Posts Tagged ‘Susan’

Poor Teamwork on Mt Columbia

September 23, 2010

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

~~Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we play atop the high peak alone, we have only our own interests to consider.  It is a simple matter to set a goal and build a plan to accommodate our interests, skills, fitness and tolerance for risk.  When we are alone, we can enjoy the high peaks the way we want without any compromise.  But it is simply more fun to adventure with people we like and trust.  And as an added bonus for team-based adventuring, a collective effort can minimize the risks inherent to playing in a dangerous environment.

But a team is not a group of individuals acting in their own best interest.  Members of a “team” demonstrate cooperative and supportive behavior in a common effort to accomplish hard goals.  Good team members value a relationship built over time and expressed in mutual understanding, honesty, sympathy, empathy, and loyalty.  And, the knowledge of one-another within a team allows complementary abilities and coordinated efforts to generate synergy, which enables a “team” to be greater than the sum of the individuals.

A good team offers safety by being supportive and trustworthy.  A bad team doesn’t.

This trip report is about a bad team, of which some of the members successfully summited on Mt. Columbia on May 5, 2000.

Trip Report

On Saturday, May 5th, Brian, Susan (my girlfriend of 4 months and future wife), and I set off from the N. Cottonwood Creek trailhead to climb Mt. Columbia.

Brian (Climbing Partner) and Susan (girlfriend of 4 months) preparing for early start on Mt. Columbia (Colorado)

Brian and I had hiked past the full length of Columbia two years prior when we climbed Mt. Harvard via its South Ridge starting from the N. Cottonwood Creek trailhead; we felt we knew the area well enough to skip a full-on planning effort to climb Columbia’s West Flank and South Ridge. We were right to be confident that the two of us could figure out a way.

But we were wrong to remain confident once we added an inexperienced member to the group.

In the week before the attempt, Susan expressed an interest in joining me on one of my trips. Without thinking, I invited her to join us on the upcoming Mt. Columbia’s climb, and she accepted. If I thought anything, I suppose is was that any difficulties that surpassed her skill set would be at the end of the hike, and so would allow her to simply wait below for a short time if we could not protect her. When I told Brian of the addition to the team, he agreed it would be okay.

We were both wrong in assuming that adding Susan, an inexperienced 14er hiker, to the group would pose no significant problems.  But, I would stand alone in blame for the biggest leadership mistake of all.

We drove up Saturday night for a pre-climb car-camp. It would be a long day (Dawson estimate was 11 hours) so we needed a very early start from a trailhead a long way from home.  It was a beautiful night for sleeping under the stars, with clear skies and moderate temperatures. We enjoyed a couple hours of camaraderie before turning in for a short night’s sleep.

The next morning we hiked in the pitch dark and soft snow.  I had brought snowshoes for Susan, so she was fine; but I had skis, which I put on and took off multiple times as soft snow and exposed rocks competed for my attention. As the trail approached Columbia, snow started to fall and the wind picked up.  It was getting cold.  But going uphill kept the furnace burning hot, and we continued along following Brian who I assumed knew the way to go.

It was hard to see our destination through the trees, but eventually Brian said we should leave the trail. We turned toward Columbia and made our way closer to the West Flank that looked steeper that I expected. He stopped hiking on a pile of talus under a steep, icy gully and took off his pack. I asked if we were taking a break; Brian said this was it.

I couldn’t believe it! I stared at Brian in disbelieve that he would think this route would work for Susan, and then I looked at Susan.  She had a pleasant smile, and was expecting the best of a great day.  Oh shit!

I didn’t bring crampons for either of us, and I didn’t bring an ice axe for Susan; and she didn’t know how to use such equipment, anyway.

“What the heck, Brian? Isn’t there an easier way up?  Susan can’t climb that!” I communicated to Brian in another glance.

“I think this is it,” was all he said.

We stood there, freezing in the wind, for another moment.  Then I told Susan the bad news.  She couldn’t continue and it wouldn’t be smart to wait in a cold wind for 5 hours.  I told her that it would be best if she went back to the trailhead, where she could get protection from the wind (in my 4Runner), and even catchup on a little sleep.

Columbia from Yale: our route vs. standard

Susan was agreeable, as always, but she didn’t know the way back. I assured her that it would be easy to simply follow our tracks in the snow, and if she did get lost she could simply listen to find the river, and then she would keep it on her right and follow it back to the bridge crossing to find the trail. I pointed her in the right direction and she left.

