Current Snow Levels in the San Juans
A few of us have been out and about in the San Juan Mountains during the last week – including Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness. Recently the area has experienced a few significant storms that had a decidedly winter component to them. Below average temperatures and above average precipitation has been the general weather pattern for the past few weeks and the mountains are really starting to show it.
Based on the current forecast and amount of snow already on the ground, I would suspect that the majority of the snow of shaded aspects will remain there for the rest of the season – eventually being buried by subsequent snow storms that are sure to effect the area in the month of October. This can be good on a number of levels, including the potential for an excellent early season ice cycle. The ice climbs around Silverton and Ouray above 10,000 feet are dependent on ground water and robust melt/freeze cycles. With all the recent snow above those altitudes it’s setting up to be a banner November/December for early season backcountry ice climbs.
The recent new snow however can become “old snow” – but at this point in the season likely only on aspects and areas where the snow has blown in deep enough to eventually be buried by subsequent storms. This old snow, especially from the first few larger storms in October and November, can become problematic later in the winter as the faceting process starts to take over, helping to hasten the creation of the all-to-familiar depth hoar we commonly see at the base of our snowpack – the cause of many early season avalanche cycles here in the San Juans.
Below are a few photos taken of the Chicago Basin area, Engineer Mountain, and views of the Sneffels Range and Ice Lakes Basin from a distance. All photos were taken between 9/24/13 and 9/27/13. As always, watch the forecast, plan accordingly, and travel safe in the mountains. Late fall/early winter storms are nothing to be trifled with in the San Juan Mountains.
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
100% Success on the Kautz Glacier
Earlier this summer, July 28 – August 1 to be exact, myself (Nate Disser) and Dave Ahrens successfully led 4 climbers to the summit of Mt. Rainier via the Kautz Glacier Route. Things started off for our team in Ashford, WA, the best place to meet for groups climbing either the standard Disappointment Cleaver Route or the Kautz Glacier Route. An afternoon gear check left us hungry for a pre-trip meal and we decided on the Copper Creek restaurant – a very worthy place to get a great meal before the climb.
The Climb Begins
The following morning we all headed up to Paradise and after registering at the Ranger Station we were off on the trail towards our first camp for the evening. Starting off from Paradise is always a bit of a circus, as countless other day hikers and climbers adorn the trails heading out from Paradise. Most folks are headed up towards Panoraman Point, or perhaps even Camp Muir, but our destination was Glacier Vista where we would drop down onto the edge of the Nisqually Glacier. The lower Nisqually Glacier must be crossed in order to reach the Kautz Glacier, and after cramponing up and roping together for the glacier crossing we were making quick work of the day. Crossing the Nisqually is relatively straightforward, save for a few end runs around large crevasses and is much easier with good visibility. Having crossed the Nisqually many times previously in white out conditions, I was enjoying the fine weather and classic Northwest July high pressure system that typified our trip.
Skills & Forward Progress
We settled on a camp for the evening at about 7800′ and enjoyed fantastic views and a beautiful sunset to the south. The following morning we awoke somewhat lazily as our goal for the day was only to travel to a popular camp known as The Castle at about 9600′ and only 1800′ above us. After some snow and glacier travel skill practice in the morning, we headed up to The Castle, gaining the Wilson Glacier in the process. The next day we rose to more fine weather and barely a breath of wind. After more skill practice – this time on crevasse rescue protocols, hauling systems, etc. we packed up and headed onwards to high camp at about 10,800′. High camp on the Kautz Glacier Route is accessed via the Turtle Snowfield at the top of which there are a collection of campsites scattered amongst the rocks. Making this high camp puts you in excellent position for the summit bid the following night/morning.
The Summit Climb
After a lazy afternoon, everyone turned in early in anticipation of waking early that night/morning for the summit bid. Our team decided to leave camp around 1:30 am, planning on a 6.5 hour one way trip to the summit. A slight change in the weather gave some cause for a heightened sense of awareness for the summit climb. However, upon leaving camp precisely at 1:30 the stars were visible and very little wind could be felt. After about 20 minutes of walking, we reached one of the technical challenges of the day, the rock step which requires a lower/rappel to access the Kautz Glacier proper and subsequently the often intimidating Kautz Ice Chute.
