Climbing Taylor Glacier, The Loch Rocky Mountain National Park

Climbing Taylor Glacier: The worst mistake I’ve ever made: Part 1

“To my family and all my friends, I love you all more than you can ever imagine and am so sorry that I have put you through this. I never meant to get myself into these situations but sometimes my attempts to live life to the fullest ended up putting me on the edge. I was attempting to climb Andrews Glacier today but made a wrong turn toward Sky Pond. But instead of turning back and trying again tomorrow I attempted climbing Taylor Glacier instead. If you’re reading this then I must’ve slipped and fallen. Once again, I love you all and know that I was out here doing something I loved. I beg you to forgive me for the selfishness of these adventures but know that now, knowing the situation I’ve gotten myself into, I would much rather be back with each and every one of you over being in these mountains.”

It’s hard for me to read this now and not choke up. I wrote it while barely hanging on to a chossy slab face off the side of Taylor Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park this past November knowing that there was a high probability of me not surviving the day.

I had driven out to Colorado from Virginia a couple weeks earlier to do some hiking and climbing but never intended to get myself into such a horrible situation. I wrote this up as an unsent text on my phone and left it on the screen so it would surely be read granted the phone survived the fall.

I started up toward Andrews around mid-morning, following well travelled tracks up through a beautiful valley in the Bear Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park. I’d been living in my car for a couple weeks, sleeping in Estes Park and in the National Park. The place was desolate with a couple recent heavy snowfalls but today, with beautiful weather, the crowds were out. I had broken trail a couple days earlier attempting to climb to Andrews Glacier but the going was too slow in the deep unpacked snow and I had to turn around a half mile short to make it back before dark.

Climbing Taylor Glacier, Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

But today I flew up the trail in other hikers’ footsteps and eventually caught a group working their way up a steep powder slope. Eventually I caught the slowest of their group and asked if we were on the trail to Sky Pond. He confirmed we were which meant I had taken a wrong turn and missed the fork to head up to Andrews Glacier. Sky Pond was on my bucket list though so I figured I’d keep climbing and try Andrews another day. The trail steepened and turned into a frozen waterfall of slick, thick, bulging ice. There was no way to dodge it so I kicked my crampons into the ice and chopped my way up. At only maybe 20-30 feet high, in the worst case a fall would be a slip into the deep powder below. I left my axe in my pack. I passed another few hikers who were trying to navigate the slick ice off to the side and exchanged greetings with them. We reached a pond just below Sky Pond and I set out straight across the frozen surface to continue up. There were several groups lining the shore but after a few more minutes of hiking, I reached Sky Pond where only a couple other hikers had arrived.

Climbing Taylor Glacier, Lake of Glass, Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

I felt strong and antsy so I continued on past the lake and worked my way up toward The Continental Divide. On the other side of The Divide was a gentle slope where I had hiked several times in the past couple weeks. But on this side, glaciers had ripped through the mountains, leaving steep gouges in the rock. In some places, there were ways to work up to the top without roping up, but sometimes it was all but impassable. I had no idea whether this section of The Divide was the former or the latter. I committed to scoping it out just for grins and to test out my route finding skills.

Climbing Taylor Glacier, Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

A half mile above Sky Pond, the slopes steepened and turned to a giant boulder field. With bus-sized boulders gapped by hollow snow bridges, there was no easy way to cross. I settled for testing the gaps with my trekking poles and with many missteps and plunges, slowly navigated through. Any crash through the thin powder could mean a broken leg so I kept my knees bent and ready to lunge forward to spread my weight on the snow.

After analyzing and overanalyzing every couloir (a snow gully in the side of a mountain), I decided to keep moving forward. I could see a couloir continuing straight up the mountain and it looked gradual enough to be climbed with crampons and an axe. But when I reached the base of it, it towered over top of me. There was another couloir off to my left that appeared to reach the top but at a more gradual slope.

Climbing Taylor Glacier, Loch Vale, Sky Pond, Rocky Mountain National Park

And here is my first and most tremendous mistake of the day: there was absolutely no way for me to accurately discern distance and grade from the base of those slopes. The summit appeared close. In reality it was over 1500 feet overhead. The grade appeared shallow, no more than maybe 30%. In reality it was over 60% at the top and likely more in places. I’m tremendously embarrassed to be writing this but after months of reflection, I feel it is more important to make my mistakes public than lock them up and pretend they never happened. And maybe, just maybe, my mistake can prevent someone from doing something similar in the future.

Climbing Taylor Glacier, Loch Vale, Sky Pond, Rocky Mountain National Park
I considered climbing the couloir off to the right of the picture but ended up working my way left up a hidden gully.

Continue reading here: Climbing Taylor Glacier: Part 2

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