A Perilous Winter Night on Lassen Peak (updated 1/7/08)
Below are two accounts of this most perilous night and day on the summit of Lassen Peak. But for the igloo we constructed, the four of us would have surely perished that first day of winter in 1971. This was before gore-tex, fleece clothing, softshell jackets and pants, tele skis, and freestanding domed tents. We were using wool and cotton in those days and traveled on Alaskan-style snowshoes. This is one of the last trips I ever used snowshoes and these wooden and rawhide relics hang in my garage today as reminders of this trip. I (Paul Richins, Jr.) wrote the first and shorter account and my friend Gene Leach wrote the more detailed account that follows. Gene was my college mathematics professor (1969-1970) at Shasta Community College in Redding, CA. I was 21 and he was 45 at the time of this eventful traverse of Lassen Volcanic National Park. From 1954 to about 2000, Gene Leach made more than 60 winter crossings of the park from north to south, south to north, and east to west on snowshoes and skis. I joined him on about 30 of these crossing and this just happened to be my first and most memorable. Most crossings were uneventful except for the spectacular scenery and excellent skiing, but several were epic adventures such as the one described below.
Starting/Ending Point: Lassen Volcanic National Park North Entrance near Manzanita Lake (5,800 feet) / South Entrance (outside the town of Mineral) (6,700 feet)
Mileage: 12+ miles
Elevation gain: about 4,800 feet
Trip duration: 3 days
Camps: base of Lassen Peak's northwest face at about 8,000 feet and on the summit of Lassen Peak in the crater (10,457 feet)
Dates: December 20-22, 1971
Participants: Gene Leach, Ward Crane, Ed Crane, Paul Richins (on Alaskan-style wooden snowshoes).
As is often the situation on Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, harsh winter storms hit with a vengeance and with little warning. On this winter trip, Gene Leach, Ward Crane, Ed Crane, and I had planned a 3-day 2-night north to south snowshoe traverse of Lassen Volcanic National Park over the Christmas break from college. The second night we planned to camp in the summit crater. We left the end of the plowed road at Manzanita Lake on snowshoes in ideal weather conditions and with no hint of what was in store for us in just 36 hours.
After snowshoeing for about 5 miles, we camped for the first night at the base of the northwest face of Lassen Peak in Gene's REI McKinley tent. The McKinley tent is a four-person center-pole tent that required guy lines to secure. That evening, we had an enjoyable dinner around a warm fire and were tired from the days work so turned in at 7:00 PM.
The next morning after a breakfast of oatmeal, we headed for the summit plateau to camp that first day of winter in1971. At first we ascended on snowshoes. As we climbed above the tree line, the route steepened and the snow became wind packed and icy. We removed our snowshoes and tied them to the outside of our packs and exchanged them for crampons laced to our leather boots and an ice axe in our hands to prevent a fall on the steep northwest face.
We arrived on the summit plateau and crater by 2:00 in the afternoon giving us plenty of time to relax, explore the crater, climb to the summit, and improve our winter survival skills. Fortuitously, Gene and I decided to build a large igloo rather than sleep in the 4-person tent. Ed and Ward quickly joined the igloo construction project but opted to sleep in the tent. That evening the four of us cooked dinner in the igloo as the temperature dropped to 5 degrees F with a light wind and a clear sky. The inside of the igloo was crowded but it was toasty warm with a candle for light and several Svea 123 white-gas stoves roaring away melting snow for water, tea, and dinner.
The day had been clear, not a cloud in sight. I light breeze blew across the summit but there was no hint of what was to come in a matter of hours. During the night, a fierce storm roared across the summit landscape. In the igloo, Gene and I slept soundly and comfortably, oblivious to the violent storm outside. The sound of the storm was deadened by the superb insulating properties of the thick snow blocks of the igloo. Around 1:00 AM, Gene and I were suddenly awakened by Ward and Ed who were frantically seeking refuge from the storm--the tent had been leveled by the gale-force winds!
The igloo was good-sized but not constructed for four men and their gear and backpacks. That did not deter Ed and Ward. They pushed their way into the igloo hurriedly to escape the cold, the blowing and drifting snow, and sure death. Gene and I hugged opposite walls of the igloo while Ed and Ward placed their sleeping pads and bags between us. I very tight fit but we slept in the warmth and protection of the igloo.
In the morning we made breakfast, organized our gear, and packed up to start the descent. Gene was confident of the direction we needed to travel to descend from the summit plateau so we did not bother with taking a compass bearing. Outside the wind was howling and the snow swirling about. It was quite a chore just to put on our crampons and fix the snowshoes to the outside of our packs. I had to stop several times to warm my fingers and hands even though I was wearing gloves.
In zero visibility and violent winds with snowshoes laced to the outside of our heavy packs, we climbed cautiously to the edge of the crater where we were to descend. At the unprotected lip, we were immediately knocked to the snow and ice by violent blasts of wind. We clawed at the ice with our ice axes and crampons to keep from being blown off the edge and down the south face. We could not hold our position in face of the jet stream-like wind. We crawled and staggered in a slow retreat. We found a small, semi-sheltered area where, by shouting, we could semi-communicate with each other. We decided to return to the igloo to warm ourselves and take a compass bearing to make sure we descended at the proper place.
We headed back in the direction we came but could not find the igloo and our refuge from the arctic blasts. After searching for about an hour in the summit crater, we finally spotted some yellow snow and the safety of the igloo. What a relief to find our safe haven and get out of the wind and cold.
We started a couple of stoves and boiled some water for hot drinks. Although the temperature outside was near 5 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat from the stoves pushed the temperature inside the igloo to a toasty forty degrees. We decided that after warming ourselves we would attempt to descend one more time. This time we decided that we would continue down if at all physically possible. We checked and double checked our map and compass bearings before departing. The descent route was critical as we needed to avoid potentially unsafe areas on the steep southwest face.
Again, after putting on our crampons and hoisting our packs, we approached the crater lip with apprehension. Nothing had changed since our first attempt three hours earlier. Again, just as before we were knocked to the snow by the savage winds. This time, instead of retreating, we forced ourselves to continue over the exposed lip and down the southwest face. To our surprise, after dropping several hundred feet, the winds lessened to a point where normal travel was practical. As we neared the tree line, visibility improved and the winds lessened. Disaster was diverted and we descended on snowshoes to Lake Helen and Emerald Lake. The snow was falling at an unbelievable rate and limited our visibility but we were four happy and relieved climbers when we reached the south entrance of the park. A safe ending to an epic adventure.
Below is a map of our route. Manzanita Lake and our starting point is in the upper third of the map. Our ending point is in the lower center of the map. The map was drawn by Gene Leach, December 1971.
A Winter Climb of Lassen--December 1971, by Gene Leach
It is December and we have already had four good snow storms in the surrounding mountains of northern California. The peaks have their winter dress on. The week before Christmas vacation was clear and cold. To the west of the math building at Shasta Community College stand the white-capped mountains framed by the blue sky. These are the mountains I have come to know so well. From the north, there is Snow Mountain, Clover Mountain, Crater Peak, McGee Peak, Lassen Peak, Eagle Peak, Mount Diller, and Brokeoff Mountain. All of these, except Lassen Peak and Eagle Peak, I had climbed this year and a new ascent of Lassen was planned during the Christmas vacation if only the weather would cooperate.
Chris Yates had originated the trip with friends from Yreaka and Susanville but due to illness he was not able to join the final group. I had invited Ward and Ed Crane from Chico, and Paul Richins from Weaverville. This was the foursome that completed the trip.
