Fall term finished up last week so it was time to get up into the mountains. Cole and I were able to plan a mid-week climb of James Peak. This is a mountain that I have wanted to climb for well over a year now, so I just said what the hell; let’s do it. I picked Cole up around 6am and we made our way to the St. Mary’s Glacier TH.
There are many ways to approach a climb of James Peak. In the winter time the easiest route I would think is the St. Mary’s Glacier route in which we took. There are also options from Berthoud Pass, which would be wild crazy roller coaster ride, but some adventurous souls do meet that challenge. Not I though, I have been in the wood shed so to say with school, so I had no problem taking the “milk run,” which turned out no cup of tea.
The forecast didn’t look very
pleasant. I usually use NOAA since it
seems the most accurate, but today I don’t know that any weather forecast was
too accurate. NOAA forecasted cloudy
skies and to expect temps around -11°F with winds 15-20mph and gusts of up to
30mph, along with afternoon snow of up to 2 inches possible. We found the weather much more pleasant than
that for the most part. The sky was
clear and sunny for the first few hours of the climb then the clouds started
moving in from the south west. A breeze
here and there but I wouldn’t say they were above 10 mph. We both though the temps were around the 25°F
area as neither of us had to use down jackets to warm up during the trip. I guess my point is, never fully trust the
forecast. It is always safe to bring
more than you need because you can always keep extra layers in your bag, but if
you don’t bring enough for unforeseen conditions…well you may be just up shit
creek. I feel the two of us are pretty
seasoned and we brought plenty of gear for whatever Mother Nature felt she
wanted to throw at us. They did forecast
the snow correct…and it was a bit of a pain in the ass come the end of the day.
|Tanglewoods Near St. Mary's Lake|
Directions: For starting at St.
Mary’s Glacier TH. From Denver head
towards the mountains on I70W. Not far
past Idaho Springs take exit 238 which is Fall River Road. Follow this road for about 10miles. You will pass what appeared to be an old ski
area where there is a big lot, continue up the road. Look to the left and a large sign indicating
Glacier TH will be visible. Another 50
yards down the road is a small lot that requires a deposit of $5. This is where the fun begins.
|Cole and Me Ready to Roll|
From the TH follow the trail or road as it looked up towards the first small lake which is St. Mary’s Lake. From the car I would say this is only about a quarter of a mile or just a bit more. Once at the lake St. Mary’s Glacier comes into view to the North West. We followed the trail around the lake till we found a good area to cross over to the glacier. There was a decent amount of snow at the base, but once on the glacier we could feel the crunch of the ice with our micro spikes on. Most people like to practice their ice axe skills and glacier safety once on the glacier, Cole decided to practice once by just falling to the ice and sticking in his axe. I sat there and laughed and said I think you will survive. Follow the glacier to its terminus maybe a quarter mile and as it splits into a few fingers we took the left exit, but they both end up at pretty much the same place.
Now that the glacier is behind us
there is quite a tundra hike ahead. We
decided not to follow the trail..like we would be able to find it anyway, and
just headed cross country on our way to a large rock out-crop in the middle of
the flat tundra. We took a little
breather here and I thought about stashing my snow shoes as I didn’t think they
would be necessary. But, I convinced
myself that I didn’t want to cache anything today since I didn’t know if we
would descend the same route as our ascent.
We sat there and pondered at what route to take, I wanted to stay to the
ridge to hopefully avoid any large snowfields.
When you are ‘hefty’ like me the snow needs to be rock hard for
snowshoes to be worth a dam. As we
headed over Cole was taking the route more as the trail would follow, and I was
on a line heading to the ridge direct.
