Since I outweighed Quentin by 60 or so pounds, I was confident that I could hold him if he were to break through the ice and fall into a crevasse.
There was no doubt that a bunch of those sometimes-bottomless glacier cracks were running beneath us. But most were hidden from view beneath thin layers of the snow and ice of the Ruth Glacier. The situation had me on edge. Even though probing out the route as we moved along was tedious, it was especially imperative since it was June, and things were thawing more than freezing. It was undeniable that the crevasse field was below us. But we were hoping to find a relatively safe way across it that could be used as a way to get our whole group up onto the ridge above.
As the rope leader, Quentin was choosing our route and operating the probe pole. He moved forward, one step at a time, stabbing the 5′ long ski-like pole into the snow in front of him feeling for voids or changes in of any sort in the snow. I was 100 or so feet behind him, and we were connected by a climbing rope. As the person at the back, it was my responsibility to stop any potential fall that could send him or both of us plunging hundreds of feet into the glacier’s depths. I relied on Quentin to do his part, while I did mine, to keep that from occurring.
I was also mindful of the fact that we could both end up on the same humongous collapsing snow bridge simultaneously. If so, it would likely end things for us in one thundering instant, but I was confident that he wouldn’t lead us into a situation like that. There is a method to how and where the big glacier cracks typically run. And while they aren’t always visible, their locations can often be predicted. While glacier travelers are never sure about where or which way to go, they mostly do know where or which way to not go.
Thick clouds partially obscured the sun. The little light it gave off created vivid contrast between the hummocks, swales, and other surface features along with the surrounding smooth sections of snow and ice. It was good lighting for glacier travel and gave up some significant clues about what was going on with the crevasses. We wandered around out on the glacier for nearly an hour. Eventually, we found ourselves at the bottom of what looked to be our best choice for a way to get the group up to the ridge. But unfortunately, the route also intersected a chaotic jumble of crevasses, and we were intent on avoiding something like that. And so, Quentin turned sharply to his right to search for a potentially safer and more predictable way up. After a few minutes of carefully probing out a suspicious low spot, he moved up onto an extended area of solid terrain and headed more steeply up the fall line. Even though it was steeper, I was confident about where he was leading us. I also felt increasingly secure about my position, which was well below him because of the grade of the slope. At that point, I became confident that the sheer physics related to our positions on the rope worked in our favor in regards to my ability to arrest or hold a fall. I also realized that while the route we were taking was a safer way for us to ascend, it would undoubtedly be too steep for our group. If a crevasse didn’t get ’em, I reasoned, then falling down on top of each other was a real possibility.
Despite the steepness complication, the two of us just kept going. We’d each concluded that the route was not going to work for the group, but didn’t let that realization stop or turn us back. By this point, we were moving out into the middle of a side “finger” of the Ruth, which just kept getting steeper, the higher we went.
The plan was for us to switch positions at some point along the way. After about an hour into our exploration, we came to a particularly long and open stretch that seemed to be a suitable place to do that, and so we did. Quentin left the probe pole stuck in the snow and moved off to the side, while I walked up and got it, took over the lead, and began moving us forward once again. I wasn’t really clear about our destination but didn’t let that get in the way of what had become our good adventure to nowhere. After proceeding another fifty or so yards, I noted that various crevasse fields were coming in from all directions. And they appeared to be converging right in the middle of our path. Just as I reached the first jumble and before I could make any sense of what was happening below, I heard a pronounced crack just off to our side. I flinched and stopped, but there were no more sounds. I looked back at Quentin, and he was in what appeared to be a good position for self-arresting and stopping any fall. I wasn’t actually concerned about our weight differential. But he blurted out a short sort of laugh or cackle, that in not so many words, said “wimp,” nonetheless.
I responded with a few simple but profound words, “if I go in, I’m gonna pull you in with me. I weigh twice as much as you do.”
My statement regarding our weight difference was something of an exaggeration, but the principle was correct. At that moment, I couldn’t foresee a fall scenario that didn’t end up with me, dragging us both down into oblivion. I was frozen in place— not by the weather conditions, but by my own thoughts. I wasn’t exactly sure where the cracking sound had come from and didn’t want to make the wrong move. Quentin was a hundred or so feet below me and on stable terrain, and I knew that those were both good things. Even so, I kept visualizing the surface collapsing and him getting drug uphill toward the edge of a big dark void as I fell further in.
I knew I had to make a move, but couldn’t come up with one that would allow us to keep exploring and was also safe. Up and to either side, I could look at the surface and see clues of the crevasse chaos below. And so, since I wasn’t sure what was happening underneath us, I decided to bail. I turned perpendicularly to our route and began heading back down, rationalizing that at least we’d be moving toward the perceived safety of our glacier camp.
It was a simple fact that until we got below the steeper part of the slope, Quentin would be above me. That meant that the physics of it would all be working against us, even more than before. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but simply what we needed to do to get us down to the almost flat main body of the glacier and back to our group.
We ended up getting off the steep stuff without ever falling into anything and ultimately made it back to our campsite. Once there, as I sat on the snow bench that we’d created and pondered our short glacier adventure. I had a vision of the surface below our camp collapsing with all twelve of us, our 4 tents, and backpacks disappearing into the darkness. My instinct was to get up and move away. But before I could do so, I remembered the various pitfalls related to being unroped out on a glacier. And so, I just sat back, blocked the collapsing/opening up crevasse vision from my mind, and thought about how warm and pleasant the sunshine was.