Susan adds…

Joe was always going on some adventure or another on the weekends.  I thought I’d like to go along, and he said yes.  We started hiking so early it was dark, but I just followed behind.  We stopped hiking below a very steep snowfield, and Joe said he hadn’t known it was so steep.  I was a little upset that I couldn’t finish, but more so that I would have to hike back alone.  I was worried about getting lost because I hadn’t paid attention to the trail during the hike in.

Brian put on his crampons and disappeared up the steep, icy gully.  I followed by kicking creases in the ice & frozen snow where Brian had weakened it with his steps, and I hauled on trees wherever possible.

Progress up the slope was slow, for obvious reasons.

Once we reached the South Ridge, I hoped we were close so we’d be able to head back soon.  But no.  We still had a lengthy ridge traverse to reach the summit. And the wind became brutal.  With the skis acting as sails, we were tossed around like toys.  Brian even took a spill into some rocks after a big gust. But we made it.  And, although it was a bit late for snow safety, the cold wind gave us confidence.  We hurried back down the South Ridge past our ascent path to reach the a major gully, which probably would have been a better ascent path. (note: the standard ascent path would have been even better; see route photo.)

The ski descent was excellent. The snow was mostly in good shape, except for an unseen slushy spot that initiated a spectacular tumble by me.  And rocks were falling from above. But it was a wonderful period of joy that allowed no thoughts of what might have gone wrong for Susan on her retreat.

As we started back, I was surprised at the extent the trail had melted out.  It meant we could not ski out very well, and it meant the trail might have been hard to follow. I started wondering about Susan’s fate.

Columbia route map

We trudged on and steadily ate up the trail. Shortly after we crossed the creek, we saw Susan hiking toward us. She was delighted to see us as I was delighted to see that she had made it back.  I figured she had gotten bored and was coming to meet us.

But I was wrong.

Susan explained that she had not yet made it back to the trailhead.  She had been continuously hiking up and down the trails, looking for something that looked familiar. She was actually delighted to see us because finding us meant that she wouldn’t die that day.

Susan adds….

I tried following the tracks, and I nearly made it to the trailhead before getting confused and turning around.  I hiked back and forth on the trail for many hours until I found the Joe and Brian heading back.  I was so relieved that I wasn’t going to die that I wasn’t even too mad.  I had a long day of quality time with myself.

I was amazed that the situation had spun so far out of control.  And I was embarrassed. It was entirely my fault, and it forced me to think hard about the proper behaviors for teams with unequally experienced members.  Very clearly, I had made two serious errors

  1. I failed to understand and/or assume responsibility for Susan, who completely trusted me to keep her safe because she could not fully manage her own safety in that situation
  2. I failed to abandon my personal goal (bag summit of Columbia) when it became incompatible with my responsibility for Susan’s safety

It became clear to me that, for a good team, we need people we know, people we trust not to selfishly, foolishly or ignorantly put us in danger or fail to respond properly to an emergency.  And, finding a group of people is just the first step.  We then need to turn our “group” into a “team” by continually strengthening relationships and learning about each other in the context of shared adventures that we choose for suitability to the current level of trust and experience among the members.  And, most importantly, the experienced members of a team must assume responsibility for the inexperienced members whenever they adventure together, even when it means to give up on the summit to keep a team-member safe.

This must be the first rule of teamwork.

See essays:

And all credit to Susan for finding a happy ending to the story. She stuck with me, after all; our 10-year marriage anniversary is coming up in 2011.

See all 14er trip reports

See all trip reports


Oxford Windstorm

April 17, 2010

I was trying to make some progress on my 14er list, and my wife, Susan, wanted to do 14ers as well. Earlier in the summer of 2000, we had collected two of the three that had gotten away from me during the big push made in the last few years:

  • July 1 – Massive (somehow went untried)
  • July 8 – Yale (Brian and I failed to summit in a Spring whiteout)

The only one left was Oxford, which had gotten away when I was too slow on trip to collect Belford and Oxford with Brian.  When Susan and I had a free weekend in early September, project Oxford was a go.

Rather than repeat the camping exercise, we just got up super early and left Boulder @ 2:45pm to drive back to the Missouri Gulch trailhead outside of Vicksburg (the non-existent town up county road 390).

Our route from Missouri Gulch trailhead to Belford and Oxford

Everything started well.  We got started at 6am and made a steady but moderate pace up the treed switch-backs.  When we stepped out of the trees around 11,500′, a powerful wind turned the experience into a cold Spring climb.  And we were wearing Summer clothes (position #1 on map).

