Let the Season Begin!
Since the wonderfully extended snow climbing season in 2008, I have been itching to get this season started, and have really wanted to introduce some of my buddies the wonder that is spring couloir climbing. Both have an incredible amount of summer mountaineering experience, but had always stayed away from snow climbs, which I thought was a total shame. Of course, the climb that was at the top of the list was Cristo Couloir. I was familiar with it from the climb I had done June 2008, and felt good about its combination of good runout, moderate angle, and the amount of climbing provided. If all went well, I knew that this would start a snow climbing addiction for them.
Given the fact that this would be the first snow climb Mike and Mike (Wiz) had done, making sure it was in good weather was fairly important to me. This weekend presented the first combination of good weather and availability we had for a the past 2 months, so we jumped to take advantage of it.
We were supposed to meet up at 345am, but because I am chronically 10 minutes late to everything, so we all met up at the Stegosaurus Commuter Lot just outside Denver at 355, and headed off. We were really happy with our choice to take a 4-wheel drive vehicle as Wiz drove his truck over snow banks that would have incapacitated my little Honda Fit. We stopped to pick up a climber who was walking the road before reaching the snow bank that blocked the road. The best news of the day was the fact that we made it to the turn off for the lower lake, and the Dam was within spitting distance.
The Many Faces of a Climb
We got our gear together, and headed out at 6am, making short work of the hike up the road. When we got to the dam, we quickly decided to climb up the rock instead of donning our crampons there and climbing up the snow next to the dam. I was certain if we did, we would end up dry tooling
until we reached the start of the climb. As we approached the bottom of climb, we could see a large number of people already making their way up Cristo.
The climb started on solid snow that stayed with us through most of the ascent. Our first break came at the half way point on the climb. We were watching 3 climbers descend the steeper and icier eastern side of the Couloir and preparing to move on when we saw the first climber take a bit of a spill on his way down. This climber self arrested quickly, and came over to the rocks we were sitting on to hi. We chatted very briefly as I pulled my pack back on when I heard someone yell. I looked up to see that the second climber who was glissading down had lost control.
He quickly began flipping and tumbling as he bounced rapidly towards us, and a number of rocks below. His fall lasted at least 50 feet, but I am making a very conservative estimate, before he came to a fairly sudden stop about 20 feet below us. He was very lucky that he came to a stop before he hit any rocks, and that he walked away without any major injuries. His stopping point was a remarkably short distance from some large boulders at about 13,000ft. We made sure he and his partner had things under control
before Wiz climbed up to collect the gear that he had lost on his way down. We asked several times if he was alright, and if they needed any other help before moving on. This served as an excellent reminder that no matter how straight forward a climb seems, you can loose control and potentially get very hurt with little or no warning. This ‘moderate’ snow climb had almost sent a man to the hospital at best, reminding us that every climb has many different faces.
We moved on, heading up our planed route up the Western Edge of the Couloir, where the snow seemed more stable. As we approached the rock band area, the effects of the sun baking the snow pack was starting to have an
effect. I took a second to knock out a couple photos of a large CMC group that was making their way past the false summit at the top of the couloir, and we pushed ourselves to get as quickly as possible to the summit given the softening snow pack. We were greeted at the summit by a nice breeze, and a well deserved break. One of the CMC climbers was kind enough to take a photo of the 3 of us before we headed down.
The short time we had spent on the summit had given the snow enough time to soften significantly. We down climbed to about 13,200ft before beginning our glissade. I know that on my way down the earlier incident was certainly present in the back of my mind. It did not take long to get down, and unfortunately, Mike lost his crampons out of his pack at some point during the lower part of the glissade, but we did not realize this until we were back at the truck. Overall, it was a great first snow climb of the spring season on Cristo!
Lessons that Can be Learned
After I posted this Trip Report on 14ers.com, I received a comment from the climber who fell. I thought that his comments were very relevant, and provide an opportunity to learn. After I asked, he indicated that he was fine with me including his account of his fall in this report, his 14ers.com user name is ‘Pax’:
”I am the guy you reference who lost control during the glissade. Your warning is an excellent reminder, and a point anyone climbing on snow should heed. As much as you know in your head how to arrest and what to do to maintain control, if you do lose control it will be virtually impossible to regain it.
It is rare in life that we have learning experiences where we teeter on the verge of disaster and learn from a mistake without experiencing the negative consequences. Since Saturday I’ve reflected on my circumstance and replayed my recollection of what happened, and the thoughts that ran through my mind.
I was about ½ a second too late in setting my pick into the snow when I rolled over to arrest. Being just a split second too late, my axe extended above my torso, and in this position it is virtually impossible to exert enough force to arrest. Since the angle was extended, I lost grip on my axe. I use Craig Connally’s recommended tether leash (The Mountaineering Handbook, p. 188 ) and attach the lanyard to my climbing harness HMS carabiner. Reflecting on my tumble, the fact that the lanyard had sufficient length extending from my waist, the axe dragged behind and remained below my feet. As I tumbled I was aware of the danger of a flailing axe, but somehow it never struck my legs, torso, or head.
I think the entire slide probably lasted about 6 or 7 seconds, and I estimate I reached a speed of maybe 30 mph. Once I lost grip on my axe I somehow flipped around so I was sliding downhill, headfirst, with my helmet providing protection. Two thoughts flashed through my mind in rapid succession – first – “you are going way too fast and have lost control”, and second – “this is not a good scenario – there is a rock outcropping below you.” It was about that time that I tried to relax, and then began the tumble. The force of the tumble pulled off one of my gloves and tore my glasses from my face. One of my climbing partners postulated that the chunks of snow from a previous skier probably slowed me, and kept me from the rocks. I came to a stop about 15 feet to the side of the rock outcropping. At one point when I realized I was not in control another thought flashed through my mind - “this must be what it is like to be caught in an avalanche.”
By God’s grace I walked away from this accident with no broken bones, no injuries, and only a couple of bruises...
Wanting to learn from this experience and provide others the opportunity to learn as well, here are a few recommendations:
1. Always wear a helmet, gloves, and other appropriate clothing.
2. Arrest at the onset of any glissade, and never lose control of your axe.
3. If you start to lose control, do whatever you can to minimize your surface area on the snow. Had I attempted a Hands-only self-arrest, I perhaps could have regained control. However, it all happened so fast that I couldn’t even think about exercising this technique.
4. Never glissade while wearing crampons. Had I been wearing mine, I probably would have broken a leg.
5. Practice, practice, practice! Choose a location to practice that has a moderate slope and ample run out with no obstacles. Consider placing duct tape over the pick and adze before you practice (a recommendation from Connally).
6. Practice with others, observe one another, and provide feedback.
For others in the couloir last Saturday that witnessed my tumble – learn from me, and do everything you can to avoid my mistakes.”
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