Peak(s):  Point 13,630 - 13,630 feet
Date Posted:  05/25/2009
Date Climbed:   05/23/2009
Author:  Aubrey
 Bypassed Shav, hit 13,630 by accident  

Start: 5:30 a.m.
Summit: about 10 a.m.
Finish: 1:30 p.m.
*Sorry I don't have many photos to share. With whiteout conditions most of the way, there wasn't much to photograph.

A pilot friend of mine once told me that, when flying, you have to treat every little problem that arises seriously (and quickly) before other problems arise and compound on one another, which can create a crisis situation. When he told me that, I thought the same thing applies to mountain climbing. On Saturday I confirmed that thought while attempting Shavano, even though we escaped an epic scenario. I even relearned some lessons that I need to take more seriously.

Jen and I almost always forget at least one thing on every climb. It's usually something nonessential, like liner gloves, an extra memory card, suntan lotion, etc. But as we drove away from home Friday afternoon, I was confident we had everything for our three-day weekend, and I even said, "I think we have everything this time."

After the rally drive up that long dirt road, we pulled into the empty parking lot, which was completely new to us. When we climbed Shav and Tab years back, that lot looked nothing like what it does now. There's even a new bathroom, which appeared to be recently cleaned.

After situating our gear in the front seats of our truck, we hopped on our foam bed in the back and enjoyed a beer. Rain gently rapped on the roof of the truck, adding to the peaceful scene. We slept well that night.


It rained all night long and overnight temps were well above freezing, so we canceled our plan to climb the Angel, as we didn't think it would be fun (posthole hell) or safe (wet slide concerns).

As we started up the trail at 5:30 in the morning, a light rain misted us. Most of the trail was fairly obvious, though you have to stay focused as there are some false trails that try to lead you off course.

The ground was saturated but mud wasn't really an issue. A few sections of trail were under flowing water. The following photo, which I took on the way down, was one of them:


I also took the following photo on our descent. This recently fallen tree blocks the trail, leading some climbers falsely up to the right. After crossing this stream, be sure to go straight, around the tree.


That damn fallen tree almost knocked us off course, but we quickly realized it wasn't right and regained the trail behind the fallen tree. This was about the time I noticed that I didn't have my compass with me. Problem No. 1. While packing for the weekend, I switched my backpacks but I forgot to move my compass from one to the other. Normally, this wouldn't be a huge problem, but this wasn't a normal day.

Just before the trail broke above treeline (which is rather high on this mountain), there were a few snow drifts that blocked the trail, but none of them were very difficult to navigate around or over.

Above treeline, the fog was so thick you could beat it with a club, which became Problem No. 2. Had it been windy or snowing, we would have turned back right there. But the wind was still and there were some fresh tracks in the snow before us, so we pushed on up that long, ascending slope to the saddle.

Visibility was horrible.


Jen thought it right before I actually said it: "This slope to the saddle seems a lot longer than I remember it." Adding to the confusion, we couldn't tell when/if we were on the Angel's arm or head because of all the freshly fallen snow from the night before.

We knew there were climbers ahead of us, so we just kept following their tracks, assuming they were up on Shavano by now. Problem No. 3.

When the mountain abruptly dropped away in front of us, we thought we finally hit the saddle. My altimeter read 13,400'. Looking at my map, I figured we were just above the low point of the saddle, with Shavano up the slope to our right. The three other climbers we came across figured the same thing.

Something in my gut didn't feel right, though. I looked down the slope, hoping to see the saddle to confirm our position, but the thick cloud we were in didn't allow more than 50 feet or so of visibility. Problem No. 4 was not listening to my gut. Problem No. 5 was groupthink.

The five of us started up the trackless slope. To our surprise, it began to narrow and drop away steeply on both sides. This definitely didn't seem right, but we were curious to see what unfolded so we pushed on a bit farther. When it narrowed even more, went down and up, and then started to drop down again, it definitely wasn't right.

It was like we were in the Twilight Zone. And it got even stranger when I looked at the compass that one climber pulled out. I couldn't believe it (a common mistake lost people make). Where I thought south was, the needle pointed north. I wondered if it was one of those damn Southern Hemisphere compasses or something, where the white needle means north ... j/k. But in all seriousness, it was a really disorienting situation and it was frustrating.

Not wanting to make a rash decision, I fermented my mind for a bit. Going back down the way we came, following our tracks, was an obvious solution, so it wasn't like we were in a desperate situation or anything. But had more problems compiled, we might've been.

At first I thought we were on some ridge or spur on Shavano's west side, but that idea didn't match with the topo features. As we were all trying to figure out where in the hell we were, another climber, who had followed our tracks, joined in the confusion.

