Climbers and skiers spend countless hours using glaciers as approaches and descents. Here is a tale of when things go from bad to worse. Luckily for use, things were not as bad as they could have been. If you are on the glaciers this winter, be careful.
I stood at the edge of the crevasse at the base of the North Face of Edith Cavell, “Jump,” said Cian Brinker. I lined up my options, my first alpine climb since injuring my shoulder in February. I considered my options; my day on Slipstream six-months earlier came to mind.
It was not the snow or ice on Slipstream that slipped that February day, it was I. The desert which caps Snowdome does not role away gently into the horizon, over dunes; it breaks blindly, sheer, desolate. It is not composed of tiny sand-specks; it is frozen wholes, separated by cracks. Some cracks are one-metre, some are two-metres, some are 10-metres and some are 100-metres. In February, some cracks are filled with snow, others are covered, and it is the covered cracks that wait. For the cracks beneath the covers are void and if the snow which bridges the gap is not strong, the crack will swallow you up; sucking whatever dares to cross into its beautiful black hell.
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Last February, with Brinker and Will Woodhead, I climbed Slipstream, an ice route that forms from the water beneath the Columbia Glacier on Snowdome. The first ascent took three days by Jim Elzinga and John Lauchlan. Mark Twight has climbed it in three hours car-to-summit, solo.
Our climb went as planned. We approached in the dark and began at sunrise. Our breath hung in the air, the steel of our blades squeaked in and out of the ice, and we climbed as one. Near the top of the 900-metre cascade, Brinker took over and plowed through snow and snice, exiting the face on the right side of the serac.
The top of Snowdome is no peak at all; it stretches till the end of the world through the Columbia ice. To exit the mountain we had to cross west along the glacier, turning south, eventually, to rappel an ice coloir, straight-forward.
When the wind was strong it howled, when it was weak it whistled and when there was no wind at all, the glacier groaned. We stayed roped together and walked with a limp line between us. Elated to have surmounted the mighty Slipstream, which has taken a number of lives, we shuffled towards our descent. We had heard the glacier on Snowdome had crevasses, big cracks that spanned the length, but we could not see one. With the sun setting, Brinker stopped, looked back, and said, “Hold on, I think I am on a.” Before he could finish his sentence, which would have ended in “hole,” it was too late. He vanished; the snow beneath his feet gave way, and the crack swallowed him up. The rope between him and I came tight and from I to Woodhead even tighter as Brinker fell into the black abyss. I dropped to the ice; the weight of Brinker pulling me towards the hole, but I managed to bury my ice tool, as did Woodhead, standard glacier practice. The howl was too loud to hear, so I readied myself and escaped the system to see the state of my friend on the end of the rope, out of sight. Before I made it to the edge, Brinker was climbing up and out, stemming and swinging. He flopped onto the other side of the crevasse, safe. Without the rope, he would still be falling, but luckily, he was only out-of-breath. The crack was wide and long. The trusted ground had opened, we questioned everything around us. Brinker yelled, “Jump,” to me as I assessed take-off and landing points. The jump looked big and I was tired, but with a rope from me to Brinker and me to Woodhead, I knew I was safe. I readied myself, eyed the edge on the other side and thought, “Big jump now, big,” but my efforts were short.
I had never dislocated my shoulder before; I was unsure how it would feel, until that moment. After what seemed like 100-metres of running, but was only a few, I planted my crampon into the edge of the abyss and pushed. Looking down I saw nothing, except pick-marks from Brinker’s ice tools in the sheer ice. Between the sides I was leaping from and the other, there was a drop so deep and straight, my stomach fell into it. Reaching the other side, the snow my foot landed on gave way; I had not jumped far enough, I slipped, I was falling into the void, “Oops,” I thought, “Not good.” I swung both arms over my head and into the ice which rose to my chest as my legs and body fell into the crack. My left tool caught the ice, but the edge was strong and when my armpit connected, my humerous tore out of my shoulder, dislocating it. The pain, matched with my position over the hole, and the groans below, heightened my sense of urgency. I managed to pull myself up. Before I could stand, Woodhead was flying through the air, over the hole, his British military training shining, or did I just jumble the jump. “See, that wasn’t hard,” Woodhead said, as I exclaimed my discomfort. My upper arm could not move, it hung inches below where it wanted to be. It would not relocate and we had to move, so we continued, my arm dangling, and my mind with it. Eventually, my shoulder pulled my limp bone back. We descended the coloir; I with my arm hanging from dyneema slings around my neck. Walking out along the moraine, seracs, heated from the late day sun, collapsed behind us; Icebergs with no water to catch them, they crashed onto the rock below, from groans to thunder.
I replayed my slip, my fall, my fumble, which could have brought me more than a wounded wing and us more than some delayed time. Crevasses are scary, I have fallen into many, but never had I fallen in after a failed jump, embarrassed, but happy, I learned my lesson, practice long-jumps or find a way around the crevasse.
Standing below Edith Cavell’s North Face six-months later, staring down the hole, considering the jump, I said, “Dude, I’m going to find a way around.” Lesson learned.