Our team made quick work of the transition and we were all very soon making our way up the steeper ice sections of the ice chute. A combination of short pitches and short roping led us to the top of the ice chute in about an hour. Climbers had the opportunity to swing two tools on the climb this year, as the route offered more and steeper ice than other times I had done the route. Overall, the Kautz Ice Chute is a very fun, engaging, and unique aspect to the Kautz Route.
Above the ice chute, we transitioned back into glacer travel mode and made our way to the Wapowety Cleaver which separates the Kautz Glacier from the upper Nisqually Glacier. At about 13,000′ our team took a nice long – yet predictably cold – rest break prior to setting off on the last stretch across the upper Nisqually to the crater rim of Mt. Rainier. At this point, we started to experience a more dramatic shift in the weather with higher upper level winds helping to form a “cap” or lenticular cloud over the summit of Mt. Rainier. A lenticular cap in such instances is quite typically the harbinger of an approaching storm. However, our team pushed on towards the summit, navigating increasing winds and decreasing visibility as we climbed. Adequate safety margins were maintained throughout the ascent though and all of our team members felt strong as we neared the summit. Finally, after a long (1.5 hour) stretch from our last break we reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. Once inside the crater, the winds abated considerably and we enjoyed a nice long break with plenty of food and water prior to the descent back down to high camp. A few team members who had not previously summited Mt. Rainier before this trip decided to make the extra effort and climb to the Columbia Crest - literally the highest point on the crater rim of Mt. Rainier.
An Efficient Descent
As we descended, the weather began to improve slightly and we were able to make it back down to our camp with relative ease and minimal hassle. After a 2 hour nap, our team decided to make the effort to move camp further down the mountain in anticipation of leaving early the following morning and reaching Paradise in the early afternoon. It’s tough to resist the temptation of a hearty meal after such effort on the peak, and visions of cheeseburgers certainly provided additional motivation to maintain our focus and efficient style all the way back to the parking lot – the true summit of any mountain climb.
Overall, the trip went off without a hitch – the perfect combination of good planning, great weather, and an efficient, motivated climbing team. When it all comes together like that, it just doesn’t get much better. I can’t say enough what a pleasure it was to climb with Rhon, Kevin, Brant, and Brian and spend 5 days in the mountains sharing life stories and the requisite compliment of tasteful jokes as well. Both Dave and I look forward to climbing with them in the future – most likely in Ouray this winter!
Stay tuned for our Mt. Rainier dates for 2014!!
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
Back in High Camp
Elias called to report that he and his two clients successfully summited Alpamayo and were back at high camp, preparing for the rest of their descent back towards basecamp. Elias will write up a full accounting of the summit day in the days to come. Congratulations everyone!
Ski Mountaineering Guide Tip
Andrew Klotz – AMGA Ski Guide
Spring is here and the snow is stabilizing so it is time to hit the big lines that you’ve been waiting patiently for all winter. This is the first installment of a mulit-part series on getting kitted out for a multi-day ski mountaineering trip. Of course, the ideas also apply to single day outings as well.
Getting the most out of your spring skiing season also means being prepared with the right gear and tools for the job. Particularly with spring skiing, choosing the right gear on the right days can mean the difference between a fantastic outing and a day of “survival skiing”.
In addition to choosing your gear wisely, selecting the right aspect and timing your descent on that aspect is critical to both safety and enjoyment in the mountains during the spring season. As always, be sure to consult your local relevant avalanche forecast and utilize good terrain selection and travel techniques in the context of your objective for the day. Below are just a few considerations when it comes to gear for spring ski mountaineering:
Although fat skis are the rage, I think short narrow waisted skis are the ticket for ski mountaineering. They allow you to more directly pressure your edges and control your skins for difficult frozen morning upskins and give you the same direct edge pressuring confidence for technical descents. I like skis in the 70-80 mm waist range. It is also a good idea to get your skis a size shorter than you normally ride them. First short skis are lighter on your pack and on your feet. Second, they are more maneuverable in tight skiing conditions often found skiing technical lines. Finally, I think a shorter ski will give you more longitudinal control over the tip and tail, again, an important consideration for technical ascents and descents.
