St.Mary's Glacier to campMy climbing partners and I decided to check out the East Face of James Peak with the goal of climbing either Shooting Star, or hopefully, the more-challenging Superstar couloir, depending on conditions. We decided to camp somewhere near James Lake on Friday night in order to get a fairly early start on Saturday morning.
The forecast was for a very nice weekend, with mostly clear skies and overnight lows in the upper 20s, with some brisk winds. The clear skies (with associated long-wave radiative cooling) and sub-freezing overnight temps meant we could expect firm snow in the morning.
Superstar generally has a cornice guarding the top-out, so we brought some rock gear and a couple of 30m alpine ropes in case we needed to tackle the 5.4 escape route on the rock, along with our ice axe, ice tool, pickets, and crampons.
We weren't worried too much about weight, as we are training for a June trip to Denali; in fact, we brought much of our Denali gear along, including a new Trango 2 tent, and our packs weighed in close to 50 lbs.
We left Arvada after a full work day, late in the afternoon, and hoped to choose a campsite by dark. It's always wonderful to head up to the hills to start an early weekend, and today was no exception. There were only a few cars in the lot near the St. Mary's Glacier TH, and we left about 6pm. Before we left, we enjoyed a delicious dinner of warm fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese, courtesy of King Soopers, which we picked up as we left town.
We were greeted on St. Mary's Glacier with typical fierce headwinds (pretty steady at 30-40mph), which made the ascent a bit more interesting.
We then crossed the mostly snow-free Flats while being treated to a nice sunset over James Peak to the west.
We dropped over the lip down towards the James Peak Lake drainage, scrambled over some rock and snow fields down past the derelict truck (photo later) and managed to find a fairly level campsite on a hillside at about the same elevation as the lake. The later light this time of year was most welcome, and we set up the tent (for the first time outdoors) with the aid of headlamps in the last light of the day.
The winds did not abate during the night and severely tested the winter-worthiness of the tent: at times the tents bowed over sharply. I had to get up in the middle of the night to secure the vestibule when a couple of stakes pulled (we forgot to bring the "parachute" stakes) -- my ice axe and the shaft of my shovel came in handy for this job, as there was no way I was going to get up again! I was gratified to see stars, though when a wind gust suddenly blew snow up my back, I decided stargazing could wait for another evening.
The only way we could get any sleep was with the aid of earplugs (the only kind that work for me are the malleable wax plugs that one moulds onto the entrance of the ear canal -- I find these very comfortable and extremely effective), and thanks to them I was finally able to fall asleep and slept soundly until the 6am alarm (which, of course, I couldn't hear, but woke up anyway thanks to the daybreak's early light).
Ascent to Superstar CouloirWe set out for Superstar Couloir via James peak lake about 7am.
The snowpack was solid, and Superstar appeared to be in fantastic shape, with an abundant snow line all the way to the top. We were definitely excited and in high spirits at the prospect of climbing this beautiful couloir.
As we completed the initial ascent above the Lake and approached the snow apron on the bench below the East Face, we met another group of climbers who had decided to retreat. Uh oh! They had been planning to climb one of the couloirs on the south side of the East face and told us that when they had dug a pit on the low part of the snow apron leading to their climb, they found a very weak snow layer under surface wind slab.
We had encountered a solid snowpack on our ascent to that point, so we were surprised to hear about the snow conditions higher up, and we decided to press on and check things out for ourselves. Hopefully the aspect on the north side of the East Face was different enough that snow conditions would be better. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case, and our snow pit revealed the same horrible conditions: a 4" compacted wind slab rested on one of the weakest layers I have ever seen -- which is saying something in Colorado! -- consisting of a substantial incredibly loose layer of sugar snow mixed with graupel. It might as well have been a layer of ball bearings, and clearly a retreat was not optional.
The snowpack is really dicey this year, so be careful!
"Plan B" CouloirNeedless to say, we were majorly disappointed, and with beautiful lines rising all around us, we were loathe to pack up and leave with the whole day ahead of us. Should we go back to the Front Range and get in a rock climb? We were psyched to climb a couloir, so we decided to check out one of the couloirs that rose directly above James Lake, since the snow conditions were exponentially better lower down.
We spied a few possible lines, and chose the most aesthetic one that rose continuously up to the right, which appeared to be the steepest line. We named it "Plan B" Couloir. I'm sure it has a proper name, which I will update once I learn what it is, but it will forever be "Plan B" to us! And it turned out to be a worthy, even exhilarating, climb, with mostly continuous 45-degree incline for about 1200'. I'll take that any day.
After we topped out, the view of the East Face of James Peak was magnificent, and oh boy did Superstar call out to the depths of one's climbing soul!
To cap off a fantastic day, we managed to link a series of glissade paths almost all the way down to the camp.
We broke camp and climbed up past the truck wreck and up to the Flats -- this part of our adventure was not nearly so fun as climbing the couloir, needless to say, but the beer at the end of the day was worth it!