“You're gonna have to go without me.”

“I got a helluva headache. Like you wouldn't believe”, Bill said.

 

We figured it must be the altitude. Our snow caves sat at almost 12,000 feet (Guanella Pass is 11,669 ft.). The top of Mt. Evans was 14,264. He certainly didn't need to go any higher.

 

We argued (lightly) whether I should go without him. He said he’d be okay. He would take some aspirin and hopefully just sleep it out.

 

So I started getting ready.  Bill took his aspirin and crawled back into his mummy bag.

 

As I crawled down the entrance, he wished us luck.

 

I slid down the tunnel and popped into the night air. Ned and Alex were already out.

 

* * * * *

 

Let me back up. Start from the beginning.

 

For years I had dreamed of being on top of a mountain at dawn, with winters glistening snow. It wasn’t Mt. Everest (#1 on my “bucket list”),

but, Mt. Evans – all 14,264 feet of it –

would have to do.

 

Soon it would be a reality.

 

The plan was to build 2 snow caves. catch what sleep we could then near midnight hike up Mount Spaulding a 13,850-foot spur of Mount Evans. From the summit we could see Denver, the Plains, and a vast complex of mountains to the West.

 

The party consisted of four Western Geophysical employees, Ned Grauel, Alex Kim, Bill Root, and myself. Except for winter night hikes and snow caves we were all experienced outdoorsman. Summer and winter.

 

Two factors would be in our favor, a wide-open terrain, free from avalanches.  And, barring any bad weather, we could hike by the light of a full moon.

 

Still, this was a potentially dangerous trek. Miles and hours from the car. Winds gusting to 50 miles an hour. And a wind chill factor of at least minus 30. All we needed was an equipment failure. Or maybe a sprained ankle, and it could mean severe injury or death to one or all of us.

 

No one took it lightly. we were also apprehensive about spending the night in a cave made of snow. None of us had any experience with snow caves at that altitude.

 

Bill and I went up to scout out some suitable snowdrifts one weekend.

The caves were to be made during the 2 one-day ski trips that followed.

 

Ya see, we didn't want to work the final weekend of the climb.

 

Digging made us sweat heavily, and we got absolutely soaked with the physical effort. Add to that, the caves acted like a steam room, keeping any moisture enclosed. We could not afford to sleep in wet clothes. Or be drained from any more labor.

 

Both of these factors can be ‘death knells’.

 

About 3 miles from the top of Guanella pass, southeast,  we found the right spot.

Just below timberline, there was a small park surrounded by trees. Along the hillside to the east – toward where we would be hiking - was a 40 to 50 foot long, 9-foot high snowdrift.

 

One of our ‘homes’ would go there. Bill and I opted to sleep there.

The second would be dug into the floor of the clearing, which was covered with about five to six feet of hardpacked snow. This ‘floor cave’ was situated just 20 feet from the      ‘drift cave’. Ned and Alex would sleep here.

 

Regarding the ‘drift cave’, several books advocated placing the main room higher than the entrance this would keep any warm air from escaping. So, I started to dig at the base of the drift and planned to work up into the sleeping compartments.

 

The tunnel was quite narrow. To avoid any excess work.

 

Bill and I dug in shifts.

 

After an hour or so, we were roughly 3 feet in, and maybe 2 feet ‘up’. On several occasions, I yelled out to Bill for different things – a drink, or whatever.                        And I mean I yelled.

 

And, he didn’t hear a sound from me.!!!

I mean NOTHING.!!!

Snow it seems, is a black hole for sound.!!!

 

This got me to thinking. Worrying.

As I’m laid out flat on my stomach digging, this frightening thought came to me. “What if the snow caved in on me while in this position?” No one would hear me.

Unless they were looking directly at the snow and saw it cave in. They would be oblivious to my plight.

 

Next, we started on the main room. It was roughly 4 feet across and four feet high.

 

With our ski poles we punctured holes in the side and roof. Enabling us to check the thickness of the walls. The holes would also double as air vents.

 

Instinct told me the structure should be at least a foot thick. I settled for more like 20 inches.

 

About 3:00 o'clock, the four of us decided to cover the openings and ski back.

 

A week later Ned, Alex, Bill and I went up to finish.

 

From the main room of the drift cave, we made two tunnels for sleeping. They were five feet long and three feet in diameter. By the end of the day we were on schedule. Our snow home was complete.

 

I think we were fairly proud of our efforts. Our plans were coming to fruition rather nicely.

 

Ned and Alex were on schedule too.

 

The blueprints for the drift cave would not work for the floor cave. There was no tunnel, just an opening going down to a large hollowed out sleeping room – 8 feet by 5 feet by 3 feet deep. This layout was easier to dig. It was kinda similar to the ‘traditional’ igloo.   But, just a big hole.

 

They finished their “underground” cavern a bit before Bill and I finished.                     They were “lounging about” as we wrapped up our sleeping tubes.

 

We covered both entrance holes before heading back to the car.

 

We were pretty stoked knowing the next time we would be staying the night.

 

Just one small catch,

we now had to wait two weeks for the full moon. It was an anxious time.

 

It was made no easier by the weather.

 

It was December. In the city, it was awesome for this time of the year.             Temperatures were in the low 50s. And there was no new snow.

 

But, for a snow cave, we wanted cold and maybe even more snow.

We could feel our snow caves melting 56 miles away.

If they became structurally unsound, we would have to abandon the whole expedition.   All that work for nothing.

  

Finally, the weekend arrived. All we could do was think positive.

The drive up was quiet. It was late in the day.

Everyone was thinking the same thing. And no one was particularly talkative.

