Due to popular demand... here's the story:
I went "mountaineering" with Chris and Greg. Usually I bring an extra pair of normal shoes or something but our car was short of space so I left a pair of runners behind that I usually bring with me. We got into the car and drove to CO. we got into a little town called Rico around 10pm and got out of the car. It was way too cold to gear up outside so we knocked on the door of the only lit building and two carpenters let us in. We talked to them for a bit and they told us this was the coldest part of the year and they hadn't seen it colder in five years, I figured they were probably exaggerating about the five year thing and were just straight wrong about the "coldest part of the year" bit but I didn't say so. I spent a long time lacing up my Koflach mountaineering boots, they are super hardcore but heavy and cumbersome, like walking in ski-boots but not quite as bad.
We hit the road again and I was dreading the sight of road number 38 covered in snow, which would mean we’d have to do an extra 7 miles each way. It had snow, but not too much, Chris drove my 2wd Saturn for about 1 mile in before the snow got too deep and we parked on the side of the dirt road and got out.
I have a dinky thermometer attached to my jacket's zipper and it quickly dropped to -20 celsius, which is the lowest it's capable of showing.
When we'd first seen the San Juans I had been disappointed by how little snow there was on them and now that we were up close I was even more disappointed. There would be no need for crampons so I left them in the car and put quotes around the word “mountaineering” in the first paragraph. I'd brought a rope and harness but Greg and Chris had not brought their harnesses so my equipment was useless, I was a little disappointed as the previous venture into these mountains we'd been stopped by lack of gear at 13,500' by a free climb on a knife edge; but that was an unpublished route, this time we'd take a known one. I threw my harness back into the car with the rope and stood there thinking.
For the first time, I was expecting to be the weakest member of a crew. I've been on a lot of trips with Chris and we're really even on normal terrain, but the previous time in the San Juans (and every time we'd been in deep snow going up hill) he'd totally killed me. Chris is the kind of guy that shines with a heavy pack going uphill through deep snow against the wind on one leg in Jupiter's gravity, but he'd severely injured his hip while bailing off a mountain bike in Moab recently. I've done less stuff with Greg, just a couple little day hikes really, but I was very impressed by his 1 and 2 mile times, getting close to 9:00 on the latter. Of us, he'd been training by far the hardest, and he had the best gear, including walking sticks which I used to scorn. Greg is a sponsored white-water kayaker and he runs 7 miles and bikes 50-60km daily as training. I expected his amped out aerobic energy system to really shine when altitude became a factor. It did.
I have a hole in my footwear arsenal, a fact which didn't bother me at all as I take pride in making what I've got work. But looking at Greg and Chris, they both wore solid nikwaxed leather hiking boots with gators and I wished I had something in between my Mt. Everest ready plastic Koflachs and my high top football cleats… which I had intended to use as my backups but was now considering using as my primary shoe. I’d bought the cleats because they were $14 instead of $120 but they were 14s, one size too big. This now worked to my advantage as in preparation for a since cancelled trip to Denali the previous summer I’d splurged on gear (including the Koflachs) and bought a few pairs of really hardcore socks. I always pack more socks than I think I’ll need, I love socks. After mulling around I decided to go with Cleats + megasocks instead of Koflachs + normal socks. I put on a pair of synthetic socks and then two pairs of heavy wool socks on top of those. I picked up the Koflachs to tie them onto my pack and as I picked them up it came to my attention that they weighed roughly five solar masses, each. Would you want to carry ten celestial bodies up a mountain? No I wouldn’t either. I really wished I’d kept my runners in the car as I didn’t like being without backup shoes but 990% of the solar system's mass is too much to carry for something you don’t plan to use, I tossed the Koflachs back in the car with my harness, rope and crampons. Being of such incredible density they immediately sunk through my trunk straight to the center of the earth where they increased gravity immensely for the rest of the trip (OK maybe not).
