James Peak is a gentle giant of the Front Range. It's an easy, high peak (13,294') with good year-round access and a relatively short (7 mile) hiking trail to the top. I'd been saving it for some time when I needed a summit fix but didn't have a lot of time to plan things. I've been trapped at home for the past few weeks due to weather or other circumstances beyond my control and the bipolar weather patterns lately have me clawing at the walls. Ah, spring...
I picked up Julien at 6am and we headed out. Julien is the recently-arrived-from-France husband of a friend of mine. He got here three weeks ago and has yet to venture even into the Boulder park trails. This would be a fine introduction to the local mountains!
We arrived at the Saint Mary's Glacier parking area at a little after seven and got set up. Amy and I were here last spring for snow school and things looked very much the same. That time, we hiked up to the lake and spent quite a while playing around on the glacier itself. We hiked to the top, but didn't continue the additional two miles to the summit itself. Julien and I made good time up the trail to the lake, pausing briefly to don snowshoes. The glacier looked much as I remembered though there was a bit more snow this time around. The weather was looking a bit grim with a high haze and milky sunlight.
We made short work of the glacier opting for the longer ascent on the right hand side where the slope is moderate. The top part of the glacier is a seemingly-endless trudge up a shallow gully. When it finally tapers off at about 11,500', the three main peaks of the area, James, Bancroft, and Parry, came into view across a mile-wide flat plateau called, inexplicably, Jamaica. We made good time passing a rocky outcropping and started up the steeper slopes of the peak propper. Snow conditions were windswept and fairly hard, but, even with snowshoes, we broke through the crust frequently.
|The flats of Jamaica with James Peak in the distance.||Climbing the upper slopes near 13,000'. Mounts Bancroft (left) and Parry (right) are the other two major peaks in the James Peak Wilderness.|
Julien, despite having arrived from France only three weeks ago, kept up with me easily. We paused at about 12,200' for a snack break. Mount Evans and Grays/Torreys were prominently visible to the south. Closer to hand, we spied a really interesting looking ridge ascending Mount Bancroft with a series of scrambling pitches. We discussed the differences between climbing in France and the US and I realized that a lot of the words common in mountaineering are French in origin anyway.
The upper part of the climb went smoothly, if slowly. I am desperately out of shape and progress was harder than it should have been. We'd been watching another climber ahead of us struggle up the slope without snowshoes. From his tracks, it looked like he was sinking to his knees on almost every step. As we got closer, we heard occasional loud exclamations as he struggled valiantly up the slope. Snowshoes are indeed a wonderful thing!
The obligatory summit photo.
Impressive cornices on the east face. Don't stand too close to the edge!
Heading down the southeast ridge.
We left the summit at about 11:15 and headed down the southeast ridge. While the north and south slopes of James are quite mellow, the west and especially east faces are awesomely steep! The southeast ridge skirts the James Lake basin and gives great views of the east face. In particular, there are five couloir routes of various difficulties and qualities which climb this face and I was anxious to scout them out as possible snow climbs in May or June. Several routes had obvious and impressive cornices blocking their tops. Seeing the daunting cornice overhanging Shooting Star at the very summit of the mountain, I was leary of approaching the edge too closely! We proceeded down the mostly wind-swept tundra of the ridge and I took many photos. Incredible place!
Eventually, we abandoned the airy traverse and dropped back onto Jamaica, donning snowshoes for the retreat. James is a popular peak and I spied a number of other climbers following the trail we broke this morning. One group of eleven made me glad we'd gotten the early start. We made it to the glacier by about 12:30 and met a number of jeans-and-sneakers hikers (cottoneers). Back down at the lake, the weather was distinctly hot. The haze had burned off and the sun shone brightly. We dropped our packs, stripped off as many layers as feasible, and took a short side trip up Fox Mountain, a rocky pinnacle on the opposite side of the lake from the glacier. The climb was short, but rugged over snow-covered rocks. The view from the compact rocky ridge of a summit was entirely worth it, however. Back down at the lake, we retreived our packs and trudged back to the car, arriving at 1:30.
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