I had been busy myself with rock climbing and getting ready to teach Basic Mountaineering School this year, not to mention taking High Altitude Mountaineering School and an avalanche course.
April 15 is Corey's birthday (my brothers too), and we planned on climbing Mt. Sherman and skiing down. Dawson's guide book lists the ski descent as novice. Ive been skiing about 7 times or so this year with a few black diamonds under my belt, and I felt I would be ready for a novice fourteener ski descent.
I think we were both looking forward to this trip. Less than a week before we got some new avalanche transceivers. They were the cool new digital ones that I got to practice using in my avalanche class.
I got off of work at about 4:30 am and headed home. I had packed up the night before prior to going to work. Corey was asleep when I got home, so I woke him up and we were on our way in about an hour.
As we were driving up to the Leavick trailhead, the weather was cold and overcast with a little ice on the roads - not a great sign. Also the weather report called for cold weather in Leadville and Fairplay.
We made pretty good time to the trailhead, and got loaded up. We tested our avalanche transceivers to make sure they worked and started up the trail.
For awhile, the weather seemed to be clearing up, and it didnt feel too cold.
Corey had the cool setup for ski mountaineering. His plastic mountaineering boots hooked right in to his skis with a special binding that releases the heel so you can do cross country. On the other hand, I had my leather boots with snowshoes on. On my pack I carried my skis, downhill ski boots, ice axe, crampons, shovel and extra clothing. Im guessing my pack would have weighed in at around 40 lbs. It felt fine to me though.
In a little while, the wind started blowing harder into our faces. visibility was also decreasing and it began to snow. The weather still didnt seem too bad though. It would be bad for a little while, then seem to clear up for a while.
We came to a snow slope that was about 30-degrees, about the same as the slope ahead of us that we wanted to ski down. Looked like someone else checked the snow layers here, and we did the same thing. The snow seemed pretty stable, and the temperature was still below freezing. Both good signs of the snow up above.
We finally came to the hilltop mine at 12,980 feet. I was ready for a rest, and I hoped Corey would be too. We stopped and had some snacks and water. We tried to stay out of the wind, but it seemed to be everywhere. It wasnt too long before I started to get cold. I needed to get moving or put some more clothes on, so I started moving again.
I could see the saddle (13,160feet) where we were supposed to climb. The wind was blowing harder up there. Most of the saddle had a cornice on it with about a ten foot straight drop. Below the cornice there was evidence of several small, soft snow avalanches. The snow we were walking on had 1 to 2 feet of soft snow.
When we got a little higher, on the steeper parts, the snow would cause you to slide back a step for every two steps you took. I decided to take a route that was steeper, but had rocks sticking out so I would have traction. I moved pretty quickly up these and was soon above Corey. It looked like he was having some kind of problem with his skis. We couldnt hear each other anymore because of the wind. Pretty soon, I went around a ridge and couldnt see Corey anymore.
I looked up and saw what looked like the summit of Mt. Sheridan (13,748 feet.) It didnt look very far, and I seemed to be right below it. The weather wasnt really too bad except for the wind. I kept expecting to see Corey pop up on the saddle. I figured I could knock off Sheridan real quick and then meet Corey back at the saddle to continue on to Sherman.
As I was going up Sheridan, I saw an area free of rocks that I could ski down to the saddle. I figured I would use that on the way down. I began to feel the weight of all the stuff I brought. I also hadnt been to altitude for several months. I was pushing pretty hard to get to the top. I kept thinking I saw the top just ahead through the clouds, but when I got there, the top was still further. I was getting pretty winded! I didnt know if I would be able to make it up there. I decided I was too tired to go to the top of Sherman now. If Corey still wanted to do it, I would just wait for him.
Eventually, I decided to drop my pack and go to the top, then come back down for it again. This would make it easier to go up. 20 yards later, I reached the summit. I couldnt tell it was the summit for a few minutes though due to the weather that had blown in. I could only see about 15 feet. The wind was blowing about 50 mph, and snow covered ice balls about a quarter inch in diameter called graupel were being blown straight sideways from west to east. The graupel was hitting my head so hard that it stung through my fleece hat. It was definitely time to get the hell out of there!
