Route: West Gully WI4, Steep Snow
Location: Black Lake, RMNP
Players: John (Johnba), Joe (Red Beard)
Dates: 9am Dec 23rd- 1pm Dec 24th, 2010
For the last year or so I had been eyeing an overnight trip to Glacier Gorge for some winter peak bagging. The initial scheming consisted of simple snow climbs to summit several peaks at the head of the cirque, Pagoda, Chiefs Head and McHenerys. But as last years winter came to a close I was force to postpone this trip till the following snowy season. Over the summer Joe and I had climbed quite a few times, gaining technical experience along with a better idea of our collective goals. Joe, opting for more technical climbs with shorter approaches and I, for a mixture of the two. Over the last month or so we had partnered up several times for ice routes around northern Colorado. Feeling confident in our skill level we decided to take the trip up Glacier Gorge looking for golden Ice routes!
Joe at Mills Lake
So we did our research and had an open ended goal of hitting several routes. First priority was Black Lake’s West Gully, 2-4 pitches of WI3 with the second pitch (crux) at WI4 or at least that’s what our beta told us. We had back up routes in mind but were determined to gain West Gully.
John at Mills Lake
For weeks before hand we followed weather patterns and stayed on top of condition reports. The colossal storm that slammed the southern and central mountains also dropped significant amounts in the northern Front Range. My previous trips to the Black Lake area in winter months lead me to believe that, even with the new snow, we would be looking at normal to lean snow conditions. A few steps into the approach would change my mind.
All Mixed Up WI4
Joe and I packed a small rack of rock gear, 6 smaller cams, set of nuts and hexes plus 10 screws of varying sizes. We finished out the rack with half a dozen 24 inch runners, 4 screamers and 10 or so quick draws. We packed fairly evenly, splitting the gear, rope, tent and stove between us. Our approach was exceptional. Calm winds and a nice boot packed trail to Mills Lake made the first half of the walk in quite nice. At the south end of Mills we geared up and snow shoed the final 2 miles to Black Lake. We reached the proposed camp site at the outlet of Black Lake around 1:30pm and proceeded to quickly gear up for the climb.
John crossing the lake to the route. note the snow sliding over the cliffs
By 2pm we started our approach to the ice. As we crossed the lake we could see tiny powder slides run over the cliffs next to the ice. The slides lasted just a minute and seemed to pose little threat so we continued.
digging our way up
Now getting to the ice would be our biggest hurdle of the day. It’s several hundred vertical feet of deep powder snow from Black Lake to the base of West Gully. We took turns breaking a trail through chest deep powder, digging a path with our arms as we progressed. As imagined this took hours, two to be exact.
Joe doing work
We reached the rock at left of the ice and traversed across slabby rock/snow using our tools as holds above us. When we reached a corner we opted to gear up and start the roped section. We were still around 40 feet from the ice proper, but we were at the last decent spot to gear up. So I set an anchor, a sling rapped around a pillar, and Joe set off.
John rounding the corner to belay spot
Joe roped and ready
As Joe climbed he spent a good deal of time either avoiding ice toped with snow or brushing snow off his route. Making great time he reached the base of the crux and placed a screw. During my belay I was showered with snow from one of the previously witnessed powder slides, during which I lost sight of my climber!
Joe at the start of the ice
Joe made quick work of the crux, a vertical pillar with a slight overhang at the top, and continued up to set anchor. After the gear was set I started my ascent with COLD hands.
The first bit was low angle but very solid. The crux was a quite hard for me, cold hands and tired arms made the moves interesting to say the least. Fun crux! I made a few more moves and was on anchor.
Joe above Crux, distorted by falling snow
By this time the sun had set. We had planned on rappelling the ice after pitch 2 but when we saw the remainder of the climb was low angle ice with sporadic snow coverage we opted for a running belay to the top of the cirque. By the start of P 2 it was totally dark. I belayed Joe while he led. When the rope was at end I started up, following his boot steps. We kept at ropes length and I removed 5 screws along the way. It was 6:30 pm when w reached the top of the cirque, where Joe had placed a runner around a rock. We quickly coiled the rope and began our traverse south across the upper glacier cirque.
John atop the crux
John on anchor
Joe at top anchor after 3 rope lenght of a running belay
We were able to stay on relatively safe terrain, using Spearhead as a point of orientation. As we circled around the moon rose over Longs Peak and gave a spectacular view of McHenerys Peak, almost like a giant spotlight on the looming east face. So after 3 hours of descent we reached Black Lake and our packs. We hurried to set up the tent, as the winds were currently non-existent. By 10 pm we were in our bags and feeling quite satisfied. To tired to melt snow, we drank what little we had left and dozed off.
Now the night would have gone smoothly if only it wasn’t for the near death experience.
In our hurry to set up camp and my slightly diluted state, I forgot to open any vents on our single wall tent. So after an hour or so of “sleep” we both were awake and breathing like we had just ran a marathon. Heavy breathing through our mouths and the inability to catch a decent breath started to worry us. I was un-aware, as was Joe, if the problem was occurring to just one or both of us. W assumed just for ourselves. After maybe 15 minutes of wondering and worrying Joe finally said, “John, can you breath?” “No” I replied. So we quickly discussed leaving, packing up and heading out. But as we pondered our options Joe asked if I had opened the vents. “Oh sh*t” We both sat up and franticly opened the vents at the top of the tent, gasping for breath we inhaled as much as our lungs would take. As we calmed down the situation began to take hold. Uproarious laughter and feelings of utter disappointment ensued. We spent the next half hour recuperating and running through the possible chain of events we had just narrowly avoided. How long till we passed out? How long till our frozen bodies were discovered? What would people think? Why did these guys climb all day and night just to lay down and die? All things that made us laugh. By that time we had decided that the next morning would be spent on nothing but a descent, a return home.
Route after the slides at night
At 9am we arose, satisfied beyond belief. We packed up and were on our way by 10am. Looking up at the route we noticed all of the snow fields above the ice had slid during the night. Smiling, we left. Just 5 miles back. The parking lot by 12:45am and BBQ just down the road. What a way to end the excursion.
descent route circled to the left, out of view
We gain experience and certainly wisdom from our trip up the gorge. Can’t ever ask for more.
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