| James Peak via St Mary's Glacier (attempt)
A LITTLE BACKGROUND:
After responding to Kristen’s thread seeking weekday climbing partners, I received an e-mail from her inquiring about the prospect of climbing a peak sometime this week. Since I was still fairly fresh off of my trip to see family in Ohio, I was more than ready for my next vertically-motivated mountain adventure. Kristen told me that Terry (Cyclenut911) was also looking to join us for the climb, and we quickly settled on Thursday, 03/24/11, for this adventure.
After exchanging some route ideas via e-mail, we ultimately settled on a climb of James Peak from the St Mary’s Glacier approach. Since none of us had ever met each other outside of the comfort of this website, we figured that an easier climb would be a good idea for this particular day.
We ultimately arranged a meeting for 8:45AM at the T-Rex park-n-ride lot near I-70 and C-470. Kristen had to drive down from Estes, so I’m sure her day started a bit earlier than mine or Terry’s. Still, being the early morning people that they are, Kristen and Terry both beat me to our meeting location.
Admittedly, the crux of the climb (at least for me) was the sound of my alarm clock ringing at 7:30AM. I work a late swing shift, and had already forewarned my newfound climbing partners of my general aversion to the sight of a rising sun. Fortunately Terry and Kristen were both very accommodating, and Kristen even offered to carry me up the mountain in her backpack (at least that’s how I remember things).
We wasted little time at the park-n-ride, and enjoyed light weekday traffic for our drive up I-70 to the trailhead. Terry carpooled to the St Mary’s Glacier parking lot in my car, while Kristen followed in her truck. I believe her somewhat natural aversion to becoming a picture on a milk carton kept her from riding into the mountains with two perfectly strange strangers. I can’t say that I blame her… I wouldn’t get into a car with me if I didn’t have to! Next time I’ll just have to offer her candy in a creepy voice if I really want to enjoy complete carpooling satisfaction.
NEW PARKING PROCEDURES AT TRAILHEAD:
We arrived at the trailhead around 10am, and I finally got to see the changes that had taken place since my last visit.
Trailhead to St Mary's Glacier
For those of you who are not aware of the recent developments in this area, 14’ers.com site member “GlacierPaul” recently purchased the empty lot that had previously served as the unofficial trailhead parking area for the St. Mary’s Glacier hike. This change has allowed for a legitimate permanent access point to the trail, which is something that the largely-inept U.S. Forest Service has been unable to provide for over the course of the past 30 years. In the past the USFS has told me stories that have varied from claiming ownership of that exact lot, to outright denying that a forest access point even existed in that area. Simply put, in the past it seemed that the forest service didn’t really know what was going on in that area, or who owned which pieces of land, even though they always handed out hiking brochures that listed the glacier hike.
Paul’s improvements to the vacant lot currently include designated parking signs, an enclosed port-a-pot, and a fee station. Parking in the area now requires a nominal fee of $5/day, payable by cash or personal check. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like Paul has also considered expanding this parking facility to accommodate some of the increased parking demand that occurs during weekend days in the summer months.
While I’m generally a very fee-averse adventurer, I can still understand Paul’s position on this situation. From my point of view it appears that the forest service had repeatedly dropped the ball on the subject of clearing access to this important trailhead. Paul’s purchase of this lot has at least ensured that parking will remain available at this area for the foreseeable future. Naturally, I would have preferred to see the USFS purchase that lot and develop the (old) standard fee-free public trailhead. However, with their refusal to buy the involved property, development of that lot was probably the only other alternative that might have taken place. In that sense I figure that a pay parking lot is a much better solution than having no parking lot at all.
Okay, I think that’s enough about the ancillary information!
Our day started out about as perfect as one could hope for at 10,000 feet during the month of March. As we made our way towards St Mary’s Lake the sky was blue-bird clear, and the winds were light. During this time Kristen and I both debated whether we had carried too much gear. I usually go a bit gear-heavy during the winter months, and have been surprised by bad weather on a number of trips in the past. Still, it seemed like a bit much to be carrying 20lbs worth of gear/food/water on a morning when I was comfortable hiking in a long sleeved T-shirt!
From the time we left the car we were on boot packed snow base for the 10-minute hike to St. Mary’s Lake. The conditions were such that we opted to carry our snowshoes and travel on Microspikes/Stabilicers instead of shoeing-up. A few areas of bare ground were showing near the frozen lake, but snow coverage looked deep and solid as we approached the snowfield of ‘St Mary’s Glacier’.
The overall route conditions seemed consistent with what I was expecting after talking to Paul the day before this climb (in addition to owning the parking lot, Paul is a full-time resident in the St Mary’s area, which makes him a great resource for local information). Paul told me that the area had received around 6” of new snow over the past couple of days, and that some wind drifting and melting had occurred after this snow fell.
