"Some days the hard ones are easy, and the easy ones are hard. Today the easy one was hard."
Tom made that remark once we were back in the trees and out of the wind. Seven hours earlier, when we left the trailhead, we had no idea we would be fighting a fierce winter white-out before this May 29 day was done. Today, Storm Peak lived up to its name. Thirty miles away at Saint Mary's Glacier, two young brothers would be caught in the same weather, with a tragic outcome.
This was our second attempt on Storm in the past month. Andy has posted a trip report about our first outing, when deep snow and high wind turned us back 600 feet from the top. Today our hiking buddy Ken joined us, and we had an enjoyable walk up through Jim's Grove and over to Granite Pass. There was some wind and a unsettled look to a dramatic sky, but nothing particularly threatening. We knew that a front was forecast for later in the day, but we expected to be down before it arrived.
Beyond Granite Pass Ken decided he didn't have the summit in him today. We agreed to meet along the trail, and he turned back. Tom and I crossed the Boulder Field to the flanks of the peak. The clouds momentarily lowered, so I decided to shoot a compass bearing back towards Jim's Grove, just in case we were coming out in foggy conditions. The heading was about 65 degrees, east-northeast. We continued climbing, choosing either snow or rock as conditions warranted, and arrived at the summit at 12:05 PM. The huge bulk of Longs Peak towered to the south, with the Diamond Face in stunning profile. The views west into Glacier Gorge were partially obscured by cloud, but we could see Pagoda, Chief's Head, The Spearhead, and Black Lake. I was hoping to photograph McHenry's Peak from here, but it was hidden behind a cloud bank.
The wind was blowing steadily. This was not a day to linger on the summit, and we began our descent of the north ridge by 12:30. Barely 100 feet from the top a tremendous blast of westerly wind almost knocked me over. Soon sleet, hail, and ice crystals lashed painfully into any exposed skin. I protected my face with my shell hood as much as possible. We moved over to the east face to seek shelter from the wind and quickly plunge-stepped down a long snowfield to the base of the peak, at 12,600'. Wind-driven snow was now whipping fiercely in all directions and visibility was down to just a few feet. I was very thankful for that 65 degree compass bearing. I took the now precious instrument from my pack and we headed out into the storm.
We had about 1/2 mile of the nearly level and featureless Boulder Field to cross to the trail near Granite Pass. Moving across the Boulder Field can be difficult in good conditions. Now the loose rocks were plastered with a mixture of water, snow, and ice. Our sunglasses were coated with the same, plus fogged up. Tom decided he was better off without them. My prescription is stronger and I elected to keep wiping them off. Neither of us had goggles.
"I can't say I'm enjoying this.", Tom commented. I nodded in agreement. Our situation had changed from a pleasant hike to one where there was little margin for error. A twisted ankle or other injury would be serious. I slipped on a loose rock and bruised my shin. "Careful man", I thought. Every few minutes I checked the compass to be sure we were still heading in the right direction. We decided that it was best to err slightly towards the south so we didn't inadvertently start down the wrong side of Granite Pass into the Boulder Brook drainage.
After about 45 minutes the visibility had increased to about 100 feet and we could see two small knobs that we recognized as being at the base of Mount Lady Washington. We had rested there last year on our descent from that peak. This meant that the trail over Granite Pass was slightly to the north of us. Altering our course to intersect it we soon saw one of the Park Service's "Stay On Trail" signposts. At the limits of visibility we spotted two other climbers heading down. We caught up to them near the Granite Pass trail junction.
"You guys ever seen anything like this before?", one of them asked. They were from Rapid City, looked to be experienced and well-equipped, and had turned back from an attempt on Longs. The four of us continued down the trail, which was difficult to follow in the blowing snow. Soon we arrived at the junction that led to Jim's Grove. That trail was completely buried in snow, but we could see the top of unmarked wooden pole that indicates the junction.
The visibility cleared for a moment so we could make out the dark mass of trees at Jim's Grove. We explained to the other guys where this trail joined up with the main one, then headed down the shortcut. With great relief we arrived at the Grove, which had about two inches of fresh snow. But, the wind was still fierce and we had some exposed ground to cover before reaching the krummholz and treeline below that. At the bridge that crosses Alpine Creek we finally sat down and relaxed for the first time since the summit. It was two hours since that first blast of wind.
Ken was waiting for us at the parking lot. He was going to give us another hour, then raise an alert. The storm had caught him above Jim's Grove, and he struggled down to the trees as quickly as possible. We drove to a Mexican restaurant in Estes Park for a margarita.
Postscript. The two brothers on St. Mary's Glacier, ages 16 and 20, were not prepared for the weather. They became disoriented and spent the night out in the open. The younger brother did not survive. As the storm moved out over the Denver metro area another person was killed by lightning. These stories struck close to home.
For the next two days I tracked the conditions at the Niwot Ridge Meteorological Data site. (Note that this site is often down, maybe due to severe weather!) The winds continued to blow steady at 50 miles per hour, with gusts to 75. The wind finally died down on June2.
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe