Square Top Mountain, 13,794′, 26 Feb 94 This trip was my first winter alpine climb above 10,000′ so I chose to go on a schedule climb with the Colorado Mountain Club. My experience with the Arizona Mountaineering Club 10 years ago was that the leadership was always very good and the trips themselves were excellent. I was not disappointed by my first CMC outing. I’ll give this report from beginner’s perspective and what I learned. I called Dave, the leader only on Thursday to see if he had room for one more in his party. He was gracious enough to take me, which rounded the group off to 8. We met at a Park and Ride in West Denver along with the hundreds of skiers headed for Aspen and Vail.
After a brief stop for coffee we reached the top of Guanella Pass at about 8:30 am. We all introduced ourselves, Dave ran a critical eye over all our equipment and we set off from the road to the point where we had to put our snowshoes on before we hit the deep snow. This would be the proper place to backtrack about Dave’s critical eye on our equipment… He remarked about my snowshoes… “Boy, haven’t seen wood ones like that in a while!” I had rented the snow shoes at the last moment and the Sherpa’s that I normally have access to were all gone. What I got were lightweight wooded ones with no claw and a flimsy boot harness. This fact will play a key role later…
We headed up over the dreaded willows that in summer when not covered with snow make the going real tough for anyone under 6 feet. Well, with 6 feet of snow over them you just walk on top of them, which we all did with various degrees of success. This is when the laces started to come untied every 50 paces. I was just about to give up on them when we reached the ridge which was blown free of heavy snow. We had only gained about 300′ from our 11,720′ starting point when we lashed the snowshoes to the packs and started climbing with the aid of our ski poles.
Dave and his assistant leader Jan kept us all moving at a good pace up the sharp ridge. It was snowing off and on but there were blue skies everywhere, except on top of our mountain! We all moderated our heat depending if we were exposed to the wind or not by removing layers or adding wind shells, as the temperature was about 20 degrees. The straight forward climb went right up the eastern ridge. Midway up, the ski poles were fastened to the packs and the ice axes were brought out as the terrain became more mixed.
We picked our way up the rock and snow in the steepest section and then we came to the final “pitch” where the choice was really steep broken rock or a snow gully. Dave chose the snow to give us some experience in 55 degree snow slopes. He cut deep steps into the snow and we all followed for about 40′. This was the first time really had to count on my ice axe for safety and it worked flawlessly.
We all made it up to a top that was a false summit, and then finished together up a more gradual climb to the summit. Up top we were greeted by the sun and 40 MPH winds that made it a spot not to linger on too long.
After handshakes and pictures Dave headed us down the southern slope/ridge on snow fields where there was no avalanche danger. We descended a lot quicker than when we went up! We stopped to look at some cornices and some mean cliffs until reaching the area above the “willows”. Finally it was time to strap the snowshoes back on but I elected to descend as far as possible without due the useless snowshoes I was carrying as dead weight! I lasted about 30 minutes where I could stay on wind swept ridge line but was finally forced to follow the snowshoe trail from my companions. Wish I weighed 140, but unfortunately I weigh 200. Sometimes I could get away walking on top of the partially packed trail from the snowshoes, but then I started to plunge through the willows into waist deep snow. After doing this about 6 times, and feeling rather exhausted and silly, I put the snowshoes on and made it the last quarter mile retying them every 20 paces.
Needless to say I was a bit tired near the end, battling the snow. We made it back to the parking area at 3:52pm making the 7 mile round trip in about 7 hours. This first winter alpine experience wet my appetite for more. It had been an exhausting but rewarding day. The leadership by Dave for the CMC had been outstanding. You can only applaud the folks like Dave who have been to the top of Denali but still take the time to expose new climbers to the Colorado Mountains. I learned a lot about technique, equipment and wooden snowshoes. Next time its Sherpa or Tubbs snowshoes or I do not go! And if any of the trip members are reading this, thanks for the experience. I believe most of the facts are facts!
Squaretop Mountain, 13,794, Spring 1995
There are many beautiful days to hike/climb during the spring in Colorado. Unfortunately Tom Vervaeke and I never seem to go out on those days. Mind you we quit going out when the forecasts calls for winter storms and the like, but on Saturday, the forecast was for scattered snow showers and moderate winds in the mountains. And that it what we got as we headed up the gentle ridge from Guanella pass (Near Bierstadt and Mt Evans).
The wind was blowing from the southwest at a steady 35mph+. After you leave the road you lose 100-200′ as you traverse over the tops of willows that in the summer are a pain. The snow was crusty and windblown slab but we stilled donned snowshoes to gain the ridge. Neither of us at been higher than 13,000 in about 30 days so we were feeling it as we ascended the ridge.
At about 13,200, the ridge takes an abrupt turn upward and scrabbling on either rock or step kicking in the snow are the choices. I took the snow and Tom took the rocks. After a false summit at about 13,600, it was a gentle ridge walk to the summit. By this time we were in or above the cloud layer so we stayed within eyeshot of each other. The wind continued to sandblast our face from the left. How different it would have been today, with blue skies and low winds; oh well. We reached the cairn on the summit and looked north where we could make out parts of the ridge to Argentine Peak.
Obviously this was not the place to rest so we started down hoping to catch a glissade or two to make it easy on our knees. We returned to the steep part and Tom started a glissade, actually got it going great; too great… and self-arrested and returned to the rocks. The snow conditions were not to be trusted! Halfway down the ridge, it started to snow hard and sideways. Boy did I want to stop and eat some lunch that was in my pack, but unfortunately it was easier just to grin and bear it and plod down the ridge. With visibility down to 30 feet, we thought retreat more important than food.
Finally we got down to 12,000 and saw the valley that led to the road. Since it had never warmed up, we almost got away without donning our snowshoes again; almost. We reached the truck at the 5 hour point, 3 up and 2 down. Not bad for a 6 mile 2200 elevation gain for two guys that had not been out for a while. As we were driving home we discussed whether a day like Saturday with the weather factor was “fun”.
We both decided that perhaps “fun” is not the right word to describe it, but an enjoyable and physically challenging outing to the outdoors after dealing with the 8-5 routine during the week. An outing that will get us to the next weekend when we can do it all over again. Now had that sun been out….