Nelson Survives!Lost ice axe... one hundred dollars.
Lost prescription glacier glasses... two hundred dollars.
Surviving a 300-vertical-foot ride in an avalanche (only suffering a torn rotator cuff and bruised hip)... priceless.
On June 18, 2005 Nelson Chenkin survived an avalanche he triggered while glissading the southeast face of Mount Toll. Our group of six climbers consisted of Nelson, pksander (aka Peter), brenta (aka Fabio), myself, and two non-SPers Jeff and Tom. This trip report consists of five parts: Nelson's recollection of the slide, Peter's recollection of the slide, Fabio's recollection of the slide, a full-blown trip report of the entire day written by myself, and a video clip I shot of the events leading up to the avalanche.
Unfortunately the video clip only seems to work on PC. If it doesn't work for you (and you really want to see the movie) you can try to download it by clicking here.
We are all relieved that Nelson escaped relatively unscathed. At the time this trip report was written it was expected that Nelson's most serious injury was a torn rotator cuff. Although it could have been much worse, this injury will certainly set Nelson back and require a long period of rehabilitation and healing. We wish Nelson a full and speedy recovery.
Enjoy this trip report. Learn something perhaps. And be careful out there!
|Unfortunately I had my camera's movie taking settings on the poorest quality and the actual slide is out of view in the movie. The audio is a bit hard to discern so a transcript is provided below. Turn the volume WAY UP on your computer to listen.
Peter: Be really careful.
Jeff: I'm looking.
Peter: You could really get going on that. [Nelson glissades out of view.]
Andy: Nice. Alright. Go for it Jeff. [Jeff begins his glissade.]
Andy: Laughter. [Peter walks into frame to get a better view.]
Jeff: Uh-oh. Nelson's in a slide.
Peter: Oh shit.
Andy: [Laughter turns into stunned silence.]
Jeff: Nelson's in a slide. Watch.
Peter: Holy fuck. [Peter and Jeff can actually see Nelson while Fabio and I cannot.]
Skier on Pawnee: Don't glissade. Don't glissade. [Warning us not to follow Nelson.]
Peter: Holy fuck.
Andy: [Turns off camera and runs downhill.]
Nelson's RecollectionIt started out like any other glissade. Ice axe into self arrest grip, jump into snow, wheee! I dropped down over the lip. The angle increased slightly. Soon a thin layer of wet snow was flowing alongside me, like dozens of other times. Suddenly I realized there was a LOT of moving snow.
What to do? Stop quickly? Ride it out? Next comes a memory blur - what did I do? - then a clear recollection of being flipped over onto my back.
Mouth is full of snow, can't breath, spit it out. Whomp! I'm on my stomach. Push up to the surface. Get out of this! Woosh. I'm on my back again. There's the sky. Now its disappearing, covered with snow, can't breath. Whomp! On my stomach, push up to the surface, spit out the snow! Woosh, on my back again...
Am I dying? No, can't die, see my wife, I can get out of this. Push up, spit out the snow, breath, shit, on my back again, can't breath, again, dying, can't die, again, push up, whomp, again, ...
It's slowing, hands near face, make an air pocket. It's stopping, push up, push up.
The slide stopped. I had fallen hundreds of feet down the mountain. I was sitting upright in a perfect L-shape, legs buried, upper torso out in the open.
"ARE YOU OK??!!"
Female voice, skier heading to the saddle. Arm up, I wave and yell, "I'm OK!".
It's bright, sunglasses are gone. Ice axe is gone. Arm hurts, but I'm OK. I'm OK.
Peter's RecollectionWhen the avalanche began I was traversing across the slope to get a better look down and prepare for my own glissade. I was a little nervous about glissading the slope – though my concern was losing control in the wet snow on this steep, sustained slope, not the possibility of avalanche danger. (I had had a bit of difficulty braking with the pick of my ice axe on the short glissade moments before, and had nearly opted to self arrest.) As I traversed over to Nelson’s glissade track, I was not watching his descent. I only turned my attention down slope when I heard Jeff shout that Nelson was in a slide.
