Posts Tagged ‘Tangen Tunnel’

Green Mountain Wander

March 22, 2012

March 17, 2012

On St. Patrick’s Day 2012, the day before my 11th wedding anniversary, I had only a short time slot available for adventure.  Brian and I eventually decided to spend it bushwacking up the northeastern slope of Green Mountain with a twofold goal:  (1) stay out of the raptor closure area and (2) work our way up and around the 5th Flatiron from the Skunk Canyon area.  These were actually Brian’s goals that seemed strange to me, but I agreed to be agreeable.  And, I was pleasantly surprised how well it worked out despite a lengthy work-related phone delay, some of the worst terrain I’ve ever traversed, and a tricky (icy) descent from the backside of the 5th Flatiron.  In fact, aside from innumerable cuts and scratches that will haunt me for the next two weeks, it was quite fun.

I’m delighted that a bit of open-mindedness allowed me to participate in Brian’s screwball idea that was only partially ruined by a bit of poor mental mapping on my part (the local expert!), which I’ll explain later.

Green Mountain Wander Route Map

The Setup

Due to my insane work schedule, Sunday was ruled out and I couldn’t start on Saturday until 11am…oh, and I had to be home by 4:30pm.  At least the ski conditions continued to be poor enough for me to avoid feeling miserable about missing another day of skiing.  We planned to start at the Mesa trail parking lot near Eldo for a scramble up the East side of the Maiden followed by a ridge climb to the Bear Mountain summit, but we couldn’t find parking.  We then backtracked to highway 93 and then moved south a few miles to NCAR, which always has parking, and started hiking around 11:30am.

Once we hiked to where we could see the rocks, the Maiden looked too far away for such a time constrained day.  Brian then suggested Skunk Canyon where we’d take one of the gullies near Satan’s Slab toward the top of Hippo Head and a descent past the 5th Flatiron.  It was a very ambitious idea, but I had committed to being agreeable on this day since my restricted schedule had limited Brian’s options severely.

Step 1

We started east toward the green water tank and then down and north toward the Mesa trail which we followed a north short distance to Skunk Canyon.  At the cutoff for Skunk Canyon, Brian paused to look at the stupid Raptor Closure sign posted on the fence I had stepped over.  He noted aloud that our route would trespass on the closure area.  I paused for a moment and then asked if he wanted to do something else merely because of a sign nailed to a split rail fence.  Brian said he had a new idea.

Step 2

Brian’s new idea was to hike up to and then along the raptor closure and work our way around to the 5th Flatiron.  Then we’d hike up the south side of the 5th and descend to north side down to the Royal Arch trail.  I contributed the idea of going north on the Mesa trail for a 100 yards or so to get a better view of our options.  This turned out to be a waste of hiking unless you count the extra exercise as a bonus, which I did.

Step 3

We worked our way up the grassy slope to the first slight ridge before the rocky ridges within the Raptor Closure.  At approximately 12:30pm my phone rang, and I had to stop for a work related phone call for 30 minutes.  I called it a lunch break.  I actually ate a bit while I chatted on the phone; Brian just sat quietly in the shade, probably thinking that I was either an ass or an idiot.

Step 4

The Royal Arch, from the south side. The City of Boulder is in the distance.

We followed the ridge north and then east as it disappeared into the rim of a basin with the Royal Arch on the other side.  This was some of the worst scramble/hiking terrain I’ve ever encountered.  I remarked that it looked haunted, as it was full of dead, twisted trees and logs with large and small lichen covered boulders everywhere.  And dark!

We also found a new flatiron to climb someday…I’ll have to figure out what it is called at some point that has not yet come to pass.

Step 5

Weaving through and around the various bits of Flatironettes sprinkled across the slope, we eventually reached the climbers trail connecting the Royal Arch trail to the south end of the 5th Flatiron, which we followed to the base of the 5th.

Continuing with Brian’s plan, we ascended the improbable line up the south side of the 5th that seems to be impassable at every step except for a single, improbable escape that allowed us to continue until, finally, we reached the top.

Step 6 

Brian was finally ready for his lunch and so we stopped at the top of the 5th to eat a snack and change into our snow gear (long pants and gaiters)

After a short rest, we descended the always steep and treacherous climbers trail down the north side of the 5th Flatiron.  I managed to bruise my ass by falling on a sharp rock when a dead branch I trusted broke; it still pains me as I write this trip report 2 & 5 days later.

