| James Peak's colder side
I have never done any climbing in the winter before. I read in the schedule for the Colorado School of Mines Outdoor Recreation Center that they were doing a winter summit attempt of James Peak, and I knew I wanted in. I am very grateful to the ORC for doing this trip, it was a real blast. This was my first winter summit attempt. I had wanted to do some winter climbing, but I have no money to buy any gear. Climbing with the ORC was a good opportunity because a lot of the most expensive gear was provided. As it was I still needed to buy some decent layers for my torso. I would like to thank ARC thrift stores for selling Gore-tex Pro 3L hardshells for $3.70, even if they are in sky blue.
We had a big group going, I think 11 people if I remember correctly. We piled into a van and drove up to the St. Mary’s Glacier trailhead. While we were in the trees on the way to the “glacier” the going was easy and warm. There was talk of the ease of the climb ahead.
The group at the very start of the hike.
View from the trees
In my summer climbs, I tend to have a harder time at the outset, and an easier time once the hike is underway. So, since I had been having an easy time of it thus far, I almost convinced myself that it was going to be no problem. That misconception disappeared rather rapidly. Once we got out of the trees and started working our way up the glacier, the weather showed itself for its true nature. It got very cold, very fast. The winds picked up, gusting probably at almost 40mph.
Begining the ascent
Aiding a struggling climber
Working our way up the glacier
The glacier itself was very steep and it was fairly tough going. We marched up the glacier, steadily gaining ground until we reached the top and found ourselves moving across relatively flat ground. We marched across a landscape of frozen tundra until we stopped for a break, safely nestled behind an outcropping of rock. After a brief munch, the trip leaders from the ORC made an announcement. One member of our group had been struggling. Although he had truly put forth a great effort, it seemed he was spent, and was ready to head on down. There were three trip leaders, so one was going to take a group back down, of any who thought they had reached their limit, or thought they would reach their limit soon. I was already tired. I knew there was a very long way to go, and that the crux of the climb was still to come. I carefully considered turning back. Had I been on my own, or simply climbing with friends as I would in the summer, I would have turned back. But when I looked around, at the fields of barren rock and snow, I was reminded of the quote, “magnificent desolation,” and plucked up my courage and decided to continue onward.
The true beauty of life lies in its very ability to exist
When those of us that remained ventured out from behind our rocky protection, the true force of the weather came to bear upon us. We thought the gusts on the glacier were bad. Now things had gotten truly “alpine.” The winds were a sustained 25-30mph, with gusts reaching the 50-60mph range. They were so strong, walking was impossible, you would either be blown over or blown to a halt. However, when we were moving I was not cold. Layered within my fleece and nylon bunker, I felt strangely detached from the weather outside. It was almost as if I was simply an observer, watching through the eyes of some unlucky soul forced to face the bitterness of Mother Nature. From the sanctuary of our granite outcrop, we meandered through a giant bowl. A seemingly endless expanse of alpine tundra stretched to either side. But directly to our front, off in the distance so that my mind scarcely believed it was to be our destination, the steep slopes of James peaked loomed, crushing upwards out of the flat expanse upon which we walked.
In the bowl
Half way up the first section of this slope, we stopped behind another outcropping of rock, a brief respite from the whipping wind. The trip leaders explained to us what was to come in the remainder of the route. When we again left the sanctuary of the rocks, the onslaught of the wind began again with renewed vigor. Walls of snow and ice blew into the group and thousands of tiny crystals spiraled skyward in miniature cyclones of frozen water. All of these made the climb seem almost dreamlike, a surreal dance of the elements into which we had stumbled by mere twist of fate, and of which we had been made unwitting audience. I am left, now, to recount the feeling with only my feeble and inadequate memory of it. I have never felt anything like it, and it was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most amazing thing I have ever experienced.
Trying to capture the beauty
The group in climb
Finally, we reached the summit. As I took those few last, exhausted steps to the top, it was as if the clouds parted before us. Our struggle to the summit was rewarded with a sudden brightening of the skies, and a most spectacular view. The wind died down, and a peace settled on the summit.
Reaching the summit
We ate food, took pictures, and breathed in the experience.
Group summit photo
Me on the summit
After a time, we began to descend, as we did, the winds did not return and we walked our cheerful way down in bright sunshine.
A blue sky-ed descent
Our weariness gone, we made good time back to the glacier and back to the van where those that turned back waited for us. The way down was steady and quick. But as the sun warmed, the snow softened, and got into my boots. I didn’t notice at first, my feet were not cold so I didn’t notice the damp. I realized my mistake only when the wet socks began to chafe my skin, and a blister formed. It was very painful. I had extra socks too, just in case of such an occasion, but I didn’t notice the problem until it was too late. From now on I’m going to pay more attention to my feet.
Without a doubt, climbing in the winter is the hardest thing I have ever done. Yet it is also the most rewarding. Never have I felt such a feeling of stupendous accomplishment. I will certainly be climbing more in the winter now, hopefully sharing the experience with the people in my life whom I love. I will also be returning to James Peak this summer, though I know it will not be the same, my curiosity is peaked (pun intended, otherwise I would have spelled it piqued) to see just how different a mountain can be in her winter regalia.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed my rendition of my James Peak climb, even though James Peak is a “beginner” mountain for winter climbes. Also, most of these pictures are not mine. They were taken by other members of the party.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):