I now concede the fact that it was undoubtedly the five candy bars I ate in celebration of successfully getting across the avalanche debris field that caused the distress. I should’ve known better, but for a variety of reasons, it’d seemed like a good thing to do at the time. At least, I reasoned, once back at home, the whole thing had taught me a good lesson.
The fateful event happened like this…….
I was leading a group of 12 on an attempt to climb Alaska’s Mt. Hunter. After 6 days out and on the mountains lower West Ride, getting everyone back down to the relative low angle and wide open Kahiltna Glacier, all in one piece, was the reason for our celebration. And the candy bars were the highlight of the celebration, at least for me. Since I was the last one down, and me and Matt were the only humans to be seen or heard anywhere up in the alcove and we’d gotten across debris field, we could safely say to ourselves, that we’d all successfully made it down.
Only a few days before, our four rope teams had wound our way up from a camp out in the middle of the glacier to almost that very same point where Matt and I were now breathing a sigh of relief and, at least in my case, rewarding ourselves with snack food. While we were now stowing away unneeded climbing gear on our packs, anticipating the flight back to Talkeetna and eating candy bars– way back then, we were paused in our attempt to climb what is often considered the world’s toughest 14,000 foot peak, as we stared at 100 feet of 45-degree snow. Thankfully, we had Mike and Topher to lead the way. They assumed what is known as the sharp end of the rope and set a route that got us up the steep part, around the crevasse that topped it off and finally up onto the relatively lower angle slope, above that.
Heavy packs had made the going particularly slow as we started up. But, the snow steps created as each successive climber moved up created something of an abruptly steep (but negotiable) staircase and the solid snow picket anchors, which kept us connected to the mountain, created at least a measure of security, so we did move relatively safely forward, albeit a little slowly. By late afternoon, with clouds and fog moving in, we had all made it up and past the crevasse and were on the top of a small, relatively flat shoulder, where we set up, like others before us, Camp 1.
Getting onto the actual mountain, above the crevasse and up to a good, what appeared to be avalanche-free and relatively flat spot was plenty for our first day, so we dug ourselves in for the night and set up camp. We’d climbed probably 1000 feet above the glacier that day, but because of the fog and clouds, couldn’t look back, down or out to see how far we’d come. For whatever reason, we knew it’d been a good day and were satisfied with our progress. It turned out to be a good and/or maybe a lucky thing as well.
The small ridge where we set our tents continued on up to a band of rocks, indicating the start of what’s considered to be the most difficult section of the climb. Having never seen it, I could only imagine that it was a somewhat more intense version of what we’d experienced earlier that day, and so was content that we were saving it for the next day.
We cooked supper outside that evening, on a small table we’d formed from the snow. The air was relatively warm (in the 30’s) and only a gentle breeze stirred the thickening fog. We turned on our walkie talkie at 8 pm to hear the Park Service broadcast of relevant, Alaska Range news and localized weather forecasts- all geared to disseminate information to the various climbers out in the general area, and were relieved to hear that no major cold events were headed our way, although moisture and snow were.
I fell asleep in my tent that night in a peaceful, quiet world; warm in my sleeping bag and satisfied with where we were in the whole process. In the middle of the night, I awoke, needing to relieve myself. I lay there for a time, working up the courage to crawl out of my bag, unzip the tent and go outside. As I woke up and became more conscious of my surroundings, I realized that the almost silent tent I had gone to sleep in was getting pelted by snow and that a gusty wind had developed.
Before making my move, I thought through the various things we’d left outside. Were they covered?
I could finally take it no longer, and got up. When I’d first wiggled out of my bag, I’d been pleasantly surprised to find that It wasn’t as cold as I had thought it might be. But when I unzipped the door and saw the snow piling up at the base of the vestibule and heard a small gale blast the side of the tent with a splatter of snow, I began to get chilled.
I pulled on my inner boots, unzipped the vestibule door, crawled out and through the two doors and was immediately smacked in the face by a virtual blizzard of large snowflakes being pushed around by howling winds. What there was of the feint, Alaska summer night light was further dulled by the heavy snow and fog, but I could see, what my body could feel and that was that we were simply in the process of being overwhelmed by a snow event.
