Jan. 23rd Conditions Report

Alpine climbing and backcountry skiing in Rocky Mountain National Park.   Snowpack, ice,  and alpine climbing conditions are forecast by Eli Helmuth, an AMGA certified rock, alpine, and ski mountaineering guide and owner of ClimbingLife Guides.


Warning:  Ice and avalanche conditions change constantly and the information provided here should not be the final say in making the best decisions in regard to your risk management in the mountains.  ClimbingLife LLC and its contributors accept no liability for your decisions based on this information.  Snow, ice and mixed climbing are very dangerous sports and one can easily die or be seriously injured engaging in these activities.  Proceed at your own risk, plan for the best outcome and be prepared for the worst.

January 23rd, 2013

Snow and Ice Report

Rocky Mountain National Park  

It's old news that it's been a tough year for backcountry skiers in Colorado with a slow start to the season along the Front Range due to a record-breaking shallow snowpack. A dangerous avalanche cycle before the New Year has claimed lives and last week another fatality near Marble due to steep riding on a thin and weak base that will not always support body weight.

The good news is that conditions on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park are overall good in terms of snow stability although coverage it too thin in many spots to enable smooth sliding. 

The average coverage going at New Year was in the 80-90cm range in treeline areas, loading above treeline ranged from 0 to 300cm, but unfortunately those numbers have not moved up or down in a full month.

With a deep base, the Dragontail Couloir has been seeing more than a dozen skiers safely slide down this steep gash in the last weeks with mostly LOW avalanche danger due to deep, pencil hard slabs.  Corn snow has been found here on calm morning; good luck in finding those conditions. 

Gentler slopes at Hidden Valley and the East Face of Flattop (the Drift) hosted a few dozen skiers and boarders on any weekend day the last few months who didn't mind bouncing off a few rocks or carrying their boards for some short distances closer to the trailheads.

Buster Jesik taking advantage of the warm winter days to make a redpoint of Condones 12b on the Twin Owls at Lumpy Ridge. Check-out Buster's adventures with the Alpine Mentors here.

Cheryl Sarnwick and Bryon Hoerner entering the Lake Haiyaha drainage on a Level 1 Avalanche Course.

  Jim enjoying deep steep snow on our 2012 Alaskan Ski Mountaineering Expedition.  The snow coverage in the Alaska Range is great this year and we'll be heading back in April if you want to join us for the greatest powder on the planet.

rmnp sunset Wave clouds provide a dramatic sunset over the Front Range in 2013.

Protected from the westerly winds at the Bear's Den, 
Michael Arnold puts up the rope on Carnivora,  M7+ trad. Bring chalk and big cams for this one!

Rob Coppolillo taking the direct way across Chasm Lake in late November.   Access to Lambslide, Martha, Alexander's, and Flying Dutchman is shortened with this approach.  Check-out Rob's writing on our autumn outings in Elevation Outdoors here.

The west face of Longs Peak in typical mid-winter conditions with minimal snow coverage, limited to pencil hard slabs (good cramponing) in narrow gulleys.  Colorado's northern most 14er is a difficult place to travel in mid-winter and it was Himalayan pioneer Doug Scott who proclaimed that, " Everest was good training for Longs Peak in winter".



Click on outlined photos to enlarge.



The east face of Longs Peak in mid- December after our second round of snowfall in the high peaks of RMNP.

In the higher elevations of RMNP, constant wind gusts up to 90mph have created a mix of conditions from sastrugi patterned, wind scoured slopes to wind-loaded lee areas like the east face of Taylor and Longs Peak.  Pencil hard layers 2 meters deep sitting adjacent to grass and bare ground are common above 10,000' where the Avalanche Danger ranges from LOW to CONSIDERABLE, often in close proximity.

'Highly Variable' is the key term to understanding the snow coverage and avalanche danger between 9.5k and 14k in these alpine regions.

A very snow covered icefall below the Throne and Italy's Boot on the Pika Glacier in Denali National Park.  Skiing around crevassed terrain such as this is part of the thrill of Alaska skiing and why traveling with a professional guide  is necessary to manage the risk and deal with the consequences of this wild terrain. Trip leader Eli Helmuth has been guiding groups in this area of AK  annually since 1994.


RMNP, 2013:  Under our mostly dry and warm weather regime, the snowpack on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park has gained significant stability with no new significant new snow in more than 30 days as of this writing.

