Three Times Not the Charm

Climbing a mountain is always uncertain, and the summit is never guaranteed. You prepare by picking a great team, training hard, and having a smart plan based on good, conservative decisions. No matter how good your preparation, however, the mountains have a way of showing you they are in charge.

I recently headed down to Ouray, a small town in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, to meet two old friends, Mike O'Donnell and Mike Gibbs. A steep box canyon runs through town, and the walls are sprayed with water, which freezes and creates amazing ice pillars and curtains, attracting ice climbers from all around the world. Being former owners of San Juan Mountain Guides, Mike and Mike know the San Juan Mountains better than almost anyone else. Mike O now builds safety plans for employees out on oil and gas exploration vessels; and Mike G owns Rigging for Rescue, which trains search and rescue teams around the country on rope and rigging techniques and protocol. So these two guys understand safety.

It was with that background that ten years ago, we headed above town to a classic ice climb, The Ribbon - three pitches of steep grade-four ice. It started snowing hard after the first pitch. Thinking we could beat the storm, we kept climbing. But half way up pitch two, a fairly big spindrift avalanche poured over us. Spindrift avalanches are created by wind piling snow up at the top of a face. When the snow gets too loaded, it's got nowhere to go but down the face and over the climbers who happen to be on it. The avalanche carried ice chunks with it, and they cracked against my helmet; I'd just seen Saving Private Ryan, and it sounded a lot like artillery from the movie. I was also wearing a one-piece Gore-Tex suit, fashionable in the day, and I had the hood off and the front zipper down a bit. Snow filled my suit, which made me cold instantly. Mike and Mike still laugh about my master-of-the-obvious statement even today, because I yelled up “I think that was an avalanche.”

Retreating as quickly as we could, we rapped down the face, slid down the snowy hill and across the river at the bottom. Just as we reached the parking lot, an even bigger avalanche ripped down the face and went all the way to the river. Close call, and good decision to bail.

So now ten years later, the three of us headed up for a do-over. And crazy coincidence - at the top of the first pitch, it started dumping snow. The three of us instantly had flashbacks of our last experience and decisively made the decision to get out of there.

Third time is the charm, we thought, as we headed up again several days later. The weather had been clear and stable, and conditions looked safe. But at the bottom of the climb as we sat putting on crampons and taking out tools, the wind suddenly picked up. It wasn't long before another avalanche poured down the face. It was so powerful. It created a strong wind that blew snow over us and into our open packs for two very long minutes. Mike O grabbed my harness, and we hunkered down while snow hammered our bodies. We'd been bare-handed putting on crampons, so when it finally passed, our hands were so wooden numb that we had to spend several minutes beating them against our legs to get life back in them.

“We’re clearly not going up there," Mike said softly, now taking the prize for master-of-the-obvious. "We’re getting the hell out of here.”

We threw gear in our packs and butt-slid down the face as fast as we could with a mix of frustration and relief.

The beauty of climbing is that there are always other possibilities. After bailing on The Ribbon, we headed to another Colorado classic, the Skylight. It is comprised of two steep pitches: the first up and around a bulging chalk-stone; and the second being a dead-vertical chimney with rock and ice on one side, and a wildly steep ice curtain on the other. In some places the chimney is so narrow that you have your back pressed against the wall while you pick your way up the ice curtain on the other side. In a few spots, you have to work your way out of the chimney and climb overhanging ice, which pumped my arms and made me sweat - even on a frigid winter day. Ice climbing is a combo of suffering and fun. Maybe we need a new word: call it "suffunning."

And lastly, I heard a moment ago that a well-respected and loved Ouray guide, Mark Miller, was killed last Friday while climbing. What a terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to his family and the good people of Ouray. We've lost way too many friends to the mountains. Please give a prayer or a moment of reflection to honor this loss.

With respect and sadness,

Mountain Hardwear, Scarpa, and LEKI Athlete,

Erik Weihenmayer