With 5 problems under my belt, I didn't care to take on any more. So rather than risking the chance of getting even more off route by trying to reroute to Shavano, Jen and I decided to cut our losses and head back down, just to be ultra safe. Others seemed to feel the same way.

As it turned out, we had climbed Point 13,630, which is south of Shavano.

As we started back down, we met another solo climber on his way up, and we shared with him our discovery. "You aren't climbing Shavano," someone told him.

And then we met a group of three coming up the way we came. After hearing our story, they angled off in the opposite direction toward the saddle.

And then we met yet another group of three coming up the way we came. We gave them advice on where we thought they should go in order to gain the saddle.

Just before dipping back below treeline, the lower skies briefly parted and I was able to snap some pics of the valley (the lower portion of the Angel's body).

Here's an angled pan:


And here's a zoomed-in shot of the lower valley:


Here's a map ... the red line is our off-track course. The orange dot on that red line is where I thought we were on Shavano's south side (compare with other orange dot on the correct route):


In hindsight, the route seems totally obvious, and I'm embarrassed by how off we were. But it's amazing how disoriented you can become in whiteout conditions (and without a compass).

We made quick work of the descent and made it back to the truck just before it started raining. We had a few slices of soggy pizza and a Stone IPA for lunch.

The climb was not a total loss. We got in a good 3,800 feet of vert, climbed an uncommon 13er, met some really friendly people, and we relearned some lessons (never forget your compass, don't assume tracks in the snow are correct, listen closely when your gut tries to tell you something).

Back in Buena Vista, the first thing we did was buy a new compass at the Sporting Goods store downtown. It ended up being very handy on our Mt. Yale climb the following day.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

02/05/2011 00:22
Aubrey. I think it‘s just as important to read about mistakes made and things learned as it is to celebrate a summit success. Keep on writing reports... as a flatlander I live vicariously through your trips when I can‘t be in the mountains!


05/26/2009 03:12
Thanks for the note and kind words. And I agree about sharing mistakes and lessons learned. Thought I‘d eat some shame and embarrassment in the hopes that others can learn something.

I felt awkward when we went astray. But when I saw so many others make the same mistake, instead of feeling justified in our mistake, it was disconcerting.

And that‘s when it hit me: No matter how experienced you are, you can make a serious mistake in the mountains. Even on the ”easy” climbs.

Gotta stay focused and geared up at all times.


Stone IPA
06/02/2011 14:57
Stone IPA is one of my new favorites. Glad you are back safe


05/26/2009 04:47
for sharing the lessons learned and glad everything worked out in the end!


That set-up
05/26/2009 12:57
in the back of your X is looking better and better!! Also glad you both are back safely. Nice report!

Wish I lived in CO

Just read Colorado 14er Disasters
05/26/2009 13:27
The compounding errors scenario (in addition to group think) was a common theme. The author points out different times ”group could have turned back here”. Seems you did turn back at that time, though I doubt it would have led to trouble. But lessons for all of us. Thanks for sharing, and good luck on Denali.


Excellent TR...
05/26/2009 14:09
... as always. I don‘t usually comment, but you presented the info really well without sounding preachy. And I was on Princeton the same day, so I went through the same conditions and thought process you did.


Thanks for the comments, everyone!
11/30/2010 17:28
USAKeller: Before this trip I put our Therm-a-Rest pads underneath the foam for added luxury. Now it's as comfortable as our bed at home. Every time I woke up in the middle of the night, I just thought: Oh, man, this is soooo comfortable! Why I didn't do this before, I have no idea.

Wish I lived in CO: Good point, and I agree. Just got "14er Disasters," though I haven't read beyond the first chapter. Oh, and we just have Rainier in the sights for now ... at this time, Denali is beyond my comfort zone.

JeffR: Thanks. Actually, the climbers we met on Yale's summit (on Sunday) were also unsuccessful on Princeton on Saturday, so it sounds like a lot of people were thwarted off peaks over the weekend.

Wish I lived in CO

05/26/2009 17:03
I remember reading your TR doing a training climb up a closed for the season ski resort. All this talk about Denali I had that in my head, but now I remember - Rainier - good luck again.


11/30/2010 17:28
for sharing and nice report Audrey. I too have at least once not too long ago realized how disorientating a white-out can be. It's not a fun position to be in and glad it all worked out. Its still good training.


Same experience, different mountain
05/26/2009 17:31
I had a similar experience that day on Columbia. I got turned back at about 13,000 due to the horrible weather and due to my lack of energy. Thanks for the TR.


Great report
05/26/2009 17:43
Your report was much better tham mine. I forgot my camera at home so I had no pictures.

I had all the same problems on the same day. I started about 5 am and I might have been parked right next to you guys. When I got to the ridge I just kept my eyes glued to the GPS and fumbled my way to the summit and then Tab.

Hope the weather improves.


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