Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Learning glacier stuff on St Mary's Glacier

St Mary's Glacier may not be a particularly big or awesome glacier -- in fact I think it's probably smaller than Sólheimajökull, the most tourist-friendly tongue of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland -- but it's our (Denver's) glacier by god and so this past Saturday I headed out there with four (eventually five) guys to learn some stuff about glacier climbing and rescue. 

Standing at the base of the glacier, looking south towards Mt Evans, it was a beautiful Colorado day.

We roped up and started hiking across the face of the glacier, split into two teams. 

Here I am all roped up! One of the most interesting things I learned was how to tie various knots for various activities.

Here is S, my team leader. He would later warn me he was going to fall and I needed to save him, but I still would struggle to get us stopped as we fell down the glacier. I need to practice those ice axe self-arrests.

Here's B and R, B is trying to warm his hands up in R's hat after a long struggle up a glacier face.

N took this picture as he was dangling off our "crevasse" -- just the steep, corniced side of the glacier -- waiting to be rescued by R and me.

Another view looking towards Mt Evans from higher up on the glacier.

Where the cornice was cleaving off from the glacial face, it formed these deep holes which were surprisingly solid. I saw N stagger over the side of one and flump down into the hole with no noticeable problems. It was also hilarious.

Here our fifth man has joined the team. He spent the morning running 14 miles (one way) up and down Mt Evans and then came to join us. His core is hard.

We were at this point practicing belaying people over the side of the glacier, so everyone is huddled around as one person does the belaying. This is also hard work, as was demonstrated when I was belaying people who weigh significantly more than I do.

Finally, here's a picture of N peeking over the side of the glacier. At this point he had been struggling for about a half hour to get himself over the side using just rope and an ice axe. He eventually did make it after a second try -- the only person to be able to do so! However, in this picture, he looks like a pesky marmot come to beg for food.

I'm really looking forward to more learning about glacier climbing techniques!

We also saw some people having classic St Mary's glacier fun -- lots of kids sliding down it, people skiing down it, a guy who said he had taken some friends visiting from Hawaii out for the day to show them snow/skiing... and one guy who we got to watch... and watch and watch... as he debated jumping off the side of the glacier and sliding down. He eventually did so, after many false starts and much cheering from us. Then he came back for more. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Mt Dyer and Mt Sherman

Thanks to N for the majority of these pictures, because my camera batteries died before we made it up the first mountain.

Late on Friday night, we drove up past Leadville to a place called Iowa Gulch, going past the remains of a lot of dead mines. Downstream from this area is a classic Superfund-looking site with very unnaturally red water. We stopped about 1.5 miles from the end of the road due to snow blocking it and slept in the car, getting up at 5:45 to start our hike. This was the view with the sunrise:

And walking up the road.

Mt Sherman is the large, flat-looking mountain in centre of the picture. Mt Sherman (14,036 ft) has an enormous, broad summit (though in my opinion it isn't as flat as nearby other-14er-I-have-climbed Mt Bross) and in the 1960s a plane had an emergency landing on the summit in a snowstorm. 

As we started our hike, a snowsquall blew towards us across the valley below from the Sawatch Range (which you can see below). 

Eventually we came to the end of the road and turned towards Mt Dyer (13,855 ft). We had to climb up some steep, snow-covered slopes, which you can see to the left in this picture.

Once we were up the steep snowfields, we neared the summit, which was marked by unstable rocky outcrops and more snow. After stepping on one shaky outcrop, I elected to proceed up the snow. 

The views to the west of the Sawatch Range -- and Mt Elbert and Mt Massive -- were gorgeous. Unfortunately the views to the East, which would have shown Mt Evans and Pikes Peak, were mostly obscured by smoke from the wildfires burning in Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Colorado. At points we could taste the smoke and ash in the air.

Here is N on the summit of Mt Dyer, enjoying a PB&J.

And another view from the summit, towards Mosquito Pass, which is a 4 wheel drive road to the north. It seems unlikely that the road will open this year given the enormous snowpack.

Here I am on the summit of Dyer. It was cold!

