We made our ascent of Flattop Mountain on May 5th, 2006. Here is the video footage of our ascent and descent. Trip details are written below. Click "Play" button as this video does not automatically start.
If you would like to see a better quality version, here are the other links:
MPEG-2(112MB, DVD Quality)
Real Media(4MB Good Quality, Sound)
The whole story....
Originally this trip was going to be a single day climb and descent of James Peak via St. Mary's Glacier. That plan changed the night before, mainly due to our observations of the weather. Boulder was socked in with fog and drizzle. Weather.com seemed to indicate that the mountains were no better. After a bit of weather research, it was decided that Estes Park seemed to be the sweet spot, so plans were changed and we decided on Rock Mountain National Park. We kept our route options open until arrival, but had Flattop Mountain in mind; either the north side, or the Dragon's Tails.
As we entered the park, and drove toward the Bear Lake Trailhead, it seemed as if we may escape the fog and drizzle. Sure enough, we punched through and had nothing but blue skies overhead. We arrived at the trailhead around 6:30am, after an excurtiatingly slow drive up. By 7am we were on trail. A quick check of beacons, and route discussion followed. The snow seemed softer that expected, and there did not appear to have been a hard freeze. Because of this, we questioned the timing of a Dragon's Tail ascent and ski. Opting for the tammer north side, we departed the trailhead at 7:15.
At present, there is one extended section just past the lake where skis must be removed and slung on packs. We reached this point just before 7:30. By 7:45 we found ourselves ready to skin up again. Reattaching our skis, we made good time past the main Flattop turnoff, and up into the valley below the north side.
In the first tree clearing we came to, we spotted a number of ski tracks descending off the ridge. Having skied this slope previously, we are familiar with its length and pitch(1100' at 25 degrees w/ spots of 30 degrees).
We began heading mostly west on a traversing ascent of Flattop's north side. Our intention was to check the conditions of the terrain directly north of the summit, and to the north and west of the summit. This took us across a 30 - 35 degree slope and into a wind swept section full of rocks and small trees. From here we continued our ascent to the west to about 11,300' until boulders block any easy passage on skis.
Getting a good view of the terrain to the west, there was ample evidence of slide activity on the steeper terrain. I would say that just about every steep slope in view had significant slides on at least part of it. That combined with the fact that we had obsereved a hard thin layer some 8 inches down that was floating on facets convinced us to leave the steeper terrain for another day.
After that decision was made, we angled back south to ski moderate terrain descending from the Flattop summit ridge. This was when near disaster struck. While turning around, Rob lost his balance and went head first down the slope. His ski caught in a small tree and jerked him to a violent stop with his ankle as the pivot point. I was wedged between two small trees and had to drop my skis to assist. I had to wade through very deep wet snow to get to him. Once there, I ejected his binding and released the pressure on the ankle. After a few minutes, he stood up and concluded that we could continue; no evac today.
Getting our skis pointed in the right direction, we traversed up and out of the rocks. Once onto good snow, we skinned nearly staight up to the summit ridge.
I guess you could call it laziness, but we declined to hunt around for the actual Flattop summit and instead got ready for the decsent(only a few feet was between us and the true summit). We spent only a few minutes enjoying the views of Long's Peak and the rest of RMNP. There were 3 fresh inches of snow on top, and the surface was soft. Being aware of the fact that our decent route was 30-35 degrees and we had observed signs of slides on nearby terrain, we picked out safety spots. These also doubled as video locations.
I dropped in first. The snow on the surface was soft and powdery, but I was punching through to the crusty layer underneath. This was happening mostly during hard turns. Rob being about 20lbs. lighter did not seem to have this problem. We took turn skiing from the saftey spots. As we got lower, the cloud layer was getting higher. By the time we left, the valley had become pretty socked in and the light very flat. The snow was soft, to the point of near sludge.
I think overall we timed that descent about the best we could. Back at the car by 10:45, we headed out by 11:00. At my house in Boulder by 12:10.
Later that afternoon, Rob emailed my from work and said he was heading to the ER. Apparently the ankle damage was more severe than we had thought. 2-6 weeks is what they are saying...