NOTE: THIS IS A BLOG POST THAT I WROTE IN EARLY JUNE. IT’S ONLY TWO MONTHS OLD!
It’s been an odd spring for me. Always for me the most difficult aspect of my Patagonia addiction is the conflict it creates with my skiing addiction, and after spending most of the winter in the Austral summer, I usually return home very eager to ski. This year was no exception, and after returning to Seattle I did my best to catch up, skiing nearly every day of my first week at home. The one cool thing about starting your ski season in mid March is that my first day of the season was an awesome powder day, with a snowpack of multiple meters!
At the end of March I left for a climbing trip in Alaska’s St. Elias range with Portlanders John Frieh and Daniel Harro. We were flown into the range by Paul Claus, midday on April 1st. We spent a few hours setting up our basecamp, and then went for a short ski up-glacier to scope our objective. About twenty minutes out of camp I suddenly broke through a totally-hidden crevasse, and fell approximately 15 meters down, ricocheting off the walls of the crevasse. We had left camp for our leisurely ski with essentially no equipment, so Daniel immediately skied back to camp to fetch a rope, crampons, ice tools, and harnesses. I was able to climb out of the crevasse with a top-rope (and even managed to rescue my skis and poles!), and fortunately I escaped any truly serious injuries. Unfortunately, however, I had a fractured cheek bone, and my trip was over. We skied back to camp, and the next morning I flew off the glacier, for a total of about 16 hours in the St. Elias range! For those who are interested, I’ll include below a more in-depth analysis of my crevasse accident.
So, rather than climbing new routes in Alaska, I spent most of April recuperating in Seattle. For the first week I had a very swollen face, and I was spitting blood for about 10 days. The first two doctors that I talked to, both oral surgeons in private practice, were eager to schedule surgery straight away. Fortunately I got a third opinion from a well-respected doctor at Harborview who strongly advised against surgery. So, I managed to escape the knife and my face feels to have healed up well, with only very subtle changes in symmetry. My smile is a bit crooked now, but I figure that just makes me look more like a pirate or Fred Beckey!
After a couple weeks of nearly zero physical activity, I started going for walks and to the climbing gym, and then finally ski touring again. For my first day back on skis, I headed up on Mt. Shuksan with my girlfriend, Sarah Hart. We planned to ski the North Face, but while skinning up the White Salmon Glacier we watched four skiers descend the Northwest Couloir, a line I’ve always wanted to ski. Because I had never skied it before, I figured some tracks to follow would be a nice way to learn the run, and Sarah and I decided on the spot to ski the Northwest Couloir instead. This was a bad decision! Sarah has only been skiing for five years, and this was her second day of the season. She is a natural athlete, and the North Face would’ve been fine for her, but I didn’t realize that the Northwest Couloir is a significantly steeper, more serious ski run. Needless to say she didn’t enjoy the descent very much (Sorry, Sarah!), but we’re both very glad that she didn’t fall!
At the end of April Sarah and I headed to Canmore, Alberta, and spent the month of May sport climbing and skiing in the Rockies. I did a bunch of skiing with Rockies hard-man Jon Walsh, and Ptor Spricenieks, the Latvian ski machine. Ptor now lives in La Grave, but has been skiing in the Canadian Rockies for a long time, and among his exploits was the first descent of the North Face of Mt. Robson, surely one of the classiest ski mountaineering objectives anywhere! Sarah and I just made our way back to the West/Best/Left Coast, and the prime Squamish season will be starting imminently – time to start training for Patagonia!
