I was looking for an easy, early-season hike to kick off my fourteener season. After asking around I selected Mount Sherman because it was relatively free of snow, easy to get to, and it had the reputation of being one of the easiest 14ers. Since I was expecting such an easy day I invited my dad along. Contrary to my expectations, this trip turned out to be far from easy. In fact it turned out to be the scariest time I’ve had in the mountains to date. I've experienced fear on a mountain before, but it's always been a certain kind of fear: If I screw up, I could be in a world of hurt. This is part of the fun of climbing and makes things exciting. However, this day I would experience a new kind of fear: I am in a world of hurt unless I can get myself out of it, and quick. Here's out it unfolded. . .
I rolled out of bed at 3:30, got my stuff together, and headed down to Denver to pick my dad up. We left his house at about 5:30 and headed up 285 to Fairplay. On the way up there was some ominous looking clouds and even a few flurries on the north side of Kenosha Pass, but on the South Park side the weather seemed to clear a bit. As we pulled off the highway and headed up Fourmile Creek we ascended back into the ominous looking clouds. We made it up to the trailhead and parked a few hundred yards short of the gate (the last few hundred were scattered with larger rocks and it didn't seem worth the trouble of negotiating them). It was then that we noticed the thermometer in the car - it read 18 degrees. Ouch! I wasn't expecting that. However, we had warm clothing so we decided to give it a try.
We hiked away from the car at about 8:00 wearing most of our cloths. I had an extra sweater in my pack and my dad had a rain jacket and rain pants in his pack – we were wearing everything else. We felt pretty good as we made our way up the road to Dauntless Mine as flurries began to fly. The cloud ceiling was also coming down. Even as we'd been driving up Fourmile Creek we couldn't see the summit of either Sheridan or Sherman, but now visibility was down to less than a quarter mile. By the time we passed Dauntless Mine the wind had picked up, but it was hard to tell if it was snowing harder or if the extra snow was being whipped up off the ground by the wind. We followed the mining tracts and various paths up to Hilltop Mine. From there we followed some more mining tracts and faint trails northwest toward Mount Sherman's summit.
I knew what general direction the summit was so that's the direction we were heading as we followed the old mining tract. However I failed to consult the map, which would have told me that the usual trail was much farther south on the other side of Hilltop Mine. So we meandered to the north until the trail we were following gave out. Then we just went uphill. The slope began to get a little steeper as the trail petered out and we found ourselves picking our way up a talus slope. This was very annoying, as with every step it seemed that we were sliding a half a step backward. The light covering of fresh snow on top of the talus only made the going more difficult. The wind and snow were picking up, however neither of us was cold so we soldiered on.
After another couple hundred yards my dad began to have misgivings about continuing. Although we were both still warm, our gloves were beginning to get wet from putting our hands on the ground as ascended the talus slope. Neither of us had waterproof gloves. I agreed that this was a problem, but I thought our best bet was to attain the ridgeline and the actual trail. My thinking was that once we attained the ridgeline we'd be one the class-one trail and would be able to put our hands in our pockets to keep them warm - even if our gloves were soaked. Going down the talus would have been tricky as it was really slippery and pretty steep. I also decided that separating was not an option – I couldn’t continue on alone to the summit if my dad wanted to turn around. With visibility down to only a couple hundred feet I didn't want my dad to wander away and get lost (as I had the only compass and map). My dad went along with my thinking and we continued on. By this time I was having trouble keeping the tube on my hydration bladder from freezing. If didn’t suck water through it every minute or two the mouthpiece would freeze. About fifteen minutes later we were within sight of the ridge.
Once atop the ridge I was encouraged. For the most part I was right about being able to keep our hands in our pockets and it felt like we were very close to the summit. To some extent this was wishful thinking - we weren't as close as I thought, but on the other hand we weren't all that far either. The wind on top of the ridge was quite a bit fiercer than it had been on the east face, but I was juiced to reach the summit. I convinced my dad to plow ahead for another ten minutes and see what happened. We battled the wind, cold, and snow for another fifteen minutes or so and the slope of the ridge seemed to level out. I couldn't be sure if we'd reached the summit, since I could only see about a hundred feet in any direction. However the ridge seemed to be flat up here. My dad wasn't looking so good anymore so I told him to wait there for a minute while I continued down the ridge to see if I could determine where the summit was. I hustled down for a couple hundred feet until I found another windbreak with a metal pole sticking out of it. I assumed either this or the windbreak we'd passed a minute ago must be the summit. I couldn’t tell which was higher, but the ridge seemed to begin to descend to the north beyond. The wind was really beginning to howl and I was beginning to get a little uncomfortable with the situation. I hustled back to my dad.
