The West Gully with Lisa, Rocky Mountain National Park
Phrases like “unmitigated boldness” and “ruthless tenacity” are ringing in my head as I put down an article about climbing the last, great, unsolved problems of the Himalayas. I have been reading this article for the last 20 minutes and am now properly conditioned for an intense examination of my local guidebook. It’s winter, which simplifies matters. I focus my search on multi-pitch ice climbs that are rated no harder than WI4. The pickings are slim. My main climbing arena is Rocky Mountain National Park and although the park offers a lifetime of rock climbing, multi-pitch ice climbs are uncommon. In the end, I choose the West Gully above Black Lake in Glacier Gorge. It is 3-4 pitches in length, it is rated WI4, and it is 6 miles into the backcountry. Of course, to my thinking, that will keep us engaged until around noon. “Perhaps we can summit McHenry’s Peak after the climb? After all, we will be in perfect position for a quick jaunt up Stone Man Pass. Better yet, if we finish early enough, we could do a route on McHenry’s.” Sensing that I may be getting ahead of myself, I settle for an ascent of the peak via a non-technical route.
Lisa and I already have plans to climb on Sunday and there was even talk
of the West Gully so I casually mention that I would like to climb McHenry’s
if we have time. She responds with a reality based
“I am totally out of shape” and I do my best to play it down. The truth
is that I am in the worst shape that I have been in for two years and my plan
is unreasonable. None-the-less, we agree to meet at 5am at Lisa’s house in Estes
Park. A few hours and a bottle of vino later, I am on the phone again, changing
our starting time to 6am. Apparently, each glass of wine has a direct correlation
to the speed at which one can hike the following morning. We will be fast!
The alarm goes off at 4:40 and I get up and drive an hour to Estes. Lisa is ready to go at our 6am start time and we head off to the Glacier Gorge trailhead. Sunrise is approaching as we leave the trailhead and I find it exceedingly difficult to maintain a fast pace. Some would even argue that I was slightly hung over. I start to feel better as the miles pass and by Mill’s Lake I am happy to be alive and in such a spectacular place. Lisa is in good spirits as well, despite having worked until 11pm the night before. She is such a trooper. We eventually force our snowshoe-clad feet up the last steep section of trail and arrive at Black Lake. Ahem, the approach has taken us 3 hours… just like the guidebook said it would. It is already 9:30 and a little voice in the back of my head says something about time and McHenry’s summit and… I stop listening.
|Lisa crossing Mill's lake on our way up Glacier Gorge.||McHenry's Peak and the West Gully (below the left summit)|
The route looks striking. The first pitch looks to be moderately angled ice followed by a steep section that may be mixed. The last pitch is lower angled but I have heard that it can be thin. In fact, a more experienced friend damaged two of his ice screws on that pitch last week. As I cross Black Lake I visualize myself climbing the crux pitch in style.
There is a semi-steep snow slope leading up to where the ice begins and we stop at the base of this slope to don our crampons and harnesses. The climbing on the snow slope is fun and serves as a nice transition from the semi-flat approach to the steeper ice that lies above.
|Me on the approach slope above Black Lake.||Lisa approaching the first pitch.|
The first pitch goes by smoothly despite a lack of adequate protection. There is a 3-4 inch layer of ice that has formed over a layer of granular snow. If this were a snow slope, I would be thinking avalanche. As it is, the climbing is fairly easy so I am not too concerned. After all, the leader is not supposed to fall when ice climbing anyway! Twice I try to dig though the snow layer to the ice beneath only to find another layer of ice over snow. I give up on protection. A crack in the rock buttress that forms the left side of the gully offers what I hope will be an island of safety. When I arrive I am immeasurably pleased to place three bomber cams and arrange a belay. Lisa seconds the pitch in fine style and our attention turns to the crux pitch.
|This is Lisa seconding the first pitch. You can see a the two screws where I tried to dig through the first layer of ice and snow to get to more solid ice.|
Twenty-five feet into the next pitch the ice becomes more solid and I get a good ice screw. Feeling emboldened by the protection, I decide to take a mixed variation. A short section with one axe and crampon on vertical rock and the others on ice takes me to a 70-degree bench of ice that I must traverse. I tentatively front point out onto the bench of ice and place an ice screw while trying not to think about falling. If I fall here, I am going to hit a ledge. After the screw goes in, I clip directly into the screw and take a mental rest. I am not tired physically but I enjoy a break from the danger. While I am resting, I see a crack a little higher and to my right. After I finagle a small cam in the crack I turn to the crux of the route. A short steep section capped with a small overhang. Fortunately, there is a screw placement just below the overhang and, after clipping one of my ropes to that screw, the overhang goes easily.
|Me starting the second pitch.||The first part of the second pitch.|
Above the overhang I realize that I have made a really big mistake. I have NO protection left. I thought there was still a 22cm ice screw on the back of my harness and that I would be able to make a V-thread and back it up with the screw. Angry with myself for making such a potentially dangerous mistake, I start looking for alternatives. After a few minutes of scouting around, I find a rock that I can belay behind in such a way that I cannot be pulled toward the edge. I yell to Lisa that she is on belay but she cannot hear me. Rope signals ensue. Three pulls. Pause. Three pulls. I feel the rope go slack and start taking in rope as Lisa starts climbing. I sit through a cold belay wondering if this "belay rock" was put here for me as a reward for hiking other people’s trash out from beautiful places. Lisa arrives at the belay feeling a little worked. She is not terribly excited at the sight of my anchor but she judges it to be “safe”.