Go for a softer three buckle boot, possibly removing the powerstraps. This streamlined set-up makes the long days in the skin-track more comfortable and makes any technical climbing that you might need to do easier as you are able to move more naturally in a softer boot. Yes, you give up some skiing performance, but skiing skill always trumps gear and skill weighs nothing so think about developing skills rather than relying on gear. Make sure your boot has a beefy mountaineering type sole and that your crampons fit properly and tightly. You end up spending a lot of time out of your skis and in your boots so it also a good idea to size them a bit larger and make sure you have a comfortable rather than a performance fit. Consider utilizing a custom foot bed as well for the best fit for your ski boots. There is nothing worse than feeling as though your boots don’t fit right at the top of a big descent. Most reputable outdoor shops offer some type of custom foot bed option.
Adjustable skiing poles can be shrunk down and fit neatly on your pack if you need to use your hands for climbing. Consider replacing your pole(s) with a Black Diamond whippet or two. These nifty devices may allow you to leave your ice axe at home (depending on your objectives) and at least give you a fighting chance in what otherwise might be a nasty fall. As a final note, I prefer aluminum to carbon poles for multi-day trips. If carbon breaks it literally explodes and shatters is essentially non-repairable, whereas aluminum can be field repaird and will often bend or dent instead of breaking.
Make sure your glue is good. Skin glue problems tend to wildly exacerbate themselves on a multi-day tour. Make sure you have some parts and repair strategies for tip and tail connections if these critical elements fail.
As always, travel safe in the mountains and enjoy the gettin’ while the gettin’ is good!!
I recently had the opportunity to climb with three great guys – Kevin, Brant, and David – all of whom were long time friends prior to the trip, and had previously had some mountaineering experience on Mt. Rainier and Denali (Mt. McKinley). Their mountaineering experience led them to become curious about gaining more technical climbing skills and ability, to perhaps qualify themselves for future objectives such as Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier or other technical alpine routes in Alaska.
Being that none of the three had any previous ice climbing experience we naturally started from the beginning. From learning the use of ice specific crampons to swinging a technical ice tool. Our progression started with top-roping in the South Park climbing area at the Ouray Ice Park – and began with a few laps on lower angled ice to solidify the nuances of footwork and techniques associated with proper balance on the ice. We then progressed and integrated the use of ice tools – first one tool, then the second tool.
Over the years we have found that utilizing this progression is very helpful for developing the kind of “good habits” with regard to ice climbing technique that allows climbers to advance quickly in terms of their climbing ability on ice. Our established and time-tested curriculum is well known for helping people to become better ice climbers in a much faster time frame than they may have anticipated or expected prior to committing to the sport.
Our second and third days climbing were spent in the Scottish Gullies area of the Ice Park – working on developing steeper and steeper ice techniques, as well as other associated technical skills and knowledge. A winter storm made for some classic and picturesque climbing the entire weekend.
Kevin, Brant, and David are considering coming back later this summer for our Kautz Glacier Climb on Mt. Rainier or next winter for one of our Ecuador Volcanoes Expeditions as they continue to gain experience in the mountains and prepare themselves for more climbs, trips, and fun in them there hills.
San Juan Ice Conditions Report
November 16, 2012
It’s that time of year – ice season in the San Juans has arrived. A few of us have been climbing in the high country, and getting a sense for the early season ice conditions in Ouray and Silverton. Generally speaking, it has been a dry fall – which shows when you look at some of the classic climbs of the area. By my guess, most of the routes in the area are about a week to ten days behind where things are normally during this time of year.
South Mineral Creek
That’s not to say that they aren’t climbable. With the exception of the Direct North Face (lower pitches are in thin condition) most of the other routes in the area are in – including Campground Couloir, Snowblind, Cataract Creek, and even Sundance looked feasible. The aptly named Sundance might be great this weekend as it is forecast to be cold and overcast during the next three days.
Similar to S. Mineral, the majority of the climbs in Eureka Canyon are in. Stairway to Heaven is in thin, though what looks to be climbable conditions. Gully 2 is getting climbed, as is Whorehouse Ice Hose. The best looking climb in Eureka right now is Highway to Hell (also known as Hwy 666). It looks fat and in excellent condition. Now is the time to climb that route as later in the season it can present more challenges on the approach (higher avy danger). Tempered by Fire is also in. Hoser’s Highway is not in and needs time to form the pillar on the main pitch. Goldrush is also not really in, though it has been climbed in these conditions before.
A few of our guides will be out guiding and climbing this weekend and next week, so we’ll post some updates at least once or twice a week now that ice season is underway. Come and get it.
2013 Ouray Ice Festival Clinics
Available for Purchase!
The Ouray Ice Festival Clinics are now available for purchase. Click on this link to go to the Clinic Schedule and Shopping Cart.
