Joined: Tue Feb 20, 2007 10:19 am Posts: 541 Location: Capitol Hill, Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.
Thousands of people from all over the world come to visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year. Ninety-nine percent of those people have no idea the quantity, quality, and caliber of extreme skiing & snowboarding that God has given us there. It is not just my favorite place to ski and climb, but also just to hike and enjoy the scenery. The thing that sets this backcountry destination apart from the millions of acres of national forest and wilderness areas is that every one of those visiting tourists pays a fee that goes into a system of improvements that creates some of the most easily accessible snowriding lines in the state.
Since we live 150 miles apart during the week, my girlfriend and I wanted to get away somewhere special for the weekend after Valentine's Day. I quickly thought of the Park, since I hadn't been there in almost a year, and I've never been there in mid-winter. Excited about ripping some new terrain, I started researching some mellow lines off of Flat Top Mountain. However, past TR's about the Dragon's Tail Couloir caught my attention. As I did more and more research, I discovered that while the Couloir was mostly traveled in the spring snowpack, it WAS possible to ski the line in Winter, under the right conditions. A quick call to the Burly Dude confirmed my suspicions. Apprehensive about the current snowpack, my mind was made up when I was directed toward Eli Helmuth's website, www.climbinglife.com, an EXCELLENT resource for up to date information about the Park.
Off to a late start, we arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot around 11 AM. However, the skies were clear and I knew we had a short approach, so I was not worried. Bear Lake sits at an elevation of **** and is the final stop on the **** road, which makes it one of the most heavily visited areas in the Park. It was no suprise to me that we saw dozens of people of all types unloading snowshoes out of their minivans and SUVs. All eyes were on us as we pulled up in the Subaru and started unloading snowboards, ice axes, and a climbing rope. "Only in the Park", was an expression I frequently told my partner.
Gearing up in the crowded parking lot.
From the trailhead, there is a well marked trail that heads from Bear Lake to Dream Lake, and then finally Emerald Lake. In the winter this snowshoe trail has many offshoots that people have taken to other places, but with a little navigation we were able to make it to Emerald Lake by 1:30. The view of the upper cirque from the lake was incredible. Far up the valley we could see Hallet Peak (a classic trad climbing destination) and Tydall Glacier (a classic spring ski).
Snowshoeing towards Emerald Lake. Hallet Peak rises on the left; Tyndall Glacier farther up left-center. The Dragon's Tail is the middle of the three jagged spires in the center, with the obvious couloir up the right side.
From Emerald Lake, we branched off North of the main valley and set forth up the apron towards the Couloir. On the way, I talked to some skiers that had come down the upper gorge, and learned that the snowpack was bomber, although the ski conditions were variable. No one had ventured up the Dragon's Tail today.
Looking at the couloir from Emerald Lake
We made it up the steep apron on snowshoes and stopped under a large boulder. I decided to rope up for a variety of reasons, and we entered the couloir at 2:00. I had mandated a 4:00 turnaround time, so ensure that we would be back to the car by sunset, and I had good plans to top out by that time.
Beginning the steep section
The Dragon's Tail was much steeper than I had originally thought. I knew that it had been warm the day before, and wasn't surprised to find a thin "melt-freeze" layer on top of the snow. This made for excellent climbing, but I was less enthusiastic about the snowboarding conditions. No worries, it would still be we worth the effort to ride the classic line. As my partner and I switched leads all the way up, I marveled at the majestic scenery around us. I kept my eye on the top of the couloir: the blue skies had started to haze over with clouds.
Inside the couloir, looking up at the clouds moving in.
By 4:00 we had just made it to the part of the couloir that splits into two opposing diagonal lines. We were completely exhausted (I had really underestimated this thing!) The sun was gone and it was snowing, so we made an easy decision to ride down from that point. The descent was steep and fun! While there were crusty spots, I was excited to find patches of powder dispersed throughout the couloir.
V, starting her descent
We rode down a good 1000 vertical without incident, and then made the flat trek across the frozen lake as the snow fell harder and harder. Not wanted to get lost in a whiteout, I hastened up the pace, only to slip on the ice (should have bought those Malamutes!) and land directly on my left shoulder. Crying out in surprise, I was lucky not to have broken anything, and I slowly crawled back up to the laughter of my partner.
It was almost 5:00 by the time we headed out, which was good because the previously crowded snowshoe trail was now empty. Once more, a nice fresh layer of snow had fallen on it, which made it an excellent little luge ride on the snowboards and back to Bear Lake. From the car, I looked up towards the Dragon's Tail and could barely make it out in the storm high up above tree line.
"Damn," I said, "I sure am glad we're not still up there!"
On Sunday, we took a much less burly hike up Flat Top Mountain Trail and rode some incredible terrain right in front of Bear Lake. The powder here was excellent, and the cliff-hucking opportunities were endless.
The "Terrain Park" in front of Bear Lake, and the Dragon's Tail rising far out above.
_________________ Riding a '06 Voile Split Decision Freeride 173, '07 Salomon Malamutes, Spark Ignition I bindings.