Arrowhead Slushfest

It was the 5th weekend in a row since the end of July that promised rain, and this time with a chance of snow!  What were we to do, since we couldn’t rock climb and couldn’t count on a hike peak due to lightning?

Brian had the idea of attempting Arrowhead in RMNP with a lightning backup plan of simply hiking to Black lake.  He thought it was a good idea to bring a rope just in case the conditions turned a 3rd class scramble into a technical nightmare.  I agreed it was a pretty safe plan.

Packing at the last minute, I couldn’t find my gaiters or my waterproof bibs.  But I figured the odds were for me to be overheating anyway…so I let it go.  I settled for my spring bibs (think: thin), but threw a fleece sweater and balaclava into the pack for insurance.

On September 9, 2006, we left Boulder around 7:30am and reached the parking lot around 8:45am.  The drive in took a few minutes longer than normal due to the later than normal start (more people awake), the Man-Dress Festival in Estes Park, and the poor luck of driving behind two cars driven by old men who were still coasting in from the 1940s. As we drove into Estes Park, I could see blue patches opening up after days of rain.  It looked like it was going to be hot, just like I figured.

Step 1

The hike in followed the normal approach to Black Lake but with an early exit from the trail below Arrowhead and Thatchtop at approx. 10,200 ft.  We went too far initially and had to backtrack to find the right spot which happened to be full of avalanche debris.

Step 2

From the avalanche debris field 2 miles up the Black Lake trail, we exited to the right to find a nice trail across the creek and up the muddy slopes below Thatchtop and Arrowhead leading to Solitude Lake at 11,400.

The hike in was cool, but sunny.  Hiking in just a shirt but with nylon bibs was too hot, as I expected; that is, until it started snowing.  It actually started raining & snowing, but by the time we got near Solitude Lake, it was full on snowing.  I didn’t stop to put on my jacket because my shirt was already soaked with sweat and I was too hot to put on a jacket anyway.  By the time we got to Solitude Lake, I was cold and wet; and it was time for some new clothes.

At that time, the blue sky was obscured by heavy cloud cover and falling snow (it was a whiteout beyond 100 feet), and the visible rocks had a 2-3 inch coating of fresh snow. The snowfall was heavy but was melting fast….dripping from everything and soaking a muddy ground.

Step 3

Fortunately, I brought a spare shirt for just such a need.  I sought shelter from the thick-falling snow by ducking under a large rock. with dripping cold water on my bare skin, I made record time in changing my shirt and donning my waterproof jacket and gloves.  It took a couple minutes for my hands to thaw, but otherwise I felt pretty good….except for the wet feet (no gaiters).

We continued up the valley toward the start of the 3rd class scramble, slipping and falling over snow covered rocks.  I was wondering how far should we go before retreating?  It wasn’t a question of whether to retreat, but when….right?

Step 4

Brian thought we should push on, and I reluctantly agreed.

My bibs were wet and my legs were very cold, acting like radiators for my protected upper body.  I could feel my body temperature falling and knew that it would go lower while moving slowly on the slippery 3rd class climb.  I put on the fleece sweater and balaclava that I had been sure I wouldn’t need.  I could only hope that too much insulation on my head and upper body would overcome wet & cold feet and legs.  I felt very fortunate to have the extra clothes on a cold, wet & windy day.

Step 5

We started up the 3rd class scramble and found that it was covered in a layer of snow and slush that obscured the rock and acted like grease.  We knew right away that this was not going to be easy, and that the descent would be even harder.  We didn’t have axes, and I’m not sure they would have helped anyway. Brian was leading the way, and I followed behind thinking (or hoping) that he would give up soon.

We couldn’t find the exact way and had to backtrack to find our way a couple of time.  The route was usually well-marked with cairns, but the cairns were covered in snow.  Slowly, we worked our way higher.  As we neared the top of the scramble, we faced the crux of the climb, a 15 foot steep wall.

Step 6

I finally said, “this is a mistake; I hope we don’t have to pay a terrible price for it.”  Brian felt it was safe enough because he thought he could downclimb the moves, but I wouldn’t follow until he found an anchor for a rappel on the descent.  He complied, and I followed him to the talus slopes that we climbed to the Arrowhead summit.

We reached the normally impressive summit in a whiteout.  Cold, we didn’t stay long; we only paused to put on our harnesses and take a drink.

Our route up Arrowhead via Solitude Lake


We scrambled down the snow covered talus with far more comfort than expected due to our ability to follow our own footprints.  The snow had stopped falling so we could still see where we had placed our feet on the way up.  Otherwise, we’d have struggled to descend without multiple slips and falls.

Once we reached the steep section, we stopped to pull out the rope.  Brian offered me the top-rope and I accepted gladly.  I slowly worked my way down the slush-covered grass and gravel to reach the top of the 15-foot cliff.  I had to slowly work my way up to the edge and then ever so carefully work my way down the snow-covered rock.  I worked down a total of 25 feet of terrain before stopping to provide Brian a belay.

He came down quickly, and we setup for the next section.  I started down the next section even slower than before.  Even though my successful downclimb of the previous section gave me a boost of confidence, the ground felt more slippery than ever.  About 10 feet into the second section of descent, I attempted to step down a drop in the ramp.  My uphill foot slipped on the slush.  As I slid forward on my rear end, I jammed my downhill foot on the only exposed rock while Brian’s belay slowed my apparent attempt to jump off the mountain.  Without the rope, I fear Brian would still be dragging my broken bones down the mountain.

We continued with the descent, stopping to move the belay lower when we could find a safe spot.  Eventually we reached easier terrain and put the rope away.  I was never happier to have a rope along for the ride.

Once we reached the bottom of the valley below the climb, I stopped to drain the considerable volume of cold water from my boots.  Afterward, with dryer feet and intact bones, it felt like a good day.

We then hiked back to Solitude Lake, and then back down to the Black Lake trail by 4pm.  We stopped for a drink and a bite, and attempted to do something about our wet clothes.  But it was all in vain as neither of us had anything dry to put on.

Finally, after a 3 miles trek back to the car ending at 5:45pm, the day was done.

We had hiked approximately 10 miles, gained approx 3,400 feet in mud and snow over an 8.5 hour day.  We had been drenched and frozen, but we had persevered to achieved our summit, even if it was against my judgment to do so.

See all trip reports

See all RMNP trip reports


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