It’s Christmas day and I’m in Colorado living in my car. I’m out here on my own accord. I want adventure, I crave adventure, so I came out to these sub zero temps to climb some mountains, do some snowboarding, and actually have a white Christmas instead of the warm drizzle back on the East coast. But I’m in Starbucks in Breckenridge now and I miss my family and miss my home.
This morning I began an ascent of Quandary Peak just south of Breckenridge. It’s one of the 52 Colorado 14ers and is decidedly the easiest winter route. With a long gradual, broad east ridge it allows the hiker to stay out of avalanche terrain for the duration of the climb with no pitches greater than maybe 30 percent.
I got a late start, leaving my car around 1130, expecting the climbing to be easy and the round trip to take less than 5 hours. If I wasn’t on the summit by 3pm, I would turn around, no question. The conditions were rough, temps hovering just above 0, winds gusting up to 40mph, and dense snow finding its way in every crack in my clothes. About a half mile up, below tree line, I got too warm and stripped down to just my base layer and my Arc’Teryx Alpha AR jacket and Alpha SL pants. Seriously, the best, most breathable combo for winter mountaineering. Most of my sweat evaporated through the fabric and I stayed warm despite the bitter wind.
Just out of tree line I saw a couple postholing up the ridge just ahead of me without snowshoes. With the unrelenting snow over the past few days I sympathized with their struggle in the deep snow and passed them to help set trail. But with the heavy winds, my tracks were undetectable within minutes.
Coming up to a leveling on the ridge a little over halfway up I heard a whistle blaring. When hiking, especially with a fleece cap and hood up, I hear all kinds of fictitious noises from conversations to shouting to avalanches in the distance. Usually I don’t remove my hood to listen more carefully, knowing that as soon as I stop I’ll realize the sound was just my imagination. But the whistle had a distinct sound of desperation. I stopped, looked around, and continued to hear the high pitched pierce. For a moment I thought it was the call of a bird or an animal and hoped and hoped that no one had slid off the lips on either side of the ridge.
But I figured it must be coming from above me so I kept hiking to get a better vantage. And sure enough when I crested the incline there were three hikers very slowly limping toward me. From a distance I couldn’t tell who was hurt and who was helping who but when I got closer, the emotionless, dazed face of the climber in the middle answered the question for me. I couldn’t hear them over the blasting wind so I didn’t answer their call until I was maybe 5 feet away. They could tell from my confusion that I wasn’t the rescue they had called for.
“What’s up, what’s going on?” I shouted to the two hikers carrying the one in the middle.
“He’s severely hypothermic, we found him up on the summit,” the one on skis answered. They had hoped I was the rescue but unfortunately I was carrying very little but offered what I had.
“What can I do, how can I help?”
They hesitated and said they thought they had it under control but I could tell they were saying it out of respect for my desire to summit, rather than actual lack of needing help.
For a moment I considered it. I didn’t know how bad the situation was yet and didn’t know how far away the summit was. But I thought better of becoming a statistic myself and said, “Nah, screw that, what can I do; what do you all need?” and immediately the one on skis, later I would learn is Jason, asked if I would mind carrying the other guy’s pack. His pack was tremendous for a day hike, but in typical Grayson fashion, mine was tiny, so I could easily afford the extra weight.
“Of course, of course, what else can I do? Does one of you want to trade out?” I offered my jacket but the hypothermic climber, named Cole, was ridiculously bundled up, obviously wearing some layers from the other two guys. He declined so I offered him Sour Patch Kids, bound to be frozen by now, but still delicious, and some Gatorade I had been storing in my jacket. He said yes to the Gatorade with some hesitation and I poured it into his mouth while the other guys, the other one name Mike, held him up.
I grabbed Cole’s pack and we started working our way down in silence, with only the occasional plea for a break from Cole. It was slow going but Cole was looking okay and was responsive so we knew we’d get down eventually. The other two guys had both pressed their Spot SOS buttons so we knew rescue was somewhat on the way, just didn’t know when.
We soon caught up to the couple hikers I had passed on the way up and Jason and Mike were seriously bummed that it wasn’t the rescue they had called for. But the two hikers had hand warmers and offered them up. Jason shouted with joy and said the hand warmers would really help. So the other two hikers got to opening up and warming up the hand warmers and then we worked Cole’s gloves off his frozen hands to put the warmers in. This was the first moment I realized how awful the situation actually was. His hands were frozen in place with purple finger tips with the rest a pale yellow. I almost wretched when I first saw them and realized that Cole wasn’t simply going home to tell a crazy story of his attempt on Quandary on Christmas day. We worked the warmer’s into his clawed fists and then struggled to get his swollen hands back into the mittens.
