The "Nope Slope" - Managing Fear in the Mountains by Jason Leach


(This is cross posted from a post I did at The Outbound Collective)

Perfect weather, the perfect day, and sometimes you still need to bail

"I just do not know how to not be afraid of that," Rachel said as we made the drive back towards Denver. She was referring to the now infamously named "nope slope" that she and two other members of our group had coined when they opted to not go any further, sitting just below 13,000 feet. 

We hit the Bakerville exit right around 6:45am. Blue skies, no wind, and a slight chill in the air had the day looking promising for a summit attempt of Gray's & Torrey's. Considered some of the "easier" fourteeners to summit, our group had set out sights on an attempt despite the forecast calling for wind gusts of over 30 mph. The weather was working out better than the forecast. 

As we loaded up into the Subaru and made our way slowly up the 3 mile entrance road we finally reached an impassable point and decided to park and hoof it the rest of the way to the official trailhead. We added a good 2 miles but luckily it was a relatively easy incline and still frozen. 

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As we meandered our way past the official trailhead and up a long snowfield we couldn't help but continue to be awestruck by the amazing views we were taking in. Moving steadily we eventually rounded a corner and were treated to the wonderful view of Gray's & Torrey's. I opted not to point out the tiny moving dots of climbers ascending Gray's, figuring the group had plenty of time to realize how much further we had to go. 

Another hour or so and we were veering left towards the base of Gray's and steadily increasing the steepness of our climb. Throughout our approach we had seen a few folks descending, most commenting about the beauty of the weather that day. One skier informed us of his ten year realization that instead of walking down mountains he could ski them instead. I believe in the process he called anyone who walked down mountains stupid but perhaps that was the altitude speaking. 

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As we continued to climb, the trail continued to narrow. The width of the trail in summer is a good 2 feet across, on this day due to the snow it was perhaps half that size, and cut at a sharp 45 degree angle dropping off sharply to the right. A misplaced foot and you might have a decent slide ahead of you. Thankfully the pre-worn path was not terribly slippery (we had spikes and crampons in case). Having seen many folks descending in lesser footwear than our group had, I was feeling confident that we could press on. 

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Single file, slowly we meandered up this slope. About halfway up there was an opportunity to climb directly to the nearest ridge and potentially onto wider terrain. Turning around to check in with the group I was immediately aware that something was wrong. 

There is a field of learning called Experiential Education. In it, one of the founding theories is about comfort zones. If you are not familiar, comfort zones state that each person has 3 levels of comfort. The green zone is very comfortable, so much so that you likely do not learn much when you are in that zone. The yellow zone is your "stretch zone," you are pushing yourself, likely are a bit uncomfortable but you optimally learn in this zone. The final red zone is your panic zone, no learning happens, you body has given over to flight, fight, or freeze and is physically unable to learn. The expression from three folks in our group was highlighting plainly that they were beyond stretching and fully into panic. 

While we had crampons and micro spikes available to us, it was apparent that the only answer was to remove the cause of the panic. John and I shared a quick glance and I opted to crest the nearest ridge just to assess the rest of the trip. Topping out around 13,000ft I was feeling strong given a nagging knee injury I have been nursing. It flattened out and looked steep but wide the rest of the way up. Returning to the group, they had already decided it was time to call it. They gave John and I the option to continue and they would meet us back at that car. We chose to stick with the group.

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It was frustrating to bail on such a perfect day, particularly as others descended in lesser footwear and less gear than our group had on, but as we made our slow meandering way down the now named "nope slope" the panic felt by some of the group was causing them some unsteadiness on the snow. With some hand holding, an ice axe, trekking poles and slow moving we finally reached flat ground and took a long restful break to let the everyone's nerves calm down a bit. 

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A half hour later we made the slow haggard trek back through the previous frozen snowfield and out towards the trailhead. We collapsed at the bridge. The entire trek back involved post-holing through sun-softened snow. It was exhausting and John and I were thankful that we did not continue on towards the summit, knowing fully that what frozen snow we had stayed on top of likely would have been a slushy mess later in the afternoon. "Perhaps that skier was on to something" was my parting thought as we worked our way to the car. 

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My response to Rachel as we stopped for coffee on the ride home: "Let's check out St. Mary's Glacier with crampons and an ice axe and get comfortable with self-arrests and just standing on steep sloping snow." She thought it over and then gave an open-to-the-idea nod, she was mentally stepping back into her stretch zone.

Lesson's Learned:

1) Being outside is about being connected to nature and those you are with, listen to the group and don't get caught up in "summit fever." Sometimes saving the relationship is more important.

2) Even on perfect weather days, sometimes you need to bail and that is okay, it is the experience that matters.

3) Recognize when you are pushing yourself or others, a little is good for growth but too much and people panic. Avoid the panic zone. Equally, avoid always staying comfortable. 

Mount Bierstadt: The Lost Ring by Jason Leach

(This is cross-posted from my original post in The Outbound Collective)

One Ring to change the day (nope we did not get engaged...yet)!

Mount Bierstadt is on many lists, blogs, & books, mostly citing that it is "easy" and "accessible" to climb. Arguably a great "First 14er" (for those unaware, Colorado has 54 peaks whose summits sit above 14,000 ft.). Hiking one tends to be on many bucket lists, so my girlfriend, Rachel and I set out early one Saturday morning to test our lungs and legs (we are “lowlanders” from NY, having just moved to Denver 2 months ago when we did this hike).

