Peak(s):  Snowmass Mountain  -  14,092 feet
Date Posted:  02/13/2021
Date Climbed:   07/18/2018
Author:  APancoe1986
 Disaster on Snowmass  

Disaster on Snowmass ‘14092


Background: In the summer of 2018 I came to Colorado to train on 14ers for an upcoming expedition to climb Cho Oyu (26,864’). Training on 14ers – and training at a certain intensity – I accept that much of my training is done solo and accept the risks associated with that. This climb was a brutal reality check – many climbers eventually have a situation that serves as a harsh lesson – and I was lucky to escape mine with my life and limbs intact. While I still train solo much of the time – how I assess risk and approach my climbs has changed forever as a result – so that I avoid becoming a statistic (either as a casualty – or a rescue again). I was fortunate to “walk” (not really) away from this incident – additionally, it has made me into a stronger, more deliberate, and most importantly more aware climber. The most important lesson I learned comes down to one word: MARGINS. That means preparing gear for a wide margin of weather, bringing a forgiving margin of food/water, and in my case – having a wide margin of time to safely reach the summit - accounting for issues ranging from navigation to slower sections of climbing than anticipated. On this climb – I gave myself so little margin that a few what should have been minor stumbling blocks – led to a near catastrophic set of events for me.

I am forever in debt to Aspen Mountain Rescue and the High-altitude National Guard out of Gypsum - as well as the Pitkin County Sheriffs office and their emergency dispatch. Without their bravery/selflessness – the best case would have been I would never have climbed again. The worst case would have been the ultimate price – my life. Thank you and in your debt forever.


WARNING: VERY GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW


The Climb to the Summit July 17th 2018.

I was staying at the Viceroy in Snowmass Village and rolled out of bed to check my phone around 5 am. I do much of my training solo – as I am training at specific intensities. Additionally I enjoy the solitude and adventure. However, this morning I was aiming for the Maroon Bells and was going to be climbing with my buddy Paul who I had summited Pyramid Peak with a year pior. Paul was almost done with the 14ers and a good friend of mine from Northwestern where we both were undergrads – and I enjoyed having him as a climbing partner.

The news on my phone was that Paul was out as he had a strained knee that ruled him out for the day. As it was a long drive over to the less technical 14ers near Leadville, I decided to go take on a very physical and long challenge on Snowmass. The route didn’t appear too challenging and I felt confident after climbing technical alpine terrain all summer (I had come straight from climbing the Kautz route on Rainier) that even solo and without too much route knowledge – I would be fine.

I figured going at a fairly fast ascent pace – I could reach the summit (11 miles one way and 6000 feet of gain) in about 4 hours from the trailhead. If I left at 7am, I calculated I would arrive at the summit around 11am, long before the typical noon deadline for a summer ascent. I drove the short distance to the trailhead and went through my checklist rapidly – knowing I had to get moving fast to make this work. In my haste I left my Garmin InReach plugged into my cars charger, never realizing until I needed it that it was not with me.

Initially everything was going perfect – I was even running ahead of time. After crossing the well-known “log-jam” I reached Snowmass Lake just an hour and a half after starting. Having done 8 of the 11 miles to the summit, and around half the vertical, I was pretty excited that I was going to pull it off. At Snowmass Lake I met a family that was camping at the lake and had a quick conversation with them before I headed off. Reaching Snowmass lake marked the end of my “honeymoon” on Snowmass Mountain.

The trip around the lake was an absolute mess as the lower trail led into an absolute swamp. The deep thick mud was unavoidable and the trail disappeared. After 15 minutes of attempting to navigate the muck while keeping my clothes dry (and a lot of four letter words)– I doubled back and headed up a well established trail that followed the lake – but at higher ground. Initially this seemed to be working – but as I continued, I realized I was gaining too much elevation and was uncertain as to whether the trail would reach a fork and head back towards the west side of Snowmass Lake. I realized I was taking way too much time and for the first time – began to consider the possibility of turning around. As these thoughts dawned on me– a trail appeared headed back towards the lake.

I immediately pushed the doubts aside and headed down the trail…only to once again have it disappear into a mess of deep mud and water. I was pretty close to the west side of the lake – so I pushed through it and reached the base of the Snowmass drainage. The hike from my arrival at Snowmass lake to the drainage leading towards the summit ridge should have taken me 15 minutes – but with the route finding issues it took close to an hour and the time was now 9:30. I knew in my gut I was running things way to close…but told myself I could always turn around closer to noon and just see how things went.

I traversed the loose scree slopes and climbed right up the Snowmass drainage on smooth rock slabs. I reached the top of the drainage and the base of the Snowmass at 11am. At this point I knew I would be summitting awfully close to noon. The sky was perfectly blue and not a cloud on the horizon – so I unwisely pushed my doubts aside. I hiked across the Snowmass, headed up the cliffs to the summit ridge, and reached the top to a completely terrifying sight.

