Monday, February 2, 2015

Trip Report, How We Didn't Epic The Pfeifferhorn


As I sit here to write my report from this weekend’s trip, half of my face is numb from my most recent dental visit. I came off of the Pfeifferhorn with two chipped teeth, one cracked tooth, a tweaky neck, and dented helmet. This trip could have been an epic (in the bad way), but thankfully due to some luck (because nothing is ever always in our control), a lot of technical skills (pretty much all Derek’s), and a couple of “calm bombs” (dropped on me), we didn't.

There are always lessons to be learned in the mountains, some more obvious than others. I hope this trip report provides a few of those lessons vicariously.

The bowl below the Pfeifferhron in Maybird Gulch.

The Report

Everything is Awesome!!!
Derek’s watch chimed at 6:00 in the morning. We were huddled in our slightly damp sleeping bags, pressed against each other for warmth. Between the high altitude and the cold night, we hadn't gotten much sleep. We had arrived the night before in the midst of a short winter storm, which pelted us with icy snow in 30 mile per hour gusts while we set up our tent. Still, we were in good spirits that morning as we prepped breakfast and sang the Lego song, “Everything is Awesome!”

Armed with full bellies, hot Gatorade, and our alpine gear, we set off to climb the North Ridge of the Pfeifferhorn, an 11,326 foot peak in the Lone Peak Wilderness. For the first pitch we took the snow couloir start, following the right-hand variation. The couloir started as a walk and sneakily became a snow climb.

When the terrain became somewhat technical, with thin snow over rock, Derek found a good stance for a belay with a gear anchor. He tossed me the rope and brought me up to him before he did a short pitch to get to the top of the saddle. We continued on rock terrain for the second  and third full pitches.

Pitch 1, Snow 
It was after Derek led the fourth pitch that we ran into some trouble. Derek had just put me on belay so I could follow the pitch and join him at the next stopping point. We were within easy shouting distance but not within sight of each other. As Derek tensioned the line, I got positioned in a small, left facing corner which was the start of the pitch.

I had just barely stepped up when an impact on my head slammed me down and forward. A startled yell ripped from my lungs. I had been hit by rockfall.  I froze, laying against the dirty rock face in front of me, waiting to see if more rocks were coming. I tasted blood in my mouth.

I called out to Derek, my voice annoyingly wobbly, “Are you okay?”
When he didn't immediately reply I called louder, “Derek! Are you okay?”
More snow.

He called back, “I’m fine, are you okay?” His tone let me know he was a bit confused.

“Yeah… I just got hit by a rock,” I yelled back at him.

I was pretty sure that I was, in fact, okay. I was still tasting blood, but my spit was merely discolored, not bloody. I thought I must have just bit my tongue, but my whole mouth hurt so I wasn't sure. I hadn't blacked out when the rock hit. At least, I didn't think I did. My helmet felt funny though. I couldn't feel any major cracks, but it wasn't sitting right on my head.

I called up to Derek, telling him I was going to take my helmet off to look at it. He told me to keep it on and asked if I felt okay to climb. I did, so he told me to climb up to him so he could check my helmet (and my head) himself. I started climbing.

I struggled in the corner and told Derek that I didn't think I could climb it, just due to lack of skill rather than injury. He quickly rigged up a 3-to-1 haul to assist me up the challenging bit. With Derek’s assistance on the rope, I quickly made it up to his belay stance on a nice-sized ledge.

Once I was standing next to him, Derek locked my belay and checked me for damage. He found a dent and a skid on my helmet from where the rock hit. When I told him the helmet didn't feel right, Derek realized that the webbing suspension on my helmet had unwound, absorbing the force of the impact. Yay for helmets! Even though we didn't think I had any serious injuries, Derek checked my C-Spine just to be safe. He also checked my mouth and found one of my chipped teeth along with where I bit my tongue.

After a quick discussion, we decided we should bail off the mountain and get me to a dentist. The chipped tooth didn't look too bad, but all of my teeth were throbbing a bit and my neck was stiffening up. Beyond that, I was mentally taxed. I had been hit by a rock that I didn't see or hear coming and that had me anxious.