Except for a constant fight to keep our water sources from freezing, we covered the first six miles pretty quick by walking in the ruts left by someone’s 4x4, passing an abandoned 2006ish Subaru SUV that had gone off into the ditch and evidently wouldn’t come out. We got to the “trailhead” which was really just a sign with snow all around it and started out on what may or may not have been the trail in snowshoe clad glory. After a few hundred meters (yes that new-fangled unit of distance) we had to cross a large frozen stream and, being endowed by God with supernatural intelligence, I decided that walking up the frozen stream would be faster, easier, and all around a better option. Chris and Greg hummed and hawed at the prospect of walking over running water but after I nonverbally made it clear that their manhood was on the line, they followed. I was rather overjoyed by how much easier this was then the previous time when I’d spent seven hours of solid lactic acid burn trying to keep up with Chris and then seven eternities with my quads and hams simultaneously cramping in the tent (when they both cramp at the same time you are officially hosed). I was also overjoyed that I wasn’t slowing down Greg or Chris and that we were making such good time, I pulled my camera out now and again and took a few shots. Unfortunately easy-street ended after about 3 miles where we decided to head left off the stream and go up the left root of Delores Peak into the Navajo basin. After four miles tripping over myself trying to keep up with Greg and falling on all fours panting in the snow whenever he stopped we were finally on the high north slope of the Navajo basin where we set up camp and started a fire. Or more specifically Chris and Greg started a fire while I contributed roughly nothing until it was started. It’s way harder than normal to start a fire when it’s really cold and the 12,000’ means that the fire is 30% short of oxygen just like you. Everything being covered in snow doesn’t help either. I seriously doubted that Chris and Greg would be able to start one but after a struggle they did, and what’s more they got it roaring pretty good so I halfheartedly toasted a bun I’d pre-fried in bacon grease in the open flame and ate it with cold pre-fried bacon, and yogurt, and granola bars and Gatorade. I’d decided to go flameless on my food for the trip but I felt a little regret about this as my cold fingers but cold food between my cold lips. Really though, I wasn’t that cold at this point, someone brought up that their feet were numb or cold or something which reminded me of how toasty mine were in their megasock cocoons.
While in the tent I congratulated myself for ditching the Koflachs and saving so much effort. We spent a night of low quality sleep and then woke up, ate breakfast, and put our feet into shoes that had frozen rock-hard overnight. Chris and Greg applied their snowshoes but looking at the basin I had another “To Koflach or not to Koflach” moment but this time the subject was snowshoes. My preferred style is fast and light and anything that slows me down is acutely annoying when I'm with a fast team. It was early and cold and the north slope of a basin faces south so I figured that the sun should have at some point melted the snow a bit making a crust that I could walk on. Plus much of the side of the basin was not snow covered and I figured if it got bad I’d just go up there and walk on the exposed scree.
My little “♫the-sun-should-have-melted-the-snow-which-should-have-blahblahblah♫” theory will be filed away with ether and the earth-centric solar system as immediately after leaving camp I started post-holing and it took more strength than I had to keep up. After not too long we came across that same stream. I didn’t like the stream this time though, I pondered for a second how the same stream at a higher, and thus colder, elevation could be less frozen and decided it was because it was now very close to it’s clearly above-freezing source.
When you put hard plastic cleats on hard ice it’s hard not to slip and fall. Very hard, I used my ice-axe point to steady myself and to propel myself up the stream all while trying very hard to pretend that I didn’t feel like a moron as the metal points on my companion’s snow shoes bit the ice firmly with every step.
I spent a fair amount of time on ice growing up and as we approached the lake the ice got thinner and weaker, I thought to myself “someone will likely break through this ice if we stay on it.” But three feet of leg-eating powder lay on each side of the stream and I decided to stick with it, taking care to step in the same places that the guy ahead of me had put his foot down for extra assurance.
Little snow puffs would often protrude from the ice about 2-4 inches high and 6-12 inches across. They would usually form on a rock that was sticking up out of the ice but occasionally would form because the ice was so weak that water came through to moisten the ice above enough for falling snow to stick. A snowshoe was planted squarely on one of these snow puffs and my foot was sure to follow. I stepped on the now-trampled snow puff but while the front and back of the 30 inch snow shoe that preceded my foot had been supported by the strong ice in front of and behind the snow puff, my 14 inch shoe had no such luck and broke through the ice into about 6 inches of water before I pulled it out. It happened very fast, my foot was in the water for no more than half a second. A cold thought entered my mind “This could actually be serious, we are hours from anywhere and it is butt cold and my foot is wet” I countered it with “my shoe was only in the water half a second, not much could have gotten in and though it feels wet I chose wool socks specifically because they are supposed to keep you warm when wet… and if you keep moving you should be fine, wouldn’t want to ruin the trip.” I kept going and later my left foot also broke through, though it was even briefer and critically the water did not go above the top of the shoe. Chris and Greg also had breakthroughs.
We got to the lake and I had to redo my clothes to put the camelback with my gatorade in it right against my skin because the gatorade was already frozen and no liquid could be had. There was a rare section of open water where the stream met the lake so we filled the beverage carrying devices there and holy crap I’ve written way too much.
