Archive for July, 2007

Taylor Glacier Solo Mission

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

Last week was the week from hell: cumulative fourteen hour workdays capped off by camping out in a tent on the jobsite Thursday night while the night crews went at it, and then full blown chaos Friday morning. If any of you happened to had crossed paths with me last week, I apologize for being a total spaz. After all was said and done I was completely burnt out on dealing with people, and I wanted nothing more than to escape into the wilderness on my own.

There were a couple of things that made this latest ski-mountaineering adventure special: it was my first solo mission, and could quite possibly be my last time on the snowboard for the summer. As I left the jobsite after everything died down Friday, choosing my destination was a no-brainer: Taylor Glacier.

As a frequent visitor to
The Park, this was specifically my first time back to the Sky Pond cirque in almost two years. So many missions ago, I had experienced my first alpine expedition here, as Briguy and I attempted to climb the Petit Grepon. Although we did not summit, the two days spent bivying out around Sky Pond were a total trip. I remember looking up at Taylor Glacier, thinking that there was no way in hell I would ever ski it. Now, two years later, I knew there was no way in hell that I WASN’T going to ski it. Since then I had been back on the Grepon, but from the Gash, and was only able to look down into Sky Pond.

As I began to gather beta on the line Friday night, I started to get a little nervous.

“Yeah…its pretty gnarly” The Burly Dude told me over the phone, “It is steep, like 60 degrees at the top”.
“I climbed it” the Beta Bambino said, “It keeps getting steeper and steeper…no I didn’t ski it.”

Haddad’s book claimed the glacier to be incredibly steep, with a cornice at the top and a runnel down the middle (I would later learn that this description couldn’t be more correct.) Regardless, I set out for The Park on Saturday and stopped in the backcountry office to secure an overnight bivy permit directly at the base of the glacier. It hit the trailhead at 4:00 pm and immediately mob’d up the trail.

Trekking up past The Loch, Taylor Glacier is the obvious snow field high above.

Glacier Gorge trail is probably THE most popular hiking trail in The Park. This would be my fourth time up the trail, and I could have done it blindfolded. Still, as I passed at least 100 people both going up and down the trail, I found that my overnight pack and snowboard on my back made me quite the tourist attraction.

“Think you’ll find snow up there?” I know I will, I saw it from the road, didn’t you?
“What are you plannin’ on doing with that thing?” I thought I’d use it as a picnic table.
“That’s a heavy load, young man.” After the 3rd mile you get used to it.
“How high are you going?” To the top!

The most gapers were gathered near Alberta Falls and the lower part of the trail. They were the most confused by my equipment. As I trekked higher, I ran into more folks who knew what I was up to, and the silly questions were replaced with comments like “Good luck!”, “You’ve got some guts!”, and “It must be worth it.”

Above tree line at the Lake of Glass, the ski line starts to unfold.

I hauled ass up towards The Loch faster than ever before (actually, the snowboard was a little bit lighter than the climbing gear that I usually packed in to this area). Taylor Started to come into view, and I felt the adrenalin beginning to flow. As the sun began to move into the evening sky, I scrambled above tree line to Sky Pond and felt like everything was familiar, just as I left it two years ago. As I moved around the pond, I passed directly under the looming monoliths of The Saber, The Sharkstooth, and the elusive Petit Grepon. They were all void of any climbing activity, as if just standing guard into the night. However, my business was not with any of these soldiers, and I rallied past them, heading due south to the dark corner of the entire cirque, and the wide white apron of Taylor Glacier, finally arriving at my destination in a little under 4 hours.

Ascending the snowfield

A five star bivouac at its best

View of the valley from camp!

RMNP backcountry rules restrict any bivouac to be on rock or snow. The sharp and uneven talus was out of the question, so I picked a nice flat spot on the snowfield that gave me a nice view of the entire valley, and set up camp. Unless there were climbers settling at the Cathedral Spires, whom I didn’t see, I was completely alone without another human being for miles. Once the sun was down, the Alpine cold began to set in, and I boiled not one, but two, water bottles to warm my bag. I sat back and watched the sun set behind the Sharkstooth, and the orange alpenglow line krept higher and higher on Taylor Glacier until it was covered in shadow. I was relatively comfortable, but had to get out around 2 AM and boil a third bottle for the sleeping bag. After that, I slept peacefully until 6 AM.

Alpenglow on Taylor

The July sun was up before I was, and as I crawled out of the sleeping bag. I could tell it was going to be a hot day, and I need to get moving on the glacier before it got too wet. I pulled on my snowboard pants and boots, attached my crampons, and stowed everything else in the pack (I didn’t want to leave anything at camp in case I decided NOT to descend Taylor). I could see the top of the glacier, and I guessed it to be about 800 feet above my camp. There was a huge cornice at the top, but the side was melted out and I could see a route to the top of the ridge. What worried me more than the cornice was the deeply cut runnel directly down the middle of the glacier.

Starting the climb

The runnel, probably 400 feet long and quite intimidating!

The slope started out flat but very quickly turned almost vertical within the first 200 feet. For the rest of the climb, I gripped the ice axe by the shaft and stabbed the pick into the wall of snow in front of me, then made careful kicksteps as I made my way up one step at a time. I couldn’t have asked for better snow consolidation. It was just quite melted out enough that I was able to kick into the snow and support myself, but with an icy underlayer to support the crampon spikes. Occasionally I would encounter exceptionally hard or soft snow, and I had to self-arrest a half dozen times to keep from slipping. For some reason it was usually my right foot that would slip out, and I would jam down on the ice axe to catch myself as I looked down at the steep icy face below me.