20953_07
Still had blue skies as I climbed up the cliffs to the summit ridge

The ridge to the summit is an exposed scramble and while not too long – is not short either. As I popped up on to the summit ridge I saw a mass of threatening clouds in the distance. They seemed far enough away and the summit was oh so close (terrible summit fever). I ditched my pack and quickly scrambled along the summit ridge – tagging the top around 12:00 (and realizing I had left my phone with my pack – all that effort and nothing to show me on top). I quickly scrambled back along the ridge, grabbed my pack, turned around and realized the threatening clouds were practically on top of me. I began to feel panic creeping in and grabbed a quick photo of the ridge as it was the closest thing to a summit photo I would grab. I immediately began a rapid descent.

20953_05
Descending from the summit -- the situation got dangerous...fast

As I moved down I already was calling myself an absolute moron – I knew better and had seen summit fever end in tragedy on prior climbs for others. Despite not being a particularly religious person – I began to bargain with the powers that be – never again would I push my luck so much if I could just get down safely – I had learned my lesson. I down climbed the summit ridge cliffs at an urgent pace – throwing aside careful movement in the process. I allowed myself a big exhale when I reached the base of the cliffs.

Looking up – the clouds were just a few minutes from me and for the first time I heard thunder in the distance. I had a long way to go to reach tree level – I figured 15 minutes to the top of the drainage and another 30 minutes down the drainage. Still – with the terrain ahead me relatively easy I was far less worried then I had been and was moving at a good pace. With just a few minutes to the drainage I came upon a snowfield I had avoided on the way up. Avoiding the boulder hopping at this point seemed like it could shave off a few minutes – so I quickly made my way down the solid and compressed snow. As I reached the end of the snow field – there were a few jagged sharp rocks to navigate through to reach solid ground. The snow around the rocks was incredibly loose and unconsolidated. Sketchy and dangerous to be succinct. At this point however – back tracking wasn’t an option and caution could not come at the expense of my descent speed – the entire sky above me was threatening and the distant thunder was starting to sound much closer. Also -- it was only about 20 feet to solid ground. I was almost in the clear.

WARNING AGAIN: GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW

As I was just about to reach solid ground – I reached for a jagged rock to hold and as I grabbed it – put my left foot onto the snow. Without warning the snow broke below my left foot. I remember in a panic throwing all my effort into holding the rock as tight as possible with my both arms as my weight gave out. As rocks in the Elks can do – it came loose and my body went plunging.

I post-holed through the loose snow maybe a foot or two into a sharp rock. I felt it impact my left leg but otherwise kept my balance. My heart rate quickly sky-rocketed and then immediately fell as I caught my breath. I actually said to myself “that was close”. All of this took maybe 2-3 seconds. I felt a dull pain in my left leg and cursing to myself – decided to give the rock a little kick. But my left leg didn’t move. I looked down and I was hit by panic, terror, and disbelief. I screamed in my head “oh $%*@” – where my calf muscle should have been -- I could see muscle, tendons and blood beginning to pour out.

Without thinking and in a pure panic – I hopped on one leg the remaining few feet to solid ground and collapsed onto my back and let out a massive scream. It wasn’t from any one thing – more of a primal scream from all the panic rushing into me. The adrenaline then hit me and suddenly I was able to push aside all the emotions and regain thought.

“Alex – get it together – this is bad we need to get it together,” I said to myself. Immediately I began assessing the situation. First, I was losing a lot of blood – the rock below me was soaked in it and my massive wound was gushing. I reached into my pack and took out a brand new Arcteryx Jacket that had never been worn and covered the gaping hole that was my calf muscle with it. I then took my wind-layer I had on and used it as tourniquet for my leg.

20953_01
I managed to apply a tourniquet and stop the bleeding

The bleeding slowed then stopped and I felt a minor sense of accomplishment. Now I was able to breathe and take a wider view of my situation. The leg didn’t actually hurt at all…in fact it didn’t feel much of anything – but I wasn’t able to put any weight on it. Additionally – the temperature was getting colder and I was beginning to feel the cold – with my extra layers being used to stop the bleeding. At that point I felt rain and I thought to myself, “I am going to have to fight to survive this…please let me survive this.”

A few feet down from me was a group of rocks that had formed enough of a covered perch to provide some protection from the elements. I crawled under the rocks and managed to avoid further rain – but I was wet, cold, had lost a lot of blood, and was unable to move down the mountain. I reached for my InReach and after a few moments – felt the panic begin to take hold – as I realized that it was 9 miles and 4500 vertical feet away. I turned to my cellphone – zero bars. Panic gave way and I began to scream for help – hoping maybe the family at the campground could hear me – but knowing in my heart that they were too far away. “The only way out of this is to survive to morning and hope other climbers head up,” I told myself. At this point I took out my cell phone and began recording goodbye videos to my friends and family. I wasn’t scared so much as depressed as it dawned on me that this might be it. Weak and tired I found myself drifting to sleep.

