Lessons on being prepared on the mountain

Last week I wrote about an excellent time I had with three friends climbing Mount Sneffels. But I also hinted that not all was well on the mountain. The post was pretty long as it was, so a sidebar on the details of something else I saw seemed to be worth saving for later.

The four of us had the southwest ridge all to ourselves that day. It made for fast, enjoyable and hassle-free hiking and climbing all the way to the summit. Once we got there, people started showing up from the mountain’s standard route, which goes up a large gully on Sneffels’ south side.

Upon going down, the upper part of the gully was shaded from the sun and filled with snow. We knew this going in, having done our research and asked people who’d recently been there. Helmets, ice axes and crampons were ready to go, ensuring good traction and safety. All of us descended the snow with no troubles.

But many other people were unprepared for the conditions. So it was as we came across this scene pictured below:

David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope.

David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope.

What you’re seeing there is a woman, in the yellow hat, being aided by David Bates, one of my climbing partners for the day. David was wearing crampons, but had a pair of microspikes in his pack just in case crampons were deemed overkill.

The woman was without any crampons, micropikes or anything else that would help her feet gain traction in snow. She also didn’t have an ice axe (essential in helping with traction and arresting a fall on snow slopes) or a helmet. She’d tried to follow a man who’d led her and her teen-age daughter up the gully, but got scared by the snowy conditions and decided to go no further. Her daughter packed it in right when the snow began, maybe a hundred yards downslope.

The trouble here was the woman became too spooked to go up or down, and the guy she was with left her and her daughter to go on to the summit. She was stuck, afraid and in need of help. I’m not sure if she told anyone of her predicament (when I noticed her, she was just standing quietly by some rocks at the side of the gully), but David was aware enough to see if she was OK.

He ended up lending her his microspikes. I gave her a trekking pole — it’s no ice axe, but it would offer her some stability going down. Within 10 minutes or so, she reached her daughter, who was sitting on a rock with her chin firmly planted in her palms, elbows on knees, the universal sign of “I’ve had enough.”

And no sign of the fella who was “leading” this climb.

I don’t know who that guy was, but shame on him for leaving these two ladies high and dry. It would be one thing if they were just tired and didn’t want to go any higher, and were in a safe place. But they were not. Thankfully, the ladies were able to make their way down just fine.

I saw other troubling things on the mountain. One guy who summited said he “was worried about going down in Chacos.”

As in sandals.

To which another climbing partner of mine, Chuck Erle, replied, “You should be.”

Plenty of other people were without traction gear or ice axes. Most were without helmets, and this on a mountain known for rockfall.

A look down the gully that day.

A look down the gully that day.

I saw one guy — no snow gear or helmet, just trekking poles — fall on his butt above me and just freeze as he began sliding down. He had no idea how to stop and pinned his hopes on being still and letting friction do the work. Keep in mind, this was on a snow slope. Luckily, he stopped. Had the snow surface been smoother and icier, he might have plowed right into me or any of the other climbers lower in the gully. Or just careened down the slope at increasing speeds until being stopped by the rocks below.

I’m not one of those people who looks down their noses at people who climb peaks in jeans or otherwise look the part of an amateur, because in reality, I am one. People need room to learn from mistakes, and not everyone has an unlimited REI budget for gear. But what I saw in the gully bothered me.

There are plenty of resources in print and online to get up-to-date, accurate information on peak/route conditions. I know, because I found it. And repeatedly, I saw references of snow in Sneffels’ gully and a need for proper gear.

So do the research. Prepare yourself for the conditions. If you don’t have the gear, buy/borrow/rent some. And if that’s not in the cards, pick a different mountain.

On a week where one very experienced mountaineer died in the Elk Range and others were injured in the Wilson Group peaks through sheer bad luck, being unprepared gear-wise, in-over-your-head in terms of skills and “getting away with it” seems more like you’re asking for it.

And going back to the woman and her daughter: Though they, too, could have done more work to ensure their own safety, they trusted someone else to lead them safely up and down the mountain that day, and that person let them down. Don’t be that guy.

OK. I’m off my soap box. Be safe!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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10 thoughts on “Lessons on being prepared on the mountain

  1. I’ve been doing some hiking in Mexico, apparently there could be a bit of snow on the next peak im attempting. Makes me a bit more nervous, but very excited! Will absolutely take the snow hikes with more caution! And yes, shame on the guy for leaving two women on the mountain. who does that!?

    • If you’re climbing one of the big volcanoes in Mexico, then be sure to bring your snow gear. And enjoy it! I’ve heard those are great climbs. As to you question, I’d chalk it up to selfish ambition or oblivious ambition. One of the other.

  2. 🙂 nice rant. I am an amateur and I turned back on Mt. Sherman a little over a month ago due to some snow going up to the saddle. Everybody said the snow was fine without gear, but I did not feel safe. Thanks for not making me feel like a wimp!!

    • You did the right thing in that you turned around when you did not feel comfortable. Listening to your own instincts will carry you a long way, and as you grow saltier in the high country you’ll be able to push past old limits. But fear is not a bad thing. It can be really useful!

    • I turned around in 11.5 miles in on Pikes Peak because I didn’t have any traction going accross a snow field on a steep angle. I hated it, but it was the right move. Better than an unexpected flight off a mountain. If you were not comfortable, it was the right move.

      • One of the things that I gathered about you was that you came prepared. Smart move on Pikes, and some pretty good thinking to help out that woman and her daughter on Sneffles. We need more people thinking that way!

  3. Great post. Take your experience and multiply it times all the other fourteeners. It seems every fourteener I do I spend more time aiding novices in over their heads than enjoying myself and my abilities, learned from years of following mountain veterans before I felt confident enough to strike out on my own and do it safely.

    • There is a fine line there. Some people do little things wrong, so people get themselves into trouble. So it’s a judgment call on when to intervene or when to let people make their own mistakes. Here’s hoping more people do their homework before heading up!

  4. Nice of you to help lady and daughter… I know I don’t trust any guide myself. I want to know all details as well because what if they make mistake and die, or like she was in abandon you… I think she will learn too to be more educated and preparred.

    • It sure did seem like the guy who left those two to go on to the summit definitely did not educate them as to how to prepare for the conditions on the mountain. Thankfully, it worked out for the ladies.

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