From there we hiked along a ridge and up to Mt Sherman. There are no pictures from this portion of the hike, sadly. The ridge had one side with, at places, a sharp drop off and was covered in snow. I stopped to take a pee break and so was far behind N, trying to step in his footprints, but found that I weigh more than he does because where he floated over the snow I post holed -- i.e., sank into the snow. Crossing the ridge was tough and then I had to head up a boulder field with very little in the way of a marked trail. From there, gaining the summit of Sherman was an easy walk up some snow which I luckily did not sink into, despite following N's path again. On the summit of Sherman, I got to demonstrate how incredibly badass my new ice axe looks.

Then we headed down from Sherman to what I found to be one of the most frustrating/hardest parts of the hike. 

First, though, we got to do some glissading (sliding down the snow on our butts) and I learned to self-arrest with my ice axe. Which is super fun.

Then we had to cross several snowfields that were constant post holing minefields. By this point were nearing the end of our hike and I was hungry and also both of my gaiters had broken so there was water sloshing around in my boots. We crossed a stream and then had to go up a short but steep snow slope. Luckily after that we got onto the road and it was just a gentle downhill walk back to the car.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Now THIS is the tale of the Memorial Day Road Trip 2k11

N and I opted to head south for this one, taking in scenic Colorado and then heading down to see the archaeology at Chaco Canyon and whatever there was at Taos (some hot springs?). Then we headed back north as fast as possible so we could see the Arctic Monkeys play the Ogden on Monday night.

We left early (like, 5am) on Saturday morning and headed into the mountains. As we exited the Eisenhower Tunnel and came down towards Lake Dillon, the hillsides were covered in mist.

This one below is taken looking towards the town of Dillon.

From there we turned and drove through Leadville and then started our ascent up Independence Pass. Looming, very snow-covered mountains rose up in front of us...

Coming to the top, we had just passed between enormous walls of snow. The Colorado Department of Transportation had worked very hard to get the road open for the holiday weekend and when we got to the top it was obvious how much snow there was.

Oh my gosh, SO. MUCH. SNOW. A few days later, some of these snow walls collapsed and re-covered the road. This is really a massive amount of snow here for the end of May.

From there we drove down into Aspen, passing a lot of very fabulous houses, and then continued onto 133, where we passed some beautiful scenery. These trees were growing into the rocks beside a waterfall and I loved their roots.

There was also the clear reminder that spring was finally arriving in the high country, with aspens and other deciduous trees starting to bloom.

From there we passed over McClure Pass and down into the rugged San Juans. Below is a view of my favorite mountain, Mt Sneffels, peeking out over some fertile ranchland.

We ate lunch in Ouray. This is the area that Theodore Roosevelt called "the Switzerland of America".

From there we drove on the Million Dollar Highway -- where spring melt was in full flow, the hillsides were covered with waterfalls that unfortunately did not photograph well -- and then into Silverton, over Red Mountain Pass -- where the below photo was taken, and then began the long descent out of the mountains and into the desert.

That evening we reached Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico. Although I think Mesa Verde is prettier, in my opinion (I started to write professional opinion and then realized that it is actually my profession), Chaco Canyon is the most impressive archaeological site in the United States. And, unlike Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon is somewhat undiscovered. To get there we had to drive down a long dirt road. We arrived about an hour before sunset after listening to a wild Rockies victory on a whining and fading AM broadcast and discovered that the campsite was entirely full. As we were talking to a ranger about possible places to stay -- all many miles away -- a very kind lady with several children offered us a share of her campsite. We set up the tent with the help of her kids (who were EXTREMELY helpful -- fastest tent set-up ever!) and then drove to the largest ruin, Pueblo Bonito, to take some photographs in the softer light of evening. 

The stonework here is beautiful.

Pueblo Bonito consists of a many small rooms connected by tiny doorways that you have to crouch to walk through. The rooms originally would have had timbered roofs and all of the stonework and roofs were plastered over to give the walls a much more uniform appearance, but based on the room that they have done up this way to show visitors what it would have been like, the rooms would have been incredibly claustrophobic. Chaco is an archaeological mystery, and why the rooms were like that -- were they store rooms? Did anyone live in them? etc. -- remain an open question despite over a century of archaeological study. (If you're interested, Stephen Lekson's The Chaco Meridian is the best book I've read on the subject, though it's getting a bit old now.)

