This is NOT a good situation. I VERY MUCH DO NOT WANT TO BE HERE RIGHT NOW! But I’m three turns and one hundred vertical feet into this descent and there are at least that many more to go to safety. Gaaaah! There’s not much else to do here but move on.
This uncomfortable moment of introspection came at the crux of a ski descent of Tyndall Glacier, one of the last remaining glaciers (or permanent snowfields, if you want to get technical) in Colorado. In it’s hey day, Tyndall Glacier carved out a pretty substantial gorge stretching a couple miles east from the Continental Divide in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. Now that it’s nearly gone, the north side of the gorge is mades up the aptly-named and often-climbed Flattop Mountain while the cliffs and buttresses on the south make the uber-picturesque Hallet Peak what it is. At the mouth of the gorge lies the end of the paved road at Bear Lake which is probably the most popular mountain spot in the entire state. It’s occupied in equal numbers by sneaker-and-jeans clad tourons and the better-equipped climbers and ski mountaineers.
Despite its diminished glory, the glacier is still impressive and hard to access. Eric and I fought our way up what seemed like fifty miles of massive, unstable rubble in the gorge in order to snow climb the southern side of the glacier during a memorable late-summer ice climb ten years ago. Today Jake, Erin, Peter, and I had taken the longer but far easier approach up the Flattop trail in order to go the other direction on the glacier in the opposite season. As committing ski descents go, it’s pretty mellow with a slope of in the low-30s of degrees and then a long run down the (hopefully) snow-filled valley to the string of lakes. We figured our biggest challenge would be dodging hikers on the two miles of trail back to the car. There was still loads of snow after what has been one of the best ski seasons in recent memory, yet the weather was pretty mild and the skies sunny.
We’d skinned merrily up Flattop in the sunny trees. Since I usually drastically overheat when doing the heavy work of skinning uphill, I’d left the ski pants at home and wore only running tights (with a backup waterproof layer to put on if necessary). Above tree line, it got pretty breezy and I donned my hardshell, but was otherwise pretty comfy. We finished the main climb, passing the entrances to the popular Dragon couloirs and did the traverse across to the summit “cone”. The weather was getting much cloudier, but we were looking forward to a quick descent of the glacier and gorge below down to Emerald Lake and the trail.
When we finally caught sight of the glacier itself, we were a bit alarmed to see that there was a moderate cornice on much of it. It wasn’t a huge cornice, but it was still more than I was really comfortable with jumping. The only part that seemed cornice-free was the very northern margin where wind filters around some rocks and over the edge in a complicated manner. Skins off, warmer layers on, downhill mode was activated.
Like all steep ski slopes, it looks REALLY intimidating from the top! Peter, the best skier amongst us, scouted a way down the left edge and found that what looked like a sharp edge was really a mellow roll-over. He made half a dozen photogenic turns down the untracked face and was quickly a lot smaller than it looked like he should be. Geometry and distances are tricky on glaciers.
I claimed second spot and, once I got over the edge and committed myself, didn’t find it quite as intimidating anymore. Fortunately, I’ve had a season of bold in-bound lines and my skills have markedly improved — a good alpine touring set-up and a lot of time skiing deep powder and trees has also helped! However, when it came time to make a turn, I discovered just how tough this was going to be. The snow varied from a few inches to a foot or more of soft, heavy, slush on top of a much firmer layer of old snow. Turning required quite a lot of strength and finesse as well as leaning waaaaay back on the tails of the skis.
Three turns in, I couldn’t tell if I was stopped perpendicular to the slope or whether I was sliding slowly sideways. The shifting light and my inner ear told me I was moving but a quick check showed that I was stopped, frozen in the middle of a lot of marginally-frozen water. Conditions in the gorge were very different from what we’d seen on the approach! I struggled to get a grip on my rising panic. Peter had gotten down safely, so I mirrored his tracks the rest of the way down the slope figuring that if he could get down safely, hopefully I could as well! It wasn’t pretty, but I managed.
