Lawrence, Nelson and I left Fort Collins in the morning and drove up to Piney Lake. From there we backpacked into Eagles Nest Wilderness up the Piney Lake Trail to where the trail takes a sharp right-hand turn to head southeast. We pitched camp below the slope that is between Point 12,225 and Point 12,361. That evening it rained off and on so we didn’t do much besides fix dinner and hunker down in our tents.
June 19, 2004
The alarm went off at five and we struggled to drag ourselves out of bed. After a couple of cups of coffee and some breakfast we were awake enough to pack up our gear and set off on our climb.
The evening before we’d scoped out what appeared to be a likely approach. From our base camp we faced a steep climb out of the Piney River Valley up to the tarn-filled basin below Peak C. The first half of the approach was tree covered, but the second half was rocky and we couldn’t tell how difficult this would be. On the left side (east side) of the slope there was a large waterfall. To the east of this there was a grassy ramp that look doable. To the west of the waterfall there looked to be some ledge systems in the rock wall that might be passable too. We decided to head for the base of the waterfall and reevaluate once there.
As we made our way up the slope we started out with two choices – we could go up a treeless area or up a slight ridge with rocks and trees, both of which were on the west side of the stream and waterfall. Initially we decided to go up the treeless slope but after a couple hundred feet the vegetation began to thicken and plowing through it would have meant getting soaked from the dew. So we changed plans and worked our way up the ridge. The going here was relatively easy, but steep.
After a while we reached the base of the waterfall. The grassy ramp to the east of the waterfall looked like our best bet so we ascended that up and around the waterfall. Past the waterfall we crossed a few snowfields and popped up into the tarn-filled basin.
By this time the weather seemed to be turning and ominous looking clouds seemed to be approaching from all directions. We decided to go up to the saddle between Point 12,225 and Peak C to have a better look at the approaching storm. From where we were down in the basin we couldn’t really see anything and once we were in the couloir we wouldn’t be able to see anything either. The saddle wasn’t too far out of the way and we wouldn’t gain too much unnecessary elevation so off we went.
Atop the saddle we had a good view to the west and southwest. It looked like the storm was going to pass to the north of us so that was encouraging. We paused for a snack and enjoyed the view of Mount Powell and Peaks D and E. We also found the lower couloir that Theron Welch had mentioned in his trip report and that xskier77 had used for his ascent. This led down the Kneeknocker Pass side of the saddle. We also noticed that there were fresh footprints in it.
With the storm looking like it would miss us we decided to go ahead and start up the couloir. We contoured along Peak C’s southern slopes to the base of the couloir and started up it. This was my first time on a real snow climb and I had been a little apprehensive. I’d had two other experiences on relatively steep snow. In both of these the snow had been quite hard and I hadn’t had an ice axe. I was pretty uncomfortable during both. This was totally different however. The snow was in perfect condition for kick stepping. With every step I felt secure in the placement of my feet and axe. I wasn’t even a little uncomfortable. This was fun!
We made our way up the couloir, but the storm clouds were moving in once again. This time the clouds were accompanied by thunder. As the thunder drew closer we began to get concerned and decided to get out of the couloir to wait out the storm. We found a place to exit on the west side of the couloir and scrambled out onto some rocks. We got away from our axes and hunkered down. The thunder boomed overhead but we didn’t see any lightning and it didn’t rain on us. However, with the sun behind the clouds the steady breeze, and just sitting there we all began to get cold. After about fifteen minutes the storm seemed to pass and we waited another fifteen minutes without hearing any thunder before grabbing our axes and reentering the couloir.
With the sun now out we made steady progress up the couloir. I was feeling great and really confident. I suppose I was really blessed to have such optimal conditions for my first snow climb. Lawrence and Nelson estimated the couloir to be about 45 degrees at its steepest and they said the conditions couldn’t have been better. They said if the snow was harder and we’d needed crampons it might have been a totally different story.
We seemed to just fly up the couloir and as we neared the top we came upon the crux of the couloir. Here there was an overhang on the C Prime side of the couloir, which caused the snow in the couloir to be pretty shallow. Consequently it was difficult to get a good purchase with our feet and ice axes. I chose to scramble up some talus on one side of the couloir. In hindsight this probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do because it was really easy to kick loose rock down on Lawrence and Nelson below. However, I was careful and avoided doing so. After the shallow snow and talus the snow was really soft and we sunk to our thighs in it. We floundered up that for twenty feet or so before regaining firmer snow. From that point it was only a few minutes worth of work to reach the top of the couloir.
After topping out of the couloir we paused to catch our breath and enjoy the view. The view down the other side of the couloir to the northeast was spectacular. We also noted that bagging C Prime was going to be out of the question. From anywhere in the couloir it would have been a solid class five climb as far as we could see. We hadn’t brought a rope, and even if we had I wouldn’t have been capable of the climb. Lawrence took off his plastic boots and put on his scrambling shoes and led the way up the ridge toward the summit of Peak C.
