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All Mixed Up


 All Mixed Up
 

by Kelly Bates

January 23, 2003

All Mixed Up (M3/WI4), Rocky Mountain National Park, Thatchtop (12,668’)

So, last Friday my friend Sean from Boulder called me back about some planning we had done for weekend adventures. He was going to be free! It's one of his traditions to go climb a big icicle in RMNP, up by Estes Park, each year around this time. The next few weekends were going to be busy – qualifying for the Boston marathon at a race in Florida, Christmas in TN, things like that - so it was going to be a one-day, all-or-nothing kind of attempt. I drove up after work on Friday and took the wonderful 20mph tour of south Denver through T-REX.

We stayed up late, packing, hanging out, helping his wife Anne with research for her poli-sci thesis proposal; a short night later we got up at 0500 and packed the car with our ice packs and big mugs of coffee. We got to the parking lot around 0630 and were amazed that it was almost empty - two vehicles, and the party of 3 in one was just walking away (hopefully not to our climb!). We hastily changed into our mountain boots and threw on our packs, and hit the trail. The first hour was a nice bootpack on decent trails up to Mills Lake in Glacier Gorge. We passed the group that had left before us in about 20 minutes - they weren't heading to All Mixed Up anyway, though.

The normal trail goes around Mills Lake, but Sean convinced me that it would be no better, and probably longer, to go all the way around – so then. We crossed the frozen lake one at a time, right around the middle constriction where big boulders kept the maximum break-through depth at only a couple of feet - but it was pretty solidly frozen, and not a large concern. Nice frost rime on the surface provided decent purchase even for bare vibram soles. During our break we put on gaitors and looked up through the steep forest at sporty-looking cliffs.

From there, there was no trail. Lots of wind and spindrift had accumulated on the slope above the lake, and we spent the next two hours breaking trail up through 3 cliffbands and forest. The deep snow thinned nicely for the last 500 feet, and we scrambled up to the base of the ice on boulders and talus. The pictures of the route usually show little snow around it - today though it was pretty well covered in snow. We did a visual recon of our descent route while we racked up and decided to leave everything that we weren't carrying in our packs at the base. Thinking that there would be time to take photos of the route after the climb, I put the camera in my jacket pocket.

As we wandered up to the base of the first ice pitch, a nice generally wide flow a few inches to a few feet thick, Sean again told me that I had the lead. Since he's climbed it several times, he was willing to let me have the 'easier' non-mixed pitches, and he would take the mixed rock and ice in the second. Sounded just fine to me - I've only been doing significant ice climbing and leading for about 3 trips. The low angle of the ice was pleasant and I didn't feel the need to put in screws but about every 50 feet. I reached a small headwall, where one would typically either belay or head up a small stalactite that touches down, but it was kind of small for climbing. Instead I worked up the rock ledges to the left, hoping that I could reach what looked like a nice section of ice above by traversing easily on the ledges. Sean looked impatient – ‘Hey, I thought you were going to solo this section!’ he yelled. But the belay looked like it was just a few moves away.

Not so easy to climb vertical rock with no holds wearing crampons and carrying ice axes, I discovered. There was only a thin smear of ice, verglass, on the rock - not nearly enough to get a screw or even a pick into! I ended up traversing back and forth on tiny ledges, tools placed into frozen clumps of moss and grass, or just grabbing little protrusions in the rock, looking for a field of ice that would take protection. Nope, can't go right. Nope, can't go left. Well, up it is then. Then back left - that looks promising! And out there, the apparent ice was just a shell, hollow, over light crystal frost hoar. No way a screw would hold in that. Sean had to keep moving the belay up, as I was way overextended on a 200' cord, and he's obviously cold waiting for me to find a belay spot. I moved right across another traverse, and finally found some ice that just might, maybe, if we didn't look at it the wrong way, not shatter with some screws. Two went in, but it wasn't thick enough to set up a good belay anchor. That's all we got, though. I set screamers (load limiters) on the anchor and braced my knees and hips in the ice on the small snow ledge I could cut out for my feet and brought Sean up, carefully.

Sean on the second pitch of rotten ice I felt awful having taken so long on that last mixed section – at least a half hour, probably more. Sean was frozen already, and we’d just started the climb. But now, with that nastiness behind, it was my turn to get cold for a while.

The second pitch looked bad and sounded much, much worse. Every movement or step broke off the hollow ice in big sheets, first hitting whomever was climbing, and then cascading down the side of the mountain like a bunch of smaller and smaller bomblets. No one else was on the route today - and they would have left quickly with what we were kicking down had they been! Sean quickly figured that up was out of the question, and moved out right to what looked like a good ice step 50 feet away. The traverse was the diciest part of the climb - nothing at all under the crust and snow, just big gaping holes in the rock. Take a step, move off of it, and watch what you had just been standing on dive a few hundred feet straight down. I offered a sling for a retreat rappel, but Sean made it just past the nastiness with some illusionary pieces of protection and decided it looked okay to keep heading up. His next couple of pieces, going up and then back left on a ramp, were better but still suspect - and now he was above my head, and the bombs were falling and breaking on my belay. Hug the ice – ouch! Ooof. Brrrr! Ouch!

