Winter camping at Lake Helene, RMNP

Discussion in 'Backpacking' started by Wanderlust073, Mar 9, 2018.

  1. Wanderlust073

    Wanderlust073 Member .

    This trip had become something of a backpacking white whale for me. I'd been eager to try winter backpacking and Rocky Mountain NP seemed a safe-ish destination for a first-timer. Only a couple hours from home, plenty of people milling about within a few hours of pretty much any spot I'd want to visit, and rangers and rescue relatively close at hand in case things went sideways.

    Shortly after the New Year there was a nice window of weather forecast so I took a Friday off and ran up to the park. The weather looked good enough that I brought a regular 3-season tent, albeit an older 2-man that I thought would provide some extra room and stand up to conditions better than the ultralight Copper Spur.

    Between confirming the pleasant forecast Thursday night and checking in with the wilderness office Friday morning, things took a radical turn. The winds were screaming when I parked at Bear Lake, and it was immediately obvious that I was under-geared. I spent a few hours messing around, but ultimately bailed out and headed back home.

    This would be a recurring and utterly frustrating theme, and one that drove home all the sayings you might have heard about fickle mountain weather. With a bit of government incompetence to break the monotony, the additional planned outings went like this:

    2nd attempt - the government shutdown
    3rd attempt - nice weather night before, 90mph gusts forecast upon waking
    4th attempt - nice weather night before, pulled off highway about 45 minutes into the drive in order to scrape the ice off my windshield/headlights and turned around

    So this was my 5th attempt! Finally the forecast held (initially) and I arrived to a pleasantly warm day under Colorado bluebird skies. Temperatures were in the low 40's at the Bear Lake trailhead, and winds were forecast to stay under 40mph gusts above 10,000 feet.

    Bear Lake is a zoo no matter the day or season, so I didn't bother taking any photos until I was about half way in to the hike. The route is a little over 3 miles one way, with most of the thousand feet of elevation up to 10,600ft slogged out in the first mile or so of pleasant forest hiking.


    The snow was a few feet deep from the start. A narrow packed trail had been pounded out for most of the way, though stepping off it by just a few inches would result in a thigh-deep posthole.

    Eventually you start moving through more open areas and the park starts delivering the views. Here Hallett Peak makes an appearance.



    The park's map for the winter trail version of this route is dotted with 'high avalanche risk' markings. I had been told there hasn't been an avalanche in the area for as long as the park has been around. I don't know if that's true or not or if the park's lawyers had a hand in marking up the maps. Still, a number of areas that the path ran across were on or under slopes far steeper than 40 degrees, and the entire trip basically rides a north facing slope for the duration.


    Apparently a favorite with backcountry skiers, this is Banana Bowl. The winds picked up here. I also switched to snow shoes, in large part because the winds and blowing snow made it very difficult to pick out where the hard pack would be found.


    One of the interesting aspects of winter camping at RMNP is that they expressly forbid you from using the camp sites you are otherwise forced into the rest of the year. You get a permit for a drainage and are free to camp anywhere else within it. So while this trail would normally bring you past the Sourdough campsite, the winter version of it drops down in to the drainage and beelines towards the lakes beneath Notchtop and Flattop.

    A couple miles in and Notchtop rises on the horizon.


    A few more sketchy slopes to cross. They look mellow in the pics, but I brought an inclinometer app (noob trying to learn) and they measured steeper than 35 degrees in spots. This one and the one past it appear to be talus fields, so maybe that makes the snow pack more secure.


    Nearing the lakes the trail follows the bottom of the drainage itself.



    Captain Ahab cracks a grin as the whale is now within reach.


    Two Rivers lake is the first of a series of lakes sitting below this area of peaks. Notchtop is in the background, Flattop is out of frame on the left. The lakes are frozen solid.


    A look back across Two Rivers lake.


    With a late start and a lot of stopping to look around, I arrived at Lake Helene with a couple hours of daylight left. Snow here was piled up in large drifts, and the low points were still over five feet deep. The wind was kicking up quite a bit and skies were clouding over, and I knew based on what I'd gone through just trying to get here that the forecast the rangers had given me for the night and the next day (mellow temps, sunny, low winds) was out the window already.

    I had brought a shovel along and dug out a tent platform. After getting blown out of the park on my first attempt back in January, I'd ordered up a solution to my tent problem and purchased a Hilleberg Allak, 2-person 4-season tent. Stupidly expensive, but they have a reputation for being portable bomb shelters and I plan to get my money's worth out of it.


    I thought I had a pretty good wall of (living) trees around me and a decent snow berm on one side.


    This was the big sunset moment... Unfortunately this trip didn't deliver much eye-candy as far as golden hour photos.


    True to what I had read, everything took a lot longer than normal. Getting the camp site prep'd and the tent set up, melting snow and then waiting for what seemed an eternity for it to boil so I could make dinner and drinks - before I knew it I was sitting inside my tent in the dark.

    Overnight was quite the experience. I learned that my go-to NeoAir Xlite pad was warm enough to use on snow but, unlike warmer times when dropping an elbow or a foot off the narrow pad doesn't really do much harm, falling off the thing and touching the 'ground' was immediately a very bad (cold) thing. I toss and turn a lot while sleeping so I was falling off it constantly. It won't be making another winter trip.

