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Archive for January, 2010

Ben Tyler Trail

With a weather forecast that was far more winter-like than the previous couple weekends, I decided to stay a little lower. Around 8,000 feet I found portions of the Ben Tyler trail leading into the Lost Creek Wilderness bare.

Soon the trail headed into the woods and a sheltered valley. Snow was no consistent, but the trail had been packed down in the weeks prior. At least until around 10,400 feet, where either everyone had given up or the winds had drifted over their handiwork. I’d had ambitious goals of reaching a couple peaks, but the nearest was over a mile away and over another 1,500 feet above me. Between us stood knee to mid-thigh deep sugar snow. Being solo, I didn’t feel like building such a trench today and thoughts of a warm lunch soon overruled those earlier ambitions.

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After four days of squinting at snow crystals, wrapping my brain around crystal metamorphism and digging pits in the snow, I was ready to look at something dry and non-white. Pete and I formulated plans to hit some of the ranked and un-ranked peaks just south of Sheeprock and invited Kevin to join us.

While our plans and weather were looking good, our motivation was a house of cards that nearly collapsed. After taking a backcountry skiing fall the day before, my knee was complaining and I nearly called Pete and Kevin to cancel. Pete had been out for a 26 mile trail run two days prior and his quads were protesting as well. Kevin had a ready-made excuse, having just climbed the 14er Kit Carson as a winter backpacking trip. Amazingly, we all manned up and arrived at the trail head before 8am.

From near the old Molly Gulch campground (now closed) we picked up a trail and followed it south along the creek until a log crossing Pete and I had found last year.

From here we contoured west of Sheeprock itself and tried to stick to sun-exposed aspects on our way towards “Cheesman Overlook”.

The views of Sheeprock kept getting finer as we headed for the overlook.

To our south we could see our next objectives, unranked “Southern Comfort” and ranked South Sheeprock.

The summit block of “Cheesman Overlook” had a small class 3 ramp with a tree to pass around.

The summit was windy and the clouds looked like they held the potential for snow. Our next two peaks had some 4th class scrambling and even a few 5th class moves, so we hurried on to South Sheeprock.

Some fun scrambling lead us to the summit block of South Sheeprock.

The southeast side was a slab climb, but had really bad consequences in the event of a fall. The north side had a 10 foot wall with a few good holds and a not-so-bad landing. After looking at all the options I decided to climb this north side with a spot from Kevin and Pete.

They tossed our rope to me and I had one of them tie in below me, while I sent the other end of the rope down the slab for the other to belay. Then I coached both Pete and Kevin up one at a time, both up and down the same route.

Finally, I tied in to the rope and got a belay for my own downclimb. Then we packed up the light rope and harnesses and found a snowy descent route off the north side of South Sheeprock. The other faces of the peak were more impressive than the route we’d ascended.

“Southern Comfort” rose just to the northeast and we easily traversed over there then began ascending a series of ledges and ramps while avoiding patches of snow and ice. Amazingly, several bristlecone pines call this area home.

Counter to the forecast, the sun was coming out and the view west towards the Lost Creek wilderness reminded me of all the remaining peaks there I have to climb.

Just below this group of summit boulders, we found an improbable rock plateau and imagined camping here in the fall.

Some fun scrambling took us to the summit where we spent a long break admiring the views.

The climb up “Southern Comfort” was probably the highlight of the day, even if the peak doesn’t have 300 feet of prominence it was still worth doing. Eyeballing the height difference between it and South Sheeprock makes me wonder which is really taller.

After leaving “Southern Comfort” we traversed around the north side of South Sheeprock and visited another unranked point known as “Camera Rock”.

Then we headed downhill and then north across the terrain to pick up our earlier tracks and reach the cars again.

Adam’s complete photo album
Kevin’s photo album

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One of my goals for 2010 was to complete an AIARE Level 2 Avalanche Course. Alpine World Ascents offered a course that fit my schedule so I found myself in Boulder spending a Thursday with 4 backcountry skiers and our instructor, Tim Brown, reviewing a few concepts from our Level 1 courses and laying the theoretical ground work for the next 3 days.

On Friday morning we meet in Empire for a morning of additional classroom work, then headed up to Loveland Pass for our first field session. We started the day with a short tour to a 5-day old avalanche on the Pass Lake slide path.

We spent some time digging in the avalanche debris to produce a few holes in which to hide beacons for a rescue scenario.

While digging, I took time to have a close look at the depth hoar crystals that persist at the bottom of Colorado’s usual snowpack.

After discussing our beacon rescues and a few quirks with some beacons, we toured to a small pond around 11,560 feet to dig our first snow pit with the objective of gathering a baseline profile.

This work was finished by headlamp, but Tim knew the way out to the road. Unfortunately, the snow in the trees had thinned considerably in the couple days since he’d last exited this way. With lots of exposed rocks and downed timber, I decided to remove my skis and boot it out the last bit to the road. There we caught a hitch back to our cars and called it a day.

Saturday again began with a classroom session before we went into the field. Once we moved up to the pass, we practiced taking a full set of weather data (air and snow surface temperatures, elevation, wind speed, sky cover, precipitation rates, etc).

