After our second rock climbing day at Castlewood Canyon, we turned our sights to Cristo Couloir on Quandary Peak for our Hard Snow field day. Hard Snow Day’s mission was to gain experience with crampon walking techniques, walking in balance and ascending a steep snow slope. We managed to check all of those tasks off before we jumped, unexpectedly, into emergency first aid practice.
It doesn’t look like much but that baby is 2,500 feet of vertical feet! The summit of Quandary is out of sight in that photo. We started our day at the Blue Lakes Trailhead at Quandary’s base.
From the beginning, the stars did not align to make this our best field day. One student was sick but forged ahead with the group. One instructor was sick and turned around almost 1 mile into our hike to the base of Cristo Couloir. Everyone felt tired from the early wakeup.
We trudged on through the snow and wind, sans snowshoes, to the Blue Lakes Dam parking lot. Here, we donned our crampons and prepared for the steep slope ahead of us. Walking in balance (downhill foot back, uphill foot forward, ice ax staked in the snow uphill and a bit forward) took some brain power and practice to get used to but once I found my rhythm, I was moving. Slowly, but moving.
We students took turns leading and kicking steps into the steep, stiff snow. Kicking steps is hard work; as the snow softened in the sun, it became slightly easier but still a challenge. We took a couple breaks as we ascended the couloir to refuel. Let me tell you, taking a ‘bio break’ above treeline just a few yards from a group of predominantly male climbers quickly erases any self-consciousness I had about peeing in private. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
After our second pit stop, our sick student had to turn around – the altitude and his nausea were causing him to feel unsafe on the snow. He down-climbed with an instructor and they perched themselves on the warm rocks where they’d wait for our descent.
The rest of our group continued on for another couple hundred vertical feet when we decided to take a moment to discuss snow conditions. It was approximately 10:30 a.m. and the snow was softening rapidly. We’d noted avalanche danger before we started and because Cristo Couloir is a southerly aspect, it receives a lot of sun and avalanche danger increased as the snow warmed. We considered our climbing speed and bailout options should the snow become unsafe. We concluded that, while we were only an hour-ish (800 vertical feet) from the summit, we were not moving fast enough to summit and descend safely. It was best for us to turn around and avoid any possibility of avalanche danger. Yes, it meant not summiting Quandary but our objective was never to summit; a summit would have been a nice bonus but certainly not the mark of a succesful day.
We took a moment to assess our best option for glissading down the slope we’d just climbed, chuckling at the irony of undoing hours worth of work in a matter of minutes. As we all chose our respective routes, we quickly transformed into little kids, squealing with glee at sliding down a mountain on our butts.
Unfortunately, seconds after that video, I glissaded down a bit further to find a group of students gathered around an instructor. What I initially thought was just a conversation about the best route for continuing down became quickly apparent that it was a much more dire situation. Our instructor, M, had been injured on his glissade down and couldn’t put weight on his leg. He was afraid his leg was broken.
Immediately, the entire group went into rescue mode, working together to stabilize M’s leg and get him off the snow, strategizing how to get him off the mountain safely.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, the team used pickets (and later, ice axes) to create a splint. We gently moved M from the snow to a large patch of grass. We sent 2 of the group back to the trailhead to call 911. We relied on extremely helpful Ski Patrol skiers to help us belay M down the slope on a tarp while we waited for Search and Rescue. We assisted Search and Rescue in getting M down to the snowmobile and then waved them off as they sped away, bound for the hospital.
In total, it took 5 hours to get M off the mountain. It was 11:15 a.m.-ish when his foot caught a rock as he was glissading (and he still managed to self arrest with a bum leg). It was 4:30 p.m. when M was safely loaded onto the snowmobile and jetting toward the trailhead. The majority of those hours were us belaying M down as we waited for Search and Rescue to arrive – nearly 3.5 hours after the incident.
I don’t mean that disparaging in the slightest but merely to make outdoor adventurers aware of the time it can take for help to arrive. Certainly, if we’d told them it was a life and death situation, I expect we’d have received a quicker response but M’s injury was not life threatening. He was responsive, not bleeding, and in good spirits, considering the situation. Even still, 3.5 hours is a long time to be in severe leg pain.
All things considered, this was the relatively good situation for an injury to happen. M was surrounded by 10 knowledgeable and able-bodied climbers and the weather was really nice – warm and sunny. Everyone had the 10 essentials (and then some) so we were able to dress his injury and move him safely.
Our impromptu lesson in emergency rescue and wilderness first aid, while not ideal for M, gave us students a chance to really put what we learned into practice. An unfortunate situation handled beautifully; I’m really proud of how my group responded and even more proud to be part of the group.
M reports that his hamstring was partially torn and he is on the mend. He hopes to join us for our final 2 field days in June.
The long, Hard Snow field day was a stark reminder that even if you do everything right, accidents can happen. Being prepared for adversity (having your 10 essentials, knowing what your bailout route is, understanding what to do in an emergency, etc) and knowing how you’ll handle adversity goes a long way to making a crappy situation a bit less crappy and, ultimately, increases your chances of success (and survival).