You never think it is going to be you. Not really.
We started early. Long before the sun wove its rays through the sky. Seven of us, adventure ready, headlamps on, layers donned, heading up towards Broken Hand Pass hoping to summit Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle in the Sangre de Cristo Range of Colorado. We’d been having a series of intense mountain storms every afternoon, so an early start was mandatory.
We really weren’t on the trail for most the time up the pass. Scrambling and traversing was perhaps just a precursor to the rest of our day, but spirits were high; bodies felt good. We made it to the lake by 7 a.m. and launched ourselves up the “red gully” a pretty straightforward and fun ascent of Crestone Peak.
It was an awesome scramble, probably one of my favorites and before we knew it we were topping out on Crestone Peak, wind rushing over the lichen spotted rocks near the summit. The vertigo was intense. It was only 8 a.m.
After a descent of roughly 400 feet we all stopped to collect ourselves. Three members of the group were going to continue down and back over to Broken Hand Pass. My friend and I decided to join another couple in climbing the class 3/4 traverse to summit Crestone Needle.
The traverse was tricky but fun. There were moments of anxiety as we realized we were off route and intimidated by the sharp rock spines that separated us from the Needle. We found our way to the Black Gendarme, the final pitches before the summit. Had fun pulling the crux 5.2 move, crossing a short knife edge and climbing some exposed class 4 with solid foot and hand holds. It took us twice as long as we predicted to summit the Needle due to a number of reasons, but our spirits were gloriously high when we reached the summit. The sky was still clear and all we had was a class 3 descent to Broken Hand Pass. We should be home in an hour or two…
At this point we paused (though probably not long enough) because we heard the descent was really tricky to find. We pulled out all our beta and talked to a few other climbing groups, a few of which were headed down different gullies. We gained a ridge line, following cairns and then stopped to figure out which gully we should proceed down. “West,” it said. So, after double checking a compass, we headed down the west gully from the ridgeline.
At first, the descent was an easy class 3 and all the time we had a pair of climbers descending below us. One member spotted a cairn but in hindsight it was a mistaken pile of rocks. Slowly the difficulty increased. Looking back, it was like we were in a slowly heating kettle, but not noticing the temperature rising around us.
Class 3 soon became class 4, with definite class 5 moves. It was becoming obvious that we were not only off route, but dangerously off route. The other group was always below, just within sight. Soon they were crossing East at a notch into another gully. At this point we had one final pitch of class 5 down climbing in order to reach the notch and cross over into the other gully. Everyone had their game face on. Slipping meant serious injury at best. Everyone was sincerely hoping that next gully over was the right one.
But it wasn’t. By now storms were building and we’d already descended almost 1500’. I am not sure about the others, but in my head I was uneasy going back up. We were caught in a catch 22. We needed to go up and try to find the route, but needed to get down quickly due to incoming storms. So we continue down, down class 4 that turned to more class 5. Swallowing our fears and focussing on each step, every handhold, every movement. And we’d all heard the stories and trip reports: Don’t descend the wrong gully. People get cliffed-out. People get caught in storms. People die.
We were writing our story in the land of “epics.” And not at all sure how it was going to end.
But everyone in the group kept their composure. We made every move forward at this point as a group. We kept focus and didn’t voice the fears. As my legs turned to dead weight I clung to something my husband is always saying to me about running.
“When you think you can’t possibly keep going, you can. You can go far further than you think.”
We picked our way down the mountain. I ran out of water. Small clouds hovered and we all pulled out our rain gear as small sprinkles fell from the sky. Finally, we reached a level shelf. It was so close to the bottom that I felt I could just dive into the lake down in the valley. We each took a side of the shelf to look for our next step down. But there wasn’t one. We came back one by one, “nothing over there,” “it just drops off…” But the worst was my friend, “Well, I found a sling…the other group had climbing gear and rapped off the side.” Not good. Not good at all.
The sheer cliffs on each side left us with a disparaging feeling. At this point, we all had a glimpse of hopelessness on our faces. In my head I kept thinking, “We are those people. Those people who got lost on a fourteener.”
At this point I found the best looking “weakness” in the cliff band and decided to down climb for a better look at what was below. But it led to another worse looking crack system. Maybe it was my refusal to believe we really were stuck. Maybe it was my last ditch attempt at hope or due to the fact I was dehydrated and out of water, but I still wanted to try going down. One guy said no. And all it took was a glance at another friend’s face to know I was being unreasonable. We climbed back up a ways and took a break.