Unlike most other areas of the state that have a super weak depth hoar base to their snowpack, our warmer weather and higher winds have created a stronger base and so the avalanche danger on the east side of RMNP is currently confined to mostly old wind slabs in the surface layers that are a liability on steep, unsupported terrain such as Broadway on the Diamond.

Snow depths are less than half of average for this time of year in RMNP and with 20" sitting on the ground at Bear Lake (compared to 57" last year), the coverage above Dream Lake and in the upper Tyndall Gorge is less than a meter on average with too many rocks and trees still at or near the surface. 

I'm waiting for another 60cm of new snow before skiing with any gusto in the park;  luckily we have some of the best climbing in the world available so there's always plenty to do.

Ski Mountaineering on the Pika Glacier.

Rob Copolillo at the top of the second pitch M4, Field's Chimney, Longs Peak.


Michael Arnold on an alternative harder start to Alexander's Chimney taken to avoid ice fall from a party above.  Splitter granite cracks across this wall allow for safe passage depending on one's interests and abilities.  Multiple size cams are recommended as nuts are less helpful in this terrain

  Rob finding great mixed conditions on the first pitch of Field's Chimney.

Art Missirlian mixing it up on the second pitch of Silk Road M2 -R for his first mixed route while preparing for our May 2013 Peru Mountaineering Expedition.  We have space available for a few more qualified members if you are interested in visiting the Cordillera Blanca for two weeks.

   The Lambslide Couloir (45 degree snow or AI-1) with the not quite formed smear of Crazy Train (WI 5)  on the lower east face of Longs Peak. 

Avi Danger is mostly LOW in this region with pockets of CONSIDERABLE on Broadway and the upper Kieners.

New snow and high winds are forecast to hit the park over this weekend and if the Snotel Site at Bear Lake shows 6" or greater could elevate danger even greater with wind slabs presenting the highest danger in most of RMNP.  Always check the avalanche danger rating through the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before heading into the winter mountains

Dave Burns mid-couloir on the Bella of Italy's Boot, Pika Glacier, AK.

Elevation Outdoors reporter Cam Martindell  getting a lap in on the WI4+ finish to Hidden Falls which has reformed in the last week due to warmer temperatures and greater water flow in this not so hidden area of Wild Basin.

Eli getting in another lap on Smokey (M9+) at the Bear's Den, RMNP.
Photo:  Michael Arnold
The always sublimating ice of All Mixed Up in January conditions.  The slopes above, in the middle, and potentially below this route often contain higher avalanche danger due to the unsupported terrain and constant wind loading which have not yet happened this season.

   Rob Copolillo mid-crux in Alexander's Chimney (5.9 or M4+?) on the east face of Longs Peak in early December.

Perfect powder or corn conditions on our Pika Ski Mountaineering Expedition in Denali National Park, AK.  We have openings for this year's trip to this powder wonderland, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information.

alaska ski mountaineering
Ski Mountaineering in Alaska is one of our favorite trips of the year and we've still got room for a few more skiers to make the trip of a lifetime to the incredible Little Switzerland area of the Alaska Range in April of 2012.

chopicalqui peru mountain climbing
Nevado Chopicalqui (20,817')  shining in the morning sun.  
ClimbingLife Guides is offering a 14 trip to the Cordillera Blanca of Peru in May for ascents of Pisco and Chopicalqui with an itinerary based out of the mountain town of Huaraz.  Check-out the trip details here or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with questions or to sign-up for the mountaineering adventure of a lifetime.

ifmga mountain guide license         amga certified rock, alpine, and ski mountaineering guide                   
   Eli Helmuth is an UIAGM Licensed Mountain Guide and AMGA Certified Rock, Alpine, Ski Mountaineering Guide.

ClimbingLife Guides offers weekly group and private ski tours plus scheduled Backcountry Ski and Avalanche Seminars that focus on practical skills for minimizing the risks while maximizing the fun  in and around avalanche terrain.

Whether you are on skis, board,  snowshoes, or crampons, if you've already taken an avalanche course and want more practical training, check-out our Level 1 Refresher Clinic which is a mountain based day in the peaks of RMNP, dedicated to increasing your abilities in making decisions in avalanche terrain.

Contact us at:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 970.744.4898 to plan a fun-filled and educational mountain outing with Eli Helmuth, RMNP's most experienced mountain guide.  

