Andy in the Rockies

Trip reports, videos, and photos from hiking, climbing,
and mountaineering adventures in Colorado and beyond.

Mount Toll Avalanche
June 18, 2005

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This was our first view of Mount Toll dominating the head of the valley - i...View of Mitchell Lake with a false summit of Mount Audubon behind....The group nears Blue Lake....View of Mount Toll from Blue Lake. Notice that Blue Lake is entirely covere...We climb away from Blue Lake up to the basin between Pawnee and Toll....We climb past evidence of old avalanches on the southeast face of Mount Tol...Peter traverses out from under an ominous looking cornice....View of Paiute Peak from the summit of Mount Toll....View to the south from the summit of Mount Toll....Looking down into Lone Eagle Cirque from the summit of Mount Toll....Nelson, nursing an injured shoulder, and Fabio walk away from the debris le...Shot of the slides on the southeast face of Mount Toll. The two larger ones...Tom and Peter begin the hike back down to the trailhead after Nelson had su...Nelson during the retreat to the car. He was bundled up in several jackets,...Mount Toll from Blue Lake....Pawnee Peak's east ridge looks like it would make for a good day out - much...Peter and Fabio hike along the creek on the way back to Mitchell Lake....
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Trip Report [hide]

I rolled out of bed at 4:15am had some breakfast and sorted out my kit before hitting the road. I picked Nelson and Jeff (whom I'd hiked Iron Mountain with) and we drove the back roads behind Loveland, Berthoud, and Longmont past Lyons and up Left Hand Canyon. The Brainard Lake road had just opened up a couple of days previous and we found a spot near the road up to Mitchell Lake Trailhead (which was still closed) to gear up and meet Fabio, Peter, and Tom (a friend of Nelson's whom I had hiked Storm Peak with). We all met, geared up, and set off.

Walking up the road to Mitchell Lake Trailhead I got my first view of Mount Toll. It looked kind of far away but really pretty with its perfect pyramid shape at the head of the valley. The trail up to Mitchell Lake was a little hard to follow as it was sporadically covered in snowdrifts. We followed another set of climbers who were aiming to climb one of the couloirs on Audubon. After a short while we arrived at Mitchell Lake and had a snack and enjoyed the view of Audubon.

After our rest break we continued on toward Blue Lake. We started heading directly to the west but soon veered more to the south to follow the summertime Blue Lake Trail. After Mitchell the ground was totally covered in deep snow but we resisted putting on our snowshoes because for the most part we stayed on top and there was minimal post holing.

When we reached Blue Lake we took another rest break and had snacks and took photos. Blue Lake was still completely frozen and the valley was absolutely filled with snow. While we snacked we examined our route up Mount Toll and saw lots of people on their way up to the basin between Mount Toll and Pawnee Peak. All of these were probably skiers and one was climbing our route up the southeast face of Mount Toll. We looked forward to having steps already kicked for us!

With the rest of our route in sight we collected our gear and set off to follow all the skiers up to the basin between Pawnee and Toll. There was so much snow in the area that it looked easiest to contour along Pawnee Peak's west ridge up to the basin. This was the first part of the hike that was strenuous and soon we were all huffing and puffing up the slope. As we ascended we watched skiers descend down Pawnee's slopes and the lone climber make excruciatingly slow progress up Toll's southeast face. After a while we reached the basin between Pawnee and Toll. We stopped for a rest and to sort out our gear - leaving behind as much as we could. Trekking poles, extra water, and snowshoes were ditched for all except Tom who had forgotten to bring his ice axe. Instead of going up the southeast face he was going to snowshoe up to the Pawnee - Toll saddle and then ascend Toll's south ridge.

After we got everything sorted out we set off - Tom up to the saddle and the rest of us up the face. As we crossed the basin to the base of the face we began to sink deeper in the snow and found that the climber who was making such slow progress was wearing snowshoes. At the bottom of the southeast face there were the remnants of two fairly large slides. We guessed that these were results of all the fresh snow that had fallen the previous Sunday. We began to trace the left edge of the slides as we ascended. With every step we were sinking up to our knees and upward progress was painful. We now knew why the climber ahead of us was going so slowly.

