Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park Conditions

May 19th, 2009

Trying to keep up with the quickly changing conditions that are typical of this time of year is definitely a challenge. So I’ll do my best but you’ve got to realize that things are changing here in a matter of a few hours let alone a few days.

With no forecasted snow storms in the coming week and with relatively warm overnight temperatures, we can expect to see no new snow in the immediate future. However, by the end of this week it looks like we’ll be in one of our typical afternoon thunderstorm cycles…just one more reason to get an early start to your day. Daytime temps look to cool off for the weekend as we’re expecting some of our seasonally unsettled, cloudy/rainy weather. Memorial Day looks like it’ll be a little cloudy at first but, hey, this is Colorado and when they say things like “cloudy” in the forecast it’s rarely as bad as it sounds. These past few days the weather has been splitter, a fact made clear by the lobster-colored necks and faces of the skiers who’ve been relishing the perfect Spring conditions this week.

So, yes, overall the skiing has been quite good in most Park locals. Now that Trail Ridge Road is open to as least the Forest Canyon overlook and, judging by what we saw yesterday, probably further, the RMNP “slackcountry” skiing experience can begin. Trail Ridge Road effortlessly takes you to 11,000’ where you can skin up to 12,000’ for a 2000’ foot descent. This also ensures that you’ll hit the corn skiing window just right. In the last couple of days up on Sundance Mountain, that window was from 9:00am to around 10:30am on southeast aspects. Of course this all depends on elevation and aspect as well. Hallet’s south face, the Ptarmigan Glacier area, the Loft, Lambslide, and the Notchtop Couloir, for example, are good skiing right now. The Dragtontail Couloir is not as good due to heavy sluffing forming large troughs in the main gut. To put it mildly, this makes skiing challenging. For the most part, you can still skin from the Bear Lake trailhead without too much walking. If you’re headed up the Flattop/Notchtop trail, however, there are long dry spots in the first .5 mile. The same is true for Longs Peak, you gotta walk that first .5 mile. Three northeastern skiers staying at the CMS lodge are flabbergasted at how empty everything is. They’re raving about how good the skiing is and how perfect the weather is and how great everything is…and they want to know “where IS everybody?” It’s a mystery.

Well, I’ll tell you where everyone was on Sunday morning: the Dragontail Couloir. Many parties of climbers and skiers were making their ways up and down. What’s so surprising is how late most people were still climbing up the thing. On steep snow, the idea is to get on and off it early before it gets too soft. This is the time of year for superb snow-climbing but, as we saw last week, avalanches and moving snow can dislodge climbers from these slopes. The remedy? Very early starts. As the saying goes, “Alpinists will often complain they started too late but you’ll never hear them say they started too early.” These last few days the snow has been too soft for climbing by 10:30-11:00am, mandating 4-5am starts for many objectives. A couple of French climbers staying here at the CMS Lodge reported back from their climb up Kiener’s on Sunday. Despite being solid, fit climbers the route still managed to take them 15 hours car-to-car in what they termed “full conditions.” They went on to report: “Broadway is full of snow as is the rest of the route, including the 3 pitches above Broadway. The traverse of the Notch Couloir was OK. We kept the crampons from the base of Lambs slide all the way up to the summit and then all the way down to Boulderfield. The snow was quite soft on Broadway and Kiener’s, although we started early. The descent via the North face is also full of snow, but of rather good quality even in the afternoon. There is a 10’ long section of mixed [terrain] where the first rappel is in summer…Overall it was a great climb, technically not difficult but quite long and a bit exposed here and there. Tomorrow would be a good day to do it since the track is done!” Ah, yes, the classic understatement: “a bit exposed here and there.” If you haven’t done this classic route, you’re missing out!

Rock climbing in the Estes Valley is great with the not-super-hot-yet temps. This is tick season so be sure to check yourself after a day of hiking or climbing in the low country. The grass is turning green as are the trees making Lumpy a particularly beautiful climbing venue. As temperatures creep ever higher, Boulder area climbers are chasing cooler temps higher into Boulder and Clear Creek Canyons. ‘Tis the season for sending!

If you have any conditions related observations you’d like to share with me (or if you just have any questions), please send me an e-mail at Thanks and stay safe out there!

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


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