Check-out photos from our recent trip to Ecuador here  for climbs on the mighty volcanoes which flank the Altiplano, between the Amazon Basin and Galapagos Islands of this exotic Andean nation.  We'll be returning to Ecuador in November and to the great Andes of Peru in May and September of 2012- join us!


 Photos below are only representative of common conditions, they are not current.  Consult the CAIC website for current Avalanche Danger forecasts here. 

Routes are sorted by current forecast Avalanche Danger Level:

LOW (1) Avalanche Danger as of 1/22/13 (human caused unlikely) 
Hidden Falls
 WI 4
hidden falls rocky mountain national park colorado
  IN -Fattest of the Season 

Loch Vale Ice
WI 2 to 5
 loch vale ice area
Barely IN- Low Year


Jewel Lake
WI 2 to 3
jewel lake ice
IN  and busy
with guided  groups/CMC. 

LOW (1) Avalanche Danger as of 1/22/13 (human caused unlikely)

WI 3+ to 5

jaws ice climb colorado 
OUT- too warm

WI 5

squid ice climb colorado 
OUT- too warm


Deep Freeze
WI 5

deep freeze ice climb colorado

           two hard rock versions exist through the upper crux


LOW (1) Avalanche Danger as of 1/22/13 (human caused unlikely)

NE Gully

WI 3

  northeast gully thatchtop colorado


WI 5, M5

mixed climbing colorado
OUT - sublimated

Black Lake Slabs
WI 2

 black lake slabs ice climb colorado

MODERATE (2)  Avalanche Danger as of 1/22/13  (human caused possible) 


The Crypt
WI 4

crypt ice climbing colorado 

Grace Falls
WI  3 to 5

grace falls colorado

 Columbine Falls
WI 3 to 4

colorado ice climbing columbine falls


  MODERATE (2)  Avalanche Danger as of 1/22/13  (human caused possible)

NE Gulley, Thatchtop

WI 2+
flying dutchman ice climb colorado 


All Mixed Up
WI  3,  M2
all mixed up ice climb colorado 
IN- rocky in middle


MODERATE (2)  Avalanche Danger as of 1/22/13  (human caused possible)


WI  2, M-1

martha ice climb colorado 


Hallett's Chimney
WI 5, M-4

hallett chimney colorado

OUT - usually late spring

  Field's Chimney
WI 5. M4

fields chimney ice climb colorado

MODERATE (2)  Avalanche Danger as of 1/22/13  (human caused possible)

Alexander's Chimney
WI 4, M4

colorado mixed climbing alexanders
OUT- too dry

Smear of Fear
WI 5, M5

smear of fear ice climb colorado 
OUT - never happened

New Beginnings
WI 5, M5

new beginnings ice climb colorado
could be IN?

CONSIDERABLE (3)  Avalanche Danger as of 1/22/13  (human caused likely) 


The Window
WI 5, M4

longs peak ice climbing


WI 5, M4

vanquished ice climb


Hot Doggies
WI 5+

hot doggies ice climb


  CONSIDERABLE (3) AVALANCHE DANGER as of 1/22/13  (human caused likely)  


East Face, Notchtop
WI 3+, M3

east face notchtop



Danger Level
(& Color)

Likelihood of Avalanches 

Avalanche Size and Distribution

Travel Advice

What Why Where What to Do

LOW (1)


Natural and human triggered avalanches unlikely.


Small avalanches is isolated areas or extreme terrain.
Generally safe avalanche conditions. Watch for unstable snow on isolated terrain features.



Natural avalanches unlikely. Human triggered avalanches possible.
Small avalanches in specific areas;  or large avalanches in isolated areas.


Heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features. Evaluate snow and terrain carefully;  identify features of concern.






Natural avalanches possible.
Human triggered avalanches likely.


Small avalanches in many areas;  or large avalanches in specific areas; or very large avalanches in isolated areas.
Dangerous avalanche conditions.  Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding, and conservative decision-making essential.


HIGH  (4)





Natural avalanches likely.
Human triggered avalanches very likely.




Large avalanches in many areas;  or very large avalanches in specific areas.



Very dangerous avalanche conditions. Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.




Natural and human triggered avalanches certain.


Large to very large avalanches in many areas.


Avoid all avalanche terrain.

upslope brewery boulder colorado


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