I arrived at Philmont for the 2010 summer right at the end of May. We had our training trek (I was a Ranger) and then I had my first crew. Well somehow after that first crew, I had three days off. During school the past few semesters, Mt. Lindsey had always been a peak that I wanted to climb. Because of this, it was to be my first 14'er of 2010. I was dying to get a taste of 14,000ft again...If I summited, this would be number 11 for me.
My friend Cameron (from Texas/Tennessee) also had a day off, so we decided to do tackle it together. The only thing was, he didn't have 3 days off, only 1. So we drove two cars up to the trailhead so that I could stay in the area for longer. He had a 4wd truck, so we decided to drive his truck up in the Huerfano River Valley instead of mine. Things were set and we were going to leave Monday morning pretty early to get up there to beat weather. The weather forecast called for scattered showers in the morning with thunderstorms in the PM. The weather wasn't the best, but we were going to see what would happen.
What Really HappenedWell, the early start wasn't THAT early. We left Philmont at 7am (we should have been on the trail at this time ?!?) and arrived to the Lily Lake Trailhead at 10:30am after a few issues (cows blocking the road and getting lost). This arrival time was a little less then ideal.
The weather didn't look amazing, but at least it wasn't thunderheads. Right from the get go, we said that the first sound of thunder, no matter how close, we were going to go down. We begun our approach at a pretty quick pace. We thought the trail would have been really well defined, but we found it a little hard to follow in some places maybe due to the fact that it was early in the summer. One of the main reasons why I wanted to climb Lindsey was to see the Huerfano River Valley-all the pictures looked amazing! It didn't disappoint, it is one of the more beautiful places I have seen in Colorado.
So after dodging through semi-dense forests of quaking aspen and Douglas fir, would found ourselves gaining quite a bit of elevation along a little creek. It was right around here when this white fluffy stuff began to fall from the sky- snow! Ehhh...
At around 11,200ft, we met a few solo hikers coming down, who said they didn't like the weather. However, they said now that the snow had come, it looked a little better (??). A little discouraged, we kept on going to see what we could see and hoped for the best. At around 11,800ft, the snow began to come in faster and harder. We put on our jackets and kept trudging upwards towards the basin above the north drainage. Large snow drifts (residual) forced us to go cross country towards the saddle of Lindsey and the Iron Nipple. The snow subsided and it became very clear out- a good sign for us. It was a gamble, but we were going to give it a shot
Snow once again found us on the way up to the saddle, but it quickly subsided. This whole time, we were putting up a decent pace. We had thought about doing the Class 4 ridge, but with the little bit of snow that had fallen, we opted out of doing slippery class 4 rock. Instead, we aimed for the North Face Couloir, the standard route.
We both had ice axes and found them to be very use-full in this section. We had to traverse a few good snow sections and also the couloir itself still had a decent amount of snow in it. Some places were pretty icy and it forced us up some class 3/4 rock on the right side. Just as all the route descriptions say, this couloir is ugly- loose and bad rock. It was here were my friend Cameron began slowing up a little. I tried to encourage him, but he was having some bad AMS. I kept waiting up for him, and took a long break above the couloir. Finally, I decided that he would catch up tome.
The summit was insight, so that encouraged me. Turns out, it was the NW false summit. So I took a seat up here and waited for about 20 minutes. It was now getting close to 3pm-time for us to be off the summit and still Cameron wasn't insight from my perch from the false summit. I looked west and saw a set of very dark clouds coming in, which was not a good sight. So, being on the false summit and so close to the true summit, I ran over to the true summit (literally). I signed the summit log, took a few pictures and then headed back over to the false summit to wait for Cameron, who still wasn't there. I became a little worried, so I started yelling for him. He heard me and then yelled back. All I could understand was something along the lines of "Come Down".
Not knowing what was up and with the weather deteriorating rapidly, I headed back down from the false summit. Cameron was at around 13,800ft, about 100ft past the couloir. He was alright, but he had also caught sight of the approaching weather. Me, being the good friend, encouraged him onwards to the top because it wasn't that far away. He quickly told me that he was really struggling and wouldn't make it up before the storm hit. After realizing this fact myself, we headed down. I felt bad for Cameron and would have liked to see him gain the summit. Safety first. The summit will always be there.
Right at the top of the couloir, the snow began to come thick and heavy. This was bound to make things interesting in the couloir. It was right around that time when I felt a weird sensation. My ice axe felt weird too. We both then realized that we were in the midst of a thunderstorm. YEAH! Nawt...We descended a few more feet, and then I heard a crackling noise. I turned around to Cameron because I thought he was knocking rocks down the chute. He look scared, and I knew that it wasn't him. Right then, the sky erupted with noise. Thunder....We both were a little scared now. We were at 13,700ft with at least 3,000ft to go before we reached tree line. I thought to myself, "shit, you have done it now. Summit fever and being non-nonchalant with the weather is going to kill us". So, Cameron and I quickly exchanged a few words and we both emphasized the need for speed to get off the mountain, but not the be reckless.
The descent was very slippery and the snow kept coming. I always pack for the worst knowing that it could snow anywhere above treeline anytime of the year, and it paid off here. Down jacket, gloves, beanie, rain paints, hard shell. Even with all the stuff, it was brutally cold with howling winds. Blowing snow stung our faces and made travel even more difficult. It was all we could do to keep on our feet and follow the trail downwards. Finally, we reached the basin around 12k and knew that we weren't in too much danger of a thunderstorm, but we saw another wave of the storm coming in, forcing us to move once again. The whole way back to the trail head, it sleeted/snowed/rained. We were soaked to the bone (thanks Gore-Tex), but glad to be alive.
Looking Back...Lessons Learned, then Applied
...we were a little stupid (put very frankly). I don't know what got into my head that we could start so late and just dilly-dally up to the summit in the manner that we did. I am really glad that I didn't sit up on the false summit and wait for Cameron to summit. I am also glad that we both made the call to go down and that Cameron (not making the summit) was more willing to go down then me (I wanted him to summit). In the end, this was a valuable lesson learned. I had cut it close with weather a few times on various peaks before, but this one topped all of those experiences. The summit is optional, getting down in mandatory (-Ed Viesturs).
Looking back, I wanted the summit too bad. We made it out, but that wanting the summit so bad can too often lead to ill fated results. The mountain will always be there. The next day, I attempted West Spanish Peak, but after the experience on Lindsey the day before, I wasn't going to mess around with the weather. I turned around at around 12,000k here due to another thunderstorm. Over a month later, I attempted Mt. Massive. We got to around 13,300 and the weather began looking similar to the stuff I saw on Lindsey. I didn't want to do it, but I made the call to turn around. We might had been able to make it up before the storm reached its full potential (in fact, many people did that day in-spite of us suggesting them to go down), but in the end, we left with no regrets whatsoever at our decision making.