Thursday, May 13, 2010

RMNP Conditions Report - May 11, 2010 (UPDATED May 12th)

Death and/or old age is coming...we must live sweet.
The time is now.
Why ration passion?
Dream big…and climb those dreams.

After all, it is not only life, but the quality of this life.
from Mike Libecki’s home page
I love that: “Why ration passion?” I know I’m not terribly smart (ie, I am a mountain guide) but it’s never made any sense to me why people spend two-thirds of their lives living desperately to enjoy the final third. No way Jose! Life is now! And it’s so short anyway, there’s no room for rationing passion. Whatever faculties you’re currently able to exercise, enjoy them to the fullest because the day is coming when they will fade. Some people think that’s depressing but not me. It’s liberating! That acute realization funnels my focus, channels it, burns away the useless periphery of my life and frees me to make the most of the times I’ve been given. Every day becomes precious. “We must live sweet…” I love it.

Anyway, I’ve recently returned from an excellent 2-week skiing/climbing trip in western Canada. The weather is always funky up there this time of year but we managed to send. Wait, the weather is funky in all mountainous areas this time of year! That’s the big news at the moment, this incoming winter storm. True, when thinking of May we don’t typically think of big snowstorms but, c’mon, this isn’t uncommon. Remember May of 2002? Remember last year? Most people are complaining. I just don’t understand why. We live in the mountains, and it snows in mountains all over the world. It can snow any month of the year around here. I hear that Florida rarely see snow if you’re one of those who doesn’t like snow. :)

It’s true, it’s snowing. It began last night here in Estes, spitting gently and then quit. We awoke to a misty morning and very light precipitation of some sort. It hasn’t stopped all day and the precip has slowly turned to snow. As I write this, there is already 2-3” of snow on the ground with plenty more forecasted to come. The last “big” storm proved disappointing and in the tradition of this season, I won’t be holding my breath. At any rate, this new snow will only prolong the spring ski season (which is great right now, btw) and delay the incoming climbing season.

Speaking of climbing, CMS Guide Bob Chase has had a couple of good days this past week. He guided a couple of routes on Flattop one day: a variation of the South Face route as well as something on the North Face. They were originally headed for the Dragontail Couloir but there was enough snow and wind to create dangerous avalanche conditions high in the couloir so they shifted to the South Face. There they found new snow ranging from 2-15” deep, but it all seemed well-bonded despite being so variable. Bob was surprised to find nearly identical conditions on the North Face of Flattop as well. Later he was on Mt. Lady Washington’s “Martha’s Couloir,” sitting directly north of Chasm Lake. I climbed this a few weeks ago and it was almost entirely ice. Bob writes, “The route is in winter conditions (to be read as ‘wallow-fest’!). We pitched the whole thing due to avy concerns, though I never saw any signs of instability. Except for about 50 feet of mixed climbing (in 3 sections), the whole route is snow right now. If all the snow was perfect neve the route would be stellar. As it is, I can’t say it comes highly recommended at the moment.” This is from a few days ago.

Snow-cover on the trails in the Park is slowly receding but resurge with each snowfall. Many of the trails can be boot-packed but it’s still helpful to have slowshoes for the approach to some areas. Bob, for example, recommended them for the Longs Peak trail. Clearly, 2’ of new snow will mandate some kind of flotation though there is NO DOUBT IN MY MIND that I will see someone in jeans and white New Balance running shoes post-holing up there tomorrow.

Avalanche danger will also probably spike with this storm. Lots of snow + short period of time = instability. However, given the relative warmth of this storm, it’s likely to bond to the old snow surface decently well and the avy danger may quickly drop 24-36 hours after the snow stops. As with most spring storms, when the snow will actually stop may be hard to determine. It’s probably best to tread lightly until you’re sure of the stability or lack thereof. I will be out tomorrow and will be sure to update when I get back. Weather does look to be better for the weekend, especially from Sunday onwards.

CMS Guide Joey Thompson was also up in the Park today, guiding an alpine route…actually, it sounds like he was on the South Face variation that Bob was on earlier. He said it was awesome, that they climbed into the cloud and found decent climbing conditions. Joey said that the snow was coming down pretty hard, he’s camped out up here tonight and we’ll be skiing the goods manana fo’ sho’!

UPDATE May 12th – We got about 14” here in town overnight; that’s 14” of wet, heavy spring snow. Fortunately, since it was so wet, it didn’t make driving much of a challenge. Nevertheless, the Park didn’t open up to road to Bear Lake TH until a little after 9:30. Trail Ridge Road wasn’t opened until after that, closed at Deer Ridge. By noon, the roads were bone dry. We’d all hoped the sun would remain cloaked in thick, misty clouds and allow us to reap the goods before it got too warm. Due to the mandated late start, many of the higher alpine objectives were not safe to ski because, of course, the sun did come out in force for most of the day. We observed instability on steep test slopes of all aspects but especially on solars. Still, we were able to ski good snow in good terrain safely. We witnessed a number of large avalanches throughout today, again on all aspects but especially the solars. The main event was when 4 skiers opted to ski the Dragontail Couloir at 1pm!! Four of us guides saw people dropping in from the top and we said, “Oh no, they can’t be serious.” Indeed they were. It wasn’t long until they triggered a very large avalanche (R4-D2-3) that entrained a lot of snow as it came racing down at a surprising clip. Fortunately no one was caught. Another pair of skiers tried to ski in from the climbers’ right entrance. A ski cut produced yet another substantial avalanche that completely cleaned out the couloir, leaving behind a hard, icy bed-surface. This caused them to climb back up to the top and ski the Corral Couloir instead. Choosing instead to live sweetly AND avoid death (at least a while longer), we skied steep N-facing slopes that held good, shaded snow and proved much more stable. I realize we all expected overcast and cooler conditions but, c’mon, skiing steep south-facing couloirs on a day like today is just asking for it. I’m being judgemental perhaps but I was nervous for those people and from the way they were skiing, they were plenty nervous as well. Yipes! Around 2pm, the clouds started rolling in from the valley again. By 3pm, it was complete whiteout conditions at Emerald Lake. The snow began to fall around 3pm as well and is still coming down hard here in town. Maybe tomorrow will be a repeat of today? Stay tuned… 

If you’ve been out in the Park, it’d be great to hear what you saw. This report relies heavily on observations from others so any help is always appreciated. To share your obs or if you have any questions, need beta, whatever…feel free to e-mail me at Thanks for reading and take care!

Andrew Councell 
CMS Guide
AMGA Certified Rock Guide

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