Gilpin County High Point Trip Report

James Peak (13,294 ft)

Date: December 4, 2003
Author: Layne Bracy

After spending November driving around eastern Colorado ticking off county highpoints, I was more than ready to get back into the mountains.

The road to the St. Mary's Glacier trailhead (approximately 10,400 feet) was snow-free. I started hiking at 7:56 AM on a very chilly but sunny day! An easy though sometimes icy trail leads to St. Mary's Lake, which was completely frozen over. From the lake, I ascended the glacier using my ice axe but no crampons, as the snow was not too hard. (What is the difference between a glacier and a permanent snowfield?)1 In places the glacier seemed pretty narrow, and with no snow field source it from above, I wonder if it is in danger of drying up.

Above the glacier, I arrived at a large tundra meadow with a spotty snow cover. Clouds were hiding what I thought must be James Peak, so I aimed directly for its southeast ridge. Again the axe was helpful as I hiked up snow to a shoulder at about 12,400 feet. From here the slope eased and snow cover was again spotty. Near the top I found a trail and arrived at the summit at 10:37 AM.

Clouds occasionally blew over, but in general the views were great! I could see that clouds hung lower over much of the front range. Summit temperature was 15 degrees F. The cap from the register was missing and I found nothing to write with, but the summit log was intact in a somewhat tattered plastic bag.

After thirty minutes, I descended, this time following the trail for a while until it started veering too far to the right for my taste. The only wildlife I saw all day was a hare running across the slope. I was somewhat disappointed that glissading was not so great. A couple times I did manage a short slide. I ended up just walking down most of the glacier. The final stretch above the lake was certainly easy to glissade, but pretty steep, so I put on crampons for the last 2-300 feet. I lugged snowshoes up and down the mountain but never found a use for them.

Arrived back at the car at 12:54 PM, a 5-hr hike. Very nice to get in a high peak in wintry conditions, beating my previous December high by over 4500 feet (Guadelupe Peak, TX). After a few miles on I-70 I re-entered the clouds that were hanging over Denver.

1Webmaster's comment: A glacier's ice flows downhill; the permanent snowfield is stationary.