Moonrise last night near Berthoud Pass
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.—John RuskinHmm, I mostly agree with John in this…except for the wind part. I don’t really hate wind, per se, but I pretty much hate being in the wind. There are few things worse than digging a snow pit and then standing around in it while the wind blows snow down your neck. Or climbing and having wind-deposited snow sluffing heavily down the ice route and pouring down your neck. Or getting blown off your feet. Or watching your partner disappear in front of you in a whirling whiteout as you visually grope for some semblance of up or down. Or enjoying an icy blast of tiny, sand-like snow grains on your face as you plead with the uncaring skies for mercy. I realize wind is necessary for the health of the earth but I’m not sure I agree with Nature in its decision to overdose us in some vain attempt to somehow increase our health here in RMNP. Suffice it to say, it’s been windy in the mountains lately.
Below Notchtop, the Hot Doggie area in the background...not in yetLast year, we were sort of spoiled with the most windless winter many of us can remember…ever. The unfortunate byproduct was an apparent lack of snow and sparse coverage. The sad reality is this: without wind Colorado wouldn’t get snow. More geographically poignant, the east side of the Park (where so many of us like to ski) needs these strong winds to fill in all the boulders and make our favorite slopes more skiable. The wind is the architect and sculptor that fills all the nooks and crannies, smoothing over the angular features under an icing more delicious than any cake. I just wish the wind didn’t enjoy lashing at my neck so much.
A pre-storm ascent of Notchtop's NE FaceAside from wind, the big news is snow and how much snow. The Park did well in last weekend’s storm, picking up well over a foot by the time things wrapped up sometime mid-week. Unsettling weather blew in and gradually deposited more and more snow on our snowpack and then, suddenly, the heavens erupted on Monday night and Tuesday. Snow was falling at a 3”-per-hour rate as I skied around near Emerald Lake on Tuesday, with winds rocketing in the alpine. As expected, the avalanche hazard increased with this sudden load and we’ve witnessed several natural avalanches around the Front Range since then. Digging in the snow reveals a somewhat sensitive windslab with some curious and potentially dangerous layers deeper in the snowpack. All around the Front Range, clues as to the instability of some slopes are obvious with large crowns underneath cornices and substantial debris piles spread across the bottom of slopes. Since the storm wrapped up, the winds have been working their hardest to strip snow from some faces only to deposit it on others to varying degrees and depths. The result is our classic highly-variable snowpack. Let’s treat it with respect!
Roadside slab avalanche, shot yesterdaySo what’s good for skiing in the Park right now? Hidden Valley did well above the road, with sparse coverage below treeline. The Banana Bowls on Flattop have been filling in nicely as well as further up towards the Ptarmigan Fingers area. Early season is a somewhat dangerous time to be skiing and not just from an avalanche standpoint; the snowpack is shallow and rocks, creeks, and logs abound. I’ve already smashed one pair of skis after only 10 days out.
Large avalanche debris in the Ptarmigan Fingers in late October, the slide smashed through the tarn placing large chunks of lake ice in the avalanche debrisBefore the storms rolled in, I was able to nab a quick ascent of the NE Face of Notchtop with a couple friends who were in town for the AMGA guides conference. We got rocked with heavy sluffs (thanks, wind) but pulled it off just before the weather got really bad. Now, fresh cornices are hanging over the Face and, with what we’ve seen elsewhere in the area, these cornices are breaking under their own weight. This route may be too sketchy to climb right now. Another couple of friends climbed “All Mixed Up” on Thatchtop just a couple days ago. They reported thin-but-climbable ice low on the route, getting fatter as you ascend. Despite sending the route, they reported miserable conditions due to, once again, strong wind dumping spindrift on them all day. Plus they went all the way to the summit…ugh. Still, other guides and friends have been up in the Black Lake area and report good ice all around. Once again, one of your main considerations would be the snowpack stability (or lack thereof) as the W. Gully has avalanched with people on it before.
Lovely conditions en route to Grace FallsI was guiding out at Grace Falls on Saturday in full-on alpine conditions. We passed multiple parties on their way out as we hiked in to the area. As soon as we got out of the trees it was obvious why everyone else was bailing. The mountains were quite grumpy, acting more like a freight train than anything else. Still, we managed to find and climb the Falls in near white-out conditions as did another couple of brave climbers, Mike and Joel. Snowshoes would have been nice. Climbing in the dry, warm desert would have been nice too.
Recent surface hoar forming in wind-protected meadows below treeline, could be a layer of concern after the approaching storm wraps up middle of next weekOther ice in the Park: Jewel Lake (aka Overflow) is in and I’d wager that the Crypt. Freezer Burn area, and World Cup Wall may be good as well. Through the swirling madness near Emerald Lake on Tuesday, we could see ice on the Squid and nearby Tentacles as well. I couldn’t say it’s climbable but there’s ice on it. Yesterday and today were warm and tomorrow is to be more of the same, at least for most of the day, so these south-facing areas may not do so well. But more weather is on the way so hopefully these routes will continue to form up. Loch Vale appears to be “in” but still no word on the Chasm Cirque area up near Longs Peak. Hidden Falls is “in” but super thin and probably not worth hacking up yet. Uhm, off the top of my head that’s about all the ice I can think of that I know anything about right now.
On Notchtop's NE Face, now in the midst of an intense snow squallWarm temps mean brilliant rock climbing along the Front Range, will this be the last few days before we get trounced by winter for good? If you’re curious about something I haven’t written about here or if you have any observations or updates you’d like to share, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always happy to help (or get help, haha). As always, thanks for reading and stay safe out there!
Andrew Councell is a CMS Guide and year-round Estes Park resident