The snow was very wet and heavy, but was the same consistency down to a depth of three feet. We made slow progress and watched as Tom ascended much quicker and was soon out of sight. The weather was fantastic with clear, sunny skies and not a breath of wind. With no gloves and a t-shirt I was sweating profusely as we labored up the slope. Peter seemed to have more juice than the rest of us and soon began to pull ahead as the face curved around a bit to the north. As we ascended we approached an ominous looking cornice hanging above us. We quickly traversed left to avoid it and proceeded upward.

The more elevation we gained the better the views became. Soon we could see Navajo to the south and down into Lone Eagle Cirque. Eventually we made the summit and stopped to enjoy the incredible views and had a snack. We all commented on the amazing weather - it was after noon and there was not a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind. We snacked, chatted, enjoyed the beautiful surroundings, and Fabio took the requisite summit shot. After a while we decided it was time to think about heading back down. Peter and I toyed with the idea of bagging Pawnee Peak because neither of us had been up it yet but decided to save it for another day. Nelson, Jeff, Fabio, Peter, and I geared up for what promised to be an awesome 500-foot glissade and Tom set off to retrace his steps down the ridge and saddle (since he didn't have his ice axe).

The five of us walked about 50 feet down the southeast face from the summit and started our first glissade. We went about a 100 feet and then stopped to move over a bit for the second run. The snow was really wet and soft so it was a bit hard to get started at the top but the slope got a little steeper as we descended. Nelson elected to go first and shot down the slope. There was a change in slope a hundred feet farther down the face and when he passed this point he went out of my sight. With Nelson out of sight it was Jeff's turn and with a hearty "Yee-haw!" he set off in Nelson's glissade track. When he reached the point were the slope of the face changed he braked and shouted, "Nelson's in a slide."

It took a few seconds for the meaning of Jeff's words to sink in. One moment we were laughing and having a great time, the next moment the situation became deadly serious. Fabio and I had not begun the long glissade and since we were above the point where the slope of the face changed we could not see what was going on. Jeff and Peter were farther down the face and watched in horror as Nelson tumbled in the snow - getting buried - struggling to the surface - tumbling head over heels. Based on Peter's expletives I could tell things were bad.

Nelson's Recollection:

It started out like any other glissade. Ice axe into self arrest grip, jump into snow, wheee! I dropped down over the lip. The angle increased slightly. Soon a thin layer of wet snow was flowing alongside me, like dozens of other times. Suddenly I realized there was a LOT of moving snow.

What to do? Stop quickly? Ride it out? Next comes a memory blur - what did I do? - then a clear recollection of being flipped over onto my back.

Mouth is full of snow, can't breath, spit it out. Whomp! I'm on my stomach. Push up to the surface. Get out of this! Woosh. I'm on my back again. There's the sky. Now its disappearing, covered with snow, can't breath. Whomp! On my stomach, push up to the surface, spit out the snow! Woosh, on my back again...

Am I dying? No, can't die, see my wife, I can get out of this. Push up, spit out the snow, breath, shit, on my back again, can't breath, again, dying, can't die, again, push up, whomp, again, ...

It's slowing, hands near face, make an air pocket. It's stopping, push up, push up.

The slide stopped. I had fallen hundreds of feet down the mountain. I was sitting upright in a perfect L-shape, legs buried, upper torso out in the open.

"ARE YOU OK??!!"

Female voice, skier heading to the saddle. Arm up, I wave and yell, "I'm OK!".

It's bright, sunglasses are gone. Ice axe is gone. Arm hurts, but I'm OK. I'm OK.

Peter's Recollection:

When the avalanche began I was traversing across the slope to get a better look down and prepare for my own glissade. I was a little nervous about glissading the slope - though my concern was losing control in the wet snow on this steep, sustained slope, not the possibility of avalanche danger. (I had had a bit of difficulty braking with the pick of my ice axe on the short glissade moments before, and had nearly opted to self arrest.) As I traversed over to Nelson's glissade track, I was not watching his descent. I only turned my attention down slope when I heard Jeff shout that Nelson was in a slide.

