August 29, 2009
Even in a good year, couloir climbing season is done by mid-July and the ice climbing season doesn’t get started until November at the earliest… or so I thought! Perusing Dave Cooper’s excellent Colorado Snow Climbs showed me the light; there is a whole class of permanent snowfields which morph from soft snow routes in the spring toalpine ice routes in the late summer. Avalanche danger is replaced by lightning and step-kicking is replaced by front-pointing. Ice climbing in August? The idea was just too tempting to ignore.
This would be a trip of firsts. I’ve been trying to interest Eric in some sort of alpine route for quite a while now. He’s been earning his mountain stripes on longer and more ambitious hikes, and knows the ropes of multipitch rock climbing as well as me. Tyndall Glacier in RMNP looked like a good, mellow introduction to the world of axe-and-crampon work and would be new terrain for both of us. Little did we realize at the outset just how interesting it would become…
The Bear Lake trailhead is probably the most popular in the entire state (and rightly so!) and even at 6am there was a good crowd gathered. We felt right at home donning heavy packs full of ropes and helmets and humping up the trail. We got to Nymph Lake at sunrise and to Dream Lake just as the ephemeral best lighting of the day struck the picturesque buttresses of Hallett and Flattop across a mirror-smooth lake. While getting up at 4am is never fun, it’s views like this that make it palatable. Nor were we alone; at least a score of photographers lined the shores of the lake snapping away before the spectacular morning light faded. Another half mile of hiking brought us to Emerald Lake and the end of the easy trail.
From here, it was a climb of 1800′ in a straight-line mile to the base of the Glacier; new territory for both of us. Fortunately, the impressive buttresses on the north face of Hallett Peak contain some of the most popular alpine rock routes in the world and there is a rugged and indistinct trail up above the lake. We tackled the tallus, falling in with a couple groups of rock rats, gaining altitude quickly.
An hour after leaving the lake (after covering half a mile), we gained the top of the major cliff band. The climbers’ trail ended and we picked our way into the over and around house-sized blocks of stone (some quite freshly fallen) to gain the relatively easy grassy ramps and smooth slabs on the north side of the creek. The day was beautiful and we took our time. The top of the glacier hove into view. Nearly there! We surmounted a rocky ridge and fought our way through some tallus to the miniscule Pool of Jade just below the glacier. Nearly there! Then we tackled the terminal moraine which proved to be extremely arduous. Tottering and balancing over a few hundred yards of loose blocks took entirely more time and mental and physical effort than it should have.
After nearly four hours of approach, we could finally get on the ice! The glacier is arranged such that the left (south) side offers the longest, steepest slopes (about 500′ of snow topping out at 45 degrees) while the right side offers a much more gentle, shorter climb (perhaps 300′ and 35o). As this was Eric’s first time on snow or ice, we’d planned to tackle the gentle terrain, but we were eager to get off the rocks and on the ice, so we started an ascending traverse over to the gentle, right-hand exit.
Too tell the truth, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect either. I’ve done a fair number of spring snow climbs and a handful of technical water ice pitches as well. Accordingly, I’d come armed for both extremes; ice screws, pickets, and a pair of ice axes for both of us. I ran out the length of our 30 meter rope finding that the glacier was a lot firmer than expected. Axe plunging and step kicking didn’t work, so I was front pointing and daggering the whole way. Pickets went in with a good deal of hammering but at least they gave me some confidence. Eric started up behind me simul-climbing the lower angled terrain but keeping at least one peice of protection between us at all times. His initial misgivings had been about feeling unsecure above a long snow slope, but he found the axes to be quite secure and quickly got the hang of moving on snow. We regrouped at a small bergshrund below a rock rib, compared notes, and stowed the pickets for the second pitch.
Eric didn’t seem to be having any trouble with the exposure or the technique, so we scrapped the ascending traverse plan (the traversing was getting old anyway) opting for speed on the direct route. I headed straight up toward easily visible top. The slope opened up to a nice 45-degree sheet of ice and I was really starting to have fun… except for the pesky fact that sky was quite ominously dark and we could distinctly hear thunder from the northwest. Eric started up once I’d moved out onto the face and followed very quickly as I made for another rock rib just below the exit. Distances are very hard to judge on featureless snow and the rock rib and it’s sheltering bergshrund turned out to be a lot farther away than it appeared. I rationed my four pickets suplementing them with my longest ice screws in the occasional patches of snow-ice that looked like they might hold. The slope was pretty steep here and a fall would be hard to arrest. The pickets were pretty secure but the screws were probably more psychological than anything else.
At long last, I pulled up to the second ‘shrund, and fashioned a quick anchor. Eric had perfected the picket-cleaning routine by this point and was climbing harder than I’ve ever seen him climb. I was pulling in rope pretty quickly as he raced the thunder up the slope. Thunder boomed all around as he arrived and jumped into our nook, a bit shaken and out of breath. We stood side-by-side in the waist-deep moat with rock at our backs and a ring-side view of the meteorological action on the other three-sides. “At least we’ll die together,” he quipped. This was certainly not the ideal place to sit out a storm, but we didn’t have many options. Better to be half-way up the mountain during a storm than sitting on the exposed tundra of the Divide! A brief snowstorm had us diving into our packs for jackets and warmer layers. If nothing else, it was a great spot to contemplate our places in the larger universe.
Before long, the lightning had moved out to the east and the sky looked distinctly brighter in the west (though it was still snowing lightly). I moved out for the third pitch. The hard alpine snow made it feel a lot steeper than 50 degrees, that’s for sure! Again, it looked like the top was no more than a rope length above but it turned out to be probably another 200′. However, the sun was out, the lightning was gone, the ice was great, hikers watched us from the summit of Flattop (we reportedly put on quite a show), and there was no place I’d rather be. Life was good! The top came suddenly and I set up a quick anchor (two tools and my last picket), clipped in a directional, and belayed Eric up the final hundred feet. Considering this was the first time he’d ever swung an axe (never mind two axes) and he was climbing in soft leather boots with old, dull, Scottish-style crampons with a quiver of pickets banging around his ankles, he was doing remarkably well!
The best part of alpine climbing is the incredibly smug feeling you get when you’re back on easy, safe terrain. Wet gear came off and was laid in the sun to dry while we enjoyed a late lunch. With minimal gear (cameras and food bags), we trotted up the last quarter mile to the summit of Hallett Peak. The views from the top were stunning and conditions were great. I’ve been on the high peaks many times, but only on a handful of occasions was the sky clear and the wind completely calm. It was actually kind of eerie! Certainly it was a far cry from the last time I stood on the top of Hallett Peak!
Unfortunately, we still had a five mile hike to get back out and it looked like the clement weather might not last much longer. We trudged over to the “summit” of Flattop admiring views of “our” glacier on the way from several nice overlooks, then started the descent. Climbing and even talus-hopping in heavy leather boots is one thing, but hiking along smooth, gradual trail is quite another, especially with a 40 pound pack on your back. The descent was definitely no fun but we finally arrived back at the crowded trailhead at 4pm, just as the second, larger rainstorm of the day started. Total distance 9.5 miles in 9.5 hours and about 3300′ of gain.
Ice climbing in August… Sweet!