Fritz expertly navigated his loaded teal green 4×4 van up the slippery snow and mud covered road below our first peak. At 9:00 AM we started skiing through snowy sagebrush, across the anti-climatic high plains toward the Mt Shavano/ Tabeguache trailhead. It was already 65 degrees and the plan we agreed to yesterday, for a lighter day of skiing to ease into the trip was underway – Springtime in the Rockies style.
Acclimatization is the fickle game of predicting the rate your body will adapt to functioning at higher altitudes. It effects everyone differently and often inconsistently. In the late 90′s while developing outer wear for The North Face, I was surrounded by some of the mountaineering legends of their sponsored athlete program – like being able to talk driving strategy with Michael Schumacher. I had been scheming ways to get to 8000m peaks and was hungry for their advise. Each said in their own version that fitness and the ability to adapt to altitude are often at odds in the mountains. ‘Fit guys are able to go too high too fast, then get into trouble because they have not acclimatized properly’. I heard what they said but it has taken more than ten years to understand the indifferent nature of the beast.
James outlined our route – according to our National Geographic Maps topo, we were starting at about 9,000′, we would ski over Mt Shavano at 14,229, descent to 13,600, over Tabeguache at 14,155′ then ski down to 11,000 via an unknown ridge off the northwest summit of our second peak, Tabeguache. It was the best we could see from our map and would also position us to summit peak 3, Antero – 14,269′, tomorrow. 6.000′ up – 3,500′ down – 8 miles.
Eventually we broke out of tree line by mid-afternoon, in six hours we were about a third of our vertical goal through the easiest terrain. We took a break in the sun to reward ourselves and eat some lunch. Our 50 lbs packs were slowing us down a bit but the temperature was still above 55 degrees and sun was everywhere.. We opted off the summer trail in favor of the most direct route up the center of the snow loaded drainage. A perfect combination of hard, wind packed snow and brand new Black Diamond STS Climbing skins on the bottom of our skis afforded us the opportunity to climb up the steepest, most strenuous line toward the summit. This crew saw STRONG! Each step required careful placement and a secondary ‘stomp’ to seat the directional hairs of the skins into the snow for traction. Lose purchase and your skis slide you and your load racing backward until you can arrest yourself with a maneuver best describe as a giraffe drinking water on ice.
Near the top of the gully leading us to 13.300′ the angle lessened and my mind started to wander. I looked at my watch and turned on my mental calculator for the first time that day. Our pace was slowing in relationship to elevation gained and at this rate we’ll be 9 hours into our day by the time we summit our first 14er. I looked around but could no longer find our casual day. It may have been hiding behind the second peak of our day’s agenda – Mt Tabeguache – but I couldn’t see that yet, either.
I caught up to Fritz (because he stopped) and said ‘I think we over-extended ourselves today’.
He looked at me apparently for clarification. ‘But this is our plan.’
I explained my calculation, ‘I think we should be aware of our pace and we may have to consider other options.’
‘But that’s what we do, we park the car and ski to the summit’.
Looking around there were few more options than backing down or camping above 13,000′. We stood taking it in as James and Zach approached. I restated a version of my thoughts to them and searched for our casual starter day again. I was reminded again we agreed to this plan at the car and we really had no other choices. After a bit more non-associative discussion we opted to summit Shavano then go down to the saddle below, which the map indicated might offer a less steep descent than the NW summit of Tabeguache, and re-evaluate.
For the last 1,000′ we climbed snow-covered scree about twice as steep as your average stairway with skis on our packs. This is an acquired taste best consumed/taken in small doses. From boulder to boulder each step seemed to be higher than my legs wanted and sapped my strength with the balance required. SCARPA had provided us with the very best boots they could offer – their Maestrale boots. They are super light and supple going uphill and stiff and responsive going downhill. Unfortunately there isn’t a boot out there that can change the stiff sole and restricted ankle movement to make it more friendly in scree – most likely, snow-covered scree and ‘more friendly’ rarely coexist.
Just before 6:00 PM we gathered on the summit of Mt Shavano – 14,229′ – nine hours into our casual day. I was dangerously close to having my ski-mountaineering merit badge revoked. Looking across the saddle to Tabeguache, a solid hour push with 1000 ft of descent and climbing just to reach the summit, we didn’t even have to bring that option up. I was worked physically, out of water, and I was demonstrating hints of altitude intolerance. My instincts were cautioning against ‘epic’ and experience reminded me every decision remaining in our day would either contribute or prevent that end.
We descended more scree (a different kind of tricky) to the saddle between the two peaks with little light left in our day. We looked down the 2,500′ snow slope that we hoped would lead to a camp at the lowest altitude en route – 11’000. However we could not see the middle section of the descent due to the steepness of the slope. I skied down a few hundred feet to get a better view. The snow was so hard my skis were not leaving tracks, presenting the possibility of a violent collision with rocks below if we accidently fell. Looking down the snow-loaded slope I could see that just over halfway down the slope narrowed into a gully maybe 30′ wide, dipped under a 200′ long cornice/ drift, then dog legged left and out of sight for hundreds of feet. Scanning the area about half the drainages I could see ended in cliff bands and the others looked ski-able. From our viewpoint there was no way to know what was in the gully that was out of sight. Quite possibly it would go – but if it cliffed out, became significantly more of an avalanche risk or it slid we would have to deal with a rescue or a difficult exit in the dark, compromised from our strenuous day.
Fritz, Zach and James seemed sure the one square inch of uniform topo lines on our map, defining the section of gully we could not see, indicated a predictably safe descent . I had met some of the cartographers at the National Geographic Maps headquarters in Evergreen just before the trip and knew if the lines did not pan out to be as we hoped I could take it up with them, and their manager after the trip – if I was alive. I’m also weirdly afraid of the dark and am not completely sure yetis don’t lurk in the shadows. Consequently it wasn’t that unpredictable that I was not keen to ski blindly into a promising map interpretation – after our 10 hour day – at dusk – on our lighter day… . It would be safer in the morning with fresh legs and plenty of daylight if things got sideways.
Ultimately I refused to ski into the ‘chute of the unknown’ at dusk and we camped at 13,500′ – our group dynamics now completely polarized. I felt that the ‘too scared to ski the slope’ label that I was now being tagged with was not entirely fair. It wasn’t fear of the slope I could see but concern for entering a situation whose consequences were hopeful but absolutely unknown. Acceptable risk – ideally founded on experience and proved over time. Mine ran more conservative than theirs and because theirs were based equally on their perceptions it was difficult to synthesize. The inability to reconcile these types of differences could play on the outcome of our journey.
Dinner was a lonely affair of pasta, salami, cheese and more pasta – each item sulking in its own corner of the plate, separated by far more than just a pathetic excuse for an entrée divider. By standing up to the rest of my team for what I strongly believed was the only safe decision I had violated a bond among my Leadville compatriots and was overtly cast to the outside of the Xtreme Guy Club. I tried in vain to remember the secret handshake but all I could come up with was the Boulder Brodeo. Likewise, I wondered if I’d brought my membership card but realized I’d left it in the pocket of my BASE rig. Or was it still in my free-diving speedo? Or in that little pocket on the Red Bull helmet with my rocket cycle at the salt flats?
Strangely enough a fox approached our camp. At first it startled me but it was also somehow reassuring as it trotted through the edge of our headlamp beams. I climbed in my sleeping bag early and alone with the lights of Salida glittering a world away, unaware of what I would face in the upcoming hours.