This is one of the oldest pages on piquaclimber.com. In an effort to keep some perspective, I have left anything from before 2000 in it's original format.
Flattop Mountain Dec. 31-Jan. 2, 1998 - 1999
Over the New Year, Brian, Bill, Frank, and I went camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our plan was to camp on top of the Continental Divide. I had been wanting to camp on top of the Divide in winter all season and finally the dates were set. Bill and Frank were going to be in Colorado to ski at Keystone 2 days before we left and Brian was to arrive the night before we left at 10p.m. I picked Brian up at the airport and we headed back to Fort Collins to meet Bill and Frank and do our last minute packing. In the end, Brian and Bill's packs weighed almost 70 lbs and Frank's and mine weighed about 60 lbs. Click Here for a list of what gear was required and what was nice to have. We finished packing after midnight and, of course, we got a late start and did not get to the trailhead until late morning.
Originally, we had planned to Leave from the Glacier Gorge trailhead and follow the Loch Vale trail to Andrew's Glacier, which we planned to climb. We would then descend via Flattop Mountain which would take us to Bear Lake Trailhead. That route involved a 150+ foot section of 40-45 degree snow and then a longer slope of about 25 degrees on Andrew's Glacier proper. We were carrying what we hoped would be enough climbing equipment to climb the glacier... 3 snow pickets, a deadman, 4 harnesses, 2 9mm ropes, biners, belay devices, crampons, ice axes, etc. Unfortunately, when we got to the back country ranger station to check on avalanche conditions, we found that the danger was rated Considerable with pockets of Extreme above treeline. We translated this as follows: 4 guys from Ohio should NOT attempt this climb!
Having foreseen this possibility, we had decided that our backup plan was to climb and descend via Flattop Mountain. When we drove into Estes Park (the town right next to RMNP) we could see that there were clouds covering the upper reaches of the mountains but down lower it looked clear. This turned out to be a good observation and we left Bear Lake trailhead with blue skies to the east and clouds high above to the west. As Bear Lake is a popular trailhead, our path was well traveled and thus, packed down which provided easy walking. As we traveled deeper into the backcountry though, the trail became less and less packed and soon it was time to don our snowshoes. With snowshoes on our feet, travel was once again easy. We hiked for approximately 4 hours taking breaks along the way. This was the hardest day of hiking for Brian since he had flown in from Cincinnati (less than 1000 feet above sea level) only 12 hours earlier and we were now approaching 11,000 feet. This is probably not the most recommended method of acclimatization. However, being the hard-ass mountain climber want-to-be that he is, he trekked along with the rest of us want-to-be hard-ass mountain climbers. As we started to lose light, we were approaching Dream Lake Overlook and decided to look for a place to camp. The trail had been getting steadily less traveled as we gained elevation and the Overlook marked the highpoint of the other people who had hiked up this way. In the morning it would be time to break trail.
Camp was pitched quickly and after we rigged out two tents together, we decided to dig out a snow pit in which to sit. Then it was time for dinner and water boiling. As the evening progressed we all had bouts with the cold (mostly in our feet) but no one was complaining and no one was in danger of frostbite or hypothermia. Bill and Frank were both sitting in our pit inside their sleeping bags since their bags had Gore-Tex exteriors and Brian was doing the same, only he had his bivi sack around his +25 degree sleeping bag. No that is not a type-o, Brian had ordered a 0 degree bag and it did not arrive before we left so he was using a +25 degree bag with a OR Deluxe bivi sack. I was not using a bag because I did not bring a bivi sack and my bag does not have a Gore-Tex exterior. I was however, wearing all but one of my layers and received a round of laughter when I emerged from my tent looking like the Stay-Puffed marshmello man. The evening was all going well until Brian did what Brian does best... pulled out a liter of Maker's Mark. Normally, Brian is the only one of the group that drinks that paint thinner, but it was New Year's Eve and we were camping and... well you know how that goes. The evening's final insult came when Bill proved how whipped he was by pulling out a cell phone and calling his girlfriend half-way across the country. We were not impressed.
