Posts Tagged ‘Indian Peaks’

Indian Peaks, Mt. Audubon southeast shoulder

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
The Indian Peaks are the prominent mountains that can be seen from almost everywhere on the eastern plains of Colorado. Their serrated, snowcapped peaks and ridges stand in stark contrast to the dry desert foothills in front of them. Every day thousands of people are subjected to their view while hurrying along US-36 on their daily commute between Denver and Boulder. Millions more have seen them out of an airplane window while flying into, out of, or connecting at Denver International Aiport.

The Indian Peaks seen from Denver International Airport (photograph provided courtesy of Denver International Airport)
Image

However, as beautiful as they are from a distance, 99% of those people are completly oblivious to the true feeling one will find when adventuring deep into the wilderness of these mountains. Ironically, although these mountains are within an hour drive of the most densely populated area of the entire Rocky Mountains, it is easy to find solitude here in the middle of winter.

I planned to meet my partner, Barrows, at the Brainerd Lakes trailhead early in the morning. This required the aforementioned drive along the Boulder Turnpike. As I drove, with warm coffee in hand, I enjoyed the sun rising in the bluebird sky, and lighting up my view of the Indian Peaks during my drive. With good tunes on the radio, I sat in silence for over an hour, enjoying the peacefulness of the morning.

Barrows and I got to the trailhead around 9:00 AM. I did not know what was in store. I knew the Brainerd Lakes trail involved a longer approach than I was used to along the usual ‘I-70 trailheads’, but I did not know how far we were going to go up the mountains. At least a foot of new snow had fallen, and the CAIC was reporting ‘considerable’ avalanche danger with ‘pockets of high’. This meant that the front range snowpack was very variable. It could be deadly in some areas, but perfectly safe in others. Because of this, we would have to use our keen observations and experience and make very smart decisions on this crucial day.

The initial approach was as expected–on a two mile snowcovered road. Although I was cursing out the local authorities for not plowing the road, Barrows was good at reminding me that if the road was plowed all the way to the lake, there would be ten times as many people out here. I was gracious for this, for if I wanted to be surrounded by crowds, I would have gone skiing with the rest of the masses at the ski areas on this President’s Day. Not my cup of tea.

The initial hike up the snowcovered road
Image

After a short while, the mountains really started to come into view. Barrows pointed out many of the peaks that give this range its unique name–such as Apache, Arapahoe, and Pawnee. I wondered back hundreds of years, what the local Indian tribes must have felt while exploring these mountains.

At Brainerd Lake (still on the road!)
Image

We were making progress along the road, and the weather was perfect. I was getting anxious to start making some vertical progress. Eventually, we made it to the ‘Summer Trailhead’. There were picnic benches, cabins, restrooms, and dumpsters all covered in a few feet of snow. This place would be bustling with activity in the middle of July, but here in February it was very serene. I got a good perspective on things when we skinned past the Indian Peaks Wilderness boundary. I have seen these signs all over the state on various trails in the National Forests–they all stand about five feet tall. Here, the snow all but covered the entire sign.

The standard ‘Wilderness’ sign found all over Colorado, they stand five feet tall on dry land
Image

We skinned a short while through the forest and came back out in a large clearing out in front of Mitchell Lake. Here, I had my first full view of the challenge that lie ahead. Across the cirque was the south shoulder of Mt. Audobon.

I am skinning across Mitchell Lake(photo courtesy of Barrows Worm)
Image

This relatively ‘short’ face was decorated with a half-dozen couloirs of varying size and steepness. One very long and narrow couloir branched up towards our right, but it looked like it needed more snow, as it had many rocks in the middle of it. We decided to head towards a lower-angle, wider couloir located on our left side of this face.

Barrows skinning up the basin above Mitchell Lake
Image

Bonus pic of some really cool looking north-face features on the ridge leading towards Mt. Toll
Image

As we made it up into the cirque, we performed a series of quick avalanche tests. Everything was feeling safe. I was feeling very strong, with intentions of conquering the couloir at this point. Once we made the apron, we packed the boards and began to boot up the couloir.

Barrows enjoying the February sunshine
Image
At this point my motivation started going downhill. The snow was very deep and unconsolidated. I had instant flashbacks to my attempt on Mt. Rainier last spring, where two feet of fresh snow had ruined any chance of us post-holing our way to the summit. Back here on Mt. Audubon, I was already starting to lose my energy with each step that I struggled to make in the snow. There were times where we could find rocks to scramble upon, until the rocks ran out, and we were left with the sea of snow. Sadly, I had had enough. Thankfully, I looked up and my partner was removing his snowboard from his pack. It was time to go down.

I am scrambling up the rocks in lieu of the deeps now (photo courtesty of Barrows Worm)
Image

I just couldn’t make the final 20 feet! (photo courtesty of Barrows Worm)
Image

The afternoon sun was already creeping down the western sky. I strapped into my board and waited for my partner to drop in from above. We were both nervous. All signs during the day pointed to a stable snowpack, but we all know that initial anxiety before dropping in for the first time. “Do I still know how to do this?” My partner asked.

“Just like riding a bike” I yelled in support.

With a quick hop out into the center of the couloir, he was off, making furiously smooth turns in the snow. As I aimed and shot my camera, I saw powder flying everywhere. The apprehension eased for a moment as I watched him ride all the way down the the basin below. Then the anxiety resumed: it was my turn.

Barrows dropping in
Image

Barrows down in the bottom of the couloir
Image

I got up on my toes and looked down below me, took three deep breaths, and throttled it. No worries whatsoever! I felt the thrill of the ride hit me, and suddenly remembered why I always put myself through so much torture for these 30 seconds of descent.

I met my partner back down in the basin and we looked up at mountain. The couloir was now decorated with two parallel tracks, making s-curves all the way down the mountain.

Looking back up at our fresh tracks
Image

It was getting late, so we made a few more turns down in the basin before switching back to our skins for the long slog back out to the trailhead. I stopped many times to look back up at the face. There was definitely a whole lot more to

TR: Snowboarding James Peak (13,294′)

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
PART ONE: Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The first of March brings about a turning point in my snow activities. After three solid months of ripping through endless powder lines at ski areas like Highlands, Vail, Breck, Keystone, Telluride, Steamboat, and Monarch, I slowly withdraw myself from the chairlifts and begin to think big…”teener” big.

For my first big mountain climb of the spring season, I chose a local classic: James Peak. This prominent mountain west of Denver is named after Dr. Edwin James, the botanist who happened to be the best climber of Stephen Long’s expedition of 1920. Among many prominent climbs, James is most known for his climb Zebulon Pike’s “highest peak”, on which he made the first successful summit of a 14er in Colorado. While the formal naming of that peak went to Pike, the peak that was named after James is no less important. In fact, with its intimidating east face complete with 5 classic snow routes, I believe it holds a much more important place in Colorado mountaineering history than Pikes Peak.

Image
James Peak, as my friend “Snowsavage” would say “Mini-AK, bro!”

On Tuesday, March 3, I made a solo attempt of James Peak. Because I was alone, I had no intention of challenging any of the couloirs on the east face. Instead, I planned to skin up St. Mary’s glacier and up the broad south shoulder of James Peak, and stop to check out the conditions of the couloirs.

I arrived at the trailhead around 10:30 and the weather was very clear. However, as soon as I started up the glacier, I encountered the wild winds that the front range is known for. I pressed forward, and as I crested the top of the glacier, I encountered two mountaineers taking a rest on their hike down. I stopped to talk to them a bit, exchanging stories. I was excited to hear about their successful climb of the Trough Couloir of Long’s Peak last week. As for James Peak, they told me they were planning to attempt a climb of the east face, but turned back due to high winds. I thanked them for the information and continued onward.

The bane of any skier or boarder attempting this route is the mile long flat, grassy tundra between the top of St. Mary’s Glacier and the foot of James Peak. The last time I had been here, during the much snowier winter/spring of 2007, we were able to skin across. This time, I had to remove my splitboard and hike across the meadow.