Bierstadt - Waiting

After some delay we finally arrived around 10am at 11,670ft (not a recommended start time for any hike where you are exposed, let alone a 14er). Regardless we assessed the day and weather (clear blue skies for miles around), and ventured out, planning to bail at any point if needed.

If I have learned anything in the years I have spent in the mountains (mostly in the Adirondacks/Whites), preparation and humility can save your day and even your life. With that in mind we hit the trail around 10:20.

Bierstadt - The Entrance

The first mile is a gentle stroll through meadows, wetlands, and around a small pond. Having just re-watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy the past week, it reminded us of the horse kingdom of Rohan. In the spring time, however, those fields are lush places to see wildflowers. Half a mile in, there’s a small stream crossing before continuing on raised boardwalks to the ascending switchbacks.

Bierstadt - Switchbacks
Bierstadt - Stream Crossing

1.5 miles in, the ascent begins.  Now I cannot help but compare hiking in Colorado to the northeast. For those unfamiliar to northeast hiking, most trail creators simply found point A (the trailhead) and point B (the summit) and drew a (relatively) straight line (ouch). Switchbacks are rare back east, but here, what a relief!

Bierstadt - Switchback relief

Climbing, we could see the summit the entire way (from the trailhead actually) yet few steps seemed to get us closer. We ascended one hillside only to turn and ascend another, the looming trail ridge just seemed to taunt us, but the views kept us occupied. We reflected on whether we preferred eastern hiking (often in the trees until the summit) to the lack of trees here, the verdict was out.

Bierstadt - Still going

Up and up, passing tons of descending hikers who had clearly not gotten delayed and hit the trail early, our bursts of hiking got shorter. We switched to a game of “get to the next rock” then take a break. While neither of us felt headachy we certainly were feeling tired and breathing hard.

After hitting a what felt like a crawl pace we crested the trail ridge (13,700ftish) to the summit and were relieved to find a relatively flat walk until the final push. 

Bierstadt - Final Approach

The skies were still blue and the view was magnificent. Tagging the summit (14,065ft), we took a 15-minute break and then made our way back down.

Bierstadt - Summit Life

During our break the group behind us reached the summit short 1 member of their party. We had passed them on the final push and their one friend seemed to be doing poorly. They had told him to start heading down as they summited and then meet him again.

For those unaware at 14,000ft oxygen is just 61% of what it is at sea level, a noticeable difference for anyone, lowlander or Denverite.

Bierstadt - Descending

As we descended, bounding from rock to rock reveling in being done with the up, we happened upon the other party’s friend (Derek, not his real name) seated on a rock looking worse than we had seen him before. We checked in with him, “not well” he muttered. We offered him some applesauce and water, figuring he needed some energy and offered to walk with him a bit (his friends were just then starting to descend).

Walking 200ft, he sat down, nauseous. Resting, he took off his gloves to open food and immediately realized he had lost his wedding ring, further up the mountain. A quiet whimper of AMS pain and heartache, he became understandably upset. Rachel and I looked at each other and without a word dropped pack and headed back up the trail to look for his ring.

Suffice to say the despite enlisting other hikers, and finally his friends as they descended, after 35 minutes of searching I was starting to feel very headachy and made my way back to my dropped pack, Rachel followed suit, no luck with the ring. After resting, we headed down. Derek had continued to descend slowly, but in little haste we caught up with him. Clearly in pain, we asked if he wanted company and he readily accepted.

Rachel and I continued to be our goofy selves on the trek down, hoping to alleviate some of his pain with company, at one point Rach dropped some of her candy corn on the trail, in a bold "I regret nothing" she promptly ate them all! It is her favorite candy!

Bierstadt - Pumpkins

I have to imagine what it might feel like to be in pain and feel alone, in a situation in which you really need to be your own help. I’d imagine there is some comfort in company at least. I would say that was all we hoped to provide but as we continued down the mountain Derek’s condition seemed to get worse and the search for the ring continued the entire way down the mountain. 

At least once I was close enough behind Derek to catch him as he stumbled and nearly collapsed. At another point in trying to administer ibuprofen and have him sniff an alcohol wipe (a technique recommended to Rachel when she was in the hospital a few weeks back with a stomach bug, allegedly it is harmless but helps nausea), he began vomiting and crying on the side of the trail. Suffice to say in our opinion he was truly in the thralls of AMS and needed to get down. While his friends carried his pack, we slowly made our way down the mountain still very much enjoying the view.

Bierstadt - Room with a View

At 5:30pm, almost 4.5 hours after setting out from the summit, heads pounding from the extra exertion and stress on the descent, we finally reached the car. By this point in time my head was hurting to the point (not unexpected for anyone) that I passed the keys to Rachel who was feeling fine and we closed the car door on an amazing yet unexpected adventure.

Bierstadt - Finally Down

Lessons Learned:

1)      Hiking a 14er is very different from a 4,000 foot peak back East, adjust your pace accordingly.

2)      AMS can strike at any time, be conservative, the mountain will always be there.

3)      No matter how much water you drink (I downed 4 Liters), above 14K your body reacts differently.

4)      Tackle some lower hikers before a 14er, it might save your day and others.

5)      Hiking is a community endeavor, don’t forget to offer help, sometimes your goals aren’t what matters.

6)      Hike Safe, Hike Smart.  

For anyone who happens to read this and hike Mt. Bierstadt, keep an eye out for a white gold wedding band. If you happen to find it let me know!