Brian’s Fork: Attempt on Yale

We were pushing it hard.  I was trying to get my body ready for a trip to Bolivia (to do Illimani & Huayna Potosi) while Brian was happy just to suffer at altitude.  Following the end of ski season in March (we always end resort skiing at the beginning of April to start the snow climbing season), we had done Mummy Mountain (13,425’), Mt. Silverheels (13,829’), Huron Peak (14,003’), and Missouri Mountain (14,067’).  The last peak on my prep list for Bolivia was Mt. Columbia (14,077’).  We scheduled Friday, May 1, 1999 for this ascent.

Unfortunately, the weatherman wasn’t cooperating.  In the 3 days prior to the climb, it snowed 24 inches.  We didn’t know what to expect, but we were just dumb enough to just go for it.

Friday after work, we drove south toward Buena Vista and found the access road to Columbia covered in soft snow up to the fenders.  I managed to get my 4Runner about 0.5 mile up the road before we decided that the chance for disaster was too high; then I got to enjoy backing up in the dark for a 0.5 mile.

Using a flashlight, Brian quickly rifled through the guidebook to find an alternative; we couldn’t let the weekend go to waste.  He found that Avalanche Gulch trailhead (9300’) for Mt. Yale was only 10 miles away via paved roads.  In a rush to get going, we settled on it quickly and started driving.  Looking back and considering the conditions, I can say the route selection was foolish; between the 2 winter accessible routes on Mt Yale  (Avalanche Gulch and Denny Creek), we picked the longer and more technical path.

Brian’s Fork:  if there are two ways to go and one of them is much harder and more dangerous, somebody will want to go that way (corollary to Murphy’s Law, and named in honor of my climbing partner, Brian, who is always looking to make life interesting).

As we drove down US 24, it started snowing again.  We drove through a white, ghostly Buena Vista before finding the turnoff and, eventually, the large parking lot at the trailhead.  We setup camp in front of the truck just after midnight and settled in to collect 4 hours of sleep.

Morning came quickly and we awoke to an ocean of snow.  It was only 5 miles to the summit, but 5 miles is a long way to swim and crawl while navigating via compass and dead reckoning.  The one good thing about the route selected was simple navigation…we just needed to head north until we could see the summit ridge to our left (west); and hope that the visibility would be good.

We took down the camp and set off @ 5:30am into the white hell.  And then it started snowing. The visibility during the climb was generally about 100 feet, with occasional ½ mile views.

Brian ponders the use of a map in a whiteout

Brian ponders the use of a map in a whiteout

The snow was very soft and our path was a bit meandering to overcome the terrain; the result was our progress was very slow.  It took 6 hours to travel 3 miles and ascend 2600’ to reach the 11,900’ saddle linking our route to the summit ridge.  And then it took us another 2 hours to reach approx. 13,000’.  We could barely make out that we were below a steep section of the ridge (how we gauged altitude) before fog rolled in and limited visibility to 10 feet.  We stopped at 2pm for lunch and to assess the situation.  It would be 2:30pm before we started again…5.5 hours of daylight left.  If we took 2 more hours to reach the summit, we’d only have 3.5 hours to find our way out before dark.  And we’d probably already lost our tracks to snowfall.  It was a bad bet; it was time to bail.

Our route up Mt. Yale's Avalaunche Gulch route

Our route up Mt. Yale's Avalanche Gulch route

I turned to retrace my steps and found that I couldn’t see the ground.  I could see my boots, but not the ground I was standing on.  The ground, the sky, the skyline…everything was white…I was floating in white air.  It was very disorienting to my sense of balance and direction to not be able to see anything for reference to my body.  And the real problem was that I was standing on a cornice.

On the ascent of the summit ridge, we were not able to stay on the ridge proper due to a cornice.  We skirted the ridge along the north side before mounting the cornice just below the steep portion of the ridge where I turned around.  And I couldn’t venture more than a foot to the south side as the angle steeped quickly and the hard-packed snow very slippery even with crampons on.   So now I had to walk along the edge of the cornice with my eyes closed!

I tried to stay toward the south side to avoid stepping too close and falling over the edge of the cornice on the north side.  But the only way I could tell if I was too far to the south side was by slipping down and self arresting.  So I tried to shift my balance carefully to avoid stepping on naught but thin air.  Twice I stepped through the cornice edge and barely caught myself with my axe.  After recovering from the initial fall, I just stood there and marveled at the absurdity of the situation.

It was a long retreat.  We couldn’t find our tracks due to the additional snowfall, but we recognized the terrain well enough to find our way back before dark.   We had taken 13 hours to climb and descend 7 miles (RT) & 3700 feet of elevation.  Some might call it pigheadedness, but we called it good exercise.

Joe catching a rest in the soft snow

Joe catching a rest in the soft snow

It was our first retreat on a 14er first attempt; I was sorry to see our record go by the boards.  But it would also be the only failure to summit on an intial 14er attempt…57 out of 58 ain’t bad.

See all trip reports

Advertisements

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: