Sunday, March 30, 2008

Winter Ascent

Jesper and I completed our very first winter ascent this past Saturday (March 29, 2008). We have been up in the mountains in the summer when the weather has turned winter-like, but this was the first time we went up to bag a peak in what we knew would be consistent winter conditions.

Our goal was the top of a 13,841 foot high unnamed peak located in the Tenmile Range. The peak is next to the 13,950 foot high mountain called Pacific Peak, therefore the unnamed peak we climbed is unofficially known as "Atlantic" Peak. To orient folks not familiar with Colorado's various mountain ranges, the Tenmile Range is near the ski resorts of Copper Mountain and Breckenridge. Our peak is in the center of the picture below (courtesy

We picked this peak for our first attempt at a true winter ascent because we thought it would be a good one to practice our winter navigation and figure out how best to use our winter gear. The trail wasn't too long, so we were fairly confident we could complete it in one day, barring any emergencies. But the climb also boasts some challenges in terms of weather and sketchy ridgelines, so we knew it wouldn't be a cake walk.

In the spring time, sun baked snow can become more avalanche prone. So, we were up at 4:30 am and driving up to the trail head a little after 5:00 am. Ouch - that's early in my book! Several other groups were getting ready to make the climb when we arrived at the trial head a little after 7:00.

We started out before 8:00 on the jeep road that starts the approach wearing snowshoes and avalanche transievers, and carrying a whole lotta other gear: shovels, probes, ice axes, crampons, helmets, first aid kit, fire starter/matches/lighter, GPS units, walkie-talkies, food, water and extra clothes . The packs were kinda heavy! The trail was hard packed until we turned off into Mayflower Gulch, where we were the first to make trail. The views from this valley were breathtaking.

We next ascended the broad start up "Atlantic" Peak's west ridge. This was the slope we were most concerned about from an avalanche perspective, especially if the day got sunny and warm. We didn't have to worry; it got no where close to sunny and warm. This slope is a scree field, but there was so much snow that we were able to wear our snowshoes up quite a ways. After awhile, it became talus and mixed snow/ice, so we swapped the snowshoes for our ice axes and helmets, also donning more clothes, since the wind was really picking up and the temps were dropping. We were getting back into winter again.

To avoid the howling wind, we first tried to avoid going up to the ridgeline, where we would be blasted full force. However, we found our rate of travel much too slow on the rocks so we sucked it up and got on the ridgeline. The forceful wind stung our faces and made it challenging to do anything that required us to take our gloves off. The ridgeline gets pretty skinny in several places, like a knife edge. The steep drop down either side would send you very far to your death if you weren't able to self-arrest with your ice ax. A lot of people I know would freak out if they had to walk on this ridgeline, especially with 50 or 60 mile per hour winds. Jesper and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

The knife edge sections of the ridgeline were interspersed with rocky sections we had to scramble up or sections with crusty snow. We were impressed with how useful our ice axes were! I don't think I'd try a climb like this without one. We made it to the summit at about noon; four hours of climbing. It was cold, windy and a complete white out at the top. We were unable to appreciate the incredible views from the top that we'd read about, although part of me likes it that the weather was so gnarly. We did not stay on the summit for long, since we started getting cold fast. We essentially reversed our route and headed back down.

Usually, going down a mountain is a lot faster than going up. Not so in the winter when there's blowing snow and snow and ice on the rocks. It took us a little more than 3 hours to descend and return to the trail head. Because we had left our goggles in the car like knuckleheads, our eye lashes were frozen and we could barely open our eyes at some points when the wind was blasting little ice pellets in our faces. Won't make that mistake again!

Because of the strong winds, we didn't take a lunch break while on the climb. As soon as we got back to the car, I put my gear away and donned my big puffy down coat. I sat in the front seat of the Durango with my heated seat in HIGH, drinking hot tea and eating my exquisite lunch: Cheese, Pita Chips and Jerky. I can't tell how delicious that meal tasted!

I'm really pleased with how well our ascent went. Jesper and I did almost everything right, and the few things we did wrong were minor and will be corrected on our next winter ascent. Please check out Jesper's write-up and pictures here:

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