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 found all over glaciers were running underneath us everywhere, although most were hidden beneath thin layers of the snow and ice of the Ruth Glacier. Probing out the route as we moved was tedious, but imperative—especially during the summer months when things were melting more than freezing. We knew the crevasse field was there, 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.
As the rope leader, Quentin chose the route and got to operate 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 of any sort. Even though I was 100 or so feet behind, we were connected by a climbing rope and I did my best to stay ready to go down onto the snow, stab my ice axe into it and stop any potential fall that 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 (as the person at the end of the rope), did mine.
I was mindful of the fact that we could both end up on the same humongous collapsing snow bridge that would likely just end things for us both 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 obscured the sun, making for good lighting which created vivid contrast between the hummocks, swales, dips and other surface features and the surrounding smooth sections of snow and ice, giving up some very important clues as to what was going on with the crevasses just below. After wandering around out on the glacier for almost an hour, we worked our way up to what appeared to be the bottom of the only viable route up to the ridge from where we were. It did go directly up to where we were trying to get, but before doing so, it ran into what appeared to be an increasingly confused jumble of obvious crevasses. And so, Quentin turned sharply to his right to search out 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 due to 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, at least regarding my ability to arrest 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, then falling down on top of each other was a real possibility, and we certainly didn’t want or need that.
Despite the steepness complication, the two of us just kept on going. We’d 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 even steeper, the higher we went.
The plan, all along, had been for us to switch positions at some point along the way, and so as we reached a particularly long, open stretch which just seemed to be a good place to do it, we did. Quentin left the probe pole stuck in the snow and moved off to the side, while I walked up, got it, took over the lead and began moving us forward. I wasn’t really clear about what our destination was, but I didn’t let that get in the way of what had become our good adventure to nowhere. We moved fifty yards or so up, and then I began to see where crevasse fields were coming in from both sides and appeared to be converging, right in the middle of our logical path. Just as I reached the first jumble and before I could make any sense out of what was happening down below, I heard a pronounced crack in something 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, his focus or what we were doing 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 a slight exaggeration, but the principle was correct. Certainly, there were all kinds of variables that would come into play which would actually allow him to arrest a fall, but at that 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 for a moment—not by the weather, but by my own thoughts. I was not 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, which was a positive, although I kept visualizing the surface collapsing below me, and him getting drug uphill, ever faster toward the edge of the void, as I fell in further and continually gained momentum.
I knew I had to make a move, but there was none that was guaranteed safe. Up and to either side, I could look at the surface and see clues of the crevasse chaos which was likely going on. While I was not sure what was or was not below me, I decided to turn to the side and then head back down, rationalizing that at least we’d be moving toward the perceived safety of our glacier camp.
I knew that until we got down off of the steeper slope, Quentin would be above me, meaning physics would be working even more against us, but moved ahead anyway. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was just what we needed to do in order to get us down to the almost flat main body of the glacier and back to our group.
We ultimately got down and back to camp without ever falling into anything. As I analyzed the whole thing, I tried to figure out a method which we could’ve used where I would have 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 at the end of the rope.
After unroping and finding an open spot to sit on the snow bench we’d created, just as I was pondering our short glacier adventure, I began envisioning the surface all around and below our camp collapsing with all twelve of us, our 4 tents, backpacks, snowshoes, sleds, and haul bags 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 bright the sun was, right then.