Then it was time to “tour” back to our pond for a more practice making snow pit observations. The others may have been touring, but I’d switched to snowshoes for this short travel day as my skiing skills left a lot to be desired and my snowshoe boots were warmer than my ski boots for standing in a snow pit all afternoon.

Along the way to the pond site we practiced some travel techniques to reduce exposure, such as spreading out through possible avalanche terrain.

I wallowed down a steep slope in my shoes while the others got a couple turns just above our pit site.

After making a full set of observations and doing a few instability tests on columns of snow, we returned to the road and home to await the final day.

Once again we started with a classroom session, including making a tour plan for the day. Given the driving time to and from the pass, we shortened our route up to just do an out-and-back into the No Name basin to dig some pits in a new aspect. Once we arrived at the trailhead, Caleb practiced giving our trailhead talk (going over plans and procedures for the day).

We boot packed our way to a saddle leading into the eastern portion of No Name basin and then spent some time discussing the best way into the drainage.

I was back on skis today, given the distance we’d be touring. Skiing isn’t one of my strengths, and the variable snowpack (half wind slab, half cohesion-less grains) sent me on a skis-over-head tumble. Eventually we all arrived at our intended study-site on the ridge leading to the Hippie Trees.

We worked together to gather weather observations, dig the pit, identify the layers and do a few instability tests. The last included digging out a Rutchblock for Caleb to jump on.

It was nearing dark by the time we wrapped up and began skinning up to the ridge crest. Full darkness caught us there and we slipped down our previous track keeping our skins on before boot packing the last bit to the road.

Back in Empire we wrapped up the course with a better understanding of just how complex the snowpack can be, but in possession of a few more tools to practice and continue our learning.

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Dwight and I drove from Golden to Lake City on Friday evening looking for a weekend of ice climbing. Ouray’s much larger ice park would be packed this weekend with their Ice Festival, so we choose the smaller and much less well known Lake City. There we met up with Jean and Ken and planned to start out after the Mocha Moose opened for breakfast the next morning.

The park is obvious from town and we could have walked from the hotel the 3 blocks, but drove so we could stash extra gear in the car.

After wandering around the base we decided where we wanted to climb first and left Jean on the ground to guide us in setting the top rope anchors. Thankfully, we’d brought my 60m static line to tie off to some trees since the best non-ice screw anchors were far back from the cliff edge.

We each did a lap on this first climb (about WI3), then I pulled the rope and led the route. Dwight and Jean each repeated the climb again.

For our second route we moved the anchor to a higher and steeper location and again had to use much of our static anchor line to drop our 60m climbing rope to the base.

While playing around on this route, the first other climbers we’d seen showed up. They eventually decided to start out on the route we’d just vacated, so I took advantage of our anchor and led our current route.

After we’d each gotten two laps we moved our anchor again, again going up in difficulty (WI4+ ?).

I only top-roped this route, but we each got our standard 2-laps before it was 4pm and we decided to call it a day. After hot showers Ken returned to the hotel after spending the day climbing two 14ers, Redcloud and Sunshine, and we all headed out to dinner. A little disappointed that the NoName restaurant didn’t have a liquor license, Dwight and I stopped at the Depot saloon for drinks and I took a beating at the pool table. As we left, a local stopped and chatted with us and told us about a new climbing spot further up the canyon where they were farming ice.

Sunday started a little later (dictated by the later opening of Mocha Moose) but we were rewarded with an conversation with the owner who told us about shooting down the ice formations at the end of the season. We decided to drive up the 3.5 miles past the ice park to investigate the new spot. It looked a lot more technical than we were really ready for, so we returned to the park.

This time we set up a top rope anchor even further right (when facing the cliff) and did laps again.

For my second lap, I decided to lead the route again. By know I was feeling much more comfortable with my technique and dealing with ice screws while leash-less climbing. Dwight decided to try leading the first portion of the route – his first. I coached him from below while Jean belayed.

A couple more climbers showed up around noon and shortly after we decided to call it a day and get on with the 5+ hour drive back to Golden.

Adam’s complete photo album
Dwight’s photo album

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After the evening light faded on Harvard it chilled off quickly. Water bottles and thermoses were topped off with hot water slowly derived from melted snow (our well had drifted in during the day) and tested before leaks before being crammed into sleeping bags.

Trying to pass 10 hours in a sleeping bag can be a challenging, but I didn’t have to do it alone. Besides two water bottles, I had 3 pairs of gloves or mittens, boot liners, soft shell pants, a jacket, GPS, headlamp, camera and iPod to share the space with. About the only thing with a battery or significant water content not taking advantage of several inches of down was my watch, which besides reminding me how slowly time was passing also told me it got down to 8F, in the tent.

By 6am I was ready to finish the charade of sleep and began to wrestle with the other sleeping bag occupants before I could half emerge and start the stove for a cup of coffee and hot breakfast. Before 7:30a Kevin and I had broken free of the tent and were ready to set off with the others. Dwight had left a thermometer outside so I asked how cold it got.

