| West Ridge of Atlantic, an ocean of snow
I was planning on spending my weekend in Breckenridge with some friends that were up on a ski trip. Since I can not ski yet, climbing would be my daily activities for Saturday and Sunday. I had already climbed Quandary and in a search for a new goal I landed on Pacific Peak (13,950') and Atlantic Peak (13,841'). I looked into approach routes and with help from some folks on this site, determined that the approach from the west out of Mayflower Creek Basin would be the best fit for the weekend. The reasons I chose it were 1. The approach is shorter and 2. The climb would be on W/SW facing slopes which were supposed to have less avalanche danger for the weekend according to the CAIC. My plan was to climb the west ridge of Pacific and descend the west ridge of Atlantic back into Mayflower Basin.
I should start by saying that I have not had any serious avalanche training or major snow climbing experience, save for Holy Cross last November and a climb in Indian Peaks which was more a lesson in avoiding snow, than travelling through a lot of it. That being said, I have heard some talks about avalanche safety and tests and am familiar with different snow conditions and weather patterns having been an environmental science/geology person in college.
On Saturday I took a short trip into the basin to check out the conditions on the approach into the upper basin below the west ridge of Pacific which was my planned ascent route. I found out that a ton of people travel up into the basin to check out the mine shacks which are pretty cool actually and to ski some of the walls at the base of Fletcher, Atlantic and Drift Peaks.
As a result, there is a beautifully packed trail on the south side of the basin as well as a couple of XC ski paths and snowshoe trails through the middle of the basin. I explored routes to get into the trees to the north after checking out the mining stuff and then headed home to prepare for the climb. All I have to say is it is waaaayyyy easier to walk over the willows than through them!
Sunday morning my friend and I got out to the trailhead at about 7:00 and were hiking by 7:15. If an f-ing plow hadn't wedged us off the exit ramp at Copper, we would have gotten there a half hour earlier, but oh well. The weather was calm and cool, about 7 degrees to start the day. We hiked up into the middle of the basin on a track that I had packed down on Saturday which went very smoothly.
Because I had found that the snow in the trees was poorly consolidated, I chose to cross the basin and follow some tracks from a couple hikers on Saturday who began climbing up the slope a little further east and higher in the basin where the trees thinned out a bit.
One we passed through the short treed section and grabbed a quick sip of Gatorade slushee to drink, we began assessing the path that we would take to get into the upper basin.
We worked our way back to the west along the edge of the trees and I found a small slope where we could test the avalanche risk. (CAIC said it was moderate in that aspect and considerable on other aspects that we would not encounter that to gain the ridge) The slope was short, but was of similar angle and aspect (SW) to the slopes that we were about to cross/cross under to get into the upper basin.
I dug out an isolated block of snow and examined the face of it to check for big differences in snow texture, crystal size and for icy layers, of which there were a couple. We patted on the top of the block and I even stood and hopped on the snow, but we couldn't cause any instability or movement, so we figured it was safe to get onto the upper slopes and we moved on. Snow on the slopes above treeline to gain the ridge was very competent. There was about ten inches or so of powder on top of a very solid ice layer that very rarely broke. Since I knew the route better, I led/broke trail the entire climb which made me a little more tired than I needed to be, but I felt fine so it wasn't a big deal.
We had been hiking in snowshoes but decided to take them of probably around 12,200' when we got to the point where there were plenty of rocks to walk over.
From here on out it would be boots and ice axes only. We spent a few minutes watching some skiers work their way up the south side of the basin. After entering the upper basin, we had taken a path that put us on a broad part of the west ridge to Atlantic Peak at about 12,450' or so.
Even though it seemed like we had been hiking forever, it was only about 10:00 at this point. At this point we recognized that our energy level was not going to allow us to complete the loop up Pacific, so we reset our goals on the west ridge of Atlantic, which would prove to be plenty for the day.
We began climbing on the ridge, following the ridge crest the entire way. Snow quality was good. On the broad part of the ridge it was seriously windblown and in spots, crampons might have been helpful since the top crust was so solid. Anyways, it was probably easier to cross this spot with snow, than to have to hop across a bunch of talus in the summer. Once the incline started to increase, rocks were exposed and between the rocks, snow was relatively loose. The steepest part of the ridge was right at the start and was talus that was luckily all frozen in place and very easy to climb. I tried to stay on rocks so my feet wouldn't sink in the snow between them.
Once you get over this slope, the interesting part of the ridge presents itself. With winds out of the W/S/SW all last week, there was a nice little cornice that had started to for on the N side of the ridge. The north side of the ridge is steep anyways and provided constant exposure to our left on the climb.
We had to cross a couple narrow spots on the ridge which were pretty hair raising for me. I had never done this before, and had seriously underestimated how mentally tough this would be. (It looks so easy when you see it in the pictures though!!!)
This picture was actually taken of our route looking back up after we had begun our descent.