The First Rappel

At the edge of our belay platform was a giant horn. Derek would lower me down one side until I was in the snow couloir below, then he would complete a counter-balanced rappel off the opposite side to join me after cleaning the gear from our anchor. This couloir would hopefully be easily-descended snow terrain which would bring us back to the first couloir from our first pitch. Derek sent me down with the climbing rack in case I didn't make it the whole way and needed to build an anchor. Hopefully we wouldn't have to leave any gear behind.

We had a bit of a false start when I panicked after being lowered maybe 15 feet. And when I say panicked I do mean a full on crying fit, complete with running nose. The terrain I was being lowered over had a fair amount of loose rock, and I was worried about it knocking loose on top of us. Derek brought me back up and dropped a calm bomb on me.

He pointed out our options. 1. We could finish the climb and use the traditional descent to get down. Since were weren't too far from the top that was quite reasonable, although we would probably be hiking home in the dark. 2. We could go down the way we came, but we would definitely have to leave gear behind. Probably a few hundred dollars’ worth of gear. 3. I could stop crying and we could finish the rappel. This option would get us home the fastest.

I chose the third option. Derek lowered me again, and after checking below us for other people, I began cleaning off any rocks that the rope could potentially pull down on us later. Everything went perfectly fine. I did my "happy chanting" to stay calm (meaning I muttered the Lord’s prayer over and over).

The rope made it the full distance of the rappel but when I landed in the couloir, I discovered a problem. The snow was entirely facets - tiny crystals of instability. The snow was also quite shallow, covering very slick, smooth rock. With few options, I built myself a mini-anchor and waited for Derek to join me. I began visibly shivering.  

Derek rappelled to a spot just below me. This couloir was at about a 50 degree angle. Between the condition of the snow and my lack of experience, Derek knew that down-soloing was not an option for me and short-roping me wouldn't work either. We were already moving slowly enough that we couldn't stay warm. I was also not eating because of how much pain it caused, further hindering my body’s ability to stay warm. If we didn't get moving fast, we were going to end up with frostbite.

The Second Rappel

Derek traversed over to a section of rock and found another secure horn to rappel on. He brought me over on a gear anchor before rigging his own rappel. Once he finished his rappel, he would give me a fireman’s back up. I got on rappel next and cleaned the anchor.

This rappel got us down to better snow, just a short distance away from our first couloir. Derek coiled the rope and we down-soloed the remaining snow to the base of the climb and hiked back to camp. As we began to move more quickly, we both warmed up although Derek still had no feeling in his toes.

The Pfeifferhorn
At camp, we took turns hydrating and packing. Derek got some food and I attempted some Gatorade. The Gatorade stung like lemon juice in a cut so I went back to water. I rubbed my tongue against my teeth and found a second chipped tooth. Derek looked at it and discovered what appeared to be a crack in my tooth. I mentally cringed at the dental bill to come. It was good we bailed.

We hiked 4.5 miles out and called a dentist for an emergency visit as soon as we had cell service. Derek eventually regained feeling in his feet, which were slightly frost-nipped.

What We Did Right
We stayed within shouting distance of each other. Not always possible, but definitely desirable.
We had appropriate safety gear (helmet, rope) and used it.
We both had basic medical training which helped us assess my condition accurately
We both had technical climbing skills. Derek was able to help me through a challenging section because he knew how to do a 3-to-1 haul. He also knew how to lower me safely on a gear anchor before completing a counter-balanced rappel over a horn. We both knew to back up our rappels with auto-blocks and of course make good gear anchors.

What We Could Have Done Better
We should have eaten at the last belay platform. We both lacked sufficient calories to stay warm on the descent and that platform was an ideal spot to stop and eat.
We should have had better layering systems. My hands got cold and wet early on because of my poor glove choice. On the ascent, we also both got cold because we waited to put our puffy jackets on until we were up at the saddle where there were higher winds. We should have put more layers on before we got cold.

Where Did the Rock Come From?
On the fourth pitch, Derek climbed a bit to climber's right before trending back left. He did not find many loose rocks on the pitch, especially compared to the preceding pitches. Since he was leading, the rope wasn't super tight as he trailed it behind him. We think there must have been a snow covered loose rock just a few feet above me, and when Derek tensioned the rope to belay me up, the rock was dislodged. It could not have been too high up or else he or I would have heard it tumbling down or whizzing through the air.

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