The following are two different views of the trip…
Denise’s view….Subject: Mt Silverheels
I’m almost embarrassed to write this trip report. Though we all made it to the summit and back again, shared a great comradery and have a great adventure to share, the overall trip was nothing to boast about. However, maybe someone who is reading this report will learn from it and hopefully avoid a similar incident.
It started Saturday morning, January 7th, with four of us; Bob Broeking, Steve Gladbach, Tom Vervaeke and myself. We had decided to climb Mt Silverheels (13,822ft), the 96th highest peak in Colorado, and as we pulled away from my house I was informed of a winter storm warning for the central mountains. I had checked the weather the night before but the forecast had changed. However, in good spirits and frivolity we continued on our way. Looking back I’m reminded of the words of my Basic Mountaineering School instructor; “When the weather doesn’t look good always have a contingency plan such as hanging out at the local brew pub”. But, we felt that we could continue on until things looked bad enough to turn around.
We started the climb around 9:00 with light snow and a noticeable wind. At about 500ft we topped out on a ridge into very gusty wind. As we continued to climb we were often blown sideways. However, the temperatures were not bad and, other than the annoyance of not being able to hear each other over the howling wind, things weren’t too bad. We decided to take the slightly longer route, 7 miles round-trip with 3400ft elevation gain, because of its gentler approach. Steve, who had climbed Silverheels once before, suggested an approach from the northwest up a couloir. We were hoping to avoid some of the wind until we made our final approach. As we circled around to the couloir we lost 200ft in altitude. At this point we could hear an eerie loud hum in the distance. We decided that it must be the wind whistling through the wires of the power poles nearby. We started the ascent of the couloir, being fortunate to avoid some wind and that the snow was firmly packed.
When we reached the end of the couloir we were able to remove our snowshoes. The wind returned with awesome force, but with it at our backs it was still just a nuisance. However, we did voice our dread to turn around into the wind when we returned. Periodically the sun shone through and gave us a false sense of security. Everyone felt they had good energy and would have no problem with the final ascent. From here it was a very gradual ascent along a big grassy/rocky mountain top. No problem! Until about 25ft from the summit, Bob, Steve and I were caught by such a gust of wind that we had to drop to the ground to avoid being knocked over. I waited awhile for a break and then scrambled to the rock shelter (wall) at the summit. We had all been taken by surprise with the ferocity of the wind and decided it was best to put on further wind protection and head back down right away. But, the storm must have blown through just at this time.
Every time we attempted to stand we were blown over. We estimated that the wind was a constant 90-100 mph but we don’t know for sure what strength it takes to topple a 210 lb. man with a heavy pack. We later heard reports of sustained winds from 85-115 mph, so we are probably close in our estimate. After several futile attempts to stand, I decided to conserve my strength and stay on the ground. This was most uncomfortable as the wind was blowing snow and ice into my face as a sandblaster would. I assumed everyone else was in the same boat, though I didn’t want to look up to find out. For a moment I really began to worry that the wind wouldn’t let up for a while and I was not clothed enough to lay dormant in the battering wind for long. Plus, I didn’t know of any way to add clothes. Thinking back now, I probably could have sought some shelter behind the rock wall. But, the next thing I knew Bob had crawled over to me and shouted to try to crawl off the mountain.
I wish I could have a video tape of this event because it would have been quite funny now to see us attempting to crawl off of the mountain. It wasn’t funny at the time because, for one thing, crawling over rocks on your knees was not the least bit comfortable. However, at least you felt like you were getting somewhere and not totally incapacitated. Every so often I would again attempt to stand to no avail. Eventually, it appeared that Bob and Steve were able to stand somewhat erect. My lighter weight at this point was a definite disadvantage because I never managed to leave the all fours position. Then, Steve grabbed by arm and the two of us in union were able to stagger down enough to leave the main force of the wind.
At this point we all were able to independently travel and were in a great hurry to get as far down as possible. We made it to the top of the couloir and proceeded to glissade down. When we could glissade no more we had left the brunt of the wind and could now breathe a sigh of relief. I found my sunglasses that I thought had been blown off the mountain (I had forgotten my goggles) and realized quickly that they were completely iced up and totally useless. By this time it was snowing steadily and everyone commented on my ice caked eyelashes. But I didn’t care, I had made it down.
