Peak(s):  Handies Peak  -  14,048 feet
Date Posted:  07/11/2019
Date Climbed:   07/09/2019
Author:  HikesInGeologicTime
 A Heady Horror on Handies  

HEADS UP BEFORE YOU CONTINUE: There will be blood! And not the 2007 Daniel Day-Lewis film that I really ought to re-watch at some point to see if it holds up over a decade later. I mean that (spoiler alert!) I busted my face and took pictures of the bloody results, some of which I will be posting here in the name of both hopefully convincing others to learn from my mistakes and also because I am a horror screenwriter, so focusing on the grotesque is kinda what I do.

I can't say that I approached Handies with 100% confidence when I made up my mind and started driving from Denver on Monday night. I'd successfully summited Uncompahgre on Saturday, but I'd been with a group and knew I'd be climbing on a popular hiking weekend even if one or both of my party had to beg off for any reason.

Still, aside from a couple instances of having to go by best-guesstimates of where the trail was under the snow, nothing about Unc had presented a particularly daunting challenge, and since Handies' East Slopes were also rated Class 2 and therefore well within my comfort zone, I felt that soloing even with the last of winter still clinging stubbornly to the slopes would be something I could do safely. Inclining me further to stuff down my worries were Tuesday's disturbingly perfect forecast and the fact of the surgery scheduled for Friday - for all you Nosy Neds and Nancies, it's top surgery, a.k.a. elective double mastectomy for FTM (female-to-male) chest masculinization. Getting a wildflower hike in before I'd be down for the count for six weeks as a necessary part of my transition process was too tempting to resist!

19501_01Sure enough, it stayed this sunny the whole time I was out, thus making it the opposite of having rain on one's parade.

Playing leapfrog and limbo with the folded-over, avalanche-downed trees was perhaps more of an obstacle course than I ordinarily like to tackle first thing in the morning, but the main source of anxiety that I'd had on the drive down - being unable to locate the hard turn where the trail crossed the stream - turned out to be much ado about nothing. It was with a growing sense of cockiness that I followed the trail up and back around to the snow slopes beneath the ridge.

19501_09I'd hoped that dodging this sort of thing on the trail would be the biggest challenge I'd face all day. Ah, how foolish I was in my youth!

Once the trail disappeared under the snow for good, my cockiness took full flight. On Unc, I hadn't even needed microspikes - some solid boot planting and faith in my pole-planting had done the trick. It had also helped that my buddies and I took the shortest routes possible across the snow to maximize our time on somewhat-more-consistent ground.

I thought I'd try the same here. Condition reports I'd read indicated that the ridge was dry; if I cut up to the ridge at the first available opportunity, surely I'd be way ahead of the game!

Insert mumbling about the best-laid plans of mice, men, and mountaineers. There's a reason the trail meets the ridge at the point it does and not at the point I found myself at. The dry side had a steeper drop-off below me than I was willing to handle at that time in the morning and with my expectations set for an ordinary Class 2 climb; the snow side had...well...snow.

My attempt to cut across the top of the snow didn't work, so I wound up only half-intentionally glissading back down to rejoin the main snow slope. I once again tried angling off it to rejoin the ridge a bit early, and once again, I found myself with a choice of either tougher rock-hopping than I'd bargained for or more snow traversing. And this time, the snow had a mostly melted cornice running across it that, while unlikely to collapse, would nonetheless require some awkward maneuvering to navigate.

I chose to navigate it anyway. Instead of going a few feet up and over to where the crest had largely subsided into the rest of the snow slope, though, I decided to sit down on the crest right in front of me, plant my feet as solidly as possible, and start across without having to go up any more; I'd have enough up remaining when I got back to the actual route, after all, so why add on to it?

You might think I realized the consequences of my laziness as soon as I stood up, but you'd be wrong - I didn't really have time to realize much of anything as my feet shot out from under me and the exposed rocks 5-10' below dominated my vision. I didn't even have time to add the "-it!" on my whispered, "Oh, sh-" before I jolted to a stop as sudden as my start.

