Wednesday, March 23, 2011

RMNP Conditions Report - March 23, 2011

Skinning up towards Notchtop

"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade."   -- Charles Dickens

March has come in like a lamb this year with little snow and unseasonably warm temperatures.  Well, I take that back; it has snowed but certainly not in the copious amounts we're sometimes accustomed to this time of year.  We've had a few inches here and there but strong winds and warm temps have quickly redistributed and melted/settled it.  March often marks the beginning of Spring and this year that feels more the case than usual.  With more than a few 65+ degree temperatures along the Front Range (and mid-50s here in Estes), it's easy to forget that it's still technically winter.
Winter conditions in the Park recently, Thatchtop behind
Warm rock-climbing in Eldorado and Boulder Canyons has lured many of us away from our skis and crampons.  But RMNP remains a place for all the seasons, allowing us to climb rock one day, climb ice the next, and then ski boot-top powder the next day.  It's almost novel...except it's often the case this time of year.  You just have to be flexible and roll with whatever the weather dishes out. 
NE Face of Notchtop, looking large
Since the last update, RMNP has rec'd snow from three separate storms.  They have been associated with strong winds and have built wide-spread and fairly reactive wind-slabs on all exposed slopes in the Park.  The third storm appears to be wrapping up in the Park today with intermittent-but-periodically-intense snowfall.  The pattern seems to be warm, then snow/wind, then more wind, and then warm again.  This pattern means good skiing if you can get to it before the wind and sun do.  But woe unto you who miss the coveted window; you're more likely to find bullet-hard wind-slab on north faces and either crusty/icy or dangerously wet/slushy snow on solar aspects.  Neither are overwhelmingly fun to ski.

Skiing good snow in the Park yesterday
Take, for instance, a recent trip up to the Dragon Tail Couloir.  We skinned around from the top but 50mph winds coupled with 70mph gusts made travel less than ideal with white-out conditions above treeline.  Upon arriving at the top of the climbers' left branch, I promptly kicked off a 14" deep x 30' wide soft wind-slab.  Within minutes, the winds were filling it all back in.  We bailed on the right branch as well after noting similar instability coupled with greater volume.  We opted to descend another line on Flattop's S. Face but sent heavy sluffs avalanching to the banks of Emerald Lake. 
Booting up steep terrain near the Ptarmigan Fingers/Notchtop area
Then another day a group of us headed into the Ptarmigan Finger area via Odessa Gorge.  The winds were sustained 70mph along the Continental Divide so we opted to stay in the valleys and boot-pack up the various objectives rather than face the brutal wind.  We ended up skiing great terrain, steep slopes up to 55-degrees, with no signs of current instability.  But, again, the snow was either refrozen coral reef on east aspects or pencil-hard wind-slab on north aspects; still fun but not ideal. 
The view back down, Ptarmigans in the background
A couple days ago I was ski guiding at Hidden Valley and found some of the best coverage I've seen, with 4' of snow on the ground less than 300' from the parking lot.  Despite a blustery forecast, we found calm conditions (at times) above treeline near Tombstone Ridge.  We were able to take comfortable breaks and bask in the warmth of the sun, then skiing soft sastrugi in one turn and slushy corn in the next. 
Cracking wind-slab all around treeline in the Park yesterday (3/22)
Recently, we've skied many north and northeast aspects around treeline, hoping to find good snow and shelter from the winds at the same time...with relative success.  Yesterday we managed to find some fairly reactive wind-slab near the Loch and Lake Haiyaha.  Stomping on one steep roll-over, I triggered an avalanche that was 12" deep x 150' wide and it ran about 100' down slope. 
Triggered wind-slab at treeline near Lake Haiyaha (3/22)
Today, skiing in the Dream Lake chutes, we found the snow to be quite deep.  As in, face shots in many places.  Tracks from the days before were totally filled in by a few more inches and lots of wind overnight.  Oddly, at least from what we saw, stability seemed to improve overall despite additional wind-deposited snow.  My attempts to kick off similar wind-slab on test slopes came up empty.  But that doesn't mean all is healed.  These recent wind-slabs will continue to be our main avalanche concern in the RMNP backcountry.
CMS Guide Norie Kizaki finding sheltered goods near Lake Haiyaha
On solar aspects, like the south-facing slopes on Flattop, the avalanche concern is a little different.  New snow + warm temps = heavy sluffing.  The Dragontail Couloirs and S. Face routes on Flattop emptied themselves over the weekend, with some large point-release avalanches reaching or nearly reaching Emerald Lake.  Surprisingly little triggers can result in large, wet-loose slides entraining more snow as it falls, gaining mass and speed.  To be in the path of one of these would be unfortunate.
Ptarmigan Fingers as of last week; the middle reportedly avalanched big on Sunday (3/20)
Hidden Falls continues to fare well despite these warm temps.  CMS Guide Bob Chase reports dry conditions in the middle with wetter ice on the peripheries.  The Black Lake area (Black Lake Slabs, W. Gully, Yellow Tears) are reportedly in great shape as well, though Stoneman was looking a little thin.  The Big Mac Couloir on McHenry's is sporting a fat 200' section of blue water ice.  Loch Vale ice, Freezer Burn/Cold Storage, the Crypt...all looking pretty much the same since the last report.  The Squid is pretty much gone but we've spotted rarely-formed, and much smaller, pillars also on that same mountainside but much further east.
 Hot Doggie? Gone.  Grace Falls in the foreground
Notchtop's N. Face looks quite impressive with only the "crux" pitch of ice in good shape about two-thirds up the face.  Overall, snow-climbing really isn't that bad these days with the warm temps crisping up solar aspects.  Most things north-facing are still rather wallowy. 
Jay enjoying March ice climbing at Vail
Perhaps the Lion in March is beginning to stir with more wintry weather on the way for the weekend.  Hopefully we'll get a good dousing to make up for the wonderful drought we've experienced these first two weeks of March.  If you're out and about this week(end), feel free to shoot me an update on conditions at  It's always appreciated!  Likewise, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.  Let's stay safe out there!

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

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