    While that wasn't so bad, I ultimately ended up getting less than two hours sleep due to the wind. About 1:30am the winds changed. Things would be dead still, in the distance I could hear a roar growing louder and louder, and then a freight train would just pummel the tent. Over the next few hours, this would repeat two or three times a minute. The tent held up fine, I never had to go tighten guy lines or anything, but my god the racket. So, so loud.

    At 5:30 I stopped pretending there'd be any sleeping that night, and got up to try and catch some sunrise photos. I cracked open one side of the tent and saw gray skies behind and snow falling in front of Notchtop. Looking east out the other vestibule, it looked like there might be some hope. So I got myself together and ventured out.

    The picture below (I believe this is Little Matterhorn) is the entirety of the morning's show. For a fleeting few minutes a ray of dawn light broke through the clouds and lit the face of the mountain north of me. That's Lake Odessa sitting at its base.


    I had hoped to get a better picture of Grace Falls (the blue patch of ice seen below). Grace Falls is an accumulation of frozen seep that builds up over the winter. This winter has had so many warm days that a lot of freeze/thaw has resulted in an abnormally large 'falls'. It's a stunning cold blue in color, but probably not looking its best under the flat gray light of the coming snowstorm.


    So I packed my things up. Temps had warmed to 20F, but the wind was still screaming. I was happy to get moving just to stay warm.

    The hike out was a very different scene than the day before.


    Notchtop had nearly disappeared as I turned to take a look back.


    All signs of the trail had been scoured away overnight.


    What a crazy day to be hiking through this winter squall in the morning, and then 4 hours later driving around in near 70 degree weather under blue skies wondering if I should pop the tops off my Jeep.


    I'm very glad I finally got to do this. I hope to break in to actual mountaineering at some point, so I was happy to get some backcountry alpine experience in conditions like these.

    Trip vid:

    Last edited: Mar 10, 2018
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  2. Perry

    Perry Formerly Cuberant .

    Morgan, UT
    Awesome adventure! Your picture of Little Matterhorn is beautiful!

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
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  3. wsp_scott

    wsp_scott Member .

    Lexington KY
    Cool trip, glad you finally crossed it off your list.

    I really like the sunrise photo, looks like a beautiful morning for a little bit at least
    Wanderlust073 likes this.
  4. Miya

    Miya Because I am able. .

    Lodi, CA
    Sounds like a rough day and night of sleep. Hopefully it was all worth it to get your white whale. :)
  5. Wanderlust073

    Wanderlust073 Member .

    Nah just a rough night, the rest was great!
    Miya likes this.
  6. Shirt357

    Shirt357 Member .

    How do you like the tent? Also... what shovel do you take? Assuming it packs down?
    Thanks for the great TR!
  7. gnwatts

    gnwatts Member .

    Great report.
    I like your tent.
    Wanderlust073 likes this.
  8. Jackson

    Jackson I like to go outside. .

    Salt Lake City
    This is so awesome. Motivates me to get out and try a winter backpacking trip, after I get a warmer sleeping bag. Haha.
  9. Wanderlust073

    Wanderlust073 Member .

    Mammut Alugator Light

    Worked great. Tent also worked as advertised. No complaints, other than I wish they dipped all the metal zipper pulls in rubber to cut down on the racket when it's getting beat on.
  10. Wanderlust073

    Wanderlust073 Member .

    Hope you do! It was fun, and now I don't feel like I'm sidelined for part of the year.
    Jackson likes this.
  11. Dave

    Dave Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey" .

    Hearty stuff! That sunrise shot was worth it, even if was the only keeper from the morning in your mind. And I'm surprised you didn't make a go of it during the shutdown, since rangers weren't patrolling. Keeping to the letter of the law or did the lack of safety margin hold you back?
  12. Wanderlust073

    Wanderlust073 Member .

    I don't think they patrol up there in the winter at all. They had no beta to share and asked if I could stop in on my way out to update them.

    I guess it didn't really occur to me to gate crash the place, lol.
    Dave likes this.
  13. SteveR

    SteveR Member

    Nice trip report- although being a skier I feel obligated to advocate for my preferred mode of transport;)
    Although- the extensive wind scouring evident would indicate less than ideal ski conditions!
    We hiked to Bear Lake and some lakes beyond on our visit to RMNP in September 2011, it was certainly a zoo then even on a weekday.
    As you mention being a "noob" wanting to learn more, some thoughts on this:

    "A few more sketchy slopes to cross. They look mellow in the pics, but I brought an inclinometer app (noob trying to learn) and they measured steeper than 35 degrees in spots. This one and the one past it appear to be talus fields, so maybe that makes the snow pack more secure."

    While it can be true that the larger rocks often found on such slopes can be anchor points for a snow slab, in continental snow climates especially, such as at RMNP and here in Alberta- they can also often be zones of weakness that may offer easier trigger points for a slide, due to a localized shallower snowpack around the rocks that is prone to faceting (aka to some as "sugar snow"). Like so many aspects of avalanche safety- there is often no easy answer. After 30 years of backcountry skiing I sometimes still feel like a noob, as there is always something to learn!
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2018
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  14. Wanderlust073

    Wanderlust073 Member .

    I did pass a few folks on skis. Skis haven't made it on my buy list yet ;)

    Thanks for the avalanche info!