One of my most memorable climbing stories involves my friend Nick, as many of my climbing stories do. And because it was with Nick, a standard route was not involved. Nick would not have accepted a normal route to the summit. This particular climb included a little magic.
It was my first climb of Mt Sneffels (14,150) on an early September day in 1996. Arriving the day before by airplane into Durango followed by a drive to Ridgway in his vintage Land Rover, we both arrived smelling like unleaded exhaust. It was a Land Rover after all.
In typical late fashion, we backpacked in the dark to camp in Blaine Basin below the stunningly jagged north face. Cold nights are expected that time of year, and that night was no exception. Setting up the tent past the mist of our breath in the light of our headlamps was quick since we had done this so many times this past epic summer. The cold was welcomed since part of our approach included crossing a large snowfield that was famous for sending rocks when the sun warmed and softened the snow.
Getting out of the sleeping bag is never easy when the inside of the tent is coated with a layer of frost. The first one up inevitably hits the sides and showers ice crystals over everything. That was Nick. Motivated by the long day ahead, he was ready and chipper. One more intentional icy flick from the outside of the tent meant it was time to go. The objective of the day was the North Arête using a running belay as something that almost felt like protection. At least we had a rope.
Once moving, the cold wasn’t too bad, even refreshing. The stars gave way to early dawn light by the time we started hiking, giving up the secret of the route we had planned. The beauty of the unimaginably deep blue sky in contrast to the orange rock at first light is something that can only be experienced in the mountains. Then the holy crap moment when I truly grasped what we were going to climb. Excitement and fear. Then more excitement.
Continuing up the permanent snow field which would eventually narrow and snake its way to just below the summit (thus the name Snake Couloir), we were aiming to traverse to the east across the concrete-hard snow to the base of the rock outcropping that defines Mt Sneffels’ north ridge. About this time, we both noticed a backpack that had beed dropped at some point and long abandoned. Not a good sign from some previous climbing party. Naturally looking through it, there was little of value except a roll of athletic tape. I unthinkingly put it in my backpack.
As the snowfield narrowed and steepened, we roped up and continued on the right edge of the snowfield along the rocky shoulder, hoping to avoid rocks shooting down on us. Nick inadvertently dislodged a rock about the size of a shoebox, and it came hurling towards me from a rope length above. As though magnetically drawn to me, I couldn’t do anything to avoid it. Striking my left leg above my ankle, I thought the worst. Unprepared and without a first aid kit, I didn’t know what to do about the blood slowly bulging from the gash. Then I realized the gift…the athletic tape. The magic. Quickly wrapping coils of it around the wound, I weighted my leg and felt amazingly good. We continued the climb successfully on a beautiful fall Colorado day.
To this day, I carry what remains of that roll of athletic tape in whatever backpack makes the climb with me.
Flying past Mt Sneffels this last spring revealed a great view of the North Arête. The climb started directly above the winglet and the snowfield we crossed where the rock came loose is behind the winglet. You can see the Snake Couloir work itself up to the right then left to the summit. From the base of the climb, we continued up the northeast facing sunny side of the buttress.
– Shane Jordan