5 Lessons Learned Practicing Mountaineering Skills on Colorado's St. Mary's Glacier

Slip Sliding Away: Practice Makes Performed (Not Perfect)

If you ever get to a point where you think you know it all, practice what you know one more time. You never know what you might learn.

It was a precursor to today. I had been wanting to check out St. Mary's Glacier for some time. A few weeks ago our group got stymied by the now infamously named "nope slope". I figured now was a great time to do some ice axe and crampon work. I will name it up front - general consensus in the climbing world is that the pick side of the axe should be facing the other direction (towards the body). This makes it easier to get into "self-arrest position" particularly by a climber surprised by a slip. In the photos, the axe is being held in what is known as "self-belay grip" which in the event of a fall would require the user to change the head around in order to self-arrest. Self-belay is its own technique (where you drive the shaft of the axe into the snow to stop from sliding at all). Ultimately it comes down to comfort, which was the goal of today. 

We left Denver around 6am and drove the 1.5hrs to St. Mary's Glacier. Technically speaking St. Mary's is now a perennial snow field (year round) more than a glacier but it is a beautiful area any time of year. We parked, paid the parking fee (the lot has a ton of spaces but being such a popular place it was almost 3/4 full when we arrived by 7:30am. Also it is private property and the money from the fee allows the owners to maintain the lot and keep it open, so please pay the fee), and geared up.

The trek from the parking lot to the trailhead takes you a short jaunt up the road and then veers left into the woods. It is a rocky well worn ascent to the foot of the glacier with plenty of signage and people to follow (less than 1 mile). Once you reach the foot you are likely to find plenty of folks camping and a snow melt fed pond. The trail takes you to the right of the pond and ends at the glacier itself. From there snow walking is pretty much your only option for ascent. You will likely find folks trying to scramble up the rocks to the right but that will only get you so far before it terminates at the snowfield itself or gets too steep to climb. 

At the base Rachel and I took a seat, strapped on our crampons, and pulled out our mountaineering axes. I recommended that she walk around a bit on the flat snow just to get a feel for wearing the crampons. Loving the hiking pants (if you are a tall woman, she highly recommends these) she had on, I mentioned to be mindful of stepping wider to avoid any tears.

Once settled we made our way up the snowfield. I reasoned with Rachel that with the right gear she could get comfortable in steep snow, luckily she was having a blast!

Halfway up we saw a steeper section and decided it was the best place to work on self-arrests (the rest of the slope was too shallow and the snow was soft enough to not really need a self-arrest to stop yourself). A few planned "slides" later and we were moving up that steep section and cutting across the face of the glacier, comfortable and in control.

As we ascended I could not help but recall a "near miss" incident I had hiking with a friend in the White Mountains (48 in 1 Winter - different friend, same great mountains). It was my first time hiking in the shoulder season. We had left on a Friday evening and drove to the Ammonoosouc Ravine Trail with the goal of climbing Mt. Washington and maybe some of the subsidiary peaks near it (Monroe and Clay). We spent the night in his car and woke the next morning to some blowing snow and frigid temperatures. As we made our ascent we started to encounter ice along the trail. Most of it was easy to get around but eventually we came to a point where the trail cut across some solid rock. Sticking close to the edge of the trail (in order to grab a tree for support) my buddy took one step, slipped, grabbed a tree branch and.....SNAP.

It was like time froze. I reached for him attempting to be mindful of my own footing and missed him by a mile. I watched him slide and then slide more. He kept sliding until I watched him disappear over a cliff face and then nothing. My mind started planning all the boxes I needed to check to call for a rescue. A minute more passed and I finally yelled out "are you okay?" as I slowly made my way back down the trail. About half-way down the trail I heard my friends shaken voice "I am fine...I think."

We met up where he had landed. It was about a 6ft drop down into a ravine. Luckily he had managed to spin from his stomach onto his back in an attempt to land feet first. His large backpack took the brunt of the fall and was tall enough to protect his head on the way down. I thought I had watched my friend die in the mountains; a near miss.

After he settled his nerves he pulled out ice spikes (these were new to me at the time) and cracked a half-hearted joke, "I was just thinking we should put these on." It was then and there that I resolved heavily - despite the expense of gear, it is way cheaper than your life and comfort is the key to enjoying yourself in the mountains.

As we summited St. Mary's Glacier, Rachel and I moved onto a half thawed tundra (watch your ankles!) with James Peak (13er) looming in the distance. Feeling good we decided to head for the base of James and make a summit call once we got there. The half-thawed tundra had other plans for us. As we made our approach we were met with solid snowpack followed by deep post-holing and more often than not into deep puddles. We could see folks ascending James but the post-holing took it's toll and about 3/4 of the way there we decided to call it. Neither one of us were enjoying ourselves and James was never the goal.

We crossed back over the tundra and began our descent back down the glacier. The afternoon sun had brought even softer snow and more people, many post-holing up in shorts and tennis shoes. Some riders even built a ramp and were launching off of it with a Shamu whale pool toy offering rides to anyone who stopped by. 

Being in crampons and carrying axes we certainly got some looks on the way down but we met out goal, comfort and no torn pants, even if it was a bit overkill on the way down.


Lessons Learned:

1) Practice makes performed - perfect practice makes well better performance. 

2) Be open to learning new things, trying new things, and practicing new things (ex: we will work on comfort with self-arrest grip and on harder snow pack).

3) Know when to call it quits - knowing yourself is the best way to stay safe

4) Accidents happen - practice rescues so you can perform rescues if you ever need to.

5) The price of gear is certainly worth your safety - be safe out there.

Published: November 1, 2017

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Jason Leach

Denver

An avid adventurer, triathlete in the summers, lover of winter (though I don't ski), photographer, ballroom dancer, and newly relocated to Denver, Colorado for some higher mountains to play in!