Sunday, January 30, 2011

RMNP Conditions Report - Jan. 31, 2011

 Longs Peak viewed from Flattop's S. Face
These have been a busy last 10 days, full of snow, ice, and lots going here at the Colorado Mountain School.  There have been lots of guides in the Park in the last two weeks and I've been out nearly every day.  So between all of us, we're bringing you the most current updates on Park conditions.
Right Gully and Big Mac Couloir looking good on McHenrys
Our last big snow storm wrapped up mid-month and life was good for a while.  But then on the 23rd the winds raged in the Park, hammering the windward slopes and laying down thick wind-slab everywhere else.  While this helped to make backcountry travel easier, on the one hand, it more of less destroyed the quality of skiing we'd been enjoying on the other.  The upside was the relative calm we've enjoyed since Sunday, with warm temps and little-to-no wind.  Often it'll be calm and warm along the Front Range but raging here in the Park.  But this week has been warm all around. 
The Squid on Wednesday, Jan. 26
The avalanche danger was high for most of the week but the blue skies and warm temps have helped to heal the fragile snow-pack.  But the scars remain and weak interfaces between various wind-slabs exist on all leeward aspects (N-NE-E-SE-S).  But either from stronger winds or lower snowfall totals, the Park seems to have a lower avalanche danger than other Front Range areas.  All week we were hunting for good snow and fun terrain, easing into steeper and bigger terrain throughout the week.  But we saw very few signs of instability except for some very sensitive cornices formed on the boulders along Chaos Creek in the Lake Haiyaha area.  Investigating the failure layer, we determined that these cornices were failing on a surface hoar layer forming locally due to open water still running in the creek.  Elsewhere, stability seemed reasonable.  But that may soon come to an end. 
Side-slipping into the start of the "Do Not Descend" Couloir on Flattop's S. Face
Skiing the "DND" Couloir in great conditions, Jan. 26
 Enjoying turns near the bottom of the "DND" Couloir
Arctic air with low-density snow is scheduled to hit the Park in the coming days.  We're not forecasted to rec'v much new snow but I expect the winds will bring our avalanche danger levels up again.  On solar aspects, a melt-freeze layer has developed over the last three warm days, though it's less prolific higher in the alpine and on E-NE-N-NW aspects.  (I can't say for sure, but I bet this slick snow surface contributed to the climbing accident above Peacock Pool yesterday).  The new snow will likely not bond well to this slick surface crust and we can expect sluffing on steep terrain.  Another concern are potential near-surface facets that may have formed during these warm days and cold nights (difficult in wind slab but possible elsewhere); these facets would become a weak layer once buried.  I would anticipate this being an issue only in isolated areas.  "Whumpfing" in the snow-pack is a great indicator of instability.
Looking up at the Dragontail area

With the warm weather and intense solar radiation, the south-facing ice routes have suffered somewhat.  "The Squid" was looking great on Wednesday but, just a few days later, the bottom portion seems to either have sublimated away or fallen off.  "Jaws" is similar.  I got a great look at "The Crypt" and the Freezer Burn areas on Tuesday; both looked good at the time.  Actually, the Freezer Burn area had the most ice on it I've seen in a while.  If you haven't been up there to check it out, there's a day's worth of climbing to keep you busy (and a few promising mixed-lines if you're inclined).  Reportedly, the "Fang" in Vail has once again fallen off and is reforming.  With the super-cold temperatures hitting our area, free-standing pillars should be avoided while other ice will be quite brittle. 
Hiking up...
 Rapping in...
 And making turns in the RMNP backcountry
For more north-facing areas, the ice seems to be doing fine.  CMS Guide Eric Whewell was in the Black Lake area this week and reported great ice on "W. Gully," "Yellow Tears," and the "Black Lake Slabs."  He also noticed fat ice on McHenry's N. Face.  I saw an ice line coming off the SE Face of Hallet, looker's left of the "Elevator Shaft" ski descent.  Other guides have reported new ice on Otis as well.
Enjoying beautiful weather in the Park
Currently, the trails are hammered into firm shape and snowshoes would only be necessary for the traction they provide.  One snowshoe guide lamented that there are so many trails throughout the Park that there's nowhere to go where someone hasn't already been.  Take "Mario Gully," for example (the Chaos Creek drainage); there are more tracks in there than any other slope in the Park.  Thanks to the popularization of the named ski runs, you're going to have to hunt harder and farther for your turns these days.  For the guides this is less of an issue but if you don't know the Park well enough to comfortably explore, you may consider hiring a guide. 
Beautiful temps for climbing in Eldo this week
If you have observations you'd like to share, or if you just have questions about something I haven't mentioned, please feel free to e-mail me at  Hopefully you're reading this from the comforts of the indoors; it's gonna be cold this week!  Thanks for reading and stay safe out there.

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

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