This is the point at which we should bail. Lisa is experiencing extreme fatigue. When I look up at the last two pitches, I see relatively easy, low-angle ice and think, “Sweet, the hard part is over, that looks like a cruise”. When Lisa looks up, she turns to me and says. “I hope I can do it”. This statement alone should tell me it is time to descend. Unfortunately, it does not. Before long, I am 200 feet above her setting a 3-screw ice anchor. Lisa climbs well and I start to think that she is feeling better. At the anchor, the discussion is divided between the last pitch and the fact that the sun is setting! We both concur that this is a very bad thing. I have been watching the shadow of McHenry’s Peak creep up the west face of Long’s Peak for the last 45 minutes and I know we are going to be benighted. What can you do?
|The lower angled third pitch. Fortunately this pitch was not thin and offered great protection.||Lisa arriving at the top of the third pitch.|
I solo the last pitch in an effort to save time (and because it was easy) and run up the brushy, snow slope above. I wedge myself behind some boulders and bring Lisa up. She is moving slowly now and I know she is in pain. Things are looking grim. We need to get back down to Black Lake. “Everything would be fine as soon as we got back to Black Lake.” This is the thinking. We talk about the descent. There are two options. One is faster and steeper and one is much longer but only has one steep section that is relatively short.
The top of the West Gully is close to the top of the steep descent so we decided to run over and get a better look. The last rays of sunlight are leaving us. It is getting cold. Neither of us have enough clothing to spend the night on this hill. I am wearing everything I have. Lisa still has a down jacket in her pack. Lisa also has a headlamp that is not working! The only thing preventing us from being totally screwed is the BEAUTIFUL full moon.
Since I am moving faster, and it’s a non-technical walk to get to the top of the descent, I run ahead to scout the down-climbing and determine whether or not it is feasible. My gut reaction when I see the slope is that it does not look too bad. It is definitely steep, but the snow is in perfect condition for climbing. When Lisa joins me at the top. We decide to descend.
This descent involves down climbing 40-50 degree snow for many hundreds of feet and avoiding exposed rock slabs. I look at the slope and pick my line. It is very direct but looks reasonable. The slope is too steep to face outward, so I turn in and start to kick steps downward.
Two minutes later, I hear the terrifying sound of my front points scraping on rock only 4 inches beneath the snow cover. I have found another rock island that is hidden by a thin layer of snow. I try not to think about what will happen if the snow on this rock all slides off. Looking down I see 300 feet of steep snow followed by a cliff. Falling is not an option! It is tempting to force my way across the snow covered rock because I am fatigued. I don’t want to have to climb back up the 100 feet it will require to avoid this rock. None-the-less, I start climbing back up to Lisa who is also dismayed to hear that we cannot go this way.
Once above the hidden rock band, we scout another path to descend. We stand at the top of the slope wishing the wind would die down. It is not really strong but it is blowing up the slope so every time we kick a step in the snow, it releases small granules of ice that blow up in our faces. At least we have a full moon. I descend first and am only 50 feet down when I hear Lisa yell down that she is feeling faint. She asks if I want to rappel. I don’t want to, but I know that we will, because it is the right thing to do. When I climb back up to Lisa, she is not feeling or looking too good. She tells me that she is having trouble breathing. Now I am genuinely worried. I ask her if she has her asthma inhaler. She does. After a few shots from her inhaler, she is able to breath normally again. When she regains her breath, she looks up and says, “Are you scared?” I respond that I am not scared but I think we are in a “real situation”. The truth is that I am a little scared. It’s dark; the wind is blowing; we are still 800 feet above Black Lake and 6 miles from the truck, I am wearing all my clothes and I’m cold; Lisa is not feeling well and has had trouble breathing; and we are both tired, hungry, and dehydrated. This has all the makings of an accident.
I start looking for a block to sling so that we can rappel. There is nothing around that I trust so I start looking for good cam placements. I find a bomber cam placement and setup the rappel. Lisa is feeling a little better now although she is still not herself. I ask her the sum of 5+6 and get no response. I ask again and she gives a delayed answer. I grill her as to whether she can rappel safely and she assures me that she can. We agree that I will go first and give her a fireman’s break from the bottom.
I rappel into the darkness with the only working headlamp. 50 feet below I have to stop and untangle the ropes. Profanity ensues. Finally, I finish the rappel and call up to Lisa to start coming down. As I do this, I turn to see an ice axe sticking out of the snow. I smile and think, “at least I am going to get a new ice axe out of this”. As I approach the axe though, I realize that it is MINE! I don’t know how but it must have come off of my pack while I was 200 feet above with Lisa and tumbled down here. I am truly stunned by the luck of what has just happened. The shaft of the axe is sticking into the snow only 4 inches and on a 50-degree snow slope! If I had not seen it happen, I would not believe it.
Eventually, Lisa joins me at the bottom of the rappel. She is feeling better. She says the she feels comfortable down-climbing the next section so I tell her to start down while I gather the ropes. They get stuck for a moment but then pull free. Wahoo!
The next two hours are spent working our way down the endless snow slopes to Black Lake. Lisa is a trooper and maintains her focus on the problem at hand; a difficult thing to do at this point in the day. We have been on the go for 14 hours. As soon as I get to the lower angle slope below, I start to glissade on my bum. It is somewhat of a system shock to be having fun again. When Lisa gets to the easy slopes I finally allowed myself to relax. We amble our way down the last slope and collapsed on Black Lake. The relief is palpable. We both sit for a while and bask in the knowledge that we have been out on a limb (for us) and we have tested our skills and passed. Not even the 6-mile hike back to the truck is enough to dampen our spirits!
The hike out was uneventful, albeit grueling towards the end. We got to the truck 16.5 hours after setting out and we drove back to Estes in a trance, going very slowly. I stayed in Estes that night because I was in no shape to drive back to Fort Collins. Lisa somehow found the energy to reheat leftovers. That was the final straw and, after eating, I promptly passed out on the couch still wearing all my Gore-tex.
All in all, it was a damn fine day!