The rock was rotten. Each time I grasped a hold, I wondered if it would pull away when I cranked on it.
Ben, Jeremy and I were clustered around the bottom of an exit chute near the top of our snow climb up Skywalker Couloir on Sunday. The chute, a snow-collecting break in the band of cliffs at the top of the couloir, was a variation on the normal route, and according to the guidebooks, this variation — named Princess Leia — is only in for a week or two every year. We’d seen three other climbers head between the cliffs into this steep ribbon of snow that morning, but what we didn’t catch from below was how they crossed the gap between the couloir’s main snowfield and snow in the chute above. It seemed we were precariously close to the end of that Leia window.
Jeremy and I approached the top of the couloir ahead of Ben.
“You know, that ‘easy’ exit route doesn’t look so easy,” I said to Jeremy as we kicked our crampons into increasingly steeper snow and examined the route’s standard exit, to our left.
“Yeah, I don’t like it either,” he said. “Princess Leia almost looks easier.”
“Let’s go for Princess Leia,” I yelled to both of them as I followed the steps to the base that were kicked by the morning climbers. Itching to do the direct finish all along, Ben agreed from below.
It was late. I’d wanted to be off the snow by 10 a.m., and it was approaching 11. And I was tired. We’d gotten up at 4 a.m. and started the hike to the couloir at 6. Plus, the sun was coming out in very short spurts — good for the snow conditions, which remained stable instead of turning to a sun-baked slush, but a bad sign weather-wise. If lightning rolled in, tree line was far away. I wanted to get off the mountain.
Ben climbed up behind us, and we all deemed the 5-foot gap in the snow too dangerous to cross. Jeremy and Ben were discussing what to do while I eyed the rock to the right of the gap. Will it go in crampons? I pulled off my gloves, stashed my ice axe and tested a foothold. Maybe. The first looked too crumbly; I tried another. My crampons grated on the rock with that steel-on-stone sound that scrapes at my mind regardless of the quality of my foothold. But I wanted to be done, and we were close. I moved onto the rock with all of my weight and grabbed a crumbly hold with my hand.
“Jenn.” There was a tone of caution-too-late in Jeremy’s voice.
“I wish I could spot you.”
I moved further up the rock, because that was the only way to go. It was rotten, but going down was not an option, especially soloing in crampons. “I wish you could, too,” I said. “And I really wish I’d taken the rope with me.” I’m not terribly experienced as an alpine climber, so I’m sure it was much scarier for me to climb this than it would have been for a veteran alpinist. But I was committed to the route at that point, and there was no room for fear, only a focus on completing the task at hand safely. My left hand felt around for a stable hold until, voila. I tested it. It held. I moved a foot and pulled with my left hand.
The rock came away from the wall in my left hand.
In hindsight, this was the first of many times fortune smiled on us that day. If I’d gone flying backward, nothing would have stopped me from tumbling down the 1,000-foot snowfield we’d just climbed — self-arrest would have been difficult to impossible on snow that steep at any velocity created by a fall on the rock above. Luckily, I was stable on my feet, so I leaned in, pushed the rock back into place (bad to drop it on my fellow climbers, obviously) and said: “Shit.” Nervous laugh. “You guys should not do what I’m doing.”
I kept going for just a few more feet until I was far enough above the gap to climb safely back onto the snow in the narrow chute. After a deep breath, I looked down to see Jeremy pulling the rope out of his pack. I was glad to see they weren’t following in my foolish footsteps.
There’s a rhythm to climbing snow, even if you’re hauling ass to get off of it (I was). Punch axe into snow, then kick-kick. Repeat. The snow steepened to 70 degrees or so. Punch, push up with free hand in already-cut step, kick-kick. Thunder rumbled far away behind me, but I didn’t dare look. I just needed to concentrate and finish the climb.
Punch, push, kick-kick.
I topped out the snow onto scree in a brief moment of sunshine. Gravel glued onto my wet crampons and axe as I battled for a grip on the moving ground. This is worse than that solo below, I thought. I clawed my way onto a stable rock and looked behind me for the first time in hundreds of feet of climbing.
Dark clouds dripping rain streaks were rolling in from the southwest. They rumbled again. Our escape route was a 300-foot scramble above, over the top of S. Arapaho Peak, then a scramble down a ridge on the other side to a trail that would take us the remaining 3.5 miles to our car at the trailhead.
To calm my nerves while I waited for Jeremy and Ben, I sang to myself and shooed marmots away from my pack. (When we were climbing in Chamonix, I noticed some of the guides and climbers would whistle, hum and sing through their climbs. I realized it was probably a good trick for keeping your head in the game, and I embraced it.) I couldn’t hear anything from where I sat with the marmots, and I couldn’t see down the climb.
