It was sunny, warm and beautiful. There was no wind, and we were walking across the glacier to the base of our route. Next thing I knew, I was falling.
I fell in a crevasse. Unroped. Its not something that anyone can plan to do twice.
Sarah and I planned the trip for months. I skipped a backcountry ski race so that I could go to Canmore with Sarah and get into shape for climbing.
by Seth Adams
Our plan was to fly to the Root Canal Glacier at the base of the Moose’s Tooth. Our departure day came, and went. It was snowing in the Central Alaska Range. Snowing a LOT.
We’d been waiting at my home in Fairbanks, Alaska. After a few more days, and reports that it had snowed many feet in the last few weeks and a couple more in the most recent storm, we changed our plans. We figured that our chosen route, Ham and Eggs, would be buried. With minimal regret, we decided to fly to the Hayes Range to do the non-technical East Ridge of Mt. Hayes. We skipped the drive to Talkeetna and flew straight into the Hayes Range.
I was fantastically confused. I didn’t know where I was or why I was there. I remember being unsure that any of it was real.
“But this feels pretty real,” I recall thinking, verbatim.
I was cold, and I was wet, and I couldn’t remember any dreams with that level of realism. I remembered something about a trip to the mountains, but it all seemed vague, the way dreams do a few minutes after waking up. I decided to go forward as though this was really happening – after all, you do the same in dreams, don’t you?
I saw the rope snaking down.
“Who’s up there?” I shouted. None of it made sense.
When I heard Sarah’s voice everything suddenly clicked back into place. Sarah has a uniquely girly voice that I have a tough time confusing with anyone else. I told her I was okay.
“I think I got knocked out,” I added.
“Yeah, well you probably did,” she responded. Her calm agreement with my assessment of the situation put me at ease. I took my prussiks off my harness and began the task of climbing out.
I have a certain allergy to quoting numbers that were never measured, as people tend to wildly exaggerate. That said, based on a couple of bits of remembered evidence, such as the position of the middle-mark on the rope, I think I fell as much as 60 feet. It might be less, or maybe more, but I doubt it. However long I was knocked out for, it was long enough for Sarah to build an anchor, put on crampons, and lower me a rope. I came to as the rope was snaking down from above. So maybe 10 minutes? Or as little as 5?
To be clear: if you fall in a crevasse unroped, you fucked up. There are dangers that are inherent to climbing, but this isn’t one of them. And I knew that.
“Well, you learned a lesson,” my friends would say, consolingly.
“But that’s the thing,” I’d respond. “I already fucking knew. It’s not a lesson I needed to learn.”
The Trident Glacier, where we had established base camp, is big and flat. The snow was windswept and hard enough to walk around on without sinking in.We flew in to the Trident Glacier, at the base of Mt. Hayes’ east face, on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 22nd. On Thursday, armed with a solid weather forecast, we left camp to start up the route.
It wasn’t far to the base of the East Ridge, perhaps a mile at the most. The lower slopes of the the route were obviously not glaciated. We discussed the merits of skiing versus walking. Skiing would only be trivially faster, and we’d have to leave the skis at the base of the route. Plus, we were using them to stake out the extra tent. We decided to skip the skis.
The glacier was flat, the distance was small, and the snow was firm.
“I don’t think we need to rope up,” I said. “It’ll be fine. The bridges are super strong, anyway.” I stomped on the hard snow to make my point.
I think that the only lesson I really learned was one about complacency. Don’t do it. It’s dangerous.
I remember falling for a moment. I don’t remember being afraid. Then I woke up in the bottom of the crack.Sarah said she looked down, then when she looked up, I was gone. Apparently, I didn’t make a sound.
I was lying on my back in the snow with my feet above my head. I was lying in a big pile of snow that sloped away behind me into more inky blackness. It was dark in the crevasse, but not pitch black.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my knife. I cut the shoulder strap on my pack to allow myself to get up. I must not have been thinking very clearly, because, clear-headed, I’m much too cheap to do that. A moment later I realized I was no longer wearing my expensive prescription sunglasses. I cursed.
I was cold. Very cold. I stood up my pack. The first thing I did was put on my helmet, which must have seemed like the thing to do, even though the moment to have ideally done that had passed. I had a couple of jackets that were easy to access. I put those on, too. Then I did something amazing – I had the presence of mind, or maybe lack thereof, to take a selfie. It’s the first photo in this post.
I grabbed the rope, which is visible in the background of the selfie. Fortunately, we had decided to wear our harnesses. And we decided that Sarah would carry the rope and walk behind me, so that if I fell in, at least I wouldn’t fall in with the rope. If not for these two precautions, things may have turned out differently.
I clipped my backpack to my belay loop with a long sling. I put a tibloc on the rope and clipped it to my belay loop with a sling. Then I put a prussik on the rope. I remember messing about with the prussik because two wraps of the prussik was slipping but three was grabbing too tightly and being difficult to slide up. I think I must have gone with three in the end.
