The "Nope Slope" - Managing Fear in the Mountains

Perfect weather, the perfect day, and sometimes you still need to bail

"I just do not know how to not be afraid of that," Rachel said as we made the drive back towards Denver. She was referring to the now infamously named "nope slope" that she and two other members of our group had coined when they opted to not go any further, sitting just below 13,000 feet. 

We hit the Bakerville exit right around 6:45am. Blue skies, no wind, and a slight chill in the air had the day looking promising for a summit attempt of Gray's & Torrey's. Considered some of the "easier" fourteeners to summit, our group had set out sights on an attempt despite the forecast calling for wind gusts of over 30 mph. The weather was working out better than the forecast. 

As we loaded up into the Subaru and made our way slowly up the 3 mile entrance road we finally reached an impassable point and decided to park and hoof it the rest of the way to the official trailhead. We added a good 2 miles but luckily it was a relatively easy incline and still frozen. 

Starting our approach on the snowfield

Making our way up the snowfield

As we meandered our way past the official trailhead and up a long snowfield we couldn't help but continue to be awestruck by the amazing views we were taking in. Moving steadily we eventually rounded a corner and were treated to the wonderful view of Gray's & Torrey's. I opted not to point out the tiny moving dots of climbers ascending Gray's, figuring the group had plenty of time to realize how much further we had to go. 

The snowfield as the sun crested the ridge

Another hour or so and we were veering left towards the base of Gray's and steadily increasing the steepness of our climb. Throughout our approach we had seen a few folks descending, most commenting about the beauty of the weather that day. One skier informed us of his ten year realization that instead of walking down mountains he could ski them instead. I believe in the process he called anyone who walked down mountains stupid but perhaps that was the altitude speaking. 

John taking in the views

As we continued to climb, the trail continued to narrow. The width of the trail in summer is a good 2 feet across, on this day due to the snow it was perhaps half that size, and cut at a sharp 45 degree angle dropping off sharply to the right. A misplaced foot and you might have a decent slide ahead of you. Thankfully the pre-worn path was not terribly slippery (we had spikes and crampons in case). Having seen many folks descending in lesser footwear than our group had, I was feeling confident that we could press on. 

On approach to the "nope slope"

Single file, slowly we meandered up this slope. About halfway up there was an opportunity to climb directly to the nearest ridge and potentially onto wider terrain. Turning around to check in with the group I was immediately aware that something was wrong. 

There is a field of learning called Experiential Education. In it, one of the founding theories is about comfort zones. If you are not familiar, comfort zones state that each person has 3 levels of comfort. The green zone is very comfortable, so much so that you likely do not learn much when you are in that zone. The yellow zone is your "stretch zone," you are pushing yourself, likely are a bit uncomfortable but you optimally learn in this zone. The final red zone is your panic zone, no learning happens, you body has given over to flight, fight, or freeze and is physically unable to learn. The expression from three folks in our group was highlighting plainly that they were beyond stretching and fully into panic. 

While we had crampons and micro spikes available to us, it was apparent that the only answer was to remove the cause of the panic. John and I shared a quick glance and I opted to crest the nearest ridge just to assess the rest of the trip. Topping out around 13,000ft I was feeling strong given a nagging knee injury I have been nursing. It flattened out and looked steep but wide the rest of the way up. Returning to the group, they had already decided it was time to call it. They gave John and I the option to continue and they would meet us back at that car. We chose to stick with the group.

A skier about to round the corner to the "nope slope" as we descended

It was frustrating to bail on such a perfect day, particularly as others descended in lesser footwear and less gear than our group had on, but as we made our slow meandering way down the now named "nope slope" the panic felt by some of the group was causing them some unsteadiness on the snow. With some hand holding, an ice axe, trekking poles and slow moving we finally reached flat ground and took a long restful break to let the everyone's nerves calm down a bit. 

John on the "nope slope"

This was not the skier who told us we were stupid to walk

A half hour later we made the slow haggard trek back through the previous frozen snowfield and out towards the trailhead. We collapsed at the bridge. The entire trek back involved post-holing through sun-softened snow. It was exhausting and John and I were thankful that we did not continue on towards the summit, knowing fully that what frozen snow we had stayed on top of likely would have been a slushy mess later in the afternoon. "Perhaps that skier was on to something" was my parting thought as we worked our way to the car. 

A parting summit glance from John

My response to Rachel as we stopped for coffee on the ride home: "Let's check out St. Mary's Glacier with crampons and an ice axe and get comfortable with self-arrests and just standing on steep sloping snow." She thought it over and then gave an open-to-the-idea nod, she was mentally stepping back into her stretch zone.

Lesson's Learned:

1) Being outside is about being connected to nature and those you are with, listen to the group and don't get caught up in "summit fever." Sometimes saving the relationship is more important.

2) Even on perfect weather days, sometimes you need to bail and that is okay, it is the experience that matters.

3) Recognize when you are pushing yourself or others, a little is good for growth but too much and people panic. Avoid the panic zone. Equally, avoid always staying comfortable. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Jason Leach

An avid adventurer, triathlete in the summers, lover of winter (though I don't ski), photographer, ballroom dancer, and newly relocated to Denver, Colorado for some higher mountains to play in!