Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How Light Can You Mountaineer?

Well, yesterday I tried to climb Dragon's Tail Couloir on Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. It's an easy 40-45 degree snow and 3rd-4th class chute that I was hoping to cruse in the morning and get down for a late lunch. Well, it was not the day for me. I started off wearing two pairs of leg tights, my R1 Hoody, a thin spandex Nike stocking hat and my new Black Diamond Scree gloves. I quickly put on my Mountain Hardware Alchemy jacket and my Marmot hard shell because the wind was just whipping through the R1 Hoody even down below tree-line.

I was hoping, based mainly on the temperatures (15F-25F) and the fact is is a rather narrow valley that the wind would not be a huge factor. Well, my fingers quickly got very cold once I got into the steeper snow using two ice axes. I had to stop and shake them out and I got the "screaming barfies" which is the sensation when your fingers warm up after being cold that turns your stomach over a little and really hurts! On the other hand, it's a fact of cold weather climbing. So I continued upward.

Finally around 10,800 feet soon after the first constriction in the couloir the snow was scaring me for avalanche conditions. I am certainly no avalanche expert, but the basis of slab avalanches are a heavy wet dense layer on top of a light dry fluffy layer and given the right poking it can all slide. I was kicking in my feet and only the points of my crampons were going in about 2-3 cm (I was flat footing) but when I plunged in my ice axe it went in the full 60 cm. The point being, there was a crust on top of the snow but once below that it was rather soft. It would probably have been okay to continue, but between that and the consistent 20-25 mph winds gusting to 40+ mph and my thin clothing I decided it best to back down.

Every time I turn around in a situation like that I wonder, 'maybe I should have kept going'. I was cold but not unbearably so. Despite the hard/soft snow layers they were probably dense enough throughout that I could have gone the whole way. However, I have learned over time that the summit fever to get to the top of the climb can end poorly as I have learned through a few late afternoon hail storms. If it was that windy down in a valley and couloir how windy must it have been on top of the ridge?

My family first hiked to Emerald Lake in 1997. I could call it my first hike. Now I've climbed Hallett's north face in 2008 and this winter I was trying to do a moderately steep snow climb as an experiment. It's interesting how our view of a place changes with time and experience.

The point is, My legs were too cold today and the wind was just taking the heat out of me and my body reacted by taking the heat out of my fingers and toes. So tomorrow when I attempt to do the Loft on Mt. Meeker (roughly the same difficulty) I will be wearing full winter clothing (hard shell on my legs and thick gloves and maybe even mittens and bring my down parka to climb in just in case). This trip out here is training after all for Everest.

Enjoy the video I took just after I started heading down! (It looks and sounds worse than it actually was. I've climbed on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire in worse.)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds to me that in your current condition, Everest is licking its chops to see you later this year. Have you ever thought you are either a fool, demented, or so in love with yourself that you can not discern what is in your own best interest. It's people, fools, like you that governments spend thousands of dollars rescuing when their plans, dreams go awry and they end up lost, injured, or dead.

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