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Snow Storm Peak: A Memoir


by Nick Wilson

February 06, 2003

This is my own: my own feelings, emotions, thoughts, actions; they were no one else’s but mine. If anything else, just for that moment but mine nonetheless, and as John Muir would say, “…and nobody knows it but me.” No one will ever know how I felt as I set out on my own epic journey of discovery.

The setting for my own personal odyssey would rival that of Homer’s. Granted there were no sirens serenading, nor a Cyclops to do battle with, just a mountain. A mountain that I had an obsession with ever since I saw it, although this obsession was restricted only to winter. I’ve always wanted to climb the west face of Snowstorm Peak in what else, but snow.

It was around the end of October when the Durango area got it’s first real good snow of the season that dumped about a foot or so to the La Plata canyon area, adding to the foot or two that was already there. This definitely posed a danger, not only from avalanches seeing as the west face was at a fairly consistent 45 degree angle, but also there would be a thin layer of snow in a gully that I wanted to climb through to get to the summit. I wasn’t so much afraid of the snow as I was fearful of slipping and falling in the gully and taking an express trip to the base. I wasn’t thinking about that just yet though. I still had to round up a buddy to go with.

I tried to gather up all the usual suspects, but they would have none of it. One had to work, the other, class. It looked as though I was going at this solo. Was this a smart thing to do? I mean I felt confident enough in my abilities in order to climb a measly little peak, after all it was only about five miles round trip, and what could a little bit of snow do? So I grabbed my ice axe, avalanche beacon, boots, crampons, etc. I also called a good friend and told him that if I was not back by 8:00pm to call search and rescue. As ominous as that sounds, dying out there because of a stupid mistake would really put a damper on things.

With some air drumming on my steering wheel to the great sounds of Credence, I was off. The drive out to La Plata is one of my favorites. It’s just windy mountain roads with scenic vistas of mountains that I was about to encounter. I felt great, I was about to put an obsession of mine to rest, and on top of that I was going solo! Shifting my truck into four-wheel drive I made my way up the Kenebec Pass road. Already seeing that my prediction of just a little bit of snow was way off. When I saw the face that I was about to climb for the first time, all I could do was stare. “What an amazing, beautiful thing,” I said aloud. My mind and now my eyes fixated upon the route that I was to take.

This fixation almost became my downfall as I almost veered into a snow filled ditch when I came upon a corner entirely to fast. When I rounded the bend, my two front tires sank in the fresh snow, “Shit!” I did not want to get stuck miles from the nearest heavily traveled road. I threw it into reverse mashed the throttle and luckily, al be it reluctantly, the mighty beast was free from the icy grasp. I decided then that about 100 yards back on a clear section of hard pack shoulder might be a good place to park. This would make the hike a little longer but I was willing to hike longer and drive out rather than just walk out, and thus away from the obsession.

I then got out of my truck donned my boots crampons, and pack heading off into the unknown. It was then that I realized that I had forgotten one piece of key equipment, gloves, this was going to be cold. I made it through the first mile and a half relatively quick considering that I was slogging through snow up to mid thigh. I stopped and rested at a dying tree right at the base of the largest slope, which was also the steepest. I was in luck though I could just make out the summit in the distance. The weather was still good and my hands were still warm, so I decided to continue. One image that wasn’t so confidence inspiring was the dying tree upon which I was leaning, all of the remaining branches were facing in the direction that it was heading. This could mean only one thing I was standing at the base of a huge avalanche chute.

I pondered a little longer on route choice then decided to take the equally as steep but slightly safer way through a line of trees that was on the right hand side of the face. As I approached the gully that I had had my eye on since I started. I realized that most of the rock that the gully was made of was rotten. It would come apart in your hands if you pulled it right. I had to be careful; it was a long way down.

As I approached the top of the gully I expected to see a little ridge and maybe another 50 feet or so to the summit. This was not the case; the summit that I saw from the road was false. What stood ahead of me now was another 300-400 feet of vertical feet to climb over a dome of talus with a dusting of tan grass that was covered in spots with drifts of crusted snow. Although this dome was a little more south facing than I wanted to be, I decided to climb to the highest point to get my bearings. This part of the climb was by far the easiest part. There was little snow, even though it was just as steep, and all above 12,000 feet.

When I crested the top of the dome I saw that I was right on course, the true summit was only about a quarter of a mile away and only about 200 vertical feet. The only problem was that the easiest route crossed several cornices that didn’t look to stable. But my energy and spirit had renewed after the relatively easy climbing up the talus dome.

I climbed with a newfound enthusiasm, my goal to be in my grasp within mere moments and footsteps. As I stepped on the small pile of rocks that signified the top of the mountain, I felt alive. It was so much more than that though, not only was it a great physical accomplishment, it was extremely spiritual. I felt this great connectedness to the mountain and my surroundings that I have only felt several times before. Just as these thoughts went through my head, I heard the hushed sound of air as it was used to propel a raven straight up, on top of a thermal. The raven glided what seemed like inches from my head, putting on an exclusive aerial show. It was at that time that I realized that life could not get any better than this, all the stresses that I had were gone. It was just me and the raven floating free. Then just as silently and gracefully as he came, the grand raven drifted languidly, and effortlessly into oblivion.

It was now time for the descent, after all getting up is only half the battle. Fortunately this half of the battle was all downhill. Reluctant to leave my own personal place of sanctuary, the sun was getting low in the horizon, and I had a long way to go. Following the same route down that I took up, I made great progress. Without any effort I made it down the entire talus pile in what seemed like minutes. The gully was just ahead, so I stopped at a decently flat spot, took a drink of water and planned out my angle of attack.

I decided that the path that I took up the sketchy rotten gully was probably the best way to get down as well. Everything was going to plan until I got to the base of the gully were I decided to step on a snow covered rock, bad move. The rock gave way and I was off. I tumbled out of control down the snowy slope. I rolled on my stomach and jabbed my ice axe into the ground that was moving by faster and faster in an attempt to self-arrest. Which would have worked great if I had on my wrist loop that was attached to my axe, which was now a memory, solidly planted in the snow, yet another down fall of wet, un gloved hands on a rubber handle. I quickly grabbed a rock that was close by, jammed it into the ground and brought myself to a very grateful, if not graceful halt. With my new appreciation for the wrist loop, the rotten but effective rock, and with a fresh gash on my right hand from grabbing the rock I continued down.

I made quick time back to my truck, without any further lapses in judgment. I changed back into my shoes and sat on the end of the tailgate, and quietly pondered. I sat there long enough to see the sun turn the sky from blue to orange to a deep purple then eventually to black. It was then that I realized that it was getting late and that I better be getting back so that my friend doesn’t alert the authorities. But if I could have it my way, I would have stayed there in that moment forever, in that perfect state of euphoria. Alas though I was to follow suit with Homer once again and return home.

Although this climb may not be one of the hardest, or most challenging, or tallest, or well known, or any of those other criteria that so many other climbers and mountaineers judge a climbs worth by. It was by far the most intense experience that I have had the pleasure of encountering. It brought me closer to myself, and that was the most frightening, and at the same time was the most exhilarating feeling. “Enough philosophy,” I said to my self, cranked the Credence, and rumbled off into the abyss.

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