The purpose of this blog is to chronicle the adventures in rock climbing, mountaineering, rattlesnake rescue, and general crazy endeavors undertaken by a nuclear engineer living in Los Alamos, NM. The first few posts will likely be me playing catch up writing down some trip reports from a few adventures that happened this summer, but after I should be able to get things up pretty soon after they happen.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An "Epic" on "The Prow" of Kit Carson Peak

For my second story I'm going to share the tale of one of my greatest "Epics". Yes "Epic" comes with a capitol "E" and no an "Epic" is not a good thing. From the Wikipedia glossary of climbing terms an "Epic" is defined as:

An ordinary climb rendered difficult by a dangerous combination of weather, injuries, darkness, lack of preparedness or other adverse factors. 

Well that pretty much sums it up, but I don't want to spoil too much from the get go, the story is much better off heard from the beginning. My two climbing partners, call them Jack and Eric (They don't want to talk about these events for some reason.), and I set out from Los Alamos around 2pm on Friday August 9th and arrived at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center around 5pm. I had made arrangements with the owners of the Zen Center via email to park on their property and access the Spanish Creek trailhead via their property.

We left the car with our overnight packs and climbing gear around 6pm and headed up the Spanish Creek trail, which starts at about 8,500'. The plan was to hike in as far as we could before it got dark, setup camp, and wake up at 3am to start the climb. The hike up Spanish creek was somewhat of a pain, involving 5 creek crossings, lots of log-hoping, and some tricky route finding at times. Overall it was a fairly pleasant, if strenous 2hr hike to the start of the burn scar at 10,500' .

We found a nice flat area to set up camp. Jack and Eric used my 2-man tent and I opted for the bivy sac. Dinner consisted of Snickers bars, Starbursts, beef jerky, and tube yogurt after which we all hit the sac hard. We got a pretty decent nights sleep, I slept like a rock in my cozy little bag, and actually managed to get up at 3am. We quickly ate breakfast, geared up, loaded up the daypacks, and were on the trail by 4am.

The start of the technical climb was about 2 miles away and 2,500' up. Unfortunately that trail is really really freaking hard to follow in the dark. At some point we got off route and ended up doing some pretty hard bushwacking through some very thick aspens. At this point I said screw it and made for the treeline.

Eventually we made it out of the scrub and above the treeline. We could see headlamps further down into the valley so we knew we were off-route, but it wasn't too bad and we could see our goal outlined by a faint light on the horizon. Following faint game trails we eventually met up with the people belonging to the headlamps we had seen earlier. They were also climbing the Prow, and knowing that we were going to be a team of 3 and a bit slower, we let them go first.

This is about the point where poor decisions are made. While talking to the other guys they mentioned something about a class 3 approach to the crux pitch. The primary route involves doing 1 roped pitch before the 5.8 crux pitch, and we were hoping that we could avoid roping up until we hit the crux.

Basically were were supposed to rope up and climb the rocks on the right side of the photo. Instead, being complete dumb-asses, we opted to go up to the left... Needless to say we ended up climbing some of the sketchiest, loose, wet, steep rock, we could have found. The route we took felt harder than the crux of the actual climb. Well, we roped up, Jack led, I tied Eric in about 30' above me on my 70m rope and I simul'd behind him. 

There were a few tense moments where my hands were so cold that I couldn't clean gear and had to spend a few minutes working the feeling back into them, be eventually we made it to the crux pitch of The Prow at 9:00am. Jack set up an anchor, I put him on belay, and we started climbing. 

 Jack getting a small boost from Eric on the crux pitch.

At this point I put up the gopro because I didn't want to keep banging it on the rock whenever I looked down. We also wanted to move as quickly as possible which meant minimal picture taking.

I knew that the weather forecast called for the thunder to start around 3pm, which gave us 6hrs to get off of the stupidly exposed Prow. From this point I was expecting us to take about 4hrs to finish the climb, possibly 5hrs if we are moving slower than I would expect.

Well 6hrs later and we are only about 3/4 of the way done with the climb and we can see a massive thunderhead moving in from the west. I told Jack to try and find somewhere that we could hunker down, and at the end of the next pitch he had found a decent sized area with some large fissures that we could squeeze down into to get out of the wind and reduce our exposure a bit. The red circle in the next photo points out where we hunkered down.

