Friday, February 27, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park Conditions

February 25th, 2009

Currently it’s over 60 degrees in Estes Park and yet snow is forecasted in the mountains for tonight. Yesterday was heinous weather in the alpine: 60 mph winds, blowing snow, and poor visibility and, yup, we were up there climbing in it. Lovely. Actually, for the four gentleman enrolled in our week-long Mountaineering Seminar, the weather couldn’t have been better. Perserverance rewarded us with real alpine-climbing conditions and though the winds tore at us and incessant spindrifts tried to knock us off the mountain, a good time was had by all. The positive aspect and, really, the saving grace was that the temperatures were unseasonably mild. Walking outside today, it’s hard to believe it’s winter at all let alone February.

Climbing: The temperatures lately have been both destroying and improving climbing conditions. For example, the ice climb “Jaws” was looking pretty fit mid-week last week and is now gone. However, conditions on Flattop’s South Face yesterday were actually pretty good for winter alpine climbing. We didn’t post-hole too often, the melted snow had refrozen into good rime and ice overnight, and the avalanche conditions seemed very stable on the few, small slopes we crossed. I’d hazard a guess that “Martha’s” on Mt. Lady Washington could be in fun shape. “Hidden Falls” is growing in the warmer weather as well. Sitting in it’s north-facing nook, “Hidden Falls” is affected by the warmer ambient air temperatures and has started to flow more to the climbers’ right of the main flow yet still refreezing at night. There is even a small smear forming about 5-8’ to the right on the main flow that would be fantastically desperate climbing now but maybe will get a little thicker? If it does, bring a big, ~4” cam for a top-rope directional and have fun! The thin smear that formed last year further to the right of the main flow has not formed this year. The “Hidden Falls Corner” is easy WI3 and though still confined to it’s corner would be an excellent first lead for the beginning ice climber. Elsewhere in the State, the Lincoln Falls area and Vail ice is very possibly growing and forming up as well as it is still below freezing at night in those areas. For now that’s the story: south-facing ice is going, north-facing ice could be growing, south-facing snow is hardening at night and melting during the day and could be good climbing, and north-facing slopes are still in the grip of winter, probably not ideal for climbing. Even the ice in Clear Creek Canyon, at a mere 5000’ elevation, is doing ok. I’m headed there tomorrow so I can update on that later.

Skiing: Pretty interesting right now. This time last year I had just returned from a trip in Argentina and everyone raved about all the good skiing I’d missed. I’ve been skiing all month this year and it’s been good but way more variable than last year. Warm then cold. Then HOT then warm then cold. Now it’s hot again. You can see vertically-running striations on many southerly aspects from wet, point-release avalanches. As solar aspects warm up in these temps, we can expect to see these types of avalanches releasing from cliff-bands, trees, and rocks. Pinwheeling snow is another sure sign that maybe it’s time to get off of those slopes. The powder-destroying warm temperatures aren’t all doom-and-gloom, however. Our snowpack should be stabilizing and increasing in strength in general on most aspects. It depends on how much snow we get tonight/tomorrow and how strong the winds are, but be thinking about cross/lee loading on appopriate aspects. Northerly, treed aspects should be good skiing right now. For example, descending the East Face of Flattop yesterday, the snow was dreamy in the trees and we were aching for our skis.

Overall, the weather looks like it’s going to be good this week and the winter backcountry is going to be pleasant. I plan on providing daily (or near-daily) updates to this report through the winter. So if you have any condition-related observations you’d like to share with me, send an e-mail to Thanks!

Andrew Councell is a CMS Guide and year-round Estes Park resident.

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