Near Death at 14,000 feet
The objective was simple. Ascend the snake couloir on the north side of Mt Sneffels, a 14,158 foot peak in the San Juan range of southwest Colorado. It's one of the most iconic mountaineering routes in the state, if not the country. Nearly 5000 feet of elevation gain with 1200 feet in the couloir proper, which tops out at a steepness of 50 degrees with a dogleg left.
Sergei is my climbing partner and soul brother. He lives the life I wish I had lived in my twenties. When I was his age I was busy chasing Silicon Valley dreams of CEO stardom and great riches. It wasn't until I turned 30 that I realized the truest way to change the world is to live happy. Sergei is a strapping 6' 3" male model looking mother fucker. If he wasn't a dirtbag living in his van in southwest Colorado he'd probably be on the cover of GQ. He's too intelligent for that though. His philosophical bent has him more concerned with the way wealth is depleting our environment than making money for himself. He's on the verge of turning 26, and has been living in his van for two years. He skis and climbs as much as he possibly can. I look up to and respect him even though I am 8 years his senior. When Sergei called me up and told me I had to buy a ticket to the Mountain Film festival in Telluride, I didn't hesitate. "It's going to be the most inspiring weekend of your life".
In the days leading up to our harrowing climb we watched a wide variety of films at the Mountain Film Festival. They ranged in topic from street musicians to Syrian refugees. Each one blew my mind and changed my perspective on some issue or point. Most of all the films made me want to go out and live, make the most of this life, and most importantly to share my stories with the world so I could in turn inspire others.
That's how I ended up filming Sergei at a 9000 foot trailhead at 8 o clock on a Monday morning. While the masses of men were making their way to churn out another day in the rat race, we were about to send one of the best mountaineering routes in the country. I had been granted a brief respite from my own struggles in the rat race by choice of vocation. I had been teaching middle school math for 6 years and my summer vacation had started three days before.
The first two thousand feet were peaceful. We ascended through a lightly gladed forest as the fresh scent of springtime pine trees filled our olfactory. Springtime in southwest Colorado is unsurpassed in its beauty and magnificence. Melting snow swells the streams and rivers, bringing life back to the land. Wildflowers are in bloom, showing off their colors like a peacock during mating season. Sergei and I kept light conversation, not thinking too much about our objective. We talked about life and how we badly wanted to tell our own stories to the world. We discussed possible story lines surrounding my new job. I am going to be teaching a class at Vail Mountain School where students will use mathematics to convert a bus into a tiny home. Was it worthy of a documentary? Would anyone care about the characters? We questioned on and on, oblivious to the fact that we were about to create a story of our own.
Two hours after we started we broke above tree line into a magnificent mountain meadow. There was a large stream flowing through the middle, swollen with springtime snow melt. The grass was bright green. Birds were flying around. The meadow was surrounded on all sides by stunning, mountain peaks. Just past the meadow we were able to get a good look at the bottom of the Snake Couloir. Earlier in the day we had stopped on the road to take a look at Mt Sneffels. From a distance it looked like there was no snow in the bottom part of the Snake. We nearly abandoned our entire plan right then and there, but decided it was worth a hike in to take a look. Now that we could see the bottom portion of the route we knew our initial assessment had been incorrect. The couloir was filled with snow and the climbing conditions looked perfect. The temperature was just right and as we began our climb up to the base of the couloir, the snow was soft and supple, easily giving way and allowing us to gain traction with our boots.
As we approached the apron below to the couloir, around 12,500 feet, I grew concerned about a number of things things. First, Sergei was breathing unusually hard. I asked how he was feeling and his one word reply was 'altitude'. While he usually lives at an altitude of 8500 feet, this wild man had spent the past seven weeks on a skiing and climbing road trip in the Pacific Northwest. The altitude there is significantly lower than Colorado, almost down to sea level. Although he had been back in Telluride for a few days, his body had not fully readjusted. Sergei told me he was fine and could push through, he would just have to move slowly. That was fine by me. We had been making great time and the usual concerns about rockfall were mitigated because of the overlying clouds blocking out the sun. The lack of heat would reduce the risk of rockfall, but not prevent it completely.