The descent from the 5th Flatiron and our escape down the Tangen Tunnel Route

Step 7

We were stopped by the most tricky part of the 5th descent, a delicate downclimb which was made worse by the remaining snow and ice.  I believe many people rappel this part, but we didn’t bring any ropes.  After watching Brian struggle to wriggle down a rabbit hole, I announced that I was going to look for a way to move further north for easier descent ground.  Brian said that sounded like ‘Chickening out’…I replied that I’m all over that.  ‘Discretion’ is the hallmark of my personal climbing philosophy.

Step 8

Brian starting down Tangen Tunnel #2 (numbering from #1 at bottom of route)

Brian agreed and found a slot in the northern rock (Tangen Tower) that we could slither through.  It was a genius maneuver that took us directly to the Tangen Tunnel route.

The snow cover was still sufficient to protect our descent of the generally impossible, without ice gear, section above the 2nd cave, and then both caves were essentially free of snow and ice.  It was perfect!

Brian posing in front of Tangen Tunnel #1. With the snow gone, the Tangen Tunnels are no longer dangerous, just pure fun.

Once we reached the Royal Arch trail, we changed back into our dry, hot weather gear.  Brian wanted to go up to the Royal Arch and then bushwack down to the Mesa Trail directly.  I was worried about the time and assured him that the Royal Arch trail would descend must faster as it was a very well established trail and would not take us too far out of the way.  I was even so bold as to proclaim that he’d be surprised to see how far south the Bluebell shelter actually was…it was beneath the Royal Arch more than beneath the 3rd Flatiron.  He agreed and we made very fast time down the great trail.

And since the chance of getting lost was zero, I could just enjoy the great outdoors and views as I got a last bit of exercise.

Step 9

Once we reached the Bluebell shelter, I turned to show Brian what I meant about the direct descent path only to find that I was completely wrong.  We were actually on the north side of the 3rd Flatiron.  The Royal Arch trail wanders all over hell and back.


The Finish

Oh well.  It was only 1.5 miles back to the turnoff to NCAR, just a short bit of walking.  But we should have tried Brian’s idea for the finish, especially since now looking at the map, I believe we descended in that general vicinity last year when descending, a bit lost, from Angel’s Way (approximate path noted on map).

Heck, we didn’t even break any laws, but it was fun anyway.

And, it was the start to a great St. Patrick’s Day / Anniversary celebration that my wife and I finished off with an evening at the Boulderado for its St. Patrick’s Day party.  I couldn’t get the Irish beer I wanted and was forced to discover that a Black & Tan is one of the great pleasures in life.

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Winter Tangen Tunnel

February 18, 2012

February 12, 2012

Ah, sweet success.  After many years of trying the Tangen Tunnel route in winter, Brian and I finally succeeded.  And it came on a day when neither of us expected to succeed due to a late start (my fault) and the highest amount of snow we’d ever seen in the Flatirons.  But once we neared the top, the prospect of retreating down that snowing, icy hell hole was so horrifying that we continued to push on and finally made it.  Heck, we got back to the parking lot with over 30 minutes of daylight.  What a great day!

We came, we saw, we tried like hell, we barely made it.

The start to the Tangel Tunnel route in winter

We started planning the weekend to be our first ski day of the season despite the continuing poor ski conditions (historically low snowbase).  But I had a problem with a toe and couldn’t risk death by ski boot. So I left the choice to Brian with a suggestion of the Tangen Tunnel as an “aggressive” alternative.  I also indicated, unhelpfully, that I could not do an early start due to a commitment.  I suppose I knew that this ruled out success on the Tangen Tunnel route which takes a long time even in good conditions, but that is what came to my mind at that moment. The real problem is that the Flatirons have had so much snow that I just didn’t know what to suggest.

Brian picked Tangen Tunnel route.  (Me and my big mouth, eh?… at least we’d get some exercise, and be outside).


I spent much of my time-constrained morning digging around for my snow gear not seen since the previous spring, and I just couldn’t get to Chautauqua park before 10:15am; but I was better prepared than usual.

We set a good pace up toward the Royal Arch and reached the bottom of the Tangen Tunnel route a bit after 11am.  We could see that we’d be swimming up the route, so we took time to get on all the gear:  insulating liner jacket, gators, warm hat, helmet, and harness, and then we set off.

Snowless images of the initial cave entrance and exit (photo from Fall)I made it 10 feet before being stopped by a 6 foot tall boulder covered by soft snow.  Slipping and sliding, and failing to find purchase on snow flavored air, I eventually resorted to stemming on the icy rock face of Tangen Tower and hooking rock overhead with my ice axe to inch my way over the first obstacle.  During the summer, this obstacle represents a barely noticeable, small scramble; on this day it was a 15 minute puzzle.

Now we knew for certain it was going to be at least an adventure (but hopefully not an epic one).

