He was not a big person and since I outweighed him by 60 or so pounds, I was confident that I could hold him, if he were to break through and fall into a crevasse. There was no doubt that those sometimes-bottomless cracks that are found all over glaciers were running underneath us everywhere, although most of them were hidden from view beneath thin layers of the snow and ice of the Ruth Glacier. While 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. We knew that the crevasse field was there below us, but were hoping to find a relatively safe way through it that could be used as a way to get our whole group up onto the ridge directly above us.
As the rope leader, Quentin chose the route and operated 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 the snow of any sort. I was 100 or so feet behind him and we were connected by a climbing rope. As the person at the rear, I did my best to stay ready to go down onto the snow, stab my ice axe into it, and stop any potential fall which could send him or both of us plunging hundreds of feet into the depths of the glacier. I certainly didn’t want or expect that to happen and relied on the fact that Quentin was doing his part, while I did mine, in order to keep that from happening.
I was mindful of the fact that we could both end up on the same humongous collapsing snow bridge which would likely just end things for us in one thundering instant, but was confident that he wasn’t going to lead us into that situation. 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 aren’t ever 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. What light that it did give 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 very important clues as to what was going on with the crevasses. After wandering around out on the glacier for almost an hour, we worked our way over to the bottom of what looked to be the only viable route on up to the ridge from where we were. We could see that while it did seem to go directly up to where we were trying to get, before doing so it ran into an increasingly confused jumble of obvious crevasses. 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 looking low spot, he moved up onto what appeared to be an extended area of solid terrain and began heading more steeply up the fall line. Even though it was steeper, I was confident about where he was leading us and felt increasingly secure about my position, which because of the slope grade was well down below him. At that point, I felt good that the simple physics of it all was working more 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 the glacier, it would simply 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 on going. We’d each come to the conclusion 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 good 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 what our destination was, but didn’t let that get in the way of what had become our good adventure to nowhere. After going only another fifty or so yards I began to see that various crevasse fields were coming in from both sides and 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 out 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 at all concerned about our weight differential or his focus until he blurted out a short sort of laugh or cackle, that in not so many words, said “wimp.”
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. Certainly, there were all kinds of variables that would likely come into play if I were to actually fall and that would work in my favor, but at that very moment, I couldn’t foresee any sort of a fall scenario that didn’t end up with me pulling both of us 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 looking 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 which was likely going on beneath us. So, since I wasn’t sure what was happening down there, 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 all would be working against us, even more than it had been 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 of the steep stuff without ever falling into anything. As I analyzed it later on, I tried to figure out a method that we could have used where I would’ve been at the back (or bottom) whenever we were on the steeper terrain, but could never figure out a way to do that, that didn’t end up with me simply always being on the back end of the rope.
We 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 began envisioning the surface all around and 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, 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.