Second, I was worried about my own gear. In the weeks leading up to the climb I asked Sergei what gear I should bring for our time together. He had replied that climbing gear would be sufficient. However, two days before I left for Telluride he told me to bring an ice axe and crampons because he wanted to climb the snake couloir on Mt Snefels. The problem was, I had already moved all of my things into storage for the summer. I only had access to an ice axe and helmet. He told me it was ok and that he had a pair of micro spikes for me to use. If you've never climbed snow before the difference between micro spikes and crampons is like the difference between using a scalpel or a butter knife to perform open heart surgery. The butter knife might work but it also might kill you.
As we sat below the apron of the couloir I pulled out Sergei's micro spikes. In addition to being insufficient they were two sizes two big. I have a size 8.5 foot which requires a medium pair of micro spikes. Sergei has an ox size 13 foot which requires extra large micro spikes. I tried them on and they hung limply off my boots. I didn't want to give up though and quickly found a solution for securing them by looping my boot laces through the back of the micro spikes, tightening them flush to my foot sole. The solution worked brilliantly and my loose fitting micro spikes were suddenly taut. I was still a bit concerned and wanted to give them a good test before we got into the couloir proper. I told Sergei that I would climb to the base of the couloir at 13,000 feet but if I felt that my footing was not secure we would turn around. He agreed.
The next 500 feet were progressively steeper, and although I had inadequate gear, I was absolutely crushing the climb. The snow was so good I was able to find secure footing even with my butter knives. I charged ahead into the couloir proper and waited for Sergei around 13,200 feet. He slowly lumbered behind me, clearly suffering at this altitude, but he continued to plod on, one foot in front of the other, never giving up like the ox he is.
When Sergei reached me, he took the lead. We agreed it would be safer for him to put in a boot pack with his crampons that I could then follow in my micro spikes.
Halfway up the couloir there was a dogleg left, the couloir narrowed to five feet wide, the slope steepened to fifty degrees, and there was a huge snow cornice hanging overhead. Any of these could have killed us or sent us to the hospital. The best strategy was to move as quickly as possible to avoid the hazards. Sergei topped out on the choke like a boss. I followed suit and for the first time all day I was woefully aware of just how inadequate the microspikes were. The snow was very hard in the narrow part of the couloir and it was incredibly difficult to get purchase with my feet. I took every step slowly and deliberately. I was scared but I talk myself though it. "Ice axe in, step, step." "Axe, step, step" "you're almost there, this is the hardest part, when you're past this it will be smooth sailing".
I climbed out above the choke and the slope angles lessened to forty degrees. As I came around the corner and past the overhanging cornice, there was Sergei sitting on a rock smiling down at me. He looked confident and cool. The struggles were past him and I could see the same feeling of joy and relief that I felt inside. We were going to make it to the top and the rest of the route would be easy.
"How can you be built like a fucking ox" I yell at Sergei "if you don't eat meat"? Sergei laughs and without missing a beat replies "well, have you ever seen a fucking ox eat meat"? We laughed as we ascended, reminding one another of a film we saw over the weekend about eating a plant based diet. The conversation had become casual as we neared the top. We were having fun now.
I took the lead above the choke and about 200 feet from the top of the couloir the boot pack I was following split, one track went left, the other went right. The one on the right headed straight up a one hundred vertical foot mixed climb. It looked to be 60 to 65 degrees and was a combination of rock and snow. That was well beyond my skill and comfort level, so I opted for the boot pack on the left, with it's much gentler slope. I assumed Sergei would do the same, but as soon as he set eyes on what I later learned is called the elevator shaft, he began to froth like a wolf and he wanted to climb it. We were so close to the top that we agreed to split up for a short time and reconvene at the summit. I continued up the slope, following the easier boot pack. As it neared what looked like the summit, I realized it looped around to a rock and then back to the elevator shaft. A moment later I figured out why. Right in front of me the slope leveled out and then dropped off thousands of feet. I was standing on top of a cornice that was overhanging thousands of feet of air. If I stepped further onto it, it would likely snap and I would fall to my death. I looked to my left and right for another way out. On the right was a free solo rock climb that would take me to the summit, a fall there would also kill me. To my left was a ridge of steep cliffs that also ended in thousand foot drops. My only option was to loop back around and climb the elevator shaft.
