I recently read a disturbing line in an avalanche bulletin from another mountain range, in another state, apparently also suffering from this snow-drought we’re having: According to their records dating back to 1945, the only worse Decembers (thus far) for lack of snow where in 1976 and 1962. Northern Colorado isn’t alone, other areas around the country are also feeling the impotence of early winter storms (although the southern ranges in Colorado are doing comparatively well). That being said, there’s a reason patience is a virtue and the winter is truly only just beginning. For the last few weeks, the snows have managed to dodge Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park, giving us a mere few inches in that time. But things are looking up with a few more inches last night and the hope of more snow in the future. Here in Estes, we received about 6-7″ with greater amounts in Boulder (16″ at another guide’s house there). Snow amounts tend to drop to lackluster levels the further west you travel, a classic up-slope storm…again.
Here at CMS we’ve already run two AIARE Level 1 courses in the Park despite the shallow snow-pack. Still, we’ve managed to find deep-enough pockets of snow for observation profiles/pits and have found lots of weak snow to keep us interested. Generally speaking, our snow-pack overall is comprised of a series of wind-slabs above treeline and a mostly faceted snow-pack below treeline. Many guides have also noted surface hoar around the Park. In the last weeks, skiing on bullet-hard “wind board” above treeline gave way to bottomless facets in the trees. In both zones, a substantial load of new snow will tip the scales towards instability. Above treeline, the primary concern will continue to be wind-slabs freshly formed from the new snow; elsewhere, a faceted snow-pack speckled with areas of buried surface hoar will prove tricky for backcountry travelers. Be aware, buried surface hoar and the profusion of such weak structure in the snow-pack throughout the Park are conditions that we as locals are not accustomed to seeing. This might be considered abnormal conditions requiring extra caution as new snow is added to the system.
Admittedly, the skiing hasn’t been the greatest around here for a while now. As the snow-pack has weakened, skiers and boarders have been “discovering” the hidden obstacles underneath, often breaching all layers and smacking the actual ground. Trails have been hard-packed and icy. Thanks to a super-strong wind event in mid-November, lots of trees are down creating another challenge until they’re buried. However, good turns can still be found in the most protected zones but a word of advice: use your rock skis. The Park has received just enough new snow to camouflage many obstacles so we’re all skiing like ninjas despite the freshies. It’s only going to get better from here…it’s gotta!
Thankfully, poor skiing conditions often mean good ice climbing conditions and many of the guides here have been taking full advantage of that. These last few weeks have been generally good for the Park ice with many of the routes in better shape than most years. We’ve been guiding the classics like All Mixed Up and Notchtop’s NE Face as well as climbing around Black Lake and the Loch areas. None of our crew has ventured into the Longs Peak Cirque in a while but reports are that Alexander’s Chimney is the only worthwhile route in the area aside from the usual obscuraties.
– All Mixed Up: CMS guides Joey Thompson, Chris Burke and Matt Lipscomb all climbed the route within the week. The approach was packed in nicely above Mills Lake but the new snow will make things more challenging. They reported marginally-bonded ice in some sections but the worst were passable with rock protection. The final pitch is super fat and is not currently the crux of the route. The descent was snow-covered talus hopping but, again, the new snow will probably hide some nasty holes.
– NE Face, Notchtop and area: CMS guides Mike Soucy and Roy Leggett climbed this route recently and reported easy climbing on the ice with decent snow-climbing en route. The first pitch, which can be tricky in thin years, was all ice. Mike and Roy climbed past Hot Doggie via a couple ice pitches low on the Face and said it looked good up close.
I went up to climb the Face yesterday but strong winds, new snow, near-zero visibility, worsening weather and fresh wind-slab caused us to veer onto the Guides Wall instead. From what little we could see of the Face, conditions were similar to what Mike and Roy reported with Hot Doggie looking fatter than I’ve ever seen. I heard a 2nd-hand report, though, that the ice on Doggie was “game on” climbing. Grace Falls is also the biggest I’ve seen in years, very wide with options ranging from thin-ice smears to WI4 pillars and easier lines on the periphery.