The trail had been worked on since my last visit; it was a great trail.  But since it was covered with snow and ice, it made for adventurous hiking:  slipping and sliding everywhere.  We persevered to reach the start of the NW corner of Mt Belford (position #2), and then we started up.

We were freezing, but could continue as long as we kept burning calories.  The wind was brutally cold and strong enough to push us around.  Susan was worried about the possibility of being blown off the mountain.  I was able to demonstrate that was not possible by jumping into the air during a strong gust; it could only move me a few inches.  Still, we had to stay low and balanced to avoid being blown down (position #3).

We hit the summit at 9am (position #4) and were met by the strongest winds so far (I estimated it was up to 60 mph). We sought some shelter on the backside of the summit where we found a couple fellows planning to head back down to Missouri Gulch trailhead.

Susan said she needed to get out of the wind and would descend with our new friends.  We said our farewells and I headed SE from Belford.

As I looked down the ridge at the peak a few miles distant, I suddenly regretted not bringing a map.  I thought Oxford was so close as to be obvious, but I could only see a peak that looked several miles away. Resigned to a long trek, I started toward the peak (it was Harvard).

After a short distance (position #5), I decided that something was wrong.  I could see that I would have to descend too far to reach the peak I was aimed at.  I stopped to look around and found a big peak behind my left shoulder.  It didn’t look high enough to be a 14er, but it was the only thing that made sense.  I did a u-turn and worked across the saddle to the bland looking peak that I hoped was Oxford.

I stayed on the Oxford summit (position #6) for a minute to snap a photo and then headed back to Belford, where I arrived at 12:20pm.

Looking back toward Belford from the summit of Oxford

The trek back from Belford was made very easy by the brand new trail; I tried to go fast to catch up to Susan.  But, they were already at the trailhead when I left Belford’s summit; they had not lingered in the wind. I found Susan waiting at the truck when I arrived at 2:20pm.

It was a good day; my effort included 5800′ of elevation in 11 miles of hiking over 8.5 hours to bag my 28th 14er.  Susan’s day was a bit shorter, but she’s a beginner who hung when cold and afraid of the conditions; she’s a trooper with six 14ers to her credit.

See all trip reports

See all 14er trip reports

3rd Time’s a Charm: French Mt (& Mt. Ok)

December 7, 2008


It was time for Chicago Mark’s annual mountain adventure, and this time Brian was available to join us.  This time, we decided to pick off a couple of high 13ers in the Sawatch Mountains:  Mt. Oklahoma and French Mountain.

French Mountain had eluded me twice before, so I considered this a grudge match.

In 2001, Susan (my wife) and I climbed the wrong mountain (unnamed 13,400) by starting from the wrong TH (we drove past the Halfmoon TH to the North Halfmoon TH, and then hiked South with French on our left instead of right).  We only realized our mistake after we ran out of mountain and sat down to figure out why.

In 2003, Mark and I attempted to climb the French-Frasco-Casco circ, but failing light kept us from finishing French; we completed Casco & Frasco and were standing at the top of the Frascol, 400 feet from the French summit when we abandoned the attempt so we could minimize the hiking on an icy road in the dark.   And I still nearly broke my neck & skull several times on the hike out.

This time I was not leaving the area without leaving my footprints on the French summit.

We decided to camp near the two trailheads to facilitate bagging both in a weekend.   I picked up Mark at DIA at 12:30pm on Friday, June 17, 2005; we headed to REI in Denver to resupply Mark and then to the Halfmoon Campground and beyond.  At 5pm, we had the place to ourselves and took 30 minutes to select a prime campsite approximately 100 yards from the North Halfmoon Trailhead.  Brian showed up at about 11pm after a failed attempt to leave work early.

At this point, I should go ahead and accept blame for any climbing logistics difficulties.  I decided that we’d do Oklahoma first to allow for route finding errors that we could not survive on Sunday, when Mark had to be at DIA at 3:30pm.  Since we knew the way to French (see failed attempt #2 above) and Oklahoma had a difficult bushwhacking section, I still claim the sequencing was correct.  However, I’ll admit to bringing too little brainpower to the consideration of difficulties in a 10-mile, 3700 ft ascent of a high 13er plus a 100-mile drive to DIA by 3:30pm.  Most would agree.