I started making my way down, and picked up my pack again. With all the graupel on the ground, and my snowshoes trying to stay on top of it, I kept falling down. After falling a number of times, I thought I couldnt do any worse skiing, so I put my skis on. This was probably even worse. Im not a great skier, and I suck at skiing powder, which is what this was like. Plus there were rocks sticking out everywhere.
I couldnt really see where I was supposed to be going, and I couldnt seem to find the ski path I was going to use, so I figured I might be getting off track. I took out my compass, but I forgot the map at home. I remembered from looking at the map that from Sheridan to Sherman was almost straight north, so I followed a north bearing for a little bit. I thought I heard Corey yelling out, and I yelled back, but there was no answer. I figured it was just the wind. I thought I saw him a couple of times, but it turned out to be rocks.
The visibility cleared to about 100 yards for a few seconds and I could see that I was too far to the west. I went over to the saddle, and the weather became much worse. I couldnt even see my feet anymore. Everything was white. There was no sense of anything. I was using the snow plow to move very slow over the snow. Occasionally I would be able to see the snow below my skis, and realize that I wasnt really moving at all.
By this time I was exhausted, fighting my way through the storm with the skis and rocks and heavy pack. I had a hard time figuring out which way I needed to go to get back to the mines if it was right on the map. Normally that would be a menial task. North is up, south is down, west is left, and east is right. I figured it out and started moving east. I wondered if I was going to have to dig myself a snow shelter and wait out the weather, or wait for search and rescue.
I realized I was on the saddle somewhere around that corniced ridge. I took off my skis, took out my ice axe and began to move very carefully. I went south a little bit until I figured I was away from it, then started going east again. Next thing I knew, I was falling through the air with my skis under my left arm. Then I landed in a big, soft pile of snow. My skis came up and hit me in the nose. The soft snow began to slide down the hill with me in it. I did a self arrest with my ice axe, and came to a stop. The weather was much calmer down here. The visibility was a little better too. The solid layer of snow underneath was stable. The soft snow stopped when I did.
So there I was on a 30-degree slope of soft snow, in my downhill ski boots. I couldnt see my skis. I probed around with my ice axe and found them. I walked down the slope a ways, and learned that ski boots have no traction in snow. I dont know how many times I fell doing this.
I finally came to the area where Corey and I split up. I hoped he had gone down already. I looked for his tracks in the snow, but the new snow would have covered them.
I put the skis back on again. I would ski about 30 feet, then fall over, get up and do it again. Once when I fell, my waist belt on my pack wasnt fastened, and as I fell forward, the pack came up over my head, forcing my face into the snow. I couldnt get up because my skis were crossed and tangled. I worked my arms out of the straps and got up again. Another time I lost my poles under the snow, but was able to find them after a few minutes. I was getting so fed up with the skis that I just wanted to leave them there, or throw them in a dumpster. At least I wasnt getting cold. I still had quite a few more clothes in my pack if I needed them. The left zipper on my fleece pants had broken somewhere, and the leg was open from ankle to hip.
I made it to the mine site again. There is an old dirt road that goes to it. The road is covered in snow, but makes for easy skiing, and I only fell a couple more times. I was able to see ski tracks in the snow, and figured Corey had made it down since we were the only ones out here today (wonder why!) This was a relief.
I figured he probably went down and called for a rescue. I kept expecting to see search and rescue on my way down. I got to where I thought the car was, and it wasnt there. It was great weather down here, but I could still see the storm raging up above.
I kept going down the road and came to the Leavick townsite. I forgot about that. The car is still further. I didnt remember having so much flat on the way up. I had to do a lot of cross country skiing with my downhill stuff. Finally I came around a bend, and I could see Corey trying to drive up the snowy road! What a great feeling to know that the end was near, and I had made it. It took almost everything I had to get down the mountain, although I think if the situation was even worse, I would have found the energy to do whatever it took.
The first thing I told Corey when I got to him was that I just had the worst time Ive ever had in my entire life.
Life's not too bad though. I came out alive and uninjured (for the most part.)
To see the report with pictures, go to: www.mtngoat14k.com/mountaineering/sheridan.htm