| Grief and Remembrance
MOUNTAINS: Square Top Mountain A (13,794'), Argentine Peak (13,738'), Mt. Wilcox (13,408')
RT DISTANCE: ~9 miles
RT GAIN: ~3,400'
RT TIME: 7 hours
CLIMBERS: Jeff (SurfNTurf), Remy (dogs don't have screennames)
Two years ago today, on Sunday, July 24, 2011, Sean Wylam died in a rockslide near the summit of Snowmass Mountain. He was solo and had followed closely behind me and my partner, Dan McCool, for most of the ascent. We spoke briefly on the summit. Dan and I continued on toward North Snowmass, but about halfway through the traverse we heard thunderous rockfall from the opposite side of the summit block. Seconds later we heard shouts for assistance. A climber had fallen.
Rather than recount the ensuing events, I’ll simply link to Ryan Marsters' report from this date last year, which provides a complete and accurate overview.
Andrew Reed, Ryan and I made the pilgrimage to Aspen last July to meet Sean’s parents, Mary and Gordon, and members of the extended Wylam/McCarty family while they were in town to spread Sean’s ashes. I’ve kept in touch with Mary and Gordon, and even visited their home in Centralia, Wash., during a recent climbing trip. I’d attempt to explain how wonderful and inspiring they are, but I lack the words to fully express it. My thoughts are with them always, and particularly today.
Sean’s incident had a profound impact on my own mountaineering career. That was the day I realized I wasn’t invincible, that accidents aren’t something that only happen to other people, far away. The mountains can lash out at any time, regardless of how experienced or smart you are. That’s a fact we’ve unfortunately been exposed to several times this summer.
The events of July 24, 2011, made me safer, wiser and more cautious. They also made me realize that life is short and should be cherished. My daily world is brighter. The least I can do to thank Sean is continue to honor his memory, year after year. I couldn’t get today off work, but yesterday (the 23rd) was free for a memorial hike. I’m not usually a soloist, and in fact I did post trying to find partners, but I eventually settled on a mellow outing in solitude, where I could be alone with my thoughts. That was more Sean’s style, anyway. Knowing it would be a solemn morning, I brought the pup along to keep my spirits up.
The goals were Square Top Mountain A (13,794’), Argentine Peak (13,738’) and Mt. Wilcox (13,408’). A few trip reports exist on this gentle loop, but no one seems to do it the same way. The “correct” and easiest option is to park at the upper Silver Dollar Lake TH about two miles short of the Guanella Pass summit on the Georgetown side (aka the winter closure). I’d spent a lot of time looking at Square Top from Bierstadt, however, and the aesthetic line up the mountain from Guanella Pass appealed to me. I decided to just park there and walk back up the road. What’s a few extra miles in the summer, anyway?
Starting up the South Park/Square Top Lakes Trail.
With not even a chance of thunderstorms in the forecast, I knew I could start late and take my time. We hit the Square Tops Lakes Trail from the upper Guanella Pass lot a few minutes before 7 a.m. The route stays mostly flat for quite a while before the South Park/Square Top Lakes junction. For the summit, you go left on the South Park Trail for a short distance to another (fallen) sign, where you take a right onto a grassy tundra slope. Two or three lonely cairns mark the way.
With 1,000’ of tundra slog ahead of me, I got to work and zoned out. I thought mostly of Sean, but also of Rob Jansen, Chris Gray, Steve Gladbach and Terry Mathews. Rob was one of my best friends, and I have several special personal memories of Chris, Steve and Terry. Included in my vigil were Mike Cormier, who I’d met in passing, and Howard Scotland (WyomingBob), who was a huge presence on this site.
I could launch into the Deep Thoughts with Jeff Golden spiel found in most of my TRs, but I don’t think this is the time or the place. My walk with the fallen and the emotions it conjured are my own. The elevation melted away and we were on the summit plateau of Square Top in about 1.5 hours. An orange-and-yellow Flight for Life helicopter, exactly like the one used during Sean’s rescue, sputtered around the area. The flashbacks were difficult.
Small tarn early on the trail.
Take a left...
Take a right... (I blame marmots.)
Slogging up Square Top. Remy's three main hobbies are licking, being a total pansy and photobombing scenery shots.
Square Top summit plateau. Go to the end.
Remy and I took a 30-minute break before heading down the scree and talus to the Square Top-Argentine saddle. Back on the grass and on the way up Argentine, we encountered a large group of mountain goats. They appeared very curious and standoffish. I leashed Remy hundreds of yards before we reached them and gave the animals a wide berth. Despite leaving the ridge entirely and being forced onto cruddy loose rock, the goats continued to advance toward us. I was basically descending toward Murray Lake before they finally halted. We used a long ascending traverse to regain the ridge crest well beyond the goats. From there, it was a short stroll to the Argentine summit.
The sun was now out and the wind had died, so I took an hour for reflection. I thought about how lucky I am to still be here, climbing mountains, when many others deserve to be in my place. I also recounted as much of Sean's accident as I could.
The scree-and-talus descent off Square Top.
The ridge to Argentine.
I guess goats on 13ers are more bold.
Shack near the summit of Argentine.
Final push to Argentine.
Grays, Torreys, Edwards.
Grays and Torreys. Rescue helicopter can be seen middle-right.
Traverse to Wilcox.
The ridge up Wilcox was surprisingly fun and lightly exposed. It was definitely the highlight of the day. About halfway up the tundra gives way to talus, but it was mostly solid. The views of Square Top, Naylor Lake, Silver Dollar Lake, Murray Lake, the Sawtooth, Argentine, Grays, Torreys and Edwards were stellar. The day couldn’t have been more perfect, with not even a hint of a storm cloud. Another long summit break ensued.
I’d toyed with the idea of descending back to the Wilcox-Argentine Saddle and reascending Square Top or cutting across to the trail, but the mellow grass slopes on the east side of Wilcox were too inviting. This was a mistake. I made my way nonchalantly down to Naylor Lake, which unbeknownst to me is private property. What I’d taken for a National Forest Service building was in fact a private resort and residence. The lady was nice and politely gave me directions, but I promised to tell anyone else who's interested in the hike to avoid my descent route. She was the first person I’d seen all day, other than at the Guanella Pass parking lot.
Just a few hundred more feet...
Onto the talus.
Last summit of the day.
Tired feet, tired pup.
Non-photobombed photo of descent.
Photobombed photo/glamour shot of descent.
Just a hop and a skip away...
He's awake again.
Looking back up the tamer side of Wilcox.
Still some wildflowers out there...
Illegal view from Naylor Lake.
Remy taking an illegal dip. Oops.
A two-mile hike up the road had me back at the car. Tired and happy, I felt refreshed. Often people who have seen death up-close bear it like a burden. They feel guilt, anger, frustration, sadness, emptiness and a million other emotions. I’m no different. But yesterday, sitting by my car with an exhausted pup on my lap, surrounded by mountains framed by a clear blue sky, I was at peace. My only regret was wishing Sean could have been there. In a way, I suppose he was.
Sean ascending Snowmass, 7/24/11.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):