I stopped and watched in disbelief as Nelson’s body rolled over and over again in the moving mass of snow. I could see his arms and legs flying out and kept hoping that his body would remain in sight. On a few occasions, it either completely or very nearly disappeared - I cannot say for how long, but probably for only fractions of a second at a time. Nevertheless, they were inexpressibly long moments. I think I knew that if we lost sight of Nelson we might not find him alive again so I kept my eye on his body and kept hoping that he would stay on top of the slide and within view.
I could see the skier down below and at the moment I found her remarks not to glissade sort of stupid (she was a great person, btw). I remember shouting that we knew not to proceed - I think because I found her warnings a distraction from keeping my eye on Nelson. Even as he continued to fight in the avalanche, part of me was also relieved to know that there was someone at the runout that could get to him faster than any of us at the top. I also knew that Tom, who had taken the ridge route down, was also much closer than the rest of us.
The whole experience was so surreal that I don’t know for sure if I really knew how important watching Nelson was or if I was simply powerless to do anything else. In any event, except for yelling back at the skier, that’s what I did until the avalanche came to a stop with him still in view. I was relieved I could still see him but concerned at first not to see him moving. Then he did. I saw him sit up and, after a few seconds, wave. At that point I knew that he was alive and in good enough mental shape to signal us.
At that point my primary concern became getting down to him as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until we began moving down the slope that I realized that the slope was still very unstable. Fabio was alongside me at this point and I will never forget the sight of the snow running in old glissade tracks like water - or lava, in terms of consistency - in a sluice. On the way down I triggered a small slab avalanche that had me very concerned and made me very conscious of the need for us to withdraw further from the slope once we got to Nelson and determined that he could be moved.
Suffice to say, this was a very scary and educational experience.
Fabio's RecollectionI was the last in the group and saw less than anybody else. Soon after Nelson disappeared where the slope's angle increased, I heard the harrowing cries of the skier on Pawnee. At first, I could not make out what she and the others were saying. It was only clear that something bad had happened and those were moments of anguish.
The descent was laborious. Knowing that Nelson had extricated himself, the first objective was not to trigger another slide. That was not entirely trivial even on the right side of the slope, which was less steep and loaded.
It was a relief to see Nelson standing on his feet, but his account sent shivers through my spine: It had been a very close call. He was quite brave throughout his ordeal, and once caught in the avalanche, he remained in control as well as anyone could in such a situation. It was good to see him recover quickly. I hope the recovery from his injury will also be surprisingly fast.
My RecollectionI rolled out of bed at 4:15am had some breakfast and sorted out my kit before hitting the road. I picked Nelson and Jeff (whom I'd hiked Iron Mountain with) and we drove the back roads behind Loveland, Berthoud, and Longmont past Lyons and up Left Hand Canyon. The Brainard Lake road had just opened up a couple of days previous and we found a spot near the road up to Mitchell Lake Trailhead (which was still closed) to gear up and meet brenta, pksander, and Tom (a friend of Nelson's whom I had hiked Storm Peak with). We all met, geared up, and set off.
Walking up the road to Mitchell Lake Trailhead I got my first view of Mount Toll. It looked kind of far away but really pretty with its perfect pyramid shape at the head of the valley. The trail up to Mitchell Lake was a little hard to follow as it was sporadically covered in snowdrifts. We followed another set of climbers who were aiming to climb one of the couloirs on Audubon. After a short while we arrived at Mitchell Lake and had a snack and enjoyed the view of Audubon.
After our rest break we continued on toward Blue Lake. We started heading directly to the west but soon veered more to the south to follow the summertime Blue Lake Trail. After Mitchell the ground was totally covered in deep snow but we resisted putting on our snowshoes because for the most part we stayed on top and there was minimal post holing.
When we reached Blue Lake we took another rest break and had snacks and took photos. Blue Lake was still completely frozen and the valley was absolutely filled with snow. While we snacked we examined our route up Mount Toll and saw lots of people on their way up to the basin between Mount Toll and Pawnee Peak. All of these were probably skiers and one was climbing our route up the southeast face of Mount Toll. We looked forward to have steps already kicked for us!