Sometimes I wonder what rescue skills I really have. I wonder if knowing how to do certain things when you’re warm and comfortable actually matters. I still don’t have an answer to that question, but I am certain that I really do know how to prussik a rope – even concussed, even hypothermic. As a backup I tied myself in to the rope behind me with figure-8s clipped to a locker on my harness.
I don’t know how long it took to climb out, but I remember being very tired. I think it must have been around a half an hour. Near the surface Sarah had lowered me another end of rope. She assisted the last few feet, including helping passing the lip. I crawled into the sun.
Sarah did everything right to get me out, and for that I will always be grateful.
We walked back to camp. It didn’t take long because it wasn’t very far. Sarah used the satellite phone to call Rob Wing, a friend of mine that was also our pilot. He said he’d come at once.
Between the moment I broke the snow bridge and loading myself in the plane was about 3 hours.
Upon my arrival at the airstrip in Delta Junction, I assessed the damage: I clearly had a concussion. My face and ear were swelling. My shoulder was increasingly sore. I had bashed my shin.
I lost my right glove, my prescription sunglasses, and one ski pole. I cut the shoulder strap on my backpack and tore it trying to get it over the lip of the crack, too. The shiny-white pack also had a macabre bloodstain where it was closest to my head.
Much to Sarah’s consternation, I did not go to the hospital. I did, however, talk on the phone to a friend that is a doctor. The conclusion that I came to is that all that the hospital would do is give me a very expensive CT scan, which they would use to determine that I did not need emergency brain surgery. Then they would tell me to go home and take it easy. I have shitty, high-deductible health insurance, and so I passed. Sarah was (perhaps justifiably) irate. She’s Canadian, and so the idea of self-imposed rationing of potentially life-saving medical care was anathema.
Without wanting to sound like a communist, I can see where she’s coming from.
Though not directly relevant to my own experience, if I left out the following I would be leaving out a part of the story that, for Sarah, is certainly inextricably linked:
We returned to my house on Thursday night. Friday we spent the day laying low. I took a lot of Tylenol.
Saturday morning I woke up to hear Sarah on the phone. She was downstairs, but in my tiny house there are no secrets.
I listened and put together a few pieces of the conversation. I rolled over, still naked in bed, and through bleary eyes I opened the NY Times on my phone. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I held it close to my face. There had been a giant earthquake in Nepal.
Sarah’s boyfriend was in Nepal.
Colin was in the Langtang Valley. All we knew was that he had left his brother, Booth, a voicemail early that morning saying that there had been an earthquake and that he was alive.
Sarah spent the rest of the day on the phone. She had already changed her ticket, and that night she was due to get on a plane back home. The day was spent making plans, and contingency plans, and backup plans to the contingency plans. Sarah pulled all the stops, calling the president of the American Alpine Club and Rolando Garibotti. Colin’s friends all wanted to be filled in. But mostly, not much could be done until Colin called again with more information.
He did call. Just after I dropped Sarah off at the airport. The next few days were long ones for Sarah as Colin dutifully waited for all of the more desperate people to be evacuated from the Langtang Valley before accepting a helicopter ride himself. Eventually he made it to Kathmandu. As of now he is back home in Squamish, probably being taken care of by Sarah better than anyone really deserves.
He wrote a blog post about his time there, which is way worth reading.
It’s been said many times by many different people already, but I’m glad you’re still with us, Colin.
Though Sarah has been my dear friend for quite a few years now, I’ve never been more proud of that than I am now. She’s sweet, she’s a truly decent person, and she’s a crushingly badass climber. But I can’t picture anyone handling the crises thrown at her in those 36 hours better than she did. She did all the right things.
I can’t really say it any better than I said it here.
People keep asking me if this will cause a change in my habits, or if my perception of risk has changed. The most honest answer is that I don’t know. But I find myself reluctant to text and drive lately, so perhaps I have lowered my risk threshold.
Like I said above, unroped crevasse falls are not an inherent danger of climbing in the mountains. But it’s impossible to put a lid on what the possible dangers of bad judgement are; well-thought out assessments can turn out to, in hindsight, be wrong, no matter how right it seemed before. So I don’t know. But I will take the reminder not to be complacent. And I’ll extend it you, as well – don’t do it, you could get yourself killed.
I wanted to bury the following admission deep, but it does need to be said: it could have been much worse. Walking, or even staggering, away from a 60 foot fall is not the rule. I had long ago come to the conclusion that dying in a crevasse would be among the worst possible ways to go, and little that I’ve learned since then changes that opinion.
So I’m a funny combination of angry and frustrated at myself for fucking up, but still grateful that it didn’t turn out worse.
Thanks, SarBear. Better luck next year?
Seth Adams blogs at Seth’s Blog, Purer and More Essential Than Yours. Trust us, it’s funny.
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