Torreys and Grays Winter Ascent February 20, 2010

9:55 a.m. on March 2, 2010 (EST)
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There were four members in our party and we had traveled from Tennessee (500 ft) to where we would start our ascent in less than 24 hours. Our acclimatization was largely successful; we slept at nearly 8000 ft Thursday night and 11,300 ft friday night. We drank plenty of water and got approximately 8 hours of sleep Friday night. One of our party got acute mountain sickness (dizzy, irrational, mild nausea, and extremely slow at any task); but we kept a close eye on him. Baker`s gulch road could be traveled about half way up in a 4X4 with good tread on the tires and maybe the whole way with chains. However, we did not have either of those conveniences. We decided to hike up to the parking area which is approximately 11,300 ft and stay the night there in order to lessen our elevation gain on Saturday. We woke at 6:00 am and started our ascent by 7:15 am. While we were breaking camp we heard an avalanche on a near by slope; we heard another later during the day. We were unable to check the avalanche forecast so we proceeded with caution. The conditions were poor, we were unable to see Torreys and Grays the entire day. It was a near white out a few times and the usual crusty snow was not present. Nearly 25 inches of fresh snow had fallen in the last day or so. The temperature ranged from single digits F to -10 F with a wind chill in the low -20`s. Breaking way was difficult even in snow shoes. At 12,600 ft we switched to crampons; which increased post holing up to our shins but is also increased our traction, being that a flat trail was absent. From 12,600 ft on we had to route find about 75% of the time. As we got above 13,000 ft we encountered unstable snow fields ranging from 35-45 degree slopes with little to no rock exposure. Finally at 13,600 ft we hit an avalanche chute that was a 90 ft wide, approximately 2000 ft deep, 100% slope (45 degrees), with a pure white covering of snow. At 13,600 ft we had to turn around and begin our descent. After getting off the leeward side of the mountain we were able to breath a little more easily. Sunday we checked the avalanche forecast for Saturday and it was "high" specifically saying; "15 - 25" of new snow has fallen on a very weak snowpack. Expect to find very sensitive soft slabs below ridges or crossloaded areas near treeline. The avalanche danger will quickly increase to high if the wind is higher than forecast. Travel on upper elevation leeward slopes is not recommended." Even though we didn`t get the summit we all felt good about our decision to abort and overall we had an excellent time and gained some excellent winter mountaineering experience. Our trip goes to show that conditions play a major role in mountaineering and good decision making is more important than making it to the top.






12:39 p.m. on March 2, 2010 (EST)
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Umm, you heard avalanches, and you ventured onto

....unstable snow fields ranging from 35-45 degree slopes with little to no rock exposure....

and when checking the avalanche forecast on return (!!! not beforehand), found that they were "high"!!

I would say that you were extremely lucky that you weren't caught in an avalanche. People are buried in such conditions every winter in Colorado. In case you didn't know, 38 deg is the slope angle at which the majority of avalanches occur. Also, most avalanches are triggered by the people caught in them. If I had noticed your request for information in Trip Planning (a period during which I was spending a lot of time in the mountains in Utah and the Sierra, well away from the internet), I would have strongly advised you to use a lot of caution on your route choice. There are much safer choices of route up Grays and Torreys during winter conditions (stick to the ridgelines, for example, which is where there are summer trails).

Interesting pictures, though - especially the ones on the avalanche slopes!

About your companion who was showing signs of:

acute mountain sickness (dizzy, irrational, mild nausea, and extremely slow at any task

The classic signs of when it is time to get someone to lower altitude (2000 ft or more lower) are "mumbling, fumbling, stumbling". It sounds like he was there (then again, is he normally "irrational"?). You should have gotten him lower rather than just "watching" him.

1:34 p.m. on March 2, 2010 (EST)
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We had done a considerable amount of research about snow travel and we tried to stick to the safest route. The avalanche risk was pretty minimal until we go above 13,000 ft and then we evaluated the conditions and risks about every 5 - 10 minutes and where we turned around was where the risk was simply too high. As far as trying to get to a ridge we would have had to cross so pretty serious snow fields that did not look good at all, we were trying to reach the ridge in the saddle between torreys and grays. The route is normally pretty easy and safe even in the winter it just so happened that a big winter storm completely changed everything. We checked the forecast the day before and it was yellow; it increased over night while we were on the mountain and we couldn't check it. I agree there was some serious risk but I feel pretty good that we managed it well (we turned around 600 feet from the summit). Had we not encountered the avy chute we would have been at the top and on our way down in about an hour, and since we were going to be down shortly we felt comfortable with our sick member continuing . . . we were prepared to rope him in if he looked too unbalanced. If we were spending multiple days with him sick I think we would have had to retreat to lower elevations. I appreciate your strong advisories about avalanche conditions and altitude sickness and I will take them into consideration for trips to come. After my further explanation if our logic still seems flawed on our decisions pertaining to avalanche conditions and mountain sickness please let me know because the last thing I want to do is die or have someone in our group die while trying to climb a mountain.

