Saturday, January 31, 2009


Climbing a mountain is about putting yourself in adverse conditions whether technical 5.9 routes or 5 mile approaches. It's not about being the first or climbing higher than another because truly, others cannot be the metric by which you measure your achievement.

They lack a sense of forgiveness forcing you to become more realistic or in a very real sense, true to yourself. At times while being faced with decisions that carry very final immediate consequences you perform at the peak of endurance, mental strength, nirvana.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Andrews Glacier - Nov. 22, 2008

Despite snowy slopes increasing as Fall begins to look more like Winter, my obsession with reaching difficult places has not subsided and in fact has grown. Due in part to the idea that one of the primary driving forces behind my enjoyment of these ventures is rooted in overcoming adverse conditions, so as the season adds to the complexity of mountaineering it also throws fuel on the fire.

Over the past few weeks I've been aching to purchase an ice axe and crampons so that I can continue to gain mountaineering experience, specifically winter mountaineering and now the time is right. For the axe I choose Black Diamond Raven, light and rough textured as apposed to the Raven pro which is smooth textured. For my particular application I'm interested in a mountaineering axe rather then a technical axe although undoubtedly at some point I'll probably want to get into technical ice climbing as well, but for the time being I'm doing mostly solo ventures and have no need to technical gear. As for the crampons, the same holds true... nothing specifically designed for technical climbing but in the case of weight I opted for the heavier of the options (non aluminum), finally to fit my boots I required hybrid or newmatic style attachments. I could have went for completely strap on style but I felt that hybrids provided a little more secure fit.

With axe and crampons in tow I once again returned to the Bear Lake trail head in Rocky Mountain National Park, not so much due to the familiarity of the location but because it's easily accessible with my 2wd passenger car and the many destinations available from this starting point. Today I was going to make an attempt on Andrews Glacier, clearly visible on the ridge line from Lock Vale as seen from a previous trip made in October to Sky Pond.

Andrews Glacier is considered to be a good training ground for the techniques of glacial and snow travel such as self arrest, which is obviously the action of stopping yourself from continuing to slide or more extremely fall downward in a situation where you lose footing on a snow or ice covered slope. Self belay, which a rock climber friend of mine once me gave me a confused stare when mentioned is specific to winter mountaineering and is merely a technique of walking or moderate climbing where your axe is used as a temporary point of protection as you ascent and provides an anchor against a fall. Keeping in mind that in such a case a "fall" is not like a fall when rock climbing where you sail through mid air until caught by a rope or impact below in very bad situation but rather a fall is brought on by a mere loss of traction. In other words you may be on a slope that's only 25 degrees but merely slipping can cause you to slide uncontrollably to a great distance below. Additionally, Andrews glacier is considered to be a safer (relatively) climb as its slope is mostly between 22 and 30 degrees and thus has lower avalanche danger.

When I arrived at Bear Lake I was surprised at the number of other hikers/climbers who had also chosen to head out on this trail. Seeing that many were carrying technical axes and ropes I recalled my previous trip to Black Lake and the sheer wall adjacent to it which at the time was partially covered by a frozen waterfall, many of these climbers were likely heading there or to Taylor glacier which is also accessible from above Sky Pond. I set off up the Trail continuing past Berthoud falls along the now quite familiar path, passing the junction where the trail breaks towards the Boulder Field below Longs Peak and onward until a half mile or so south of Loch Vale where the path heads North towards the glacier. From here the trail began to drastically ascend as I postholed up through the trees towards The Gash, a narrow channel between Andrews Pass and Otis Peak. To this point I had been following tracks set in the snow previous to me but obviously not from today. I was quite thankful to have a bit of a course to follow. Not in anyway was I worried that I wouldn't find my destination but it's psychologically easier to follow the path than it is to feel assured that you're continuing in the right direction.

