Friday, June 10, 2011

RMNP Conditions Report - June 9, 2011

Hiking into the alpen glow in Chasm Lake Cirque (6/4)
In my worst moments of anguish, I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw it was better to be true than to be strong. The marks of the ordeal are apparent on my body: I was saved and I had won my freedom…the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself…A new and splendid life has opened out before me.  -- Maurice Herzog
 Greg Sievers hiking back to the car on Trail Ridge Road (6/9)
Those words, “better to be true than to be strong” have really resonated with me. There are those who are strong but hollow or empty underneath that strength; their strength hides the deeper flaw like a thin facade. Strong but trapped in a cycle, not free. Of course, it’d be awesome to be both true and strong but if nothing else, at the least, let me be true and free.
 Andy and Donovan getting into the business on Martha Couloir, Mt. Lady Washington (6/4)
Anyway, enough of my blithering. After a quick trip to Rainier, I came home to Colorado to find yet more inclement weather, rain in the lowlands and snow in the high country. Since then, with the onset of warm, summer-like weather the Park has been changing too rapidly to even try to keep up with. The snow has been melting so fast that we’re navigating obstacles in the afternoon that were completely buried that same morning. With some barely-freezing temps at night (but thankfully combined with clear nights), we’ve been able to enjoy some good snow/ice climbing around the Park but have had to start much earlier than usual to get up and off the snow before it gets too warm. This week we’ve at least had temps a little cooler at night and the same holds true for the foreseeable future. However, it does look like the classic afternoon/evening thunderstorms are beginning to start up. We enjoyed a fantastic lightning show last night from our house!
 Sunrise over the Twin Sisters (6/4)
Andy moving strong in the upper pitches of Martha's (6/4)
The skiing in the Park continues to be better than usual with the best coverage in June many of us have seen in a long time. This morning, for example, we skied down the north side of Sundance and found perfect corn and an easy, fun descent. Other areas like the Ptarmigans and Notchtop lines are holding plenty of snow as well. As of Monday, it was still possible to keep the skis on all the way to the Bear Lk TH coming down the Tyndall Gorge. Elsewhere (Longs, Flattop, Glacier Gorge) you can expect to be walking the skis quite a ways from the parking lot, with intermittent snow gradually giving way to skinnable terrain.
 Greg S. getting ready to ski down the N. side of Sundance (6/9)
Trail Ridge Road is open, giving skiers easy access to lots of high-altitude snow. Too many people hang up their skis too early; June is typically not the greatest month for skiing but, so far, this year has proved a major exception with great skiing likely to be had well into the month.
While warm, sunny rock beckons from the Estes valley and Boulder areas, many of us have been opting to play in the alpine. As I’ve already mentioned, one of the most challenging elements lately has been just getting up early enough to get to and climb the routes before they become too warm & dangerous.
 Hiking back up Sundance, a very snow-covered Fall River Road below (6/9)
For example, this past week I saw a couple of parties start way too late up Lambslide with the intention of either climbing the Notch Couloir or Keiners on Longs Peak. At around 10:30, while we were sitting comfortably atop Mt. Lady Washington, I witnessed a climber get absolutely pummeled by an avalanche as he was halfway across Broadway ledge. I held my breath, expecting to see this climber get swept off Broadway but, somehow, he managed to hang on…and keep going (I still can’t figure that part out, I’d have turned around so fast it’d make your head spin).
 Longs grand E. Face & Diamond as of 6/6
Last Sunday, above the Dragontail Couloir on Flattop, myself and a guest were talking about a huge, overhanging cornice that was looming over the lookers’ right fork of the DTC. A party of skiers had just finished skiing the run maybe 20-30 minutes before it suddenly calved off the cliff face as we watched in awe from above. The cornice (and entrained snow) swept 85% of the width of the couloir, screaming down to Emerald Lake with fridge-sized blocks bounding intact 1500’ down. Had that party of skiers been a little later, they would not have survived the carnage.
 Where the cornice broke off and landed before it's 2000' plunge (6/5)
The cornice-triggered avalanche sweeping towards Emerald Lake (6/5)
I was climbing in Martha Couloir last Saturday (along with nearly a dozen other people) and found conditions to be quite good (firm and frozen) despite the big warm-up. We found protectable ice for nearly 200’ of climbing. But when I was guiding the same route again on Monday, we found significantly different conditions. There was still some ice, and still good climbing to be had, but you could see a remarkable difference in the coverage and quality of the ice on the route. Underneath it all was a veritable waterfall you could hear, draining from the sun-soaked snowfield above. And the smoked from the Arizona wildfire wasn’t helping the issue either, clouding the nighttime sky, trapping the heat and keeping the snow surface from cooling. Fortunately that issue seems to have blown itself out but beware if it should come back. With cold, clear nights we at least get a window, however small, of safe climbing conditions but if things never cool off and refreeze, look out: the mountains will be shedding their white skins.
 Another cornice triggered avalanche, this one a slab ~2' deep on Notchtop's NE Face (6/5)
For a brief while, Stettner’s Ledges and Fields Chimney looked like awesome ice/mixed routes but I think they’re well melted out now. Alexander’s Chimney is so buried that the route starts somewhere around the usual second pitch. There are boot-tracks up most of the classics in the Chasm Lake Cirque (Dreamweaver, Flying Dutchman, Lambslide, the Notch, Longs’ N. Face, etc), and maybe up some of the lesser-known routes after an AMGA Alpine Guides Course just wrapped up a few days in the area. The N. Chimney is roughly half of its usual length with snow reaching nearly to Broadway. While the Diamond’s Yellow Wall itself looks dry, melting snow from near the summit guarantees adventure climbing at some point. The Casual Route is guarded by 2-3 ton blobs of snow sitting on ledges above the first 3-4 pitches. Even the Chasm View wall holds snow on most of the ledges.
 Climbing the far left side of the Dragontail Couloir with lots of Arizona smoke in the air (6/5)
Anthony V. topping out the Dragontail (6/5)
A number of parties have climbed Hallet Chimney recently, one reporting thin/sketchy/unprotectable conditions but a little easier-than-usual climbing. On Notchtop the Spiral Route has been climbed and the rock routes above Spiral’s long ledge traverse are apparently dry. I would imagine that, while maybe still wet in spots, the S. Face of the Petit holds good rock climbing as well. Upper Glacier Gorge still looks very filled in, with the Spearhead sticking out like a nunatak, still surrounded by deep snows.
 Three skiers descending the N. Face of Longs (6/4)
The main thing to watch out for now is how quickly the snow warms up during the day. Wet-loose avalanches are no joke, especially when you’re climbing. How cold/clear it was the night before may give you some indication of how much time you have but if you’re sinking knees deep in slush than it’s too late…get off steep snow as quickly as you can. And as we were reminded just a few days ago, be very skeptical of any climbing underneath cornices. They have been popping off all over the Park with some (like we saw) with no visual indicators. Otherwise, the Park is amazing right now with lots of fun climbing and skiing to be had. We’re off to a great start to the summer climbing season!
 Anthony V. sending Martha's (6/6)
Andrew Councell is a CMS Guide and year-round Estes Park resident
 Topping out a great alpine route with some of the best views in the Park!

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