While reading Rossiter’s High Peaks guidebook, I found a passage that said, “…or you can descend via Thatchtop – it’s only 4th class…” I love traverses and so I decided I would use the traverse to the Continental Divide to bag Mt. Powell (13,208′) after summiting Thatchtop Mountain (12,668′) and then use it again to get home.
Foolishly, I got a late start – only hiking by 8:15am. And I had to start from Bear Lake, since the close lot was already full, adding 15 minutes to the hike in. I reached the foot of Thatchtop Mountain around 10am, and hoped I had four hours before any bad weather might start.
I started up the wooded east slope toward a gully I hoped would lead past the cliff band that separated me from the flatter summit slope above. The climbing was ugly and dirty as is typical for an unpopular hike, and for a slope enduring a recent avalanche; scrambling over fallen logs and avoiding sharp, broken branches added to the delays. (Note: on a subsequent trip in 2010, I discovered I was badly off-route.) Finally, I was able to look up the gully and confirm that only a few moderate moves would take me past the cliff. And by 11:30am, I was enjoying my barely earned but desperately needed water on the Thatchtop summit. I was also enjoying the great Glacier Gorge view, lined with my favorite RMNP peaks: Longs Peak, Pagoda Peak, Chiefs Head, and McHenry.
From the summit, I noticed the western sky was blocked by McHenry Peak and the nearby Continental Divide (both close and above me). I was worried that I would not have any advance notice of approaching weather; but I figured I could turn around later. And I hoped my long-standing good weather luck would continue.
Leaving the summit, I began the traverse with a full sense of thrill. With a shot of adrenaline, my mind became clearer and better focused on the work at hand, my body became more coordinated and better balanced, and my mind adopted a higher pain tolerance. It was the easiest climbing of the day.
I stayed on the ridge whenever possible and moved a bit lower to the south when necessary to avoid difficulties such as cliff-outs or gendarmes. I was still making excellent progress when the rain and lightning started. It only lasted a minute, but the lichen-covered rock was now slick; the further I went, the more difficult the climbing became. I thought about going back, but felt that the climbing I had done would be too hard to do again when slick, so I kept going. Besides, I was very close to achieving my goal. (Note: on my 2010 return visit to the area, I discovered that my ‘stay on the ridge’ strategy was unnecessarily hard; a much flatter, safer path was mere yards down the slope)
I kept thinking the hard part must be behind me, as it was “only 4th class.” But then I reached what must have been the normal crux. In dry conditions, it would have been a difficult climb over a knife edged ridge, but wet, it was impossible. I couldn’t even climb up the sloping rock to start the knife-edge due to the slick conditions. I hunted around and found a passage around to the north side: atop a 1,500 foot cliff hanging over Sky Pond, there was 1 foot wide ledge that would lead back to the ridge beyond the crux; but the start of the ledge was six feet away with only a 2 x 1 inch sized foot hold protruding from a sheer rock face with no hand holds between me at the ledge. During the 2-second move, I would have only the toe of my boot on the mossy hold with nothing else holding me up as I long-stepped through to the ledge six feet away. This was not the sort of fun I was hoping to have.
In a state of denial, I went back to look for something else and to consider retreating over the difficult ground that I had passed to get here; but I once again decided I had no choice but to proceed. And I couldn’t wait as the rain and lightning had started again. I was able to hang on to a rock while I stuck my foot out to kick the horrible foothold to see if it was strong (it was) and to clean it off. And then I put my boot toe on the hold, weighted it, and stepped through. Fortunately, I was able to stay focused on the move and not be distracted by the potential fall or the lightning. After the relief of not dying wore off, it hit me that there was no way I could go back now. I simply had to find a way to the Continental Divide and then find another way home.
Fortunately, the rest of the Thatchtop ridge was much easier, and I was even able to get some shelter below Mt. Powell when another fast-moving lightning storm blew in. With a brief bit of good weather, I was able to get the Mt. Powell summit (Note: on a later trip, I discovered that I missed the actual, and obvious, summit by 40 feet) and begin my long trek home. I figured that the only safe way back down was to traverse north beneath Mt. Taylor and then on to Flattop (~4 miles away) and then down the established trail to Bear Lake (another 4.4 miles). This way I would stay beneath the high points and avoid steep descents on snow, but I would still be exposed to lightning for a long time as I worked my way to the treeline near Bear Lake. The only reasonable alternative was Andrews Glacier between Mt Taylor and Mt Otis, but I just didn’t think it would be safe to attempt without an ice axe.
Much rained on, badly dehydrated, and having hiking through a large herd of Elk, I arrived at Bear Lake and my car at 7:15pm. I hiked and climbed a 12.5-mile circuit in 11 hours, and felt lucky to be alive. But at least I got my 15 minutes back as I didn’t have to hike any farther than Bear Lake.
The next two nights I slept badly with dreams of falling down a cliff toward Sky Pond.
- The route was not well known (not described in detail).
- “4th Class” is a subjective rating
- It wasn’t clear if it was one difficult section or several difficult sections
- The route did not have a good “retreat” option (as is typically true of ridge traverse climbs)
- The weather was poor
- I was hiking/climbing alone
(1) Prepared Badly
- Didn’t think about the ramifications of being late when driving into a popular destination: traffic, parking, etc.
- Didn’t imagine “what if I cannot return via the ascent route” (didn’t bring an ice axe)
- Didn’t consider the impact of possible rain on the “4th class” rating (I brought rock shoes, but wasn’t prepared to react aggressively to initial rain)
- Assumed my turnaround time was 2pm instead of noon.
(2) Made several bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.
- Justify-Past-Actions Trap: I didn’t want to waste my efforts, so I resisted turning around when the initial rain fell and the conditions became much worse than I expected.
- Optimism Bias: Felt overconfident about unknown terrain; I consistently thought the climbing ahead of me would be easier than the terrain I had passed even though I had no facts available. This kept me from retreating when I could have done so.
- Gamblers Fallacy: Felt I could count on being lucky with the weather since I had been fortunate many times in a row.
How I Got Lucky
- The weather was only periodically stormy; most of the time I was on the Continental Divide the sky was just sprinkling.
- I made it past a move with a 50% chance of success, when failure meant death
- I found a puddle of clean rain water to drink on the long descent hike
- I knew the area well enough to figure out a completely different route to descend without a map
Note: After my later trip to bag the Solitude Lake Cirque, and my discoveries of even more stupid mistakes I made on my Thatchtop Traverse, I am even more amazed at how my carelessness magnified the overall challenge and forced me into needless risk-taking. Wow, what a lesson!
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