Date Climbed: March 4, 2017
Elevation: 14,199 Feet
Our story begins in October of 2015, more than a year ago. The day began rather calm and beautiful morning, storm clouds off in the distance. This being my first time of setting foot on Mount Yale, I was rather excited and hopeful that the weather would cooperate to allow a quick ascent. My high point on this particular day was about 13,000 feet, just a 1,000 feet shy of the summit. That’s less than an hour at the pace I had set. Unfortunately, this would be my personal high point on the mountain for the next year and a half, spanning multiple seasons. Just as I had reached my high point, the promised storm arrived with great strength, completely shrouding the mountain in a foreboding mist that promised an adventure of epic proportions for a lone traveler. Having experienced a few white outs in previous hikes, I preferred to not indulge myself in another one this particular day. Above and ahead I could hear a couple of hikers yelling over the relatively steady wind. The visibility above was poor, so I was unable to see them.
An hour later, I decided I had waited long enough for the weather to improve (which it didn’t), and turned back around. Once back at timberline, the couple I had heard earlier popped up over the hill above me and we joined up. The storm had caught them by surprise, and they had turned around after having shortly reached the ridge proper. No successful summits would happen today.
A year passes, and although Yale passes my mind from time to time, I decided to save it for winter so that I could summit the tougher peaks during the summer (as if Yale wouldn’t be tough enough!). February roles around, and winter is in it’s prime. What looked to be a busy winter of mountaineering turned into a winter full of work and other commitments (not that they were bad, but I had hoped to summit several 14ers this season). My attention turned once again to Yale, as this would be the peak with the highest chance of success that I had left. February 1, I make an attempt on the peak in marginal snow conditions. Several avalanches had been reported under the recent storms, but I figured I could navigate my way through these traps. Unfortunately, as I broke trail through deep powder, I was turned around at 11, 300 feet, confronted with what I considered to be the key to the mountain: a 38 degree southwest facing slope with sparse tree cover.
Unfortunately, a solo winter ascent requires very conservative decision making, and does not allow one to really push the limits. Since no warm days had recently occurred, the snowpack was still very sensitive, and every red flag I had been taught to look for was present on this slope. In under two hours, my journey had already come to an end, and I turned back around. I did not despair, however, as I knew I had made the right decision.
Two weeks pass, and I have an opportunity to make an overnight trip to Mount Yale. This time, I decided that an attempt on the East Ridge might make things easier. What I did not realize was that the last report was inaccurate and I quickly lost the trail. Frustrated and angry, I spent the night far from my objective, closer to Cottonwood Pass. It was a cold night, but my sleeping bag passed the test! The next morning, I got a late start with numb toes shoved into my frozen boots. A quick ski and I was back at the truck on my way home.
Attempt four came around soon afterward. I resolved to make this a one day attempt, and drove up late the night prior in order to sleep in at the hotel down in Buena Vista. It was a weird feeling, checking in to a hotel by myself, knowing I would have to get up in just a few hours. The trick worked, however, and I woke up more refreshed and more alert than I ever had on any previous attempt of Yale. Unfortunately, the avalanche conditions were poor and the weather would not cooperate. Again, I reached the key point in the mountain, and although I gained a good deal of elevation, the storm arrived early, along with the extreme winds. The higher I went, the worse the conditions became. I even took shelter for an hour just to see if the conditions would improve, which of course never happened. I had now attempted an “easy” 14er four separate times, all thwarted by weather and avalanche conditions. I needed either perfect conditions, which were extremely rare in winter or a partner so I could take a little more risk.
Out of nowhere, my schedule and a friend’s schedule lined up on a Saturday, and a seemingly hopeless battle with Mount Yale now seemed possible. We made arrangements to meet up early Saturday morning and were out of Denver by 4 AM. Thankful that I did not have to drive for once, the usually long drive to the trailhead went by relatively quickly. It was still dark as we entered Buena Vista, and by the time we began up the trail, the sun had just crested the horizon. A long journey in the early hours of the morning and we reached the key slope. This time we took a different route, closer to the summer route following a new track. We took the necessary precautions to ascend the steep slope safely, and soon we had made it to timberline. All that remained was a long tedious battle with the wind, cold, and deep snow of winter! Shortly after ascending above the trees, we lost the trail, and we were forced to forge our own path.
