Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Into the Steep


2008 Picutre of our Route - More snow this year
The 2011-12 winter has been slow to come into full force.  While this is bad for the ski resorts, it is  good for summiting 14ers;  not the I have ticked off any winter ascents.  But the trip report section of is  full of people getting  up numerous summits.  Little Bear, one of the toughest 14ers in Colorado has seen numerous ascents over the past several weeks.  With the relatively stable snowpack, Doug and I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park to try a snow route that we had spotted a couple of winters ago.

Bear Lake parking lot was relatively empty when we arrived around 9:30. Only a few souls out on this MLK holiday Monday.  Our plan was to snowshoe past Nymph and Dream Lake up to Emerald Lake.  Though we used snowshoes on the way up, it was more an exercise in winter travel than of  actual need, as the trail was well packed down. 

As we approached Emerald Lake, Hallet Peak could been seen above the frozen lake's surface, trying to emerge from behind clouds.  The big snow route up in this area is the Dragon's Tail Couloir, however, this was not our destination for today, but hopefully sometime in the future.  Our route lead out of the SW corner of Emerald Lake, following a couloir that topped out on Hallet's SE ridge. 

Learning from Mount Sherman last year, I actually rented crampons for this attempt and brought along the new ice axe.  After some instructions from Doug on using the crampons and a little self rescue practice with the  axe, we headed up into the steep.  The route started out gentle, with minimum amount of snow.  As we headed higher the snow became deeper which made for better footing with the crampons.  Soon we were having to plunge the handle of the axes into the snow to make upwards progress. Plunge, step, step.... Plunge, step, step.... Plunge, step, step....

The crux of the route was a 30 yard section, with only a light covering of snow, over lose talus.  We could not plunge our axes in to get a good support while we stepped up.  Every step had the talus moving beneath our feet.  We ended up using the axe's head to dry tool behind the larger rocks.  Even with this we were afraid to put too much weight onto the axe, in case the rocks they were wedged behind, broke out of their icy hold, leaving  us tumbling backwards down the couloir.  Once past this section, we traversed right into deeper snow and made good progress upward.  I tried to avoid looking down below us, as the pitch had steepened to 45 degrees or so.  Looking down only lead  to second guessing my decision to tackle this climb.

The final section of the climb moves into a narrow gully and kicks back a little more steeply.  By this time Doug had climbed about 25 yards above me, and was ready to enter into the final 30 yards.  Up to this point the weather had been on our side. Today was the first time, on a winter hike, that I have come over Dream Lake and not been pushed around by a strong wind.  The overcast skies kept us from overheating despite our constant movement.  Just before he entered  the final section to the top, as strong wind blew across the surface, covering us in snow and dropping visibility to 15 yards for a short period of time.  With my nerves beginning to fray, and the energy draining from legs I told Doug I was done.  Perhaps if I would have been up next to Doug I would have chosen to push on to the top, but I decided to listen to my body and mind and head down, with Doug following.

Going down seemed to be slower than going up.  The wind had blown over our steps higher up, so with each step down I had to once again kick new steps to stand in.  Much easier to kick steps going up than down.  The crux section was definitely slower going on the way down.  The talus seemed looser, and there were less obvious rocks to dry tool in.  Below the crux we took a more easterly route back to the lake.  I gracefully slide down on my butt over the lower angled talus.  Doug got a great glissade in on the final drop to the lake.  Being beat, and not all the sure on my glissading ability I trudged down all but the last 15 yards of this section.

The hike back to the car went fairly fast.  We left the crampons on, to make quicker progress over the lakes.  Even though I was beat I, I kept telling myself that I could make it, and to stop whining in my mind!  I can't wait to try some snow again.  Unfortunately the week since we did this climb has brought snow to the high country and high avi danger.  My future plans may have to wait until the more stable spring snow.

Until next time... "watch your top knot!"

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