Attempt on Arestua

by

One of my climbing friends, Nick Arms, had never been to the Årestua hut above Eldora. So, when we both had a holiday break from work on Monday, December 22, and any climbing road trips were out of the question, I suggested a hut trip to this renowned landmark.

“Sure!” said Nick, “How long does it take to get in there?”

“Well,” I replied, “that depends…”

In our case, it would depend on Nick being on snowshoes, and me being on skis. (Nick only snowboards, since it hurts his left ankle too much to ski, due to the metal pins in there from a bouldering accident years ago.) But I had been to the hut several times over the years (my first trip in was in 1986), and told him it be “about three hours”…which was my first mistake. Because of this casual attitude, we started from the Eldora parking lot about 2pm:

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Nick getting psyched to hit the trail

The temperature felt like it was in the teens, and it was snowing moderately — which is actually good for the trail conditions. We both felt really good to heading into the woods, and I was looking forward to showing my friend what a great hut we were going to stay in. I had also told him about the cool solar system that had been installed this year, meaning we would have light inside the cabin after dark.

For those not aware, the Eldora ski area is surrounded by USFS land (though there are private lands mixed in as well). The trail to the hut uses the Jenny Creek trail for the first section, which can be accessed by hiking around the edge of the beginner’s ski slope, which is the first slope you see on the left as you enter the main parking lot.DSCN0001_01

After hiking around the busy bunny slope, we found the entrance to the Jenny Creek trail….

An hour later, we were still not half way, though I was not yet that concerned, since we seemed to making good progress, despite the fact that Nick was on snowshoes.

DSCN0001_04 This is a shot of me, looking into the Jenny Creek drainage. I could see that someone had broken trail for us earlier in the day. I suspected it might be other people headed into the hut, since the hut calendar showed that two other people were registered to be there. With all the fresh snow, having a broken trail really helps.

However, when we reached the fork from the Jenny Creek trail where the Guinn Mountain trail begins its steep ascent towards the hut location, our trail breakers had turned off the trail; they were likely doing their own day tour, and not going to the hut. This meant that Nick and I were going to have break trail the rest of the way…and we were only half way there. DSCN0001_06

This is the sign at the trail fork; it is now about 3:42pm; I found out later that it is still about two miles to the hut from this point. With the need to break trail, Nick and I began alternating this task so that we did not tire ourselves out. This was a concern, but I was still confident at this point that we could make it to the hut. We did have headlamps, after all, and of course the trail would not be hard to find through the trees…right?

This was my last photo taken during daylight; it is about the last trail sign indicating the way to the cabin; it’s now about 4:50pm, the light is beginning to fade, and we do not seem anywhere close to the hut:

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It is darker than it looks in the photo. We had to start using our headlamps around 5:30pm. When you are in the woods after dark, and you cannot see any farther than your headlamps, your world becomes much smaller, and it is not so easy to find your way…as we were about to discover.

Now we were quite dependant on the plastic blue diamonds that are traditionally used to mark cross-country ski trails by nailing them to trees. However, only a fraction of these are reflective on this trail, meaning that we had to get up close to a tree to see them.

It was at this point that I made a disastrous route finding error, and caused Nick and I to ascend a steep hill in nearly knee deep snow. There is a similar steep section that ascends a hill about a quarter mile from the hut, and in the dark I mistakenly thought this was that place. But without a trace of a broken trail, and a disturbing lack of blue diamonds marking the way, it was becoming unnerving to keep pushing up this hill. We reached a plateau of sorts, and I searched desparately for any sign of a previous trail, or one of the precious blue diamonds — but neither could be found.

Now becoming rather aware that we might be facing the prospect of an unplanned bivouac in the woods, with minimal survival gear, dropping temperature, and in a raging blizzard, we had to take careful stock of the situation, and not make any more mistakes. As you should always do when you get lost, we decided to retrace our trail until we were certain we were back on the correct trail. We had probably wasted about 45 minutes on this route finding error, and tiring ourselves out quite a bit in the process.

Having refound the trail, we discover it continued in a different direction, but did find more blue diamonds proving it was the right direction; we forged ahead…

Nick asked, “Does any of this look even vaguely familiar?” I had to admit to him that it did not — especially at night! Then we hit a somewhat steeper hillside, which seemed an unlikely route for the trail, and suddenly could not find any more blue diamonds. Needless to say, we were getting pretty worried at this point!

DSCN0001_09Though hard to see in this poorly focused image, this is a shot of Nick pointing to the last blue diamond we could find. It is now about 6:45pm, and we had to face the reality that it was unsafe to continue on under these conditions. The knee deep snow was exhausting us, and we would be in danger of not being able to get back to our vehicle if we continued pushing on.

Once we turned around, we both felt an immense sense of relief, now that we knew for certain our path back to safety. We just had to get through the next three hours or so that it would take to return.

Though I kept my full climbing skins on my skis the whole time, which slows you down considerably, I was still far ahead of Nick on the downhills. After the long descent down the steep section of the Guinn Mountain fork, I waited for Nick at the bottom. To conserve my battery, and see what it was like, I switched off my headlamp while I waited for Nick. What darkness! What stillness! Gradually, as my eyes adjusted, I could barely make out darkend trees against the clouded night sky. The one redeeming weather factor was that there not much wind. I could hear, and feel, the snowflakes falling on me, the only sound to be heard.

Gradually, we retraced our way back, step by weary step. Poor Nick, i thought; not only was he on snowshoes, but his right snowshoe had a partial hardware failure, which put his foot at an awkward angle, and made for less floatation. Finally, we emerged back on to the ski slopes of Eldora….then finally past the last lift, where the temperature gauge read six degrees above zero! But at last we were back to the truck, and were safe:

Nick inside the truck...

Nick inside the truck…

And me happy to be back as well!

And me happy to be back as well!

So we learned some hard lessons on this trip: don’t underestimate something that seems familiar to you if you haven’t done it in a while; get an earlier start; check the forecast; and consider all factors before starting out. I never doubted for a moment that we would not make it back safely, but if either of us had had a hardware failure out there in the deep snow, things could have turned out much differently!

If you would like to learn more about the Guinn Mountain / Årestua hut, there is detailed information on the BCMC website:

http://www.cmcboulder.org/cabin-arestua.html

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