Sunday, March 18, 2012

Brain Freeze

This should have been published awhile ago but I've been out of town and away from my computer, skiing and ice climbing in Canada. I'm slowly going through the hundreds of photos I shot. More to come soon!

Brain Freeze is my favorite winter route in Rocky Mountain National Park. It has everything one could wish for; technical difficulties, exposure, and a beautiful position. The shot above was taken during my first ascent of the route in the spring of 2010. It was the only time I've been on the route in anything less than a blizzard. The shots below were taken last year - and paint a more accurate picture of the conditions I usually find myself in.

Elias de Andres Martos

Brain Freeze got its name from this pitch in these conditions. Pulling over this roof while getting pounded by spindrift usually results in a "brain freeze." 

This year I headed back to Brain Freeze with Mike Haugen. Mike is one of my main climbing partners in Denver and has been a climbing guide for many years. He's a teacher in the winter and spends his summers guiding in Alaska and Washington. Early in January we left Denver at the leisurely hour of 7am and decided in the car to give Brain Freeze a go.

Mike Heads Across the Lake named the Loch

We elected not to bring snow shoes due to the extreme lack of snow. But there was still enough snow in places to punch through to our waists. 

Mike Thinking Light Thoughts

Mike Following One of the Early Pitches

Mike Haugen

To say that the wind blows in Rocky Mountain NP is a bit of an understatement. It rips through the park on a daily basis. On this particular day the snow fell with little to no wind. We commented a number of times on how lucky we were to be climbing on such a still day. But that was before the spindrift started. Usually the route sheds on a regular basis as the wind blows the snow from the crevices and small catchments. But on this particular day the lack of wind caused the spindrift to be more intermittent. But when it let loose, it went big. We were pummeled as the day grew later.

We struggled to reach the cave below the crux pitch as sizable powder clouds enveloped us. In the cave, just as we were debating whether or not it was wise to continue, a very large pile of spindrift let loose and poured over the crux overhang. It was late in the afternoon and the conditions weren't on our side. We built a rappel anchor and headed down. 

Mike in the Cave. 

Defeat solidified our determination. On the drive home we made plans for another attempt, with an early start to ensure success. A couple of weeks later we left Denver before sunrise and headed back for round two.

Break Time

Approach. Round Two.

Mike Leading the Changing Gullies Pitch

Mike Just Below the Cave

Although this winter has been obscenely dry in Colorado we ended up on the route in another snowstorm. This time, however, the wind blew as well cleaning out the catchments and keeping the spindrift to a steady but manageable factor.

Mike Leaves the Cave and Launches into the Crux

Pulling the Roof

Mike Climbing the Final Snowfield

Climbing in the Blizzard

Mike Launching into the Final Pitch

Mike Nearing the Summit

We reached the summit just before dark. Night caught us as we rappelled the route. The snow increased in intensity as we descended the slopes beneath the route. The darkness and increasing blizzard were disorienting as we made our way back. Reaching the flats below the climb we headed towards our trail on the ascent. After about 20 - 30 minutes we ran into our trail. Relief soon turned to anxiety as we realized the path was much too fresh to be from the morning. We had walked in a complete circle! I got out my GPS and tried to power it up only to find out the batteries were dead. We warmed the batteries in our hands and discussed our options.

Lost in the Blizzard

We finally warmed the batteries enough to have a little juice but then we realized the one point I'd marked with the GPS wasn't accurate - I hadn't allowed the GPS enough time to find itself when I marked it. It wasn't going to be much help. I wanted to walk one direction - Mike wanted to walk in another. We tried a direction and before too long realized it was wrong. We headed in the other direction - and ran into our tracks again! We had walked in another circle! We turned on the GPS and finally got the compass working. We headed east, checking our bearings intermittently with the GPS. Between the snow and darkness we were completely disoriented. Over an hour later we found a trail - nearly buried under the new snow. We made back to the truck 14 hours after we started. Famished, the only place we could find to eat at 11pm in Estes Park was the McDonald's. We ate our burgers, tired but relieved to be out of the woods. We had allowed ourselves to get complacent because of our familiarity with the route and the approach. The mountains have a good way of humbling you when you become too confident. 

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