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RMNP Conditions Report – May 11, 2011

Nearing Fairchild’s summit, Estes Valley far below (5/2)

“Mountains symbolize the indomitable will, an unbending resolution, a loyalty that is eternal, and character that is impeachable…When man pits himself against the mountain, he taps inner springs of his strength.  He comes to know himself.  For he realizes how small a part of the universe he actually is, how great are the forces that oppose him.” — William O. Douglas
Approaching “Brain Freeze” on Otis’ S. Face (5/5)

After a long stint away in Alaska, I’ve needed a week or so to reacquaint myself with the Park’s conditions.  A lot has changed since I was romping around in Colorado’s high peaks in early April and I’ve wanted to take my time to really get a feel for what’s going on now.  Personally, I’m annoyed when people spray ignorant beta on the web and I’d be a hypocrite to do the same.  So, here’s what I’ve seen up here lately:

Front Range rock climbing, often perfect in May

I know it’s been all warm and green low along the Front Range but, in the alpine, winter still reigns supreme.  For some ridiculously odd reason, Estes locals are always surprised and whiny when it snows in May…just like it does every year.  Well, it’s snowing now and has been off and on all day.  The pattern seems to have been substantial spring (ie, heavy and wet) snowfall followed by clear, warm weather.  As always, the winds have been blowing and plumes of dry, air-borne snow can still be visible along the Continental Divide even on the warmest days.  Currently in the high country, the winds have overall been light and out of the East (opposite of usual), just enough to transport snow into thick drifts.  The snow was heavy at times today, ~1″/hr, with visibility less than 500′ due to snow and low clouds.  The current forecast called for nearly a foot of snow today and another 6″ or so tonight.  I’ve heard reports of over 18″ in the 10 Mile Range in Summit County.  We’re enjoying a classic May snowstorm!

Ypsilon as viewed from Fairchild’s S. Ridge (5/2)

It’s that time of year when the snowpack has finally stabilized enough to reduce avalanche concerns to the upper layers.  This means we can escape the low-angle terrain and tree runs we’ve been glued to all winter and explore the high alpine.  On a recent ski descent of Fairchild, we found awesome views of the Mummy Range and Ypsilon with many lines to be skied.  We found great turns which made the solid effort worthwhile.

Norie making deep turns in the upper Dragontail today (5/11)

Climbing plans were canceled today and out came the skis and boots again.  Aside from a couple cars at the Glacier Gorge TH and another car at the Bear Lake TH, we were alone.  There was 5″ or so of new snow on the ground when we left the car this morning.  Snow-laden branches hung low, snow fell softly as we broke trail up Flattop and, best of all…silence.  No wind, for once.  Our original plans were rendered less-than-ideal after we got above treeline to find near white-out conditions.  Calm winds were making for a chilly ascent so we opted to descend something that, at least, we could see: the Dragontail Couloir.

 Norie cruising into the choke high in the Dragontail (5/11)

A couple ski cuts at the top flushed out a bit of the new snow but heavy sluffs kept our attention through the first 500′.  Apparently tons of people have been skiing the DTC and for good reason: it’s more filled in than usual, almost an easy descent.  Old ski tracks made in sloppy mashed potatoes on warm days past were frozen solid underneath the new snow, making for a bit of the “dust on crust” feel.  But the middle was 10″ of May powder, a dream to find this time of year.

Somewhere on “Brain Freeze,” climbing ice with rock pro (5/5)

This storm will wrap up sometime Thursday (5/12) but the real avalanche issues will be prevalent Friday.  Today we triggered numerous, shallow and manageable slabs/sluffs in the storm snow.  But when the warm sun hits the fresh snow on Friday, look out: the mountains will be shedding heavily.  Clues of this sort of activity are still visible from the last cycle (5/7), with large chunks of avy debris littering the areas below steep terrain.  Last Saturday, around noon, people lunching at Emerald Lake were treated with at least four substantial wet-loose avalanches that occurred naturally, sweeping down towards the Lake.  On Sunday, a team I was leading started very early from Bear Lake TH for the S. Face of Flattop.  As we began our rappel descent, we witnessed another natural, wet-loose avalanche near the base of Hallet at 9:45, quite early.  Don’t get caught in steep, sun-soaked terrain too late in the day!

A giant chunk of avy debris above Emerald Lake; this would so some damage. (5/11)

Not only has the skiing been ideal lately, the climbing has been good too.  I just mentioned the S. Face of Flattop; we found pretty firm snow and soft ice mixed with solid, dry rock on our climbing loop.  CMS guide Norie Kizaki and I climbed “Brain Freeze” on the S. Face of Otis last week and found awesome conditions.  Most of the route provided decent snow and great ice climbing, helping the route to feel easier than its grade.  Loch Vale still had some ice but I didn’t stop to really check it out.  The Freezer Burn wall was still plastered as well and the first pitch of the “Wham Couloir” looked to be fun ice climbing too.  So, south-facing routes at low-to-mid elevations are coming in nicely.  I suspect that other ice pitches in the Black Lake area are still climbable but, likely, partially/mostly buried with all the snow we got in April.  Maybe “Martha’s” on Mt. Lady Washington is good now too?  It may be too high still.  North-facing routes are reportedly still too dry with lots of wallowing to be had (if you’re into that sort of thing).

An early season ascent of the 1st Flatiron in beautiful Colorado weather

I saw a party on Hallet Chimney on Sunday but it was hard to see the quality from our perspective.  A report from the day before (5/7) noted too-deep conditions just climbers’ left of HC in the north-facing descent couloir.  As the ambient temps warm, the south-facing routes will begin to dry up as the north-facing routes come into prime shape.  The RMNP alpine climbing season is just beginning!

A view towards the Cathedral Spires and Sharkstooth (5/5)

Rock climbing feels awkward after so much time spent in ski boots but, fortunately for me, the beckoning weather/temps have helped quite a bit.  With splitter weather and hot temps along the lower Front Range, there’s literally something for everybody these days.  Skiing in the high peaks, ice/mixed climbing on good south faces and brilliant rock climbing in the canyons…lots to do. 

Yours truly trying out rock climbing again on an early-season ascent of “Neurosurgeon,” near Lyons, CO

But conditions are prone to change quickly during these transitional seasons between summer and winter.  I’ll do my best to keep these reports accurate but I’m always looking for readers’ observations as well.  If you’ve been out in the Park, please send me an e-mail with your observations.  Or if you just have questions, feel free to e-mail me at  As always, have fun, enjoy the mountains but stay safe out there!

Andrew Councell is a CMS Guide and year-round Estes Park resident

 Warm rock one day, May powder the next…does it get any better? (5/11)

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