"Well," said Fabio in his typical understated manner, "It's not hot." This was certainly true, but the skies were mostly clear and the wind was down to a fairly gentle breeze; not bad for mid-January in one of the snowiest seasons on record. It had been a hell of a week; work stress, a nasty cold, a freak snowstorm... and the previous couple of weeks haven't been real relaxing either. I was itching to get out an accomplish something. The last mountain I climbed was way back in October. Sunday was forecast to be better than Saturday and looked like the best window for alpine success: high around 18 degrees, winds 8-10 mph, windchills in the single digits. Good enough.
I was joined by veteran mountain men Peter and Fabio and their climbing gym friend Kristin. We set out at a leisurely 7am for Rocky Mountain National Park to climb Flattop Mountain and hit the trail a little before 9am. Flattop (12,324') is one of the easiest and most popular peaks in the Park and is clogged with hikers, summer and winter. As the name implies, it is flat on top and the summit itself is a bit academic. The north and south faces are steep, craggy walls surrounding glacier-ridden gorges (Tyndal to the south, Odessa to the north), but the east and west slopes are gradual ramps leading (in a nicely avalanche-safe way) up to the Divide. It's a pretty mellow 4.4 miles and 2800' of vertical from Bear Lake to the summit. The mighty Hallett Peak (monarch of Tyndal Gorge) lies another mile south with another few hundred feet of vertical. Of course, all bets are off in the winter. But we were all experienced winter mountaineers and were armed to the teeth with cold- and wind-defeating technology.
The first mile of trail was extremely well packed and we made quick time without even putting the snowshoes on. The Flattop trail was slightly less well packed, but we still proceeded in boots on mostly-packed snow. After a hundred yards, the trail bifurcated and then bifurcated again. We picked the most likely-looking option and wended through the woods for a while gaining altitude. Soon we were postholing in deep snow with one or two ski tracks on it. We were off the main trail (and had been for quite some time), but it didn't matter. Time to put on the snowshoes.
|Fabio climbs the sastrugi at 11,000'||Peter waits for us on the upper slopes|
Shortly after this neccessary pause, we broke out of treeline at about 10,600'. From here we negotiated some spruce traps before getting to the beautiful, 20-degree snow slab, all packed down hard by the wind and carved into sastrugi of all dimensions. Unfortunately, with this kind of terrain comes wind--not much by winter Front Range standards, maybe 10-15 mph--right in the face as we negotiated the slope. We gained elevation quickly, but it was very cold going.
Things continued like this for quite a while. Snow gave way to a field of jagged rocks, then back to snow again. We passed the tops of the two spectacular couloirs on the precipitous south side (Dragon's Tooth and Dragon's Tail) and gaped at the sudden break from gentle terrain. Peter's nose turned waxy and white and Kristin fell over a couple times on the rocks. We traversed an ugly field of sharp tallus with thin snow here and there (not wanting to take the time to retract the snowshoes), but then gained the upper slope within half a mile and 300' of the summit. Peter and I raced forward guided by my GPS more than anything to the summit. I spied a set of rocks off to the left that looked marginally higher than everything else and declared it to be lunch time. We carved out a small shelter while Fabio and Kristin arrived.
|Sun, snow, wind, rock.||Fabio, Kristin, and Peter huddle behind the arbitrarily-choosen official summit.|
It was still not hot. The temperature was down to about zero and the wind, though relatively gentle at about 10 mph, pushed the windchill down healthily into the negative teens or more. The view was great, however, and spooky with sunlight filtered through a haze of blowing ice crystals. Flattop itself is pretty boring to look at up close, but it's surrounded by lots of nice peaks and precipitous gorges and canyons. The west was clouded in but we could see the huge, bizarrely cubical-looking Longs Peak to the southeast, Hallett looming conical to the south and the many peaks surrounding Lake Odessa to the north. It was an alien beauty, but did not bear long comtemplation in these conditions.
Kristin was being unusually quiet and refusing food and water (despite the fact that her water bladder had frozen solid in the first two miles). Sounds like the beginnings of hypothermia to me. Peter and Fabio got a down jacket on her while I tried to provide a wind break. A trail of huge cairns marked the summer trail so we followed it east and down. Heading down hill was a nice change but nicer still was having the wind at our backs. My mask had frozen solid from my breath and it was nice to not have to have it clamped around my nose all the time. Fabio lead the way and we shed altitude quickly. Eventually we were travelling more on bare ground than on snow so everyone but Peter shed their snowshoes. Of course, just after that, we encountered some steep and deep snow where they would have been very helpful. Figures!
By 3pm we'd dropped below treeline again and paused to put snowshoes back on. Kristin was back to her talkative self and we were feeling safe. A pause in the trees for a snack and drink convinced us it really was pretty cold and we would rather keep moving, thanks! The rest of the descent went without incident and we covered the remaining two miles to the car in about an hour. We paused to watch the late-afternoon light on the impressive west face of Longs Peak and stood on the frozen Bear Lake looking back up at Flattop and Hallett. In spite of the summer crowds, the developed trails, and the beaurocracy, Rocky Mountain National Park is a stunningly beautiful place, especially in the winter.
|Fleeting sun and shaddow looking north at the Gabel.||Longs Peak is a very strangely-shaped mountain from this angle.|
For a mellow climb, it was pretty exciting. We got a taste of real winter conditions and got to test our mettle in a controlled and safe way. I am more convinced than ever that having a system is the key to functioning efficiently in the wilderness, especially in the winter. Knowing what to wear, what to bring, and how to store it effectively is essential. I felt great the whole day and never bonked as I often do. My fingers and toes were cold a lot of the time, but it could have been a lot worse. It was a great trip, and my first summit of 2006!
The Wilderness Journal