Dwight: “It says it’s 2 below.”
Me: “That’s a great beer.”

Kevin led off and began breaking trail over to the summer route up Mount Columbia. The snow was deep but after 15 minutes of work we could cache our snowshoes for the very wind swept west-facing route up the mountain.

Climbing out of the valley not only warmed us, but took us above the cold settled air. Soon we were finding portions of the summer trail in the exact places where we wanted to travel – low angled slopes or places completely wind scoured.

The morning was almost completely cloudless and more amazing was the lack of any wind. The air temperature was still cold, but as we moved into the sun out I was removing layers quickly.

Missouri, Iowa, Emerald, Huron and the Apostles all came into view as we topped 13,000 feet.

Once we crested the ridge we had a view north and the easy ridge leading to the actual summit.

The stroll was simple and one of the warmer winter days I’ve ever had this high.

On the summit we took a break and pondered how long until we returned to town. Pizza and beer were already calling (after all, we’d been out since Friday) and we wondered how much of our earlier track was still present.

Perhaps motivated by thoughts of real food we sped down the peak and returned to camp by 11:30 for a 4 hour round trip.

Camp was rapidly deconstructed and we started out breaking a fresh trail down hill looking for evidence of our old track.

By the time we reached our lunch spot from the journey in we’d located the old track which in these lower trees was only covered by a fresh inch or so of snow. New snow hung on the lower branches and sparkled in the sun making the next mile or so one of the prettier snowshoes I’d ever been on.

I tried to focus on the beauty and not just on the slices of pizza in my future, but we continued to push on and reached the cars at 3pm with plenty of time to retrieve a stash of beer from Ken’s before the gluttony ensued.

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New Year’s Eve was celebrated about two hours early by a group of mountaineers more concerned with early starts than ringing in 2010. Our host, Ken Nolan, departed for La Plata Peak about an hour before the rest of us woke and ventured out.

Our destination was treeline in Horn Fork Basin, about 11,600 feet. Starting at ~9,000 feet we’d have around 7 miles to go and no idea how hard the travel would be (meaning, how deep would the snow be and would there be a track). The first 3 miles passed easily enough on the road just to get to the summer trailhead.

We found an old track leaving the trailhead, but it was lightly covered with snow and we moved our snowshoes from our packs to our feet.

A few steep side-hills were drifted in and required a bit of trail breaking, but otherwise the travel was easier than we could have expected.

Past the trail split to Kroenke Lake our luck continued to hold and the old track climbed higher into Horn Fork Basin. After about 4 hours we stopped for lunch at the first meadow.

Our track faded out and we had to break fresh trail until our camp site at 11,600 feet.

Given all the running creeks we’d crossed we went hunting for flowing water to save fuel and time versus melting snow. Dominic and Kevin dug a well a few hundred feet from camp where the stream flowed under 3+ feet of snow.

Thus far the weather had been better than we’d anticipated. As evening approached it began to turn colder and cloud up.

Winter nights can force a lot of tent time, which we passed with hot beverages, a little conversation, idle hopes regarding the weather and plenty of eyes-closed deep thought.

At least with the cloudy night the full moon didn’t add to our wakeful hours. About 7am we departed camp heading north for Mount Harvard.

It was cloudy and a bit windy, but the actual temperatures were surprisingly mild for early January. Overnight it had reached only 21F in the tent and I was shedding layers as we headed higher.

Snow conditions were definitely sketchy, so we avoided steep slopes and stayed on wind scoured or rocky ribs as much as possible. In some places this corresponded well with the summer trail.

It even looked like we were headed for a break in the weather when small patches of blue let some sun through the clouds.

If the weather would really hold we had an ambitious plan of traversing Harvard’s east ridge to an unnamed, but ranked 13’er (13,374). That would require us to descend somewhat unknown terrain between Harvard and Columbia and would require good visibility to do so safely.

First, we still needed to reach Harvard’s summit and to avoid wind-loaded aspects in the bowl below the peak, we followed a ridge towards point 13,598.

Then we could traverse Harvard’s south ridge in safety.

The ridge had several undulations, and exposed us to the wind but wasn’t too difficult (minus a few places of wallowing in deep powder snow).

Once the ridge ended we continued up more wind blown terrain traversing below a false summit.

Visibility and wind both grew worse as we neared the top of Colorado’s third highest mountain. The terrain is slabby in places and I didn’t trust the winter snow to adhere to the rock and found myself scrambling more on the more difficult ridge crest.

Once on top we really enjoyed the beautiful weather.

Hopes of continuing on to 13,374 were dashed by the 30 foot visibility and blowing snow. The wet snow clung to everything and made gloves and jackets wetter than what a colder and dryer day would have done.

For our descent we just reversed our route upwards.

Snow was really coming down now as we located our ascent route off 13,598.

Exposed hair was also collecting a nice layer of ice.

With the new snow load I was triggering collapsing layers (whompfing) on flat slopes that we’d crossed without any signs of instability in the morning. With that warning we were extra cautious on our descent route back to camp.

Once back at camp the sun even came out and the skies cleared off. Of course, we knew that would just mean a much colder night was ahead.

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