As I just mentioned, we ended up climbing at the Guides Wall and found the left-most flow to be about 250′ of super-fat WI3+/- depending on the line. There are a number of cool mixed climbs on the Wall; we climbed New Beginnings, for example, and it was really good. The ice on Guides Wall, like Hot Doggie, faces pretty much East and has suffered from all the warmth. Some has recently fallen down. Some of the pillars and daggers were a bit rotted out and quite hollow sounding. But lots to do in that area. It’d be worth bringing flotation (snowshoes) for accessing Grace Falls and Guides Wall to avoid the off-trail wallowfest we enjoyed.
– Hidden Falls: I was climbing here with some friends about a week ago and found the climb to be in decent shape. I led up to the bolts in the cave (bolts still good) and opted not to climb the final 8′ pillar to the top. The pillar was detached on one side and dripping like ten slobbering mastiffs so we avoided it and stayed on the better, drier ice. The little WI3- flow on the left is somewhat in, good ice but not yet connected all the way to the ledge.
– Loch Vale ice: A number of guides have been here already this year and report increasingly better conditions. Alas, this area has seen heavy traffic and pretty much everything is hooked and hacked. On the one hand, hooking your way to glory is kinda fun but on the other it’s still pretty cool to climb more virgin ice. Nearly all the main flows are in good shape, with Mo’ Flo’ Than Go having a more distinct upper tier than usual. CMS guide Steve Johnson was climbing at the Crypt recently and also reported great climbing with the route being in WI4 shape. I saw the Freezer Burn/Cold Storage area recently and, from afar anyway, it looked like it was doing really well.
– Elsewhere, Jewel Lake is doing well but the approach crosses a number of braided streams and with such a shallow snow-pack people have been punching through and getting wet. The routes up at Black Lake are reportedly all in; the usual caution should be used for the W. Gully area in terms of avalanches. CMS guide Bob Chase went to check out the Big Thompson ice and reported that it’s in and will just be getting fatter. There’s a few distinct lines; unfortunately, the lower flow isn’t in. The approach, at the moment, is pretty good with the river being frozen and good logs for crossing. Ice outside of the Park is also doing really well.
I was climbing in Officer’s Gulch last week on ‘Round the Corner and we found fat, blue ice for a number of fun little pitches. Vail ice is in good, here’s the latest report from Dale Remsberg: Rigid Designator is in WI5 shape and a bit harder than usual; Spiral Staircase is fat and hooky; Secret Probation with good ice at the crux; the Pencil and Eraser are both in and looking good; the Fang is in but still in the WI7 range and doesn’t look like it’s been climbed yet. There’s not much snow on the approach to the Ampitheatre, making the approach easier in some regards but harder getting up the steep sections near the end (crampons may help).
That’s the latest from our end but, as usual, conditions can and often do change quickly around here. The avalanche danger has spiked with this latest storm and the new snow will hide everything from well-traveled trails to rocks. Common sense and caution will go a long way. With the shortest day of the year soon behind us, I’m sure we’re all looking forward to sunnier days in the future. Thanks for reading and if you have observations to share or questions, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com. Stay safe!
Andrew Councell is a CMS Senior Guide and year-round Estes Park resident
I was skiing at Hidden Valley today along with a number of others (maybe a couple dozen other folks in total). Snow amounts there were not as much as the CAIC posted, more like 5-6″ max. Still, if you stayed off the main line the skiing was pretty good on sheltered, north-facing aspects. The Bear Lake snotel did indeed register 9″ but Hidden Valley is probably still a safer bet due to lots of traffic (skier compaction) which helps form a base. The winds were light from the NW for most of the morning, gusting to moderate at times. All in all, another beautiful day in the Park and, finally, some pretty good turns.