Notchtop and its N. Face with light snow
There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you.... In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself. -- Ruth Stout
The Ptarmigan Fingers and areaThis quote from Ruth builds on the theme from last week, describing how winter is for many the most special time of year. In my small circle there are so many people who complain about the cold or the snow. Indeed, for rock climbers there are few things worse than a beautiful route under snow. I can understand that, being a rock climber myself; but when the mountains offer so much more, it's a pity to focus on just one aspect. Here in Colorado we are blessed with it all: warm Front Range rock, splitter alpine rock, good ice and mixed climbing, good-to-great skiing, and plenty of like-minded people with which to enjoy it all. In reality, there is no such thing as an "off season," at least not for true mountain people. Whether ascending or descending, we "send" all year! And as Ruth points out above, there is something innately unique about the winter mountains, a place where you come to terms with yourself. In the spring it's like, "Ok, self, I'll see ya in the Fall!" And then winter rolls around and it's a chance to ski or hike deep into the backcountry, see no one, and know myself again. I recharge in winter.
Climbing on Notchtop's "Spiral Route"So, as you can imagine, I'm a nervous wretch at the moment, just itching to get out in the mountains regardless of the discipline. On a mountaineering course this week, conditions weren't ideal for the objectives we wanted to do but we went for it anyway and had a great time. We climbed the "Spiral Route" on Notchtop in approach shoes and zero snow/ice gear aside from long-johns and gloves. Despite being windy and cold, making communication difficult, the lower part of the route was in good shape. Climbing into the notch itself, however, proved much more challenging as we were forced to tip-toe around deep snow drifts in an effort to keep our shoes dry. The standard 5.4 route was hopelessly under snow and ice so we were forced up the 5.7 variation which was mostly dry. The final pitch into the notch was all snow which made the 4th class scrambling feel much more, uhm, "exciting" than usual.
Close-up of the N. Face, not in yet but hopefully soonAn approaching front and threat of associated t-storms convinced us to forgo the summit and begin the raps from the 3-piton anchor. I banged a couple of the pins deeper and we began rappelling into the building snowstorm. We blasted down the steep raps and made it back to the packs and relative safety in near-record time!
Rappelling Notchtop's S. FaceI was able to get a good look into the Ptarmigan Fingers area throughout the day. Most of the Fingers are showing exposed ice near the top but most was filled in with 6-8" of new stuff. The north and west faces of Flattop are already looking full-winter but mostly because they are so wind-blasted anyway that snow doesn't really collect there. As the tragic fatality last weekend in the Park reminds us, the mountains this time of year are dangerous, especially the steep "glaciers" like Tyndall, the Fingers, and Taylor. Fresh snow on top makes it a little harder to know what you're climbing underneath and, by now, that underlying ice can be really hard. Ice continues to build and early-season alpine routes like the N. Face of Notchtop (not much ice earlier this week) and All Mixed Up should be climbable soonish. I'm pathetically impatient this time of year, I'm sure I'll be up there dulling my spikes soon enough.
Conditions on Flattop's N. Face, similar to other north faces in the ParkThis week has been mostly amazing weather in the Estes valley. This has melted off some of Monday's new snow on the 12,000' peaks in the Park. But Meeker and Longs remain untouched by the warmer weather, looking more like Masherbrum at the head of the Hushe valley than anything else. Higher elevations at all aspects and lower elevations on N and NE aspects will feel very cold and wintery this weekend. Looking around yesterday, all the south-facing routes still looked to be in similar shape to when we climbed Notchtop: mostly dry, the occasional wet/snowy ledge, and warm. As I write this, though, it's raining here in town which likely means snow in the mountains. If I were going up there this weekend, I'd be taking boots and crampons for sure and maybe an ice axe depending on the objective. The weather for the next 4-5 days seems like it's going to be a bit fickle around here though the Front Range could be nice. Hopefully I'll be able to get out in the mountains next week, once this storm wraps up, and be able to give an update.
Nearing halfway on the "Spiral Route"If you're heading up and aren't sure of conditions, drop me a line at email@example.com. If you've been out and have some observations you'd like to share, feel free to fire an e-mail. I'm always psyched to hear from readers! As always, thanks for reading and stay safe out there this weekend!
Andrew Councell is a CMS Guide and year-round Estes Park resident
All smiles in the notch...soon to be erased by an incoming storm! :)