Alpine Flatiron

The first day of the snow season brings a double-sharp sword:  the body’s ability to cope with cold is at a low point which combines with the mind’s poor memory of (and ability to prepare for) the cold. Such a day can cut clean through the self-deception of a risk-less rock climb.

Brian and I knew the weather would be colder, as in the 40F area, and rainy. But Saturday was the only day we could get out, and since we’ve climbed the flatirons in the rain before, we decided it was no big deal. I remarked to Brian that the cooler weather would keep away the lightning, so we shouldn’t have any problems.

We met at the Chautauqua parking lot at 8:30am, both of us wisely with full waterproof shell gear.  I even had a light sweater and liner gloves, just in case.  I thought about bringing a heavier jacket but couldn’t fit it in my pack and didn’t want to wear anything hot on the hike in.  I also could not find any waterproof gloves, but I figured I would be okay with wet hands for only a few hours.

We started up toward the 3rd Flatiron (39.98760, -105.29163) in a light drizzle.  Along the way, we could see the snow dusting that had fallen and stuck to the trees up high on Green Mountain.  We didn’t think it would be too bad.

We were wrong.

A view of Chautauqua Park from the 3rd Flatiron on a snowy rock climb

Naturally, we were alone on the rock. We started up, taking the easiest possible path along the East Face of the 3rd Flatiron.  On a normal day, it would be easy enough to skip a rope (only a few spots as hard as 5.4).  But lichen-covered rock dripping wet in a steady light snow, we knew it wouldn’t take much bad luck to create serious problems. Let’s just say that our progress was justifiably slow.

Within the first 10 minutes, I was very sorry not to have brought more clothes. I was thinking, what kind of idiot goes out to climb in a snow shower without waterproof gloves or even a warm hat, for the love of God.

With my core getting cold, my exposed hands were doomed, and they got worse and worse until they refused to function properly. The climbing gear was nearly impossible to manipulate with immovable fingers.

Fortunately, the climbing required few hand holds.

At first, I stopped every 20 feet to warm my hands on my legs; it helped well enough to get me to the first belay. I told Brian to continue leading if he was able; I was too cold and needed some time to warm up.

He said he was okay and so organized the rope and gear as I jammed my hands inside my clothes to warm them against my belly skin.  My core was warm, but I swear my hands won the temp battle and cooled my core instead of the planned opposite impact.

A view of the First and Second Flatiron from low on the 3rd Flatiron, as the weather worsened

After 2-3 minutes, I accepted failure and put my liner gloves on and made ready to belay Brian.  He took off just as the sky started snowing harder, throwing large clumps of snowflakes. Within a few minutes, my gloves were wet and worse than useless.

We repeated this process 3 times, with the weather getting worse and worse.  On the 4th pitch, my hands were completely gone and my feet were starting to get numb.  I knew I had to get off the rock quickly before I lost the ability to get down at all.

When I reached Brian in the notch below the final pitch, I told him I had to skip the final pitch and scramble to the rappel anchors from there.  He agreed as he had finally succumbed to the elements as well and was shivering like a wet rat.

Brian climbing through a wet, heavy snowfall on the 3rd Flatiron

It was my job to move the belay through the escape gully, but first I had to get some functionality back into my hands.  Once again I jammed my claws down my pants to find warm skin.  This time, I had to endure the thawing agonies that we all know so well.  I was yelling out loud to disrupt my mind’s focus on the pain.  After five minutes, my hands started working again, and in addition, the adrenaline from the pain had warmed up my entire body and mind!  I’m sure it helped that I was sheltered from the wind throughout the process.

I moved the belay and setup the rappel.  I quickly rapped down to the rap ledge and then traversed west to the second anchor where I clipped in before taking myself off rappel.

While I waited for Brian, I could see that the wind blowing south was fierce.  On a south-facing ledge, we were protected for the moment; but soon we’d have to step and rappel into that freezing hurricane.  I was thankful for not facing it all the way to the summit.

Brian quickly followed.  He pulled the rope and handed me an end that I used to setup the 2nd rappel. I clipped in and stepped over the edge.  Only 75 feet from the ground, I was almost safe. Almost.

Brian escaping the brutally cold wind after the descent

About 1/3 of the way down, I noticed that the rope dangling below me had been blown around the corner of the arête and been tangled on rock features seemly designed with deadly intent.  While hanging in a freezing wind, clawing my way toward the snagged rope, the thought ran through my mind:  if I cannot clear the rope quickly, I’ll die here today.

I attempted to clear the tangle as my brake hand (holding my weight on the rope) slowly lost feeling. I couldn’t quite get far enough around the corner to see what the rope was caught on, so I kept flipping the rope in hopes of clearing whatever it had gotten hooked on. After 4 attempts, the rope fell clear.

Then the wind blew again and the rope below me swung around the corner to get caught again. Once again I clawed my way to get as close as I could, and finally was able to clear it.  Before heading down I looked to see if any more tangles would impede my retreat, and could see a massive knot in the ropes well below me, blowing far out to my left in the wind.  My heart sank for a moment until I realized that I could reach the ground before needing to clear the knot. I was safe!

After reaching the ground, I cleared the knot and then scrambled to find some shelter from the hurricane winds while I waited for Brian, who soon joined me for a snowy scramble back to civilization and warmth.

I know it sounds rather pathetic, my near brush with disaster while doing a 5.4 rock climb in the Boulder Flatirons.  But I have to say that Brian and I both felt that we could both be pleased that we found an adventure and persevered on a day when a self-inflicted adventure was all we had time for.

I suppose it is true, adventure is where you find it. And, twenty-four hours later, my fingertips are just starting to regain feeling.

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