I stopped and watched in disbelief as Nelson's body rolled over and over again in the moving mass of snow. I could see his arms and legs flying out and kept hoping that his body would remain in sight. On a few occasions, it either completely or very nearly disappeared - I cannot say for how long, but probably for only fractions of a second at a time. Nevertheless, they were inexpressibly long moments. I think I knew that if we lost sight of Nelson we might not find him alive again so I kept my eye on his body and kept hoping that he would stay on top of the slide and within view.

I could see the skier down below and at the moment I found her remarks not to glissade sort of stupid (she was a great person, btw). I remember shouting that we knew not to proceed - I think because I found her warnings a distraction from keeping my eye on Nelson. Even as he continued to fight in the avalanche, part of me was also relieved to know that there was someone at the runout that could get to him faster than any of us at the top. I also knew that Tom, who had taken the ridge route down, was also much closer than the rest of us.

The whole experience was so surreal that I don't know for sure if I really knew how important watching Nelson was or if I was simply powerless to do anything else. In any event, except for yelling back at the skier, that's what I did until the avalanche came to a stop with him still in view. I was relieved I could still see him but concerned at first not to see him moving. Then he did. I saw him sit up and, after a few seconds, wave. At that point I knew that he was alive and in good enough mental shape to signal us.

At that point my primary concern became getting down to him as quickly as possible. It wasn't until we began moving down the slope that I realized that the slope was still very unstable. Fabio was alongside me at this point and I will never forget the sight of the snow running in old glissade tracks like water - or lava, in terms of consistency - in a sluice. On the way down I triggered a small slab avalanche that had me very concerned and made me very conscious of the need for us to withdraw further from the slope once we got to Nelson and determined that he could be moved.

Suffice to say, this was a very scary and educational experience.

Fabio's Recollection:

I was the last in the group and saw less than anybody else. Soon after Nelson disappeared where the slope's angle increased, I heard the harrowing cries of the skier on Pawnee. At first, I could not make out what she and the others were saying. It was only clear that something bad had happened and those were moments of anguish.

The descent was laborious. Knowing that Nelson had extricated himself, the first objective was not to trigger another slide. That was not entirely trivial even on the right side of the slope, which was less steep and loaded.

It was a relief to see Nelson standing on his feet, but his account sent shivers through my spine: It had been a very close call. He was quite brave throughout his ordeal, and once caught in the avalanche, he remained in control as well as anyone could in such a situation. It was good to see him recover quickly. I hope the recovery from his injury will also be surprisingly fast.
Fabio and I bolted down the slope and Tom, hearing Jeff's shouts, ran over from the ridge to witness the end of Nelson's fall. There was also a skier on the slopes of Pawnee Peak who witnessed the whole thing and was shouting at us not to glissade (and meet Nelson's fate) and also yelling at Nelson to find out if he was okay. By the time I reached the change in slope of the face and could see Nelson he was waving at us so we knew he was alive.

We all rushed down to Nelson. However, we had to be really careful not to trigger additional avalanches - it now became clear to us that the face was extremely unstable. It probably took us about three minutes to reach Nelson and by that time he had managed to dig himself out of the snow. At first sight he looked okay - he was moving around fine and there were no visible cuts or blood. In response to our queries, "Are you okay?" he said he was fine for the most part but his shoulder hurt pretty bad and his hip felt a little messed up too.

In the slide Nelson had lost his ice axe (the axe getting wrenched off his arm probably caused the damage to his shoulder) and his prescription glacier glasses as well as some other odds and ends. We were able to recover his gloves and bandana but the axe and glasses were nowhere to be found. We collected Nelson's stuff and walked off the face the short distance to where we had left our excess gear - we were all concerned about further avalanches and wanted to get off the face as quickly as possible. As we walked away from the slide another avalanche came loose and poured down the slope. We watched in awed silence. When we got back to our stuff we sat down and took careful stock. Nelson's left shoulder and arm were really hurting him so we rigged a makeshift sling for him out of some runners I had in my pack and an ace bandage. After making the sling we got Nelson laid down and covered him with jackets. We got a first aid kit out and Nelson took a large dose of Ibuprofen. Collectively we had a limited collection of meds and decided that the anti-inflammatory was probably best. Nelson was shaking pretty violently - probably from the adrenaline rush and a bit of shock. It took a while for Nelson to warm up and the shaking to subside but through the whole ordeal he remained surprisingly lucid.

