Peak(s):  Black Lake- West Gully WI4 - 0 feet
Date Posted:  12/27/2010
Date Climbed:   12/23/2010
Author:  JohnWilliams

 How to Die in a Tent After a Climb  

Route: West Gully WI4, Steep Snow
Location: Black Lake, RMNP
Players: John (Johnba), Joe (Red Beard)
Dates: 9am Dec 23rd- 1pm Dec 24th, 2010

The route

For the last year or so I had been eyeing an overnight trip to Glacier Gorge for some winter peak bagging. The initial scheming consisted of simple snow climbs to summit several peaks at the head of the cirque, Pagoda, Chiefs Head and McHenerys. But as last years winter came to a close I was force to postpone this trip till the following snowy season. Over the summer Joe and I had climbed quite a few times, gaining technical experience along with a better idea of our collective goals. Joe, opting for more technical climbs with shorter approaches and I, for a mixture of the two. Over the last month or so we had partnered up several times for ice routes around northern Colorado. Feeling confident in our skill level we decided to take the trip up Glacier Gorge looking for golden Ice routes!

Joe at Mills Lake

So we did our research and had an open ended goal of hitting several routes. First priority was Black Lake’s West Gully, 2-4 pitches of WI3 with the second pitch (crux) at WI4 or at least that’s what our beta told us. We had back up routes in mind but were determined to gain West Gully.

John at Mills Lake

For weeks before hand we followed weather patterns and stayed on top of condition reports. The colossal storm that slammed the southern and central mountains also dropped significant amounts in the northern Front Range. My previous trips to the Black Lake area in winter months lead me to believe that, even with the new snow, we would be looking at normal to lean snow conditions. A few steps into the approach would change my mind.

All Mixed Up WI4

Joe and I packed a small rack of rock gear, 6 smaller cams, set of nuts and hexes plus 10 screws of varying sizes. We finished out the rack with half a dozen 24 inch runners, 4 screamers and 10 or so quick draws. We packed fairly evenly, splitting the gear, rope, tent and stove between us. Our approach was exceptional. Calm winds and a nice boot packed trail to Mills Lake made the first half of the walk in quite nice. At the south end of Mills we geared up and snow shoed the final 2 miles to Black Lake. We reached the proposed camp site at the outlet of Black Lake around 1:30pm and proceeded to quickly gear up for the climb.

John crossing the lake to the route. note the snow sliding over the cliffs

By 2pm we started our approach to the ice. As we crossed the lake we could see tiny powder slides run over the cliffs next to the ice. The slides lasted just a minute and seemed to pose little threat so we continued.

digging our way up

Now getting to the ice would be our biggest hurdle of the day. It’s several hundred vertical feet of deep powder snow from Black Lake to the base of West Gully. We took turns breaking a trail through chest deep powder, digging a path with our arms as we progressed. As imagined this took hours, two to be exact.

Joe doing work

We reached the rock at left of the ice and traversed across slabby rock/snow using our tools as holds above us. When we reached a corner we opted to gear up and start the roped section. We were still around 40 feet from the ice proper, but we were at the last decent spot to gear up. So I set an anchor, a sling rapped around a pillar, and Joe set off.
John rounding the corner to belay spot

Joe roped and ready

As Joe climbed he spent a good deal of time either avoiding ice toped with snow or brushing snow off his route. Making great time he reached the base of the crux and placed a screw. During my belay I was showered with snow from one of the previously witnessed powder slides, during which I lost sight of my climber!

Joe at the start of the ice

Joe made quick work of the crux, a vertical pillar with a slight overhang at the top, and continued up to set anchor. After the gear was set I started my ascent with COLD hands.
The first bit was low angle but very solid. The crux was a quite hard for me, cold hands and tired arms made the moves interesting to say the least. Fun crux! I made a few more moves and was on anchor.

Joe above Crux, distorted by falling snow

By this time the sun had set. We had planned on rappelling the ice after pitch 2 but when we saw the remainder of the climb was low angle ice with sporadic snow coverage we opted for a running belay to the top of the cirque. By the start of P 2 it was totally dark. I belayed Joe while he led. When the rope was at end I started up, following his boot steps. We kept at ropes length and I removed 5 screws along the way. It was 6:30 pm when w reached the top of the cirque, where Joe had placed a runner around a rock. We quickly coiled the rope and began our traverse south across the upper glacier cirque.

John atop the crux

John on anchor

Joe at top anchor after 3 rope lenght of a running belay

We were able to stay on relatively safe terrain, using Spearhead as a point of orientation. As we circled around the moon rose over Longs Peak and gave a spectacular view of McHenerys Peak, almost like a giant spotlight on the looming east face. So after 3 hours of descent we reached Black Lake and our packs. We hurried to set up the tent, as the winds were currently non-existent. By 10 pm we were in our bags and feeling quite satisfied. To tired to melt snow, we drank what little we had left and dozed off.

