Medicine Bow Peak trip report

Disclaimer

After climbing Medicine Bow Peak during summer and fall (the latter during a snowstorm), I got the idea to climb this mountain during all four seasons. The major problem is that the road that goes through this area is closed from November to May, and the only practical winter route requires a 5 mile approach hike; the route I had taken twice before would add another 3 miles each way and was completely out of the question.

I had been way too busy to give it a shot earlier in the winter when there wasn't much snow on the mountain, then a major storm (the same one that buried Colorado's mountains) dumped 2' of snow on the ski area about 2000ft in elevation below Medicine Bow Peak, and lord knows how much on the Peak and in the basin below. The route is plenty steep enough to avalanche and to be a tricky climb, and I had never done a 'real' alpine climb, so I wanted to go with someone with winter mountaineering experience. I talked to another grad student in the department (Dale) and he agreed to go sometime during spring break (March 4-12), which would satisify my seasonal requirement. Things finally worked out for March 10th, and although a high wind event was threatening, it was at least going to be mild temperature-wise, with no precip expected.

Dale had also asked another grad student (Matthias) who has even more winter mountaineering experience (they've even done some climbs together), so at about 7am we headed out of Laramie. Fortunately, the morning forecast had cancelled the high wind watch, so for the Snowy Range (the immediate part of the Medicine Bow Mtns in which we would be) "some gusts to 60 mph" replaced "gusts to 75 mph possible", however we weren't expecting too much loose snow available to be blown around considering the unseasonably mild weather we've been having lately. [It had been a very wimpy winter in Laramie to that point; that changed in a big way in April and May.]

This was to be my first chance to use my new REI Tourstar 2900 cubic inch internal frame pack, and my first long hike since October. We started up the road past the roadblock at 7:53am (9800ft). The snow on the road gets packed down by the large amount of snowmobile and snowcat traffic so this part is pretty straightforward. Matthias and I ended up getting ahead of Dale quite a bit (probably mostly my fault). In a little over two hours we reached the trailhead for what is a short, steep hike during summer.

Fortunately, the snow was pretty firm, with only occasional postholing and many spots that would support a person's weight. I broke trail first. I had an advantage here as I weigh only 155lbs, Matthias about 170 and Dale a little more than that, thus some snow that would hold me, wouldn't hold them. Again, Matthias and I worked ahead of Dale.

Directly in between us and Medicine Bow Peak was the southwest ridge of Sugarloaf Mountain (summit 11400ft). We decided to hike directly over it instead of skirting it to the west (we were headed north at this point), thinking that the drop on the other side wouldn't be much. When we reached this, Dale decided to drop out of the Medicine Bow Peak climb and play around on Sugarloaf Mtn. When Matthias and I went over to the edge of the ridge, we realized that it was pretty steep down the other side. Although it was rocky in places, about 30 feet of this was a 45 degree snow slope; steep enough that Matthias downclimbed it facing the slope, and I gingerly followed. We're not even climbing our mountain yet, and I'm already doing the hardest snow climbing I've ever done.

When we reached the low point about 100 feet below the ridge, we encountered a trail marker and realized that the trail went around the ridge. Oh well, now we could really see what was next, the 900 feet high south face. This face is quite large with two main snow fields to choose from. We decided to go up the right (eastern) one which is nearest the rocky area through which the trail goes. The other field leads more directly to the summit, but is steeper.

The first part of this is fairly gentle but the snow was quite hard in places. The 700ft from 11,200ft on the face to 11,900 on the summit ridge covers a bit under 1100 horizonal feet according to the quad, for an average slope of about 33 degrees, not bad but we could see some steeper sections. The big problem was that the snow was rock hard and slick. Matthias' experience allowed him to gracefully ascend with small kicked steps and support from ski poles. On the other hand, it was rather tricky for me. In many places I was kicking a couple of times into his steps to get a confident footing and having a hard time getting my axe in far enough for a self-belay. This wasn't bad in the parts around 30 degrees, but there were two short sections of about 45 degree snow. Here I was really working and was using the axe in stake position, mainly so I could have two hands on the axe to force the stake through the snow. Still, I never came close to falling, even in the occasional 40mph wind gusts, and the new pack was behaving very well.

He got a big lead on me, and in spots I moved over closer to the rocks to see if that was easier. It really wasn't, so I ended up following his tracks. He disappeared from view, presumably on the ridge. About 10 minutes later, near the top in the other steep section, I saw that he had been waiting on the ridge. This part was tricky enough that I started cutting steps for my hands and feet, but soon I joined him on the ridge. This part is just a hike again to gain the last 100 feet so Matthias offered me the lead. We were pretty exposed to the wind here and were getting sandblasted by blowing snow in occasional gusts near 50mph. Of course, we could see this all the way up, so it wasn't a surprise.

Just before 12:15pm, I spotted the summit pole and then we were on top. The summit is talus and boulders without much exposed snow to blow around so the wind wasn't much of a problem in that regard. Amazingly, the temperature was about 35F up here so wind chill wasn't much of a problem either. The views were terrific and the usual summit photos were taken.

Around 12:30pm, we left the summit and reached the point at which we had originally reached the ridge. Matthias offerred to help find a possibly easier route down, but I decided I would try the way we came up. After a review of self-arrest techniques, we started down. And of course, on that steep spot just below the ridge, I ended up on my butt, and after fumbling around a bit, self-arrested, the first time I had ever done so 'for real'. Going down really wasn't too bad, aided by being able to plunge step enough to get my heels into the hard snow on most of the slope. Matthias was able to do a lot of glissading, and I did a little in the softer and gentler spots, including some self-arrest practice.

All the while, Dale was lounging on a snow slope on Sugarloaf about a half-mile from us watching our progress. We met up on the other side of the ridge, and began the hike out. We ended up taking a little bit of a shortcut in some snow vehicle tracks saving perhaps 1/2 mile and at 3:37pm we reached the truck. By this time, the temperature was nearly 50 degrees, obscenely warm for almost 10,000 feet in March in Wyoming.

This was probably my finest day in the mountains (in an admittedly small number of trips). I'll probably climb the mountain again in May right after they open up the road again to complete the four season goal, and I had assumed that my spring climb would just be a hike like the first two, but I may try this route again.


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File last modified: 20 December 2004

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