Image
Looking across the grassy tundra. Mt. Bancroft is on the left and James Peak on the right.

Although the hike was annoying, the scenery was beautiful, as I had some great views of surrounding mountains like Evans, Bierdstat, Grays, Torreys, Quandary, and even Pikes Peak far away in the distance.

Image
Gray’s Peak, Torrey’s Peak, and Grizzley Peak

Image
Pikes Peak, over 100 miles away!

Finally, I reached the foot of James Peak and was able to skin again. Unfortunately, the snow again ended after the first steep pitch. Since I wanted to check out the couloirs, I scrambled up to the southeast ridge to continue the climb on foot. As I groveled up the ridge, I first checked out Starlight, which had a few rocks in the middle of the entrance. Then I found the entrance to Shooting Star. Somehow, I had missed Sky Pilot, which I can never seem to find.

Image
Gaining the ridge for the first view of James Peak’s east face couloirs

Finally, I gained the summit of the mountain around 2:30. Although I’ve climbed this same ridge and splitboarded the Starlight Couloir before, I had never been to the summit until now. I celebrated my achievement and snapped some more photos of the Gore Range to the west, Arapaho Peak and Longs Peak to the north, and I even think I could see Mt. of the Holy Cross far away to the southwest.

Image
Summit achieved

Image
Shooting Star Couloir?

Image
Clear view of Denver!

Image
Is this Mt. of the Holy Cross? Someone help me out

The descent was less than perfect. The heavy winds had scoured the shoulder of the mountain, and most of my turns were made on the hardpacked snow. Then, as I had dreaded, I had to walk back across the grassy tundra to the glacier. On St. Mary’s Glacier I encountered the most interesting snow of all: sharp frozen waves of sastrugi. Because the top of the glacier wasn’t steep enough to toe-side my edge all the way down, I was forced to make turns all the way down. If I could describe it like anything I’ve done before, I’d say it is like trying to water ski on Lake Michigan. :thumpsup:

Image
Battling the relentless sastrugi

PART DEUX: Sunday, March 8, 2009

This time around, a partner recruited me to take the same ascent route, but attempt to descend the Shooting Star. This time, thanks to daylight savings time, we had more daylight and an earlier start. Unfortunately, 40 mph wind gusts made for an entirely different experience. On the glacier, the easterly wind was blowing snow straight down up on us, it was all that we could do to keep pressing forward, up the glacier and across the tundra.

Image
Three skiers moving up the glacier ahead of us

Image
Battling the wind up the glacier

On the south slope, there was a little bit more snow than there was five days earlier. Although I was able to skin up much farther than before, I still had to skin over some rocks that were barely covered with the light dust.

Image
View back towards my partner on the grassy tundra

We continued to press ahead, and the time was burning away. Because of our battles with the intense wind, it took almost six hours to move as far as it would normally take four hours. Finally, just a few hundred feet below the summit, we turned back. In the words of my partner “I felt a wind gust actually PICK ME UP OFF THE GROUND!”

Although I was pretty bummed about aborting Shooting Star, I thought we could at least do Starlight. However, my partner reminded me that we would again be battling the wind as well as waning daylight when trying to hike back up out of the bowl below the east face. Cutting our losses, we descended the shoulder and made the all-too-familiar walk across the tundra, and painful descent down the glacier. :(

Image
Close up shot of the east face

Image
View of the entrance to Starlight Couloir

Image
Superstar–the steepest of all the couloirs on the east face

Image
Pretty cool picture of Arapaho Peak in the foreground, and the flat-topped mountain behind it that reminds me of an ancient Mayan Temple: Long’s Peak

After my third trip up this route, I’ve written it off. If I had to advise anyone who is attempting the east face couloirs, I’d suggest the route from Mammoth Gulch out of Rollinsville. From that route, you get the advantage of actually seeing and climbing the couloirs, and can make the descent directly back to your car without dealing with the annoying flat tundra.

(and now…some new trip reporting tricks I’ve developed using this cool software my girlfriend bought me :headbang: )

Image
Route topo

Image
Route profile