| A Wintery Spring Break: Part I
Route: Southeast Ridge
RT Distance: ~7 Miles
Gain: ~2,920 Feet
Participants: stevevets689, Tweak
Google Earth image of our route
I did not realize that Spring Break was coming until it was a week away. This pleasant surprise meant that I had to do some planning, as a week off should be taken full advantage of. Originally, my plans were much more extravagant than what actually took place, but other opportunities came up to replace my climbing plans, so my four part Spring Break Extravaganza became a two part thing. But considering how both parts went… I don't feel too bad about it.
The first part of the plan came on the very first day of break. I had looked at the summitpost.org page for James Peak and St. Mary's Glacier for a while, and decided it would be a good "warm-up" climb, as it is a relatively easy and safe ridge hike, as well as the highest point in Gilpin County. My friend Josh, a.k.a. Tweak, would accompany me for both parts of my Spring Break climb. I also realized that, even though this was Spring Break, it was still calendar winter and I would be getting more winter ascents in. While my classmates were enjoying their time in warmer places, I was subjecting myself to Colorado's high altitude winter. I wonder if there's something wrong with me…
Josh and I left School of Mines for St. Mary's Glacier and arrived there at around 7:00 AM. Waiting for us at the parking lot was the owner of the lot, who is charging his tenants $5 to park for the day. He says that he is expanding the lot, so we coughed up the dough and decided not to complain for the time being, even though other people arrived at the same lot later and left due to the cost. The only thing that threatened to drive us away from our climb was the shrieking wind, and we decided that anything we could get above the glacier would be bonus points for the day.
A few other people decided to begin hiking up while we were still getting ready, and we had a snowshoe track along with a few ski tracks to follow. We arrived at the base of the "glacier" a short while later. St. Mary's Glacier is actually a large snowfield between two rocky crags, but was once a real glacier. It was barely steep enough to get our ice axes out, and we decided that our amount of crevasse rescue practice (none) was sufficient.
St. Mary's Glacier through the blowing snow
Climbing the Glacier
We powered our way through the wind and up the glacier and arrived at the huge, high plateau which leads to James' Southeast Ridge. Even though the peak should only be a couple miles away, we couldn't see it through the blowing snow. I had looked at maps enough to know where to go, and we started the windy walk. The tracks we were following went left of the direction we chose, and we saw the skiers getting their skins off and getting ready to descend the glacier. The snowshoer had already turned around, so we would be the only people on James that day.
Looking across the flats. James Peak is in that direction
As we cruised along the flats with the wind still threatening to knock us over, James finally began to come into view. We continued forward towards the saddle between James and nearby Kingston Peak, where the Southeast Ridge begins. We passed by a wilderness sign marking our entrance into Indian Peaks Wilderness and at last arrived at the base of the ridge. We stopped for a brief rest and nourishment, and then looked up at the next challenge.
James finally coming into view
The initial part of the ridge was broad and covered in snow. Though not steep enough for an avalanche, it would still provide a bit of a snow climb as there were not enough exposed rocks to walk on. At least the snow was pretty firm and provided for good step kicking. Sans crampons I had to kick pretty hard to get the purchase I wanted, but it worked nicely. We moved up this with relative ease and speed, and the angle decreased. The ridge became a little sharper and gave us some exposed rocks, so for now the snow climbing was over. Our excitement built as we looked up and saw the "summit." I should have known we were too low for that to be the top, but it took a slight clearing of the weather to see slopes off to the left that were considerably higher than us for me to realize that we were not approaching the top yet. I moved quickly up to the highpoint we were seeing and saw that, indeed, we still had quite a ways to go. I called back to Josh the situation and waited on top of the false summit.
Josh climbing the ridge
Josh making his way up
The top? Naaah
It began to snow. The wind wasn't as crazy as it had been but the visibility wasn't ideal either. We continued on but set a 3:00 PM turnaround time. After a few ridge bumps, we looked up to what we were pretty sure was the actual summit. We decided that even if it wasn't, unless the real summit wasn't very close to that, we would turn around regardless so we wouldn't get involved in a total whiteout situation. We hiked slowly up the snowy rocks, and finally started walking up our next hopeful summit.
As I got very near the top, I noticed a rather large cairn. It was circular… A wind shelter. That must be the summit! I called down to Josh and put my extra energy into getting to the highest point. Upon arrival, there was no more upward movement to make. This truly was the summit. We beat our turnaround time and, hopefully, the weather. Josh arrived with me and we took a few photos, though with the visibility there wasn't much to take pictures of. We did get to look down some pretty impressive technical couloirs, however, and realized that James does have more to offer than an easy ridge route.
The real summit
Looking down the way we came
Looking at Josh from across a couloir
The visibility wasn't going to get any better any time soon so we started down. As usual, the descent took vastly less time than the ascent and we quickly found ourselves back at the first false summit. I remembered that we had climbed up pretty solid snow. I found a good, unobstructed line of snow which led in the direction we were going, grabbed my ax, sat down, pushed off a little, and set off on my first true glissade! I picked up some speed and descended perhaps a couple hundred feet in a matter of a few minutes. Soon enough, the angle decreased and the snow got soft, bringing me to a jolting, powdery halt. Josh came in behind me, and then we looked up. We could actually see all the way across the flats to the glacier. The weather was clearing!
The way back to the glacier
We happily started our march across the flats, discussing future plans. Josh had been beat off the Horseshoe Basin side of Grays Peak by lightning back in summer and wanted his revenge, so we considered that, but the hike in from the interstate didn't sound terribly appealing. On skis it might not be so bad, but that would mean I would have to rent. What if we started with something easier, say, Quandary Peak? It would also depend on my plans for the rest of the week. We set the matter aside and refocused on descending.
Our first good view of James from the flats
Josh climbing the little rock bump on the way back
The little rocky bump before the start of the glacier came up before us and we scrambled to the top of it for pictures and because anything that involves scrambling should be climbed. Then we arrived back at the glacier. More glissading? Not quite yet, it's not steep enough. But wait, it gets steeper off to the right, but go too far to the right and you're in avalanche territory. Still, if we go just a little to the right making sure to stay off the really steep stuff, we'll have a good run. The angle increased enough to warrant momentum and we sat down. We slowly started our run. As the steep part came up, I turned slightly and took it head on. The angle suddenly increased and I let out a "WOOO HOOO!!!" as I rocketed off, snow flying into my face. My speed was short-lived though, and I quickly sank into the soft snow and stopped. I had descended quite a ways and was happy with it.
EDIT: Glissading that part of the glacier with the given snow conditions was probably unwise in hindsight. We had not correctly established safe avalanche conditions and though we did not set one off, we might have been able to. I would advise staying to the shallow part of the glacier for now until the steeper part solidifies a bit more.
Our glissade tracks on the glacier
We traversed back to the left and encountered some of our jean-garbed friends, the Texans. They remarked how our speedy descent looked like fun, but they were just going to stay with the standard method of foot travel. With a quick mental image of Texans riding the snow in jeans, I stifled a laugh and we started down into the trees.
The roads proved to be slightly complicated but we were not detoured much and before long we were back at Josh's car. Musing at how strong the wind had been in the morning but our climb had been successful regardless, we were pretty happy. We headed back to the school, and started looking at the forecast for the rest of the week…
To be continued
To see more pictures from this climb, please visit my online photo album:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):