Finally, Jeremy came over the lip of the snow.
“Hey!” I yelled.
“Hey,” he said. “You scared me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I definitely win the prize for stupidest move of the day, soloing that rock.”
Ben wasn’t far behind. The weather already looked worse than it did when I topped out — the sun had disappeared, and the rain was closer.
“We need to get the eff off this mountain,” I said as both of the guys pulled off their backpacks to stash their crampons and ice axes. We were all perched on rocks looking right at the dark clouds.
“Seriously,” Ben said.
We scrambled for the top of the peak. It wasn’t far, but we were all so exhausted from the climb up the couloir that we kept pausing to gasp for air. Poor unacclimatized Ben had just moved to Colorado the week before. He had to be in a state of mixed misery and euphoria when we saw the turquoise lake in the jagged cirque on the other side of the summit.
A handful of hikers were on the summit and heading up the other side. (They should have been heading down.) We could see our trail; it crossed a high plain before switchbacking down to treeline far below. Thunder continued as we moved as quickly as we could down the ridge to the trail. I tried not to think about the metal ice axes we all carried on the backs of our packs.
The hail started in earnest as we crossed the open plain. So did the lightning. We paused to throw our rain jackets on and kept running for the trees far below. Rain poured and lightning crashed around us as we hit the switchbacks. Ben’s long legs carried him ahead of me and Jeremy, and when he reached the first patches of bushes, he yelled up to us:
“Should we stop here? We can ditch the packs and get under these bushes.”
We dropped our packs, ran 50 more feet down the trail and ducked deep into the bushes. Panting and soaked, we tried to breathe and count between the lightning and thunder. At first, we could count from three to five, but the flash and the following boom quickly became simultaneous. We were starting to soak through and shiver; we all knew we could easily become hypothermic if we stayed too long.
After a few minutes, Ben said: “Should we just make a run for it?”
Boom! No time to count between. “Not yet,” I said. “It’s right on top of us.”
After running more than a mile down the exposed trail, hiding in the bushes felt safe. It wasn’t much of a shelter, but we were safer there, without our axe-toting packs, without our heads poking above the low brush and rocks along the trail. I wasn’t anxious to leave. But the storm continued to beat down on us, and the cold rain was seeping into every opening of our jackets, pants and boots. Ben said he was praying hard. I thought of his wedding next week and hoped Genny, his fiancee, couldn’t see the storm from home in Boulder.
“It’s not letting up,” Ben said. “Should we go?”
We peered through the bushes at the gray skies to our south and west. Crash above.
“No.” I said.
“But there’s more on the way, and what if it doesn’t let up?”
“Maybe we should go at the next break,” Jeremy said.
When we could count to four or five again between the flashes and thunder, we went for it. (This was not safe, but we felt it was the best window we would get.) We ran. The trail was flooded, so to my worry over carrying a metal axe, I added my worry over standing in water in a storm. Full knowledge of the danger we were in had been pushing my body down the trail faster than my legs could actually carry me for an hour. I was wasted. I simply could not move fast enough to satisfy my fear.
Finally, we reached treeline, and of course, the storm faded, but not entirely. The drizzle and thunder continued as we headed down the trail at a walk instead of a run. I wrung water out of my gloves and put them back on, because fleece really does keep you warm(ish) even when it’s wet. My feet squished in my watery Gore-Tex boots. The rain stopped entirely about a half a mile from the trailhead, but by the time we reached the car, the rain and thunder began anew as another storm blew in from the southwest.
As I stripped off my wet clothes — even my pants, which were completely soaked and had been clinging to my clammy legs for miles — and chucked them into the back of the car, I made a vow to stay indoors and not climb the next day. Maybe do yoga.
Tuesday, however, is another day.
WOW!!!! What a story, Jenn! A truly harrowing experience – and exciting storytelling, too – riveting!!
If you’re wondering what happened on Tuesday, well, I was caught in a storm again, this time on a Flatirons climb. The situation didn’t feel as dire because we just had to rappel to the forest off the side of the rock. But getting to the rappel — at the top of the climb — still took long enough for me to feel like I needed to take the whole “stay indoors” thing seriously. At least for a few days. Or make offerings, pour libations, or just pray to the gods of Colorado weather.
The fact that you are climbing and biking and hiking and snowshoeing and God knows what else — even in treacherous conditions — while the rest of us are left with options like mall walking and outlet shopping to me is nothing short of wonderful.
I need to move WEST!