Saturday, January 16, 2010

Friday, 01/15/10 James Peak

James Peak 13,294ft.
~8 miles
~3,000 vertical
4:39 RT from the St. Marys “Glacier” TH
Jeff, Allison and Sierra Valliere

We waffled big time before this trip. It was Allison’s birthday weekend and aside from the usual getting together with family/friends one evening and a nice dinner at Tibets in Louisville (HIGHLY recommended!!!) Thursday evening, we had no solid plans. We were stuffed to the gills and tired after dinner, so we went to bed early with nothing packed and just figured we would get up whenever and play it by ear.

Next thing we know it is 7:24am, 2+ hours later than I normally sleep. Allison suggested James Peak, so we scrambled to get ready and were out the door in about an hour.

We arrived at the trailhead after a bit more than an hour drive and I paid the $5 parking fee and then got my moneys worth in their well maintained outhouse. We were anticipating a “pleasant for January” day, but the temperature was in the low 20’s and the wind was cranking even down low. I regretted driving Allison’s Corolla, as it is not as roomy as the Element and gearing up outside of the car makes for a cold start (a start contrast to the roomy interior of the Element which doubles as a ski lodge).

Finally, we were on the trail at a not so Alpine start of 10am. I was surprised that St. Marys Lake came after about 10 minutes of walking including a 5 minutes break. At the lake, the wind was howling and the view of the “glacier” was a little disconcerting. Since this was a last minute trip, I did not do my homework and I was unsure as to whether or not the route up the “glacier” was avalanche prone or not. Though it has not snowed in a while, the wind was certainly transporting snow and with the unstable snowpack, steep and seemingly loaded slopes above, it appeared from a distance to not be the best route.

After adding my Gore-Tex jacket, balaclava, Masque, goggles and warm mittens to my already bulked up attire, I could relax a bit and look around. There were very steep slopes and cliffs immediately to the West of the lake, but to the SW, it appeared that one could stay mostly in the trees and out of any avalanche danger if you are willing to work a bit for it. My only concern was that we left the snowshoes behind in the car the going through the woods could involve some tedious post holing.

On the S. end of the lake, I immediately found an old snowshoe track that efficiently took us SW up though the woods where we pieced together patches of trees, bushes and wind scoured ground to get up onto the S. ridge of Pt. 11,716. The wind above tree line picked up and the temperature was in the mid teens. As we crested Pt. 11,716 and turned in the direction of James, the strong and unrelenting wind could not have been more perfectly in our face. Despite this though, I was somewhat thankful of the work the wind had done, as the ground was mostly bare. Once we got down to “Jamaica” and the lower slopes of James, there was consistent snow cover, but fortunately, it was packed solid and walking with Microspikes on our boots made for relatively efficient travel.

Once the slopes steepened, we decided to engage the SE ridge hoping to find some relative wind shadow, rather than loosely follow the summer trail. This turned out to be a mistake, as the snow on the ridge was not well consolidated and the talus was tipsy, compounded by the wind tossing us around. It would have for sure saved us 10-15 minutes had we stayed lower to the left on the packed, low angled snow. The last section of mountain dragged, complete with a false summit or two and it seemed to be taking forever. The summit still looked somewhat far away and my watch read 12:38pm. I was hoping to have been there by now, but hoped we could sneak in before 1pm. I pushed a bit over the last section and arrived at the summit at 12:56 and Allison rolled in a few minutes later, literally stepping on the summit at 12:59:59, just barely sneaking in a sub 3 hour ascent.

I gulped down warm soup from my thermos while trying to huddle in the snow filled summit “shelter”. The cold wind was persistent though and was soon chasing us away, but not before I could snap off a few photos. My hands were numb and I was balling them up in my mittens, swinging them around and slapping them on my thighs to try to warm them up. I had chemical warmers in my pack, but the investment to dig them out was more than I could bear.

Before long though, I was able to warm up sufficiently with steady movement and was thankful the wind was now at our back for the hike out. We made great progress on the return trip with the packed snow and tailwind, slowed only by the minor inconvenience of having to re-ascend over 11,716. We made it back to the car at 2:29pm and I could only look forward to a HOT shower to warm my core and a warm meal.

Though James Peak is relatively short and easy, I felt as though I really worked for it today. I started off cold and never really warmed up. My legs also felt a bit heavy, I am guessing still perhaps a bit tired from pushing myself in the snowshoe race last weekend. Allison however was having a very good day, she was moving strong and giving me encouragement. If I even stopped for a moment, it took me 10-15 minutes to catch up and even that seemed unlikely at times. All in all a fun winter challenge and a great workout.


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