Now we had to ascend the 200ft that we had initially descended. We plotted a course and broke trail through about 2ft of snow in spots. On our final ascent Steve suggested traversing under a 150ft southeast facing 30 degree slope. I had been eyeing a more benign slope to the left and suggested it. Tom and I had taken an avalanche course about a month before and one of the things that had been emphasized was not to be fooled by a short slope. However, when I’d called the avalanche hotline on Friday, the avalanche danger was low. But the wind was from the northwest and there could have been considerable snow loading that occurred. Steve thought his route was ok and since he’s far more experienced than I (he has climbed Mt McKinley and other high mountains) I went along. We were almost to the middle of the slope when I heard Bob screaming. At first I thought he was clowning around or practicing some rescue efforts (as we have done before on previous climbs). As I turned to look at him I realized he was yelling the word ‘SLIDE’! I waited no longer and immediately retraced my steps as fast as one can on snowshoes. Steve was close behind me and I did not stop until I had reached safety. Then we looked back to where the slope had avalanched. You could definitely see the obvious crown at the top where the avalanche had started. Above the crown was another fracture line and below was the churned up snow that had broken loose. If we had been caught in it we probably would only have been knocked down but the near escape was humbling. We quickly decided to vacate the area towards the previously recommended route.
Fortunately from here there were no further mishaps and a very hungry and glad to be alive group made it to the car around 3:00. We then went straight to the town of Alma and to Alma’s Only Bar where in great euphoria we ordered pizza, beer and hot drinks. The company and socializing can really be great with people that you’ve crawled with together. As much as I enjoyed myself I wouldn’t recommend it as an ice breaker. Hopefully, next time I will head for that brew pub in Breckenridge and save the climbing for one of those many spectacular days in Colorado.
Tom’s View….Trip Report – Mt Silverheels, 13,822 Jan 7, 1995
Winter Hiking at Its Best
Our regular “Climb a Mountain Each Weekend” group got together for yet another fun hike. This time the normal gang which includes Bob Broeking, Denise Snow, I (Tom Vervaeke) was joined by Steve Gladbach. Steve is an accomplished climber who has hiked the Colorado Trail from end to end several times, as well as climbed Mt. McKinley. I felt I was in good company on this one. Bob, Steve, and myself met at Bob’s house at 6AM for the drive over to Denise’s and then on to the mountain-du-jour. The weather in Colorado Springs was forecast for sunny, 46F, and a little wind. Bob called the avalanche hotline on the cell phone and was a little surprised to get a nasty forecast for the area we were heading to. Forecast was for snow, high winds, and all-around yucky conditions, but slide activity was reported as “low” so on we went. Picked up Denise at 7AM and were parked at the trailhead at 8:45 or so.
After much vacillation over which peak to attempt this weekend we finally settled on Mount Silverheels. This is the 96th highest mountain in Colorado. Doesn’t seem too important to most folks but one of my personal goals is to climb the 100 tallest peaks in Colorado so this one would assist me on that hunt. The “trailhead” for this peak is about 1.75 miles south of Hoosier Pass on Colorado Route 9, or about 15 miles south of Breckenridge. You just park on the side of the highway in a small turnoff area. We were the only ones there! Sure enough, as we left the vicinity of Pikes Peak and Colorado Springs the weather began to change. The weather looked cloudy to overcast, cooler, and you could see the wind was blowing pretty fair up on high. There comes that point during days like this when you say to yourself: “Hey, this looks bad, let’s go home” but you don’t say it as you’ve already driven all this way to the mountain and your friends might think you’re a wimp. Besides, when you’re in a car full of Colorado Mountain Club members you’re supposed to be tough. We donned our gear and headed up the mountain at 9AM.
The one-way distance for this hike should be about 3.5 miles with about 3400′ of elevation gain. Starting elevation was 10,920′. A nice, easy summer hike, but decent winters climb for me personally. I try to keep my route distances at <= 8 miles in winter due to short days and cold weather, etc… Silverheels is described as “an off trail day hike over gentle terrain” in the guide book. Not quite so under harsh weather conditions. We headed east from the car and using a combination of boots and then snowshoes we ascended to the 12,000′ mark and intersected the old 4WD road we were looking for. Weather at this point was about 20F, windy, and variable visibility. We had opted for the longer, easier route and were going to follow the old 4WD road to the NW until it ended. At that point we would drop down 200′ and then climb up the NW ridge of the mountain. All was fine as we hiked along the road but the snow was pretty deep as we headed down the 200′ to cross the drainage. At this point I think a few of us were wondering about whether to turn back, I know I was.