We were to start at Manzanita Lake and follow Manzanita Creek for two to three miles and then cross the creek and head east up a valley on the north side of Lassen Peak and south of Chaos Crags. We planned to camp the first night on a saddle at the head of the valley and then climb the north face of Lassen returning to our camp. At least this was the original plan. These plans were to be modified and expanded during the week before the trip and while on the climb.
I thought of the possibility of making the second camp on top of Lassen Peak and then descending the south side to the ski area near the Sulfur Works. Car transportation could be complicated but I decided not to worry about it. I would hitch hike from the Sulfur Works and the south entrance to the park to Mineral, if necessary.
This was the route description we gave the park ranger Sunday at Manzanita Lake when we departed. We said that we expected to arrive at the Sulfur Works ski area around 4:00 PM Tuesday. This I also told Libbis Leach in the event she was able to pick us up. Kris and his friends were going to join us for the first day and then return to take the my car back to Redding.
We departed from Manzanita Lake at 10:00 AM. The snow conditions were good for showshoes with enough bite to give a good hold yet too soft for walking without the snowshoes. The initial route followed a Park Service fire road through a dense stand of brush. There were many coyote, rabbit, and squirrel tracks along the way. Once we left the brush we were in a beautiful stand of old majestic pine and fir trees widely spaced so that all one has to do is set their course in the direction they want to head and wander uninhibited through the spacious forest.
Knowing that the days are short, tomorrow will be the shortest day of the year, and also breakfast was at 6:00 AM, we decided to have lunch at 11:30 AM. At lunch, we put to vote the final route. There seemed to be two choices. One, to climb the north face as previously described and camp on top. The second choice was to ascend to the saddle on the west side of Lassen between Eagle Peak and Lassen Peak. Camp here and ascend the mountain by the traditional south side and return to camp. The vote was two to two. Paul and I were for the north side and Ed and Ward were for the south side. The only important difference seemed to be whether to camp on the summit or not. Finally, we all agreed to ascend the saddle between Lassen and Eagle peaks and camp on top.
Manzanita Creek is not large but crossing it was made convenient by finding the bridge on the fire road. The elevation at the bridge was 6,700 feet and the elevation of Manzanita Lake, our starting point, was 5,800 feet. The route now steepened markedly. With heavy backpacks and cumbersome snowshoes, the effort to ascend any hill was sternly noted. It was almost 3:00 PM when we broke into a large clearing with suitable campsites. There was a large flat area for the tent and a good supply of wood from a fallen hemlock for a camp fire. We also had a good command of the Sacramento Valley far to the west.
We noted a ridge above our camp site that seemed to be a good route to the top. I was surprised to find such an obvious route on the west side. The top looked so close that we all agreed it must be a false summit and wondered what lay beyond. The elevation of our camp was approximately 8,000 feet and the summit of Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) was another half mile above.
We set up the four-man REI McKinley tent using the ski poles and snowshoes to fasten the various guy lines. Ed and Ward collected firewood while Paul and I cut snow blocks and built a table of snow to cook on. With the table barely finished, Ed started dinner even though it was only 4:00 PM. Paul and I soon followed and four stoves were humming away at their task of melting snow for drinking water, hot tea, and cooking dinner.
The sun had already set behind Loomis Peak but Lassen Peak was bathed in a pink alpenglow. The temperature was in the teens. Ed quickly laid out some large pieces of wood on the snow and carefully built a fire. After dinner we gathered around the fire and caught up on what had happened since we were last together. The talk continued steadily until it seemed time to turn in. What a surprise to look at our watches and learn that it was only 6:00 PM! We stoked the fire and heated some hot chocolate, and continued the conversation until 7:00 PM.
We were up by 7:00 AM and packed by 8:00 AM. The sun's rays would not touch down in our area for another two hours but had already cast its golden glow on Mount Diller. We strapped snowshoes to our leather boots and shouldered our packs. The way to the ridge was short and steep. We passed through a stand of large hemlock trees that have fought countless battles against the wind, rain, snow, and ice, and although still the victor, they bear the scars of these struggles.
