| Black Lake Slabs and GG ice conditions
This won’t be a normal trip report per se. It’s not a peak nor does it even document a successful climb. However, it was a beautiful day in Glacier Gorge and I felt there was enough information that 14ers users would benefit from to warrant something larger than a conditions report, plus the TR tab on this website has seen little action lately (for those interested, conditions and pictures of other routes are at the end of this TR). Enjoy.
So far, it’s looking to be a stellar ice season along the Front Range. The record breaking rains that caused widespread flooding and devastation also came with an unexpected upside for ice climbers; saturated soils are seeping water from every available crack and forming ice everywhere. The rare and ephemeral Smear of Fear has been climbed numerous times this fall and Topher Donahue and Kevin Cooper recently put up an incredible new WI6+ route on the Diamond that had not formed (or at least been climbed) before. Last week while climbing at Moffatt Tunnel, Dusty and I had decided to take a hike back to Black Lake in Glacier Gorge with a more, ahem, pedestrian goal in mind than some thin smear on Longs. Instead, the Black Lake Slabs are one of the most reliable and thick pieces of ice to form in all of RMNP. It’s also probably one of the routes least often climbed due to the length of the approach and added nuisance of short winter(ish) days. Nevertheless, when fully formed, the Black Lake Slabs can offer almost 500 feet of cruiser WI2+ ice in a beautiful and remote alpine setting.
Photo credit: Climbing Life Guides
We met around 6am in Lyons, looking forward to the shortened access to the Park after Hwy 36 reopened on Monday. The drive on 36 in the dawn light revealed the horrific devastation along the highway and the remarkable work of CDOT in reopening the road. As we made the final turn and the Estes Park Valley and Lumpy Ridge appeared before us we could tell it was going to be a beautiful day. Clouds were pouring over the continental divide and they grew more colorful as the sun slowly rose to illuminate them. Once on Bear Lake road we were treated to some amazing views of Hallett and Flattop enshrined in clouds. It was so nice to be back in the park again!
The weather forecast had called for sunny skies but strong winds and sub-zero wind chills. The Glacier Gorge Trailhead (as always) seemed to have the winds concentrated squarely on my truck as we struggled to dress and lace our boots in steady 20-30 mph winds. Eventually we were ready and rocketing down the trail at a steady pace with hopes of rewarming our frozen extremities. We had little idea what to expect regarding snow conditions and the pass-ability of the trail. I can’t help but feel that snow shoes are an ancient torture device that somehow survived into modern times and thus are rarely an option I'm willing to consider. We also wished to neither carry skis too far, nor climb in ski boots so we decided booting it would be the way to go. This wasn’t too bad of a decision until past Jewel Lake.
As always, once reaching Mills Lake the beautiful views of Glacier Gorge open up ahead of us. Clouds still lingered near Spearhead as the sun shone on the eastern flanks of Thatchtop Mountain. It became immediately clear that there was a lot of ice in Glacier Gorge. Smears, pillars and slabs of ice had seemed to have formed on every available feature. Above us, All Mixed Up shone brightly in the sun, it looked in and fat. The western side of Longs Peak had a beautiful coating of rime that contrasted with the otherwise wind-scoured rock. I was in a wonderful mood, it was a beautiful day and I was in one of my favorite places in the world, Glacier Gorge.
Spearhead at the head of Glacier Gorge
Dusty hiking in
West Face of Longs Peak crusted with rime
We opted for following the edge of Mills Lake instead of the trail. The ice seemed thick enough but cracked and creaked under out weight and was thin enough in a couple places to punch through. We crossed the small grass field between Mills and Jewel Lake and skirted the shore of Jewel Lake constantly looking uphill, and each time seeing yet another new ice flow.
The 2.5 hours that followed, however, require little explanation. There was no trail in place and the snow was drifted thigh to waist deep in places, misery is a good word for it, I actually said aloud once that I wished we’d had snow shoes. We slowly made our way up the hill to Black Lake.
Upon reaching the lake we got our first full view of the Black Lake classic West Gully (WI4) which looked quite fun and surprisingly moderate with a short near-vertical step towards the top of the first pitch offering the greatest technical challenge, otherwise it looked to be fun WI2-3 ice. Dusty and I briefly considered abandoning our original plans to climb West Gully instead. However, neither of us was familiar with the descent options and once the bravado calmed a bit we slowly realized that even a short section of WI4 would get us in over our heads.