I slowly down climbed. Going backwards down a 40 degree slope took twice as much time as climbing up and it was eight times as scary. If I slipped, I would slide 600 vertical feet, picking up massive amounts of speed before smashing into a rock wall and dying, then my limp dead body would make the dogleg right and continue down the additional 600 feet of the couloir all the way back to the apron. I made it to the base of the elevator shaft and shouted to Sergei. I told him this was the only way up, the other way was a dead end and I needed him to talk to me the whole time. He didn't reply. I yelled "Sergei I need you to talk to me". "What do you want me to say"? He replied. "Tell me I can do it". To which he said "I don't know man. ". "Fuck you dude, just tell me I can do it". "Ok you can do it." He said Just don't fall".
I started the climb and my first thought was how pissed I was at Sergei. He knew I wasn't a climber and how could he fail to mention that I was going to have to free solo a mixed route on top of a 14,000 foot peak. Second thought, I was pissed at myself for not doing my own research on this route. I just trusted that Sergei knew all we needed since he lives here. Third thought, don't fall or you are dead. Zero question about that. You will fall ass over tea kettle to the bottom of this, get shredded by rocks, then you will fall 1200 feet back down the entire snake couloir. Fourth thought, stop thinking and start climbing.
I was so focused, there was nothing left in my mind. I was using the rocks on the side of the couloir along with my ice axe to get a secure purchase with each step. The snow in this part of the couloir had the consistency of sugar, it was horrible for climbing. Each time I drove the hilt of my ice axe in, it didn't feel secure like it did in the rest of the couloir which had slushy spring snow. This was winter snow and it was terrible for climbing. On top of that the depth of the snow was shallow, some thrusts of the ice axe strike rock. It was so steep the footsteps i would be taking in two strides were level with my face. the snow were eye level. Halfway up one foot slipped. If two slipped I would be dead. I made two more steps. The other foot slipped. I regained my purchase. I was ten feet from Sergei and he was rooting me on. "Dude you're doing amazing, you got this". Now he was talking me through it; tLeft hand here, right foot there. The top few feet were the steepest, close to 70 degrees, which sounds absurd because snow doesn't stick to something that steep. I was two moves away from the top. I threw my ice axe up and grabbed hold of a huge rock. I hoisted myself up over the top and collapsed onto the ground. Holy shit. I was shaking. I was almost in tears. I was alive! Sergei hugs me. "Dude you just got your badass badge, you're the fucking man". I was relieved. That was the scariest thing I ever wanted to do.
I figured I would have time to rest before the last 100 foot scramble to the summit. Then I looked out over the valley and I saw every climbers worst nightmare; a monster snowstorm was moving in. The clouds were black and we couldn't see anything in the neighboring valley. No peaks, no lakes, no trees, just a solid wall of snow moving straight at us at 14,000 feet. It was already starting to snow and the cold wind was biting through my completely inadequate springtime gear. I had all my layers on and within seconds I was freezing cold. Sergei looked at me and said "dude we can't make the summit let's get the fuck off this mountain." He dropped down the opposite side of the mountain and we started hauling ass to get down altitude as far as we could before the storm hit. As we began I was still exhausted and completely freaked out from climbing the elevator shaft. Add in the weather stress and I became an anxious mess. My mind was everywhere. "Will we get down Low enough to avoid the snow?" "Do we have enough layers to survive a big storm?" "Do we have enough food? Water?"
My mind was moving so quickly I didn't even notice that the terrain we were descending was deathly dangerous. The San Juans consist of a type of loose rock, most of which is about the size of a dinner plate. There are entire fields of this type of rock. However, this rock doesn't start out being the size of a dinner plate. It becomes that size after it falls off of a huge cliff as a much bigger rock. Sometimes when a big rock falls, it hits so many rocks below it that is creates a cascading effect of hundreds or thousands of rocks falling all together. This is known as a rock slide. There was evidence of rock slides everywhere.
