There's nothing quite like pulling away from the curb at 1:15am, heading for the mountains. Well, maybe getting a splinter shoved underneath a fingernail. But that's the price of admission for spring snow climbing in Colorado when you live in Wyoming. I have of a list of snow climbs in the 30-45 degree range that I'd like to do and this is one of them. The route is very simple. You reach the Blue Lakes dam at about 11700 ft, and head up the fall line until there's no more mountain to climb! What makes this route particularly nice is that access is usually great; right now the road is clear to within 0.5 miles of the dam, and in a couple weeks it will probably be clear all the way.
I left the car at 5:19, and after fighting with my crampons sidehilling on the gently sloped snowfields covering the road, I reached the dam at about 5:40. It was quite light by now, and quite a bit later than I really wanted to be starting to climb. The first couple hundred vertical feet involve discontinuous snowfields before reaching the start of the couloir itself. I got a little bit of a surprise here. There's more than one line through this area, but the most obvious line to me had a pretty steep "headwall" (to use the term loosely). This involved about 50 feet of kicking steps up a 45 degree slope, steeper than any of the guidebooks suggest.
After this, the angle moderated to what it's supposed to be. The snow was OK for flat-footed cramponing. It had a solid crust, but not a very smooth one. At times, I went up frozen glissade tracks (made in the afternoon in soft snow), because I could get more bite on the smoothed surface. I don't yet have real mountaineering boots, so I was having problems at times with the heel part of the crampons slipping to one side or another.
With my rather late start, I was only about halfway up before sunlight started hitting the top of the couloir. It didn't take much longer for me to be in the sun. I've become rather paranoid about avalanches (that's what I get for reading about the subject), and although skies had presumably been clear all night, the temperature was barely below freezing. Because of this, I stayed to the right side of the wide couloir, which gets a slightly later sunhit.
I wasn't moving all that fast, and my heels were being painfully squeezed everytime I pushed off for an upward step. I could also feel that my quads were getting fatigued (this was a lot more work than step kicking). Fairly high up, I ascended frozen plunge steps, which worked pretty well, except that the steps were far apart since they were made coming down, and in some cases they were really deep.
As would be expected, the steps led right up to the summit, which I abruptly reached at 7:48. I thought it was worth a couple yells, so I did. I had hoped the climb from the dam would take under 2 hours, but I missed that by a few minutes. The weather on top was pretty good, with a temperature of 29F, under clear skies, and I measured wind speeds anywhere from calm to 30 mph. Most of the summit area was buried in snow, although the USGS marker was exposed. I was curious to see if my entry from September 1994 was still in the summit register tube, but a couple minutes of digging in the snow was fruitless.
A stayed on top less than 30 minutes and then headed down. On the way up, I expected the descent to be the crux and this turned out to be the case. When the snow is soft, this is a classic glissade descent, but that wasn't quite the case. I was carefully descending the frozen steps I had ascended and decided to try the more pristine area to the left at an angle of 35 degrees when disaster almost struck. My left crampon heel had slipped and this caused me to step poorly and I tumbled. I'm not quite sure exactly what orientations I went through as I rolled or tumbled, but I remember my hands moving on the ice axe completely reflexively. Next thing I knew, I was belly-down, sliding on the slope with my hands on the axe in self-arrest position, so I did. This whole event lasted about two seconds and I only fell about 10 feet (I stopped almost immediately after digging the pick in). I pounded my toes into the slope to stabilize myself, and noticed that I wasn't hurt. Wow; that was the first time I had truly fallen on snow and all my self-arrest practice worked! I stood up, and had to chuckle out loud in spite of myself. I don't want to give the impression that I almost died here, but I was several hundred feet above the next lower angled area.
The only problem was that I was mentally shaken up and I was looking down at the dam, over 2000 feet below. I kept descending carefully and calmed down after a while. The snow was softening pretty quickly, but the rest of the descent was uneventful. The first people I saw were a pair of backcountry skiers at about 12500ft, and their obnoxious dog which wouldn't stop barking at me. I tried to make friends with it to no avail. I did talk to the guys for a minute or so, but I didn't ask them why in the hell they brought a dog with them for snow climbing and expert level skiing.
Back down at that steep headwall, I probably could have glissaded, but decided to get some downhill step-kicking practice. The snow was so soft on that part that I was sinking in on the steps. There was another pair of climbers just starting up at that point, and I felt a little self-consious wallowing down that slope which I could have turned around and plunge stepped or slid. However, as they got closer, I didn't feel so bad because they were roped up. I don't know if the second climber was inexperienced, or they were practicing for more serious climbing (either of which is a perfectly good reason). I didn't ask either, because it's hard to make a question like that come out right. Frankly, it was rather late to be on those slopes since the sun had been working on them for a couple hours and the snow had barely frozen during the night. Of course, before reading up on the subject, I had ventured on avalanche slopes in similar conditions.
I finally removed my crampons at the bottom of the steep part and reached the dam at 9:40. From here it only took another 10 minutes to reach my car. This climb really killed my quads and I spent the next few days walking around like I had my ice axe wedged up my ass.
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File last modified: 21 December 2004