Note: I am putting this under the spire page so it can be found, but think it deserves its own mountain page. I am just not up to that task myself at this time.
My friend Eric and I had been on several hikes together and this was the first climb for him. We had done some self arrest practice before, but that was the extent of his experience. I mostly scramble, but have some glacier climbing experience and have done some rescue practice.
Our plan was to hike in to Glacier Basin and camp, then climb and come out the next day.
The trail was mostly snow free before the basin. We found a flat area in the snow on top of Mystery Hill to make camp.
The weather looked threatening but it didn’t rain. We had a nice sunset under the clouds.
The morning weather was improved, locally clear, but not clear towards the west. It was a good temperature for climbing.
We put on crampons and went up between the spires. The snow was just right for easy climbing. It is an amazing place, with the spires towering overhead. Makes you seem very small.
Above the Spires
After the pass between the spires, we went down slightly to avoid some cliffs, then we traversed up across the slope to follow the snow. This section would probably require some rock equipment without the snow. We removed the crampons to scramble up a short rock pitch, and were able the leave them off until the same spot on the way down. The route is less steep the rest of the way and was mostly softer snow, as it had been in some sun, with a steeper rock pitch scramble to the top.
We spent about an hour on the top, and watched as the ceiling to the west continually lowered, and as we were preparing to start down, it started to snow. We climbed and glissaded down the upper snow section and it was still soft. We went down the rock pitch and put our crampons on to start down the steeper section of snow. As I soon found out, this lower snow was quite firm, as it was shaded from the sun.
The snow was almost flat where we started out, but rolled off quickly to a much steeper pitch. My third or fourth step glazed out and I was off to the races. I was in the self arrest position immediately, but it was not being effective due to the steep pitch, the hardness of the snow, and maybe my old ice axe that did not have much droop on the pick. I knew that below me was some exposed rock and a small cliff, and I was not slowing down. Desperation took over and I did the worst thing to do when sliding with crampons, try to dig them in. It may have saved my life. It flipped me into the air and I ended up landing in the sitting position, facing down the hill just before the end of the snow. The transition from the snow to the exposed rock was smooth, as were the rock, but the impact still knocked me out momentarily. The next thing I knew, I was zooming down the snow below the cliff. I was still sitting, with my ice axe at the ready. I struggled to get back down to the self arrest position and was finally able to get stopped. I waved at my terrified friend to let him know I was alive, as I tried to assess my condition. I was dizzy and felt like I might pass out. I was still on enough slope that had I passed out, I could have slid all the way to the cliffs of 76 basin. I jammed my ice axe shaft in the snow as far as I could and hooked my pack strap around it and tried to rest for a while.
Eric looked like a small spot up there where I started my slide. I estimate that I went 600 feet, with a 15 foot cliff in the middle. One of my pack straps was broken, but I hadn’t lost anything. I was out of film, so I didn’t get any pictures from below.
I determined that I had no serious injuries. My right leg was beat up, and had a small puncture from the ice axe point, but not deep. I could stand on it with a straight leg, but could not hold much weight when bent. I started up toward the pass between the spires, as I was about 200 feet elevation below that point. Eric started down. He about wore out his toes kicking steps and front pointing it down the steepest sections. We both got to the pass about the same time. We discussed our options, and decided that continuing down was our best option, due to the cold weather and how wet we already were. We had extra clothes, but there was no unexposed area that we could have stayed in and hypothermia would have been a real threat. It may have been about 2:00 pm at this point, so we had time, but how were we going to get safely down more of the same type of slope I had slid down?
I had a piece of rope about 45 feet long, so I knew we could belay each other with that. I taught Eric how we would need to do this. We could only go about 30 feet at a time with the short rope, but it worked, and we had no missed steps on the way down. It took us 3 hours to get down what took about an hour to go up. We could see several other people in the basin below, and that was reassuring.
When we got down to our tent, several of the other party came over. They thought something was wrong because they had noted our unusually slow pace. They happened to be a group of EMT’s on an outing. They assessed that I was in shock, and helped me into dry clothes and into a sleeping bag. They got a stove going for some hot soup. As it was too late to try to go out, they offered to help us out the next morning, if we needed.
In the morning, I felt I could make it under my own power, but could not carry much. Eric was in very good shape and he carried about three quarters of the weight. It was very slow and painful, but we made it down to Monte Cristo and went to the sheriff that had a cabin there. He radioed out to our loved ones, and then gave us a ride back to Barlow Pass. I was thankful that I didn’t have to walk the three miles of road.
Not sure exactly where I slid in the Steep Snow pic, but it was somewhere in this pic.
Note: There are several more pictures under the Spire.