My dad still wasn't lookin' so good. His nose was beginning to turn weird colors and that worried me. It was bright purple, but there was a white patch on the side. I told him about it and suggested make sure that he warmed it up regularly by pulling the collar of his jacket up over his face. In order to help he decided to get his rain jacket out and put that on over his ski jacket. The rain jacket had a hood and he could cinch that down over his face like Kenny in the TV show South Park. This was easier said than done however as the wind had been increasing steadily over the last few minutes and was blowing in full gale force. I helped dad pull his rain jacket on and we began our hasty retreat down the mountain. By this time I had totally given up on keeping the tube for my hydration bladder from freezing and it was frozen solid. I had also given up on taking any more photos. The camera was just one more thing I didn’t need to worry about so I stowed it away in my pack.
I was feeling a real sense of urgency now as the weather was deteriorating rapidly. The wind was absolutely screaming and blowing a lot of snow with it. Not that I have any experience at judging wind speed but I wouldn’t be surprised if the wind was blowing steadily between 50 and 75 miles an hour. If it was blowing 50 miles and our and the temperature was zero degree (which seems reasonable since it was 18 degrees when we started at 11,800 feet) that would make the wind chill –25 degrees. To make matters worse my dad was moving slower and slower. I went back to find out what the problem was. It turned out that he was having balance problems. The lack of visibility, howling wind, and fog/ice on his glasses were giving him troubles. I think he was experiencing vertigo. He took his glasses off and that seemed to help a little. I made sure to stay within fifteen to twenty feet of him, hoping that would make him feel more comfortable, and thus able to move more quickly.
We hustled as fast as we could down the ridge. The wind was absolutely screaming and I was beginning to get cold. The instant I would take my hands out of my pockets the outside of my gloves would freeze. This was really weird as my gloves would become crunchy on the outside, but that was just the outside because my hands were still nice and toasty inside. My face on the other hand was starting to get really cold and the core of my body was starting to cool too. I didn't want my face looking like my dad's so I was careful to try and keep it covered as best I could. I wasn’t to the point of being cold enough to shiver, but I was colder than I wanted to be. However, I didn’t want to stop and pull out my sweater because I figured it was more important to move fast and get down. Also, I thought the net effect of taking off my jacket to put on my sweater might make me colder than I already was. As we made our way down the wind became so intense that I could barely walk. Although it probably wasn't quite as bad as I thought it was, it felt like I was leaning over forty-five degrees into the wind just to remain upright. Another hundred feet the wind was so strong that I couldn't remain standing any longer and I went down onto all fours.
Things were going from bad to worse in a hurry. We couldn't stay on the ridgeline anymore. We had to get off! We fled down the east side of the ridge. I was trying not to panic, but if I hadn’t wanted to stay in contact with my dad I would have broken into a run. After we descended a hundred feet or so we were out of the worst of the wind. It also seemed that this was where the actual trail left the ridge too because we picked it up soon after leaving the ridgeline. We moved as fast as possible down to the saddle between Sheridan and Sherman - slightly sheltered by the ridge.
I was feeling a little bit better about our situation when we arrived at the bottom of the saddle – but then we were confronted with another problem. The eastern side of the saddle had a large cornice. As we looked over the edge of the ridge toward Hilltop mine there was a 10 to 20 foot drop straight down. Below the cornice the mountain sloped away relatively steeply down to a flatter spot above Hilltop Mine. This seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle and there was no way to negotiate the cornice – we’d have to find a way around. Visibility was down to only about a hundred feet so we couldn’t see where the cornice ended. We decided to walk the length of the saddle to see if we could find a way around the cornice and headed toward Mount Sheridan. We walked all the way to the end of the saddle where the ridge slants up toward Mount Sheridan without seeing any breaks in the cornice. In fact the cornice seemed to continue up the ridge toward the summit of Mount Sheridan as far as we could see into the clouds and snow.
Our only other option was to turn around and retrace our steps across the saddle toward Mount Sherman. We knew there was a way to avoid the cornice in that general direction because that was the way we’d gone up and we hadn’t even seen the cornice during the ascent. All this time the snow had been steadily increasing and as we made our way back north across the saddle visibility continued to decrease rapidly. By the time we made it to the center of the saddle we were in complete whiteout. We literally couldn’t see more than 10 feet in any direction. The wind and snow were so bad that I couldn’t even make out features on the ground. The ground that was covered with fresh snow blended with everything else – there was no difference! The only time I could make out the ground was where I could find old, crusty snow that was a gray color that contrasted with the white of everything else.
The snow was really coming down and I anticipated that we might end up wading through some deep snow on our way down so we stopped to strap on our gaiters. After this task my dad and I discussed our next move. We were in agreement that we had to act – we couldn’t just stand there and wait to see what the weather did. It was just as likely to get worse as it was to get better and we couldn’t afford to just stand there and get cold while we waited. We decided to head north along the saddle hoping that we would be able to find the place where the cornice ended. We were both pretty sure that it ended relatively soon. While we had put on our gaiters I had also retrieved the compass out of my pack. This helped me feel a little more secure. I knew I wouldn’t get disoriented in the whiteout and wander down the Iowa Gulch side of the mountain.