On Saturday, we got up early and started hiking right at 6am north toward Mt. Oklahoma.  The scuttlebutt about Mt. Oklahoma was that the route was off-trail and hard to find.  During my climb planning, I was able to identify on the map 3 signs that would allow us to know when we should leave the main trail and begin bushwhacking West toward Mt. Oklahoma:

(1) when the southern most Massive peak was due East,

(2) when we hit a creek after not crossing a creek for 0.5 miles, and

(3) when we were at 11,600 ft.

While these clues were devilishly difficult to identify on site, I still claim that these were good clues and they probably helped us find a good cutoff by heightening our attention level at about the right time.  Others may disagree.

At approximately 11,600 we left the trail heading west (I’d describe the point as the first place where you could imagine starting to bushwhack once you were at approx. 11,600).  We crossed two tributary creeks (one via log walk, the other via rock hop) and climbed to the top of the tree-covered ridge, heading approximately west-northwest.  We were far enough south to avoid dropping down into the drainage, as some route descriptions indicate, and simply followed the ridge to tree line, and then into the basin beneath Oklahoma.  In the basin, we had a short walk over soft snow to the most moderate couloir available to mount the summit slopes.  The elvin-like among our party and another party on the climb seemed to be able to hike & climb on top of the snow much of the way to the summit, while the heavier of the group climbed in it.  It took a considerable effort to swim up the couloir, and then to slog up the soft summit slope in snowshoes.  If it was an hour later in the day, I would have drowned.

After a lengthy respite on the summit, we started down at 11:30am with high hopes for a fun ride.  Anticipating soft snow, I brought my old rain pants (what they call “death pants” – no friction while glissading) just in case.  They worked wonders.  I was able to glissade from the summit to the couloir and then down to the basin with only a few aiming steps.  A great ride.

Route drawn in red; actual snow coverage was much greater

Route drawn in red; photo taken a few weeks after climb which had much greater snow coverage

We retraced our steps as best as we could back to the main trail.  About halfway down we lost our old trail and ended up about 100 yards further up the main trail than where we left it.  All in, I’d say the higher route was preferable.

We hiked the remaining 2 miles back to camp in rapid fashion, arriving at approx. 2pm.

We spent the next 4 hours drying gear in the hot sun and discussing the plans for Sunday.  It was during this time that it became clear that we had a long climb ahead of us on a shortened day.  Mark had to be at DIA by 3:30pm, which meant we needed to be back at the car by noon.  After close inspection of the map, we determined that French would be comparable to Oklahoma, but possibly longer: 10 miles on road vs. 8 on trail/in bush and similar elevation gain.  Since Oklahoma took 8 hours we scheduled 9 hours and set the alarm for 2am, planning on a quick camp breakdown and relocation to the Halfmoon trailhead for a 3am start.  Yikes!

We turned in at 7pm after dinner for what would prove to be a largely successful attempt to get a good “night before” sleep of about 6 hours.

The alarm rang out right at 2am, and we were in a blind scramble to dress, undo camp and pack the cars.  Our pre-packing the night before proved useful and we left the camp area on schedule, and drove ½ mile East on FS 110 to the turnoff to Iron Mike Mine.  We started hiking right at 3am.

It was a very dark early morning, as the nearly full moon had set some time before.  Mark and I made our way via flashlight to the creek and were first to make the log crossing; the water was high enough to make our “straddle” approach a mildly wet one.  This was the safest way to go, given that the water was rough enough to look deadly in a fall.  We then turned to watch Brian do his promised walk across the log.  He had announced his intentions to do so during dinner the previous day.  As we watched, I said to Mark, “I don’t know what we’ll do if he falls…we’ll never find him!”  Mark agreed.  But after a moment’s consideration, Brian proved once again that smart guys can make smart decisions and decided to do the “straddle” crossing due to the wet conditions.

We were in a hurry; I went as fast as I could to ensure we had enough time to finish the climb.  Each of us seemed to be able to maintain a fast pace, despite a decent effort the day before.  After 1 mile, we came to the second washed out bridge, which we crossed via a set of narrow logs placed across.  I did the “crab walk” on all fours, putting my feet on the largest log and my hands on the highest (by 3 inches) log.  This worked without incident.  Once across I turned to watch Brian attempt to make up for his “lack of courage” on the previous log crossing by doing a no-hands, ski-pole assisted walk.  He made it ½ way before nearly slipping off into the darkness and waterfall below.  He somehow made it across without dying or, even worse, losing a ski pole.