Now around 11:30am I reach my first major decision point in The Gash as the path upward broke into two options, to left I could continue up navigating through significantly less steep rockier terrain or continue right up a steep snow slab. Ultimately I chose to go right as slab was not large enough to provide any real avalanche danger and moreover would make for a less decisive line up the slope. For a few moments I made my way up the slab over snow that had no problem supporting my weight without failing, but traction as I climbed was becoming an increasing problem so I found a large exposed rock that I could perch on and dawn my crampons and axe. It was now that I caught the first glimpse of other people since I had set out on trail from my car. Two hikers whom were quite a ways down from me in The Gash and appeared as no more than moving colored dots. With gear in hand and on foot I continued up the slope with an unanticipated ease, expecting an awkwardness of walking on 12, one inch spikes I found it quite easy to kick step and make my line up the angle in ease. As I ascended I frequently looked back to gauge the distance towards the other hikers and take note of the path they chose to continue up, but as I approached the midpoint of the slope I noticed that they decided to turn around and head back down. Coming this far into the wilderness and as close to the glacier with no other real destination to be found I can't help thinking that the sight of me climbing the slope with an ice axe may have forced them to second guess their plan to continue on... this of course was probably the result of my ego inflation brought on by the ascent of a slope with snow tools.

Since reaching the Northern end of Loch Vale, Andrews Glacier had been obscured from view by Andrews Pass and the slope that was now challenging my endurance. As I achieved my own little mini summit of what had been the greatest challenge so far I was awestruck by the site of the glacier which was now vastly filled in with the plume of blown snow and was much larger than any photos I'd seen.

Standing at Andrews Tarn and reveling in the sight of Andrews Glacier I now began to question my gumption to continue upward, after approximately five miles I was facing what was probably going to be the largest challenge of the trip. The time was around 1:00pm I thought to myself, I've made it this far, had some fun with my crampons and axe, and wondered if I really needed to go any further. But it wasn't excuses or settling for less than my goals that got me here. Now this wasn't the kind of summit fever thinking that gets people in over their heads. This was me rationalizing that I could do it. The weather was great, I was still feeling energetic and in good spirits so I continued on deciding that I was going attempt to climb the left edge close to the rock line. This was for a few reasons, the glacier had been described as being between 22 and 30 degrees thus safe from avalanche danger. Being later in the fall the area had seen a good amount of snow which at this altitude was blown from the adjacent peek and settled into the groove of the glacier and made the slope closer to 45 degrees along the center line, optimal for avalanches. Additionally and previous to even starting out on this trip was the concern for crevasses, although not a large glacier I had seen photos of a 12 foot deep crevasse that spanned nearly the entire glacier. Now cover with snow therein lies the potential to fall into hole which is concealed by blown snow. Being alone I obviously wasn't going be roped up so I figured my safest bet would be to stick to the edge of the rock line where the depth of snow below me would be inches rather than feet.

Making my way up the glacier it became immediately apparent that crampons, at least at this time of year were mandatory. Each step echoing the sound of spikes ripping into ice, similar to the sound of biting down on an ice cube. Nearly half way up I paused to document the angle of the climb as well as my path ascended thus far. An un-arrested slide from here would most definitely end in a sudden meeting with the rocks below.

As I neared the top I stopped to snap a few shots of the view upwards.

Finally, hard work had payed off and I reached the flat wind scoured Continental divide to be immediately met by winds that made it very difficult to stand. After getting some shots of the of the top and few of the Loch Vale below, where hours ago I stood pondering if I was going to make it here I decided it was time to head back.

The climb down which potentially could be very difficult considering what it took to get up, to the contrary was very easy. Well earned and deserved I glissaded down in about ten minutes the path that took around and hour to climb. As with my previous trip as I descended I encountered what I saw as completely dangerous behavior from fellow hikers. This time below at Andrews tarn two people were making their way across the frozen lake below. Now when I describe what I do on these hikes and climbs to people like my parents, I'm frequently met with contempt as if what I'm doing is running naively into the woods on some adrenaline fueled odyssey, throwing caution to the wind in order to satisfy some craving to triumph over danger. Yes while much of what I'm doing is dangerous and at time has very serious consequences, many people fail to realize that for every day I spend doing these things, I spend countless hours researching, planning and learning as much as possible about what will keep me alive not only under normal circumstances but in cases of emergency. Like how to build a shelter, what plants to eat, how to make a splint, how to navigate using a compass (not that it's only for emergencies), and the list goes on... but I digress, in the case of the two hikers below I found it incredibly dangerous to be walking on the frozen lake, call me paranoid but unless I'm in Fargo I really don't feel comfortable walking on a frozen lake.
Additional Photos

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Black Lake - Nov 8, 2008

The weekend following my trip to Twin Sisters I decided to head to Rocky Mountain National Park for my first taste of winter conditions and give my new winter boots a good test run. With weather getting colder and snow becoming a progressively constant fixture I decided it was time to invest in a good set of winter mountaineer boots. After researching and trying many different styles, weights, etc. I opted for La Sportiva Trengo S EVO GTX, a complicated name for a super lite leather and Gortex combo. I chose these for many reasons, the primary being weight, fit, and hybrid crampon compatibility. Initially I was a little concerned with the warmth that the boots could provide given that these and simalar boots have been reviewed and recommended as 3 season boots whereas double plastics like Scarpa Inverno would fit the bill for winter climbs including technical ice. I have to say I'm quite satisfied with the warmth that these boots provide, in fact I have a hard time thinking of an instance at least in Colorado that these boots wouldn't be sufficiently warm. Unless the plan is sub zero temps for an extended duration... like days, these work fine.