We decided to give Nelson a couple of minutes to rest and collect himself before heading back to the trailhead. While we rested Nelson relived his ordeal for us: he described the sudden realization that he was in an avalanche, the loss of control, the snow getting forced down his mouth and throat, the struggle to swim to the surface, trying his best to spit the snow out of his mouth, struggling to breath, getting buried again and again, tumbling head over heels, trying to mentally prepare for getting buried alive at the end of his ride, and finally the welcome respite of coming to a stop with his upper body unburied.

While Nelson recovered the skier who had witnessed the whole thing joined us. She offered to go for help and get a rescue going but it didn't appear like it would be necessary. Nelson thought he could walk out under his own power and this would probably be the fastest, least painful way to get Nelson home. The skier took off and we divided up Nelson's gear among us for the hike out. When Nelson's shaking had subsided and he had warmed up we prepared to depart. We all donned snowshoes and Nelson used a trekking pole with his good arm and kept his injured arm tucked inside his jacket.

The descent was slow and steady but Nelson did surprisingly well. After we got him on his feet and moving he seemed very much recovered - except for the shoulder which continued to hurt pretty badly. We were worried about Nelson's ability to negotiate the steeper slopes on the way down to Blue Lake (with the slushy snow and only one trekking pole) but Nelson made his way down carefully and without difficulty.

At Blue Lake we took one final rest before pushing the rest of the way to the trailhead. At this point we hoped the snow would be firm enough that we wouldn't need snowshoes. On the way back down we pretty much followed the trail and by now there was a bit of a path worn through it by the day's hikers. The remainder of the trip was just a steady plod down to the car. Where there was a bit of post holing we tried to mash down the snow to make it easier for Nelson but he seemed to be faring well. Due to my poor route finding we took a wrong turn after Mitchell Lake and failed to find the trail - instead staying on the north side of the creek. However, after a little bushwhacking we regained the trail and soon arrived back at Mitchell Lake Trailhead and then the car.

We re-sorted out Nelson's gear and he took his shirt off to get a better look at his injuries. There looked like there was a bit of inflammation but no visible bruising yet, the joint didn't look like it was dislocated, and it didn't look like any bones were broken. If there was serious damage it was much more subtle. After washing up a bit in the creek we said our farewells to everyone and headed back up to Fort Collins. During the car ride home we each re-lived the events of the avalanche in our heads and every once in while we discussed some aspect of the avalanche. Why didn't we recognize the danger? What would have happened Nelson hadn't tried to stop himself? At what point did Nelson realize that he was in avalanche? And so forth. There were few answers to our musings and it was obvious that recalling the avalanche was still difficult for Nelson.

When we arrived back in Fort Collins Jeff and I offered to take Nelson to the emergency room and/or shuttle his car to his house so that he didn't have to drive with his bum shoulder. He thanked us but said he was okay (however his wife was able to convince him to visit the emergency room later that evening). I made my way home and took a shower mulling over the events of the day. One thing was sure - I would never forget my first visit to Indian Peaks Wilderness and Mount Toll.

Post Script:

Nelson's wife talked him into going to the emergency room later that Saturday night where the staff miss-diagnosed Nelson's injuries as a possible torn rotator cuff. He saw a specialist the following Monday who correctly diagnosed the injury as a posterior shoulder dislocation.

Nelson wore an awkward brace for the next six weeks which prevented him from using his shoulder and arm and made day-to-day tasks such as tying his shoes and driving impossible. (However, on the upside the brace was a babe-magnet with every cute, young thing coming up to him to ask what happened.) After the six weeks of confinement to the brace he spent many months in physical therapy.

Five months later he was back to 75% and performed admirably during an attempt at Drift Peak with Fabio, Peter, and myself.

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