A MORE IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF MY CREVASSE ACCIDENT
This crevasse fall is what I consider to be my fifth close call in the mountains. I’m fortunate to have come away mostly unscathed every time, but if I’m not taking away injuries, hopefully I am at least taking away lessons. Let me start out first with a more detailed account of the accident:
When I broke through the hidden crevasse bridge, in the first instant I actually wasn’t worried – for some reason it felt like I was just collapsing a soft spot of snow. However, an instant later, when I realized I was falling a long ways down, I specifically remember thinking, “Oh, shit. This is serious. This could be really bad.” The fall happened really quickly, and the next thing I knew I was wedged in the bottom of the crevasse, panting. I was pumped full of adrenaline, but I never felt panicked, and with just a quick glimpse upwards, I never had any doubt that I would get out of the crevasse. Since I hit my face against one of the crevasse walls hard enough to fracture my cheek bone, it’s quite possible that I briefly blacked out, although it’s actually really difficult to tell for sure. I didn’t FEEL like I blacked out, but I did seem to suddenly find myself in the bottom of the crevasse, without a specific recollection of exactly how I came to rest. More likely, I think that during the fall my mind went into a pure survival-reaction mode, so that it wasn’t recording memories for the second that I was falling. I have some half-memories from the fall, such as that I vaguely recall breaking through some ice, and I vaguely recall the instant of smacking my face against the wall.
I had been skiing with my sleeves rolled up and my gloves off, so my hands and lower arms were covered with scrapes and cuts. Otherwise I felt to be mostly OK, although when I touched my face I could feel already that it was swollen. My nose was running, so I instinctually made a snot-rocket. When I blew my nose I had a bizarre feeling of air being pushed through my eye socket, and then I figured I might have a real injury. I started to spit up blood, and that seemed to confirm my suspicions!
It seemed to be very quick that John caught up, and yelled down to me. I already had a clear idea of how to get out, and I immediately yelled to John that someone needed to go get my crampons, my ice tools, my harness, some slings and ‘biners, and a rope. Daniel took off back towards camp to fetch the equipment, and I started working on my situation.
When I broke through the crevasse bridge, my skis had been parallel to the crevasse, and I remained in that orientation during the fall, so that when I came to rest I was facing down the length of the crevasse. I have my approach skis set to generally never release, so one of my skis was still on my foot, while the other ski seemed to have come off right when I stopped, because it was off my boot, but positioned with the binding just below my foot. Most of my weight was on my feet, on my skis, and I think that my skis really helped me not become wedged more tightly. In the position that I was in, I had no chance to put on a harness or crampons because I was wedged too tightly. Above me the crevasse quickly got wider, and about two meters up I saw a sort of saddle/fin of ice that bridged the walls – I figured I needed to climb up to there.
Climbing just two meters up proved to be very difficult. If I had been wearing crampons and with ice tools in my hands, it would have been absolutely dead easy, but climbing up hard, blue glacial ice without that equipment is really, really slippery! Also, extricating myself from my wedged position was not easy, because it was tight enough that I couldn’t turn either of my feet around until I got them a couple feet higher. I was lucky that the ice was surprisingly featured, and I managed to climb up to the ice fin with a combination of chimneying, manteling, and crimping little ice edges with my bare, bloody fingers.
When I reached the ice fin I straddled it as if I were horse-back riding, and finally I had a position that was somewhat restful. I had been wearing my small backpack all this time, and finally now I was able to take my gloves and jacket out to put them on. John was even able to chuck his puffy down to me, I was able to catch it, and then I was decently warm. At this point I had about 20-25 minutes of sitting on the ice fin, waiting for Daniel to get back from basecamp with the technical equipment. I guess at this point the adrenaline started to wear off, and I suddenly felt extremely tired and sleepy. I was in a decently restful position, but I would’ve fallen off the ice fin if I had lost consciousness. I felt that I had to fight to not pass out, by intentionally hyperventilating, and shaking my upper body.
When Daniel got back from his wind-sprint with the technical equipment, I was finally able to properly work on getting out of the crevasse. It took a few tries, but John was able to toss an end of rope that I was able to catch, and then he lowered down my crampons. Even straddling the ice fin was still a really difficult position to move in, and getting my crampons on was difficult, but once they were on my feet it changed everything. With crampons on, even without ice tools, I was very easily able to chimney a couple meters higher, to where there was a small ledge to stand on. From that ledge I had much more room to move, and now I was able to put on my harness that John lowered, followed by my ice tools. At this point, getting out was easy – simply a matter of climbing some AI3 with a tight toprope. I was even able to lower down a bit and retrieve both my skis and poles.
