In the fall when the temperatures are trying to get below zero in the foothills of Colorado, the ice has no problem being hardened by the sub freezing temperatures in the high country above 10,000 feet. In most years the fall is one of the best seasons to climb ice routes due to the minimal snow pack on the approach and solid forming ice up high.
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In Rocky Mountain National Park there are several classic routes that are in prime shape before Thanksgiving, such as All Mixed Up and the Northeast Face of Notchtop peak. Two weekends before Thanksgiving my friend Josh and I spent 3 days in the backcountry camping and climbing both routes.
The trip began with an early morning drive to Estes Park from Colorado Springs on a Friday morning, before the Denver rush hour
began. The sun had just risen over the eastern plains as we started up Bear Lake Road in the national park toward the Bear Lake parking lot. There we would begin our approach to the base of Notchtop Peak. There was only one other car in the parking lot which gave us hope for an uncrowned day on the route. Notchtop Peak is located just east of Bear Lake above Odessa Lake and Lake Helene, along the Continental Divide stretching north to south throughout the National Park. The imposing northeast face of Notchtop rises steeply from the valley floor, and six pitches of ice and snow climbing gets you to the summit on the Continental Divide. After the four-mile approach, we arrived at the talus slopes at the base of the route and started towards the first snowfield below the first pitch.
It was approximately 10:30 as we started up the talus slopes, negotiating bare rock with frozen patches of snow mixed in between the boulders. The sun was shining and the wind was calm, offering great conditions for a day of climbing. After an hour of the talus field, we set foot on firm snow leading to the base of the first pitch. It was about noon by this point as Josh started to lead up the first pitch.
The first pitch consisted of WI2-3 ice with one short crux section next to a chimney of bare rock. “WI” stands for waterfall ice and the numerical rating is based on the steepness of the flow. WI2 is fairly low angle but still requires the use of ice tools and crampons to place into the ice for upward movement and foot placement. Josh made quick time of it by placing a small cam for protection in the rock and then pulling the final move up and through the short chimney to the belay ledge above.
Throughout our climb, we used a combination of ice screws and camping devices to protect the route from fall potential. Cams are used in rock climbing which squeeze into tiny cracks and expand to solidly hold the rope in case of a fall. A cam basically looks like a mouth with a trigger attached to it that can be pulled open and closed to place into a crack and then expands to hold its placement.