A late start
Aspen, CO Colorado
I met the two clients at the Maroon Lake parking lot on a cold, clear morning in late May. I have a habit of stumbling around at 4 a.m., and this morning was no different as I slipped on the frozen runoff water crossing the parking lot.
With little preamble, we started up the trail toward Crater Lake by headlamp. Stiffed-soled boots are not made for trail walking, and are quite hazardous for crossing swollen mountain streams on icy rocks. So, appropriately, one of the gentlemen went down at the first creek crossing past Crater Lake. We lost about 30 minutes wringing out clothing and spinning them in the cold mountain air to dry.
As the guide, I should’ve cautioned my clients better, considering this was the second time I’d watched this happen.
Our next major landmark was a small canyon called the Garbage Chute. In low snow years, or if we’ve had considerable melt cycles, crampons may be necessary from this point.
We opted not to use them, relying instead on ice axes and our ability to kick steps.
When we exited the Garbage Chute, we entered a small amphitheater with the choice of numerous couloirs before us. Our goal was directly in front of us ” the Grand Couloir.
We had ropes, harnesses, ice axes, snow stakes and even a couple of ice screws ” everything we needed to make an ascent of our objective. The only serious concern at this point was the warm temperature.
As we climbed, I realized we should’ve started earlier and that the debacle at the creek had not helped our timing. The sun was quickly changing conditions ” from perfect kick stepping to over-the-boot wallowing muck.
We got up to the narrowest portion of the couloir, where it turns steeply to the left. For the next few hundred feet, the couloir averages 47 degrees and hits 50 degrees in places. I’ve measured it here in different locations using a slope inclinometer. It always feels much steeper.
Beacuse of the change in aspect, the snow went from slush to very firm. It was time for crampons.
I hacked out a ledge with my ice axe, then we secured our packs and proceeded to put on crampons. One of the gentlemen’s crampons had a nasty habit of popping off when kicking steps. I juryrigged it with bailing wire and zip ties, which I carry for such emergencies.
Crampons need to fit securely on boots. A crampon coming off on steep terrain is very dangerous. It’s good to put them on at home and test their compatibility with your boots before heading to steeper terrain.
After climbing out of the couloir, we still had about 45 minutes of climbing on a rocky ridge to the summit.
Once we topped out and completed summit congratulations, I moved away from my clients to find a sheltered location to scatter my father’s ashes. Part of him we had already scattered over Four Mile Park above Glenwood.
Mom said I could scatter the rest of Dad on the Bells. As his ashes swirled about me and on me in the mountain breezes, the gentlemen could not help noticing something different was happening on the summit than they had expected.
I was a little distracted as I thought about my father who had passed away a few months earlier from cancer. I may not pray in the traditional sense, though my thoughts were with my dad. Needless to say, when I returned to the present, I urged everyone to be cautious during our descent.
When we got back to the couloir, we had decisions to make. Wet avalanches could be a real threat if temperatures got too high. We could take the long route down the ridge, which is the traditional summer route.
As it turned out, we were able to descend the couloir safely. We removed our crampons because of snow balling up under the sole, which can be a real hazard. I also had everyone face into the mountain, and, with each step, we would insert our ice axe shaft deep into the snow.
This method is faster than setting up belays with ropes and is safer than facing out and plunge stepping down. After we descended to the bottleneck where the couloir makes a sharp turn, we glissaded safely down the couloir.
By the time we arrived at the parking lot, the gentlemen had already started planning future trips to Rainier and Denali. They knew they had made a good start in their mountaineering apprenticeship.
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ESPN’s Winter X Games is back in Aspen this week for the 20th straight year, although it’ll lack most of the usual flair. Out of precaution to safeguard against further spread of COVID-19, there won’t be any fans, any music and, well, really anything outside of the main competitions.