I snapped to after what couldn’t have been more than 15-20 minutes. I looked up and the sun was out and I was beginning to warm up. The sun felt so good and I went from nearing hypothermia to toasty over just a few minutes. The sun also brought with it new energy and I knew if I had to spend a night on the mountain – I would not survive. I did the only thing I could think of – I began crawling. As I made my way down I would use my arms and 1 good leg to help scoot down on my butt – very aware that if I fell and the bleeding began again – I was in a world of trouble. After 30 minutes of down climbing I looked back and saw how little progress I had made – perhaps 30-40 vertical feet. Despair taking hold I reached for my phone…I had a single bar.

From despair to excitement -- I began dialing. Multiple attempts to dial 911 didn’t get through so I tried sending texts to Paul and friends – explaining the predicament I was in. Nothing got out. I gave 911 one more try…and got through to a dispatcher with Pitkin County. Scared of losing reception again – I made sure the first words I told the dispatcher involved Snowmass Mountain, unable to move, and my approximate location. The relief I felt when she repeated back to me what I had told her…

After we established the details of my situation – she told me she would reach out to Aspen Mountain Rescue and that help was coming my way – via helicopter or by foot but she couldn’t be sure. At this point I lost my connection again.

I laid down in the sun knowing that rescue was coming – and felt a bit of ease knowing that at this point I would likely survive…although I wasn’t sure I could say the same about my leg. Looking at my phone waiting for any contact from the rescue team – I realized my texts had gone out. Reassurance that plenty of people now knew the plight I was in. I tried dialing Paul – nothing. Then I dialed my good friend back home – Megan. Megan had been a good friend to me over the years and I knew that she would be able to handle my family (in-particular my mother) and would check in regularly for updates with the authorities. This allowed me to focus on my self-care.

I spend the next hour eating and drinking as much as I could – waiting for any signs of rescue. I even played a little Kenny Chesney and laughed to myself at the absurdity of listening to country while awaiting a rescue. There were a ton of forest fires in the area and Aspen Airport was being used as a base to fight them. As such there were a lot of “false hope” moments. It was late afternoon and I realized my chance of a helicopter rescue must have been somewhere between low and not happening. Megan managed to text me affirming as much – saying they couldn’t promise they would be able to extract me that day by chopper and it could be awhile for them to reach me by ground.

As I was preparing mentally for the possibility of needing to stay warm for a few hours – I heard the unmistakable sound of a helicopter approaching. It appeared over a ridge below me – just over the drainage – loud and forceful. I waved my trekking pole in the air and it circled above me for a brief second – before it descended below me and out of site. Panic flooded again “why are they leaving!!!” I screamed inside my head. Suddenly I was blasted with air as the chopper lifted into sight not too far from me and circled over head as a rescuer was lowered. The rescuer unhooked himself – bounded over to me and yelled over the noise of the chopper “HI!!! I’m Keith with Mountain Rescue!!!”

20953_02
Keith took this photo as he cleaned the wound and dressed it

After dressing my wound – I was hoisted into the Blackhawk and greeted by my brave rescuers and the Blackhawk crew -- soldiers with the High Altitude National Guard out of Gypsum. Although I couldn't see their faces behind their helmets, I received a few pats on the shoulders and thumb-ups as Keith was hoisted in and we took ok. Profusely thanking them (and forever will be grateful) we landed at the airport – where I was rushed into an ambulance to the hospital.

When I reached the hospital – while waiting for a leg specialist for emergency surgery – I was visited by a deputy with the Pitkin Sheriff’s office – Ryan. My first moment of laughter came when he mentioned how many calls they were taking from my mother.

The rest of the story goes like this. The medical staff at Aspen Valley Hospital were amazing. Their ability to operate swiftly made all the difference in the world. Before surgery, my surgeon told me that if I hadn’t been rescued that day – I likely would have lost my leg. As is, he wasn’t optimistic about a quick recovery – as it was likely a lot of tissue would have to be removed. Well the next day when he came in – he told me that very little tissue had died and long-term my leg would be just fine. I asked him when I could climb again. He said, “If you work hard and take therapy seriously – maybe in 6 months – but everyone is different.” I asked jokingly, “Is there any chance I can climb Cho you in 6 weeks?” He responded, “As a doctor I can’t say that’s likely…but I wouldn’t say its impossible.” And he left my room with a wink.