Since I was on skis, I had no trouble with the deep snow, but my partner, Matthew, only had snowshoes. Although snowshoes help with floatation, they still require a lot of energy and work to stay afloat. Once off the trail, this difference became very obvious. As the wind slowed us down, the extra effort of staying on top of the snow slowed Matthew down and we had to shout over our radios just to communicate. We went about a half mile away from the trail, aiming for a wind scoured slope that would allow for easier and safer travel for the both of us. As we ascended the slick, grassy slope, the skis were now on my back and required more effort as they were heavier than the snowshoes and acted as large wind sails in the steadily increasing wind. I was now struggling to keep pace with Matthew as we rose between 12,000 and 13,000 feet.
Our progress was now extremely slow compared to our previous pace. In part it was because we had burned a lot of energy and had not eaten anything in a while. It was also what I like to call “the wall,” often experienced as one exits the trees into the vast harsh landscape of the alpine environment. Here, the lack of oxygen is first keenly felt and as the body sets pace with this development, the first hour or so above timberline is very slow. It is much like the first few miles of a marathon, where it takes your body time to get the adrenaline flowing and the body used to the constant motion. But once a pace is set and steady progress is made, the job becomes much easier. Somewhere around 12,500 feet I hit my rythym and raced ahead, now that the final slopes and my previous high point were in sight. Once past a large unnamed and unmarked icefall (probably consider to be Yale Falls by mountaineers), I took shelter and absorbed as much food and water as I could handle. As Matthew caught up, he too drank a lot of water, but as he later admitted, he ate very little which would cost him later on. Off in the distance I could hear shouting and voices. Off to our Southwest, across the open tundra I could make out a large group of about 10 people. Their progress was much faster than ours, as they had left the tracks we had followed and took a shortcut up a previously hidden rib. This new development gave me hope that we could team up with this group, giving us a morale boost just as we would need it most for the final push.
I set a quick pace, hoping to catch the group just as they would reach the final slopes to the ridge. This would be my previous high point, and although the spot could not have been very far away, the steadily increasing winds had now become so strong that certain gusts would break up the extremely hard snowpack, pelting us with snowflakes that stung on impact. I would compare the feeling to that of hitting your funny bone. That white hot needle like feeling that happens just as your arm gets hit is exactly what the little flakes felt like to the skin. Just as we reached the final slope, I began to lose hope that the group we saw had turned around. I had not heard from or seen them in a while, and the visibility was great. Just as we began our final ascent, the team poked just above the hill behind us, following our tracks. The slope soon became so steep and slick that I was forced to remove my skis and left them behind for my return journey. The snow here was extremely unstable, and I broke off large chunks of about four feet by five feet by one foot thick: a dangerous sign.
Had I been alone and witnessed this, I probably would have turned around or moved over to steeper, rockier terrain. But with a large group ahead, and several others at the bottom of the slope at a safe distance, I felt like the risk would be worth the reward and took the easiest route up the slope. Just as I had stashed my skis and began the journey up, the winds changed from an annoyance to a full on gale. It was impossible to hear anyone. I threw my pack to the ground and quickly pulled on my windproof layer and thicker gloves. Matthew attempted to do the same, but he had a lot of trouble getting everything on. Just as he finished with his jacket, he signaled to me that he was going down. I did my best to communicate that I would summit and then meet him back at the bottom. He nodded in agreement, and for the first time ever, I continued up a mountain without my partner.