We set off in a general northward direction going very slowly. We couldn’t see a damn thing and we made sure that we stayed only about ten feet apart so that we could see each other. We knew that the edge of the cornice was off to our right a little bit but we didn’t know exactly where. Was it 10 feet or 50 feet? We had no idea. I tried to stay on the old, crunchy, gray snow but after a while this gave way to ground that was totally covered in fresh snow. By this time I was pretty sure that we were north of the cornice. The slope of the hill was starting to slant down to the east and I continued to make my way northward – still unable to see anything. The slope got steeper and steeper and suddenly my feet slipped out from under me, I fell on my butt, and began to slide down the mountain. I struggled to dig my heels into the snow and after about 100 feet I got the unplanned glissade under control and brought myself to a stop. I looked back up the hill but I couldn’t see my dad. I yelled up the hill but got no response. After another moment or two I saw his head appear faintly above the slope I’d just slid down and I signaled him to join me. He sat down and glissaded down to join me.
We were both very happy to have made it around the cornice. My dad said that the last minute or so had been extremely wild. One minute I had been ten feet in front of him, the next I had just totally disappeared. He didn’t know if I’d fallen off the edge of the cornice or what. He knew he didn’t have much of a choice but to follow me - whatever had been my fate would be his as well. He had made his way gingerly out to the point at which I’d disappeared and to his relief he could see me below signaling him to follow.
We were both ecstatic to have made it made it around the cornice and off the ridge. For the most part we’d left the danger behind us. We glissaded another hundred feet down the slope and the whiteout conditions eased up and we could see a few hundred feet around us. The snow was still really coming down and wind was still blowing in strong gusts but it wasn’t as steady as it had been up on the ridge. We could make out some of the ruins of Hilltop Mine and headed that way. We passed through the ruins and glissaded another couple hundred feet down the side of the mountain to where things flattened out. It seemed that the low clouds had followed us down the mountain and once again we were in near-whiteout conditions. During a break in the whiteout I got my bearings and took a look at the compass. Once I’d figured out what direction to head we set off. Within a half hour we passed Dauntless Mine and the car was in sight. Below Dauntless Mine the wind and snow had eased up significantly. As we headed down the road there was a large group of kids and adults headed up the road – it looked like it could have been a Boy Scout troop. One of the kids was even wearing shorts! My dad and I had a good laugh at that – it hadn’t been more than an hour since we’d both been literally afraid for our lives and here was this kid hanging out in shorts!
There were four cars parked at the gate and we quickly covered the last quarter mile to the car. Relieved to be off the mountain we unloaded our packs, shed our outer layers, and piled into the car. The thermometer read 25 degrees and the clock read noon. We’d only been out for about four hours – it felt like an eternity! We made our way back to Fairplay and looked for a good place for lunch. I’d never hung out in Fairplay before but I’d remembered Grant and colonelpyat saying how friendly and nice the locals were. We found a likely candidate in the Park Bar and went in for a burger and a beer. The place was really jumping for a Sunday afternoon with little kids and dogs running around and the bar packed. The food was cheap and tasty. After we’d eaten our fill we headed back down to Denver.
I learned several things from this scary experience. The first of which was that I should have brought more gear. If I’d had my over mitts I wouldn’t have had to worry about my hands getting wet and cold, and if I’d had my balaclava I wouldn’t have had to worry about my face freezing. Secondly, I should have spent a lot more time familiarizing myself with the map before starting. I knew where the trailhead was, I knew where the Sheridan-Sherman ridge was, and I knew in which general direction the summit was, but that was about it. At the very least I should have known what the main trail did (though in this particular situation this piece of knowledge would have been moot since the cornice blocked the path of the trail). I guess I just thought it would be obvious when I got there and I wouldn’t have to do any route finding or make any kind of decisions. This was probably symptomatic of more fundamental mistake: I underestimated the mountain. Even though Sherman had the reputation of being one of the easiest 14ers, I should have treated it as if it were one of the most difficult. A third thing I should have done was come up with an easier alternative. Understandably I think, I didn’t want to expend all that effort of getting my ass out of bed and driving hundreds of miles to get into the mountains without climbing something or at least going on a nice hike. This contributed to the drive to continue up Sherman under less than ideal conditions. If I’d scoped out an alternative, easier hike before heading up into the mountains it would have been a lot easier mentally to abort the original plan when we pulled up to the trailhead and found the weather to be eighteen degrees and snowing.
I know that I should have learned all these lessons ahead of time, but I suppose that these are the kinds of things everyone must go through personally to really appreciate the consequences and to drive the points home. I’m just glad both my dad and I survived the trip and neither of us seemed the worse for wear: my dad’s nose seemed to be okay then next day and I didn’t have any problems with my face or hands. However, I’m not sure if my dad will ever want to hike with me again. He seemed pretty good-natured about the whole thing but we’ll see what happens next time I extend an invitation.