Summer is upon us at last. Along the Front Range, the trees have bloomed, the grass has greened, and summer appeared weeks ago. Here in the Park, however, it's taken a little longer. Late season snows have finally melted away, leaving the various perennial snow patches to slowly shrink as the summer progresses. The longest day of the year has come and gone but we still have plenty of daylight to enjoy in the coming months. We are in the midst of what many people consider the best time of year to visit the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The weather is stable, providing those blue, sunny skies these mountains are known for. The afternoon thunderstorms are, however, beginning to pop up around the mountains. Yesterday clouds built up but we never really experienced rain or thunder. The day before, however, rain and electricity rolled through the Park right at 1pm. It tapered off for a while but came in again that night for a beautiful evening.
Looking ahead at the forecasts above 9000' in our area, it doesn't really seem like we'll be enjoying any freezing temps for a while. Most nights the lows linger in the upper 30's; the next chance for freezing temps appears to be the coming weekend. Why does this matter? Well, for skiers, this will impede the formation of corn snow; this in turn will make the skiing windows shorter and sloppier until we get those nightly freezing temps again. For climbers too, it just means that the snow will become dangerously sloppy that much sooner, making those ideal snow-climbing conditions disappear more quickly. For all of us in the mountains, these warm temps are a concern also because of whatever cornices may still be hanging out along the ridgetops. Many cornices have already shed, it's true, but others are still holding on. Even where these cornices have already collapsed, a vertical "headwall" often remains. Glide cracks form up above these as the heavy weight of the snow succumbs to gravity's pull; eventually these vertical walls of snow will also break free and tumble down the mountain side. So it's wise to exercise caution when approaching any snow-covered ridge's edge, the cornice could still be there and, even if it's not, the edge could still give way.
For snow-climbing and skiing, there is still lots to be had. Sundance's N. Face is definitely dwindling but snow remains high up. The Ptarmigan Fingers area still holds good coverage with the Third (westmost) Finger being the boniest. Dreamweaver has melted out though the Loft still has long sections of snow. Upper Kieners is drying out but as of now still has snow. The Notch Couloir has lots of snow but a few mixed sections as well. Broadway largely remains under snow. Apparently, Flying Dutchman is still all snow except for just above Chasm Lake. Diamond season is on! The Casual Route is mostly dry with the sketchy snow-bomb still perched on the sloping ledges below the dihedral pitches. Sounds like Pervertical and Yellow Wall are dry as are the bivy sites (Hilton, etc) at the west end of Chasm Lake. Elsewhere on Longs, the Keyhole Route is still rated "technical" by Park Rangers, meaning snow/ice covers portions of the route. That being said, the Homestretch is dry as are the Narrows. Most of the snow is likely in the Trough. The N. Face route still has plenty of snow on it, not enough to ski in my opinion but the melting snow will create more challenging climbing conditions.
"Approach: Spotty snow on the approach after 1.25 miles - most of it is in the meadow below the eastern flank of Flattop (about 1.25 mile mark) and around Lake Helene. Even with a solid freeze Mon night there was no need for crampons/axes.
"Route/Raps: Totally dry, though there are still a couple of avoidable patches of snow lingering in the East Meadows. The summit of the Notch Tower must have been struck by lightning since last summer as one large block on the summit was laying all over the summit in pieces. There's more loose debris on the summit than normal now - heads up. The rap bolts are all in good shape but the first rap (long slings/cord around the horn) is getting close to needing new material.
"Descent: The descent gully was dry (I did it in rock shoes) except for 5-10 steps in snow/ice at one point down low. It's just recently melted out so much of the talus has not settled well so take care for looseness.
"Other obs: There's plenty of open water in the tarns/stream below Notchtop. Ptarmigan glacier, the Fingers, and the gully that faces west (east of the First Finger) all looked to be in great condition. The snow is still all the way down to the highest tarn. There was no evidence of recent cornice activity in any gully except that one west-facing gully. However, there was a significant volume of wet sluffing in the First Finger about noon. You definitely want to start these gullies early as the sun was hitting the cornices at 6am!"
"Weclimbed Zumie's Thumb on Longs on Saturday. Temps were warm overnight on Friday - it was still over 70 F when we left Boulder at 2am. Despite the warm temps and mostly cloudy night, the snow in Lamb's slide was in decent shape. Beautiful, blocky summit with some great views. The rap station on the summit was solid. The next rap station (single rope) was also good. The second rap put us in a S facing snow gully which we down climbed for about 100 vertical to get to the next station. That final rap station was garbage, so we cut away all the tat and built one from scratch." Matt also went on to mention that Chasm Lake has thawed out, making the approach to Zumie's and other routes a little more arduous.
CMS Head Guide Dale Remsberg was checking out Ypsilon from somewhere in the Park today and sent me an e-mail saying, "I'm looking at the top of the Y couloirs at the moment and they still look to have some bigish cornices."
Andrew Councell is a CMS Guide and year-round Estes Park resident