. The snow was featured with growing sun cups on its southern side, but the northern portion was smoother and I made pretty good time with this mode of travel.

At one point the snow steepened and I decided to move over onto some dirt slopes with allowed easy passage around this danger. Then I could traverse back onto the snow and end up a few hundred feet above the trail with just some easy walking left. I found a shaded spot and sat down to finish most of my food while I waited for the others.

On the way out we talked of future trips, gradually growing silent with the efforts of a long weekend nearly behind us.

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