I looked around at our five tents and could see that the snow was on its way to completely covering them up. And on the ground, only random straps, parts of pots and handles stuck up out of it here and there, along with most of our ice axes, which had been speared into the snow. The flakes were humongous and were quickly piling up on my fleece cap and shoulders and sticking to my face. Thankfully, the large scoop shovel we’d brought along was only partially buried, making it obvious and accessible.
I grabbed it and began clearing a trench around each tent, causing the snow building up on the top of each, to slide down to the ground. I then shoveled it off to the side, virtually de-suffocating the 3-person structures, at least for the moment.
There wasn’t time to study my handiwork, as I brushed myself off and crawled back into my own tent. It didn’t seem like anyone else had even stirred during the operation, and as I savored the warmth and relative calm of my -25 degree bag, I was initially content with that fact. But then, as I lay there, questions about tent weight loads and air-flow began to arise and I started to speculate about what freezing to death felt like. As a final nail in my “return to restful sleep” coffin, even though I’d seen how the ridge we were on was situated away and protected from any sort of slope above, I began thinking about the avalanche that was most assuredly building up above and waiting to spill down and engulf us.
While there were still 4 hours until breakfast, which meant plenty of time for another round of good sleep, in my case it didn’t happen. I suddenly had too much on my mind and mostly just lay there, warm, but doing a lot of wondering.
Alaska Range summer nights never get all that dark, but by 8 am, enough light was working its way through the still howling storm that I could look out and see that the tents were in need of another bout of snow removal. By this time, others were stirring and when Paul made the mistake of poking his head out of his tent, I asked him to do the shoveling. I could see that he was first trying to process the fact that a lot of snow had fallen, but almost gladly and almost instinctively got completely out of the tent,walked over, picked up the scoop and went quickly to work.
Our plan had been to be up, packed and on the move by 8:30. Well before that time, we had all come to the realization that “that” was not going to happen then or at any time during that particular day. To begin with, it was still snowing and then there were the various realities such as the fact that at least some of our stuff was buried and avalanches had become more of a certainty than a possibility. And so, we chose the only sensible option there was, and hunkered down in place. Suddenly, there was no urgency to getting up and cooking breakfast, other than the fact that a lot of hungry people were about to be ready to eat and would soon be going stir-crazy.
I began mentally running through our plan and the developing situation as I worked my way toward the point of actually getting up. Thankfully, I realized, we’d done a lot of things right. We were well dug into a good spot on the ridge (near the top, but just below a rocky outcrop and with a broad, relatively flat area just below), had plenty of fuel, more food than we could possibly eat, an endless supply of water in the form of snow, more warm clothes than we could ever actually put on, and a couple of extra storm days built into our schedule. Despite the fact that we were “stormed in” on the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter, we were in good shape.
We’d all cooked in our tents before and that’s what we did. There were four stoves for our five tents, meaning one tent of 3 people would have to squeeze into one of the others for cooking and eating. Our 4-season Expedition tents had large vestibules for boot shells and gear overflow and we’d brought small insulated cooking platforms that allowed for stove operation actually inside the tent, or at least in the vestibules. The whole “inside the tent cooking operation” is not recommended, since there are plenty of things that can go wrong (stove catching something on fire, burning a hole in the tent, exploding, or emitting dangerous fumes and/or boiling water spilling on someone or something). Done right, however, it allows for inclement weather cooking when options are limited, and in our case, ours were limited by the cold and snow.
By mid-morning, the snow had stopped, we’d finished breakfast and everyone was ready to do something, and so we took the opportunity to reconnoiter the route. We got out of the tents and rigged up for glacier travel. By midday, we had worked our way several hundred yards further up the ridge to an obvious rock that signaled the start of the crux pitch.
While the steep pitch and crevasse down at the bottom, the snowstorm and persistent gloomy skies (which didn’t seem to go away) had darkened the mood somewhat, I peered over the top of the rock at the next section of our route and got a downright dark feeling and began to have some stomach discomfort. I looked ahead and down to see an old fixed rope still in place as the ridge dropped, became convoluted and steep as it then headed into what appeared to be another ascent. Because of the fog, I couldn’t see it all, although I did see enough to at least realize that it would be a difficult and committing undertaking and began to have thoughts that perhaps all the heavy snow was saving us from ourselves.
