Sunday, February 10, 2013

Maroon Bells Attempt #2 - via Bell Cord Couloir

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With the good weather continuing in the Aspen area and little new snow accumulation, Homie and I had to head back for another try on the Bells. This time we were going to try the Bell Cord Couloir. Normally, at this time of year, this route would be out of the question due to avalanche danger. This couloir is steep and very narrow. If it slid, there'd be no where to hide. Because of this we brought two ropes and a full rack of gear so that we could protect the couloir and possibly survive an avalanche, but not being driven thousands of feet down the mountain and buried. 

Homie also recruited some other winter 14er enthusiasts. Homie needed to be home on Sunday, so we planned to head in Friday, camp at Crater Lake, and attempt the climb on Saturday. Dwight joined us and 13er Girl and her husband would come in on Saturday and attempt the climb on Sunday.

Homie picked me up at my house at 4:30 a.m. and we drove out to the Maroon Bells Road once again. Dwight had slept the night at the trailhead and started in, on foot, at 7 a.m. Homie and I started skiing up the road at 9 a.m. I was dragging a sled to take the weight off my back and give me extra capacity. We caught up to Dwight just before the end of the road and we stopped at the drink shack maintained by the snow mobile company that guides trips up to the lake. This place is decadent and I enjoyed a couple of cups of hot chocolate before continuing on. Dwight left first and Homie shortly after him. I left a bit later, taking the time to switch from my kicker skins to my full-length skins. Skiing down the small hill leading to Maroon Lake I got my sled caught behind a tree and the zip ties holding my homemade sled's PVC poles to the sled snapped. Bummer. I jury-rigged up something temporary and continued on.

I had some trouble pulling the sled up the steepest hills. I was worked over nicely by the time I caught up to Dwight. Homie and Dwight had been breaking trail since the shack. It wasn't very deep, but I was sure glad for the track. Dwight and I caught up to Homie at Crater Lake. He was scoping campsites, but we continued to the far side of the lake and camped just above it, in the last grove of trees, where there are official summer campsites, at just above 10,000 feet. After clearing a spot and setting up the tent, we headed up towards the Bell Cord to recon the approach. I led the way, switchbacking relentlessly up the ever steepening slope until I got to the bottom of some avalanche debris at around 10,900 feet. Homie had ditched his skis much lower and plunge-stepped directly up the slope. He dug and pit to assess the avalanche potential and found consistent snow down to five feet deep. 

We retreated back to camp. By then I was wet and cold and the temperature was rapidly falling. I got into my -40 degree sleeping bag about 3:30 p.m. and I'd stay there until 5:30 a.m. the next morning. Any body part not inside the sleeping bag was freezing and rapidly becoming numb. Homie worked the stove for hours, melting water and filling bottles. I did nothing. My full-time job was to not freeze to death and try to drink and eat enough to be strong on Saturday. I was becoming intimately familiar with why Homie prefers a long, long day vs. overnight, winter camping - there is just too much time to lay there and freeze. Everything you didn't want frozen had to be inside the sleeping. I had all my clothes and three liters of water inside my bag. I should have had my boots as well.

Fourteen hours later, we were up, melting a bit more water, and trying to warm up our boots. We didn't do a good job with the latter task and we started out with cold feet. It was -5 degrees when we left the tent and my feet would continually get colder. Homie and I both just wore our NNN backcountry ski boots, which aren't the warmest boots in town. These, and the frigid temperatures, would be our undoing.

I led the way again, following my switchbacked trail from the afternoon before. It didn't help Homie and Dwight much, as Dwight was on snowshoes and Homie would ditch his skis low again. He isn't as comfortable skiing down steep slopes, as am I, though he is probably as proficient, since I'm not particularly skilled. I rely mostly on the traverse and kick-turn - the same way I got up. Plus, Homie can posthole all day long, while that effort saps me quickly. Hence, I was strongly motivated to keep my skis on as long as possible. I was able to find a route and allowed me to do this to about 12,000 feet. At that point I was approaching the narrow part of the couloir and the snow was getting harder and the slope steeper. I ditched the skis and put Kahtoola steel crampons on my boots. By then Homie had caught up to me and I fell in behind him, using his steps to ease my progress.

My feet were getting worse with every step and when Homie started to pause to catch his breath, I volunteered to take my turn at the front. I did this partly out of shame for not doing my part, but also because I had to keep my feet moving. But this turned out to be a mistake. I was now plunging my feet deep into the snow and they were never not buried. After an embarrassingly short turn at the front I had to stomp out a stance so that I could swing my feet to try to save them from freezing. Homie took over the lead again, but paused a short distance above. His feet were freezing as well, but he was concerned about the snow conditions. It was getting looser and looser. We plunged deeper with each step. Though we carried our ropes and gear, we found no opportunities for placement in the walls of the couloir. If the couloir slid, it would be over. I wasn't that concerned about the snow conditions, but maybe I should have been. I didn't say as much, though, since I was so worried about my feet that I needed to turn around. We were at 13,400 feet, but probably still two hours from the summit. My feet couldn't last that long.

By then Dwight had joined us. His feet were fine. He's an expert winter camper/mountaineer and had pre-warmed his boots with hot water bottles before putting them on. He was ready to follow Homie up and was willing to try and set up a snow anchor to belay Homie. With Dwight ready to accompany Homie, I announced that I was going down, because of my feet. Homie hesitated just a moment or two and then decided he didn't like the conditions and was heading down as well. We all retreated. I went quickly, seeing the sunny slopes far below and wanting to be out in the sun as soon as possible.

When I stopped to switch back to my skis, Dwight and Homie caught up and went by. I caught them relatively quickly on the descent. We stayed somewhat together for another thousand feet, but once back below 11,000 feet, I continued down to camp and started preparing for the ski out. I fixed my sled with cord, what I should have used before, and packed up my gear. I sat in the sun, ate, drank, and tried to warm my feet, to no avail. My feet wouldn't completely defrost until we had driven to Glenwood Springs. And now, three weeks later, the tips of my toes are still numb and my right big toe still has a very painful, open blister. It was frustrating to turn back, again, especially after two days and getting so close, but it was the right call for my feet. It was the right decision and I don't regret it.

We skied out, passing Homie's friends on their way in. They'd camp in our spot that night. Use our tracks the next day. And summit. Good for them. I wish we could have as well, but there is much for me still to learn about winter 14er climbing.

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