Our Attempt at a Winter Summit

Will and I have a pretty good track record of accomplishing the outdoor goals that we set for ourselves, even when they’re ambitious. We’re good at supporting each other through the tough bits and pushing where necessary to get both of us to the proverbial finish line. In fact, we’ve gotten so accustomed to succeding at these big days that I got a little cocky.

Last weekend we set out to summit James Peak, a 13,300ft mountain visible from our condo in Fraser, Colorado. The plan was to park at the end of the road at Jim Creek, skin up the rib to the main ridge, and follow the 4×4 road up to the summit. The way up would be ~4 miles of skinning with over 3,500ft of elevation gain – super doable in the summer, but a considerably more daunting day in the winter.

Our first mistake was getting a late start. We didn’t want to bring Hilde on the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous terrain, so she was going to spend the day at The Mountain Dawg in Fraser. Unfortunately they don’t open until 9, which meant we wouldn’t actually start skinning until almost 10.

Will putting his skins on

Our first section of climbing was about half a mile up a less than 30º slope through a grove of leafless aspen trees. Winter Park has been experiencing some very spring-like conditions lately and the warming had affected the snow significantly, creating a hard, icy crust that was tough to grip. I had several kick turns that were terribly unsuccessful, resulting in me facing uphill, on my knees, skis not gripping anything. It was pretty frustrating, but the scenery was beautiful and it was hard not to be in a good mood as we slipped and slid our way up the slope. After a good 40 minutes of making slow progress we found a cool lean-to shelter and stopped for a snack of Mama-Chia squeezy packets.

Climbing through the aspens
First rest at the lean-to hut!

Post-hut, the terrain flattened out somewhat and the snow got much easier to manage. We were going a lot slower than we had anticipated, but we were still feeling good and continued merrily up the trail. After a few minutes Will, who was breaking trail, noticed that his skins were collecting a crazy amount of snow and losing their ability to glide efficiently. This was our first glimpse of the trouble to come. Luckily, we found an icy snowmobile track soon after and were able to cruise along that for a while with few stickiness problems.

Will heading into the forest Will heading into the forest

We stopped to take another short break about an hour later. Sitting on skis on the side of a snowmobile track, we snacked on Clif Bars and PowerBar gummies and talked about what our turn around time would be if we didn’t make it to the top. At this point we were moving MUCH slower than thought we’d be able to, but we were still feeling okay about our goal of reaching the summit.

A few minutes into our break my temperature started dropping rapidly. The air had gotten colder as we’d gained elevation, but I hadn’t noticed as we’d been working so hard to get up the hill. I made the mistake of taking off my gloves and not layering up for our break and as we set off for the next push I was having a really hard time warming up.

Five minutes in, I had to stop and put on bigger gloves and a fleece because I just couldn’t warm up. Ten minutes in, I was feeling dizzy and out of breath. As I trudged up the hill behind Will the reality started to set in – there was no way I was going to make it up to the summit.

Grouchy and feeling progressively more ill with each step, I finally caught up to Will a few hundred feet below the ridge where we had planned to catch the 4×4 road to the summit. I told him how cold and sick I was feeling, and we decided that pushing for the summit was probably out of the question. The more elevation we gained, the lower the temperature got and the more the winds howled around us. I didn’t want to be stuck on a summit in these kind of conditions, and I was worried that trying to make it would use all of my reserves, making getting down a much harder task.

Will was disappointed, as was I. He decided to push on a little further to meet the ridge and check out the conditions toward the peak. I was still feeling quite ill so I stayed back, hunkered down in a stand of trees to avoid the wind and blowing snow.

James on the left, Perry's on the right

Will’s view from the ridge. You can see James Peak on the left, and Perry’s Peak on the right.

Once Will was back down from visiting the ridge, I ripped my skins and prepped for our descent. The first few pitches (can I use that term for skiing? I don’t know what to call our leapfroggy bits. If you have a better term, let me know!) were awesome. Fluffy snow with only a tiny bit of crust made for some good turns, certainly better than we were expecting.

Although our aspect was in the safe(er) zone described by the morning’s CAIC bulletin, we were careful on the way down to avoid slopes approaching a 35º or greater angle. With constant, clear communication we navigated safely through the terrain and arrived at the valley floor shortly.

Skinning out, Jmes Peak over my left

Skinning out, you can see James Peak over my shoulder.

Our final challenge of the day was unexpected – a mile+ skin out to the car. We’d come down further up the valley than we realized and needed to backtrack along the creek to get to our starting point. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal; cruising on flat ground is a piece of cake! Unfortunately the beast we’d gotten a glimpse of earlier decided to rear its ugly head in a big way. The snow that had been warming all day was as sticky as leftover mashed potatoes and started accumulating on the bottom of our skins in a way that I had never experienced. At one point I had 6+ inches along the entire length of my ski. Once the snow started to pile up like that it was impossible to glide, so we were essentially tromping along in 6 foot snowshoes, that weigh 10+ pounds each. Needless to say, when we finally crested the little hill that hid the truck, we were both relieved to be done.

Tough to see in the photo, but there is quite a bit of snow built up under my ski!

Lessons Learned

We headed home a little disappointed and completely exhausted, but very humbled. Here’s what we learned:

  1. Winter ascents are tough. Stuff that would be a piece of cake in the summer is significantly more challenging in the winter.
  2. Continually evaluate your warmth and energy levels. I think if I had been more proactive about keeping myself warm on our second break I wouldn’t have had the issues that kept me from proceeding.
  3. Make sure you have the right tools. Why the heck didn’t we have skin wax?! This simple and cheap addition would have made our life much easier.
  4. Get an early start. Starting earlier would have given us much more room to move at a more reasonable pace and we probaby would have encountered better snow conditions making the summit more attainable.

Have you ever had a falure that caught you off guard? Tell us about it in the comments!

Trip Map & Details:

  • Activity: Backcountry Alpine Ski Touring
  • Location: Jim’s Creek to Jame’s Peak
  • Total Distance: 5.55 Miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,061ft

Want more specific details? Click Here to check them out!

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