I've been there in the Summer when the tarns sparkle blue and the early Autumn when the huckleberries are plump and ripe. I've seen last season's snow melting into electric blue rings around the lakes and the first dusting of the new season's snow foretell of the harshness of Winter.
But I'd never been to Rampart Ridge when the landscape was covered in massive, smooth slopes of snow. Until now.
It's true, this was not a Winter ascent. That will have to wait. It was my first Spring ascent, though. The first time snowshoes were a good idea and avalanche danger was something to really consider.
The road to the trailhead was devoid of snow. This caught both me and Matt by surprise. I actually had tire chains in the back with the dogs just in case. Clearly I was expecting too much. After all, it was forecast to get to 64°F at the trailhead even if it was 32°F when we started at 6:15am.
The first portion of the trail had spotty snow. Not a lot, just enough to make me wonder if I carrying my snowshoes was folly. By the time we were at Lake Lillian we were postholing to our ankles and I felt good about my decision.
The lake was still frozen, though a couple of holes near the edges belied an early thaw. There's no way it'll last another two and a half months like it did last year. The set of tracks we had followed up to this point had taken a few hesitant steps onto the surface and then retreated.
In snowshoes I hardly left any impression in the hard snow at all. The dogs left minor marks. With just boots, Matt left distinguishable footprints. Viewing the shores I'd visited so many times before from mid-lake was like seeing a whole new place. It left me wanting to bring a float tube up in Summer for a long weekend.
On the far shore the "Gully of Doom," so named by Henry on his weekend in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, was our primary concern for avalanches. It had all the characteristics of the kind of place we wouldn't want to be if the snow was unstable. However, there wasn't much snow there and what was present was still hard from the night's freeze.
At the top of the gully we were rewarded with snow-covered meadows and distant peaks. Thanks to years of trips through the area we were able to plot a route that avoided the terrain traps while still staying on course past the major tarns (all frozen) to the final summit ridge.
Along the way I was rewarded for my labor on the dry trail below Lake Lillian as my snowshoes sank only a few inches in the snow. Matt and the dogs weren't so lucky. I'm used to looking up at the butts of the hikers climbing in front of me because I'm built for endurance, not speed. With snowshoes, though, I was able to float across the surface while Matt punched through the crust with every step.
By the time we were at the summit block the dogs' dogs were barking, so to speak. The final few feet up Rampart Ridge are usually a scramble up a series of rock steps. When it's wet it's slick. I'd never tried it covered in snow. I took off my snowshoes far too early and pushed through waist-deep snow to the base of the rocks. The dogs needed only a little boost to get their four-paw-drive engaged. I was forced into some creative ice axing to get purchase before I could get onto firm snow.
It's amazing what a mere 20 feet of elevation can mean to your perspective. Or maybe it's the subtle increase in dopamine that's released when I attain a summit. Whatever it is, looking out over the Rampart Lakes and the peaks to the east I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the vista.
Too soon we had to head down. It had taken twice as long as usual to get to the summit thanks to the snow and although going down would be a lot faster it wasn't going to be quick. The snow was quickly softening under the midmorning sun. There were no rollers or other outward signs of instability, but we weren't interested in waiting around for it to get unsafe.
The Gully of Doom was a mess of rock, slush, and mud. Matt put it best when he described my descent as, "the unglamorous side of snowshoeing." The lake's surface was softening, but the ice beneath was still plenty thick for us to cross. I kept my snowshoes on until I couldn't take the bone-chilling sound of steel crampons on rocks any longer and then slipped and slid for the last few 100 feet before the trail was mostly bare.
Now that I've visited Rampart Ridge in three of the four seasons it's abundantly clear that I need to plan an epic multi-day trip there next Winter. The only trick will be finding someone foolish enough to go with me. And reminding them to bring snowshoes. (Sorry, Matt. I couldn't resist.)