This route was recommended to me as a good first solo climb. I would have to say that this was a great route, but I had several route finding problems that led to some serious delays. If you've never done this route before, read the description on the main page carefully!
I got a bit of a later start than I had intended and left the parking lot at around 5:30am.
My first route finding problem came durring the approach and was completely the result of my not remembering the route description well enough. DO NOT leave the trail until you reach Emerald lake...which happens to be the end of the trail!
Once you reach Emerald Lake, you can choose to go either right or left around the lake:
View Right around the lake.
View left around the lake.
I would recommend going left. As you can see from the pictures, the way to the right involves a rather prolonged talus scramble. There is some talus to the left as well, but you get onto snow quickly. Early in the day (which is when you should be there), the snow is hard and frozen so put on crampons before you get on the snow. The possibility of falling into the lake is certainly there! Once around the lake, make your way up the low angled snow field to the base of the buttress. This lower snowfield would be some nice easy sking for those so inclined. I reached the base of the buttress at about 7:00am
The Main Climb
There was a good shelf at the base of the buttress that provided a good resting place before entering the couloir proper, and is also a good decision point for wheather or not you're going to climb.
View heading up from the buttress
Once you enter the main couloir, the angle steepens significantly, but it makes for great climbing! By the time I was on the snow, it had started to melt a little and kick-steping was pretty easy. I had caught up with two groups from Colorado Mountain School who were doing a mountaineering 101 class. I decided to go ahead and follow them up instead of passing them. This also made kick-steping FAR easier! :P
The main couloir
Another shelf about 1000 ft. up the couloir provided another good resting point before heading up the crux region. An aproximately 100 ft section of even steeper snow led up to the crux. The route discription page states that there is a rock-step that may involve a few 4th class moves. I think this description is probably more accurate in the earlier part of the season. When we reached this point, we found a good 20 ft section of 4th class scrambling. There WAS snow through the section both to the right and the left, however the snow was pretty scetchy and being a solo climber without any protection except my ice axe, I decided it was safer to take the mixed rock. The CMS group guides decided to protect this section for the students and built anchors below and above. I chose to pass them to the left at this point to avoid waiting on the steep snow for 45 min. I didn't get any pictures of this section unfortunately (more important things on my mind!). Once you're past the "rock-step" you get back on what is probably the steepest section of snow (I'd guess 55-60 degrees, but that's just a guess). This is the last section and the snow was really soft (couldn't squeeze out water yet, but it was getting there).
Once at the top there were beautiful views in all directions, and I must say that the climb itself was one of the best I'd ever done. It felt like a pretty good route for my first solo, I probably should have climbed a route I already knew, but it all worked out! I "summited" around 11:00am
View back down from the top
This is where the REAL route finding problems came up!
My friend had recommended that I attempt a ski descent off of the east side of Flattop (the CMS guides told me it was called Bannana Basin and gave me directions). I hiked down to where the guides had told me, but the snow was really melted out and I ended up scrambling over a talus field most of the way. It looked like there may have been snow in the basin, but it also looked like it would drop me further away from the trail head than I really wanted to be (in retrospect it might have actually saved me time). Instead, I saw the Flattop summit trail off to the south, and hiked back over to that. Unfortunately, as the trail got into the trees, it became covered with snow. I was pretty tired, and did not feel like I could safely ski through the tight trees, so I was left to hike it in my approach shoes. Various foot trails led through the snow, but were mainly bushwhacked and having skis on my back slowed my progress. The snow was also pretty soft and I spent a good amount of time knee- to thigh-deep in postholes. Once I got lower, the snow became spotty, and I ended up loosing the trail in a section between snow patches. I eventually was able to bushwhack my way back to the trail, but by this time, I had probably lost about an hour. Fortunately, I had cell-phone coverage and was able to call my roommate so he didn't send out SAR!
I'm sure there was a better descent path that would have prevented this whole situation, and next time I would certainly research that further.
All things told, it was a great trip! If I hadn't gotten myself lost twice, and had left the parking lot at the time planned, it probably would have been even better!