The fact that my legs are aching means I had a good time this weekend. On Saturday, Amy and I finally became true Coloradans by hitting the ski slopes at Loveland. Great weather and a good time was had by all, despite traffic and somewhat thin snow cover above treeline. In the process, I rode Lift 9 (highest chairlift in the world at above 12,000') a couple times and skied around on the Continental Divide. Nifty! But that was only day one of the weekend...
Our planned (green) and actual (red) route.
We set a leisurely meeting time of 8am. I wasn't so concerned with the late start figuring that, as long as we were back on the main trail by dark, we could easily hike out by the light of the full moon. In this, I was technically correct, but it was a day of things not going exactly according to plan...
Amy was still tired from Saturday and stayed home. Our lack of female leadership became immediately evident when, after driving half way there, we discovered I'd forgotten my boots at home. Thus it was a very leisurely 10:30 before we actually hit the trail at East Portal. We haven't had any snow for over a week here and the trail was packed down hard as rock from skiers and snowshoers. We made good time in the warm sun to the two-mile point where we would take to the harder terrain. We donned snowshoes and set off up the drainage.
I carefully noted that there was a hill dividing the Crater drainage to the north from the Iceberg drainage we were headed for. Spying the hill, we carefully steered to the left of it. There was no trail per se, but we followed a faint set of ski tracks through some rather steep terrain. Soon we found ourselves at the bottom of an unreasonably steep rocky chute full of deep snow. Apparently the ski tracks we were following were descent tracks, not ascent! The surface in the chute wasn't hard enough to walk on easily and every step in the wet, soft snow caused us to slide backwards nearly as far as we'd advanced. I finally found the trick by stepping slightly uphill from the zig-zagging ski tracks and was able to make progress.
Meanwhile, Davide was encountering the second problem of the day. His new snowshoes feature step-in bindings, compatible with plastic mountaineering boots much like crampons. He had never used this pair of snowshoes before and was discovering that the toe wire wasn't shaped quite correctly to grip his boots. They would fall off frequently causing much floundering in the hip-deep snow. While I broke trail up this gully, he fashioned a system with some climbing slings to keep his boots in. It wasn't perfect, but it worked reasonably well.
The gully climb took entirely too much energy and time. We reached the top of it breathless and tired at about 1pm for some lunch. We set off again up the gentler terrain wondering where Clayton Lake was. Soon it became apparent we were on a ridge separating two drainages and that the ridge had a lot farther to go before becoming flat. We rounded a bend and found a smooth, steep snow slope soaring up to a set of small cliffs against the sky. Yikes! We traversed north around the slope and discovered more slope, equally steep. Nothing else to do but keep climbing. It wasn't quite as bad as the gully, but progress was slow and painful. Finally we got to the base of the rocky band and were faced with either traversing left into unknown terrain at the top of a very steep, wet slope, or surmounting the 20' tall cliff band. Tired of snow, I traded hiking poles for ice axe and removed my snowshoes. There was an easy looking rock chimney I figured I could climb up. I got close enough to hook onto some holds (yay ice axe!) before ending up armpit-deep in snow and brambles. Davide traversed to the right under the cliffs and finally surmounted them at a lower point. After another try at the cliff via a different, less brambly route, I gave up and followed the Italian route. Beyond the cliffs, the going was much easier. We climbed hard snow and talus for another hundred feet before topping out on a summit.
|Davide strikes off into the trees. Imagine this but in the dark, much more tired and without the snowshoes and you'll have an idea what he looked like on the way down...||Davide tops out on the first false summit at 11,400'. The South Boulder Creek valley and the East Portal trailhead can be seen behind.|
Yours trully at 11,400' with the rest of the ridge still to go. The actual summit is the small snowy cone right over my head.
Finally we could see where we were. It turns out there are two ridges guarding the entrance to the Iceberg Cirque. In staying carefully to the left at the beginning, we'd forced ourselves onto the southern ridge instead of between them. Clayton Lake could be seen far below to the right. We were now stationed at 11,400' at the terminal end of a long ridge leading up to the Divide and Heartbeat Peak. Looks like we'd also missed our planned snow climb. Fortunately, we agreed that we'd had more than enough snow for the moment and that easy hiking on a windswept ridge was just fine. Besides, the time was 2:30 and we only had another 2 hours of sunlight.
The ridge walking was easy enough, but both of us were extremely burned from the laborious climb up to the ridge (I estimate 1000' in about half a mile or less). Snow conditions were generally great for walking with hardpack and occasional rocks. Nevertheless, we made slow progress up another 400' to the second false summit at 11,800'. We took sustainence from our dwindling supplies and set out again girded against the wind. A broad flat area skirted a third false summit. Ahead of us the way was clear; it looked like we might actually summit this thing! Anyway, the bail-out options were not terribly attractive at the moment being glissades down moderately steep snow slopes into unknown basins, probably inhabitted by yetis and snow serpents.
