Medicine Bow Peak trip report


My semester finally ended on the 8th after grading final exams (oh, the joy), and despite being somewhat low on sleep, I decided to celebrate with a little mountaineering action. I caught a nap during the late afternoon, photographed Hale-Bopp for the last time during the evening, and ended up eating dinner at about 11pm (more on that later...).

From about mid-October through Memorial Day, a climb of Medicine Bow Peak requires up to a 15 mile round trip depending upon your exact route. During the rest of the year, the road through the area is open and this can be shortened to less than 4 miles. This was to be my eight successful ascent and third ascent during the road closure season. It was to be the most difficult, though.

With avalanche hazard and a sunrise time of 5:50am in mind, I decided that a 2am start time would be good. Thus, I pulled away from the curb at 1am to the dulcet tones of Duran Duran. I arrived at the road closure under clear, moonless skies, and by the time I geared up and started hiking, it was exactly 1:59am. Even with no moonlight, it's easy to hike up a snow-covered road at night without a light. Thus, I was able to preserve my night-vision and do a little star-gazing under nearly ideal observing conditions. Without really trying, I was able to see 10 or 11 meteors, including a couple of likely Eta Aquarids, the fourth richest annual meteor shower which peaked on the 4th. In addition to the clear skies, the weather was rather cold as a dry cool front had come through the area the previous day. My altimeter watch automatically records altitude and temperature every 15 minutes and I recorded a minimum temperature of 18F at 3am.

I was making good time and by the first hint of dawn, I was getting close to Snowy Range Pass. I never got there. Although you don't need light to hike on snow in open tree cover, it helps a lot if you want to follow the road, which means following the occasional exposed road sign, along with the occasional tall poles that guide the snowplows that open the road every May. Also, in certain areas, one shoulder of the road will be exposed by the wind and Sun. However, I was in a relatively flat area and lost the road. The funny thing is that I ended taking almost the perfect shortcut! I had turned right too soon, thus shortening the hike by nearly a half-mile, and with the solid snow conditions, I didn't posthole going cross country.

The main landmark to shoot for is Sugarloaf Peak, a small bump in front of the main mountain. This is skirted to the "left" to pass through a shallow col to get access to the small basin below Medicine Bow Peak. From here there are options depending upon how bold you want to be. The safest route is to stay near the northwest-southeast ridge that connects Sugarloaf Peak to MBP. This still involves a 100ft section of 40 degree angle snow, and a total of about 800ft of snow climbing. Other options which shoot straight up the south face involve more committing climbing. Since this was my first trip of the year I opted for the easiest route.

Up to this point, this had been a fairly routine trip, and I want to spend some time setting the stage for what happened later. First, I had originally thought that I would leave home at 2am, and ended up eating a late dinner at about 11pm, as I mentioned at the top. It was a rather heavy meal, and while eating, I realized that I probably should start *hiking* at 2am, arguing for the 1am curb departure. Second, again the route has a pitch of 40 degree angle snow to ascend near the top. The problem was that the snow was in weird condition. I was expecting a frozen surface for good cramponing, but in reality the first two inches of the snow was a very loose and porous collection of thin "plates" of snow. Below this layer the snow was quite firm, too firm to kick steps, but pretty much willing to accept flat-footed cramponing. I think the snow conditions may have had to do with the cold air; usually you expect a night with temps in the 20s for good snow climbing. The ascent of this part was a little awkward, and in one place I took a few steps downward to make sure that I could get down safely. I considered turning around at this point, but I think my "familiarity" with the mountain overrode my concerns. I climbed this part pretty fast, trying to just work my feet enough to keep them securely attached to the mountain for long enough to take another step. The rest step is fine when you have good conditions, but in this case I was trying to conserve my legs at the expense of my cardiovascular system.

The Sun rose before I topped out on the summit ridge, but I really wasn't in any position to take any pictures as the first rays of light hit the steep pinnacles west of the summit. When I finally reached the summit ridge, I left a trekking pole to mark my exit, and continued up the gentle slope to the summit. The ridge was pretty soft and I postholed at times.

I summitted at 6:14am, after a rapid 4 hour 15 minute ascent, considerably faster than my other two snow season ascents (this was to be another factor). On top the temperature was in the mid 20s with a 15mph wind. Although I didn't really realize it, I was already not feeling very good at this point. I think this was the reason that I felt cold on the summit and stayed less than 15 minutes. I did manage to take a few photos.

I made it down to where I left my trekking pole and started the descent down the snow slope. Once I got to the 40 degree section I realized that I was going to have a tough time safely descending. It took all of my skill just to keep from falling. I was mostly flat-footing facing downhill; I tried to plunge step where I could but the frozen base of the snow wouldn't allow much of that. A fall would have been problematic because the long snow slope ran diagonally so a slip could put me into rocks if I didn't quickly arrest. The flatfooting on the iffy terrain required me to totally overwork my quads, and between this and getting gripped, I was taking a handful of steps downhill and stopping for about as long as the steps took.

As the angle levelled off lower down, it got a little easier, but I still didn't feel safe until I hit the 30 degree and less angle slopes several hundred feet below the summit ridge. This seemed like a damn cakewalk at this point. According to my watch, it took me a half-hour to descend just 460ft; when I climbed a similar route last April with plunge-stepping conditions, I descended 700ft in 15 minutes (three times as fast).

By the time I made it back down to the basin it was about 7:30. And here is where everything came to a head as the nausea hit here. I never got sick, but I was to feel bad for the next several hours. With this development, my pace slowed considerably. From the low point in the basin, I still had to climb back up to Snowy Range Pass (I didn't attempt any shortcut on the way back) which was an ordeal.

The problem is that from the Pass it's still almost 6 miles back to the road closure, and it's only 1100ft of elevation loss, so you don't really get any significant help from the terrain. On top of this, the sky was brutally clear and the very light breeze was from behind, so I was broiling hiking into the Sun on the snow-covered road. After a while, still feeling nauseated, I started counting steps as a way to help me feel like I was making progress. I would count 100 steps, look up to see how I was doing, repeat two times, then take a stand up rest facing into the light wind. About every 20-30 minutes I would take a sit down rest. I knew I was getting a little dehydrated under these conditions, but my stomach wouldn't let me drink very much liquid.

This went on and on, but shortly before 11am, I reached the prominent switchback a short distance above the snow closure, and soon after, I could hear machinery. The road is opened up for Memorial Day weekend, and I happened to be hiking on the day when they started this process. A bulldozer was in front smoothing out the top of the snow and a rotary plow was in arrears shooting snow 15 feet in the air to snowblast the trees along the road.

Finally, at 11:02 I reached my car. It had taken me 4:35 for the descent; 20 minutes longer than the ascent! By this time my stomach was feeling a little better, but I was exhausted. Usually sitting in my car for 5-10 minutes perks me up a little but not today. It took an effort to muster the strength to change from my mountain gear to my civvies. At least at this point I could rehydrate, and by the time I made it home I was in good enough shape to grab a fatty fast food meal and drop by the University for a couple hours. Then a well-earned nap.

The long-term effects of this climb were mostly limited to having a little trouble going down stairs (due to my overworked quads) for a couple days, but as you can see from the next report, I was in excellent shape for an arduous 14er the next week.

To the chronological trip index

To the Medicine Bow Peak page

File last modified: 27 December 2004

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