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Snowmass Mountain
Elevation: 14,092 feet
Climbed: Jun 26, 2008
Mountain Range: Elk Range
Colorado Rank: 31st
Class Rating: 3
Latitude: 39.118900
Longitude: -107.066000

Trip Report

Jun 26, 2008
Post-Mortem Analysis of Summit Attempt

Our climbing team consisted of Randy, Wild Mike and me, Mtn Mike. As our team was high on the east snow slope of Snowmass Mountain, we began to separate. Randy had stopped on the upper slope after deciding his summit attempt was over. Wild Mike was below me as I kicked my steps into the steepest snow just below the rocky southeast ridge.

After gaining the ridge, I took a photo of Wild Mike ascending the snow below the ridge, and he took a photo of me on the ridge. That was the last time I saw either Randy or Wild Mike before arriving back in camp hours later.

One year after the climb, we exchanged emails to compare notes and figure out exactly what had transpired high on the mountain. Here is a record of that exchange:

From Wild Mike:

Mountain Men,

It's hard to believe that one year ago today we were climbing Snowmass. Mtn Mike, thanks for providing a web site that allows me to relive the adventure whenever I want to. Too bad someone wasn't there with a camera when I was post-holed upside down on the steep snow slope above the lake. My boot was jammed into the icy snow and it took a couple of minutes to work free. All the while I was upside down wondering if I was going to pop free and slide 100s of feet backward into the icy water of Snowmass Lake.

What an adventure!


From Mtn Mike:

Wild Mike,

Wow! One year ago today is certainly a date worth remembering. Even though I remember hearing about your post-holing adventure, I don't think I've ever had a good visual of this event until now.

I had taken off my crampons during the descent, but I put them back on as I was crossing the snow slope above the deep and icy water of the south shore. I was slipping too much without them. At that time, I didn't realize Randy had descended without you. I just knew that when I came off the summit ridge, you were both gone. I assumed you both had bailed out at the same time.

Back to crossing the snow slope: Since I hadn't seen either of you for quite a while, I had no way of knowing you had both made it back to camp. As I walked well above the water's edge, I thought about how someone taking the icy plunge may not be seen again. I realize it would have been next to impossible to get out of the water by climbing up the snow slope. I was relieved when I got close enough to see both of you in camp.

So now I'm wondering what really happened that day? I know our communication really started to suffer as we got higher. A combination of elevation, physical exertion, focused attention, and distance from each other probably all contributed to our communication breakdown.

I assumed that each of us would climb as high as possible, then go into a holding pattern near the apex of the climb until we regrouped to descend together. Wild Mike, you were still heading up the last time I saw you near the summit ridge. Randy had stopped on the snow slope below you.

My initial assumption of regrouping was proved wrong when I came off the ridge and could not find either of you. At that time, I revised my assumption to this: Randy must have stayed in his holding pattern on the snow slope as Wild Mike tested the ridge approach, then Randy and Wild Mike descended together. This assumption was apparently wrong, as well.

What is still not clear to me is how events unfolded? When did Randy start to descend? Did Randy and Wild Mike talk to each other before Randy started down? Was Wild Mike even aware that Randy had started down? Were the two of you in visual or verbal contact during the descent?

I know Randy stabbed himself with his ice axe during the descent and now I have a better understanding of Wild Mike's upside-down post-holing adventure. Were each of you totally out of contact with the other when these incidents occurred?

Wild Mike, I agree with you about reliving the adventure. I've relived it many times already!


From Randy:

Reading Wild Mike's description of the post-holing made we laugh out loud. Now that we know he didn't die a terrible death I guess we are allowed to laugh.

Here is my story:

As you both know, I hit the end of the road in ear shot of both of you. I think I was fairly verbal at that point to let the world know I was spent. I was on a steep slope and I moved a little lower on the mountain with the plan to watch both of you ascend the mountain and wait for you to return.

Unfortunately, I didn't feel very good and did not have faith that I should hang out on the mountain any longer. I know how brutal it was returning from Kit Carson and thought getting lower on the mountain was important. To be honest, I made no attempt to let anyone know I was officially bailing (maybe my bad, although not sure I was close enough to express clearly what I was doing). The rest of my story is a solo return to base camp, replete with ice axe puncture, first aid and longing to get back to camp. My fear of a recurrence of the Kit Carson experience never materialized.

Regardless, one great and EPIC trip.


From Wild Mike:

My story is:

I was nearing the ridge line, kick-stepping in, which was a great experience, something you see in the movies and wish you could try at least once in your life. I was watching Mtn Mike ascend ahead of me and I occasionally turned and looked down the slope to Randy on his mini summit.