Tent time

Now the night would have gone smoothly if only it wasn’t for the near death experience.
In our hurry to set up camp and my slightly diluted state, I forgot to open any vents on our single wall tent. So after an hour or so of “sleep” we both were awake and breathing like we had just ran a marathon. Heavy breathing through our mouths and the inability to catch a decent breath started to worry us. I was un-aware, as was Joe, if the problem was occurring to just one or both of us. W assumed just for ourselves. After maybe 15 minutes of wondering and worrying Joe finally said, “John, can you breath?” “No” I replied. So we quickly discussed leaving, packing up and heading out. But as we pondered our options Joe asked if I had opened the vents. “Oh sh*t” We both sat up and franticly opened the vents at the top of the tent, gasping for breath we inhaled as much as our lungs would take. As we calmed down the situation began to take hold. Uproarious laughter and feelings of utter disappointment ensued. We spent the next half hour recuperating and running through the possible chain of events we had just narrowly avoided. How long till we passed out? How long till our frozen bodies were discovered? What would people think? Why did these guys climb all day and night just to lay down and die? All things that made us laugh. By that time we had decided that the next morning would be spent on nothing but a descent, a return home.

Route after the slides at night

At 9am we arose, satisfied beyond belief. We packed up and were on our way by 10am. Looking up at the route we noticed all of the snow fields above the ice had slid during the night. Smiling, we left. Just 5 miles back. The parking lot by 12:45am and BBQ just down the road. What a way to end the excursion.

descent route circled to the left, out of view

We gain experience and certainly wisdom from our trip up the gorge. Can’t ever ask for more.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

But this isn't a 14er!
12/27/2010 21:39
Just kidding. Great write-up! Looks like a fun route in an awesome setting.

I didn't even realize you had to vent a winter tent... learn something new every day.


ditto that
12/27/2010 23:25
vent the tent, got it... i guess 2 people consume more o2 and produce more co2 huh?


good stuff!
12/28/2010 02:22
Nice write-up, good TIP, and great terrain. Congrats!


All things that made us laugh.
06/02/2011 14:57
Those are very funny musings indeed!

Sweet climb. Congrats!


Could have been worse
12/28/2010 12:28
At least you weren't cooking in the tent, or even the vestibule - it could have ended much worse, the fumes really can kill you! As I'm sure you discovered, ventilation is even *more* important in the colder temps... all that hot air on the inside coupled with the cold on the outside creates a lot of condensation... which adds up to a lot of moisture in the tent - another danger, with all the down insulation, which won't do you a lick of good when wet. As it was, you merely only almost suffocated! It looks like a fantastic trip, with the combination of all that snow and ice, not to mention the near-death experience. Well done :-)


Nice report
12/28/2010 13:57
Nice pics and good information! Glad you guys are o.k.


Great Report
12/28/2010 14:23
Sounds like quite the adventure, John, and I admire your climbing perseverance given the conditions. On the tent issue, is it possible it was altitude-related Cheyne-Stokes? Except for a partially or fully buried tent (or as Susan points out, cooking in a tent), I've never heard of any significant breathing issues in a zipped up tent. Condensation yes, but breathing...that's a new one. Was it a single or double wall tent? Just curious. Anyway, great report!


Thanks Guys and Gals!!!
05/09/2011 17:48
Tom- To me it seems like just a lack of O2. we both experianced the same issue at the same time. It would be neat to get a Doctors perspective.
The tent we used is a Sierra Designs convert 2. Its a single wall with 2 good vents at the top. Normally we would have known to open the vents, in fact I closed them while we set the damn thing up! Since I was a little kid my dad has always warned me about tent ventilation, especially when cooking is involved. I just cant believe I let it slip and nearly payed the ultimate price. well I certainly learned a thing or two!
thanks again!!


Great report!
12/28/2010 21:47
Very interesting to be ”along” with you on your trip! Enjoyed reading the report and seeing your pics. I've said it before too, that it is really nice to be able to experience places in RMNP that I've only been and seen in July and August. A whole new perspective! Thanks again, John! Glad you're both OK!


12/29/2010 00:05
Love seeing Ice climbing trip reports on here. Summit or not, it was TR worthy! I especially like trip reports that are different and not the ordinary ”Quandary East Ridge” every week. Congrats on doing the route.

On second thought, I can't believe you guys did it. I was way sketched out with avalanche conditions a couple days after. Especially the crack forming below my partner while belaying me. The approach to West gully looked both miserable and avy which is why we climbed the route to the right with shorter and less steep approach. Wish I could of joined though! Still have not done west gully.


Cool story
12/29/2010 00:56
Loved the report and the climb.


Scary ...
12/29/2010 23:24
We had a situation similar to that climbing Gladstone. A freak autumn blizzard caught us on our descent and then dumped about a foot-and-a-half of snow on us during the night. The mass accumulation buried every opening of our 4-season tent that we had along the fly and vestibule. Ironically, in the middle of the night after multiple times of banging the snow off the roof and sides, I tried flickin' the bic just to see what time it was and could NOT get it to light. We immediately realized what was happening and vented the top of the vestibule (putting our heads outside and gulping fresh air for several minutes). It was a lesson learned and a mistake that will not be repeated. Glad you made it out to climb again. Thanks for posting. Happy trails!


12/30/2010 17:14
Looks like you guys had a good time and glad you learned about the vents-

Quick question- Your anchor in picture 14- Is that a synthetic runner like dyneema with a knot in it or was it nylon? I thought you wern't supposed to knot those synthetic runners? Also, it looks like your anchor points in that picture are really wide apart. I haven't gotten to vertical ice myself yet so maybe I am missing a piece but in vertical rock, ancor points spread that wide would be a no no as it would be very stressful on the gear and you will be multiplying more than 100% of force at that angle. Not trying to bash you at all. I'm just curious.


sweet looking
01/10/2011 20:53
ice route and cool write up! I dig the photos as well

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