Once back on the surface of the glacier, Daniel gave me a quick examination (he is a fire-fighter, and therefore also paramedic), and then we took off back towards camp, because it was almost dark by now. Back in camp I wondered if I might be able to stay and climb, but it didn’t take long to realize that would be a stupid decision. With a fractured bone in my face it didn’t make sense to stay in the middle of nowhere, especially considering the weather was then good enough to fly a ski plane, and most of the time it isn’t. We were able to get through to Paul Claus by sat phone, and called for him to pick me up in the morning. One thing that I found really surprising is that despite impacting my face so hard to fracture my zygomatic bone (cheek bone) in three places (the three places it attaches to the bones around it), I had only very minor pain, and never experienced any significant pain during the entire healing process. A bit of minor frostbite on my toes a few years ago was vastly more painful!
I was of course both lucky and unlucky in this incident. It obviously can’t be considered lucky to take a 15-meter crevasse fall, but I am quite lucky to have only fractured my cheek bone in such a large fall, and not my legs! I think it is really fortunate that I didn’t invert during the fall, because if I had landed on my head, especially without a helmet, it likely would’ve had very bad consequences.
This accident has undoubtably made me more wary of glacier-travel, even though it’s already something I’ve been doing extensively and very regularly for over fifteen years. I’m sure I will continue to do some occasional solo travel on glaciers, but I absolutely view solo glacier travel much more seriously now. When I was fourteen years old I took a glacier travel and crevasse rescue course from The Mountaineers, and it gave me a good foundation of knowledge about crevasse rescue. However, as with everything they teach, The Mountaineers teach an extremely prudent version of glacier travel, such as that you should always be roped up at any time on any glacier, that you always need to pre-rig your prussiks on the rope, and that you should always be wearing a helmet. Personally, I still have zero doubt there are many situations when it is appropriate to be un-roped on a glacier, and I still will probably never pre-rig my prussiks, and I still will very often travel on glaciers without wearing a helmet. However, this accident has made me come to some important conclusions about glacier-travel safety, and I’ll share them as clearly as possible here:
1) THE CLIMATE AND SNOWPACK PLAY A HUGE ROLE IN CREVASSE HAZARD
The area of the St. Elias where we were is a dry area. We arrived at the start of April, and the total snowpack in our basecamp was a mere meter of dry, light snow. It is a “dry glacier” (one of exposed, scree-covered ice in the summertime), like the Torre Glacier in Patagonia. I think that glaciers like this (with a huge amount of ice below the firn line, in the ablation zone) generally exist in places that are cold enough to sustain large glaciers, but with low accumulation rates.
The crevasse that I fell into was at least two meters wide, and the bridge across it was never thicker than 40cm, across the entire gap. This wide, super-thin snowbridge was not sagging even the tiniest amount, which is why I didn’t have any clue it was there. Such a thin snowbridge, likely formed during a snow storm many weeks earlier, didn’t sag at all because it was in such a cold, dry environment, especially during the winter. In The Cascades, Chamonix, or the BC Coast Range, a snowbridge of those dimensions would’ve been undoubtably sagging, and it would’ve been obvious that there was a crevasse there.
Basically, I have realized from this incident that crevasse hazard is much, much higher in relatively dry glaciated environments, because the snowbridges are often very weak, and often very well hidden. This is why there are so many crevasse accidents in the Canadian Rockies. The mountains where I learned glacier travel, The Cascades, have likely some of the safest glacier travel in the world, because they are extremely “wet” glaciers, with enormous annual rates of accumulation and ablation. In The Cascades, probably the only time with comparable crevasse hazard to the Canadian Rockies, is in the autumn (October or November), when the crevasses are very freshly bridged by thin, weak bridges. By March, when the glaciers often have literally several meters of seasonal snowpack on them, the crevasse bridges are extremely solid.
2) SKIS ARE A MIXED BLESSING
Most of us have all been taught that having skis on your feet makes glacier travel safer, and there’s no doubt that this is generally true. However, in my crevasse incident, I think it actually would’ve been avoided completely if I weren’t wearing skis. This is because, if I had been on foot, then the moment I stepped off of the solid ice, I would’ve punched a leg through the edge of the snowbridge (something I have done many, many times before), and most likely I wouldn’t have fallen in. Because I had skis on, I was able to ski well past the edge of the solid ice, and I never broke through the snowbridge until I was in the middle of it. In other words, if you have skis on you’re less likely to ever break through a snowbridge than on foot, but you’re more likely to break through the snowbridge completely (a proper crevasse fall) if you break through at all.