Soon the slope steepened and Jason was having a tough time going the slow pace on skis so he asked if we could trade out. Before we switched I saw Cole’s pants were falling down and some skin was exposed so I apologized for invading his personal space and helped lift them up and tucked his inner jacket into his pants.
Jason slipped out from under Cole’s arm and I slid in, quickly realizing that the height difference was going to make for an interesting hike down. Cole was nearly a foot taller than me so I had to leverage on his arm and back to keep him from collapsing each time we postholed into softer snow. It was an art to walk side by side with two other guys in the deep snow, all of us wearing snowshoes. It was a skill that I had underestimated when I saw Jason and Mike carrying Cole down. But with practice it became easier and I stopped tripping over my own snowshoes.
After a while, both Mike’s and my arms were getting tired so we switched sides to distribute the strain but it didn’t help much. Mike had been going since 9am, had hiked up with Cole close on his heels, until Cole had turned around saying he was tired. Mike kept going, not knowing that Cole was desperately cold and topped out on the summit. In that time Jason had come upon Cole sitting in the snow, jackets off with bare hands, obviously in distress. He had reached the last stage of hypothermia where the body starts feeling hot and the victim strips down. Jason realized that Cole was dying and helped him put his clothes back on and added his own extra down jacket then started helping him down the mountain. Mike came upon the two of them shortly after and helped with the rescue. They had been going through this for over an hour when I met up with them.
On a more gradual slope I switched out with Jason again to do a personal check. My hands were stiff and cold and my feet numb and I was exhausted. But once the slope steepened again I switched back into position. I prayed for the rescue to be coming up and hated looking down the mountain at the empty slope. After all the stories I had read of the Robertsons and other people lost at sea or desperate for a rescue that would never come I figured we were on our own to get him down and that realization somewhat eased the pain of waiting for help that may not come.
But finally it did come. A lone skier with a tremendous pack and a red jacket slipped into view and I nearly lost it with joy. We were getting there on our own, but my goodness it was nice to see the professionals. Where we were though was extremely exposed and the wind was tearing at all of us. My beard and moustache were frozen and Cole had some ugly frostbite on his nose, lips, and cheeks. Mike suggested we continue on down to the trees and so we did. My arms were dying and I felt like I was going to collapse any minute so I really wanted to pass Cole off but at the same time I was just happy to be moving.
Down behind the trees I traded out with one of the rescuers and got a much needed break. With more and more rescuers showing up and eventually an essential army of people coming up the mountain, I relaxed finally knowing he’d be alright. Down below treeline we all rested while they checked Cole’s vitals and put some warmer layers on him. Eventually they had him on a snowmobile racing down to an ambulance waiting at the trailhead. I caught the story from Jason and Mike and finally had some idea what the hell had happened.
From our best guess Cole had worn too many layers on the way up and sweated through all of them. Likely dehydrated and soaking wet, he didn’t have another layer to put on for the descent so the wind tore through his close and froze him to the core. He became delusional and took his clothes off, amplifying the problem and contributing to the frostbite on his hands. Had either Jason or Mike not been up there, there would have been no way one person could have gotten Cole down. And had Jason arrived even an hour later, he may have come upon a freezing corpse.
It’s a scary thought and truly humbling one. My hands haven’t stopped trembling from the incident and I feel sick from seeing Cole’s hands. I truly hope for the best for him and hope he doesn’t have too many issues from the frostbite.
The day has made me reevaluate my own tactic toward climbing and hiking. I am an absolute minimalist by nature and it always works out for me. I depend on experience and knowledge rather than gear. But had I been carrying even the tiniest sleeping bag, pad, and bivy sack, the day would have gone much better. Instead I had a couple bottles of gatorade, a couple granola bars, and a single lightweight fleece jacket. I had nothing to spare and was freezing during breaks at such exposed altitudes.
I’m happy we all had Spot satellite messengers but the rescue took forever when we were all freezing. In reality it was an incredible and rapid response and I am so thankful those guys are all there to help. But I need to carry supplies to at least sustain me till a rescue if I ever find myself in a similar situation.
It’s also made me realize how dangerous a rescue can be. Had the slope been much steeper and snow a little firmer, Cole would have slid and kept sliding if he had fallen. We did our best to keep him up but it was brutal in the deep snow. If I ever find myself in a situation like this again I need to remember to look out for myself. I know it sounds superficial given the circumstance but I was freezing myself and didn’t know it until I finally had a break to self-assess. I’m happy to be relaxing now but the sight of Cole’s hand is sure to haunt me for years to come. It was an overwhelming day and now that we’re all safe I really hope for the best for Cole. Time to get some rest.
UPDATE: I was mistaken to assume that Cole removed his clothes because of his hypothermia. He was in the process of adding layers but was unable to put on his jacket or gloves because his hands were stiff.