I feel pretty lucky to be sitting here typing this trip report today. Yesterday, Jon Jay and I had a pretty scary experience on our tour of Mt. Yale.
Yale is a haul at 14,196 it begs an early start. I left Denver at 3am to meet up with Jon at the Silver Creek trailhead outside of Buena Vista. Jon had done some touring the day before and camped out that night with a few others while I opted to sleep in my warm bed and meet him in the morning.
We set off for the 10 mile round trip a little after 7am. Our start was a little later than planned, but we weren’t too worried since the Silver Creek bowl on Mt. Yale faces north, and we figured the snow would remain cool most of the day. The plan was to summit by noon, ski the bowl and be back to the trailhead by 3pm. Needless to say, things did not go as planned.
We got off to a fast start, quickly ascending the first 1000 vertical in 45 minutes. Soon we were in the trees and the amount of snow warranted a skin-up. Soon we were skinning through the trees and made it to a small lake where we had a great view of our destination. From this vantage point it looked like there were 2 summits.
Eventually we began skinning through some dense trees and continued to gain elevation. We ascended up a ridge out of tree line and were pretty much on the east ridge of Yale. From where we were it seemed like we could easily traverse the ridge to the summit, but as we would find out later -much later – we were wrong.
We opted to boot pack the ridge but were constantly post-holing into deep snow intermittent with a densely packed trail and rock. This made for some tedious and time/energy-consuming hiking. We both realized the easier route would’ve been to continue through the trees up the gully, and gain the north ridge of Yale. This would’ve made for a much shorter trip.
Back to our route, even though we realized the trip would be longer, we were in high spirits and stil thought we could make good time. We were eyeing the false summit as our destination, and I think we both wanted to believe it was the true summit, or at least close to it.
On the way across the ridge we did have to maneuver through one tricky section that offered some bouldering and steep boot packing. I think this section took a lot of energy out of both Jon and I which we would feel later on in the tour. As we neared the false summit, we were tempted by some enticing couloirs that dropped off to our north. They were filled in nicely, steep and tight, and probably would’ve been fun to ski. However, the vertical was short, and we both wanted an ascent off the summit. We also felt the more mellow bowl at the top would be safer, this was also not the case as we would eventually discover.
When we finally gained the false summit we got a really good view of how far away we actually were. By this time it was 1pm, an hour later than our anticipated summit time. We figured it would take another hour to summit from here. Had we not been so fatigued, we might have been correct.
We had to rock scramble down the false summit, which took a ton of time, and caused us to lose precious altitude. We had been at about 13,000 ft for hours now and the altitude may have been sapping more of our energy. Both Jon and I are typically very strong at altitude, but by now we were drained with another 1500′ to go. Perhaps it was more mental than physical, after having seen how far we really had to go.
We finally gave in and put the skins on again and decided to tour to the top. This decision probably saved us a few more hours. We switch-backed up a north-facing snowfield to the east of the summit. I broke trail and was feeling really good about the snow on this aspect. It was soft and seemed stable. I was also feeling very nautious and had a slight need to throw-up. I normally love Pro-Bars, but my stomach didn’t like the fat and density in the one I ate before our final push to the summit. From now on I think I’ll only eat energy gel after 13,000 feet.
So, we finally summited at 3pm, 3 hours later than anticipated. We were both tired and Yale had thrown us everything we could have expected, all except one thing that is.
We took a break, hydrated and transitioned, ready to drop in. We scoped the line and figured we would ski the face from the summit and drop into the both to our left. After agreeing on the descent, Jon tipped his skis over the edge and right as he was about to push off he looked up and said “Where are my manners? You summited first, you want firsties?”
By now I was chomping at the bit. I had no idea what was about to happen as I exclaimed “Sure!” with enthusiasm. I made sure Jon had the camera ready, pointed my skis over the edge and pushed off the cornice at the top.
I carved three amazing turns on the face, carved left into the bowl and that’s when all hell broke loose, literally.
I noticed the snow in front of me was rippling, like whitewater in a river. In a split second I went from confusion to sheer panic as I thought “oh my God, this is really happening.” There was no sound to warn me, nothing to give me a heads up that something was awry. By the time I saw that snow rippling in front of me, it was already too late. The slab I was riding began to break up, my attempt to turn out was useless. Instead, the slide swiped my legs out from underneath me and began to take me for a ride. I was sliding on my right side, and it seemed like slow motion. The snow above me was pushing against my body and all I could think was “please don’t bury me.” I tried to cover my mouth in case I went under, so I could form an air pocket.
Then I felt it – wham! I hit the first rock. The snow had pulled my skis down like anchors and I was being dragged along the bedrock. That first rock hurt like hell and then there was another, and then a third rock hit me all around the same spot on my right leg. Finally, the slide began to slow down and it ran out nicely, leaving only my skis and boots buried in cement-hard snow. I could see Jon at the top and signaled that I was ok. My leg was in pretty rough shape though and I feared it might be broked. I couldn’t pull my skis from the snow because my leg was in such pain.
Jon picked his way safely to where I was and checked to see if I was ok. I still had a serious adrenaline rush but all in all I was ok. The pain in my leg began to subside enough to where I could put weight on it, and pull my legs free. I was able to carefully ski down to the trees to begin our long slog out.
The slide was about 6 inches deep, 100 ft across, and ran for about 700 feet down the slope.
The next 4.5 miles were psychologically demanding. The conditions made for an extremely tedious trek out. The trail was covered in large intermitten drifts of snow. This meant we couldn’t ski, but walking was arduous because we were constantly post-holing through these huge mounds. It was frustrating but by this point I was just happy to be alive, and even moe elated that I could walk out on my own power.
We finally reached the trailhead at about 6pm. Even now I can’t stop thinking about the slide, like a movie playing in my head. As I look at the pictures, it was highly unlikely that this slide could’ve buried me. I wasn’t aware of that fact while I was in it, and the fear I felt was something I’ll never forget. Even though the risk for burial was slim, I’m still gimping 2 days later. You can rest assured, it was not a fun experience. I can’t imagine being in a 2ft deep slab avalanche and I don’t ever want to know what that feels like. In retrospect, this was probably one of the best outcomes I could’ve hoped for – a little wake-up call with some pain sprinkled in for good measure. Either way, I feel very lucky and have learned just a little bit more for next time.
I highly recommend reading Jon Jay’s perspective on what happened. Jon is one of the most experienced and safety oriented Ski-mountaineers I know. Check out Jon Jay’s travels. http://jonathanjay.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/mt-yale-silver-creek-bowl-avalanche/#comment-208