Monday, March 26, 2018

Ptarmigan Peak North Ridge - North of the Norm!

   The mountain bug has bitten me earlier than usual this year, and that means I've had to come to terms with my lack of snow/ice experience.  For me, snow and ice usually amounts to a snow slide between Peak 2/3 in mid-June, or an afternoon snow squall in May.  This winter, however, I've embraced the ice axe and microspikes.  I may even come around to crampons, especially after today.  What happened today?  Funny you should ask...

   I woke up not knowing exactly WHAT mountain I wanted to climb, all I knew is I wanted to climb A mountain!  This is typical for me (as most of you who read my trip reports already know) so I spent the morning just getting the gear together and let the chips fall where they may.

   It so happens that the chips fell halfway, and before I knew it, I was out at Glen Alps riding my fatbike, hoping that there would be some sign of where I should go from there.  My first inclination was to climb Homicide Peak, one of the charmingly named brethren of the Suicide peak family - a mountain usually accessed from the powerline saddle.  It was an unclimbed peak for me, and as I rode on, it seemed likely to remain so as the path to the powerline saddle deteriorated after 3 miles.  I was forced to stash the bike and explore other options.  Ptarmigan!

Ptarmigan in summer

Summer again, this time poking out behind my brothers and I.
   Ptarmigan is one of my favorite front range peaks - it's aesthetic, it has a short approach, and above all, it's fun to climb!  Ptarmigan, it turns out, also has a reputation as a "gateway" mountain for the winter climber.  The north couloir is something of a classic route - although an unfortunate climbing accident several years ago has certainly darkened my thoughts whenever I see it.  With the accident and my nonexistent snow skills on the mind, I decided to go for another route.  The north ridge!
I knew very little about the north ridge other than it intersected the couloir near the summit.  It looked doable, carefully doable, with a few trouble areas evident as I walked towards it.  With some slight apprehension, I took my axe out, and started kicking steps upward.

The Ptarmigan North ridge and couloir
   Things were easy for a while - the angle was low, the snow was consistent and packed, and the route was clear.  Eventually though, it got sneakily steeper, and I reached my first cliff-out.
Cliffed out!
Nope, don't wanna climb these cliffs...

   At first, I was stumped.  I tried going up some cracks in its face, only to be repelled when I ran out of comfortably large holds.  Slightly perturbed, I paused for a second, and remembered my long touted Chugach adage "there's always a better way if you go around."  I went around, and this is where things got interesting...
Discovering the "chute of doom"

   I had been gradually learning how snow behaves on different slopes, but now the snow was inconsistent AND the going got steep.  Really steep.  I didn't like the powderey, fragile feeling I was encountering.  It disconcerted me and drove me to follow the rock as much as possible.  This feeling led me to a narrow chute, almost a crack, with good rock for stemming and what looked like a solid bit of snow in the middle.  Wrong!

Climbing the chute of doom
I got to a ledge, but my prospects were no better.  I wanted out.

   After climbing the chute for a while, I came to a place where it was too steep with too few holds for me to go on.  All the while, I had been noticing that the snow in the middle wasn't trustworthy, and was prone to just falling away.  So I stopped.  And I thought for while.  Then I tried again to go up, and then I tried to go to the side, and then I realized I couldn't do either of those.  So I went down - carefully, painstakingly, planting my axe where I could, not trusting the snow to be of help.  It took me a long time, but I got down from that crack.  And I let out a huge sigh!

The chute I'd been climbing is in the middle of this cliff.  Shoulda known to keep going around!

   The powdery snow around me wasn't QUITE as scary as it had been, so I opted to keep looking for a way around.  And I got around, finally!

Windblown edge, top of north couloir, and summit!  

   Pretty soon, I came to a point where I could see the top of the north couloir and the summit ahead.  It looked like smooth sailing until I got closer and saw the cornice on the other side of the couloir.  I knew then I couldn't walk right over the top, so instead I dropped down into the couloir slightly, and worked my way over from there.  At long last, I was past all the hard stuff!

Getting close to the summit!
   The summit was surprisingly warm, with full sunshine and only a slight breeze.  I took the opportunity to text a few people, telling them to guess what I had just climbed (I was pretty pleased I had made it by this point.) After a few photos and a few Poptarts, I headed toward the west summit and down to the saddle for an easy exit.  Buttsliding was not as good as expected :(

Summit
   It was strange to stand on top of a mountain I'd so often climbed, having arrived there from an entirely different approach.  It made me feel like it was brand new all over again.  Elation, relief, focus, wonder - a purer form of existing that is difficult to describe.  I know I'll be back soon... 

Looking back up at the mighty north face

Returning to a pleasant afternoon at Glen Alps

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