We took stock. A huge storm was sweeping over the peaks adjacent to us. We had to keep moving but I was out of water. One guy pulled out a Lifestraw that I used to drink out of the small pools of running water we frequently came across. Soon we found a runoff collection from a snow field large enough to re-fill reservoirs. We tossed in some iodine tablets for good measure, pulled out some layers, and came to terms with the very real possibility that we might have to bivy for the night. At this point we decided to call my husband, (since we happened to have cell coverage) and share our general location and warn him we were prepared to spend the night. Feeling completely powerless and fully recognizing my mortality, I did the only thing I knew to do, pray.
We had two gullies to choose from. The one we had descended and a band of grass and rock that arched up to the west. I am still not sure why we went for the latter. Logic would say backtrack the way we came. But we chose the band of grass and rock heading west, desperately hoping it ended somewhere good. By now my legs were screaming, my breath coming quick and short. I needed to keep moving, I needed to be fast, but I couldn’t.
When I was half way up the ridge, David yelled from the top, “I see the ‘red gully’ and a clear descent to it!” But the storm was charging over us. Our time had run out. While the descent to the gully was class 2, it had begun to hail and was slippery. I began simply sliding down the grassy, flower patches (flower glissading?) to move more quickly. Quick was necessary. We knew the storm patterns from the last couple days. Hail that turns to torrential downpour. And that is exactly what it did. Just as the last one of us got off the mountain and into the valley the hail faded into sheets of rain and the gullies we’d been scrambling, climbing and descending in all day erupted into full on raging waterfalls. I’ll never forget the sight of the peaks, like fountains roaring down from above.
It was a flash flood at 14,000 feet. And we’d missed it by minutes.
While we were decently sure the worst was behind us, the adventure was far from over. We headed back up Broken Hand Pass, barely moving, with lightning crashing around us. There was no place to shelter, so we kept moving. My legs didn’t even hurt much anymore. They just wouldn’t work… partially from the wet, cold and certainly from exhaustion. But at the summit the clouds moved off and sun warmed our soaked limbs. We were pretty certain of one thing, we’d be sleeping in our tents that night.
I am not sure how long it took us to descend the pass back down to South Colony Lakes. Our group back at camp had been watching earnestly for us, and we heard cheers and whoops as we came into view. They’d made us a hot dinner: chicken broth, potatoes, stuffing, gravy. Perhaps this will be the most memorable “thanksgiving” dinner I’ll ever have. Tears were plentiful as all the frightful emotions we’d controlled all day flowed free.
I am still processing all that happened, all that could have happened or maybe should have. In the end, we don’t know how far we hiked that day, but we’d spent 16.5 hours on the trail and according to my altimeter ascended AND descended over 12,000 vertical feet.
There are a few things I know, other than God’s favor, that saved us up there that day:
1. Team work – There were four of us in our “lost and cliffed-out” group, one being a guy. Maybe it was the natural group dynamics, but the guy was put in the lead a lot. He didn’t stress about this, but also made sure to address each one of us, asking our opinion on route finding, terrain, etc. before making the next move. There was an unspoken rule that we all needed to be okay with the route we chose.
2. We didn’t freak – Sure, we all wanted to. At each separate moment where we lost route or became cliffed-out again I could feel the panic creeping up my throat. The temptation to sit down or start crying was very real and powerful, but we held onto our composure. We didn’t think about the what ifs: “What if we fall? What if we never find a way down? What if that storm gets here before we get off the mountain?” All those thoughts wouldn’t have served us at all, but only slowed us down.
3. Survival gear – Looking back I’d like to upgrade much of my survival gear in my day pack, as I was borrowing from others. Items that made a significant difference:
- Lifestraw – When I ran out of water, I used this to suck water out of small puddles.
- Iodine Tablets – Once we found pools large enough, we refilled our hydration systems. And while the Iodine probably wasn’t necessary (the water was melting directly from snowpack) it still gave peace of mind.
- Space Blanket – I certainly had one, which made the possibility of spending a cold night on the side of a fourteener slightly less freaky. Now I’d probably upgrade to a space blanket bivy sac.
- Poncho – A $1 plastic poncho saved my pack and dry layers from the rain as I draped it over the top of everything.
- Rain Jacket and Shell Pants: While I had a jacket, I certainly wished I had shell pants, as my legs were wet and very cold after the storm hit.
- Food – I did not bring enough food, but thankfully much of the group did. From now on I am going to add Energy Shots, Peanut Butter Packets, and small forms of high calorie energy to my pack.