Gilpin County High Point Trip Report

James Peak (13,294 ft)

Date: November 14, 2003
Author: Kevin Baker

I coaxed my cousin Jeremy Collins and my friend Jeremy Smith to join me on a winter ascent of James Peak. I decided on James over Pettingell because of the smaller risk of avalanches. On this day there was no chance of an avalanche on James. We arrived at the trailhead just past the abandoned ski lift on FR-275 just before 10 AM. The road had some spotty snow cover, but was in good shape. After fumbling around with gear, we finally got going at 10:15.

The trail just below St. Mary's Lake was icy in spots, but is very easy. We quickly made our way to the base of St. Mary's Glacier and I was excited to make my first traverse over a glacier. A sign near the lake warned of dangerous conditions that could be present on the glacier, but today it was easy. The glacier was hard and not very smooth from the winds that blast down the slope. The base of the glacier is the steepest, but crampons and ice ax were not necessary on this day.

We made it to the top of the glacier at about 11,200 feet and had our first view of our goal for the day. The east face of James is very impressive, and we could tell the winds were swirling up there. Most of the way up, the southwest winds were funneling down the glacier or across us as we made our way up, so the last mile or so was slow going. We took a lunch break at around 12,000 feet behind a boulder to shield us from the wind. There was a fair amount of blowing snow, but visibility was good throughout the day. It is very important to take periodic GPS or compass readings on the meadow as it would be easy to get lost on this wide expanse. There is a rock outcropping just above the top of the glacier that served as our guide on the way down.

Instead of going directly up the southeast ridge, we stayed below it to avoid high winds. We finally summited at 1:45 PM with swirling snow all around us but generally good visibility. The summit register had no pen, and I was too cold to look at the names. We ate a little and took some video of the Himalaya- like scenery.

Just below the summit, my cousin gave me an impromptu ice axe lesson to use on the glacier later on. We made good time on the way down by take a more direct route to the glacier. The only place we could glissade was 200-300 feet above the lake on the glacier. The snow was not smooth enough to glissade. We did not use crampons or snowshoes as the snow was solid in many areas. The only area where post-holing was a problem was in some willows on the meadow.

We made it down at 4:05 PM after visiting with some folks who were sledding at the base of the glacier. Overall, a great hike and introduction to winter mountaineering!

Trip statistics: 7.4 miles round trip, 3300 feet of gain, 3 hours 30 minutes up, 2 hours 5 minutes down.