It seemed like an eternity walking across the tundra, some areas were covered
with snow drifts that I would post hole to my knee in and some snow was ice
hard. By the time I reached the base of
the ridge Cole was way to the south of me and I had lost visual of him. I decided to put on my snow shoes and my wind
parka since I would be on the ridge. I
started up and the snow was pretty firm and I was able to stay on top. I was cruising up the slope about as fast as
a ‘hefty’ guy can at 12k feet. I thought
I heard some yelling but didn’t think much of it. I figured Cole was staying to the south on a
line away from the ridge, so I didn’t expect him right above me. He must have run up the mountain, because he
covered a decent amount of ground in a short period. Once I popped up over some rocks he saw me
and waited for me to catch up.
|St. Mary's Glacier|
I estimated we had about 800 vertical feet yet to cover to get to the summit from where we re-grouped. At this point I was pretty exhausted, but I wasn’t worried too much about the weather so I just took my time heading up. We stuck together for the remaining roller coaster of a ridge. There was a lot of huffing and puffing to be had for the next hour. I could really feel my lack of mountain activity over the last four months catching up with me. No amount of work in a gym can really get you in mountain climbing shape, you just have to get out there and suffer and somehow convince yourself you are having fun and make yourself do it again.
This last section was pretty
painful…for the both of us. I would have
kicked Cole’s ass if he didn’t admit he was hurting like I was. At one point I told Cole there was no
recovery at this elevation. It felt like
a jackhammer in my chest that never wanted to turn off. We just pushed on after
every breather and kept making ground up the mountain. The snow started to come down intermittently
over the last few hundred feet as the white out tried to surround us. With conditions like these it is really
important to have experience, fellow climbing partners and knowledge of
existing landmarks..and a compass or GPS.
|Summit At Last|
The last 50 vertical feet I thought was the hardest at that point. It took quite a bit of time and energy to get up that last incline, but once we did we were finally on top of James Peak. Both of us were pretty drained from the climb, but now we were finally able to recover. There were no sights to see today, just mountains of clouds all around us. The sun did peak through once or twice…I’m assuming that was the Mountain Gods congratulating us on our ascent.
We didn’t hang around too long on the summit since I wanted to at least get down to the flat tundra before the real snow started coming down. Earlier I said I thought the last incline was the toughest part of the climb…well now I am calling my personal crux the entire descent to St. Mary’s Lake. There wasn’t enough snow or slope for a glissade and whenever we crossed any snow it was post hole hell. It took a long time for us to get off the ridge and back to the rock outcropping in the middle of the flat tundra. I have no idea how our legs got us through all of that, but I can now see the days of doing squats and leg presses at the gym paying off. By this time the snow was really falling and the light was pretty dark which kissed our depth perception good-bye. As we started walking down the glacier we looked more like a couple drunken guys walking away from a St. Patty’s day party than anything. Once we could finally see the lake I got a little burst of energy.
When we were on the summit I
didn’t feel it was a good Idea for us to have our summit beers in our
condition. We were both loopy enough as
it was, so we ended up deciding on having them by the lake. Now that our goal was in sight, we just had
to drop down the glacier and find a spot to enjoy some ice cold brews. It was a great moment, the snow was coming
down, the view was great and the ice axe bottle opener came through for us when
we needed it most. We knew it wasn’t far
to the parking lot so we took this time to relax.
|How to Open a Brew with an Ice Axe|
This was a brutally challenging day for the both of us, but we never let it get to us..too much. Though it is not technically winter, we have both agreed we are counting it as a winter climb. An added bonus to the day was the solitude we had with a mid-week climb; we didn’t cross another person all day on the mountain. It was almost 5pm by the time we were back to the truck, so that means we were out there for almost 10 hours. This would be an easy climb in the summer, but this was a great challenge that the both of us can use to build on and say…well at least this is better than that trip up James Peak. Hahaha, it’s always good even if it sometimes sounds bad, and I’ll always go back. Happy Holidays everyone!
TH Elevation: 10,387 feet
James peak: 13,294 feet
Total Gained Elevation: 2,910 feet
Distance: 7.43 miles
Time: 5:37 moving, 3:54 stopped
Climbing Partner: Cole
Picture Link: James Peak Photos