It also seemed to me as I looked 3000 feet down into the valley below, that the slope was steeper lower down. We were already on a 35 degree slope, so if it kept getting steeper then that must mean.... well Sergei lived here, he knew the way, and we needed to get the fuck off that mountain before the snow moved in. There was no time to think.
And then the most miraculous thing happened. Ten minutes into our decent the storm just blew away. We didn't realize that it was just a small summertime squall. The sun came back out and we continued down the slope.
We descended further and further and as we did the terrain got more and more unruly. First, it kept funneling us into rock slide gullies. These gullies continued to get narrower as we descended. Second, the walls of these gullies progressively rose to higher heights. First they were 20 feet tall, then 50 feet tall and then we were hemmed in by walls that stood 100 feet tall, making it impossible to climb out any other way than the route we can down. These huge rock walls also provided all of the necessary ingredients for a huge rock slide. The late afternoon sun was heating up the loose rock and at any moment a cascade could give way. I didn't want to think about it, i just wanted to get off the fucking mountain.
As we descended, the mountain continued to get steeper. We were now 2000 feet below the summit and were as close to rock climbing as one can be without actually climbing. Then we entered the next gully and it was clear to Sergei and I that we were about to enter class 5 terrain: full blown rock climbing. If we continued there would be lo more more sliding on my behind. I would be free soloing terrain that would be considered easy at your local rock gym. That is, if you're local rock wall was 400 high and you had to climb down from the top with no rope. I was terrified. There was another problem too, we couldn't see the terrain we needed to climb down. If the increasingly steep pattern continued we might climb ourselves into a situation where we could not climb down because it was too steep, and we could not climb up because it was too dangerous. We would be stuck on the top of a 300 or 400 foot cliff on the side of a crumbling mountain. I shared this particular concern with Sergei, who told me if we got cliffed out we would call search and rescue. Clearly he hadn't looked at his phone in a while because there had not been cell service for over an hour. No one knew where we were. Search and rescue would like not be alerted for days. At that point I started to have serious doubts about Sergei's decision making process. It hasn't occurred to me before but I hadn't seen him eat or drink much all day. Combined with the altitude I began to wonder if his brain was firing properly. Sergei suggested we climb further into the gully to see what the terrain looked like. I told him I did not want to and was uncomfortable doing so. He said he would climb down alone to take a look. Within one minute he was out of visual contact. It was a small couloir, about 20 feet wide, with 100-150 foot tall rock walls. I called sergeis name to maintain verbal contact. He doesn't respond. I'm freaked out and I want to figure out another solution and talk it over. I call his name again. Again he doesn't respond. My mind is spinning. All of a sudden I hear a rumble from above, as if out of some distant nightmare. It's subtle at first, and then the CLACK CLACK CLACK begins to grow louder. RICK SLIDE! I shouted and jumped to the side of the couloir. The rocks had released below me and I could hear the echo of the clatter reverberating through the narrow gully. After a few seconds the deafening sound dissipated. "SERGEI"! I shouted... no reply. "SERGEI"I shouted again... my voice echoed blankly up and down the walls of the couloir.
There was no response, Sergei was either dead or gravely injured. I quickly took stock of the situation. I was alone on the side of a 14,000 mountain in Colorado. There was not one else around for miles. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and it would be dark soon. I didn't have enough clothing or food to survive a night out there. No one knew where I was. No rescue was coming. I couldn't continue to climb down, it was too dangerous. climb back down. I had nothing to start a fire with. My friend is dead. My only option was to climb back up and call search and rescue before dark. With tears in my eyes and terror in my heart I called Sergei's name one last time. "SERGEI"! And in a scene straight out of cliffhanger a hand came over the edge of the cliff below me. Sergei's head popped up and he smiled. "Hey man I'm ok". I have never gone from one emotion to another so quickly. I was elated he was alive.
