An Arctic Sky Pond

March 17, 2013

It was one of those days.  The weather was warming and clear in Boulder, and I was suffering from a strained bicep tendon (from the previous week’s Tangen Tunnel adventure) and an Achilles tendon (that started complaining the day before for no discernible reason).  I wanted to do a bike ride to protect my sore bits.  Brian was determined to get to the high country, and while he preferred skiing, he would settle for a hike in RMNP to Black Lake or Sky Pond.

As the more reasonable of the two, I agreed to go to RMNP.  And, it was a great adventure, even if it was a bit on the quick side.

We left my house at 8:30am, after waiting for Susan to return from her predawn hike.  On the drive in, the clear skies allowed us to see that the mountains were socked in above treeline.  We started hiking at 10am and made quick time to the Black Lake – Loch Vale junction (Glacier Junction?).  Based on a previous day review of the RMNP weather report, I was worried about how solid the lakes would be for hiking on.  I wanted to head to Sky Pond to minimize the hassle of thawing lakes.  Brian thought we might be getting into bad weather at Sky Pond, but I convinced him we would be fine so far below the Continental Divide (where we have experienced numerous freezing hurricanes).

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The Cathedral Spires seen from Loch Vale

We made quick work of the trail to Loch Vale, and discovered the lake as frozen as we’ve ever seen.  We continued up over and then past the lake, following a well-beaten trail in the snow.  The trail was surprising populated with a dozen or so of hikers, skiers, and ice climbers, but still empty compared to a summer day.

As we approached the waterfall below Glass Lake, the weather began to reveal its unfriendly nature.  We worked up to the right of the waterfall area and then back left to avoid the rocky summer scramble which was covered in ice and snow.  We found 3 fellow adventurers doing an ice climb on some beautiful waterfall ice, in the bitterly cold wind and blowing snow;  the belayer must have been suffering in the seriously cold and strong wind.

Brian climbing past the sign pointing to Sky Pond

Brian climbing past the sign pointing to Sky Pond

We crossed the frozen pond beneath the climbers despite their warnings of  falling ice, and then we started up the steep snow covering the frozen waterfall.  There were enough firm patches for us to make it up the 30 foot slope, albeit with some difficulty.  When we crested over the top, we were greeted by a blast of constant 50 mph wind.  I hid behind a boulder as I endured a bit of suffering to add a down layer to my clothing.  It was either that or just go home.

Properly insulated, I could focus all my energies on route finding and stable footing over the icy boulders and frozen standing water.  As we crossed Glass Lake, we encountered a 2-man party heading toward safety.  The lead fellow looked official (read:  guide) while the fellow behind looked frozen and afraid.  The official looking fellow asked if we were okay, and admonished us to “make good decisions”.  He then told us roughly the location of a snow cave he had built and then left for better conditions.

The visibility was very poor, with the snow fall and blowing snow, but the air cleared periodically to allow us to find our way.  We hoped to find the snow cave for some shelter while we ate our lunch, but the directions were a bit vague, the area large, and the conditions did not encourage exploration.  After reaching Sky Pond and hiking along the Petite side for about 1/2 the length of the lake, we turned back to avoid freezing to death.  Brian said he was shivering already.

The Cathedral Spires seen in a brief moment of visibility. Taken from Sky Pond.

The Cathedral Spires seen in a brief moment of visibility. Taken from Sky Pond.

We backtracked to a hollow between the two lake where we’d found some windless air on the way in.  The wind was again muted in the low-lying hollow, and we found further shelter in a snow well beside a large boulder.  There, we stopped for lunch around 1pm, which also allowed us to enjoy the accomplishment of the day while extending the sense of adventure.

I quickly ate my frozen food and finished my water (in an insulated bottle holder).  And, before long, even my down layer wasn’t enough.

We started back and quickly lost our bearings in the near whiteout.  But we knew the area and a 15 degree adjustment put us back on our old tracks.

Crossing Glass Lake was challenging as the wind turned our bodies into sails, pushing us while we had near zero friction on the ground.  I managed to find my way and maintain my footing by traversing the lake perimeter.  The waterfall area descent was a fun glissade after I was able to catch a glimpse of the bottom and know that I wouldn’t hit rocks or go over a cliff.

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Self portrait taken during a lull in the wind.

And then it was just a matter of slogging back to the parking lot.  Before heading for Boulder, I stopped to use the latrine and looking down into the pit, with immediate regret, I was reminded of the quote from the movie, Wall Street:

… if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.  ~Friedrich Nietzsche

It is an exhilarating experience, the living for a while so close to the edge where the slightest miscalculation could result in death.  It is even fun when you know you can get out whenever you want to go home and get warm.

The news headline the next day about the fatal avalanche on Ypsilon Peak, several miles to the north of Sky Pond, was a grim reminder of the risks we all take when we venture onto dangerous ground.

Estes Park man presumed dead, hiking guide author rescued after avalanche in RMNP – Boulder Daily Camera

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