April 30, 2011
I had been trying to kickoff my 2011 climbing season each of the last 4 weekends, ever since the ski season ended for me at the end of March. My recent passion for
Spin cardio had left me with a hip so sore that I couldn’t imagine 10 miles of hiking in soft snow. I have been a poor climbing partner to Brian lately.
A slight modification to my technique left my hip feeling good enough to give it a try. We picked Andrews Glacier as a nice starter adventure; well, it was a season kickoff for me anyway.
The glacier was named for Edwin B. Andrews, a relative of Abner Sprague. These two men climbed to the glacier in 1897, and Sprague named it for Andrews since he was one of the area’s best fishermen. Sprague settled in the Park in 1875, was an early landowner, hotel owner, guide, and Estes Park historian. Several features in the Park are named for him. (Source: High Country Names by Louisa Arps and Elinor Kingery)
Brian picked me up at 6am and we did the slow Bronco drive to RMNP. We arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 8am and found the expected cold snowy conditions (approx 3 inches of new snow at the trailhead, but much more fell up high). I was well and truly sick of the cold after a long Winter, but this was the hand I was dealt. An accurate weather forecast allowed me prepare properly, e.g., full Gore-Tex outer layer, slight insulation on for hike in, extra insulation in pack for more severe conditions up high). Bundled up like Arctic Explorers, we started up the snowy trail toward Loch Vale.
My hip felt good and allowed me to make pretty good time up the snowy trail: me on snowshoes and Brian on his tele-skis. I was pleasantly pleased to discover my gym-based conditioning to be very high; my spinning cardio plus weight-lifting workouts have kept me in good shape despite a lack of outdoor work.
We took the standard winter shortcut up the creek where we found 6, and then later, 8 inches of new snow. The trail was not yet packed down, but had been clearly marked by a few earlier hikers. We were lucky to find footprints for much of the way.
The wind was strong, even in the trees; it foretold of terrible winds up high.
We passed one group as we approached Loch Vale and then continued to follow the footprints across the frozen Loch Vale (a lake). The route-finding to Andrews Glacier vs. Sky Pond is always tricky after a heavy snowfall; I wondered which of the two was the destination of the people ahead of us. After a while, we passed the exit that 1 or 2 people had taken toward our objective; but it seemed to early so we continued to follow the better trail with hopes that it went the entire way. The new snow at our feet was by that time around 12 inches; we knew it would be murder to break trail or even follow poor tracks.
Unfortunately, just as we neared the group ahead of us, we also noticed that we had already gone too far toward Sky Pond. Crap. We’d have to backtrack and then crawl up the deep snow.
A short way back we found the creek bed that marks the Summer trail cut-off; it was a slight concave shape in the deep snow. And, up we went. Brian took the hard duty, but since we had different equipment, his efforts didn’t save me much effort. Fortunately, Brian’s nose quickly led him to a set of tracks that aimed in the right direction and packed the snow down enough to make a difference. It turned out to be a far easier hike than we deserved under the heavy snow conditions.
As we exited the trees below Zowie, we could see and feel it was time to cover as much skin as possible to hide from the wind. We could also see 2 more parties ahead of us, breaking trail. Right on!
We continued up the valley toward Andrews Glacier and caught up with the people ahead at about the turn-off point toward Sharkstooth. It was our turn to break trail, and this time it was on a steeply sloping traverse….in a freezing strong wind. Yuck.
The traverse ended with slippery tip-toeing over the top of a steep couloir. A slight avalanche tried to claim Brian, but we eventually made it across to the Andrews Tarn level (the lake below Andrews Glacier). Naturally, the lake was frozen solid, which enabled us to walk across to finally reach Andrews Glacier.
Up we went, the low angle slope allowing rapid progress. Once we reached about 1/2 way up the glacier, the visibility was reduced to zero. But all we needed to do was go up hill; it wasn’t too hard to find our way.
The higher we got, the colder it got. From previous visits and experience with Hurricane Andrew (coincidentally), I knew that once we exited the glacier, it would be hurricane winds. With close to freezing ambient temperatures, the wind chill would be deadly. I knew that I’d have to get the rest of my gear on before I stepped into that wind. About 100 yards from the top, I stopped to put on a down insulating layer beneath my wind jacket, a facemask, and a wool cap beneath my hood. I felt like an astronaut stepping onto an alien world.
When I arrived at the top of the glacier around noon, Brian was already freezing. He didn’t want to stay long but agreed to let me have a quick drink and snack. With my extra insulation, I was able to tolerate the cold wind. I wasn’t able to tolerate the cold ground I was resting on, so I hurried along for both our sakes. We agreed to stop for a full lunch once we got to treeline.
We started down blind. I squinted desperately to see a hint of the snow rolling down hill in front of me. I was looking for any possible clue to an impending step into oblivion. I have no idea how Brian managed to ski.
Conditions started to clear a bit as we got lower. Once we were about 1/2 down, the visibility improved dramatically.
And then I could see Andrews Tarn. We were almost at the bottom of the glacier.
We continued plodding until reaching the steep couloir below the tarn level. With so much snow, we some concerns about avalanche….but not enough to prefer retracing our steps on the long traverse. So, down we went.
The snow was not heavy, but there was so much I could not glissade. I was able to work out a sort of skiing technique (using snowshoes) where I faced uphill and used my arms to push as my feet slide down. It was weird, but it worked.
Once at the bottom of the couloir, I was able to follow the tracks of earlier parties that had turned around at that point. Brian skied ahead and found a nice (read: not deadly) spot for a full lunch. I caught up with him at about 1pm and enjoyed my standard peanut butter and cherry bar lunch. Dee-lish!
The hike out was uneventful and strangely non-strenuous. I should have listened to my wife, Susan, about the benefits of cycling a long time ago.