At some point I lost sight of Mtn Mike on the ridge and Randy was not on the slope below me. When I started to descend I thought I would be able to follow Randy from a distance and watch Mtn Mike as he came off the upper ridge. I descended for at least a couple hours with no one in sight. No one, except the youngsters that skied off the summit and caused a rock slide above me as I descended towards Snowmass Lake. I reached the Maroon Bells-side of Snowmass Lake and took a break.

When I wasn’t concentrating on my own challenges of descent I was working through rescue scenarios for my group members that were unaccounted for. At this point, if Randy wasn’t back in camp his lifeless body was clinging to something on the shore of the icy lake. If Mtn Mike was in trouble on the summit it might take me days to drag my sorry butt up 1000s of feet to assist. Then I saw Randy moving around back in camp. Moments later I saw Mtn Mike descending the snow slope between the summit and the lake. I remember feeling relief because I had visual proof of the relative health of the group.

Then I saw Mtn Mike ascending the snow slope between the lake and the summit. I’ve read about oxygen-deprived climbers on Everest that thought they were hot, stripped off all their clothes, and died from hypothermia. Well, armed with the infinite knowledge of Sherlock Holmes and less oxygen in my brain than it would take to keep a gnat alive, I deduced that Mtn Mike could no longer determine up from down. The relief I felt just moments before was wiped out by the fear that Mtn Mike would die trying to find our tent at 14,000 feet. [Editor's Note: Mtn Mike had discovered that his ice axe pick guard had fallen off and re-ascended a portion of the snow gully to retrieve it. Wild Mike had witnessed this retrieval.]


From Mtn Mike:

Great stories, Mountain Men!

You may recall why Wild Mike saw me descend part way down the northern snow gully, then saw me turn around and ascend back up the gully.

I had stopped on the way down the gully to mess with layers, etc. Then I continued to descend. Soon I noticed that my yellow ice axe guard was missing. I knew I had it when I stopped, so as much as I hated to, I started back up the gully. I found the yellow guard in the snow not far from where I had stopped. I retrieved it, then descended for the final time.

Wild Mike, were you resting on the snow slope by the lake when you saw me re-ascend the gully? Was this before or after your upside-down post-holing incident?

I never spotted either of you until I saw you in camp. I saw the two young guys near the stream crossing and one of the guys was wearing a shirt that had been ripped to shreds by a marmot or some other rodent.


From Wild Mike:

I had my upside-down post-holing incident high on the snow face that was just above the [west side of the] lake, between the lake and the summit, half-way between where Randy and I ascended and you blew up that couloir on the left side. I missed our ascent route and decided to stay high until I got to the couloir. I encountered the shower of boulders, courtesy of the youngsters, just before I jumped into the couloir to start my glissade down to the lake.

The sightings of you and Randy happened when I was on the Maroon Bells-side of the lake. There was plenty of soft snow on that side also. Mountain lesson #329: it takes ten times more energy to cross soft snow than it does to cross hard snow.


From Randy:

Yes, and lesson #330 is "start your ascent at 1am so you are not messing with soft snow in the early afternoon when your dogs are draggin'."

In reality, I think an earlier start time would have served us well. Not 1am but I would have signed up for a 4:00-4:30 departure.

Come to think of it, we may be doing something like that on our Wednesday ascent from Chicago Basin. Without an early start we may miss the train south.


From Mtn Mike:

Believe it or not, it looks like we departed camp sometime around 4:15 AM. We were definitely across the stream at 4:27 AM.

By 5:33 AM, we were at the bottom of the snow gullies on the west side of the lake. That is probably correct, because I think we have a photo of Wild Mike much higher in the gully, in pretty bright daylight, but still with his headlamp on.

By 7:15 AM, I had intersected your route up the northern gully. If we hadn't actually joined up at that point, we were close.

I was on the summit about 10:06 AM, back at the west side of the lake by 12:03 PM and back in camp by 1:06 PM.

These times all came from my GPS unit. These points are plotted on the interactive trail map I have posted at:

If you check out the map, you can zoom, pan, and change to hybrid or satellite views. If you click on the GPS waypoint markers, you can see the elevation, latitude, longitude, date and time of each waypoint. There are waypoints all the way from the trailhead to the summit and back to the lake. I don't have waypoints on the descent from the lake to the trailhead.

I'm ready for another adventure!

