This was the to be my first fourteener in winter, and I was really looking forward to it. I had had a good winter of skiing (about thirty days up to this point), but my climbing activities had been very limited indeed.
On Sunday morning, we headed out for the Quartzville trailhead at the head of Cameron Basin. Our goal was to climb into the Cameron Basin, and see if the conditions would allow us to climb one of the many gullies on Bross’ North Face. I was itching for a snow climb so that I could try out my brand new crampons. We got lost on the way to the trailhead and despite our early start from Denver, we didn’t hit the trail until 8:30. This would be very late in summer, but due to the lack of thunderstorms in winter, we decided to give the summit a reasonable shot. We hiked up into the gully, but weren’t making the time we had hoped because of the skiing gear on our back. We were hoping to be able to make a few turns on the descent.
After about two hours we had hiked only about a mile, but stood at a place where we could contemplate the rest of our climb. The weather had been mostly sunny throughout the day with clouds blowing in intermittently. I hadn’t snowed in a week and the avalanche danger website had rated the danger as moderate for northern aspects. We decided to go for it, inadvertently ignoring the howling wind that was coming down the valley from the west.
We dropped into the drainage coming down from Cameron Basin, and climbed over a moderate snow slope to the base of the climb. Here we decided to ditch our skiing to lighten our loads for the steep climb. We had stayed away from the biggest main gully which had a hasty looking cornice at the end and instead chose a smaller narrower one that snaked its way up for five hundred feet. Here the four of us split up, we decided two who had been feeling altitude sick would spot the two of us as we carefully climbed our way up the gully. The two parties would be linked up by two way radios with handsets. To improve our climbing abilities the two who were staying at the base loaned us their ice axes so that we would be able to climb almost ice climbing style.
We headed up the about three hundred foot snow slope that led to a snowy ramp that led to the base of the climb. This ramp traversed from the top of this slope, above a talus slope, and into the narrow gully. We entered the gully and started climbing up the steep slopes. The snow was relatively hard and the going was fairly easy. Directly above, where the gully sloped up to cliffs loomed a windblown snow field that looked somewhat unstable. Little did we know what would happen on the descent. We climbed past this snowfield to where the gully ended abruptly below some cliffs. At this point we had to climb a narrow nearly sixty degree ramp for ten feet to the top of a boulder from which we could drop into a second gully and continue our climb. We reached the top of this boulder and were able to look out on the rest of our climb. We did not like what we saw, a windblown, very tender looking slope that we thought would be way to dangerous to venture out upon. We had reached the end of our climb and it was time to head back.
My partner started down the descent while I watched from our boulder. He climbed down the ramp and started climbing down the gully. At one point he had planted both his ice axes into the snow and was searching for a hold. He kicked out and tried placing his crampon on the unstable snow slope that had loomed above us on the way up. The entire snow slope collapsed below his outstretched foot, and the slide fell for about thirty feet before just fizzling out. As soon as I saw the slide I got on the radio and alerted out partners who were below us in the path of the slide. It was fortunate that the slide fizzled at the talus slope instead of continuing down the ramp, and it’s also lucky that my partner was well anchored in. Also, we were well prepared since each of us was equipped with shovels, probes and beacons.
We were very shaken but soon regained our senses and continued the descent. My partner carefully exited the gully and waited behind a boulder as I slowly descended the slope. I was very careful not to make any ice ax plants that were to hard for fear that the slope would fail again. We descended the ramp among the avalanche debris and then very carefully descended the final three hundred feet down to our waiting partners. We gathered up our skiing gear and continued on foot down to the car. It was a good day despite the trauma, but we gained some valuable climbing experience.
After the climb we got together and analyzed our shortcomings that had led to the near disaster. The slab that failed was a windblown slab that had fractured approximately six inches deep by fifteen feet across. Though the avalanche danger was only moderate for the area there were some big clues that we had missed. The most important was that the slab that failed was on the leeward side of the ridge, and the wind had significantly loaded it throughout the day. This was obvious in the ridges, and the overhanging snow that were visible on the slope as we climbed by it, obvious signs of wind loading. In retrospect, we should have been more observant to these cues, and were lucky that it ended as it did.
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