Morning came late (Maker's Mark ?.?.?) and after some packing we were hiking. This was a day of high energy consumption as we were breaking trail. We took turns in front and took many short breaks to catch our breath in the thinning air. The wind was steadily becoming more fierce as we climbed, and by the time we were at treeline it was getting quite burly. (35-40 MPH sustained with gusts to 50) At that point, we had all donned our ski goggles and no one in the group had any skin exposed to the air. It would not take long to get frost bite in those conditions if you were not wearing the proper clothing. I (and I assume everyone else) was constantly adjusting my ventilation in an effort to keep from getting sweaty as we climbed and cold when we rested. Thank God for pit-zips and full length side zips on pants. As we left the relative cover of treeline and crested a small hill, the wind became really strong and it became a struggle to walk. (50MPH sustained with gusts to 70) In fact, I was blown off my feet three times between treeline and where we set camp less than a mile away. This was my first experience in white-out conditions and it was a little unnerving. I was glad I had a compass. The wind was blowing snow horizontally and was reducing visibilty intermittantly to less than 10 feet. One minute I would be looking at Brian and the next, all I could see was white. Needless to say, we were very concious about staying together. On the up-side, the strong winds had blown some of the snow off the ground so we were not really breaking trail anymore except for where there were drifts.
Setting camp in that wind as it was getting dark with intermittant white-outs was probably the highlight of the trip for me. It was one of those moments where you step back and think "Holy Shit!.... Mother Nature is bad-ass!.... and I am really really insignificant!", all at the same time. I can say that if I had been there alone, even with all my gear, I would have been a little scared. It is debatable as to whether or not I could have setup my tent alone. The wind was so strong and unrelenting that even with two people per tent, I was afraid that one of us would let go and the tent would be ripped from the other person's hands and 25 miles away drifting over the plains in minutes. It was in no way an easy camp to pitch. The only way to get flat ground was to level a section of a snowdrift. Eventually we leveled an area that was just big enough to fit our tents. There was not even a discussion as to whether or not we would connect the two tents the way we had the night before. We finally got the tents setup and immediately took refuge from the wind inside. At this point I was relieved to be in my warm sleeping bag and grateful that no one had stepped on my new $420 tent with their snowshoes. (Snowshoes have metal crampons on the bottom.) We were also happy that we had decided to carry the snow pickets as we used them as tent stakes to secure the tents along with our snowshoes.
It was an interesting night in the tents. As soon as we stripped off a couple layers inside the tents, our sweat condensed on the inside of the tents and froze white. Then the wind would come along with a really powerful gust and blow the tents outer wall into the tents inner wall which would shower us with ice crystals. We ate and talked and drank and even piled into one tent for a couple hours to hang out and talk but if I had to do that too many nights in a row, I would not be having fun. That was the first time in my life that I was truly tent-bound. I have camped in other situations where it was very cold or very wet, but I have never felt that it would be unwise to try to go to the truck before. The funniest moment of the trip also came during that night as we all hit a point where we could not hold off Mother Nature any more and piled outside at 4:30 a.m. to relieve ourselves. COLD COLD COLD. By our estimate, with the help of a small thermometer, we determined it to be 50 degrees below zero or colder with the wind chill. We did not stay out longer than necessary!
The next morning we all proved ourselves to be slackers and did not get out of the tent until after 10a.m. (although we were all awake by 7 or 8) I was the first one out and started digging a snow shelter so that we could boil water out of the wind. The wind was not nearly as strong as it had been the night before but it was still blowing and would have made cooking a pain. Soon, everyone was up and helping with the snow shelter. This time we dug into the side of a large snow drift and then branched right and left. In then end, we were all able to sit comfortable under the snow out of the wind. It was determined that we would not push higher on the mountain because we had awoken so late and because Brian had been bordering on cold all night. (I guess a + 25 degree bag just dosn't cut it at -50, even in a tent.) Still, Brian proved himself to be a trooper as I never heard him complain about being cold during the previous evening. Knowing that were were not going any higher, we decided to stay at camp two for another night. Unfortuantely, that plan would not hold true. At about 4 p.m., completely out of the blue, Bill and Frank tell Brian and I that they have to leave "right now" or they will not catch their plane the next day. It would be an understatement to say that Brian and I were dissapointed and bitter with their inablility to plan and at having this news sprung on us at the last minute. After a short debate, Brian and I decided that we could not carry all the gear back to the truck by ourselves, so we would have to go down Bill and Frank, in the dark.
When we finished packing up camp, it was dark and my feet were so cold I was starting to worry. They were as cold as they had ever been and I could not feel a few of my toes. I was not to the point of worrying about frostbite since they had been reasonable warm until we started to break camp. I think if I had to stand around outside while we broke camp any longer, I would have had to get in my sleeping bag for a little while to warm my feet. As it turned out, we started hiking just as I was really starting to worry and my feet were warm within a mile. The hike out by Petzel light was actually fun. Those lights do wonders in a world of white snow and vision was not a problem. All of us except Brian were trying to go down very steep, short sections of terainne and were hitting the ground regualarly. Of course Brian was there when we fell with the camera and took some nice flattering shots of us. A few hours and a few breaks later and we were at the trailhead debating where we were going to eat in Estes Park.