Friday, July 15, 2011

RMNP Conditions Report - July 15, 2011

 Climbing high on Spearhead's N. Ridge
A people who climb the ridges and sleep under the stars in high mountain meadows, who enter the forest and scale peaks, who explore glaciers and walk ridges buried deep in snow--these people will give their country some of the indomitable spirit of the mountains.  
-- U.S. Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas
Looking into the Dragontail area, lots of snow above Emerald Lake
With warmer temps upon us, the weather seems to have fallen into a somewhat typical pattern of afternoon thunderstorms.  But is it just me or are these storms somehow worse than usual?  There have been more than a few vicious storms bringing pounding rain and lightning here in the Park but I keep hearing about how bad they've been along the Front Range.  Aside from a few windy days here in Estes, the winds seem to be confined to the alpine where, even still, they're not giving up the fight.  Still, one can't complain too loudly with blue skies each morning and warm temps to beckon you into the mountains.  And then there's the explosion of greenery in the valleys and on hillsides, not to mention the long wildflower season we're enjoying.  This is one of the best times of year to be in the mountains!
Enjoying fun in the sun on Hallet's "Great Dihedral"
It's summer and CMS guides are leading trips all over the Front Range.  With so many of us in the field each day, we're able to really stay on top of the ever-changing conditions of the mountains in which we work.  So here's a bit of what we're seeing out there:
Sunrise on McHenry's over ice bergs in Black Lake
Snow continues to recede and give way to eager climbers looking to exchange the hot Boulder-based cragging for high-altitude climbing.  In the last two weeks, I've heard of nearly every formation in the Park being climbed despite the snow clinging to most of the approaches/descents.  The Diamond on Longs, for example, has seen a number of ascents but with parties reporting some wet spots generated from the still-melting snow patches above.  Snow climbing is still great, however, with plenty of coverage around the Park.  The Ptarmigan Fingers are still holding lots of snow but apparently still have cornices hanging on as well.  Notchtop Couloir is reportedly still in top to bottom. 
 Elk grazing below McHenry's NE Face
Stone Man Pass on McHenry's is fully snow and the peak's E. Face also sports some big cornices.  The Trough on Longs is melted out about a quarter up from the bottom but retains snow all the way up to the Narrows.  Amazingly, there are still a few good zones off of Trail Ridge Road for easy-access skiing/climbing if you're not quite ready to hang up the winter gear just yet.  The N. Face of Sundance Mountain, for example, still offers a few options.  I saw lots of snow on Ypsilon today and the N. Face of Longs has a large section of snow on the middle of the face, above the old Cables Route.  It sounds like Dreamweaver on Mt. Meeker is melted out.
Amazing climbing above the Barb on the Spearhead
Alpine rock season is in full swing by this point but don't let the hot temps and dry rock fool you.  Boots are still the footwear of choice for approaching/descending many of the more popular formations.  On a recent trip into Glacier Gorge, we found predominately snow-travel conditions about three-quarters of a mile before Black Lake.  Most of the trail from that point is under snow and could be rather difficult to follow if you don't know the way (or even if you do).  Ice bergs are still floating around in Black Lake.  The bivy sites below the Spearhead are relatively dry with lots of running water around making for ideal camping.  On our trip up the N. Ridge, we didn't need crampons but boots were a great asset.  Approach shoes would have been too light and could've made the final approach to the base of the rock a little more exciting than we wanted.  We did take ice axes, though, and used them on the glissade back into the flats.  Less experienced folks might find an axe helpful when traversing snow-covered portions of the trail.  A slip-n-slide into the creek or a moat could ruin the day (or week). 
Topping out another great route on Hallet; Emerald Lake far below
All the routes on the Spearhead appear to be mostly dry; we saw a number of parties charging up The Barb.  We encountered a bit of wetness on the first three pitches of the N. Ridge but otherwise climbed dry rock (until it started raining at 8am).  We did the east ledges descent from the summit and found the talus to be more loose than usual.  There was also a massive rock fall off the northern ridge/buttress of Chiefshead, with Eurovan-sized boulders littering the east side of the snow apron between Chiefshead and Spearhead.  Combined with other rock fall or climber generated falling rock these last weeks, I'm seeing a pattern of a bit more looseness than many of us are used to. 
The rappel descent off Hallet
I also guided a trio of climbers up Hallet's amazing north face on the Great Dihedral.  We found some wetness here and there but, otherwise, the only snow we found was just getting to the base of the route, about 300' of it.  If doing the rappel descent, maybe take along a bit of sling/cord to leave behind for the second rappel station.  It was looking a little lean.  We had two ropes so just rapped past it; I'd like to have added to the anchor but billowing clouds from the west suggested a bit of haste.  As it was, we got pretty wet anyway on the hike out from Emerald Lake...the full alpine experience!  Speaking of which, the raps off Notchtop could probably also use a little love, at least the uppermost station. 
 Big rockfall off the E. side of Chiefshead's N. Face
Another look at the rockfall zone
As far as Longs Peak goes, I saw some of the Keyhole Route from Glacier Gorge the other day and it looked plenty snowy to me.  The Ledges started out dry but then appeared to be snow-covered for the second half and into the Trough.  I couldn't see the Narrows or Homestretch.  But CMS Guide Russell Hunter was guiding up there recently and said that most of the snow was avoidable.  Now, when we're guiding the Keyhole we have ropes, harnesses, and helmets as well as other climbing equipment that allows us to comfortably and safely deviate from the standard route.  The marked route may or may not be entirely snow free but it does sound like it's possible to make an ascent without spending too much time on snow.  Where Russell did have to cross snow as at the top of the Trough, getting into the Narrows.  Clark's Arrow is dry.  The Loft continues to melt out, with the cliffs near the top becoming more exposed every day.  The Bypass is probably your best bet at this point for both ascent/descent.  And, finally, a recent report from Kieners suggests that, although wet, it's possible to traverse Broadway without needing to travel on snow.  Obviously Lambslide is all snow but it sounds like the rest of the route is just wet, with upper snow patches being avoidable. 
Funky weather swirling around McHenry's east side, Stone Man Pass filled in with snow
Oh yeah, there are a couple of bridges "out" on the approach into Glacier Gorge.  They're still passable but there's a chance you could get pretty wet if you slipped off the current makeshift construction.  Twin Owls and area (and other formations) remain closed at Lumpy Ridge for raptor nesting but otherwise Lumpy is great right now.
One of the bridge crossings on the way into Mills Lake
We're in the midst of an awesome summer with great conditions for many amazing objectives.  Conditions change very quickly this time of year, from snow cover to creek flow to rockfall to weather.  I could never hope to keep up with the daily changes taking place so if you see something you think I should know about it, please send me a note.  Or if you just have questions, feel free to e-mail me at  Thanks for reading and stay safe out there!

Andrew Councell is a CMS Guide and year-round Estes Park resident
A view of McHenry's and Arrowhead above Black Lake
 Climbing the crux pitch on Spearhead's N. Face

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