With the rest of our route in sight we collected our gear and set off to follow all the skiers up to the basin between Pawnee and Toll. There was so much snow in the area that it looked easiest to contour along Pawnee Peak's west ridge up to the basin. This was the first part of the hike that was strenuous and soon we were all huffing and puffing up the slope. As we ascended we watched skiers descend down Pawnee's slopes and the lone climber make excruciatingly slow progress up Toll's southeast face. After a while we reached the basin between Pawnee and Toll. We stopped for a rest and to sort out our gear - leaving behind as much as we could. Trekking poles, extra water, and snowshoes were ditched for all except Tom who had forgotten to bring his ice axe. Instead of going up the southeast face he was going to snowshoe up to the Pawnee - Toll saddle and then ascend Toll's south ridge.
After we got everything sorted out we set off - Tom up to the saddle and the rest of us up the face. As we crossed the basin to the base of the face we began to sink deeper in the snow and found that the climber who was making such slow progress was wearing snowshoes. At the bottom of the southeast face there were the remnants of two fairly large slides. We guessed that these were results of all the fresh snow that had fallen the previous Sunday. We began to trace the left edge of the slides as we ascended. With every step we were sinking up to our knees and upward progress was painful. We now knew why the climber ahead of us was going so slowly.
The snow was very wet and heavy, but was the same consistency down to a depth of three feet. We made slow progress and watched as Tom ascended much quicker and was soon out of sight. The weather was fantastic with clear, sunny skies and not a breath of wind. With no gloves and a t-shirt I was sweating profusely as we labored up the slope. Peter seemed to have more juice than the rest of us and soon began to pull ahead as the face curved around a bit to the north. As we ascended we approached an ominous looking cornice hanging above us. We quickly traversed left to avoid it and proceeded upward.
The more elevation we gained the better the views became. Soon we could see Navajo to the south and down into Lone Eagle Cirque. Eventually we made the summit and stopped to enjoy the incredible views and had a snack. We all commented on the amazing weather - it was after noon and there was not a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind. We snacked, chatted, enjoyed the beautiful surroundings, and Fabio took the requisite summit shot. After a while we decided it was time to think about heading back down. Peter and I toyed with the idea of bagging Pawnee Peak because neither of us had been up it yet but decided to save it for another day. Nelson, Jeff, Fabio, Peter, and I geared up for what promised to be an awesome 500-foot glissade and Tom set off to retrace his steps down the ridge and saddle (since he didn't have his ice axe).
The five of us walked about 50 feet down the southeast face from the summit and started our first glissade. We went about a 100 feet and then stopped to move over a bit for the second run. The snow was really wet and soft so it was a bit hard to get started at the top but the slope got a little steeper as we descended. Nelson elected to go first and shot down the slope. There was a change in slope a hundred feet farther down the face and when he passed this point he went out of my sight. With Nelson out of sight it was Jeff's turn and with a hearty "Yee-haw!" he set off in Nelson's glissade track. When he reached the point were the slope of the face changed he braked and shouted, "Nelson's in a slide."
It took a few seconds for the meaning of Jeff's words to sink in. One moment we were laughing and having a great time, the next moment the situation became deadly serious. Fabio and I had not begun the long glissade and since we were above the point where the slope of the face changed we could not see what was going on. Jeff and Peter were farther down the face and watched in horror as Nelson tumbled in the snow - getting buried - struggling to the surface - tumbling head over heals. Based on Peter's expletives I could tell things were bad.
Fabio and I bolted down the slope and Tom, hearing Jeff's shouts, ran over from the ridge to witness the end of Nelson's fall. There was also a skier on the slopes of Pawnee Peak who witnessed the whole thing and was shouting at us not to glissade (and meet Nelson's fate) and also yelling at Nelson to find out if he was okay. By the time I reached the change in slope of the face and could see Nelson he was waving at us so we knew he was alive.
We all rushed down to Nelson. However, we had to be really careful not to trigger additional avalanches - it now became clear to us that the face was extremely unstable. It probably took us about three minutes to reach Nelson and by that time he had managed to dig himself out of the snow. At first sight he looked okay - he was moving around fine and there were no visible cuts or blood. In response to our queries, "Are you okay?" he said he was fine for the most part but his shoulder hurt pretty bad and his hip felt a little messed up too.
In the slide Nelson had lost his ice axe (the axe getting wrenched off his arm probably caused the damage to his shoulder) and his prescription glacier glasses as well as some other odds and ends. We were able to recover his gloves and bandana but the axe