James Peak

30 Apr 2001 - by Doug Cook

The St Mary's Glacier upper parking lot was almost full at 6:30 AM. A few snowboarders and other climbers were out early. The gates at the beginning of the trail to the lake were gone and, with the trail already about melted out, it will be only a few more weeks before 4WD vehicles start being driven to the area around the lake. There are no signs that prohibit motorized vehicles on the trail to the lake. With no barrier in place, it's only a matter of time.

The snow on the glacier was solid and neither snowshoes nor crampons were required to hike up the snowfield. Two sections of fence gates had been carried up to above the cornice and set in the snow . Maybe to act as a snowfence and cause drifts which could be used for jumps? About the way up the glacier, there were three tents. With the hard wind that blew all morning until about 11:00 AM, it looked and sounded (from the loud flapping of the North Face and Marmot rainflys) like a staged tent test.

The flats above the glacier were generally covered with snow with some areas melted out. In the morning the snow was firm, but by 2 PM the snow was so wet and soft that shin deep postholing was encountered most everywhere. Jumping off the lower edge of the cornice on the hike out, the snow was so soft that I was only able to glissade about half-way down the steep face.

The long traverse below the ridge to James Peak had been traveled by someone, and although the snow seemed well consolidated, I decided not to risk the traverse (which passes below about a half mile of slopes that are over 35 degrees) and dropped down 200-300 feet on rock and scree fields. After traversing on alternating snow and rock patches about half way around to the base of the couloirs, the beautiful, intimidating couloirs on the East slopes came into view. They appeared to be well formed - maybe the last big dump of snow helped fill them out. Other than a few snowballs which had rolled down the couloirs, they were all very clean with no evidence of any rockfall. The near vertical center sections of rock on the East slopes were shedding some rock and debris with the characteristic brown stains across the snow. There was no evidence of any avalanche runouts or wet snow slides. Probably the warm weather melting, combined with some rain, had erased earlier season snow slides. There was no evidence of any of the couloirs having been climbed, and after a few minutes of weighing the risks, I decided to forget trying to climb any of the couloirs and reascend to the ridge to head for the summit of James.

Most of the ascent was by kicking steps in the softening snow on the SE slopes and scrambling on rock where possible. Eventually, I realized that a high step with the boot toes sloping downward provided a more consolidated platform to stand on than traditional 2-3 repeated kicks per step. I eventually topped out on the ridge just below where Starlight couloir meets the ridge. The ridge run to the summit of James Peak was still almost entirely covered with snow, although some sections of the trail were melted down to dirt and rock. From below, the cornices on the couloirs appeared huge and imposing. However, looking at the top of Starlight and Sky Pilot from alongside the top of the cornices, the cornices were only about 3-4 feet thick and overhanging by 2-3 feet. The cornice at the top of Super Star looks very similar to the photo in Gerry Roach's Indian Peaks guidebook. Maybe someday...

After a few minutes of complete solitude on James Peak with the wind having died to barely a warm breeze, it was time to head down. After a fun glissade off the toe of the SE slopes, and the long slog back across Jamaica flats, I arrived back at the top of the Glacier and plunge stepped/post holed down to James Lake.


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