My life hadn't even had a chance to start flashing before my eyes before I was knee-deep and belly-flopped onto a patch of snow among those rocks, blinking as hard as I could in an attempt to determine why I could only see out of the right one, and not very well, at that. Fortunately, I'd landed with my face pointed downhill, so even with my lousy uncorrected eyesight (when the eye doctors tell me to take off my glasses and read letters on the chart, I have to guess that the one on top is an E), I could see my prescription sunglasses within arm's length and use the contrast to determine that the black spot a little farther on was their absent left lens.

19501_06That rock patch looked so...nondescript from below.

Of even more questionable fortune is the fact that I have somewhat depressive tendencies, and I have read that people like me tend to be the most comfortable when the excrement hits the air-conditioning unit, since as far as we're concerned, this is exactly what's to be expected in a normal day. So while I still couldn't figure out what was going on with my left eye, I knew that a decent place to start would be to retrieve the sunglasses and the lens, swap them out for the regular eyeglasses I'd started out wearing when I'd left my car at 5:10 a.m., see if I needed to recover anything else, and in the process, determine whether I'd broken anything that the shock prevented me from noticing in the moment.

My ability to retrieve the lower piece of the hiking pole that had twisted into two during the fall proved that nothing was broken or even sprained, and it wasn't until I reached back up for its upper two-thirds that I figured out what was going on with my eye.

19501_02I'll just pretend that it's mere dedication to my craft that had my thoughts jumping so seamlessly from, "Wow, head wounds really DO bleed a lot," to, "I need to take a picture so I can use this in a film someday!"

After I took note of the cut footage from The Shining below me, I swiped at my left eyebrow with my gloves and sleeves and blinked hard a few times. My vision in that eye cleared a little, meaning (I told myself) that it was probably just blood that had leaked in from upstairs. Cool, I could deal with that.

As I focused on the task of putting my hiking pole back together while waiting for the already-slowing-on-its-own bleeding to stop, a marmot scampered over to me with undue haste. I know he was most likely hoping that I was about to keel over so that he could rummage through my backpack and claim my pretzels, but I'd prefer to pretend that he was the general of an army of small alpine creatures intent on coming to my rescue during one of the last few days before I'd be too flat-chested to pass as a Disney princess anymore.

I fixed the pole, blinked away the last of the blood, and took a couple steps back above the rocks to retrieve my other pole before waving good-bye to the questionably-intentioned marmot and starting to pick my way carefully down the snow, front-in, to reach the portion of trail I now saw below me. I didn't want to turn around, not really, but given how shaken I was, I questioned my ability to reach the summit, even though I could see the path to it as clearly as if Bill Middlebrook's helpful blue arrows were hovering in the air above it.

But before I could definitively point my toes back down from whence I'd come, I saw another hiker descending from the summit. And somehow, the thought of having to talk to him when he inevitably overtook me, having to shamefacedly admit that no, I hadn't summited and started descending before he reached the ridge, or even worse, having to deal with his sympathy when he saw the left side of my face...somehow, that shook my shaken confidence. Plus, had I really driven the 5 1/2 hours from Denver and come within 300' of the summit just to bug out over what seemed to be a mere surface wound?

19501_03Albeit a gross one.

I looked back up at the small snow slope above me. The other hiker's steps were still prominent in it. And while I would under no circumstances recommend that anyone else with a gaping head injury follow in my following of his footsteps, I knew a failure to at least give it the rest of what I had would haunt me for the next six weeks.

Telling myself that I'd turn around if I started seeing/hearing things that weren't there or felt any dizzier than would be expected at altitude, I planted my poles and feet slowly and carefully in the preset steps above me. Before I knew it, I was on the ridge, and this time with no tough calls to make about whether to shuffle across snow or shimmy across steep boulders to reach my objective. The final steep pitch was a lung-buster, and I was not happy that it topped out on a false summit, but it seemed a matter of two minutes traversing more across than up before I was at the real summit.