We dropped the 200′ through fresh, deepening snow and worked our way further to the north and east. We were heading towards a couloir that Steve had used when climbing the mountain before. We made it over to the couloir with Steve leading the way and breaking the trail through 12-15″ of new powder snow. It was now totally overcast but the sun would shine through for a few seconds every 10 minutes or so. We began the ascent of the couloir and gained 1000′ or so in easy fashion as it was totally snow covered and not too steep. At the top we removed snow shoes and worked our way east towards where the summit should be. I should mention that the wind was blowing 30-50mph on our backs all the way to the summit. It was strong enough to feel like a friendly push in the right direction. Weather had deteriorated a little further now as we were about 13000′. Wind was stronger and we were nearing whiteout conditions at some points, and 100 yards at others. We climbed the last 800′ or so over several gentle ridges until we reached the summit just before 1PM. The summit on this peak is marked with a rather large horseshoe shaped cairn of rocks. Of course, the empty side of the horseshoe was full of snow so no room for us.
Just as we summited the wind really picked up. Steve and Bob were both blown over to one side and had to more-or-less crawl over behind the cairn. We all huddled together very closely as you had to shout quite loudly in order to communicate. I attempted to locate the summit cairn by digging with a snowshoe to no avail. The snow was too crusted to move easily, and I was tired. Didn’t feel like getting my snow shovel out of my pack so just sat down and rested with the rest. We all had our goggles on at this point but Denise had forgotten to pack hers. Opps bet that won’t happen again. Without goggles it was pretty miserable. After a very short stay we decided to get the heck off the summit. I moved out from behind the cairn into an unbelievable wind. It’s really hard to describe but I’ll try. I bent over as far as I could go, almost like a downhill skier in full tuck position.
I then positioned my trekking poles out to each side for more stability. I then tried to move into the wind. I could not move. In fact I was being slowly pushed backwards. I tried harder, no movement. I tried again and again and could not make progress. I got a little worried. The wind dipped just a little and I was able to scramble 100′ over to a small rock outcropping then had to sit down and rest. Bob, Steve, and Denise came out from behind the cairn and started over. One of Bob’s snowshoes (which he was carrying) blew out of his hands and went flying through the air 10′ or so. Bob quickly pounced on it or it would have been gone over the side of the mountain. Denise, being the smallest and lightest of the bunch was having the hardest time. After a short period they actually got down on their hands and knees and began crawling over to my position. We then all crawled a little further south and east and made it off the summit itself.
Denise’s sun glasses had been flipped over to the back of her head and were hanging by their string. She looked pretty blind and had eyebrows that looked like Walter Cronkite. Unbelievable. We all stood there for a few minutes and talked about the wind. We then moved down the mountain in groups of two until we were well off the top. At around 13,400′ or so we could begin to walk normally. We didn’t waste any time getting back to the top of the couloir before taking a break.
Took a short rest and then glissaded down about 1/2 of the couloir before the fresh snow stopped us. We had to tramp down the rest with our snowshoes on. Of course now that we were a little winded we needed to cross over the drainage again and gain 200′ or so (looked like 400′ to me!) before regaining the old road near some power towers. We were taking great care to avoid possible avalanche slopes during the entire day. Denise and I had just taken an avalanche course and learned that immediately after a good snow is one of the prime times for an avalanche.
Steve and Denise had taken the lead with myself third and Bob bringing up the rear when Bob screamed “avalanche”. I had been looking down and hadn’t seen a thing. I’m not sure Steve or Denise had seen it either. They had just begun to cross the bottom of a flat piece with a small slope above them. The slope was perhaps 100 yards wide by 100′ tall and at just about 30-40 degrees. The avalanche fractured right near the top of the hill and carried lots of fresh powder down. They were at the right edge at the bottom of the fallout zone and were able to scramble to the side. No damage done, but a close one. I’m not an avalanche expert but I don’t think the snow would have covered them totally. Wow, pretty scary for me. Thankfully Bob was being watchful.
Once we made it past this adventure, and back up the hill to the road, it was pretty easy going back to the car. We just took our time and snowshoed all the way over and down. I think all of us were thinking about that small avalanche and filing away again in our minds to be watchful for them. We arrived back at the car at 3PM for a total round trip time of 6 hours and distance of about 7-7.5 miles. It was snowing pretty heavily at the car and the roads were snow covered. We normally drive directly home but this time decided to stop in the small town of Alma, CO (highest incorporated city in Colorado) and have a bite to eat. Of course, the only place in town is called “Alma’s Only Bar”. Had a delicious beer, some coffee, and a darn good handmade pizza. We’ll definitely stop there again to unwind after our next adventure.