 

We were on our skis in no time, hoping to find the caves none-the-worse-for-wear.

 

The floor cave seemed to be just the way we left it. Alex and Ned dug out the opening. Ned crawled in. We couldn’t hear him shout out, “It’s okay.!”

 

Remember, snow acts like a black-hole for sound. It’s really eerie.

 

The drift cave, however, had sustained some melting. It faced south, southwest. So, even though the sun was low in the sky, the snowdrift caught full sunlight.

 

You could see the roof sagged in. We quickly opened the tunnel and I dove in.      It was a little hard to tell, but, it looked like the damage was to the outside.        The inside roof did not appear to hang down.

 

I think the 20 inches did us very well.

 

We all voted to go for it.

 

Sleeping in the snow now had an eerier aura than before. Will we wake in the night to the rumble of a cave-in.

 

Just in case, we strung a length of rope between the two caves.                                       One tug would bring Ned and Alex to the rescue. And vice versa.

 

The evening was quite pleasant - no wind, mild temperatures, and with no cloud cover, there was the promise of a beautiful sunset.

 

And hopefully, an equally beautiful sunrise and moonset.

 

Bill fired up our camp stove. We cooked a small, dehydrated dinner. Some Mac ‘n’ Cheese. After a little small talk, we crawled into our ‘tubes’. Sleeping might be difficult. But at least we could lay flat and rest.

 

After blowing out the candle lantern, total darkness set in. What a feeling.         You couldn't see your hand inches from your face. Not even the slightest shape or form.

 

But, 10 minutes later our eyes adjusted. That was a huge relief.

 

We tried to get some sleep. I think I drifted off for a while.

 

Around midnight, I felt the tug from Ned. This was also our signal that they were getting ready. Bill heard me getting up, and stirred only slightly.

 

“You're gonna have to go without me.”

“I got a helluva headache. Like you wouldn't believe”, he said.

 

* * *

 

Okay. You’re all caught up.

 

Bill took his aspirin and crawled back into his mummy bag.

 

And I crawled down the entrance.

He wished us luck.

 

I slid down the tunnel and popped into the night air. Ned and Alex were already out.

 

The weather from the night before was holding. The full moon shined bright.        It reflected off the snow. It might as well have been daylight. It was a truly majestic and incredibly beautiful alpine night.

 

We skied up for about an hour and a half. Then the snow thinned out. Too many rocks.    We had to ditch our skis and proceed on foot. Soon the winds picked up and the temperature started to drop.

 

It’s always seemed to me, the coldest part of the night is usually around 2 am. When I would ride my motorcycle during the night, it would start getting cold around midnight. And by 2 am I couldn’t stand it anymore, I had to stop. The temperature drop was very noticeable.

 

Tonight’s hike was no different. With two gigantic exceptions, I couldn’t stop. I hadn’t reached the top. And there was no place to get out of the cold.

 

The wee hours of the morning wore on – 3, 4, 5 am. Mount Evans did not seem to get any closer.

 

It was at this point Ned and Alex started up the ridge to the southeast. They were going for the summit.

 

I decided to go straight east toward the huge ‘saddle’ that would open out to the whole of the plains surrounding Denver. I’ve never seen a more awesome panorama in my life.

 

From 5 on, and for what seemed like an eternity, I walked. And walked. I was very much alone. Ned and Alex were soon out of sight and hearing range.

 

It was the dark of the early morning. But, it was moonlit too.

I might’ve been able to see some stars if it weren’t for the light pollution of Denver just 56 miles away.

 

I couldn’t see Denver yet. But, It’s a big city. And you could see its effects.

 

For now, right where I stood, I might as well have been on the surface of the moon. Darkness. Yet light.

 

Nothing but vast expanses of moonlit snow. While it sloped upwards of course to the saddle, it was virtually completely flat. Well, actually more like a dinner plate. Just a little curve. To my left, a small spur. To the right, Mt. Evans. With Ned and Alex on it somewhere.

 

For me, I might as well have been the only human being in the universe.

 

Unnerving. And at the same time, exhilarating.

 

It’s funny though, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you really do eventually get to where you’re going.

 

And get to the saddle’s edge I did. Around 7.

 

I really could’ve used some small pocket of shelter from the elements. Even if it were only for a moment. I needed a respite from the howling winds and the bitter cold. But, alas, there was none to be had. Nothing but flat, open exposure.

 

I actually entertained thoughts of not going to all the trouble of setting up the tripod and camera. I was pretty worn out. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to do. But, after all our hard work, I couldn't miss this opportunity. I may never be in this situation again.

 

The ‘daylight’ of the moon slowly started being replaced by the dawn. With it came stronger winds and colder temperatures. The wind chill factor was at least minus 40.

 

The bright full moon was setting in the West. Between the two perfectly-shaped white cone-peaks of Grays and Torres. No clouds and a pure deep blue sky framed this surreal vision.

 

The sun finally started to rise. It was a welcome sight. My camera shutter clicked away. The experience of sunrise at 14,264 feet on a bitter, cold mountain top was more than I could put into words.

 

I knew all this trouble was worth it. I would definitely have some unique photos.

 

An hour later, Ned and Alex came hiking down from the ridge. No one gave any argument to the suggestion we head back. We had had enough.

 

Mission accomplished.

 

When we arrived back at the caves, we found Bill out and about. He seemed much better. To see him A-Okay was a relief. I had had serious guilt feelings about leaving him.

 

But, he showed no signs of his earlier distress, and was anxious to hear all the details.

 

We filled him in as we skied back to the car,

 

and Denver,

 

for a well-deserved hot bath.

Bill Root reading a book by candlelight in his “sleeping tunnel”.

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