We continued on for another 2.5 miles to just below the Iron Mike Mine.  At 5am, we were still on schedule.  At this point, the snow patches were becoming snowfields, and so I decided to change out of my running shoes into my boots and gaiters.  Brian waited a bit before heading out to avoid freezing.  A few minutes later, Mark came up and indicated he was feeling sick and was going to sit this one out.

After crossing the final wide creek, Brian followed the line (slope) of least resistance and made a broad sweep around to the right to the far side of the Iron Mike Mine area; I took a shortcut through the willows and caught up with him near the foot of Frascol (col beneath the saddle between French & Frasco Benchmark).

Joe's route in red; actual conditions was mostly snow covered

Joe's route in red; photo taken in late Summer, while climb conditions were mostly snow covered

Brian skinned up while I took a grassy/rocky strip between Frascol and French.  When I was at the top of the grass/rock strip at about 6:15am, I decided I didn’t want to stop to put on my crampons.  I had been maintaining a great pace and wanted to keep going.  I decided I would leave the couloir, by moving to the right, and kick steps to reach the steep, rocky slopes of French Mountain that I could climb instead of the snow.  I also like that the new route would allow me to cut the corner once again.  I had, in fact, considered this approach earlier but rejected it as senselessly risky; now I was convinced it was a path to victory.

The further I moved up the snow slope toward the rocks, the steeper the terrain got.  Too late, I was thinking that it would have been useful to have my ice axe instead of my hiking poles in case I slipped down the snow.  This made me work even harder to kick secure steps, the effort for which was exhausting me.  I finally made it to the rocks only to find the terrain was wet grass with imbedded, loose rocks…and it was very steep.  I could see that the angle would ease up about 200 feet up and so I kept move higher, testing every foothold before using it.

I finally reached a more moderate angle slope at about 7:00am, the time I had set as my summit goal and would certainly have achieved had I taken the normal route.  I was also sick to my stomach; the stress/adrenalin/effort had conspired to make me nauseated.   After a long rest, I started upward again.  I made slow progress in 40 foot stages that were comprised of:  25 steps of feeling great, 5 of steps feeling very tired, and a 3-5 minute rest while I tried not to vomit.   I eventually found Brian frozen and complaining on the summit at 7:30am.  All would agree he had a point, but I was not sympathetic.

Brian decided to head over to bag Frasco Benchmark while I finished my second breakfast (I had bagged that peak on my previous attempt on French).  After a few minutes, I hiked down to Frascol and did the most painful glissade since my last glissade down Frascol two year before; the snow was frozen with painful ridges.  As I slide down the slope, I tried to lean my full body weight on my axe point and lift my butt from the surface, but succeeded only in surviving the rapid descent.  I then backtracked across the willows to the road where I met up with Brian again.  He skied ahead to find Mark while I postholed along at a comfortable pace.  We reached Mark about 8:30am and began the long hike home.

Mark was grousing about the evils of “powerbars” which is what he calls all energy/food bars (in this case it was a Balance Bar).  Rather than blame me for an excessive pace (for a low-lander), he generously blamed his food.  I knew better, but accepted his generosity.

The approx. 11% road grade was very good for both uphill and downhill hiking so the road disappeared rather quickly.  When we reached the last log crossing about 1.5 hours ahead of schedule, we knew we had done well.  Mark and I once again did the “straddle” while Brian promised the reclamation of his pride.

Once I was across, I dumped my pack and worked my way down river a bit so I could react if necessary.  Then I watched Brian “The Lost Wallenda” approach the log with his skis in his hands perpendicular to the log as a balancing aid.  He walked gracefully for 3 steps and then paused, skies dipping left and then right.  Then, suddenly, he bolted, running across the log slowly leaning further and further to the left.  At the last moment, he leapt toward shore, landing in the shallows, safe with only wet boots.    We all thought he had done well, even if a bit ungracefully.

Mark and I said our farewells to Brian and headed toward civilization.  The drive out to DIA was interminable but Mark was able to gain enough extra time at the airport that he could take steps to avoid stinking out the other passengers on the 2-hour flight to Chicago.  Whether he did or not, I never found out.


  • Mixed skill level group
  • Arbitrarily short timeframe


How we got lucky:

  • Weather was good both days
  • Nothing happened to less experienced partner left behind
  • Dangerous route selection didn’t result in injury or death
  • Foolish river crossings didn’t result in injury or death

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