Overhead among the tops of these giants, your are sure to see a Clark Jay busily flying back and forth. At one time a small flock of red breasted nut hatches passed in front of us. The tracks of a busy coyote crossed our tracks.
We were climbing steeply and beginning to encounter patches of ice. We exchanged snowshoes and ski poles for crampons and ice ax. The timber line on this ridge runs higher than elsewhere on the mountain and it wasn't until 9,000 feet that we left the timber below. We now could look down on Loomis Peak and could see Brokeoff Mountain for the first time.
Our route was becoming more difficult and we were taking twenty or thirty paces and resting. The sun's rays still had not penetrated our side of the mountain. The sun just seemed to avoid us. At 11:00 AM we reached a break in the steep slope where I thought of stopping for lunch. The top, real or false, was only 400 feet above us and Ed felt we should continue on. We all seemed to race up the last part and quickly crested the lip of the summit crater. We immediately jumped back for we had crested at the edge of the crater and the other side dropped precipitously. If the edge had been corniced with snow, this could have been dangerous. Our reaction was mostly one of surprise to find such a steep drop when we thought we were reaching the actual summit of the peak. The wind was gusting and could easily catch our packs like sails and throw us off this narrow lip along the crater's edge.
Our next reaction was--where was the top of this mountain, and, was there a way from our present position to the top? We were on the north end of the crater and the true summit was on the south end of the summit plateau about 0.2 mile away.
We followed the lip of the crater and ascended steep ice and a rock cliff. From the top of this cliff, we could look into the main crater with its various levels and countless truck-sized boulders that created numerous little valleys and passes on the way across the crater. We descended easily into the crater by a wide chute of snow and escaped out of the wind.
It was past time for lunch and we wasted no time. I put down the space blanket and relaxed in the sunshine munching cheese, dates, peanuts, and some freeze-dried strawberry ice cream I was trying out for the first time.
With lunch over, we set out to explore our small world and make a final climb of Lassen Peak. There was a layer of light powder over a base of hard snow. The walking was easy and we left shallow boot and crampon prints as a reminder that man was here as we wandered up the miniature valleys and through the passes between the giant ice encrusted boulders. As we headed toward the peak, the main crater was to our left and drops away about 100 feet. The north edge of the crater is rocky and free of snow due to the many steam vents that deposit a bright yellow sulfur on the surrounding rocks. Down inside the crater the wind plays with the snow by chasing small whirlpools of snow dust and ice crystals across and around the bowl. A piece of cellophane from our lunch joined the swirling wind in the crater and for hours played in the circling winds but never left the crater.
Ward and I ascended the main summit together using our ice axes. The final climb was steep and icy. At the top there was nothing to protect us from the wind and it seemed determined to want to blast us off our airy perch. We climbed a short distance down the south side of the peak and dug a small ledge to sit on. From the top the view is so expansive and beautiful that it seemed unreal--so distant and so far below us. The intense blue of the ski was broken by the brilliant white of the snow. Even the brilliant white comes in various shades, which to the eye, form valleys and mountains. This view has a personal meaning to me for I have walked most of these valleys and climbed their peaks. To the south we can probably see the Sierra Nevada mountains near Lake Tahoe. to the east the Warner Mountains near Alturas block any further views. To the north, Mount Shasta is all one really sees although there are many other mountains. The west is framed by the saw-toothed ridges of the Trinity Alps.
The view is like so many good things in life--the body craves it but once obtained, only so much can be enjoyed at a time--so we descended back to our packs and discussed where to camp for the night. We all agreed that we were in the most wind-sheltered area. Paul and I started to construct an igloo, and Ward and Ed soon joined the work party. We laid out the floor plan and tested its dimensions by laying down in the snow in the area marked for the igloo to see if it was large enough. Finally satisfied with the ground dimensions, I started laying blocks as Ward and Paul cut them and Ed carried them to the building site.