This was the hardest thing I have ever done. When I climb with a partner, I want to summit as a team, not as a single person. I have often turned around with partners on their decision. However, having attempted this peak four times previously, and with a group of others waiting at the bottom as well as a group still ascending, I decided that the risks were relatively small that something would happen and no one would be around to help. Having worked so hard and with so much fight and energy left, I felt like it would be too much to turn around and come back for a sixth attempt on the peak. Onward and upward our party now moved. What was really interesting, and now I laugh at it, is that our two groups suddenly became one group with an unspoken acknowledged agreement. We were in this together and the comradery that passed between us without so much as a word is something that can only be experienced and witnessed in the context of extreme adversity. Our goals were the same, and what had started as a relatively warm and normal day had turned into a fight against the ever-increasing hurricane swirling around us. At times, the winds were so ferocious that all we could do is stand in place in our single file line, heads bent waiting for a lull in the wind. At times, the wind blew so hard that the rock hard snow would actually get blown off in chunks and a mini whiteout would occur with bluebird skies just above. I wished I could have taken out my camera to capture the ferocity of the wind, but I was too afraid of losing the feeling in my fingers, or worse yet, a glove!
Later on, I did brave a quick video, but that was captured during one of the “lulls” in the wind, although it was still strong enough to knock several of the hikers over. The closer the ridge came, the stronger the winds grew, until we were right in the heart of the storm. The winds were not at my limit, but they were bad enough that if the temperature dropped, it would have called for all of my heavy-duty clothing just to keep warm. I was slightly worried that my toes would get cold soon, although this fear never materialized. The group finally grinded to a hault in front of a complex series of moves on steep snow and rock. I moved ahead to join the leader of the party and together we worked our way through the jumble of snow and rock, timing our movements between the wind gusts. The rest of the team followed our path and we all found shelter on the leeward side of a giant boulder.
Finally it was calm enough for us all to sit down (relatively) comfortably and refuel and talk a little bit. Some didn’t even realize that I was a new addition to there group and we all laughed as we made introductions. This group was actually a team of co-workers out for some exercise. A couple in their group had stayed behind, and I only hoped Matthew had company down below as well. For a few, this was their first ever winter hike, and I was truly impressed by their drive. This was not an easy first day (although there is no such thing as an easy day on a winter 14er)! Now that I was on the ridge, I could appreciate just how challenging a solo ascent in high winds would be in poor visibility, and all of my previous decisions were now shed in the light of this truth; I had made the right decision. This was not a wide large ridge as I had previously thought, but only about four feet wide at places.
As we were sitting there, I noticed the girl behind me was much quieter than the rest of her group. As I turned to make sure she was okay, I could tell she was either crying or on the verge of tears. As I looked around, about three of them were completely broken and were not going any further. The adversity and sheer misery involved in a winter 14er takes its toll on the human spirit, and it was obvious at this point who were the experienced ones and who were new to this. One made the comment, half crying, “I’m not bada** enough for this!” The girls boyfriend (I assume) came over and gave her his coat to warm her up and started talking to her. It was a touching sight and pretty cool to see selflessness in this kind of an environment. Those who were experienced (the ones who were still laughing at the misery and rearing to go) began packing up, and I told them I was going on ahead and that I would turn around immediately in order to get back to my partner. They wished me luck, and their lead climber (since he seemed to be the one who had been in the lead from the start) and I took off for the summit. We made quick progress across the two false summits, making quick dashes between cover. Soon, we were on the summit, laughing and celebrating. Best of all, we had their dog with us to keep us company! Of all those who summited, it was the dog who won my admiration. He had been whining and trying to get out of the wind the entire upper half of the climb. He even hid behind me a number of times to get out of the wind. He was truly cold and scared, but he had made it and he was as happy as anyone! I shook hands with my newfound partner and I began the descent.