Of course in practice we will all decide to ski or walk based on the snow conditions and the efficiency of travel, but it’s worth keeping in mind that skis sometimes (and in the case of my accident) will make the crevasse danger greater, despite the general rule to the opposite.
3) A PARTNER IS A GOOD IDEA
This one’s a no-brainer, but still worth mentioning. My crevasse accident is a perfect example of how much safety a climbing partner can provide compared to solo glacier travel, even if you aren’t roped up.
4) WEAR YOUR HARNESS
The typical practice for skiing in Chamonix is to rarely be roped up, but always wear your harness with some basic crevasse rescue kit on it, and each person carries a 30m glacier rope to send down to a partner. I have often been cavalier about this practice, figuring that if I wasn’t roped up there wasn’t much point in wearing my harness, but I now realize this is quite wrong.
This accident has shown me that even if you are unroped, having your harness on makes your ability to deal with a crevasse fall much better. In my case, it was very difficult to get to a position where I could put my harness on, and I was lucky that it was possible at all, and that was with only minor injuries.
The real problem is getting wedged in the bottom of the crevasse. I was lucky to not have gotten wedged very badly, but it was tight enough to really open my eyes, and I realize now how extremely, extremely difficult it might be to move in a tightly wedged position. If you are tightly wedged, the chance of managing to clip a locking ‘biner onto your belay loop with one hand, is much, much better than trying to tie the rope around your waist.
5) USE YOUR UMBILICALS
I have often used my ice-tool umbilicals while walking on glaciers, and this accident has confirmed to me that it is a good idea. Anytime you are in a crevasse, your ice tools will be very useful to you, and if you happen to be by yourself, your ice tools provide your only significant chance of self-rescue (aside from perhaps aiding off of two ice screws). In my crevasse fall, I completely dropped both of my ski poles during the fall, despite having wrist loops on my wrists. I think the chance of dropping your ice tools out of your hands during a crevasse fall is really high, and using umbilicals will make you much more likely to still have ice tools when you stop falling.
6) USE YOUR CRAMPONS
Like wearing skis or not, realistically, we will all decide to wear crampons or not depending on the snow conditions. If I had been wearing crampons when I fell in the crevasse the chance might have been higher of breaking my ankles, but this incident has made me realize how extremely advantageous it would have been to have them on my feet already. If not on your feet, your crampons should be at the very top of your backpack, not buried in the very bottom. Also, it goes without saying that you should ALWAYS have your crampons adjusted to your boots before you leave home, since many of use switch between different pairs of boots – don’t just throw them in your pack and plan to adjust them in the bottom of a crevasse!
7) WEAR YOUR HELMET, PERHAPS
When most of us finish the rappels off of a face and get ready to slog across a glacier back towards home, we are very eager to take our helmets off. I’m sure I will very rarely ever carry a helmet solely for crevasse hazard, but if you are carrying a helmet anyways (for the technical climbing), then you might as well carry it on your head if you can stand wearing it a bit longer.
8) TECHNICAL CLIMBING SKILLS ARE USEFUL
I have always felt that being an experienced technical climber would be advantageous in a crevasse fall scenario, and this incident confirms that theory for me. My crampon-less ice chimneying up to the ice fin felt like mid 5.11. Even if you are roped up, I have no doubt that a strong technical climber will be much faster and more competent at simply prussiking up a skinny rope (especially if he/she has any broken limbs). And, obviously, if you are by yourself, then being able to solo vertical ice is pretty much your only chance of getting out.
9) AN IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER
Any un-roped crevasse falls are really, really sketchy and not a good idea! It is obviously most prudent to follow The Mountaineers’ advice, and simply always be roped up on every glacier. I wanted to share my conclusions simply because I know there are many people such as myself who travel on glaciers unroped at times, and some of these conclusions you wouldn’t be taught during a typical glacier travel course. Reader beware though, this is sketchy stuff, and while I mention it casually in this discussion, the thought of taking a crevasse fall while by yourself is REALLY SCARY STUFF!