The snow on the south side of the ridge where we were was very hard having been windblown and it took a lot of effort to kick good steps into it and plant an axe for stability. The slope becomes increasingly steep to the south and a fall here, if you couldn't self-arrest in the first fifteen feet, would end very poorly for whoever was involved. When In started to taste my heart in my mouth, I knew I was having fun though!
We crossed a couple spots on ridge like this and came to a tough spot at about 13,500' only 340' from the top. There was an exposed snow slope that was very steep to the south, so much so that we didn't feel comfortable traversing across it that way. To the north, I could see where little slabs had already began sliding and although it would have been possible to cross the snow slope above them I did not feel safe with that option. I bet someone with more experience could have done this without too much difficulty...
Someone must have climbed there a few days before because we could see remnants of foot prints every once in a while. Here there were footprint leading onto the slope and on the other side, but none left in the middle. This slope was facing N/NW, an aspect that we had not had to travel on up to that point in the day and I did not feel confident that the snow was stable. (CAIC had slopes above treeline rated considerable danger on those aspects)
Unfortunately I had to make the decision to turn around. It was about 12:00. I wish I had more of an education in snow stability evaluation because looking back, I feel like there could have been a safe way across, but I could bring myself to take the risk with what I know, so that was it. Deciding to turn around was so disappointing for me, but I chose life over a bid at that slope and my friends commended me for that (though others thought I was a little bitch, they weren't there so whatever).
After sitting around eating some frozen Poptarts and some more Gatorade slushee, we started back down the ridge. The descent off the ridge went very smoothly. It was nice being able to use our tracks from earlier, and not have to kick steps, along the steeper sections of the ridge.
Unfortunately, some of the rocks that had been very stable on our ascent had loosened a bit as the temperatures rose. I had to be very careful descending some of the steeper wobbly talus since I am still recovering somewhat from a bad knee injury over the summer. We put our snowshoes back on right where we had taken them off and wondered why we hadn't just left them there in the first place. The snow had become heavier since it had been in the sun for a few hours, but following in our footsteps from the ascent, I never felt unsafe about the slopes we were on. We still crossed the larger stretches one at a time.
The weather was amazing all day with little wind even on top of the ridge, and with a few clouds moving in the views from the descent off the ridge were very dramatic.
This picture was actually NOT taken in black and white.
We got back into the lower part of the basin quickly and began the easy hike back to the car. Once back in the parking lot I had one of the weirdest conversations ever with a woman coming down the trail. I had backed my truck up to the trailhead so I could set up my camera for a timer photo of my friend John and I. I was struggling to balance my camera on the back of the truck when I saw this woman hiking alone down the trail on snowshoes. This is the conversation that ensued:
Woman (speaking to no one in particular, but plenty loud enough for us to hear): "What are those boys doing down there?"
John: "We are just taking a couple pictures."
Woman, confused: "Are you taking pictures of the truck or something?"
John, politely: "No, we are just setting up the camera there so we can take a picture of both of us."
Woman, oddly disgruntled: "Oh, well I don't want to be in that picture, wait a minute."
The woman comes down the trail and stops right by where I was trying to set up the camera. At this point we still had all of our stuff on: jackets, snowpants, gaiters, boots, hats, etc… and packs visible in the back of my truck.
Woman: "You know you can take better pictures if you go a little higher up on the trail!?"
YA THINK!?!?!? Luckily that internal exclamation did not escape from my brain.
Me, pointing to the mountain we had just come down: "Yeah, we already got some when we climbed up Atlantic peak. Thanks though."
Woman, still confused: "What… you mean you went up this trail to the cabins at the end?"
Me: "Actually, no. We climbed right to the top of that mountain there, Atlantic Peak."
Woman, now looking at me like I had six heads or something: "What, where!?"
Me, still pointing: "To the top of that mountain and we got a bunch of pictures from up there already."
Woman, in a tone as if she had just seem me take a dump right in front of her or was about to puke just looks me straight in the face and said, "Eeeewwww…" and simply walked away!!!
I was both dumbfounded, and trying my best not to bust out laughing right in her face! What a b**ch! Why the heck was she so disgusted at the fact that we had been climbing. She didn't even once come anywhere close to offering to help take a picture of us, just left me there struggling!!!
Anyways, This is for all of those people who don't like pictures of people in Trip reports… and I know there are some out there posting in the thread about TRs with no pictures.
SUN'S OUT , GUNS OUT BABY!!
Boy was that a cold picture.
It was a wonderful climb even though we didn't make it all of the way to the top. 13,500' in February isn't too bad I guess. It is definitely a place that I want to come back to, and I still want to try the west ridge of Pacific at some point which looked very cool from our vantage on Atlantic. Great weather, great scenery, good introduction to the world of snow, great company, and I'm still alive. Pretty good result if you ask me. (Oh and by the way we didn't see a single person along our route the entire time! What a treat.) Now it's time to take an avalanche course…
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):