About midway up the couloir. This pic really puts it in perspective of the seriousness of one small mistake.

The final, and steepest part of the climb to the cornice

I continued to climb as the sun got hotter and hotter. All I had for water was boiled snow from this morning, and I tried to avoid looking into the cloudy silt filled liquid as I drank frequently. I started to feel a little sick, but there was no turning back. As I made it to the part of the the face where the two couloirs split off, I decided to stay the course and continue to climb straight up, but I had to cross the runnel to get up to the top. I inched my way in first with my ski pole in my left hand, then swung the axe as high into the middle of the groove as possible, then very carefully traversed my feet until I was on the other side. I swung the axe again up the far wall, and crawled over the lip to the left side of the runnel.

Once in the final couloir section, I pumped all the way to the bottom of cornice and finally dropped my bag and breathed a sigh of relief. There was room enough where the cornice melted out to squeeze through, but it required some very dexterious rock climbing skills to get through.

A little squeeze chimney. Briguy would be proud!

Looking down at the route. I still can’t believe I climbed that!

While climbing the Cathedral Spires last summer and the summer before, I would often look across at Taylor and wonder what the other side looked like. Was it a steep headwall like the north face? When I finally climbed over the cornice and reached the Continental Divide I laughed out loud at my sight. Before me was a wide open grassy meadow full of green grass and bright yellow flowers! I felt as if I was in the Sound of Music. As if on cue, I looked to the West and saw three women trekking across the fields. Although my route was extremely challenging, I hadn’t even thought of encountering any other Alpinists up here. After talking to them, I discovered that they had come up Andrew’s Glacier (a lot less steep than Taylor) from the North and they were on their way to Mount Powell, on the other side of Taylor.


Hundreds of lines on all these north facing slopes!

The climb took me about two hours, and I spent the next hour relaxing in the morning sun and taking in a spectacular view of the Sharkstooth and the Grepon. Finally, at 10 AM I decided that the snow was probably soft enough to attempt my descent.

If you’ve been here, this picture needs no explanation. For everyone else: the huge formation on the left is The Sharkstooth, the smaller double summit is the Petit Grepon (right) and The Penknife (left), and the rock in the back is The Saber.

I think this is either Chiefs Head Peak or McHenry’s Peak. Any input?

“Steep” is an understatement

I had spent the entire winter and summer earning my turns in the backcountry for this one single moment. The line I was attempting was steeper than any couloir I’d ever ridden. I was alone, but had all the necessary skills and practice to make my way down the face. The area below the cornice provided a nice platform to strap into my board, and I loaded up my pack and donned the ski goggles. I looked down at the suicide run I was about to attempt. I could have stood there all day without dropping in, but I decided the best way to overcome the nervous feeling was to just ‘go for it’.

Good thing I brought up the brass balls

I dropped in and made a quick toe-side turn. Immediately I could tell that a 60 degree slope no joke! I slid down about 50 feet and then made a jump turn towards heel-side. That is when I lost control. My edge went out and my pack was slammed against the wall of snow behind me. It all happened in an instant, and before I knew it I was trapped inside the treacherous runnel and sliding out of control, pushed pounds of went slush down all around me! I tried to self arrest with my axe behind me, but I knew the only way to self arrest would be to roll the snowboard back to toe-side. However, the runnel was so deep and narrow that I couldn’t make the turn, and I felt my slide getting faster and faster. My pack was pushing itself up and over my head, and I pushed the snowboard against the sidewalls of the luge track in any attempt to slow myself down.

Although I started to freak out when I first fell in, I rationalized the situation. Since I obeyed the “climb it first” rule, I knew that the runnel would eventually run out onto the apron, and the slope would start to flatten out. When this happened, I was able to jam the ice axe between my legs and bring myself to a stop. Breathing heavily, I just sat there trying to put together everything that had just happened. How many turns did I make before falling in? How fast was I going? For a split second I was scared for my life, but now time was stopped and I just sat on the side of the apron laughing at myself, “Way to gaff that one up, dude!”

One final look at the beast
The snow apron extended out almost all the way to Sky Pond, and I got back on the board, stowed the ice axe, and gracefully carved my way down the rest of the glacier, making as many wide turns as possible to make up for the wasted turns above. I reached the end of the snow field and took off the board for good. It was a thrill, but I was glad to be done. I changed into shorts, put on some sunscreen, and began the five mile hike down the trail.

I encountered the same hikers and tourists coming down the mountain, but my story was reversed.

“Did you find snow?” Sure did!
“You didn’t…you did!” one man said to me “You’ve got more guts than I do.” No, I’m just crazy.
“Where did you ride?” I just pointed back up at the lines in the snow.

I couldn’t help but feel like a rock star. No one saw my gaff session in the runnel, but they could see my tracks high up in the snow and knew immediately what I had gone through. I didn’t tell any hero stories, just the truth, but most were still amazed at my feat. As I got closer to the trailhead I encountered more of the tourist crowd in converse sneakers and jeans that had never even hiked above tree line, and recieved more and more shocked looks as I hauled ass down the trail to my car. Another mission completed and I’m still alive…

Last look from the road on the way home…