The wind started to pick up as we began our climb of the snowfield. During this time we noticed snow plumes coming off the peaks of the steep terrain to climber’s left of the primary snowfield, and it appeared that this wind may have been cross-loading some of this steeper, avalanche-prone terrain. As such, we kept to the right side of the lower-angled snowfield as we climbed. For the most part the snow conditions on the “glacier” were pretty good, with relatively firm snow that allowed for easy boot packing. We continued to climb without the aid of snowshoes, and only sank 2-4 inches in this snow. As we climbed the wind continued to intensify, but a noticeable shift in direction kept the wind primarily blowing upslope, at our backs (and the sun was still shining). I noticed the appearance of some small interesting wind ripples (sastrugi) in the snow surface throughout this part of the climb.
Terry on the "glacier"
Terry setting our track up the snowfield
Kristen climbing the glacier
We stopped for a quick break about two thirds of the way up the glacier, at which point Kristen decided to add some gloves to fight off the wind chill. I believe it was at this point in our hike when the “Mountain Princess” was born, thanks to an otherwise innocuous comment on her part about making us wait while she acted like a princess. As such, I’m now making it my personal mission to get this exciting new name to stick for her! In fact, if you are reading this report, Bill, would you please be so kind as to forcibly change Kristen’s screen name to Mountain Princess? She’ll thank you later… much, much later.
View to the south over St Mary's Lake
Steep terrain near the glacier
Steep terrain near the glacier
Our climb continued onto the flats that run between St Mary’s Glacier and the final slopes of James Peak. During this time we found somewhat less consolidated snow conditions, though we still generally stayed on top of things. As expected, the willowy areas were the worst spots for unsupportive snow, and I occasionally found myself breaking through up to my knees.
Terry crossing the flats
The weather was also becoming less friendly as the climb continued. Our blue sky day had given way to increasing clouds, and we were starting to notice bands of snow on nearby peaks to the south of our location. The wind became fierce at this point, and I donned my ski goggles and shell layer at this time. Suddenly my pack full of heavy winter gear was starting to feel much more appropriate!
Terry as the weather moves in
Kristen also attempted a few gear adjustments during this break. The Velcro closures on her Stabilicers were not holding up to the snow, and she eventually hung these now-useless items from the front of her hip belt, while professing to us that she had just created a Stabilicer loin cloth! That’s another fine example of mountain innovation, and it is certainly the type of gear that only a climber could create. I won’t even begin to explain the butt-curtain idea that was discussed somewhere on that mountain; some things should just stay on the hills, where they belong.
Kevin and Kristen
After crossing the flats we began climbing the long slope that eventually leads to the summit of James Peak. The snow became deeper in this section, and Terry was sinking to a depth of about 6-12” as he led the way up this slope, sans snowshoes. Kristen stopped to add her snowshoes during this part of the ascent, just as the nearby snowstorm moved in on us. My GPS showed an elevation of around 12,000 ft at this time, and we determined that Kristen and Terry’s scheduling commitments would give them just about enough time to ascend for one additional hour.
Kristen ascending a steeper section as the snow moves in.
Within 15 minutes or so we found ourselves in near whiteout conditions, with little visibility beyond 1/8 of a mile. This wasn’t the worst whiteout conditions that any of had previously endured, but it was certainly enough to make navigation more difficult, and it appeared to be getting worse. At this point we decided to take a moment to discuss our options. We estimated that the summit was probably 1.5 hours away under normal winter conditions, and we only really had 1 hour until our necessary turn-around time. With the weather running significant interference against us, we finally decided to throw in the towel and call it a day (the wind, snow, and whiteout conditions certainly wouldn’t speed our ascent). We then started back down from an elevation of around 12,200 ft or so.
Where'd the mountains go?
Our descent to the trailhead was fairly easy, and rather uneventful, save for the wind and driving snow. Nevertheless, the ease of the descent gave me the opportunity to get to know my new climbing partners a little bit better. I think it is safe to say that we found a great group chemistry on this trip, and we were all still smiling at the end of the day. Finding good climbing partners is always rewarding, and certainly makes the struggle against nature a lot more enjoyable. I’ve always believed that mountains tend to reveal a person’s true nature, and I think you can really learn a lot about someone’s character just by hanging out with them in a wilderness environment for any length of time. My new friends easily passed the mountain test, and we all had a safe and fun day in the mountains, even if the summit we sought stayed a bit out of reach on this particular day.
Terry, Kevin, and Kristen on the descent
Sharing some laughter near the base of the snowfield
If you still smile at the end, it's a good day
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):