Anyway, Black Lake and winter weather was the plan for this day. I had heard that this is a pretty good hike and gets a little more strenuous towards the end of the approach to the lake. From the image it's obvious that this was a lengthy hike as well. At around 8:00am I set off into the trees and across frozen track and fresh snow. To my surprise I was treading over recent cut tracks which were obviously set earlier this morning. For the most part this was a fairly non-photogenic hike moving in and out of the trees and along a few lake sides.

After about two and a half hours I made my way nearly to the lake and was beginning to work my way above the tree line
when I encountered two sets of other hikers which were responsibly for cutting the trail I had been on. Following some short conversation we parted ways, the two groups going down as continued up, stopped at this point I also felt this was a good opportunity to dawn my gaiters as the snow was now around thigh deep. As I continued on the trees began to give way to an amazing view of clouds coming over the ridge line that I was approaching.

As I approached Black Lake I began to realize why it's named Black Lake, the water appearing nearly black. After resting briefly I was still yearning for more so I decided to continue on ascending up through a gully between a nearly sheer wall on the opposite side of the lake and Half mountain to my East.

Reaching the top of the gully I found a spectacular view of the coming clouds over the distant rugged ridge line. This view had sparked my interest and I later decided to check out what exactly I was looking at and to my complete astonishment this was the Keyboard of the Winds directly south of longs peak and I was generally just West of the Trough on the West side of Longs. Realizing this now I understand just how close I was to the Homestretch on longs and have made a commitment to return to this location to camp and finally ascend Longs via thie trough next spring.
By now I had continued up along the ridge opposite Black Lake as I had approached, considering the time now near 1:30pm and the ominous weather coming from the South I decided to head back, but as true to my nature I needed a little more excitement so I decided to descend the rock wall back to the lake. This turned out to be a length commitment as I carefully chose my line down the modest class 4 face.
Once I reached the bottom of the rock wall the trip once again returned to a trail of endurance as it typically is, remembering that I now am roughly 3 hours from my car. For the most part, the trip back was a snow trudging trip which provided ample opportunity to listen and learn from the environment, an opportunity to become closer to my goals and gain better understanding of myself.

An additional noteworthy point along this trip was on the descent as I approached the lake just South of the Loch Vale trail junction, I ran into a cute young couple... funny I call them young as they must be in their early 20's or so. The guy asked me "Is this it? Is this the lake?" I responded that I wasn't sure of the lake's name but it's the last until Black Lake, unless you're planning on going up there as I pointed up towards the ridge that I had just come down which was now barely visible through the storm that I felt was good reason to head back. The guy assured me no, they were not planning to go any further plus both were quite preoccupied with the difference in our dress, me with boots, gaiters, balaclava, heavy gloves, etc. they with jeans and possibly a leather coat between them. They explained that they were not as prepared to venture further as I was. I agreed proclaiming that the weather "up there" is quite a bit colder than "down here". What I didn't mention was that despite that they realized, or at least I had given them reason to not continue further, in my opinion they were both grossly under prepared for conditions even where they were. By my estimation we were now at least an hour, hour and a half from the trail head and given a situation where the weather changed drastically for the worse, this was more than enough time to create a very serious situation. I'm not an advocate of venturing into the woods unprepared, layers, water, etc. but to me I consider it a general rule that if in easy terrain you don't venture far enough out that you can't return safely in under the time that it takes for the situation to become serious. Now I'm aware that the weather can become serious in a matter of minutes, and by serious I mean white out conditions and severe temperature drop, but the situation doesn't become dire for at least an hour or so in this case as you can still tough it out until you reach safety. In the case of these two hikers, which by my account are still just around an hour and a half from safety (in best conditions) could easily become disoriented or even exhausted trying to make their way back... in less time than it would take to enter hypothermia.
Additional Photos