19501_04And the USGS survey nipple proves it as such!

I stayed long enough to finish the water bottle I'd started on the way up and take plenty of pictures, but the chill and my hopefully-understandable anxiety about the snow descent ensured I didn't linger for too significant a time.

19501_05Though I had sufficient time up there for another marmot encounter. Of course I can't be sure that this was the same marmot, but if so, he was clearly proving himself to be my most loyal subject...or most likely hoping that 14,000 feet was the magic line at which my head would explode and leave him as the sole heir to my estate of snack food.

But I had stayed up there long enough for the snow to have softened up noticeably, and while I am ordinarily as fond of posthole-prone conditions as any other hiker, on that day, I didn't mind that the snow was a little too wet to get a good glissade going on the slope I should've followed on the way up.

19501_07It's probably just as well that I'd finished my glissade, gone home, and uploaded this picture before noticing that the rockpile I clearly wronged in a past life was dead-center above me.

My arms are a little stiff from the fact that I had to do a bit of rowing with my poles to keep my forward momentum going, and I had to take advantage of the fact that no one else was in sight when I got back to the stream crossing to dig a staggering amount of melted snow out of my pants; fortunately, I'd worn the ones with the, uh, added ventilation shaft granted to me by Longs' Homestretch to make removal easier!

My day ended with a trip to Denver Health Urgent Care. I figured that my ability to have successfully summited, descended, and driven the 5 1/2 hours back to Denver confirmed that a mere scratch was the staggeringly lucky outcome of my mishap, but I didn't want it seeping all over my pillowcases if it was deep enough to need stitches. A little glue, some just-in-case facial x-rays, and a series of texts to my dad that likely have him questioning his parenting skills later, and I got to eat a victory bowl of dinner cereal before going to bed.

19501_10Bet Dad never asks me to send him a selfie again!

But I recognize that I got supercalifragilisticexpialidociously lucky that all I needed was some glue. If my head had hit at a different angle, or if I hadn't had the sunglasses protecting my eye, or if my limbs had been in a different configuration when I'd taken that fall, this could've been a far grimmer story, one told by someone else out of necessity.

On that note, then, here's what I wish I'd done differently:

  1. Either wait until the snow melted more to attempt it or gone with a partner;
  2. Stuck to the slope closest to where I knew the trail was;
  3. Not made any sketcy snow crossings right above large rocks.

You'll notice I didn't say anything about adding an ice axe or crampons. That's because in this particular instance, I don't think they would've helped; my fall was so short that I would've landed before I got a proper grip on my axe, and the snow was melty enough by the time I started going down intentionally that self-arresting wasn't going to be a problem. But if you're faster than I am, enough that you'd be ascending and then descending before 9 a.m. when the sun has a chance to really start working into the snow, they would probably be a good idea.

"Other than that, how was the hike, Mrs. Lincoln?"

Actually, this is one I wouldn't mind doing again, under the right conditions and after the trauma has subsided a bit! The views are stunning, the wildflowers abundant, and the area secluded enough that I only talked to two other people on the whole hike (and after I'd swiped at the blood with some snow to scrub a little off).

19501_08NOT the snow I bloodied...or was it???

I generally prefer longer ambles to shorter + steeper strikes, so I'd be more inclined to revisit San Luis Peak first, but this is one I'd be okay with making a triumphant return and seeing if my marmot army is waiting to accept orders from their battle-scarred prince...or if they just try to mug me for my trail mix.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
07/11/2019 19:46
Enjoyed the writing and glad you're safe. Hope the surgery goes well and you're back out quickly!

