Medicine Bow Peak trip report


I missed the entire winter season due to various combinations of weather, avalanche danger, business travel, time, and lack of ambition. We've had some mild weather recently, and the Moon was just past full, making an alpine start more enjoyable. I would have went on Friday since it was a University holiday, but we got some light snow Thursday and it was still flurrying at midnight.

I caught a short nap Friday evening, pulled away from the curb at about 2:45am, and started hiking at the winter road closure on the Snowy Range Road at exactly 4:00am. The weather was pretty good, temperature around 25F, with little wind due to the forest, and some mid-high level clouds. I was able to start out with just a layer of Polartec over my underwear. With the waning gibbous Moon, there was plenty of light to work with (especially for hiking up a road). This is a local mecca for snowmobilers, so the snow on the road gets packed down. It still wasn't quite as solid as it was last March when three of us did a winter ascent.

The high clouds were producing a lunar halo, along with "Moon dogs" (analagous to Sun dogs or 'parhelia'; I'm not quite sure what the correct term for Moon dogs is). As it finally started getting light, I was also losing my tree cover and was starting to feel the wind and had to put on my shell jacket. Around sunrise, I was in the Libby Flats area and there was some drifting snow and some nice sastrugi patterns on the snow surface. (I didn't know until Sunday that sastrugi is a Russian word, which is nice because I know exactly how to pronounce it now!).

At about 10700ft I wasn't really sure if I was going to actually climb MBP, and I decided to take a left turn directly towards Sugarloaf Peak, a subpeak right in 'front' of MBP. This avoided a longer hike on the road up and over Snowy Range Pass. However, the going was a little tedious because the snow wasn't really all that solid; 'snow-whacking' would be the best term, I guess. I never was sinking in more than about a foot, which would be perfect if it was champagne powder, but it wasn't. I brought my poles and they helped.

Somewhere close to Sugarloaf I took a break and looked up and behind me and saw Kelvin-Helmholtz waves on top of an orographic cloud! I guess I'd better explain that sentence. :) Orographic clouds are those that are mountain-induced. They occur over and on the lee side of mountains and remain nearly stationary for long periods of time. They almost always signify strong winds and often they are the only significant cloud cover. The wind was out of the northwest which is favorable for orographic clouds in the lee of the Snowy Range because it's oriented southwest-northeast. Kelvin-Helmholtz waves are small cloud structures that appear like ocean waves breaking and are a much rarer event. They require strong wind shear over a small vertical distance. This is something I've wanted to see for a long time and I finally did. OK, enough of the meteorology lesson ;)

The best route from here is to sidestep Sugarloaf on the west and follow the summer trail to the saddle between Sugarloaf and MBP. This is a little more difficult with deep snowcover because you must pass through an area of scrub oak (or scrub something). This was the only time I did any real postholing. I completed the Daily Double by seeing a very bright parhelia to match the lunar feature I saw earlier. I had been eyeing possible routes up the south side of MBP for the last hour, trying to decide whether I really could climb it today. There was a bit of avalanche debris on the steepest parts below the summit. However, the gentler areas nearer to the south ridge looked good. The Sun had been up for a while so that was a bit of a worry. By the time I made it up to the saddle, I had convinced myself to go for it.

My chosen route was to angle up from the saddle to the crest of the south ridge and follow this up to the summit ridge. For the first part, I went through a sparse boulder field. The crest of the ridge was completely snow covered and corniced on the steeper right-hand side from the typical west winds. I was on the left-hand side and stayed several meters away from the crest. The snowfield felt pretty exposed because instead of the saddle being at the bottom of the fall line, this slope emptied out a couple hundred feet below the saddle on the other side!

The snowfield was mostly easy, but at about 11500ft, I put on my new Simond Alligator crampons as the angle steepened. This was the first time I'd ever used them on a climb, and it took me 15 damn minutes to put them on! Actually, it took about 13 minutes to get the straps right on the left one and about 2 minutes for the right. My own stupidity, though, because it had been a while since I had practiced. While I needed the rest, I was getting a little gripped sitting there looking down all that snow.

Some of the upper parts of the slope were solid enough for me to be able to walk up a slope that I would normally have to laboriously kick-step (the whole point of wearing crampons on snow). Somewhere in here I finally heard the first snowmobile of the day. The crux of the slope was a 100ft section at a 40 degree angle (which I had to kick-step). Above this, it levelled out for a while until the last 50 feet just below the summit ridge. This involved picking my way over and around boulders and up short sections of steep snow.

The summit ridge and the summit itself appeared suddenly. Yes! There's nothing quite like that feeling. I just had to mosey a couple hundred meters along the ridge to the summit. Well, I was quite tired, and my right quad was acting up so I was dogging it as opposed to moseying (not to be confused with sauntering or strolling). The blowing snow didn't help much in the now full exposure to the wind.

I finally reached the summit for the 5th time (in five different months no less; just seven to go!) at 8:50am. I wanted to build a snowman on the summit, but the temperature was 20F and I measured sustained winds as high as 40mph so I didn't have time. I just did the basic summit routine; pictures, weather report, food (Toblerone and a Nutri-grain bar), Gatorade, admiring the view, and wondering if was an idiot for being up there. ;)

After about 20 minutes I started back down, retracing my ascent route. I did have some reason for concern going back down the ridge because there was a couple of inches of fresh blown snow. Combined with the inevitable fact that you tend to dislodge a lot more snow on the way down, I may have been creating a little bit of avalanche danger. My Casio altimeter watch said I descended 700ft in 15 minutes, pretty fast considering I didn't do any glissading! As a sidebar, for anyone interested in the performance of the watch, I set it to 9700ft at the start, it read 11980ft on top (33ft less than actual), and when I made it back to the car it read...9700ft.

I decided to take even more of a short cut on the way back and ended up doing a tedious snow hike through the Libby Lake area. This really wasn't the way to go, but my route-finding was pretty good and I hit the road right where I wanted to.

The 3+ miles of road were a slog. Eventually, my leg starting feeling a little better (probably endorphins). It was warmer too, so that might have helped. It was late morning now so the snowmobilers were out en masse. I reached my car at 12:11pm, and was amazed at just how many snowmobile trailers were there.

After eating lunch and showering, I absolutely crashed on the couch and slept the afternoon and evening away...

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File last modified: 27 December 2004

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