The alarm went off at 3:30 am yesterday. I generally dislike alpine starts…and I especially dislike doing them from the comfort of my own home. Regardless, we leapt up, downed some cereal, threw the packs in the car and drove to the Glacier Gorge trailhead. By 4:30 am we were hiking…2.8 miles to Mills Lake passed quickly, though my lack of fitness was apparent as I stumbled along the hardpacked snow. The sky was beautiful, Orion to the southwest and the Big Dipper shining brightly towards the northeast. Our timing was good; we arrived at Mills Lake just as the sun brightened the sky in the east, giving us a pre-dawn view of our route.
Holy approach! All Mixed Up is located high on the shoulder of Thatchtop Mountain – and it is no easy jaunt up from Mills Lake. We found a faint bootpack trail up from the lake, and struggled up the thousand or so vertical feet of steep bushwacking to the base of the route.
We were pretty torched by that point – first alpine route of the season…heck, first hike of more than a couple of miles that we’d done in a long while. We racked up, soaking up the sun at the base of the route. Another party appeared on the trail below; no big deal. Two parties on the route is far better than the 12 that could be expected on a weekend day with conditions as relatively fat as they were.
Apryle took the first lead, 50 meters or so up a thin WI2+ slab. The climbing wasn’t too hard, just pyschologically difficult; as every screw that she placed bottomed out against rock….even the 10cm stubbies. The other party led a line further to the left as Apryle climbed. She arrived at the ledge below P2 and set up an anchor. I was getting cold belaying, as the sun had gone behind the ridgeline to the left…not to be seen again by us until the next morning.
The other party started up the second pitch as I seconded Apryle in my down parka. The lead had stretched her a bit and she was cold and miserable. I really wanted to continue, being as we had done all that work on the approach and didn’t want to repeat it anytime soon to tick this classic line. We hung out at the belay, shivering and talking with the second from the other party. He was relatively inexperienced, having not touched ice in at least a few years. His gear was vintage: straight-shafted BD X15 tools with picks filed down to the fifth or sixth tooth, first generation Foot Fang crampons with the tiniest nubbins left as frontpoints. He had actually led the first pitch, scaring me a bit as he girth hitched a skinny dyneema sling to a bottomed out screw with less than 2cm sticking out of the ice. Bad idea. At the belay, he cleaned the ice out of his screw cores by banging the threads against his ice axe head.
Anyhow, as he prepared to second the pitch, I asked him nicely to yell nice and loud if he knocked any ice off…because if he took more than fifteen or twenty minutes seconding, I may end up leading below him. He agreed and started off. Not fifteen feet off the belay, he knocked a huge chunk off and caught it between his body and the ice. He looked around and dropped it without a word. I shouted up, “Look, if you knock ice like that off again and don’t call it, I’m going to come after you with an ice axe.” Neither the kind approach or my threat worked….he continued to knock football sized chunks down on us for the rest of the day without so much as a yelp of warning to the parties below. Unbelievably inconsiderate.
Anyhow, Apryle wanted to turn back, she was willing to continue for another pitch and see how we both felt then. I started up the second pitch in grand style, clenching my tools for all I was worth, holding my breath, standing up so far on my toes that my crampon points sheared out. It was a mess, especially as the pitch began with an intimidating curtain about 8 feet high. With two decent screws beneath me, I struggled my way past the curtain, tools flopping almost uselessly in my pumped hands, and realized that I was going to have to seriously pull it together if I was to finish this pitch safely. The hardest part looked to be over…but there were still two significant bulges left in my path. I placed a good screw and started to move up and left, following the path of least resistance. Which unfortunately turned out to be the path of thinnest ice, as well. Several times, my swings were greeted by the a sickening “clang!” as the tool bounced off the rock below.
The ice looked thicker further up and left, so I continued beyond the thin ice, bashing my way through several hollow sections of ice over snow. At one point, I knocked off a huge sheet and cleared the snow away beneath, only to have my stick in the ice below resound with a hollow “dong!”
I reached a decision point high and left. Further left was low agle, but seriously lacking in ice. Having no idea what to expect above the black rock steps, I looked right. There was another steep curtain, not at high as the first, but hollow behind and very steep. I took stock of my protection – a 16cm and 22cm screw were all that remained of the 8 that I had started the pitch with, and I had a small spread of rock gear as well. I breathed deeply for a few minutes and let my arms depump, choosing between the curtain and retreat. I placed my 16cm screw and moved up, testing the ice. The curtain was steep, but I reached high and snapped my tool into the ice above the bulge. Thunk. Plastic ice. I felt a deep relief, stepped up, sunk my other tool higher, and pulled through the bulge. The pitch was done…just a short slab between me and a belay.
I looked for rock pro for the anchor, but there were no placements to be had. So I sunk both tools as heartily as I could, sunk the 22cm to the hilt, and equalized the whole mess. I pulled up the remaining 10 feet of rope and called out “Apryle, you’re on belay!”
She sent the pitch without problem, despite the bombardment of ice from the inconsiderate party above. I belayed in my fleece, heart still beating strongly from my last lead. I was very pleased to have pulled in together, kept my cool, and finished the pitch safely….even though I only was able to place 7 screws in 200 feet. Apryle arrived at the belay at about 2:30 pm. She led up the moderate snowfield above and brought me up to a comfy stance below the final headwall.
No way. We were pumped, it was already late in the day, and there was no reason to push our limits any further. After eating, drinking, packing up most of our gear, and chatting with the party behind us for a few minutes, we skirted left and escaped onto the descent route. The descent was pretty mellow, with one or two spicy spots featuring some exposure over rock slabs and frozen moss.
Picking our way back down to Mills Lake took forever. I’ve never been so tired from 12 hours of work in my life. The sun had set on our descent, and we broke out headlamps at the lake as clouds hid the almost full moon for most of our hike down. We discussed the day for the 2.8 mile hike out, deciding that we had both pushed to our limits and almost beyond, but made the right decisions. No injuries, no arguments, and both of us lead our hardest ice leads ever on a rad alpine route. A good day…with some good lessons. We were not ready for the whole route. Had it been roadside, no problem. But after the approach, we simply didn’t have the entire route in us. We were somewhat cavalier about the route….despite its relatively fearsome reputation, we choose it for our first alpine outing in a while without a second thought. And we aren’t in the kind of shape that allows climbers to do that.
So we had a great day and learned our limits. We probably won’t be back up to All Mixed Up for at least a year, but we will crank hard on some of the other local ice routes, at Ouray, and Cody this year. And if our performance yesterday is any indication, it is going to be a good ice season in Colorado!