Epic (climbing slang word)

A climber’s slang term that refers to a big climbing adventure and all the bad stuff that happens on it, like ropes getting stuck, being benighted on a ledge, getting caught in a bad storm, or wandering off route.


(1) The 1st Cave/Tunnel

Rabbit Hole #1: the escape hole from tunnel #1 on the Tangen Tunnel route

The rest of the swim to the 1st cave / tunnel was easier, but once inside the cave it was not clear if we would get through it.  When I stopped to look around to remember the path upward, Brian started climbing.  From 10 feet up, he announced that the obvious path didn’t go all the way; but he did think he could wriggle through a slot to get out.  As I watched, he slithered like a snake and was gone.  My turn.

I followed his path and found I could just squeeze under a hanging boulder to reach the exit hole, but once through I could not safely turn around to crawl out.  As I layed there pondering my next move, a rope with a loop tied on the end fell down into the hole.  Good ‘ol Brian to the rescue!

With a secure belay, I managed to maneuver my body around to get a grip on the rock above.  I pulled up and then risked weighting a dead branch wedged in the hole.  The last required move was a high step onto a packed snow cornice that was supported by naught but air.  It held.

I glanced at my watch at saw that it was 12:15pm; we had already burned 45 minutes…to travel about 100 feet.

Joe contemplating his future while looking at the next section of snowy, icy rock.

I then turned and followed Brian uphill, losing a step in the knee to thigh deep soft snow for every two taken.

We quickly learned to stay near the 4th Flatiron rock face where the snow was firmer, perhaps due to snow melt dripping down during the sunny days since the big dump.  Of course, this was also where we faced the risk of falling icicles, which were falling more and more as the sunshine did its work high above us.

As a side note, I always have a mental image of the Tangen Tunnel route as a narrow gully with rocky obstacles.  But somehow I am always surprised on each visit of the wide possible path and the myriad of choices that must be made correctly to stay on route.  At least I remembered that the key was to ‘bear left’…a lesson learned by trial and error over the years.

Post Script:  having just returned to the Tangen Tunnel route (2 months later) I can report that it is a narrow gully with rocky obstacles that appears to be a wide open space when all the rocky obstacles are covered by a thick blanket of white, white snow.  There are few options for completing the Tangen Tunnel route; perseverance is required in all cases.

The entrance to tunnel #2

Just past the start of the 2nd piece of the 4th Flatiron, we came upon a tiny cave entrance.

(2) The 2nd Cave/Tunnel

Brian ducked into the small entrance as I approached.  By the time I crawled to the back of the cave, Brian had crawled out of the 2nd rabbit hole, leaving his pack behind to make his escape.  I handed up his pack and then mine, and then it was my turn to slither skyward.

I found that a layer of clear ice covered much of the rock, and snow falling from above covered the rest.  I got Brian to give me another belay and then made the slippery moves to crawl out.

Looking up at Brian from inside tunnel #2

As I pulled my head above the snow surface, I saw a block of ice the size of a soccer ball plunged from the rock above into the snow 4 feet from Brian. It was an off-target kill shot.  All Brian heard was a muffled but insistent, ‘WHOMP’, as the deep snow cushioned the impact.

The sun was warming and now sufficiently loosened the ice on the exposed rock above; it was time for extreme caution.  And, not wanting to stand in any one place too long, we quickly packed everything away and then continued our ascent.  It was 1pm, and time for a lunch break…if only we could find a safe & dryish place to stop.

We continued up the soft snow, overcoming many snow-covered rock obstacles along the way.  Before long we could see another cave in the distance, in a section of rock that seemed to block our path.

From a distance, the 3rd cave looked much better than the 2nd cave, but we didn’t recall crawling out the back of this one before.  As we got close, it became clear that the cave was not a part of the path as it wasn’t a ‘tunnel’.  But we could skirt it by taking a steep ramp to the left, and it did look like a dry place to sit without fear of falling icicles.  After a bit of deft icy rock scrambling and rock hooking, we settled down for a rest and lunch.  It was 1:30pm.

Brian approaching ‘Lunch Cave’…a surprisingly dry and safe spot to rest and refuel.

(3) The ‘Lunch Cave’ 

Finally, we could add some fuel to the fire.  I had purposely brought no more food than I thought I needed to keep from eating extra for no reason.  Unfortunately, I didn’t leave room for a ‘need more food’ scenario.  I ate my 2 bars and drank a liter.  Now it was just a race to the top (and then bottom) with the sun, hoping not to bonk along the way.

I mentioned that I hoped we could make it to the top to avoid the ugly series of rappels we were doomed to take on the retreat.  Brian reluctantly admitted a lack of confidence in our chances.  I had to admit that the late start didn’t help.