We attacked the penultimate false summit with renewed vigor--or was it desperation?--climbing a beautiful snow dome right up to the Continental Divide. This was my second visit to the Divide in as many days, and the view was all the more spectacular knowing I didn't take a chair lift this time. Davide arrived (his first Divide crossing on foot) and we scoped out the Icebox Express route we'd originally planned on. For a "moderate" snow climb, it looked unrelentingly steep and smooth with a slide directly down on to the frozen Iceberg Lakes to make matters even more fun. Furthermore, a mid-size cornice stuck out into space at the very top which would have made the last twenty feet very dicey indeed. Perhaps it was just as well we got lost when we did!
|Hiking along the upper portion of the ridge at about 11,900'. The real summit (finally!) is the one on the left.||Finally on the Divide, Davide approaches the summit...|
In any case, there we were with less than a third of a mile and 100' of elevation separating us from from the summit of Heartbeat Peak. We hiked south along the Divide and easily up the summit cone. Victory was ours at the rather late time of 3:50 pm. The weather was still gorgeous and the lighting perfect for dramatic photos. But strong wind blew from the west and the sun was hovering above the horizon in a particularly disinterested way. Photos were taken and victory dances performed quickly before setting out to the south looking for an exit down to Heart Lake. Various opportunities presented themselves, but all were steep snowfields with healthy cornices guarding their tops; nothing we wanted to tackle in our current tired state.
|...success!||The view south from the summit. Below is the frozen Heart Lake. The Divide snakes it's way down toward Rogers Pass with James Peak, Bancroft and Parry behind and 1000' above us.|
We ended up hiking a mile of ridgeline down to Rogers Pass where the normal hiker trail switchbacks up from Heart Lake. After a brief rest out of the wind in the last rays of the sun (it was 4:30 at this point), we donned crampons and started out down the steep trail. Even with the switchbacks, we were descending 30-degree, rock-hard snow in the fading light. Crampons were essential! We finally gained the lake as the sky to the east turned pink and orange. Our last step was to locate the main South Boulder Creek Trail at the far end of the lake and hike out by moonlight.
Heart Lake and Heartbeat Peak on the descent from Rogers Pass. The last rays of the sun catch the peak and the Earth's shaddow can be clearly seen in the valley below. We still have five miles of hiking to go!
This, however, turned out to be no small task! We followed a set of tracks from the far side of the lake which quickly became evident were not the main trail. Several sets of snowshoe prints lead the way through the twilight forest. At this point, Davide's snowshoes finally became unwearable. On the ascent, his sling solution was okay, but descending caused his feet to come out of one shoe or the other every fifth step! Things were looking grim! I lead the way searching desperately for the main trail but getting little help from my headlamp and the moonlight. We followed a set of snowshoe tracks figuring that they lead down hill and would eventually intersect the trailhead. I packed the trail as much as I could (which wasn't much) and Davide followed, wallowing up to his hips most of the time. The wind had died and the moon shone incredibly brightly on the pristine snow and trees. The forest was calm and peaceful, but this was quickly becoming a Situation.
Following this rough trail was not obviously productive. It would certainly lead us out, but after unknown amounts of slogging through deep snow. Our energy was failing and we needed easier hiking soon! I took my bearings from the moon and stars and set out downhill to try to find the main trail paralleling the creek. Davide lumbered along behind swearing and grunting in his exertion. I've never seen someone work so hard before!
After nearly two hours of hiking in the dark, I saw a moonlit clearing. "If I were the trail," I said to my right hiking pole (it had gotten to that point I'm afraid), "I'd go through that clearing." My left hiking pole concurred and, sure enough, there was the trail. I let out a tremendous whoop and went back to collect Davide. I offered to carry his pack, but he growled that he'd gotten this far, he'd bloody-well finish it!
At 7pm, we collapsed on the well-beaten trail and shared an apple and some raisins for energy for the final push. We estimated that we'd covered a mile or maybe a little more of snowy wallowing, and still had three miles of trail to go. The moonlight proved more than adequate for hiking on this heavenly thoroughfare and by 8pm, feet pounding and legs on their last strength, we crossed the train tracks and arrived at the car. SAFE!!!
It was, by no means, a well-executed winter mountaineering adventure. Many mistakes were made. However, we succeeded in our mission and were never out of our depth. This was a much more strenuous expedition than I've done in quite a while (ten miles, at least two of them in deep snow, and 3000' of elevation gain). It is good to know how far it is possible to push ourselves and what we are capable of. Not that we would conciously plan an adventure to turn out this way, but it's good to know we can do it when the going gets tough.
Wow, what a weekend!
The Wilderness Journal