Progress was as slow as ever, and now we had the wind in our faces rather than to our backs. As I passed the rest of the group, giving them encouragement and fist bumps, the slope came back into view. How little distance we had actually covered in all that time! The winds were now constant, and were unrelenting. I quickly caught up with the three who had decided to turn around and stayed with them for the upper part of the slope as they were struggling to keep balanced and I wanted to be prepared to help if needed. Once I had reached my skis (sending up a small prayer of thanks that they were still there), I heaved them above me to act as a balance. Just as I began to ascend again, I heard sliding behind me, and as I looked up to see what the noise was, it was two of the climbers coming to a stop just above me. I immediately went to the ground, ready to stop them if they kept sliding on the steep slope. The man had just managed to jump on top of the girl as she had lost balance and began to slide out of control. He had self arrested her glissade, which could have resulted in a pretty nasty injury on the rocks just below. I stayed with them a moment to make sure they were ok, and then began descending again. I clipped into my skies a few feet further down and immediately fell on the icy slope. Even with the warm sun, the snow was still ice hard and very slick. I descended further onto a gentler slope, clipped in again and this time descended without fault.
As I began the descent down, I believed Matthew had already gone ahead, but I saw motion off to my right. Matthew had been waiting this whole time alone in the still torrential wind! Unlike previous experiences, the wind down here was just as bad as it had been on the upper part of the mountain. The winds were definitely increasing, and I began to wonder if a storm was on its way, even with no clouds in sight. Thankfully, the relatively flat slope made it easy to balance. We decided to try and retrace the steps of the large group back to the trail rather than taking our long roundabout way. I would ski off ahead of Matthew, carefully following what little remained of their tracks and Matthew would catch up a few minutes later. I consider myself to be a pretty good skier, but I had the most wipeouts I have ever had on this relatively flat slope. The cruddy snow conditions often caught my edge mid-turn, causing me to lose balance and wipe out. My frustration grew as I had to work between wind scoured ground, ice hard snow, and try to maintain some parallel path to the faint trail. At one point, I lost the tracks and we went across a very loaded slope. My frustration grew as I knew we were well off track, and the only way down was either an open slope or across a loaded slope to get back to the trail. Either way was dangerous for two exhausted hikers in waist deep snow.
Just as I was ready to make the decision to descent, I saw the large group up above us, moving to the north. I let out a sigh of relief and we fought our way, swimming back through the snow uphill toward the group. By this point, I was exhausted, angry, and ready to start taking unnecessary risks. The summit push had drained all my energy, and every step in the deep snow took every ounce of effort I had left. We finally made it onto firmer ground, where I clipped into m skis and went on ahead to investigate the last spot I had seen them. Their trail was gone, but I sent up a quick prayer, asking God to let them be just around the corner I thought I had last seen them. Low and behold my prayers were answered and far below me was the group of hikers. We had come down too far to the south and had missed the turn since we had come up a different way, but we were where we needed to be, and the trail was just below us!
I clumsily descended the slope, and Matthew flew ahead, glissading down the slope. Once at the bottom, we found some shelter in the trees and shed out layers and ate. The sun was now setting, and we had been on the move for 10 hours. The long detour and wind had turned an 8-9 hour day into an 11-hour day. Our spirits raised, Matthew went on ahead as I finished packing. Unfortunately, as I descended the “key” slope, I pulled a muscle and my now previously unnoticed injured knee gave me issues. The adrenaline was gone and I was running on fumes, and my injuries and fatigue left me nearly out of control on the steep descent. Once at the bottom, I switched back to my skins to slow down to stay at Matthew’s pace. Unfortunately, because of the topography of the trail, this is the trickiest part of the descent for skiers, because the trail switches often between steep descents and uphill traverses, all through uncomfortably thick trees. Tired and ready for rest, I fell over a number of times as my skins gripped the slope unexpectedly on downhill portions. I could have taken the ravine and had a decent all the way to the bottom, but I would have missed Matthew who might have become worried and turned around searching for me. If there’s one thing I learned this trip, it’s that it is very hard to coordinate with a partner who is on a different mode of transportation, since we will both have very different ascending and descending rates. In the end, though, I caught up with Matthew and we made it back to the car just as the sunset behind the mountains. It had taken us from sunrise to sunset to conquer the mountain, but conquer it we did! After a short rest to just soak everything in and to shed our gear, we made a mandatory visit to K’s hamburger joint. The day was over, and just in the knick of time! Calendar winter on Yale.