Tales of my alpine experiences and the lengths to which I go to reach the limits of personal adversity.
"Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence."
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Mt. Yale (Southwest Face), 14,196 Ft. - Feb 21, 2009
After taking some down time from my last climb in January, weather was looking good and I was looking for another climb, preferably in a new neck of the woods. Having never seen the Sawatch mountain range or at least no memory of I decided Mt. Yale at 14,196 ft. would make a good adventure for this Saturday morning. In true fashion I prepped Friday evening and around 4:00AM Saturday was up and on the road to Buena Vista. Initially I was a little nervous about the day in general, the weather forecast was showing some activity towards the North but nothing as far south as Yale and it's neighbors. Leaving my apartment the roads in Denver were slushy and slick and with a three hour plus drive ahead of me I was a little uncomfortable with driving through mostly unfamiliar lands. With the weather in mind I chose to take US285 to US24 (adjacent to Yale) rather than I70 to US24 as I suspected the the high mountain passes would be bit harder driving that far North. This was a good choice, as it turned out once I passed Bailey the weather cleared up, opening the sky to a nearly full moon. After a few hours I was nearly In Buena Vista and was greeted by my first views of the collegiate group including a spectacular view of Mt. Princeton and a mostly obscured view of Yale. I pulled off the road to snap a couple shots shortly after sun rise.
Arriving at the trail head shortly after 7:00 I was suited up and started on the approach. Mostly easy going, I snowshoed recently broken trail though Denny Creek following the Western slope of Yale. Beautiful landscape though unfortunately not very picturesque being hard to see the forest through the trees. Nearly an hour or so into the approach the tree cover began to thin as the trail ascended more directly up Yale's West face. About this time I began to hear the familiar sound of snowshoes crunching on hard snow but I'd yet run into another person. I briefly stopped to survey the surroundings hoping to identify where the nose was coming from. It was a bit odd because I would occasionally hear the crunching but I couldn't see anyone nor make out the directing the sound was coming from.
Continuing on I came to a point where the trial that I'd been following split, one path continuing on, another heading East in a quite direct route up the adjacent slope. Scanning the terrain ahead I could see that the tracks had stopped about 50 yards ahead and the split heading up the slope was actually the same tracks after back tracking. It was here I first noticed a fellow climber, now nearly at the top of the slope which mind you appeared a daunting task and definitely not the standard route towards Yale's summit. I began to wonder what could have been his motivation for choosing to climb here? Did he go further and find the terrain unmanageable, maybe he was game for a challenge? I was faced with a typical decision, should I follow or continue along the standard route? One thing that I learned very early on my back wood challenges is that you shouldn't follow tracks just because they're there and appear to go in the right direction. Despite knowing this, there was an instance when I was following a winter trail system, mind you on a climb yet to be done from the perspective of this blog, where I chose to follow what I thought was obviously the path to where I was planning on camping for the night. Camping after a quite long approach and prior to a big climb that I'd been salivating over for some time. As it turns out in this instance I ended up in the wrong place well after dark. This was a real problem because I was now separated from my destination by a very steep ridge line, backtracking was definitely not an option given the time nor was climbing the ridge, at least not with a full camping pack. But with writing like climbing it's important to keep focus on the current situation. I you climb a typical weekend hot spot peak you will without doubt come across someone who despite being on the same peak as you and heading in the same direction, is most certainly not heading to the same destination. I took a moment to check my GPS and confirmed that the standard route would intersect the top of this slope so ultimately I would end up where I wanted to be. With that in mind I scanned the terrain looking for a good line and determined that though difficult it was doable, off or up that is I went.
This portion was a bit difficult, route finding was challenging with many downed trees and steep snow, but still early in the day I was fueled and mustered through it. Reaching the top of the slop I paused to snap a few photos of the climb and surrounding mountain peaks. Those of which I now had a spectacular view.
Shortly after I could see that I was nearing treeline and got my first view of the summit of Yale, still quite far. Pictures hardly ever do justice to distance nor exposure. For example, a shot down a highly exposed ridge often appears as a gentle slope, whereas a slip on this gentle slope would likely end in a serious problem. In this picture, the summit which is "right over there" is actually at least two or three hours away. Someone could be climbing this slope and would be completely indiscernible.
From here Yale's summit grew as I approached, the snow became less and more wind blown so I opted to loose the weight of my snowshoes. As I approached what would surely be another even more daunting portion of the ascent I noticed that the sky, completely clear, had taken on a dark blue hue. I've read stories of how when climbing peaks as high as the seven summits, you can actually see the curvature of the earth and being that high the atmosphere thins out enough to give the sky a dark blue appearance. There have been days climbing that I too saw a noticeable difference in the color of the sky. Then again 14,000 feet is no 5,280, your eyes see it, you lungs feel it and unfortunately this day so did my skin. About this time I began to notice that skin was burning. Not the kind of burning you feel sitting out at the pool, where you feel strong radiant heat and know you're getting crispy. This is actually quite different, you don't feel heat like on a hot day, you feel UV, and its not till it's too late that you typically even notice. Comparable to sunburning your eyes (which despite excellent sunglasses I still do on occasion) while skiing.
Now that the views had opened up significantly I could again see the fellow climber, bobbing up and down behind small concaves in the terrain and large rocks. For a short time I followed him far in the distance until I could make out that he was in fact coming back. This isn't rare, as I recall on almost every bigger climb I've done, someone ahead of me has turned around. After about 15 minutes we met up, he was from Oklahoma, visiting to do some skiing the following day in Breckenridge and figured he crab a 14er today. He proclaimed that he'd had enough, surmising that the summit was at least another 2 hours away, now being noon. I quietly disagreed with this thinking "no way I can make that ridge in a half hour and the summit within the hour". We parted ways and I continued on... and by the way I was wrong.
Nearing the ridge, I again paused to snap some shots of the adjacent false summit, the remaining climb to the ridge and the surrounding basin, now looking like the view from an airplane. As the other climbing had guessed the ramaining climb to the summit took a little over two hours. From the summit view were spectacular as always, including a great view of Princeton to the South, and Harvard (among others?) to the North.
On the summit I was joined by another climber who told me that he was along with friend who had decided to stay down below the summit to take a nap, to exhausted to continue. He, as well as two others who joined shortly after had skinned up and fortunately for them would be skiing out. I was envious as the climb taken a lot out of me. I rested a bit then began the second half of the trip. The descent is a mixed blessing, often easier always challenging. You have gravity and momentum working for and against you and it's well understood that the majority of alpine climbing accidents happen on the descent. Think about climbing a latter, it's tough climbing up but how often do you descent the latter facing out? And for good reason.
Stopping about a half hour down from the summit now around 3:30 I ate lunch resting and refueling. As always it was a time for reflection and internal gloating. Uneventful up until the descent of the lower slope which had been difficult earlier in the day. Now wet from the days sun the slope was very slick, not enough snow for a wet slide but too little snow to get any worthwhile penetration which made for many falls a few that were dangerous. One fall in fact sent me glissading some and tumbling more than I would like to. I immediately attempted to self arrest, my butt, back and elbows smashing on rocks as I made unwanted but quick progress towards the bottom of the slope. Pictures of Bear Gyles tumbling end over end flashing though my mind I eventually arrested. Not hurt more seriously than bumbs and bruises I was a little shook up from this, realizing that an injury this far out would not be good. I composed myself and continued on. Finally making it back to relatively flat ground I mustered my way back out constantly thinking I should take up skinning.
As I later described it six hours up, one and a half "controlled fall" down.