20953_04
My leg before surgery
20953_06
The leg cleaned out
20953_03
The leg post surgery

I was released from the hospital after just one more night. My buddy Paul helped me to gather my belongings from the viceroy and picked up my rental car for me. I spent two more days in Aspen – the locals were incredible and I definitely enjoyed a few beers from them. I also felt embarrassed and a bit of a failure – but folks tried to keep my spirits up – many retelling me their own brushes with catastrophe in the mountains.

I went back home to Chicago and immediately began rehab. By August 1st I was able to bear weight. By mid-August I was able to do a light jog. August 30th I departed for Cho Oyu – and stood on the summit a month later.

Not a day goes by that I am not thankful for my rescuers. Not a day goes by that I’m not appreciative that I learned a humbling lesson – but was able to leave alive and with all my limbs. Deep in my mind – every time I climb – the lessons of that day pull the strings behind every decision. When I summit a 14er at 9am – instead of being annoyed with myself for not sleeping in another hour – I am appreciative of being able to enjoy the summit knowing I have all the time in the world to take in the views




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
greenonion

Thank you so much
02/13/2021 10:02
...for sharing this. Folks, including me, need to see how bad it can get. I'm so sorry you had to go through that, but sounds like you handled it like a pro. I could hardly glance at the photos, but they show the reality of what can happen. I think I'm in a bit of shock here reading and seeing this. Glad shock didn't take over for you. I think you are a certifiable badass having summitted Cho Oyu a month later. Sheesh! Glad you are alive and relatively ok. Thanks again for sharing.


dubsho3000

posthole from hell
02/13/2021 16:26
I have worried before what damage an unfortunate posthole could cause. I am in shock with the photos you posted. Amazing. Got to appreciate Search and Rescue and all they do - they are amazing too. And 911. And cell phones and helicopters and all the modern marvels we live with.

Glad this unlucky event turned out okay for you.


CaptCO

Damn I actually think the pics are necessary
02/13/2021 17:35
I‘m sorry to hear of your tragic event and I‘m happy it wasn‘t any worse.


HikerGuy

Happy it worked out!
02/13/2021 19:46
Way to keep your head during an extremely stressful situation, well done. Mountain Rescue Aspen is amazing (as are all of our SAR groups). This is why I carry a first aid kit with an Israeli emergency bandage. They weigh next to nothing and work perfect for something like this. I've always thought that something like this, bad wound from sharp talus, is one of the most likely injuries.


RobbS

Post holing!
02/14/2021 06:02
Thanks for sharing this story and pictures. Just an excellent description of the day and the whole situation. It's shocking to see the amount of trauma that can happen from ........ Post holing?! I'm so glad to be reading about a rescue today than a potential recovery 2 1/2 years ago. Post holing!
This is a real eye opener and will definitely have me reconsidering the contents of my first aid kit and also 'margins" in general.
Thanks again for sharing.


jblyth

Ouch
02/14/2021 10:53
Glad you healed up ok....very impressive you still were able to climb Cho that soon after.


KY Climber
Also solo on Snowmass
02/14/2021 13:09
I also broke through the snow when I was descending solo from Snowmass last summer, on July 6. I also fell and banged into a rock, but it was in a relatively flat area, so I just got a scrape on my shoulder (which I actually did not discover until the next day). I realize that it could have been much worse. I did have my Inreach but not needed.

Thanks for sharing.


jesse

Thank you for sharing
02/14/2021 13:59
Glad you made it out and got back at it. I appreciate your report on what must have been terrifying, good lessons to take to heart.


hhoetmer
Can relate.... kinda
02/14/2021 19:14
I did this on Grizzly only I hit my knee. Had a fist sized knot right on top of my kneecap! Not nearly as bad as your story & I was able to limp it back... but tiny slips like that truly do come out of nowhere and can have severe consequences. Thank you for sharing your story!


EatinHardtack

Mother F*****
02/15/2021 16:17
Holy crap man.


Tornadoman

Scary!
02/15/2021 20:47
It's scary how quickly something can go wrong. I have certainly banged up my shins/knees postholing in rocky areas. Damn, those picture are gruesome! You are super tough to be in the Himalayas just a few weeks later. Climb on!


Voshkm

thank you
02/16/2021 17:54
for sharing the lessons learned


Will_E

Graphic images
02/16/2021 19:31
I gotta heed the graphic image warnings!

Glad you had a happy ending.


kushrocks

Thank you
02/18/2021 13:44
Thank you for posting this. People seem to be throwing more and more caution to the wind in regards to how dangerous certain peaks can be. I will always consider Snowmass one of the most dangerous peaks and very underrated in that regards as well. A good friend of many of us on here was killed on the traverse from Snowmass to Hangerman. I almost lost my life on what should have been an easy 5.9 rock climb in 2019. Thanks again for sharing your story. Anything can happen out there.



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