When he had 30' of rope left, I could just barely still hear and yell at him. 'Thirty feet!!!' 'ooookkkkkaaaayyyyy!,' comes back the far-off cry. Hoping he was looking at a belay spot, I waited and kept paying out rope. With 5 feet left, and the rope still going up, I couldn't hear him at all - nor he me, as it turned out. I broke down the anchor, took a deep breath, and started out simul-climbing, hoping that his last placements were close and good. The first traverse was just as hard and scary as they had looked, especially with nothing left of the stances Sean had used. It took me a good ten minutes to figure out and commit to the dicey moves, with the rope slowly going up as I moved and gave it slack.

Straight up a little steep glassy bulge and onto the ramp, I saw three pieces in an 80 foot traverse ahead of me. I removed the first and kept going across on crampon tips - and the rope just stayed where it was. A bigger and bigger loop of slack kept gathering below the traverse - fall now, and you're back to where you started! If I'd been thinking more clearly, the correct action would have been to coil the slack and tie in short, but I instead just waited, yelling to no avail. Eventually the rope started going up, slowly, some, and I just kept traversing. Pointy things hurt, no falls on ice, pointy things hurt, no falls on ice...

A couple of bulges and vertical steps later, and here's Sean's voice: 'Hey, when you get to the last bulge and piece, tie into it!!!' Alright. Must want to move the belay up. I clip in and try to get comfortable standing at a weird angle. Maybe 15 minutes later, with some 'clink-clink-clink' bashing sounds coming from above, I get the 'okay, you can climb again!' signal. I pull the last bulge and step up onto a 45-degree snowfield with a sling around a little 1" diameter bush trunk, about 75 feet ahead. Oh. Well. So, that was the belay, hunh. Great. Glad I convinced myself not to fall!!! The last hundred and fifty feet of the double-pitch are easy, steep, but just snow. Sean has banged in a too-large chock and a small cam in a wall up by the base of the last ice pitch, and he's finally happy about a placement. But he's too cold to let me rest when I get there. The drag through the snow on the upper slope had kept the rope taut and with no commo there was no way to know if I was climbing or wigging – which I’ve been known to do on stuff above my head. Well, until a couple of weeks ago, anyway.

Quickly I take the screws and look at the last pitch - well gee, it's only like forty feet, isn't it? 'Yeah,' he says, 'you stop right by that bush up there.' 'Well, that's easy.' And so, I start up the steepening snow. Promptly it gets vertical (what's holding this stuff together?!?). It's like climbing a loose bergschrund. Finally, there's some good ice. Lots of it. And, up I go. The pitch is fantastic, and I'm a swingin', kickin' fool. Sean is cold, and it's obvious – not enough leading, too much belaying time – I only put in pro about every 15 feet. And another. And another. Wait a minute, what happened to 40 feet? Good stems and great steps lead up the WI3+ section to the top third, 5 pieces out, and then it looks vertical, and somehow covered in a foot of snow to boot. The last 35 feet or so are about 80 degrees, and I hope (lots) that the snow covers good ice. Up. Every step means I have to scrape away a foot of snow, which is of course right above me, so I end up wearing quite a bit of it and ingesting more than I had intended. I yell down, 'one last piece!' about 20 feet up, and then power through to the top. And run out of ice.

A big clump of moss and some tricky little feet up-motions get me over the top to another, lower-anged snowfield - and fifty feet ahead are some medium rocks. I fairly run up to them and through a sling around a couple. 'Off belay!' I yell down, 125’ out. The sun sets as I sit down to bring Sean up - not that we had seen it all day anyway, but even out over Lumpy and on Longs the glow disappears. Sean comes up, stops in the middle (feet and hands frozen), and makes the top. I give him a belay up to the top of the snow pitch above us, to about 12,600', and he belays me up as well in gathering dusk. He apologizes for taking so long on the snow, but one foot is so numb that he couldn't tell if it was touching the ground or not. I was climbing too much and not sitting around enough (waiting on me) and never had the screaming jeebies from re-warming hands all day. Getting colder and colder, we coil ropes (I can’t get the knot tied, can’t feel my fingers now) and try to head across to the descent boulder fields.

Sometime in the next hour it gets pitch dark; we should not have tried this on a new moon weekend. And, we should have carried our headlamps with us. Our tools and crampons, hanging off of our harnesses, bite and pinch us relentlessly. We're cold, hungry, and thirsty. Sean's last half-quart is frozen right through. I can't wait to get to the packs, even though that means another hour and a half of descending through the snow back to the lake. Semi-glissading down the last ramp my rope coil comes undone just about the same time as I hit some ice, and I almost lose a tool arresting. Then there’s all of the dropping off the edges of boulders into waist deep snow – just an ankle-buster waiting to happen.

Finally, to the packs! It's 6pm when we reach them. Following (attempting, anyway) our trail down rather than blindly bushwhacking down the side of the mountain, we get back to the car in just 2 hours. Heat! Water!! Granola bars!!! Everything in Estes is closed except for a convenience store with a good hundred different smut rags in their magazine rack (and maybe 50 of anything else?), so with a soda and a candy bar we drive back towards Boulder. Happy, safe, warm, hungry, and satisfied.

The postscript from Sean and others in the ice community is along the lines of ‘much thinner than usual… usually takes only a few hours… home in time for dinner.’ I feel pretty good about that. Pushed out the lead more than I have on ice before, no falls, and even the advanced ice climber (Sean, of course) thought it was pretty burly. Well, I won’t complain. I think I’ll look for something a bit more mellow for the next outing, though… And, I’ll highly recommend All Mixed Up (M3/WI4/4+) (in early winter conditions) for anyone who wants a fun alpine adventure in a great setting!


Kelly Bates



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