Our objective this past weekend over Christmas was to spend 3 days at the Goodwin Greene hut.
Nestled at 11,600 ft in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness the Goodwin Greene hut is said to be one of the best huts in the Alfred A. Braun and Friends hut systems ; wood stove, solar lighting ,breathtaking mountain vista, and also the most difficult hut to locate.
Arriving at the trailhead Thursday morning in the historic town of Ashcroft, ten miles outside Aspen, we were quite relieved to be finished with the 4 hour drive up from Boulder, including the exciting 180 Aaron's CRV pulled on the slick snow packed road to the trailhead.
White- out conditions did exist that morning in the valley, as well as above treeline,but with an alpinist optimism we were hoping for conditions to improve as the day unfolded.
Skining our way up Express Creek road.-
While traveling up through the Express Creek drainage we encountered many large avalanche paths that required some travel techniques to be employed for them to be safely passed. Moving one at a time across the slope we were able to keep everyone in sight and minimize the group risk. Of course, everyone in the group had a shovel, beacon, and probe; standard backcountry traveling gear.
Navigating the drainage was pretty straight forward with map, compass, and altimeter, as well as still easily recognized terrain features, that is until we foolishly attempted to navigate through the engulfing white-out above treeline. Totally committed, and with only about an hour of daylight left, there was no turning back, no 180's to be had, just the grim realization that we had made a huge mistake by proceeding over the ridge and further into the white-out/storm. With already limited visibility night was creeping in like a dimmer switch being turned down, blinding our progress and erasing any opportunity to retreat. As the limited white light we had faded into black darkness, anxiety and panic were quickly making an appearance as now we needed to take shelter immediately,and it wasn't going to be in a hut.
While our obvious plans were to be sleeping in a cozy hut we had still prepared for if we did have to sleep out over night, which we were about to do. Everyone had a sleeping bag as well as a water-proof bivy sack. Issac and Aaron both brought portable stoves and David thankfully, and most importantly, brought a light weight shelter called a mega mid. Scrambling to erect our shelter in the blowing snow and high winds at about 12,200 feet it was difficult to accept that for tonight this is where we would have to give into the storm and wait it out till morning.
Once in the shelter we laid down packs and a small tarp to form some type of coverage from the snow underneath us. We got out the stoves and cooked up some soup and hot coco to try and get warm, and eventually tried to lay down and get some rest. With a total of 7 of us packed into this 4-5 person shelter you could say it was a bit more than just cramped. This was a good thing though while sacrificing comfort the warmth of everyone lying on each other was definitely a necessity.
Huddled down that night in our shelter a furious storm was raging outside . With at least 2 ft. of accumulating snow and winds in excess of 80 mph we struggled to stay warm. At around 2am when the storm was reaching its climax the winds were ripping through the air above with such force that you could actually hear the gusts approaching, like an passing Boeing 757, the defining roar of mother nature was upon us. All of us were grasping onto our shelter for if that was to be blown off the mountain our possible survival through the night was to go with it.
Incredibly, making it through the night with shelter intact, we awoke dehydrated as well as mentally and physically exhausted, but with winds dying down, and visibility improving, it was time get a move on to find this hut.
Due to the fact that we ascended the pass at night and in a white- out, upon our discovery of certain terrain features in the morning our exact location was still to be debated. The only obvious terrain feature we had to navigate from was a small rounded peak called Gold Hill, and even its exact location came into question. Heading north from our camp site on what we thought was the south east shoulder of Gold Hill we ended up contouring around north-north east into an unknown drainage. All the while we had thought we were heading in the right direction, and we knew that the hut was located somewhere at or above treeline. We had a feeling many times that the hut was "right around this noll" or"right over this slope convex", including many false sightings of dwarfed pine trees made out to look like an A- frame structure. Mocking disappointment! When finally realizing that we had dropped too much elevation and that we had possibly passed the hut the anxiety and dread returned like a reoccurring nightmare, as the thought of another night out may soon become a reality.
Although now situated below treeline we felt our best chances for making it through another night was to construct an improved shelter. Taking cover in the trees we started excavating a spot for a small fire to get warm, and to melt some snow . Evan and Aaron's attempt to retrieve water from the drainage located near our new campsite was unsuccessful due to the deep snow pack and difficult terrain; it was almost impossible to retrieve water safely from the creek.
Upon Evan and Aaron's return from the creek with the bad news that they couldn't get any water they also had some possible good news as Aaron thought he spotted the hut from the creek, possibly only 300 feet from our location in the trees. Driven by the sheer motivation to get into a cozy hut, Aaron and myself immediately set off for the slopes above to hopefully pinpoint its exact location.