Jake came next but, instead of staying near the tracks Peter and I had laid down, he traversed quite a ways north under a cliff band and some steeper terrain. I don’t know if he was looking for fresh tracks or was having trouble controlling his skis, but it took him a while to make his first turn and make it down to us.
Finally Erin started down. She followed Jake’s tracks, made one turn far off to skiers left… and suddenly was at the center of an avalanche! As these things go, it was very slow-moving and shallow and not terribly long, but MY FRIEND IS IN THE MIDDLE OF AN AVALANCHE!!!
Beside me, Jake, Erin’s husband, was as cool as I’ve ever seen anyone in an emergency. While at least half of me was freaking out, he was remaining calm and analytical while his wife was swept away facing possible injury or death. “She sliding. I still see her. Head is up, hasn’t been buried. Still moving. Okay, looks like she’s coming out the back of the slide.” I definitely want Jake on my team when the going gets bad.
She came to rest a few hundred feet above us at the top end of a jumble of snow blocks and we leapt into action. A quick yell back and forth established that she wasn’t hurt, just stuck and shaky. Figuring that donning climbing skins would take too long, I popped off my skis to hike back up to her… only to sink in up to my hips in the soft snow. A bit of crawling showed that it was futile. Meanwhile, Jake and Peter got their ascent gear back on and headed up to unbury Erin. Once I got my skins on, it was too late to help, so I set about getting snacks deployed figuring we could all use a few calories.
With Erin exhumed and all of us regrouped at the bottom of the glacier, we assessed the situation. Going back up the glacier was clearly not a good option: weather was rolling in across the Divide and the snow could easily slide again. So we committed to getting down the valley as intended as safely and quickly as possible. Fortunately there was plenty of snow covering the giant boulders in the gorge and we found a continuous snow line. We took each drop in turns staying well separated until on safe ground before moving on to the next part. The skiing was still very challenging, but at least it was lower angled now. Legs ached and everyone fell a lot. Even Peter, who I have never look anything but elite with skis strapped to his feet, fell down! The final pitch down to the lake was nearly as steep as the glacier had been and was, if anything, more intimidating. Old and new avalanche debris funneled into it from both sides but a number of other ski tracks did as well. I finally ended up throwing caution at least partly to the wind and opting to get down fast and out of harm’s way.
The last two miles down (mostly adjacent to) the tourist trail were fast and sloppy but we were so relieved to have come unscathed from the Gorge that we could help but laugh at thinly-covered rocks, tree wells, and suddenly-encountered hikers.
As we pulled gratefully into the Bear Lake trailhead, a pair of Rangers took us aside and wanted to know the whole story. We were only one of several parties to set off slides that day (and several more the next!). All told, seven people reportedly slide unintentionally, though I don’t believe any were seriously injured. The rangers were very keen to make sure that everyone who had gone in that day came back out.
Tyndall Glacier was, that day, clearly not a safe place to be. We’ve been over it a couple of times over the last week trying to figure out if we could have done anything differently. Possibly. However, we’d been carefully checking the forecast and the snow conditions on the way in and both seemed fine. We saw no signs of recent slides (at least from above) to alert us to the danger. Clearly it caught a lot of other people by surprise as well including the RMNP rangers.
By the time I realized our situation, Peter was down the most dangerous section and I was half way there. Had we been carrying radios, we could have alerted Jake and Erin as to the danger and had them ski the same line we’d done rather than underneath the wind-loaded terrain. Bracketing the two least-skilled skiers (myself and Erin) with the better skiers would have been a good idea as well.
I’m very very grateful that it was a learning moment not anything more serious. While we always carry beacon/shovel/probe, none of us honestly ever expect to use them. It’s just something like seat belts and bike helmets that you just do. And we didn’t need them here either because Erin was never buried. Had she been, I wonder about the time it took to get changed over into uphill gear and how quickly we could have gotten to her if it was more urgent.
Here my GPS track: https://www.strava.com/activities/2360117991.
Here’s a like the the CAIC avalanche report. They got the date wrong, but the other details are correct.