2 am alarm and another bleary eyed drive past Estes Park to a quiet and empty parking lot, save for my partners car. We stow puffies and hide car keys. I take one of the ropes and a stash of cams and shove them into my pack. It's always much heavier once the rope has to come along. A few minutes of hiking along the dark trail and the snow becomes continuous thanks to a fresh dump of another couple feet a few days before. Kevin dons skis and skins and begins to shush up the trail. The winter short cut trails are still firm and we follow a creek up the valley. It doesn't take long to reach our first lake and here my eyes grow green. Skis leave almost no trace of their passage while I immediately start to sink in the untracked snow. I boot straight across the lake until I reach the outlet of the following lake and punch through. Looking in the hole I see water. Damn. Then the other foot goes in. Crap. I jump out and find some firmer ground. Luckily I was wearing the gaiters today and my feet are mostly dry. I dig out the slowshoes and strap them on. We have a long way to go and I was foolish hoping not to need them.
With no trail we begin to follow the winter route towards Black Lake. A minor wrong turn and soon we're once again following the creek. Kevin leads the way and before long headlamps grow unnecessary. Sadly we must break away from the easy route and soon begin our climb up to Solitude Lake. A monster hill looms above us as we wind our way through the trees and small cliffs towards our destination. After too many self created switchbacks we reach the bench below the lake. While the hours long approach was brutal, the reward is access to a place very few people probably venture in these conditions.
I find Kevin sitting under a boulder, eating and starring at our objective; the north face of Arrowhead and a route called Sister Sweetly. Rarely climbed but supposedly reasonable for our skills. Kevin was just here climbing a route to the left, the Hourglass Couloir. They found difficult conditions but his pictures and the previous week's weather had left us optimistic. Reality found us feeling differently. We pieced together a line up the face but even if we were generous on what we thought might be ice, we couldn't make the top section go. Apparently the whole route ices up sometimes but not this day.
Our next surprise came during our silent contemplation of what to do next. Tink tink tink. Though it was early and still cool, the sound of rock and ice fall was unmistakable and continuous. Some careful scanning of the wall nailed the location right near our 2nd option couloir. Great. In fact the sounds of the face cleaning itself would continue non-stop the entire time we were in the cirque.
I think both of us had the wind taken out of our sails a bit but we rallied up a new plan, to go quickly solo our intended descent route and at least summit Arrowhead. On our hike over we spied another gully that looked shorter but nicely inset and shaded. A quick walk back to grab some protection and we soloed up the approach slope, set a belay, flaked the rope and...
almost immediately got shut down again. The powder cone from all the sloughs was so deep it was almost unclimbable and certainly not very fun. After a valiant swimming effort we decided today was not our day.
Time to coil the rope and go home.
It wasn't a total waste of time of course, views like this are worth all the effort and we spied lines all over worth of future exploration.
We post holed back to our boulder and cache of stuff, ate a bit more food and prepared to head back to town.
Skis and snowshoes were waiting for the descent and I got a head start knowing that Kevin would catch me quickly while he glided and I slogged.
Longs and the Trough were looking nice. The wind was light and we both realized that we had just chosen wrong this morning. We should have been up climbing keyhole ridge (a primarily rock route). Lesson learned for future trips.
Goodbye Solitude Lake, I'll be back.
The walk out went quickly but I was still jealous of the skis. Luckily thanks to a friend I will have my own pair of approach skis very soon. At least the views continued to be excellent while postholeing to my waist in snowshoes.
Once across the fast melting lake we began to run into the hiking crowds again.
This meant packed trails and a good bye to my snowshoes.
We clicked off the remaining miles to the car and headed into Estes for some lunch and a beer to drown our sorrows. Conversation already included talk of a return trip.