3:43 p.m. on March 2, 2010 (EST)
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I would primarily add that if you are going to continue heading out in such conditions, you and all in your group should get advanced training in avalanche awareness (at least to the Avy 2 level, preferably Avy 3) and Wilderness First Aid (20-30 hour course), probably with one or more in the group trained to the Wilderness First Responder level (80-100 hour course).

Not being there, I can't really comment on how serious your partner's AMS situation was. But from your comments, I would have moved someone with those conditions lower pretty quickly. It is one thing to have headache and nausea, and another to be at the stage of "dizzy, irrational, and extremely slow at any task." At the least, there are other signs and symptoms that you should have been checking on (which you will learn about in a WFA or WFR course).

The Avy courses would allow you to do a fair amount of evaluation on the spot.You did have clues in the conditions you could see when postholing, even if you didn't dig a pit.

4:28 p.m. on March 2, 2010 (EST)
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I live in Nashville, TN so gaining experience in these areas is very difficult. Do you know of any organizations in this area where we can at least begin our formal education and training?

7:56 p.m. on March 2, 2010 (EST)
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Check the NOLS website for the WFA and WFR courses (www.nols.edu). Wilderness Medicine Institute (subsidiary of NOLS) offers courses all over the country. There are WFR courses in Collegedale in April and Murfreesboro in May, plus WFA in Oak Hill this month, Pikesville in April, and Hampton in May.

I am afraid, though, that to get the Avy courses, you will have to go to Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, or California during snow season. That would be a hardship, since you might have to take skis, snowshoes, and ice climbing gear and spend a week or two.

But I hear there are several really good courses in Bluegrass right there in Nashville.

1:49 p.m. on March 3, 2010 (EST)
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2:38 p.m. on March 3, 2010 (EST)
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Wish I could have come along this time bro. Looks like a good time. I agree with Bill that we need some avi training, but prob will be a few years till we get the time/money to do that if it takes a few weeks out of state. As for the guy that got ams, he is going to take some diamox next time I'm sure. He got ams with me doing Longs peak back in sept.

3:06 p.m. on March 3, 2010 (EST)
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TrenaryJL,

You can do the Avy 1 training with only a 24 hour period from TN - just hop on a plane to Colorado or NH, head straight to the course, then back to the plane for the flight home. Then again, why waste the trip? Throw some other activities in and take the week or two. Some of the avy offerings are set up so you can do levels 1, 2, and 3 over a one week period.

Ah yes, diamox. Supposedly a miracle drug that eliminates AMS and its more fatal cousins, HAPE and HACE. One time I was climbing in Mexico as an assistant guide for a friend who lives down there. Of the 6 clients, 3 were taking diamox. By the time we got to 16,000 on Orizaba, those 3 were all suffering serious headaches, nausea, and general lassitude, plus one was exhibiting serious irritability and agressiveness (first time I had realized that this is another accompaniment of AMS). The other 3 were fine, but we decided to get the 3 sufferers down as quickly as possible.

Diamox helps with acclimatization, but is no miracle. You still have to take the time to do the acclimatization. Plus it has some interesting side effects, such as the tingling fingers and the significant effect on the taste of certain beverages and food. It is a diuretic, as well, so you have to watch your hydration much more.

3:29 p.m. on March 3, 2010 (EST)
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It's worth mentioning that that an alergic reaction to Diamox, though rare, can result in difficulty breathing. This would compound AMS symptoms.

12:06 a.m. on March 5, 2010 (EST)
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Yeah, but its worth a shot. I've heard it makes carbonated beverages taste flat.


Also thanks for the links Alicia. It is something I will seriously be looking into.

12:07 p.m. on March 5, 2010 (EST)
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You're welcome. My husband and I have both gone with Marc Chauvin and highly recommend him if you decide to do some training in New Hampshire.

In fact, while I was taking the class in December the man leading the AMC's version that weekend recommended Marc as the best too.

4:07 p.m. on March 10, 2010 (EST)
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Thats not too far from where I live. However, as others have said, the avalance danger has been very high and there have been 3 people die already. All were backcountry skiers. So anyone heading out into the high Rockies soon should check with REI for the latest avalance reports. Last week, there were over 500 reported!! Be careful.

July 24, 2014
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