Each block was about 18 inches long, 12 inches wide and 12 inches high. The base took about twenty-four blocks giving a ten-foot diameter. Each layer/row seemed to decrease by two or three blocks. After the first row, we started angling the blocks toward the center and offsetting them. By the fourth or fifth row the igloo was getting so tall and offset that the blocks can no longer be handed in over the top. We cut a door at the base by digging down into the snow about 18 inches and cutting an opening in the snow blocks. Ed passed the blocks through this opening to me. I was inside the igloo shaping and placing the blocks. The blocks tend to ice up soon after they are cut creating a weaker bond to neighboring blocks. I would shape and angle each block to fit the space and make fresh cuts to reduce the icing of the edges. As the igloo took shape and gains height, the blocks are tilted almost horizontal. This makes the fitting difficult. Toward the top it takes one person to hold the last couple of blocks in place as the other person cuts and positions each new block. It is always a surprise to me that the blocks adhere to their neighboring blocks so strongly. Finally with row seven completed, we cap the top with one last snow block. For an additional discussion of igloo construction tips click here.
Except for packing the cracks with snow, the job is complete. It took us a little more than two hours to construct the igloo and we had no idea how important the work we completed in those two hours would turn out to be.
We wanted to watch the sunset that would occur around 4:40 PM. There was just enough time to set up the tent. Again we used the ski poles, snowshoes, and ice axes to secure the tent. We joked about who would sleep in the igloo and who would sleep in the tent. Ward and Ed decided to sleep in the tent and then kidded about trading places with us at 1:00 in the morning. This joke partly became a reality later that night.
We ascended to the lip of the crater to the west of our camp and were just in time to catch the sun making its final plunge, splashing rays of fiery red for miles across the sky and landscape. Below us, fog filled the Sacramento Valley like a large lake with inlets creeping up each indentation in the lower mountains. To the east, Lassen Peak cast its shadow for miles.
I found a shelter from the wind in a break in the rock cliff and sat down to watch nature perform around us. The wind was blowing so hard it tore icicles off the rocks and flung them past my view. I had the strangest feeling that the rock ledge that I was siting on was moving. My rational sense told me this was impossible but my physical sense kept telling me that we were moving with the wind. I was fascinated as these two senses argued with each other. I felt like an outsider refereeing an argument. I will never know the outcome as darkness and cold forced me down to camp where the others had started dinner on the snow table we constructed.
I decided to cook dinner inside the igloo so I pushed my pack through the entrance and crawled in. I put the space blanket down and stuck the flashlight in a crack in the ceiling. The temperature outside was 5 degrees F and inside it was close to 30 degrees F. By comparison, very comfortable and I was able to remove my gloves and light the white-gas burning stove. The stove had just started humming when Paul poked his head in and noting how warm it was quickly joined me and set up his Svea 123 white-gas stove. It was not long before Ed and Ward joined us. With four stoves singing their warmth and a candle spreading a warm glow, the temperature inside the igloo was comfortable enough to shed our coats. There was no excess room and each movement had to be planned. While waiting for the snow to melt, I nibbled on a carrot but quickly realized that I do not care for frozen carrots.
One quart of boiling water from two quarts of snow was quickly ready. I added the hot water to the soup mix and beef stew. The rest of the hot water I kept on low heat for tea. It was hard to believe that it was cold and windy outside as we ate dinner, warm and content by candle light in the igloo. I drank two cups of tea, munched on some chocolate as I watched the others work at their dinner.
After dinner, Paul and I went for a walk while Ed and Ward retired to the tent. We walked first to the west rim and scanned the view. Then we walked to the south rim guided only by the light of the stars. From here we could see the lights of Susanville, Chester, Westwood, and to the south, the lights of Sacramento. To the northeast, the lights of Fall River and now and then the lonely lights of a car could be seen briefly only to be lost again in the maze of the terrain.