The first section was quite tricky. It wasn’t incredibly steep, but the rock wasn’t that great and there were few good handholds. After some initial consternation Lawrence found a route through the tricky section and we were on to more comfortable terrain. On the way up Lawrence had spied a gully that he thought would take us from the summit down past this tricky section of ridge and drop us down into the couloir below its crux. We all hoped he was right because down climbing the section we’d just come up would be challenging.
We scrambled along for several hundred feet more. There were a couple places that tested my scrambling skills and our path took us along the north side of the ridge where the exposure was considerable. The exposure tested my nerves a bit but for the most part I was a lot more comfortable with the climb than I thought I would be. The crux of the scramble came when we were almost to the summit proper. The ridge narrowed into a short, 10-foot knife-edge and then there was a six-foot drop that you had to lower yourself over to regain the ridge. We explored alternatives but nothing looked promising. We could drop down around the north side of the ridge because the drop was sheer, and dropping around the south edge didn’t look much better as the ledge system we could try looked just as difficult as the knife-edge, if not worse. So we left our packs behind and negotiated the knife-edge and then the drop. These were both a little scary, but not too bad. The drop of the knife-edge was actually a lot easier than it looked. I think with my longer legs and arms it was a bit easier for me than it was for Lawrence and Nelson.
After navigating the crux it was only another thirty feet of easy scrambling to the summit. We sat atop the summit, signed the summit log, snapped a few photos, and reveled in our feat. The weather had been spotty all day however and we didn’t want to hang around long enough to have it turn on us. We quickly scrambled up and over the knife-edge to collect our packs and then begun making our way down.
We found the gully that Lawrence had spied earlier and began or descent. The gully was strewn with talus and boulders, and though the going was steep it wasn’t very difficult. We couldn’t see to far below and we just had to hope that the gully met the couloir and didn’t cliff out on the way. In the worst-case scenario that the gully did cliff out we’d just have to climb back up the gully and descend the way we’d come up from the top of the couloir. Any worry about this was unfounded however because the gully met the couloir exactly as Lawrence had predicted right below the crux.
We made the clothing change into our shell pants and put on gloves for the descent of the couloir. I made the mistake of only putting on my fleece gloves and not my over mitts. By the time I made it out of the couloir my gloves would be soaking wet. We began plunge stepping down the couloir. This was my least favorite part of the climb. Ascending the couloir, the 4th class scrambling along the ridge, and even the exposure had been fun and all the new stuff I’d learned had come pretty naturally. The plunge stepping however did not. With every step I felt I would slip. Consequently I was pretty tense and nervous with every step. Nelson and Lawrence had showed me how to arrest and I wasn’t really worried about falling out of control, but just that momentary loss of control when my feet would slip out from under me was disconcerting. As I made my way down I got a little more comfortable. One adjustment I made seemed to help: instead of following in Nelson’s footsteps I stayed in fresh snow. I seemed to slip less when I stepped down the fresh snow. The farther down I got the more comfortable I was, and the more comfortable I got the less tense I was, and the less tense I was the less I seemed to slip.
Anywho, we made it down to the bottom of the couloir and then made several glissades in the snowfields below the couloir that weren’t as steep. We then descended down to the tarns before the big steep downhill past the waterfall to our base camp. By this time I was pretty well beat and really needed a rest. We stopped for a good half an hour and rested and ate on a nice rock above the tarns. After our rest we continued down past the falls. This time we decided to stay to the east of the stream. It looked like there might be a climbers’ trail there and if this turned out to be the case it would make some good beta to add to SP. Unfortunately the climbers’ trail didn’t pan out and it was no better or worse than the route we’d ascended to get to the waterfall. Just as we neared base camp we came across another campsite. We talked with the campers for a few minutes. They were instructors for an Outward Bound class, but their students where away on a day hike. The said they’d been messing around up in the basin below Peak C for several days and they’d been the ones that had left the tracks in the lower couloir down to the Kneeknocker Pass side.
After that we strolled down the trail to camp and collapsed exhausted (at least I did). It was a long tough day, but so much fun! The snow climb was especially fun and I was excited to add this to my collection of skills. I still needed some practice arresting and using crampons and such, but as Nelson said knowing how to handle an ice axe opens up a whole other world of climbing.
That evening we sat around talking and eating dinner and we went to bed early.
June 20, 2004
We again woke at 5:00. Today we had planned to attempt “The Spider” and “The Fly” but this was not to be. We fixed some breakfast and then set out down the Piney Lake Trail toward the spider. The going was much slower than we had anticipated and it took us twice as long to reach the “The Spider” as we expected. We decided to abort our plan to climb and instead hike up to Upper Piney Lake. If we’d attempted to climb “The Spider” and/or “The Fly” that would have been too long a day, especially with our tired legs from the day before.
We hiked up to Upper Piney Lake and hung out for a while before retracing our path back to base camp. We packed up our stuff and headed back to the car. During the drive home we stopped at a great Mexican place in Frisco. I don’t remember the name, but it was pretty much the first building on the right as you head into Frisco from the west of the two I-70 Frisco exits. We made it back into Fort Collins by about 7:00pm. What a great weekend!