Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
A Snowy Echo Canyon
by Ram

— February 17, 2016 —

It doesn’t happen every year—usually about every four or five years. When it does, I can’t resist. It happened to us the first time in the early 90s. We descended Middle Echo one May day, finished the short raps, and came smack into a wall of ice. For the next two hours, we dangerously wove our way through the snow and ice. One stretch we crawled in a 2.5–foot–high tunnel, half–filled with flowing ice water for 40 yards. That same day, we cut steps in an ice wall with the only thing we had that was hard enough to do the job–the edge of our helmets, cracking mine in the process. It was a 95–degree day out in the sun. But in the slot? The ice turned to vapor (sublimation) and we were in a hazy cloud. Huge blocks of ice hung overhead. Blocks that would crash down soon. When? Spin the wheel. Pays your money. You takes your chances. After getting out that day, we sat on a ledge, in the high heat and sun, in our wetsuits, getting our core temp back up, smiles a mile wide. It was amazing that we would go back there four days later. A huge block had collapsed in the time between descents. In this way, we learned that something special could be found in that canyon, at certain times.

Cable Mountain towers above Middle Echo Canyon. It has just the right angle that snow lands and accumulates for a bit, but it is too steep to hold the snow for long. So it slides down the wall and into the canyon in a series of mini avalanches, all winter long. In this way, the canyon fills with snow with every storm. It is unusual for there to be snow in May. It takes a huge snow year for that to happen, but an above average snow year will provide wonders to those who dare in February and March. The thing about it is that, almost every week, the conditions and the route through can and do change. Snow has accumulated up to 85 feet high, then melts out, isolating the upper slopes and forcing one to weave through tunnels and passage ways inside the snow mass. You often don’t know you are so far up ... until you see ... gulp ... a hole. In other places, gaps in the moats form and the unwary could plummet dozens of feet, deep down into the unseen and black abyss.Then the isolated blocks of snow and ice overhead can collapse at any time. Huge icicles form overhead too, turning the canyon bottom to brown and blue ice fields with their icy drips. These areas are passed one at a time and without dallying. Also, downcanyon snowfields tend to melt out along the canyon walls in ways that the unsuspecting could break through, to their demise.

Now that I have made the case for how totally insane and potentially reckless this is ... It is also off–the–charts surreal in its beauty and diversity. All life has objective dangers. There is just a little more of it here during those special spring seasons. With all of this in mind, four of us headed up and in for a peek. Very wise are those that go from the bottom up, for more hazards are visually observable going that way. And one can just turn around if it becomes more dangerous than one wishes to experience. One also can’t get trapped between the raps and the bottom, where the snow is most often found. The objective? Get to the bottom of the lowest rappel, then get back out, in one piece. Bring ice axes, thermal protection and your alpine judgment.

A group of two had gone down the canyon, found the snow, and, without choice, made it down through. We came a few days later. We found the conditions to be safer than average compared to my half dozen trips through in the last quarter century. We did not have to ‘tunnel’ at all, staying up on top. Melting along snowfield edges had not really started yet. What we did note was the moats were forming, soon to isolate the upper snowfields from access and force tunneling. These holes we observed were frightful to peer into. It had been a week since we were there and I was sure a more sinewy route, with snow above–head, was likely to be required now. Watch for that huge dripping icicle too!

We encountered something different than I had seen before. There were places with sand ripples on the canyon floor. WAIT! That was NOT the canyon floor, but solid and human supporting ice. Coulda swore I was on the ground. Small floods had moved sand across solid ice. We would drop off these false bottoms into swims. Tom was likely sick of hearing me talk of this experience over the years. Same with Guy. Both signed up. Tom led most of the way with a wicked little smile in the corner of his mouth. Guy stayed back spotting and generally helping us over the moats before dealing these dangerous spots as ‘last person at risk.’ Kat said no initially but got a meeting changed so she could join us. I think she was pleased with her choice. A great time! Once the six–hour round trip was over, I hit the road for home.

The next big snow year? Yeah, I will be back. The stories I could tell of past snowy trips in there!!


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