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:
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.
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!
On Twitter @RMHigh7088