There is a great spiritual feeling for me at these times. It is the same feeling of awe that I had as a small boy when entering a large and beautiful church for the first time. Even though the wind was blowing its cold hand across me, I am not really aware of being cold even though the temperature has now dropped to zero F. In fact, I feel warm and refreshed as I gaze at the world beneath me. This is a period of deep meditation for me. Paul probably had similar feelings for it seemed a long time that we both stood there gazing out without a word passing between us. I finally broke the spell and suggested we return to the warmth and protection of the igloo.
Back in the igloo we laid out the sleeping bags and continued to talk for another hour enjoying sharing a small amount of brandy that I had carried in my pack. The transition from conversation to sleep was made without being aware of the change. I woke several times to hear the wind roaring outside and feel some drifting snow, driven through the cracks in the igloo's blocks falling on my face. Each time I would burrow down in my sleeping bag and go back to sleep.
Suddenly, I woke with a start and a flashlight beaming in my face. It was Ward and I could not figure out what he wanted. Was it morning already and he was waking us up? Were they serious about trading places at one in the morning? Finally, I heard Ward say that the tent blew down. Only then did the problem began to come into focus. Ward must have read my mind concerning the fate of my tent for he said that he had weighted it down with snow blocks so it would not blow away.
At the moment I had my own problem. The head of my sleeping bag was drawn tight and I could not release the drawstring. This didn't stop Ward and Ed from moving in as the storm was raging outside. As they piled in, I worked my way free of my bag. Now all we had to do was figure out how the four of us were going to sleep. This was no real problem for Ed and Ward. The put our packs and boots in the entrance, and stuffed their sleeping bags between Paul and me. We were forced to turn on our sides and shape ourselves to the curved contour of the igloo.
Soon all was quiet except the wind blasting at our igloo. The temperature outside is close to zero and with the forty to fifty mile-per-hour wind, the chill factor would give the equivalent temperature of -40 degrees. Inside the igloo it was about twenty degrees and would be warmer but the powerful wind had blown away some of the snow we had packed into the cracks between each snow block.
It was 7:30 AM when we slowly freed ourselves from our bags and stuffed them away so there would be room to cook breakfast. I searched for my boots and could not locate them. Ward remembered that he had placed them in the entrance when he scrambled in during the middle of the night and now the entrance had drifted full of snow. I dug around and found them buried and full of snow. My pack also was full of snow. These were minor problems and actually by comparison to the weather outside we really had it good inside. I went outside to urinate and with the swirling wind blowing as strong as it was, I could barely stand and no matter what direction I faced, nature won the battle.
After breakfast we slowly packed up and pushed our packs out the entrance and crawled out into the raw conditions. The visibility was less than twenty feet but I really didn't think we had a problem as the way off the mountain seemed obvious. We would walk across the jumbled crater to the west of the main peak and descend a steep face between two rock cliffs. If the visibility improved, we would move over to the ridge and descend by this route.
I had confidence in the way across the crater for I had walked it three times during the last eighteen hours. With this confidence, I headed in the direction I felt we must take. Although we could not see, I knew that the crater was to our left. As we passed into a small valley I began looking for a pass between the jumbled boulders. I could not seem to find the opening as I remembered it, and this bothered me. A way out of this small valley was found and we continued for a short distance. Then directly in front of us we came to an abrupt drop that seemed to be magnified by the blowing snow and poor visibility. We dropped into the valley but the depth of the valley puzzled me. I began to doubt our location.
Since we left the igloo at 9:30 AM we had not been able to see more than twenty feet and at times the gusts of wind would pitch us off balance. All we knew was that we were on the summit plateau but like a blind man wandering in a strange world we had no certainty where we were. We ascended out of the valley still guided by instinct but now less certain of our location. As we crested the ridge it seemed like all the fury of Dante's rage struck us. The wind swept me off my feet. In a horizontal plane, I dug my crampons and ice axe in as I started to be swept away with the wind. The grip of the crampons and ice axe on the ice checked my sliding motion and I slowly inched my way against the storm back to the the safety of a large boulder. I had observed that Ed, Ward, and Paul were also fighting for control in this raging wind tunnel. I am not sure where the wind would have deposited us if it had not been for our ice axes but I am thankful we never found out.
