My parents came to meet us at Echo Lake, to bring us supplies and hike out for a night at Lake Aloha. It was very nice to see them and share a little bit of the trail with them. They got to experience the trail in its snowy wonder (and what it’s like to slog through it). After spending a nice night with them we took off on our own again, to head over Dicks Pass and beyond.
We got to the top of Dicks Pass (a fairly modest pass at something like 9400 ft). We barely glanced at the map before looking towards our descent. From the top of the pass it dropped quickly into a deep bowl, where the bottom of the bowl dropped away again onto the lake, about 1000 feet down from where we were. The edge at the top was a nearly vertical cornice, maybe 70 degrees. It was still fairly early in the morning and the snow was still icy. We had recently ditched our heavy ice axes in Sonora Pass, and as such we were left with microspikes and trekking poles.
Chinchilla and I looked around for the best route down, and nothing looked particularly good. Pretty much the whole top of the pass was corniced with rock above it. So I said I would start cutting steps down, knowing that at least the incline of the snow would get less severe as we went down. I cut steps about five feet down, so my face was in line with Chinchilla’s feet.
I looked up at her with apprehension, and said “I don’t know about this…” We quickly decided that it wasn’t very safe for me to be doing that. It was hard getting my feet in even a little bit and the steps did not feel solid at all. So I went to head back up the five feet to the top and, I slipped.
I was sliding down the bowl. Fast. I immediately reached out and stuck my fingers as deep into the snow as I could get them, clawing my way down. I dug my toes in as much as I could. I was cursing. Chinchilla yelled “Stop!” I was trying.
So I tried flipping over and digging my heels in like a crab. Also I think my pack added to the friction. I eventually came to a stop, about 300 vertical feet down from the top, where Chinchilla was. I had dropped my sunglasses and trekking poles along the way.
I stood up and looked at my hands, thinking to myself that they were still cold so that’s why the blood hadn’t started welling up out of them. I waited and no blood came. Hands intact I started checking myself for further injury when Chinchilla called down “How was it?” Since I was uninjured and merely shaking from the intense adrenaline rush that I got, I replied “Not bad.” So she responded “Should I come down?” presumably since we had talked about the possibility of glissading. When I had said not bad I meant not bad considering I almost just died. So her coming down in a similar fashion was out of the question. I sure as hell should not have done that.
So I thought for a second, and grabbed my 3mm rope that I purchased to get across rivers and headed back up the slope, grabbing my sunglasses and trekking poles along the way. It wasn’t as hard to do without a pack and I had my trekking poles in a much better self-arrest position, so I felt okay about getting back up to Chinchilla.
Up at the top, the solution we came up with was to tie the rope around Chinchilla’s hip belt and then around my waist and use a carabiner as a belay device to lower her down. I kicked in some pretty deep foot pockets so I could do just that, and having only 100′ of the rope, the snow she was on was still pretty damn steep when I told her to get her feet in and stand up. Then I had to go down. Again.
I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work out a second time, so I had Chinchilla untie herself in case I went plummeting down 300′ again. No sense in taking her down with me. I thought for a moment about possible ways to rappel down, but there was nothing feasable. So I went down with the tips of my trekking poles in my fists (we had really lightweight gossamer gear trekking poles, so the traditional tehnique to self arrest would not work). This time was more successful, and I got to Chinchilla, kicked in again and started the process all over. Then we did it again.
Have I mentioned that Chinchilla has a fear of heights and a better survival instinct than myself? It wasn’t a fun experience.
So back to my pack, put it on and switchback down the bowl/traverse over to the trees, where I decided it would be a good idea to figure out where exactly we needed to meet up with the trail. I pulled out the map and took a good look and realized that the trail went up from the pass. Up a ridge and didn’t come down to our elevation until about a mile away. At this point I realized that not only did I do something horribly risky, but that it was also unnecessary. We eventually worked our way around the lake to meet up with the trail successfully and without further incident.
This was, by far, the stupidest mistake that we made on the trail. We had become so accustomed to dealing with dangerous/sketchy situations in the Sierra and North Yosemite that we didn’t even stop to think that maybe the trail didn’t go straight down from the pass. I kicked myself repeatedly for the next couple of days, while being thankful that nothing serious happened.