And, just at that moment, as I was looking out of the cave entrance, facing down the mountain, a 100 lbs collection of icicles I had admired (and photographed) over my head a few minutes earlier came crashing down…right onto our tracks in the snow.  Wow.

100 lbs chandelier hanging above the Tangen Tunnel trail

Despite the excitement, sitting on a cold rock, even a dry one with overhead shelter, doesn’t work for long on a cold day.  We left after 10 minutes.

Crawling up and over the escape ramp turned out to be very hard.  We succeeded only by discovering that we could sink our ice axes into the rotting wood of fallen trees and then pull up to gain a bit of altitude. Thunk, thunk, thunk, and then we were past the ‘Lunch Cave’.  I think it is fair to say that this technique plus the ability to hook rocks beyond arm’s reach made all the difference between success and slippery futility.

The next milestone would be the end of the 2nd piece of the 4th Flatiron.

Old Bivy Cave

As we approached the end of the 2nd piece of the 4th Flatiron, I recognized another cave that Brian and I had used several years ago on a failed winter attempt.  We used the cave to rest and light a small campfire for a bit of warmth while we ate our lunch.  At that time we had been lost and decided to turn around to avoid a disaster (‘epic’ adventures make for great stories, but no rational person purposely seeks to experience such days).  It was interesting to discover that we were right on route except for the last decision to head right, which we eventually abandoned before returning to the cave.  This was also the day when we learned to ‘bear left’ on earlier decisions.  It was also the correct choice on this particular route-finding decision.

The objective: Green Mountain summit.

Passing underneath the start of the 3rd piece of the 4th Flatiron was a challenge.  The open space beneath contained thigh deep snow that was too soft to stand on.  I suppose it collected all the snow rolling off the steep section of the Flatiron.  Whatever the reason, it was the worst struggle of the day; but at least we were safe from falling ice or slipping off icy rock.

We could tell that we were nearing the top, but it was after 2pm and daylight was expiring (2-3 hours remaining, at best).  Our current plan was to get to the top and see if we could tell where we were, and figure out the best and fastest way down.  I mentioned that we had several options if we couldn’t find a path to Green Mountain.  I said we could drop down into Skunk Canyon or we could head down toward the 3rd Flatiron.  I felt that we could make it down those paths easier than we could our ascent path; but it was clear that the best way was to prevail in finding a way to Green Mountain’s Greenman trail just below its summit, and then follow that trail down to take the Saddle Rock trail to the bottom.

Joe posing at the high point along the 4th Flatiron ridge below the summit of Green Mountain…our escape is assured

The feeling of desperation was evident in our continuing high energy output. Higher and higher, and by finally by 2:30pm we could see down into Skunk Canyon.  We had made it to the top of the 4th Flatiron.  Naturally, nothing looked familiar. But we reasoned that all we needed to do was hike west, but from every past experience on this section of rock we knew it would be hard.  And with the amazing snow cover, it might be impossible.  Let’s just say that a high stress level was a reasonable reaction.

Now we had to bear to the right, just slightly.  And every break in the trees would lead to an examination of the possible paths down.  If we couldn’t find our way to the Green Mountain trails, it was going to be a hard night.

We kept getting cliff-ed out, and then barely finding a scramble down, we continued making progress toward our goal.

Post Script:  the key is to stay on the ridgeline and find a line of least resistance (which is sometimes the only possible path forward)

(4) The Top (of the ridge)

And suddenly, everything seemed to be below us.  One final outcropping of rock and then it would be an easy stroll to Green Mountain’s Greenman trail.  It was only 3pm!  And we could see the Green Mountain summit!

We were going to make it and with time to spare.  There would be no stumbling down in the dark this time.  I felt so good that I insisted that I get a ‘summit’ photo.

The rest of the route finding was merely an exercise in not losing much elevation, and not gaining much either.  I knew that if we looked to the right while we stayed near the ridge line, we’d see a split rail fence marking the trail.  And, at 3:15pm, we found it.

(5) The Green Mountain Trail

Brian pausing on the trek back to the parking lot for a posed shot behind the 1st Flatiron

The Greenman trail was in beautiful condition for an easy, snow cushioned descent.  We decided to skip the Green Mountain summit, discretion being the better part of valor.

I predicted a 4:15pm arrival at the parking lot and was only off by 5 minutes.  It was a 6 hour round trip.

I can remember when 6 hours was one-third of the hard day, but I was glad to be driving home.

10,000 high steps had taken their toll on an old man.  Carpe diem memento mori

P.S. – I was sore for 4 days.

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