Ogalalla via Cony Express: Class 3, Steep Snow

      by Gordon S. Novak Jr.       July 10-11, 2000

My plan was to camp at Bluebird Lake and climb Ouzel Peak and Ogalalla, perhaps Isolation too if I had some spare time (yeah, right). The ranger at Wild Basin said I could get the camping permit right there. But when I go back, the Bluebird Lake camp site is taken; the only thing available in the whole area is a cross-country zone above Pear Lake. The Gerry Roach guidebook lists a route up Ogalalla via "Cony Express: Class 3, steep snow". There are several cautions in that: Gerry Roach has climbed Everest, so if he calls snow steep, it probably is; and things named "Express" are famed for sending people downwards very fast. But I decide to try it; I'm not afraid to turn back if things get too dangerous.
I set off on the Finch Lake trail rather late in the afternoon, at 17:54. The ranger at Wild Basin said a cougar had been spotted on the road earlier that day. I hope I'm too big for a cougar to mess with, but nevertheless I turn 360 degrees occasionally to make sure I'm not being followed. Finch lake is still, lovely and deserted, with just a solitary elk grazing on the other side. It's 20:00, so I push on, hoping to reach Pear Lake before dark. I get there at 21:05, just at dark; two others are camped at the lake. I pump some water through my filter in the dark, head uphill into the cross-country zone, and set up a quick camp when I find a flat spot.
I've taken just an ultra-light bag, rated for 40 degrees, and an OR "standard" bivy sack -- no frills, just a sack. It turns out that these are just about right, and I sleep pretty soundly. I awaken thinking someone is sitting on me and straddling me with their legs. Of course there is nobody there; it is just the confines of the bivy sack I'm feeling. I boil some oatmeal for breakfast and set off at 10:15. The hike up the valley to Cony Lake is easy and pleasant, with grass, spring flowers, and a nice stream most of the way. I pass by Elk Tooth, a dramatic peak off to the left.
I arrive at the base of the southern Cony Express and the moment of truth: do I really want to do this thing? I decide to go ahead because the runout looks good: lots of rocks that have fallen off the mountain have come to rest on the snow, so hopefully if I fall it won't be too bad (except for all those rocks on the snow ...).
There is a large rock island in the center of the Cony Express; it looks climbable. If I climb it, I can go the rest of the way on snow above it and thus reduce the exposure. I climb up onto the rock island, but quickly discover that this isn't going to work: the rock is steeper than it looked, and it is totally wet, dripping, and slippery with snowmelt. I am going to have to go back onto the snow. As I sit resting for a moment, alone in a deserted corner of the Park, what do I see beside me but a couple of slimy plastic bags left by a previous climber. I gingerly put them into a ziplock trash bag to pack them out. The snow of Cony Express looks like about 40 degrees.
There is a big horizontal line near the top: a crevasse or something; I don't want to go there. Looking up and across the couloir, I see rock that looks climbable (where have we heard this before?). I go up the snow, using crampons and an ice axe self-belay, then step onto the rock. Naturally, it is steeper than it looked; worse, the rock is in down-sloping layers that are badly fractured, so that every hand or foot hold is waiting to break off, slip on the layer below, and send me whooshing down the Express. I am climbing with one crampon off and one on. The ice axe, a moment ago my friend and protector, is now a clumsy impediment and sometimes aid tool. I climb up until I can straddle a ridge; that gives me a chance to rest and secure the crampons and ice axe to my pack, being careful not to drop anything.
There is only one more crux move; then the climbing will be easier. The move isn't hard if I can just find holds that aren't broken. Finally I find and test some holds, make the move, and I am up. I have gone from hell to heaven in just a few steps: from steep, broken, exposed rock to a flat, grassy tundra meadow with flowers. I take a few pictures of the top of the Express and head for Ogalalla, an easy half mile away, reaching the summit at 17:23. About 40 people have signed the trail register in the last year, more than I expected.

I plan to go down via Bluebird Lake. On the way I tag the summit of Ouzel Peak at 18:55; with a good line-of-sight to Allenspark, it's a good place to call my wife and tell her where I am and that, as usual, I'll be getting home late.

The talus down is steep and unstable. After descending and crossing over the talus for a while, I descend on moderate snowfields without bothering to put on crampons. Suddenly I slip and am sliding down the snow. There isn't any danger since the snow is not steep and there isn't much distance until the rocks; it seems funny. Then I think, "I have slipped on snow, I should self-arrest." So I turn over into the self-arrest position; the pick of my ice axe plows up the mushy snow without slowing me down much at all, and I hit the rocks with my boots, laugh, and go on.

It is not long until dark, so I hasten on down toward Bluebird Lake. Having been this way before, I know how to avoid most of the krummholz. It gets dark as I get on top of the ridge overlooking Bluebird Lake. There is good moonlight, and I am surprised at how well I can manage another descent over talus with just moonlight. Finally near the lake I break out the flashlight; I reach the lake at 20:30. I take a pit stop at the Bluebird Lake outhouse (or without-house: minus the house, it is just out [this privy has since been removed]) and try to go fast down the trail, although I'm pretty tired at this point. I call my wife again from the burned area above Ouzel Lake and tell her I will be even later; it turns out that I am 45 minutes later than that estimate, and she is not happy about waiting in the middle of the night. Near the trailhead there is a deer mouse in the trail; it doesn't flee, but just goes about its business. Finally I am back at 01:50, exhausted but with a very memorable trip behind me.

Rocky Mountain National Park: The High Peaks