With finals just around the corner, my friends and I decided to take advantage of our last free weekend together. I suggested a backpacking trip to St. Mary’s Glacier, just North of Idaho Springs. It’s not a particularly difficult hike, and my friends and I have skied and hiked the glacier many times, but none of us had ever spent the night. Although Saint Mary’s (and Colorado in general) doesn’t have the most reliable weather forecasts, the weather looked docile on our chosen weekend. We decided to go for it.
Two of my friends, Henry and Jack, wanted to ski Vail Pass the morning after our excursion. The third, Jake, had to be back in Denver for work the next day, so I volunteered to miss out on the ski trip and drive separately to make sure Jake could tag along. The two of us arrived first and decided to head up and scout for a campsite.
As we started up the slick slope of the glacier, the wind started to pick up. Ice crystals whipped up into our faces, and the wind cut straight through our fleeces. Eventually, we spotted a ledge up and to our right. It appeared to be sheltered from the wind, offering a cushy campsite with killer views of the glacial valley sprawling behind us. We needed to climb a steeper pitch to get there, but it looked manageable, so we started up towards the ledge.
As we climbed, however, we realized our mistake. By the time we reached the ledge we had in mind, the snowpack was so firm that I had to chop footholds into the ice with my axe for Jake to follow up without slipping. He’s a good climber though, and made it up without much difficulty. When we finally stepped up to our supposed camp ledge, we were greeted with a defiant blast of wind, and a highly slanted hard-pack slope. We couldn’t sleep here.
To get back onto the glacier below us, we had to follow a steep traverse along the northern rim. As we chopped, kicked, and slogged along through the ice, Henry and Jack came into view below, cruising by on much easier terrain while laughing and waving up at us. By the time we got to the top of the glacier, Jake and I were exhausted. We had surrendered our hour and a half head start, reaching the end of the traverse only minutes ahead of our friends.
Soon we were all plowing up the last incline of the day together. Without much effort, we found a great spot to spend the night. A cluster of boulders offering ample wind protection would become our home for the night. We moved in and pitched our tents among the hallways of the jumbled rock formation.
Once we set up camp, we prepared our dinner. While we only had a single-burner stove to work with, so we assembled a hodge-podge multicultural backcountry feast of mashed potatoes, smoked sausage, guacamole, ramen, pulled pork, and pasta. We gorged ourselves like predators of the Serengeti, forgetting our stiff legs and cold toes. With full bellies, we kicked back, sipped some glacially-chilled beers, and watched the billions of stars above us hover over the glow of Denver’s distant circuitry. We fell asleep to the howling wind whipping through the peaks and valleys of the Front Range. In that moment there were no finals, no school, no work. Just snow, sleeping bags, wind, friends, and the Colorado Rockies lifting us up above everything else.
Planning a glacial sleepover of your own? Here's a few pieces of absolutely essential gear to pack with you:
- Crampons or microspikes
- Mountaineering axe
- MS020 Hooded Down Jacket / MSW001 Down Jacket
- 0° Down Sleeping Bag
- MS018 Utility Blanket
- MS400 Thermal Beanie
- Bulleit Bourbon Whiskey
You can find Field Agent Alec Walsh on the beach in California, at a crag near Denver, or anywhere there's free food. For more, check out his website: WaterAndRocks.com. For information on how to become a Mountain Standard Field Agent, click here.