I decided to hit the scree on the left slope to avoid the deep snow while Chris and Greg snow shoed along the basin. Their route was quicker by a couple minutes and we joined up half way to the Rock of Ages saddle at 13,400’. The wind had picked up now but it was at our backs and we saw an old shed type structure ahead and decided to get there and then break. With Greg leading the way we got there to find it was 90% full of snow. We rested and I explored something that had been bothering me. It felt like the hose part of my camelback had somehow gotten down my right pants leg and was stiffening my pants, but it was not. I felt down with my ungloved hand and touched something cold and smooth, ice. To my great exasperation my Gatorade bladder had completely burst but the Gatorade had frozen to my pants before it could get farther than halfway down my thigh creating a very stiff ice-slick that annoyed me every time I took a step. Furthermore this was my only water containing device, I always take at least two usually three bottles and as I'd walked away from the car I'd remembered I’d forgotten the one in my car but I’d already delayed everyone with my shoe-swap so I had kept going. Now I had a problem. We continued up to the saddle. I took Greg’s camera, put it in burst mode and took about 40 pictures from the saddle. It was really windy now and the 40 seconds or so it took to take the pictures was enough to make my hand completely numb, I only stopped shooting because I was afraid I was going to drop Greg’s camera and after putting my hand back in my mitt it was a full 20 minutes before I could feel that hand again. Why didn’t I use my own camera?
:Aside: OK there are enough words here to test the average texan's literacy but this “subplot” (something about using that word seems wrong for a facebook note) is hilarious (I hope). You probably know I’m a camera enthusiast and oddly enough I’m also a battery enthusiast, I’ve been tracking battery and CMOS/CCD sensor technology for ~1/2 a decade. I had this great scheme for this trip that I would run everything off eneloop AA NI-MH batteries, my camera, my headlamp and my phone/gps which was on its inaugural outing. I took about a dozen pictures with my camera and then it died. I put new batteries in it… and they did nothing, my headlamp? Dead. For my gps/phone I had a special little recharger thing that you load with AAs and it rechargers your phone… dead. The cold killed all. Gregs camera survived because it was a compact he kept in his mitt with his hand, a trick I’ll likely copy sometime. What’s more I had been all happy about my little battery/gps scheme beforehand and was all stoked to use the ultra high res topo and satellite images that I’d compiled myself and loaded specifically for this trip onto 4.7gb of my phones sd card. I kept the phone in a pocket in my base layer and only pulled it out occasionally but it was dead after 5 hours, not to be resurrected until much later in a heated vehicle : End Aside:
From the Rock of Ages saddle it would be an easy free climb to the top in summer but in winter with no possibility of using your hands and no ropes and a light slippery dusting of snow and ice on the frozen rock and 1000’ tumbles on either side we decided to can it there. A decision I would have been way more unhappy with if I hadn’t been so tired. I feel like I need to defend our failure to summit as an anomaly in my mountain climbing outings but the last year has been pretty full of them unlike years past. If we’d made it to the top and survived I’d probably be sporting even fewer toes right now.
We went down fast, until we hit the deep snow that I’d avoided before by taking the scree, semi-post holing endlessly was exhausting and the constant immersion in powder numbed my legs, we did not want to take the stream again, I got back to camp about 5 minutes after Chris and Greg did and I collapsed in the tent. I was worried about my right foot and I now had the strangest sensation in it. It felt like my shoe was clamping my toes in a vice, so tight that the only way to get my shoe off would have been to cut it off with a knife (I now suspect that I may have been wrong and the vice-sensation was just what frozen toes feel like). I had a knife but if I cut the shoe I would have no shoe to replace it with since I did not bring back-ups. I wanted to switch the dry socks on my left foot for the wet ones on my right but that wasn’t gonna happen unless I could get my shoes off. I had extra socks too but they were weak normal socks and the shoe would just make them wet leaving me with wet not-wool socks. These thoughts didn’t come to me clearly or all at once they sort of drifted in whenever my lungs allowed my brain to have enough oxygen to think or something like that.
We were going to stay another night but decided to pack it in and head for the car since we clearly didn’t have the equipment we needed. We packed up and took off and I remember feeling water sloshing in my right shoe at about 4pm as I descended a snowy south-facing slope in the sun. As soon as I felt that I was relieved, obviously my toes were fine because they could feel the water sloshing around, I thought about stopping then and changing out the socks but I didn’t. That was my best opportunity.
