As executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Lloyd Athearn has been visiting the state’s biggest mountains lately. Quandary Peak last week, Mount Democrat the week before, Mount Shavano the week before that.
The snow has been surprising — “far more than we usually see this time of year,” he says.
A less surprising sight? Butt tracks.
“People are doing it,” Athearn says.
“It” being glissading, the not-uncommon way of descending peaks via posterior. If a snowfield presents itself, why not save time and wear and tear on the knees by sliding? So the thinking goes.
And the thinking might be more prevalent this summiting season, which begins quite unlike most in recent memory.
“Anybody out hiking this year, probably right up through mid-August, is probably gonna encounter a lot more snow than years past,” says Dougald MacDonald with the Golden-based American Alpine Club. “For sure, that temptation will be there.”
That temptation to drop the rear on the spring snow — not too firm, not too soft, just right — and take a joy ride down the mountainside.
Andrew Hamilton has had his fair share; he estimates sliding thousands of feet on Colorado fourteeners during his 2014 and ’15 pursuits to climb them all in record time.
“Oh man, the amount of joy you have when you’re done,” he says. “Anytime you go screaming down a slope and you don’t hit yourself too hard, yeah, it’s really fun. I really relish that. For me, that’s one of my favorite things to do, glissading.”
But in this snowy season, that point about harm bears reminding.
One need only search the American Alpine Club’s database on accidents to know glissading’s devastating potential. A partner’s “spectacular display of cartwheels and somersaults,” reads a harrowing account on Longs Peak. A party’s slew of injuries upon crashing into a rock pile on Torreys Peak. Another smattering of broken bones and abrasions after a long tumble on Humboldt Peak. A cliff fall in the San Juans, resulting in a man’s death.
MacDonald edits the club’s annual “Accidents in North American Climbing.” The records are far from perfect — more of an attempt to track trends than precise numbers. But “loss of control during voluntary glissade” has been a staple category of the publication that began in 1948.
“Every year we see glissading accidents,” MacDonald says.
One recently sparked a forum on 14ers.com, the virtual meeting place for fourteener regulars. Up popped a post about a snow burn on the calf after what was thought to be a responsible glissade — ice ax in tow, self-arrest skills acquired, terrain assessed.
A typical quarrel over glissading ensued.
“I think glissading introduces unnecessary risk,” went one comment. “Call me overcautious, a killjoy or a grumpy old man.”
Went a response: “You’re an overcautious, killjoy, grumpy old man.”
Colorado Springs’ Stephanie DiCenso helps moderate the fourteener community’s Facebook page, so she’s familiar with the argument. The avid climber isn’t quick to glissade, though recently she opted for some short slides between Grizzly and Cupid peaks near Loveland Pass.
“If it’s a decent slope and you’re gonna save a couple of hours (from) walking down, why not?” she says. “I think it’s only unsafe if you do it where it’s too steep and you don’t know how to stop yourself or you don’t have an ice ax.”
Glissading harkens to a broader, age-old debate in mountaineering. One side deems an act unsafe, and the other side fires back with mountaineering being unsafe in and of itself; the act is part of mountaineering, and to discourage the act is to discourage mountaineering.
Glissading “is just like, say, skiing,” Hamilton says. “Yeah, you can get injured, but you can get injured skiing, too.”
Glissading “is kind of like rappelling, where in some ways it’s almost a necessary evil to get down,” MacDonald says. “Although, glissading is a lot more fun than rappelling.”
In the Cascades, where Athearn grew up, glissading “was just part and parcel of descending the mountain you climbed.” After all, those volcanoes are defined by wide, clear snowfields. But Colorado’s Rockies are different, he warns, with couloirs that can be deceiving — hiding rocks and ending with crashes or drop-offs.
Once on Castle Peak, Athearn was glissading when suddenly the snow turned to ice, and the pitch steepened. He was hurtling out of control. “If I didn’t have an ice ax and know how to get into a self-arrest position, I could’ve gotten in a world of hurt.”
That’s his fear for this state’s growing wave of peak baggers.
“The biggest thing I see out here, because snow climbing happens in such a narrow window, people are not as proficient in terms of using an ice ax for ascents and descents. A lot of people don’t even carry them.”
With this year’s wider snow window, Athearn hopes people are prepared.
They should be prepared for shredded pants, too, Hamilton says.
“Pretty much all of my pants are threadbare in the butt from all this glissading.”