In less than two years I've watched Nelson take two rides in avalanches. This one had less serious results than the last, but was still a pretty scary experience. Here's how the day unfolded...
Another Sunday, another snow climb in The Park...
This time we selected an obscure couloir on the south side of Otis Peak. Gillett had described our chosen route as a descent option for rock climbs on The Flower Tower so we knew we couldn't claim it as a first ascent, but we thought it possible that nobody had set out to climb the couloir as a spring snow climb. Therefore we decided we could take the liberty of naming our climb if successful. Fabio nominated the name "Flour Power Couloir" and it stuck.
Fabio, Nelson, Jeff, Dan and I met at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead at 5:30am. The weather was much nicer than advertised... it was going to be a bluebird day!
We cruised up the trail to The Loch and passed it on its southern shore. Fabio commented that there was a lot less snow than when he was here the previous weekend - it's melting fast!
Route finding past The Loch was a little trickier and our meandering path involved periodic postholing, but we eventually made it up to the meadow with the weather station below The Gash. I'd never really paid attention, but there were lots of interesting looking couloirs separating the cool-looking towers on the South Side of Otis. All looked to provide very interesting climbing possibilities, though most looked more challenging than we were prepared for today (we didn't bring ice tools, pro, or harnesses). We headed up the valley toward the steep headwall below Andrews Glacier, admiring the couloirs and their mixed lines along the way, until we finally spotted one that looked doable with our snow climbing kit.
We made our way up the apron until we found a nice rock for switching into crampons, donning helmets, and pulling out our ice axes. The snow was a mix of conditions - some 6" deep fresh powder, some very hard snow, and a mixture of both.
After getting kitted up we set off into the couloir. It looked really cool with some cruxy rock-step sections and very narrow chimney sections. We soon approached the first cruxy section and Fabio led the way up a gully on the right side of the couloir that consisted of a mixture of ice, rock, and snow. Dan and Jeff proceeded to follow.
Nelson and I had no tools and the ice didn't look very attractive to me. I spied an exit off to my left that would get me out back into snow after an awkward scrambly move or two. I made these moves and got out into the snow. I relayed to Nelson that my way would go, and it would probably be better than the ice Fabio had gone up.
Then the avalanche.
The next few moments are a bit of a blur, and I can't quite remember the exact sequence, but I either saw the snow coming down the couloir first, or I heard Dan's shout of "heads up", and then looked up to see it. It looked like a big cloud of spin drift coming down the couloir and I had time to ask Dan, "Is that an avalanche?" To which Dan and Fabio both shouted "AVALANCHE!!!!!!!" and I knew for sure. Time seemed to pass in slow motion and I had time to think to myself, "Maybe if I can whip out my video camera fast enough I can catch some of this on film." It only took a split second for myself to reply, "No dumbass! Plant your axe, brace yourself, and hold on for dear life!"
That's what I did, and a moment later I was showered with snow.
A few seconds after that I relaxed and took a quick peek around. I was fine - I had just been showered with excess snow while the main body of the slide had passed to my right and down the gully I had just been in. I heard shouting and confirmed that Fabio, Jeff, and Dan were okay. But what of Nelson? I shouted, "NEEELSOOOOOOOON?!?!?!"
A second later I heard a faint reply... but the reply didn't come from where I knew Nelson was last. Instead it came from 50' down the slope. I looked down to see Nelson pulling himself out of the debris. It was deja vu all over again.
"Nelson are you okay?!?"
"Yeah - I'm okay. I'm heading down."
"Yeah, so are we."
But before I retreated I had to walk up to where Fabio and Dan were to get a better idea of what had happened. Fabio had been in the lead and had taken the avalanche full in the face. Luckily he'd had time to plant both his axes and prepare to hold on. As the avalanche poured against him he'd felt the pressure building and wasn't sure how long he'd be able to hold. Fortunately the avalanche subsided before he had to find out the limit of his strength.
Jeff and Dan had both really lucked out. They both found big boulders to hunker down behind and had the amazing experience of watching the avalanche fly over the top of their heads. They reported being amazed by the sound - like a herd of horses as the snow rushed all around them. I don't recall hearing anything - perhaps because the avalanche didn't pass right over my head!
Nelson (once again) took the brunt of the avalanche. He was still down at the base of the rock/ice crux gully (having not yet been able to follow me out to the left) when the avalanche hit. He did not have as much warning as the rest of us, and didn't have the luxury of a bomber ice axe belay. When the avalanche came down the couloir it was still relatively spread out when it hit Fabio, but got funneled down the rock gully and hit Nelson head-on in a concentrated blast. Nelson was able to hold on through an initial wave but then got ripped off his stance as the force mounted. He somersaulted backwards with the flow but was amazingly able to keep control of his ice axe and use it to right himself and get oriented on his stomach to self arrest. Thankfully the avalanche had come to a stop at that point and hadn't dashed him against the rocks in the apron below the couloir. He came to a rest on top of the debris - not buried underneath it.
Once we'd all collected ourselves we beat a hasty retreat down out of the couloir and out of harm's way. Nelson was the only one to suffer minor injuries - a pulled hamstring and a lacerated hand. A bandage helped stop the bleeding hand and a few ibuprofens would help staunch the inevitable soreness.
We thanked our lucky stars that it hadn't been worse. Really the whole situation could have gone much, much worse. If the avalanche had happened 5 minutes earlier we all would have been in the tight rocky/ice gully (not just Nelson) and we probably all would have been swept away. We could have severally injured each other by crashing into each other bouncing around in the slide, and we all could have been buried. Also, the slide had been a very minor one in the grand scheme of things. A much larger one would have obviously done a lot more damage.
After reflecting on our good fortune we headed to Ed's Cantina for the traditional post climb fish burrito and margarita. None of us had the stomach (or the lack of sense) to climb anything else and we wanted to get Nelson down to the car before the effects of his injuries got any worse.
As Fabio commented as we parted ways after lunch, "You learn something every trip to the mountains." Some times the lessons are more forceful, painful, obvious than others.