BETA PHOTO: The 'amphitheater' along the west side of Mt. Crai...
For too long the west side of RMNP has been overlooked by ice climbers, largely due to long approaches & deep snowpack. The unassuming 12,001 ft Mt Craig has been no exception. This, however, may soon change. There are a half dozen climbs along the northwest aspect of this mountain that deserve attention, many of which are destined to be classics for the park. These may not have been visited by ice climbers until 2002, but without a doubt many more will soon be discovered. These climbs cater to the adventurous souls who enjoy the solitude of a long approach as much as the reward of climbing a line that few have ever seen. Early season is recommended both to avoid the hurculean approach that can be required with deeper snowpack as well as to minimize the threat of avalanche, which can be extreme. Knowledge of the trail in summer conditions can make the approach more feasible in deeper snow and was ultimately necessary for us to find some of the better climbs. The quality of the routes here is equaled only by the variety of formations. Mulitipitch staircase climbs, a 150 ft vertical smear, chimney and pillar climbs are all found within a half-mile of each other. Like so many other backcountry routes, the climbs here are not always straightforward and the quality of ice can be impossible to gauge until your picks are in the ice.
There is a good reason this area has been overlooked: location. To find this area, head N on US 40 over Berthoud Pass to Granby. Head NE on US 34 to Grand Lake. Follow the West Portal Rd to the West Portal/East Inlet Trailhead. The approach starts as an easy walk that follows an obvious trail along the northern edge of the East Inlet. After about 15 minutes the trail meets a meadow which is one of the only places where the routes can be spotted (see beta photo). The trail then slowly climbs for 3 miles to reach a great viewpoint then drops down a staired stretch to the bottom of the valley. At this point the trail veers north and climbs up again along the base of Mt Craig. About 3 miles in as the trail turns to the north, a 2 pitch swath of yellow-tinted ice can occasionally be seen on the flank of Mt Craig at the base of an obvious west facing drainage. Near this point, the trail intermittently parallels two streams as it heads north. A couple hundred yards past the second bridge, but well before 'the privy', cut off trail and contour up the base of the mountain heading south for about 400 yards. Eventually you will come to a large open slide path 200 yards below the base of the climb. The final approach can be exhausting through snow pack that can be chest deep.
Further up the trail, about 4.5 miles from the trailhead is 'the privy'. From this point four of the best climbs are only a few hundred yards to the southeast, but are hidden by a prominent rock band. Follow the trail from 'the privy' as it heads south for 150 yards until the trail cuts back sharply to the north. At this point continue hiking off trail to the south, contouring up to and along the rock band, (see beta photo) through a short, narrow gully to an open boulder field. Suddenly, the ice becomes visible in a hidden ampitheater. Just past the east end of Lone Pine Lake a wide 350 ft WI3+ climb can be seen. This obvious north facing climb boasts the easiest of all the approaches, but the equality of the ice can be deceptively challenging. Across the valley along the SW slopes of Andrews Peak, another dozen or more ice lines can be spotted, several up to 4 pitches in length. Unfortunately these are fleeting as most are sundrenched in blue skies. On a good day the approach will take three hours. Later in the season, the trail may be impossible to follow and approach times can easily be doubled. Snowshoes are a must and an overnight stay at the Gray Jay group site is highly recommended. For late fall & winter camping, you must obtain a backcountry permit from the Kauwenechee Visitor Center. 970.586.1513 or 970.586.1521. These are free after Nov 1. After the long hike out reward yourself with a bucket of peanuts and a burger at Sagebrush on mainstreet in Grand Lake.
This 2 pitch beauty can be found immediately left of Smear and Loathing several hundred yards above 'the privy' and the Gray Jay group campsite. The ice here is visible briefly from over 4 miles away where the trail meets a meadow, but not again until you enter a small, hanging amphitheater (with 3 other climbs) about 200 yards from the ice. Allow 45 minutes for the final approach as you contour up and around a prominent rock band (see approach pics and description to the amphitheat...[more]Browse More Classics in CO
Have had some questions on the Mt Craig area, but still having some problems linking to that page. This posting may help link to it directly. Lots of quality ice here, some still waiting to be plucked.