I know you know this, but I'll say it because I'm an anonymous internet user hiding behind a keyboard: NEVER mess with cornices and be super wary of hiking alone/don't do it. So far, all the deaths this year seem to be from people hiking alone. Both cause a decent amount of deaths; stay out from under them and don't walk on them. If your fall had been any worse, you might have become another statistic because noone was with you. All 14ers are deadly. /endrant

Congrats on the summit though and rest easy!


07/11/2019 20:39
Yeah, the reason why I decided to post the story with gross pictures for emphasis was because I definitely knew better but got sloppy because pffft, it€„¢s only a Class 2, that snow is melting anyway, and this ain€„¢t my first rodeo! So hopefully I can act as the Ghost of Christmas-in-July Future for anyone else with similar overambitions to mine. :/

At least I€„¢d already picked up the narcotics I was prescribed...


Close one
07/12/2019 05:47
I'm glad you're ok. Crossing snow can be no joke, even on the easy peaks.

If there's any amount of snow where you could pick up speed after a fall, it's best to put on your microspikes.


Glad you made it out
07/12/2019 11:12
We climbed Handies on 7/6/19 and there is still a ton of snow down there. Happy to hear your we able to drive back to Denver and just need some glue on your cut.


Exiled Michigander

Goes Without Saying
07/12/2019 11:56
Exuberance is no substitute for an ice axe.


More thanks!
07/13/2019 09:50
@BillMiddlebrook: I did make a begrudging concession to basic common sense and self-preservation by putting on microspikes at the base of the snow slope, which helped for the rest of it! Also, your comment feels like receiving a Get Well Soon card from a celebrity, so that made my day.

@climbingcue: I contemplated climbing Handies on the 6th since I was already in the area from Uncompahgre on the 5th, but ultimately, the hiking buddy who was also sorta contemplating it and I decided we were too wiped from Unc. Hiking while exhausted from the previous day doubtlessly wouldn€„¢t have been that great an idea, though I wonder if I€„¢d have needed the eyebrow glue if I€„¢d gone when I€„¢d known there would€„¢ve been more groups I could€„¢ve glommed onto. I am thrilled that was all I needed though!

@Exiled Michigander: I do agree that an ice axe would be a useful tool to have in general on most fourteeners right now, though I also maintain that one would not have been helpful for my particular fall, as it was so short that I€„¢d practically landed by the time I even realized I was falling.

An added note of sorts, today€„¢s experience suggests that if you absolutely have to set yourself up for mountain mishaps, be sure to do it close to when you€„¢re undergoing general anesthesia shortly after. That stuff knocks you out ALL DAY, and when you wake up, you don€„¢t really notice the pain. :S


Glad your off the mountain safe to climb another
07/13/2019 00:29
Thankyou for posting your scary adventure ,... it is a reminder for all of us to never underestimate the mountains and the potential of getting hurt or worse! That anything can happen ! I am so glad you made it off the mountain and I think your a strong willed adventurer to complete the hike to the top after everything that you went through ! I would have probably called it s day!!
Hike on my friend through this journey of life and on these great mountains!

By the way, you should be a writer, you sure have s gift and your sense of humor is awesome !


07/13/2019 09:55
@Mountaingirl777: Thank you so much - I hope others can learn from my errors in judgment. And persistence is key to hiking for me...if you€„¢re not fast or talented, that€„¢s what you€„¢re left with! :p

My first novel got published last year, and I€„¢m working on getting my screenplays produced. I do have a soft spot for writing trip reports and other short pieces that I can share directly with an audience, though!


07/14/2019 18:31
I learn from not only my experience but the tales of others. Your trip report read like a captivating short story and it put me on the mountain. I could envision myself making similar decisions.

Spills and rose-colored glasses€„¢ decisions happen even if prepared and experienced. Everyone on this site has had a mental miscalculation somewhere along the way (it€„¢s called being a human being) - even if they rationalize it as something else to maintain their claim of superior wisdom.

