Gilpin County High Point Trip Report

James Peak (13,294 feet)

Date: February 26, 2000
Author: Gary Swing

It probably isn't a good sign when you get out of your car at the trailhead only to witness a gust of wind pick up your heavily-laden backpack and hurl it down the road. I asked my friend Leif, who was standing outside with me, if he thought it was windy enough to flip my car over. He didn't think so. I said there was no way in hell we could climb James Peak (highpoint of Gilpin County, Colorado) in these weather conditions.

It was bitterly cold outside with extreme winds blowing previously fallen snow like a sandstorm in the desert. Meanwhile, my other friend, Mark, was sitting in the car, participating in a teleconference on his cell phone.

This was clearly an absurd situation. If I had been there alone, I would have simply left and gone hiking somewhere else at a lower elevation. However, Leif had rented an ice ax, crampons, and snowshoes for this occasion, so it seemed a shame to give up without even trying. Our only hope of success was for the wind to die down. We were in no hurry to start!

After Mark finished with his teleconference in the middle of an arctic gale, we decided that we would at least give it a shot by doing the first part of our planned hike up to the base of Saint Mary's glacier, below James Peak. If the wind didn't let up, we would have to turn back.

We walked up the road a short distance to the trailhead where we met two guys who were training for an expedition to Denali. They were loaded for bear. The guys asked where we were headed. Leif responded that James Peak was our planned destination, but we wouldn't make it in this weather. I added that we were planning to go until one of us said to turn back.

We headed up the well-packed trail towards Saint Mary's Lake, bundled head to toe. Shortly after we started out, I experienced a debilitating asthma attack. I was gasping for breath, and discovered that my inhaler was frozen, unable to work. We rested for a few minutes until I could resume breathing normally, then continued at a slower pace.

Saint Mary's Lake was on the left side of the trail 0.8 miles from the car. We stopped here and walked out onto the ice, but it was very difficult to walk on the ice in the wind. I suggested that we climb Fox Mountain, a 10,921 foot rock outcropping rising 230 feet east of the lake. We decided to head towards Saint Mary's glacier instead.

We should have put on our crampons and taken out our ice axes before hiking above the lake, but we didn't. As the snow steepened, it quickly changed from a reasonably soft surface that provided some traction to a very solid, hard surface with no traction. The driving snow created a whiteout with no visibility at all.

Everything was white. I had ice hanging off my eyelashes and chunks of ice building up under my glasses. I reached a point about where the lower right corner of the glacier should be, where I could no longer continue without an ice ax and crampons. However, I was being blasted by 70+ mile per hour winds, I couldn't see anything but a sheet of white, and I was sprawled precariously across the snow slope, trying to dig in with my fingertips to get some purchase.

Leif was close behind me, and I yelled to him, asking for help to get my ice ax off the back of my pack. He was able to do so in a break between wind gusts. Unbeknownst to me, Mark, who was in the rear, had slid about 20 feet down the base of the snow slope. With my ice ax in hand, I cut a couple of footholds, then turned around and slid down to where I felt more comfortable walking.

We regrouped on more level ground and decided that even if we used all of our snow and ice gear, it would simply be too dangerous and not much fun to climb James Peak in these conditions. We agreed to scramble up Fox Mountain and then drive to another trailhead to go snowshoeing in the woods. We passed the guys training for Denali on our way over to Fox Mountain and bid them well. We found that just reaching the summit of Fox was a real bear in this wind.