We slipped through the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park before 6:00 to avoid the fee and made our way up to the Bear Lake Trailhead. The weather and avalanche forecasts were suspect, but we all wanted to get to the mountains after a moderate hiatus. The area got dumped on the previous weekend and snowshoes were needed from the start of the hike. Brian suggested a moderate gully on the north face of Flattop Mountain as our objective. We followed a packed snowshoe trail and ski track all the way to Lake Helene. The snow was the consistency of mashed potatoes. My blood sugar levels were high all morning, so I didn't eat anything for the first two hours of the hike. I quickly bonked and was ready to throw in the towel for the day due to not feeling well at the time, deteriorating weather, and questionable snow conditions.
Kevin told me to slam some energy gel, and Brian suggested we at least hike to the base of the route. I started off again, but remained at a slow pace. I quickly stopped again for some more food while Kevin and Brian patiently waited for me. I finally recovered fairly well after about 15 minutes as the weather began to clear. Once above Lake Helene, we saw two skiers above us heading for the apron of the Ptarmigan Fingers. Brian and Kevin identified our objective further east of the Fingers, so we hiked to the mouth of Flattop Couloir and geared up. We were all skeptical of conditions which were variable in the couloir. Some areas were good neve while other required some wallowing. Since it was colder at a higher elevation and the route was north facing, snow conditions were generally acceptable.
We took turns kicking steps and were actually enjoying the climb with some spectacular views of Notchtop Mountain. We approached a split in the climb, and due to some larger snow fields above us in both directions we opted to climb a narrow chimney between the Y in the couloir. There was a rock step in the chimney we negotiated and then after about another 75', we managed to climb ourselves into a corner. We were blocked by a large rock band above us. We estimated that we probably only had about 150 vertical feet left to gain in order to top out on the route. Although we could have exited left or right back into one of the main branches of the Flattop Couloir, nobody was comfortable making an exposed steep traverse out onto questionable snow. I almost immediately began down-climbing when Kevin and Brian started discussing our options. I simply stated that I would continue up, but I wasn't going to be the first to make the traverse. Neither Brian or Kevin volunteered either so down we went the way we came.
We had to down climb face in for a couple hundred feet back to the split of the couloir. This allowed us to lower into the previously kicked steps rather than plunge-step into them which would have almost certainly blew them out. The rock step was a bit of an obstacle to overcome, but we all made it down safely. Once below the branch, we were able to face out and plunge-step to the base of the route very quickly. Fog had rolled into the basin and visibility was reduced to less than 50 feet. We took a break at the base of the route where we converted from crampons to snowshoes and prepared for the hike out.
In hindsight, not finishing the climb could have been a blessing in disguise. If we had topped out, we would have descended the Flattop Trail instead of retracing our ascent route. It may have been difficult to navigate back down to the packed trail considering that there was so much new snow in the area and visibility was severely limited. In addition, the post-holing and trail-breaking might also have been much more difficult since a packed track all the way to Flattop Mountain was not likely.