West Gully of Black Lake with McHenry's Peak beyond
Once at the Black Lake the base of the slabs are easily accessible. We geared up in the shade and gusty winds. The first pitch was looking fun! We couldn’t decide who was going to get to lead the first pitch, so luckily (for me) a quick game of Rochambeau revealed that I would get to. It started off quite low angle but the ice was in the most incredible shape, plastic and almost wet but each swing of the tools was met with the most positive stick with the greatest holding power. I almost had to fight a couple of times to get my crampon front points to release from this sticky ice. I made my way up the cruiser ice placing a couple of screws, one of which got down to some running water underneath (which subsequently ran onto and quickly froze on the rope below in the -5 wind chill). Near the top of the first pitch there was a fun near-vertical section of about 12-15 feet but with the same great ice quality. After the steep section the first pitch was over (probably about 60 meters long) and I was on a bench with some small willows and thigh deep faceted snow. There was no ice thick enough to take screws nor any cracks to place the few nuts or cams we had brought with us. I ended up having to stomp out a platform and use the willows as a brace for a hip belay to bring Dusty up.
First pitch hero ice
Once Dusty arrived at the top of the first pitch (after a brief snafu with a crampon) we discussed our options. Above us were two obvious routes to continue upwards. To the right, thin ice in an exposed corner was accessible after 15-20 feet of unprotected slab-skating in crampons. To the left manky ice led to another corner with some thin snow and plenty of unprotected slab skating to reach the bench below the second pitch. Neither of these options seemed particularly appealing. In the end, Dusty did a descending traverse to a second slab of ice to climbers left then cruised up another 100 feet, set a belay in a crack in an alcove protected from the wind and brought me up. Unfortunately, while belaying Dusty up, deciding our options and belaying him on lead, I got really cold. The wind was relentless and we were constantly being pummeled with spin-drift. By the time I got to Dusty we realized that our options for getting to the second pitch from here weren’t much better than where we were previously.
Screw it, let’s go. I belayed Dusty as he down climbed to (what looked like) solid ice so he could build a v-thread for rappel. He got the first screw in and upon pulling it out, the hole gushed water. We looked for other available ice but this seemed like it was going to be problem regardless. Dusty drilled the second hole and labored to get the sling through the v-thread amidst the running water that froze within a minute on gloves, gear and slings once expose to the wind. He final got the v-thread set, backed it up with two 22cm screws and belayed me as I down climbed to him. As I’m heavier, I rapped first with screws in place. Dusty said the thread seemed to hold well but decided to go ahead and set a second v-thread to equalize with the first for when he rapped. Luckily we both made it down safe and sound, repacked the gear and took off for the grueling 6 mile deproach back to the car. Interestingly while we’d been climbing a snowshoer had come up to Black Lake and had kicked the trail in a bit more. Nevertheless getting back to Mills Lake was pretty tiring, especially after the approach, climb and freezing our arses off in the wind.
Dusty rapping off the route amidst a nice little spin-drift blast
These clouds were haulin' ass, too bad pictures don't capture this: McHenry's on the way out
We stumbled, we fell, we bitched, we moaned. The we got back to the car and awaiting for us was that which made everything ok again.
For those not willing to read the wandering prose above, here are some conditions and pictures. Aside for the routes listed below, there is ice everywhere in Glacier Gorge, a solid skill set and an adventurous spirit could yield weeks of climbing, probably quite a bit of which may have never been climbed before.
Go take advantage of our trench before it snows too much again and this ice starts to sublimate. We do apologize ahead of time for the often times wandering nature of the trail though...
All Mixed Up: In, looking fat and hearing it goes at WI3+ and well protected this year.
Jewel Lake: in and fat, not looking kicked out at all (probably because CMS hasn’t yet started taking classes there yet).
Reflections: looks pretty good, top pitch is a bit thin at the exit
West Gully: In and looking really good
Right Gully/Big Mac/Snow Bench on McHenry’s: may have some ice at the bottom of the first pitch
Black Lake Slabs: first pitch was in great conditions with fun plastic ice, albeit it was not hard to find running water underneath. Linking P1 and P2 requires some exposed and unprotected slab moves, probably needs some more time to form up to be a pure snow climb.
The Trough on Longs: not a whole lot of snow (as per usual)