Ascending above treeline on our tour for the hut we saw numerous fresh avalanche paths. Even though visibility was greatly improved the vastness of the snow fields above were overwhelming and we started actually considering that this hut may be buried under all this fresh snow. Which was not such an outrageous possibility. Reading past trip reports of other groups searching for this hut, many stated that they had to "dig the hut out " or "tunnel through the snow to reach the front door".
Exhausted, with still no sign of the hut, Aaron and myself returned to camp 2 below treeline with the bad news.
When we returned to camp 2 the fire was going strong and we were successfully melting snow and trying to rehydrate. At this point with the daylight hours at a minimum Evan and David set out for a quick search for the hut on the opposite side of the drainage. Unfortunately, with day light coming to an end, Evan and David returned with no success in locating our elusive hut.
We were definitely spending another night out, and with the storm exiting and the skies opening up we predicted it to be a cold one.
Huddled around the fire thawing our sleeping bags and gloves, drinking melted snow,and occasionally snacking, the disappointment of not finding the hut crept in. Come morning we would not be searching for the hut, but for the saddle on the ridge that would bring us back to Express Creek drainage and return us to our car, hopefully. There still was the slightest possibility that we might not find the right drainage on the other side of the pass and we may have to make it through another night.
Getting up Saturday morning we had made it through the frigid night it pretty much the same fashion as the first night, shivering and spooning for warmth in our mega mid shelter. It was definitely the coldest I've ever been in my life and once we all got up and started moving around it seemed to only get colder.
Leaving camp 2 vowing never to return we dumped any extra weight or excess food and we set off up the unknown drainage that we had came down the day before. Once moving around in the frigid temps (it easily could have been 20 below zero)gear problems started to arise as most peoples skins would not stay attached to the bottom of their skis. Using voile straps and electrical tape we attempted to secure the skins to the skis for at least a temporary fix, but due to the extreme cold it was definitely just temporary.
Remarkably, guided by a magnificent sun aura, we ascended to the top of the drainage and onto the snow field near our first camp site at 12,ooo ft. It was at this point in the cold numbing winds that the crux of the day was upon us; Finding the entrance to Express Creek drainage.
Once through the saddle and up on the ridge it took some orienteering to figure out exactly which path we took over the ridge during the white-out. Thankfully Issac's keen sense of direction kicked in along with Aaron's spotting of some posts on the ridge near our initial ascent path and we were heading in the right direction.
Seeing the Express Creek drainage the weight started to slowly rise from my shoulders, but I wasn't fully convinced until we dropped in and recognized or initial skin track up some 2 days prior, surprisingly not totally filled in. The odds were starting to turn in our favor. But we would soon unfortunately discover that the coldness of this day would have lasting affects.
On our way out following our vague tracks, we were hoping for someone to be in the Markley Hut, a hut that we had passed on our way up to our hut 2 days prior. Located only about 3 miles from the trailhead it would be a perfect pit stop on our way back to the car. A chance to get water, get warm, get dry, get in a hut!
Thankfully there was a small group who had booked the cabin for the weekend and they had just arrived. They were most gracious and invited us in to get warm around the fire, and even cooked us up some soup. Removing our boots and socks to cozy up to the fire we started to recognize signs of frost bite on certain peoples fingers and toes and the seriousness of our situation over the past two days started to sink in . Only staying about an hour as to not impose for too long, the sun was setting fast we had to get back on the trail and down to the cars for only then could we fully unweight the burden of being lost for the past 2 days.
Well we all made it back alive. And i guess that's the most important thing to take from this experience. So many things could have gone wrong, more foolish decisions could have been made, but they weren't. I attempted not to mention names as much as possible to try and state that this experience was a group effort. There were no individuals out there those frozen days and nights, just a strong motivated group set on making it out alive and staying positive in the process. I feel that every person on this trip contributed to our success and survival. I thank the two strong women in our group, Amber and Andrana ,for having the patience to deal with us lost men up in the mountains. Evan, for his dependable patience and overall generosity. Issac, for keeping me in check to avalanche hazards as well as help with navigation and breaking trail. And finally, thanks to Aaron and David for always thinking ahead, preventing another possible bad decision, and keeping up morale when things we at there worse. I will never forget this experience and I hope to learn from our mistakes so that in the future, possibly faced with similar circumstances, I can look back and reflect on the right things that were done for our survival and prevent the wrong.
Still surviving, Jason