Lessons Learned: Is There a Snowfield? Bring the Ice Axe.

Forgive me winter trails for I have sinned. I have committed the sins of hubris, overconfidence, and lack of respect for winter trail conditions. You made me pay for it with an uncontrolled slide down Mailbox Peak and a nasty bruise on my left shin. It could have been worse.

Our story begins with a winter time hike of Mailbox Peak last Sunday morning. The weather was promising with no rain in the forecast, a high of 52 degrees, and blue sky above. I could not ask for more on an early February morning. I was also excited as two local hiking groups, with several people I was looking forward to meeting, were also going to be on the mountain. It was going to be a good day.

We happily skipped right past the new trail, with it's gentle grade and easy to follow markers, and went straight for the old trail entrances. That sign noting the hazards and high frequency of Search and Rescue events? Pay it no mind - walk right past it and laugh - we've done this before and we are tough. I mean, really, who cares that the top 1/2 mile and 800 feet vertical gain are all on snow this time of year? We've been on this trail before and, besides, we're experienced mountaineers! No worries. Right? Wrong. 

All was well on the way up the Old Trail with fully weighted training packs. We reached the summit with ease and no small amount of pride in our achievement of a new personal best on this challenging trail. The summit celebration was shared by many members of Washington Hikers & Climbers and six awesome ladies from PNW Outdoor Women. The cherry on top was the still cold beer in the bottom of my pack and the view of Rainier to the south. We happily spent almost an hour at the summit lounging on the snow.

The day took a turn for the worse on the way down approximately 300 vertical feet below the summit. There were three - four good sized snow field sections on the descent with variable snow conditions. I cleared the first two with ease, with the assistance of my microspikes, and was feeling confident. This held until the approximately ten steps down the third snowfield, approximately 250 feet in length, when an icy patch took me off of my feet. I hit the snowfield hard and started to slide downhill. My trekking poles proved useless for self arrest and there was nothing I could do to break my downward momentum.

I continued to pick up speed throughout the 250 foot slide to the bottom. The large rocks at the bottom were getting rapidly closer and closer as I picked up speed. My only possible response was to attempt to minimize the damage by keeping my feet pointed down hill to protect my head and torso. Digging into the snow with my boots seemed too risky with the possible result of spinning my head toward the downhill side. I was mentally preparing for a broken leg, a helicopter rescue, and a swift end to our dreams for Nepal this season. I estimate that I was moving at approximately 15 miles an hour when I hit the rocks. 

I took the brunt of the impact with my left shin with a secondary impact above my left knee. The impact was fast enough that I wasn't sure of the extent of the damage for the first couple of seconds. A quick sweep confirmed that my leg alignment was still as expected, there were no broken bones, and no broken skin. I cannot fully describe how grateful and lucky I felt in that confirmation. I was incredibly fortunate in being able to walk off of the trail with only severe bruising. My souvenir is a swollen ankle and two by three inch bruise instead of a cast.

The mountains tend to give only one warning and only if you're lucky. I fully intend to listen to the message I was given. I will never again go out on a winter hike with snowfields, no matter how familiar, without an ice axe. I would have been able to successful self arrest with an ice axe in my hand. I would not have risked broken bones or worse when I lost my footing and slammed into the rocks.

An ice axe just became my personal eleventh essential for all winter outdoor adventures from this point forward.