We all agreed to return to the igloo. We started back in the direction we came following our foot prints in the snow but these were faint and soon lost. So were we? It was stupid, how could we be lost on the top of a mountain. One does not realize what it is like to be blind and now we were blind. Ward took a compass reading and we were surprised how disoriented we had become.
The compass now became our eyes and guided by our new sight, we picked out a route back to the igloo. The only variation to the total white of the snow on the ground and the white of the snow falling from the heavens was an occasional black rock jutting free of its icy coating. And, then there were spots of yellow snow--beautiful yellow snow where we had urinated near the igloo.
We dropped our packs and crawled back into the protection of the igloo. It was 10:30 AM. We had been wandering on the summit plateau and crater for an hour.
Like a boxing match the bell had sounded on round one and we were in our corner talking over the strategy for the next round. The weather had taken the first round and we had to make a decision whether to continue the fight or wait out the storm in the igloo. We had protection and food for two more days. Out there in the storm were many unknowns.
We all felt we should make one more attempt but should plan out our attack. We laid the maps out and set our compass course to the point of descent, which was a little south of east at 100 degrees azimuth. Then on the descent down the face, the course would be set at SE until we were down near Lake Helen and then southwest.
It was 11:30 AM when we left the igloo a second time that morning with the 100 degree course set on the compass that I held in front in front of me with my left hand.
This compass course led us to the exact same places we we had been before. This was slightly discouraging since this was the route we had failed on. The same deep drop....find a way down and up the other side. But where was the peak? As an answer to this question, there loomed in front of us a jumble of rocks, not visible until we were within fifteen feet. This jumble of rocks was positioned at the base of the final peak.
Round two of the fight was ours. Now, could we battle the wind out to the lip of the summit plateau and find the correct place to drop down off the mountain. Too early or too late to the edge would find us descending a rock cliff.
This portion of the descent I remember vividly from a previous climb. I shared the summit with four other fellows that had carried their skis to the top. As I was about to descend they also started their ski descent. The first fellow pushed off, made an unsuccessful attempt to make his first turn, and spiraled down this narrow gully of snow between two rock outcroppings. One large mass of arms, legs, and skis spinning around gaining speed until I thought nothing would survive. I had crampons on and an ice axe, and I took off full speed down the steep gully after him. Finally the slope slackened and the snow softened so that the spinning slowed and finally ceased. I had visions of broken legs at the least and continued my descent. Before I could reach this pile of broken bones and skis, the pile slowly got up, shook the snow off, and skied off. Today, in our descent, I hope we are as lucky and fortunate as that fellow.
The initial drop was steep and icy. The wind buffeted us relentlessly. I felt secure with my crampons biting into the wind-packed snow and ice, but descended carefully still holding the compass visibly in my left hand. When all is the same--no ground--no sky--just white, there ceases to be any perceivable up or down. Even a single rock can orient you to reality. Otherwise reality spins round and round until there is no world, just white. The small compass was our reality in a world of endless white. Thus we descended back to the world guided by a small needle pointing to some unknown place called magnetic north.
What seemed like a long time but was probably a short interval of time, the steep slope opened into a gradual slope and we replaced our crampons with snowshoes. The snow was falling heavily but we were thankful to be out of the wind and safe. We were down off the mountain and approaching Lake Helen. There was only five road-miles remaining. We stopped for a quick lunch between 1:30 and 2:00 PM and then started down the unplowed road to the ski area at the Sulfur Works arriving at the ski lodge at exactly 4:00 PM.
Our final problem was solved when we saw Libbis and Steve Leach came out of the lodge to greet us. If only they knew what we had just been through.