San Juan Mountain Guides is the Official Concessionaire of the Ouray Ice Park, and each year in collaboration with the Ouray Ice Park Inc., organizes over 70 unique, informative, and cutting-edge ice and mixed climbing clinics and seminars. Each clinic/seminar is taught by a mixture of professional athletes and guides – each of whom represent the very best in knowledge and instruction about the clinics we have scheduled them to teach. The clinics are provided and sponsored by vendors such as Black Diamond, Outdoor Research, La Sportiva, The North Face, Patagonia, Mammut, Scarpa, Gore-Tex, and many many more.
Athletes this year include Steve House, Conrad Anker, Ines Papert, Roger Strong, Josh Wharton, Caroline George and many many more.
Sign up today and don’t miss your opportunity to learn from and climb with the pros!
David did a big traverse with us in the Weminuche a month ago and decided he needed some more. For round two we decided to go for 8 days, climb a peak and spend some time in the very remote Ten Mile basin.
Day 1: David and I took the train to Elk park and hiked up the Colorado trail to the beaver ponds at 10’000′.
Day 2: We left the Colorado trail, crossed Elk Creek and headed south into Vestal Basin on the rough climbers trail.
Day 3: Summit day. We got up early and climbed Arrow Peak then headed back down to camp. David upgraded from having “Mad Skills” to having “Crazy Mad Skills” on the climb.
Day 4: We headed back up to the upper bench then traversed over to Vestal lake and over the strenuous Vestal-West Trinity saddle. Then descended to camp at the west side of Balsam Lake in Ten Mile Basin.
Day 5: Rest day at the seldom visited Balsam Lake.
Day 6: We continued the southern trend and hiked up and over the Peak 5/Peak 6 saddle into upper Noname Basin. Then dropped down to the second tier of Noname to camp.
The “Bruce Traverse” is a high alpine traverse that runs from the Vestal/West Trinity saddle down into Ten Mile and then exits Ten Mile at the saddle between Peak 5 and Peak 6. It’s named after a great explorer of the Weminuche.
Day 7: David and I hiked down Noname to a great campsite at the confluence of Noname creek and the Animas River.
Day 8: We finished the hike out along the Animas to Needleton and caught the north bound train to Silverton for lunch. Then caught the bus back to Durango, finishing off a great trip!
The blog post from our first adventure can be found HERE.
David it was great climbing, hiking, talking and joking with you! Game for next summer?
Kevin, Larry and Jerry all came to do a backpacking trip dubbed the ‘Best of the Weminuche’. I have spent a lot of time in the Weminuche Wilderness over the years, and I would have a very hard time coming up with an alternate 5 day backpacking trip that has the combination of great trails, amazing views, multiple basins and superb camping that this trip has. To top off the great trip Kevin, Jerry and I climbed Windom Peak(14,082′) on the last day before running down to catch the train back to Durango.
Thanks for the great trip guys! I hope to see you in the mountains again!
David has been hiking in the Weminuche for years. In fact this was his 9th trip to the area.
Day 1: David and I got dropped off in Cunningham Gulch and hiked up to the Highland Mary Lakes and camped near Verde Lake. A group passed us with two lamas and a baby which is not something you see everyday in the high country. That evening the fish were jumping like crazy in Verde Lake.
Day 2: The next day we walked over the Continental Divide and camped at the beautiful Kite Lake.
Day 3: From Kite Lake we hiked up and over Hunchback Pass(12,492′) and into the Vallecito creek drainage. Then headed west into Stormy Gulch to camp for the night. And as the name implies we got rained on that evening.
Day 4: It’s hard to beat the views in Stormy Gulch with Storm King, Silex and the Guardian to your south. We hike in between Silex and Storm King then in between Peak 8 and Peak 7 to camp at a lake on the south side of Peak 8 for the night.
Day 5: A high traverse then over Jagged pass, put us in the top of Noname Basin. We camped at 12,400′ with spectacular views of Monitor Peak, Peak 13 and Animas Mountain.
Day 6: A short day. We hiked to lower Noname.
Day 7: We hiked the rest of the way down Noname creek to the Animas River then followed the Animas south to Needleton to catch the afternoon train back to Durango.
It was great time hanging out with David! Although it’s hard to have a bad time when you are surrounded by and moving through that kind of terrain. Hope to see you soon David!