The last three years, I've climbed Medicine Bow Peak before the road through the area is opened for summer. However, each time was later in the year (March 10, April 6, and May 9). I continued this trend this year, (un)fortunately meaning that the road was opened up two days before. The 13-mile stretch of road, peaking at 10,800ft at Snowy Range Pass, takes about two weeks to clear. There was a nice article in the local paper about this process, which involves bulldozers and rotary plows from two counties meeting in the middle of the 13-mile stretch. The process leaves 10-foot snow cliffs in places along the road. Anyway, with the road open, MBP becomes a short hike again, instead of a 15 mile death march.
Hoping to catch firm snow, I planned to start hiking as soon as I could without having to use a headlamp. I arrived at the parking area for the best summer trailhead at 0429, and by the time I geared up and started hiking it was 0451. I decided to wear my plastic double boots with crampons. The first obstacle was to find a short enough snow cliff to get out of the parking area! The most strenuous part of the trip follows immediately as you bang straight up a 25-30 degree hill to get to the main ridge. At the top of this, I angled right and encountered the trail, which was actually exposed along a 10 meter stretch.
However, following the 6-foot poles along the summer trail all the way up is not really the best way to go, as it winds around a lot. Thus, for the middle section of the hike, I "made my own adventure". The snow was mostly firm, with a mix of slightly icy surface, and a couple of inches of powder. I really wouldn't have needed my crampons, but they did help in a few spots.
I'm quite familiar with the area, and picked a fabulous line up the backside of the ridge, if I do say so myself. When I first arrived at the mountain, I could see some clouds blowing across the highest parts of the range. As expected, these clouds were persisting and as I worked my way up I got better and better views of these. They were being driven by 20-25 mph winds, and at about 11,500 ft I finally started climbing up into them. The coverage was only about 50% so it wasn't a true cap cloud, but visibility was quite limited (100 meters at times) in the clouds so I was glad that I had met back up with the trail! The temperature was in the upper 20s and the clouds were depositing rime ice on the trail markers. In fact, the wind was blowing from left to right and was depositing a little bit of rime on the left-hand side of me! (That's when you know your clothing is really keeping the heat in!)
With the low visibility I was a little confused as to just how close to the summit I was, but the 50-foot high rockpile at the summit is quite distinctive. In fact, the worst clouds were below the summit and the summit itself was fairly clear. The last little bit to the summit was steeper than I remembered it to be and my crampons and axe were useful here. If I hadn't been prepared for snow climbing, I could have scrambled up the boulders to the left of the snow slope covering the summer trail. From the top of the snow slope, it was just a few steps to the summit cairn.
I summited at 0626, after a 1:35 ascent. A bit slower than I had expected, but the snow conditions weren't perfect either. The Sun had been up for nearly an hour but it hadn't warmed up any. On the way up I had hoped to test out a shoulder-mount I kludged together for my borrowed videocamera, but not with all that humidity. I shot a little video on the summit, but that wasn't too smart. The resultant video has complete dropouts of sound and picture every couple seconds, consistant with water condensing on the heads (the dew indicator never came on, though). It's actually rather comical. You can hear the wind "roaring" across the mic, and the whole production gives one the sense that I'm trying to broadcast live from some Himalayan peak but my microwave uplink just isn't stable enough due to the wind! ;)
Since I couldn't really shoot a lot of video, and I didn't bring my still camera, I didn't really want get my shell jacket out and linger on the chilly summit. Plus, the clouds above the fog were getting denser, and I wasn't quite sure what the weather was up to. Thus, I left after 6 minutes. This was my tenth time on the summit, including several other times with heavy snow cover, so it's not like I was missing a novel experience. In addition, this was a short enough hike that I didn't really need to rest and in fact I didn't take a sit-down rest on the entire hike. (The fact that I've been running regularly this year probably helped a lot.)
I ambled back down through the clouds and at one point on a featureless snowfield, if I didn't look left or behind me, I could pretend that I was in a whiteout! I ended up following my crampon and boot marks all the way down; a comforting feeling knowing that even if the mountain got completely socked in I wouldn't have any trouble getting back down. Not that I couldn't have gotten down anyway, but after the hike I realized that I had left my map at home! D'oh!
By the time I made it to the top of that first snow slope, I was out of the fog, and the other clouds had thinned some. There's a perfect glissade run down that slope, although skiers, boarders, and snowmobilers have roughed it up already. So I took my crampons off and finished off the last 200 vertical in about 45 seconds.
To the chronological trip index
To the Medicine Bow Peak page
File last modified: 27 December 2004