Trip Summary

This trip report began as brief notes to be sure I remembered the details. Unfortunately, I didn't finish all my notes while the trip was still fresh in my mind. I will publish these notes with two future goals in mind: take the trip to conclusion and possibly expand these brief notes.

Picked up Randy and Wild Mike at DIA.

Stopped at REI for last-minute supplies.

Drove into Rocky Mtn National Park on Fall River Road.

Campgrounds full, so stayed at Fawn Valley Inn at 2760 Fall River Road, just outside park entrance.

Next day, drove across Trail Ridge Road, stopping high above treeline to practice self-arresting techniques on snow fields.

Mtn Mike lost liner glove, found skull cap he didn't know he lost.

Drove out west side of Rocky Mtn Nat'l Park, over Berthoud Pass, and down to I-70.

Took Bakerville exit 221 south to Grays Peak Trailhead.

Set up camp and took a short hike on trail to about 12,000 feet.

Next day, Randy didn't feel well in morning due to altitude, but took medication and soon recovered.

Acclimation hike became a summit attempt on Grays Peak.

Reached the summit via standard route.

Descended to Grays-Torreys saddle, then began standard descent route to reach the top of a snow-filled gully.

Glissaded about 1,000 feet or so in two separate glissades, then hiked a short distance to reach the standard route.

Due to the snow, Randy's boots were soaked and his feet squished in water, since he hadn't waterproofed his boots before the trip. Drying Randy's boots and figuring out his best options for foot ware on Snowmass Mountain became a problem to be solved later.

Graupel fell soon after we rejoined the standard trail.

Descended along trail until we stopped for a quick break to adjust equipment. Talked to someone who was descending with his kids. He told us while the graupel was falling, they were higher on the mountain, feeling the definite charge of electricity in the air. The hair on a woman's small, short-haired dog had stood on end. We didn't waste any time resuming our descent.

Got back to camp and broke camp. Soon after descending, Wild Mike started feeling very ill. He had a severe headache and a bit of nausea. He had felt fine on top of the mountain and during most of the descent, so we weren't sure what was going on.

We drove back down the dirt road to I-70 and headed west toward Glenwood Springs. Our destination was somewhere fairly close to the small town of Snowmass, which is essentially a dot on the map.

Wild Mike was very still during the entire ride, since he was feeling very sick. Randy used his Blackberry to check on motel accommodations, securing a reservation in Carbondale. Unfortunately, he soon discovered the room was in Carbondale, IL, so he canceled that reservation and secured one in Carbondale, CO, which is about half way between Glenwood Springs and Snowmass on Colorado Hwy 82.

We checked into a Comfort Inn and Suites in Carbondale. Wild Mike suffered in the room while Randy and I unloaded just about everything we owned and brought it into the motel room. We needed to repack from scratch to separate our car-camping gear from the basic requirements for a 3-night backpacking trip into the mountains.

At some point, Wild Mike and Randy concluded that Wild Mike was suffering from severe dehydration. Our goal became one of ensuring that Wild Mike took in plenty of fluids. Wild Mike began to recover. He regained his appetite enough to order several items off the menu at Bella Mia, which was several miles down the road at El Jebel. We also ensured that Wild Mike consumed a lot of water with his meal.

The next morning, we checked out of the motel and went just up the street to Independence Run & Hike. Randy picked up some Nikwax Fabric and Leather waterproofing treatment. We headed to the restroom to wash Randy's somewhat dirty boots and apply the treatment. We were briefly interrupted by someone who actually needed to use the restroom, but we soon completed our task and began driving to the town of Snowmass, then to the trailhead near Snowmass Creek.

The weather began to look somewhat threatening as we finalized our gear at the trailhead. Our plan did not call for an early start, since we were only going to hike to the Snowmass Creek stream crossing on the first day, which was about 6 miles up the trail. We hefted our loaded packs onto our backs and started up the trail at 1:15 PM.

We made average time during the times we were moving, but we stopped fairly often to rest, check out the stream, and search for snow bridges and other potential crossing opportunities. Plus, we paused often for photo opportunities.

We knew there had been a snow bridge about a mile or so below the logjam. However, we didn't know exactly where it was nor if it would be in plain sight. When we began to cross some snow fields during our approach, we dropped our packs and spent close to 30 minutes exploring the area. In the end, it turned out that we hadn't reached the snow bridge yet, which was easy to see from the trail without any searching. According to the GPS, the snow bridge was at 10,109 feet at coordinates 39.14255 degrees north and 107.01249 degrees west.

Trip notes end be continued in the not-too-distant future.

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