April 19, 2008 -Ski Ascent from St. Mary's Glacier
Our Rainier trip was eight weeks off and I had to keep moving on the conditioning program . . . and the temperatures in the high country were supposed to be in the high 40's. I'd been up James Peak twice before and I knew that it would be a good solo climb for a mediocre skier. If anything went wrong, a host of following climbers could pick up the pieces.
I left Cheyenne at 4:20 and was at the St. Mary's Glacier parking spot off the Fall River Road by 7:00. I met the new owner of the parcel on which the parking area is located and paid his $5.00 fee to park. Some might be put out by paying for what has been free for all these years but Paul described his plans for the pull-out and since it is his, more power to him. I never forget living in Baltimore and thinking that I could be climbing but for the fact that was living in Baltimore. So now I'm here and more than glad to pick up part of the tab to improve this climbing opportunity.
After chatting with Paul for a few minutes, I put on my ski boots, strapped the skis to my pack and climbed the steep bank right behind the car park to intercept the half mile long trail leading to St. Mary's Glacier proper. The trail is actually an old road and it climbs steadily upward, with a requisite dip here and there, to the edge of St. Mary's Lake. I'd asked Paul if he had heard anything about snow moving of late and he noted that there had been talk of sloughs off the high terrain behind the lake but little else. I knew to stay on the approach side of the still frozen lake and as I passed through. I didn't see any sign of recent movement, but there were some large cornices that are going to move soon. I skirted the lake and arrived at the foot of the first part of the climb.
For those unfamiliar with this climb, it consists of the climb up the Glacier, which is actually a permanent snowfield, to a long flat tundra traverse and then on up James Peak proper, the last part of which is about 1300 feet of vertical. I completed the first four or five hundred feet of climb to ascend the glacier and found good snow conditions, a 2" layer of fine snow on top of a pretty hammered layer that had not yet developed the hummocked sastrugi I seem to encounter higher up on James every other time I have skied the mountain. I topped out of the draw above the lake and James Peak came into view. The stretch across the tundra is every bit of a mile long, broken only by a mid point rock pile that serves as a navigation standard on the return trip across the barren landscape.
The good news was that the entire length of the gently rising stretch was snow covered, hence my skinning up would be smooth and my trip back across the flats would be a mile long glide to the top of the glacier. I skied to the rock pile and took a break for a Goo and some water. Darcy, the fellow who had parked next to me an hour earlier, caught up and we started talking and conversed our way across the second half of the flats. I've found that many times when I have started off solo, I end up meeting someone for the walk. This day I shared a wonderful conversation with a fellow engineer, attorney and climber. Talk about two minds that were once right, then threatened by the law's twisting effect. Fortunately our numeric orientation proved strong enough to overcome the negative effect of practicing law.
We took to the steeper ridge and selected a pretty short route to the first edge of rock that we then skirted with a side slope traverse until we were faced with more rock than snow along the ridge proper. It put the skis back on my pack and hoofed the rest of the way, crossing a snow field here and there before climbing the final summit ridge, which was all snow. We traversed in a final zig across the face, enjoying a semi hammered surface, maybe 50/50 breakthrough to about a foot of depth. The final zig complete, we were on the summit where we took in the sights and a brief breather before going back down.
I like James Peak at this time of the year because there is a pretty good chance of a ski all the way back to the car, a distance of 4 miles and probably close to 2800 feet of vertical. The catch is I am a lousy back country skier and I've only been out once this season before this trip. I am fair on wind hammered slopes but throw in some sastrugi bumps and you get to see a few falls here and there. Throw in the powder people crow about, in bands separated by the hammered ground, and you see more falls, right at the hard/powder interface. This descent was not too bad, I did the steep summit flank with but one fall and then cruised across the flat below. The long drop down to the rock pile on the flats included 3 more falls but that isn't too bad for me.
I poled and glided across the mile of the barren tundra and then skied the drop back down to St. Mary's Lake fall free. Admittedly, the terrain was a bit smoother but for the second time out, it was a good run overall. From the base of the glacier, I schussed the winding up and down road to the paved road a half mile below. Skis over my shoulder, I walked one hundred yards back up the road to the car. Not a bad conditioning exercise, most of 4 miles up on skins and a 4 mile ski run, all in the stretch of just a bit over four hours.
A climb of neighboring Mount Bancroft's Northeast Ridge . . .