First off we're from Tennessee and we have tried winter 14er ascents the past two years and were hoping to finally succeed by choosing a mountain we knew and one that is supposed to fairly safe. We started at 1:00 pm on Thursday Feb 16th just short of the 3rd cattle guard off CR250.
Start at CR 250 We hiked the 3.5 miles to the Blank's Cabin TH. From there we started up the standard route.
Blanks Cabin TH We followed the snow buried trail for a few hundred feet of elevation gain but eventually there was no trail because micro bursts of 110 mph wind flattened entire sections of forest back in November and December. There were giant trees stacked on top of each other covered in several feet of snow blocking the standard route. No one knew the extent of the damage from the wind storms until we were in the thick of the disaster zone. It would take 5 minutes or so to go over a few trees making that route impassible. We had to make our own route bushwhacking up the mountain on steep slopes (30-35 degree) in minimum knee deep snow with snow shoes. We made it to a ridge at 11,000 that would take us to the summit. We thought we were home free and would be skirting up a ridge in a couple feet of snow but oh how we were wrong. The ridge ended up having even worse wind damage making it impossible to stay on it. At this point it was dark and we didn't want to get disoriented so we camped at 11,000 ft.
Downed trees at night.
Downed trees in the morning. The temperature dropped to -15 F as confirmed by a thermometer. The next morning we got moving at light and came off the ridge, picking our way around the damaged areas and working our way up to 11,400 ft.
At 11,400 From there we proceeded up a slope of over 45 degrees to 12,400 ft.
Looking down at Sam
Sam It took 1.5 hr of full exertion to gain these last 1000 ft. Although we were at tree line, and only about 0.25 mi away from the route above tree line, the snowy conditions were too much.
Sam Drifts up to 10 feet deep were the limiting factor. Each step typically only gained 3-6 inches. Even though there is apparently less snow this season it was not evident on Shavano. It took careful navigation to avoid the dangerous heavy loaded wind slabs which was quite unexpected for this part of the mountain. It would have taken minimum 1 hour to traverse left to the trail but it was already 12:30 pm. Once on the trail and out of the trees it likely would have taken 3 hours to get up and back to that same point.
Down the slope After one night on the mountain we weren't prepared to spend another. We did good to stay hydrated but the altitude, cold, and exertion kept us from keeping up our colorie intake. After over 15 hours of hiking/climbing we were only able to consume around 300 calories. If we had tried for the summit likely we wouldn't have made it back to the car until after mid night or we'd have to stay the night on the mountain and both of these options seemed unnecessarily dangerous. We made it back to the car by 5:30 pm just as the sun set. Shavano demoralized us, but oh well, it was a good learning experience and we'll try again next year.