Snowy Range Couliors trip report


May 31st:
Decided to give my new Scarpa Inverno mountaineering boots a workout with some snow climbing in the Snowy Range. Despite good weather elsewhere, when I got up there at about 4:15am, the Range was swathed in clouds with some wind. I wandered from parking area to parking area like a lost soul, watching the clouds do their thing as the sky got brighter. By sunrise at about 5:30, I was up at the overlook just below Snowy Range Pass watching (and photographing) a beautiful sunrise illuminating the mountains.

By 6am, I was back down at the West Lake Marie parking area, with no improvement in the weather. I was getting pretty antsy so I geared up and worked on my crampon technique on the low-angled (max 38 degrees) slope above the parking area. Pretty much every snow climb gets sunhit at or shortly after sunrise, so I had given up on any real climbing, but I was still considering taking the snow hiking route up to the summit of Medicine Bow Peak. The clouds had lowered even further, and at the top of the slope, I was just below the cloud deck. I came back down and did some snow bouldering on the 4-8 foot cliffs left by the snow movers at the parking area (the road over Snowy Range Pass generally is opened on Memorial Day weekend), finding a couple places solid enough so I could make a few front-pointing moves. At 7am, I gave up on the weather and headed home. Of course, by the time I got home at 8am, the clouds had completely cleared. Damn.

June 2nd:
Take two. This time the sky was clear with light winds and a temperature around 29F. My plan was to climb the broad couloir just to the north (right) of "Old Main" (this has several technical shoestring couloirs on it's face, whereas my route is one of the easiest couloirs in the Snowys). If this descent was reasonable, I was going to descend and climb a similar line to the right of "The Diamond" (not to be confused with the Diamond on Longs which is an order of magnitude more impressive).

I started the snow hike at 4:35, and it took about a half hour or so to make the 1 1/4 mile trip to the base of the couloir. The angle starts out shallow and gradually increases so I started out in a duck walk and eventually switched to a diagonal flat-foot ascent. The snow had a really good frozen crust and was perfect for crampons but I was still able to get the axe in for good self-belay.

Once the slope steepened to about 40 degrees, the snow surface got flaky and cramponing was getting dangerous. I was a little surprised at this development, but with the plastic boots, I was now able to start kicking steps; about three kicks per step. After about 100 feet of this, the angle was up to a carefully measured 46 degrees. This was the steepest snow I had ever been on for any significant distance but this was actually a pretty comfortable angle. Unfortunately, my luck ran out and the snow became so hard I could barely kick steps even with ten kicks. In retrospect this probably has to do with the fact that the couloir has a significant bend to the left to give the top part a significant northeastern exposure. To top it off, the surface still wasn't good enough for me to feel confident front-pointing. Had I been roped up I would have tried front-pointing and it might have worked. But solo with just ice axe self-belays (albiet really good ones), I just couldn't bring myself to trust my front points on that surface.

By this time the sun was up so I was hoping to top out soon. I decided it would be easier to chop steps which took forever. Between the tedious step-kicking and the step-chopping, I think it took about 45 minutes to ascend the last 200 feet. I didn't even quite finish the couloir, either. Once the angle of the rock to my left levelled out some, I escaped to that. This finally gave me a chance to get out my sunglasses and have a drink.

I should mention that at the bottom of the couloir when I had had my last break, I noticed that the wallet pocket on my pack was upzipped wide open with no wallet. Hmmm, either I didn't bring the wallet, or it fell out in or beside the car, or I had lost it on the approach hike. Once I talus hiked up to the level main ridge, I decided to forgo the slog up to the summit of Medicine Bow Peak. My arms and legs were pretty worn out, and in case my wallet was lying beside my car, I decided to wuss out. This is a scenic walk-off with a nice glissade to finish off the last couple hundred feet on that slope I mentioned in the first part of this report. I reached the car at just before 8am and found no wallet inside or out. After thinking about it and coming up with a possible scenario for how I might have forgotten it, I decided to head home. I made extremely good time, and sure enough, my wallet was lying right where I left it. Now I could consider the day a success!

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File last modified: 21 December 2004

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