Our little shelter at about 13,800' was basically the last place that you want to be in an electrical storm as we were soon about to find out. I was pretty worried by this point and decided that it would be a good time to make sure that some people knew exactly where we were and what kind of situation we were in. First I called my roommate first and told him I would call him back in 4hrs. Next I called my parents just to let them know and see if I could get my dad to feed me weather info via text messages. My 9yr old brother picks up the phone and I ask him where mom and dad are. He has no idea where dad is, but mom is in the bathtub. I tell him I don't care if mom is in the bathtub just get the phone to her.

At this point Jack was outside of his hole trying to switch his climbing shoes for something more comfortable. I had dug a bunch of rocks out of a large fissure and piled them up to make a wind break. I was lying down with my pack on top of me when all of our metal gear starts buzzing and our hair stands on end. Jack dives on top of me and starts yelling for someone to come get us. On top of the lighting it starts snowing... At that exact moment my dad picks up the phone and asks "Hey bud what's up?" I immediately start feeding him information on our location, clothing color, gear, weather situation, etc.  I ask him to relay this information to some kind of authority nearby to try and figure out what our options might be. He gets the county sheriff on the other phone and basically they can't do anything for us. In fact they tell us to "stay away from the tallest trees".

Hearing that statement kinda pissed me off. At this point I realized that we were 100% on our own. No one could help us, if we wanted to get out of this situation alive then we were going to have to make some hard decisions and get our asses moving. We made an attempt to start climbing again but got struck down fast, almost literally. As soon as we stood up our hair stood on end, we heard arcing, smelled ozone, and immediately hit the deck.

Fortunately there was no strike, but at this point neither of my buddies were going to move. I called my dad back and asked him how the weather radar looked. He told me that we would have a 1-2hr window coming up, but after that a bigger storm was going to be moving in. So as I sat there watching the thunderstorm move off to the south I began to consider the fact that there was a very real possibility that I would not make it down from the top of that mountain. My buddies were just about catatonic and I was scared out of my mind, but knew that I couldn't show it.

At that point something in me clicked, I was not going to let that mountain win. No way in hell was I going to become another climbing accident stat. I was going to get myself and my two friends off of that mountain alive. I could still see lightning in the distance, but couldn't hear thunder, good sign. I took a deep breath, stood up, and watched the hair on my arm for a few minutes. When I was satisfied that the thunder gods were not going to fry me I sat down and said, "five minutes and we get moving".

My buddies were very worried, the rock was getting wet from falling snow and we still had a good 200' of 5th class climbing to do. They wanted to do a belayed pitch, to which I responded that we need to haul ass and belaying a pitch will take too long. We had 1 hr to finish and so far we were moving way to slow. They were worried about falling to death, I was far more worried about freezing to death or being struck by lightning, so I forced them to simulclimb.

We simul'd and eventually the steepness lessened and we were on the 4th class traverse to Kit Carson Avenue. At this point it was snowing pretty heavily and I distinctly remember looking down into the white swirling white abyss off to my left and saw three large birds that looked like golden eagles circling in the updraft. ( I think they were eagles, I remember seeing a very yellow beak and they definitely were not vultures or ravens.)

This sight lifted my spirits, and right as I could see the end of the climb the deep rumble of thunder dispelled the illusion of serenity. We booked it off of the traverse and took shelter on Kit Carson Avenue to coil up the rope, eat something, and get ready for the decent down the South Couloir. This was about 7pm and 13,980' elevation. It started snowing heavily as we descended the Couloir and by the time we exited Cole's couloir at around 13,000' all of the rocks were soaking wet and a heavy fog moved in.

I lead our group west through the talus field back towards where we ascended to the base of the Prow. The fog got progressively worse as the sun went down and eventually things got to the point where my glasses were fogging up so bad that I couldn't see more than 2' in front of me. It was getting very cold, all of our ski jackets had wetted through and we were close to soaked. Eric was shivering violently and there were potential pitfalls all around us. I would be walking along loose, steep talus and a headwall or cliff would materialize 5ft in front of me.

Once again we were in a very bad situation. It was dark, the temperature was dropping, we had no shelter, we were wet, we couldn't navigate the treacherous terrain, and we were quickly becoming concerned that the mountain had found another way to potentially end us. I knew that if we continued stumbling around in the dark like we were that someone was going to get hurt. We needed to wait for better conditions and in order to do that we needed shelter....

To be continued...

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