When we got to the trailhead that marked the six-miles-left-point I was really feeling sleepy, I really wanted to go to sleep on my feet. Chris had been sharing his water with me which was really quite a sacrifice on his part. I’d tried to be sparing with it and both of us were dehydrated as Chris just had a single nalgene bottle and we'd covered 16 grueling miles since my camelback had lysed, it was now dark. The last six miles marked the most fatigued I’ve ever been. I did 50 miles and 22,000 vertical feet in a day once and it doesn’t even compare to how tired I was at this point; going through snow seriously makes it 3-4 times more difficult. My 110L pack was heavy, my quads were cramping but most of all I had an overwhelming desire to go to sleep in the snow. If I hadn’t been with two other guys I probably would have, this desire stuck with me for the remainder of the trip. Whenever we took breaks I’d just collapse and close my eyes and try not to fall asleep though I would always be halfway there before we started up again and once I went fully out and was awakened by someones voice. It was bitter cold again and I shut my brain off, and my eyes. Your eyes use ~25% of your oxygen and more at night I’d learned in AS-357, I blinked open and took 20 steps and blinked open again and continued, the 4x4 ruts guiding my feet but occasionally making me trip, thinking nothing but putting one foot in front of the other. Then my brain turned back on, I thought about how I would describe this to people if they asked, I thought about what a unique experience this was, being so tired, I wondered what opportunities something so unique would present me. Aha! I will play a joke on Chris when we get back to the car. He must see how destroyed I am he would never suspect! Last trip I’d been unable to find my keys on the return, I’d pretend it had happened again.
The thinking took too much effort, I filed away the prank and shut my brain off again. Just one foot in front of the other. I was surprised that I was still walking, I didn’t know it was possible to be so tired and still be walking. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep doing it, my shoulders were cramping too now from carrying the pack, I adjusted the pack to put more weight on my hips but that reduced circulation to my legs or something and made walking harder. Just keep going. My next thought was wondering if I could somehow permanently damage myself by continuing to push, how far had the original marathon greek dude run before he died? I thought it was 220 miles, I’d be totally fine. But he wasn’t dehydrated! I’d be fine. I think even Greg was feeling it at this point, I think the cold was somehow affecting us in a way I don’t understand, I wondered what my core temperature was. I couldn’t feel either of my feet at this point and that was now affecting my walking, it was getting less natural, more irregular. Next my thumbs, I kid you not my thumbs started cramping, weird. My legs weren’t going to go much farther I was trying not to bend at the knee much while stepping because I knew they would buckle if I did, every corner I went around I’d check to see if the car was there, no, no and no. I thought if I collapsed here at least I would probably be rescuable before I froze, we had to be close to the car, we had to be. And we were, finally there it was, it sounds cliché but I seriously don’t think I could have gone another mile. I played my little “oh no I lost the keys” thing, but I forget if it was funny, I really cared more about what a great moment it was to pull something and even that barely registered on the care-o-meter. I put my pack in the trunk and collapsed in the passenger’s seat feeling nauseous, I felt vaguely guilty like I should be helping Chris and Greg pack or something but decided that not feeling nauseous and like I was about to die was my number one priority.
I left my shoes on and curled up, cramping periodically, I wanted to eat somewhere with warm food, and warm drinks. Which is weird. I usually think eating out is a huge waste of time and money, I do it for social reasons sometimes but I’d rather not support “fleece the lazy” type industries, seriously, at a sit-down restaurant you can’t even pretend you’re saving time... as you can see I have an attitude about this, probably because it's such an unpopular opinion.
At the moment though I couldn’t have cared less. It was around midnight when we pulled into Denny’s, I ordered a chicken quesadilla and a warm orange juice(?), it had taken an hour to find Denny’s, I still felt nauseous and too weak to sit up straight. I didn’t feel like eating or drinking but I was quite sure it was the right play. After eating I still felt nauseous, I forced down a lot of warm orange juice. We asked the waitress if we could nap on the bench seats which we did for an hour. When I woke up I felt a lot better. Back in the car I started taking off my shoes, my right was coming off first and when I took the shoe off the insole came out too, it was attached to my sock by ice at the big toe area. I took my socks off and ice and skin came off with the sock and fell to the floor. I knew it was bad and now I was scared for my left foot too. It was a little after 1am when I took my left shoe off. Thankfully my left foot was totally fine. The light was terrible so I took a picture of my right foot with my phone and looked at the picture. Crap. Obviously my foot had refrozen while I’d been in lala land thinking about going to sleep in the snow. I didn’t know it at the time but that is very bad. You can freeze your foot solid and when it thaws you’ll probably be alright. But if you freeze it, thaw it and freeze it again you are hosed.
This trip shouldn’t have been so extreme but a series of poor decisions on my part made it the most taxing trip I’ve been on.
(Update) While all my toes are permanently disfigured, I only actually lost about half of the two biggest.