This was a beautiful flower in our campsite. 

That evening, there was an archaeological talk and then a chance to look through three high-powered telescopes at various sights down at the ranger station. The archaeological talk was by Patricia Crown, who is a professor at the University of New Mexico. When one of the little girls we were sharing our campsite with told us that the talk was about "chocolate" I guessed that the talk would be about some recent papers I'd seen about finding cacao traces in ceramics from the site. I was right! I was also really excited to hear Professor Crown speak, and she gave a really entertaining lecture. If you're interested in her research, here's the abstract for her paper, and another on the topic.

The astronomy was also very cool. Chaco is really out in the middle of nowhere, and there was no moon, so we were able to see some amazing things in the little observatory there. We saw Saturn (which seriously looks fake), a globular cluster, and then some galaxies beyond our own! 

The next morning we went back to explore the site more. Part of the site was destroyed by falling sandstone in the 20th century, and looking at the wall of the canyon, you can see why. 

Back inside of Pueblo Bonito...

Another interesting archaeological fact about Chaco is that this and other sites in the southwest were the first sites to be dated by dendrochronology. The desert environment has preserved timbers that travelled hundreds of miles when Chaco was under construction. These are some timbers above a doorway, beautifully preserved.

One of the cooler features of Pueblo Bonito is its windows. Those two on the sides were added into the structure later in its construction history. I kind of want windows like that in my own house.

I really loved this little bird hanging out atop this wall.

We left Pueblo Bonito and went on a hike up onto the canyon rim. To get there we had to go between some narrow sandstone walls, as this man with the fine ass shows us.

Atop the canyon walls, there are shrimp fossils embedded in the sandstone -- this sandstone, like that near to Denver, was once the seabed part of the inland ocean that covered the middle of North America in the Jurassic/Cretaceous. 

Looking down on Pueblo Bonito.

Looking across the canyon to another part of the site.

A yucca flower.

Part of the features of Chaco are kivas, which are circular rooms found throughout the Southwest. The ones at Chaco are "great" -- in many cases, really really big.

We left Chaco in mid-morning and drove towards Taos. Northern New Mexico provided us with some beautiful sandstone-based scenery as we entered the Rio Grande's drainage area.

A reservoir...

The valley of the Rio Grande where we dipped our toes in the icy cold water. The Rio Grande, of course, comes from those snow-covered mountains in Colorado, and this was pure meltwater.

The impressive gorge of the Rio Grande cutting across northern New Mexico.

We rolled into Taos around dinnertime and, though we were unimpressed by the town itself (why do our parents love this place?), we did enjoy some delicious Mexican food and some even more delicious margaritas that were just strong enough to make us super earnest and truthful.

Then we drove on to a campsite in Carson National Forest. It was a terribly windy night and I didn't sleep well for all the flapping of the tent and the fact that I was burning hot in my made-for-the-mountains sleeping bag, but when I woke up I felt perfectly refreshed, as I always do when I camp. I walked out onto the dirt road and took a picture of the sunrise over the mountains.

Then we hiked down into that gorge of the Rio Grande to go to some natural hot springs. Driving to get to the rim, we passed some gorgeous -- and some crazy -- low impact "earthdome" type houses and a lot of adobe houses. We hiked down to what was apparently an old stagecoach stop -- there were some ruined buildings there -- and took a dip in the delightful hot springs pools. It seemed crazy to us that a stagecoach could make it down into the gorge, but we weren't complaining too much as we relaxed in the hot water.

We picked up some hippie girl hitchhikers on our way back up the road and left them at the highway to go to Taos and continue their spiritual journey. It was time for us to turn back north into Colorado and head to Denver.

We passed through the San Luis Valley and had a good long look at my favorite mountain range, Sangre de Cristos.

And then we went to see the Arctic Monkeys. Don't believe the 'ype*.


*Sheffield accent translation: "hype"