Sergei climbed back to where I stood and told me he was pretty sure we could make it all the way down to the valley floor. I told him 'pretty sure' wasn't good enough, we needed a plan that was 100% certain to get us down, and the only way to do that was to go back up and call search and rescue. Sergei began to disagree with me and I realized he was going to climb us to our deaths if I let him. He didn't want to die, but his psychology is one I had become familiar with in the mountains. The thinking goes like this "We are so close to safety and we have come so far, it would be a waste to ten around". It callled the sunk cost fallacy and I had given into it a number of times in the past with far less severe consequences. This time the risk was too high to give into a psychological trap. There is a moment where I feel Sergei might just continue down without me, in which case I will be on my own. After a few minutes of discussion he repents and we began the long march back up the mountain together.
Sergei protests did have some merit. We didn't have enough time to climb all the way up to the summit and back down to our car before darkness settled in. I tell Segei we will climb until we have cell reception, call search and rescue and then continue on until dark to a place where search and rescue can meet us, we will climb up and then call search and rescue. I told him it was going to suck, but we were NOT spending the night on that mountain and we were NOT going to die.
We were exhausted but our upward progress was steady. I kept encouraging Sergei because I knew that was what he needed. On our re/climb I began to feel our age difference more acutely than ever before. I was 34 and had learned to let go of ego. Sergei was 25. If search and rescue came for him it would be embarrassing. I told him to let go of his ego. It's better to embarrassed than dead. I told him a quote I once heard "there are old mountianeers and there are bold mountaineers, but there are no old, bold mountaineers". We were climbing back up a mix of steep snow and loose rock when I found a small flowing stream. I stopped to fill up our water bottles. The moment was very spiritual for me. It felt as if the mountain was providing us with the good fortune and nourishment we needed to survive. I knew in that moment we would not die.
"Look Sergei, all we have to do is 3 things. Drink water. Eat food. And keep moving". Sergei nodded and said "Dude I can't even explain how much I respect you right now. Thank you, I'm so sorry I got you into this, it's all my fault". I told him to thank me once we get off the mountain and that he had nothing to be sorry about. This was simply a learning experience. Sergei knows somewhere deep inside that I just saved his life.
The rest of the re ascent went quicker than planned. It was much easier to climb up a steep slope than down. We reached the top of the elevator shaft at 6pm. Then we ascended to the summit proper. The weather had settled out. The sun was now shining and the wind was minimal. I looked around me at the valleys below, the peaks around us. We could now see a clear trail to where we want edto go. To where we should have gone in the first place. We still needed to call search and rescue because we had no flashlight.
I dialed 911 and explained our situation. 'We are on top of mt snefels, we are uninjured, but we lost a lot of time being lost. We are going to descend into Yankee Basin but we have no flashlights and we will lose light. We don't have enough gear to survive the night.' Search and rescue calls us back 5 minutes later. We plan on a rendezvous point in Yankee Basin and then Sergei and I hauled ass down that mountain to get off the upper slopes before it was too dark. This time we descended the south face and it was very easy, as it Should have been the first time.
We got out into the flat lowlands and as the sun was setting it lit up all the surrounding snowy peaks and couloirs. The sky was blue, the earth was green and all I could feel was a deep sense of gratitude in my heart. Gratitude for life, gratitude for my friend, gratitude for the strength I found inside of me that I never knew existed. I took us out of the darkest depths and raised us back to the highest heights. I saved Sergei's life and mine too. It's hard to explain the entire feeling but it's something I've never felt before. There was confidence in there, but also a great amount of humility. Humility in knowing I can make a mistake and admitting that is the best thing to do. We are all just human after all, trying to find our way on this little blue marble out in space. On this day I found my way. I didn't just save my life. I am irrevocably changed. No matter what life throws my way I know I will be able to handle it, without question. If I was religious, I would say that I now understand that god has a purpose for me. But it feels like more than that. It feels like I have a purpose for me. That for the first time in a long, long time. Maybe the first time ever, I believe.... I believe in myself.