I also enjoy the solitude and peace of solo hiking despite the risks. Yes, having others around to go for help is useful, etc. but wise people of the past would intentionally spend a great deal of time by themselves in Mother Nature (even, gasp, without GPS and REI hiking pants) as it is healthy and refreshing for the soul. Solo hiking is risky but so is driving the I-70.

Peace / Hike on


Hike on yourself!
07/15/2019 13:21
Thank you for the compliment about my writing! I'm glad it got through - suffice to say that this was not my first traumatic incident with a fourteener, and I may try to write a report about the Longs Peak Incident, the five-year anniversary of which is coming later this month. Clearly, I have little ground on which to stake my claims of superior wisdom when it's not being squinted at blearily through the lens of hindsight.

I'm also still a fan of solo hiking myself. I love being able to listen to music while I'm hiking, set my own pace without worrying about others in my group who are slower or (as is usually the case) faster than I am, taking breaks whenever and for however long I choose. But under current conditions, especially in the San Juans, I can't say I'd recommend traveling alone for the time being. Once August rolls around and the snow melts, sure! Anyway, I am signed up to do Culebra at the end of this month, and while I won't be the only hiker, I'll be a group of one, which pretty well contravenes that "go with a buddy!!!" advice from two sentences before. ;)

It does also get complicated in that, aside from Culebra, the rest of my remaining fourteeners are all Difficult Class 2 or higher. Some of those I might be able to climb on popular weekends, when I know I'd at least be able to yell for help if needed, but it'll probably behoove me to see how much overlap there is between other fourteener enthusiasts' want-to-do lists and my own.

You do have a solid point about I-70, or really most of the highways in Colorado; if it's not altitude-dazed visitors unsure of how to handle the grades and curves, it could also be a suicidal deer that wrecks you in a literal as well as figurative way. :/


Ice axes
07/16/2019 10:46
First off, glad you're OK! I'd like to respectfully disagree on on your assessment that an ice axe wouldn't have helped, however. It seems there's a misperception out there that ice axes are only for self-arrest; in fact, that's a last-resort that everyone should practice and be well-versed in, but hopefully never have to use. The first line of defence, and by far the most common, is with the spike to prevent the slip in the first place. It's amazing how much just an inch or two of spike planted into the snow can help. And your broken trekking pole is a live demonstration of why poles don't cut it for this purpose...


Re: Ice axes
07/16/2019 16:24
Thank you!

To respectfully disagree with your respectful disagreement ;), while I wholeheartedly concur with the value of having the ice axe in the first place when there's as much snow as there still is on the ground, I continue to maintain that it wouldn't have helped protect me from that particular fall - I decided to put the bulk of my weight on a foot that was on too-slick terrain too close to a menacing pile of rocks, and I highly doubt that even the preventative mechanism of the ice axe would have been enough to stop said foot from shooting out underneath me. What I could've done better to prevent that specific fall would've been, simply put, to either backtrack or go forward so that I wasn't attempting to put my load-bearing leg on super-sketchy, early-ish-morning, still-half-frozen cornice melt-off.

So I absolutely think that an ice axe is a useful tool, and one that shouldn't be put away just yet, but from my recollection, the smarter move for me to have made would've been to just not risk stepping where I did in the first place, especially since I KNEW it was a risky proposition. :/


Fair enough
07/16/2019 17:46
You were the one there, after all; the rest of us are just Monday morning quarterbacking! My comment was really meant to be more of a general clarification (not for you necessarily, but whoever happens to be reading) on how in general ice axes can prevent slips and slides before it comes to having to self-arrest. Ultimately, no matter what precautions we take, stuff like this can happen to anyone/anywhere. Again, glad it wasn't any worse than it was!


Ah, gotcha!
07/16/2019 20:31
Sounds like we€„¢re in agreement on the general idea - I€„¢ll definitely be bringing an ice axe on my next snowy fourteener, as well as avoiding cornices...the residual scar above my eye says even those that look well past the point of collapse are still hazardous.

Thanks again, and I am also glad I got off as lightly as I did!

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