We headed back to our tents and to actively occupy the rest of our afternoon built igloos and had a massive snowball fight in the flat area just below our camp. Even though the sky was still threatening snow, none had fallen since morning and we were able to cook supper outside. We had one more rest day built into our schedule and if that was used up for more snow, moving forward would be mathematically impossible, even if we wanted to tackle the next section.
By early evening and after a good supper of some sort of noodle concoction, my stomach was beginning to stabilize and return to normal. As we sat around having hot drinks and enjoying the end of a good day, we turned on the radio to get the day’s weather report and determine how our further ascent or descent might be impacted. After the initial introduction, the broadcaster directed his first statement directly at us. None of us were quite ready to be addressed, but we suddenly were.
And he said, “attention, David Appleton group. The snow pickets you bought are defective. I repeat, the snow pickets you bought are defective”.
I was confused, aghast, and stunned at first. And then I began to think about the six 36 inch long aluminum t-stakes that I’d bought right before the trip to add to our arsenal of snow anchors and how they were all mixed together with some that we already had. Then, I began to visualize our anchor at the top of the crevasse, which was made up of two snow pickets, and how each of our 14 climbers had relied on it to varying degrees for safety.
I didn’t hear the rest of the radio broadcast, because my attention was elsewhere and, almost strangely, I was preoccupied with the return of my stomach-ache. It didn’t really matter what the weather report had said at that point, because with the news of the day, the only way we were going was back down and we’d be doing so whenever the weather conditions allowed, regardless of what the forecast was or how our schedule might be disrupted.
Eventually, we did retreat to our tents and got into our bags. I lay there for a while pondering our situation and was ultimately relieved to have come to grips with the fact that we’d given the climb a good try, but were simply going back. My stomach pain slowly retreated and my final thought before going to sleep was to speculate about just what “defective” meant.
And that takes me to the candy bar event/celebration. After another rest day at Camp 1, it was time to head down. The extra day had allowed the snow to consolidate somewhat and slide where it most wanted to. The sky had cleared during the night, we packed up camp after a big breakfast, loaded up and by mid-morning began working our way down to the main glacier across and through 12 inches of fresh snow.
Mike and Topher led the way. They used the same anchors as they headed down that we’d used on the way up, but were careful to inspect each, replacing any of the defective ones as needed.
Before we’d even started down, I’d made the decision to go ahead and eat, what in my mind had suddenly become the five bonus candy bars from my snack pack, at some point during the descent. I’d been saving them for higher up on the mountain, but since we weren’t going up there, it made perfect sense to eat all five at once as some sort of prize or reward, once the hard part was over. The whole idea of a food-fest of sorts excited me, especially since I’d never eaten that many candy bars at one sitting and was anxious to do so. And so, I placed them all where they’d be quickly accessible (along with my first aid kit, extra cordelette for glacier rescue and water) in a side pocket of my pack.
I was at the back, as we descended. From that vantage point, I would always be in position to keep an eye on the process and to lend an extra hand as needed. As the last person down, it was also my job to “clean” the climb, or remove and haul out the anchors. Matt and I were on either end of a climbing rope, so were always connected to each other for security purposes in the event of a fall. As a matter of technique, the person on the uphill side of the rope, typically belays (or secures) the person below, which makes the most sense, physics-wise. Of course, the process varies depending on the specifics of the terrain, but pretty much since the time that mountain climbing and glacier travel began, the person above has been considered to be the person in the best position to protect the person below.
Since I was at the back, I soon realized that for the most part, I would be above him and, especially on the steeper parts, essentially unbelayed. We did think about that situation as we moved along and I fully expected Matt to hold onto or catch me if I did fall or begin to slide down a slope, at least eventually, as I got below him. Along with that thought came new questions which I was never quite able to answer, such as how did velocity, weight differentials (since I weighed more than him), or the fact that we were actually tied together and could actually both be pulled down the same slope or fall into the same crevasse affect things or work out.
I had plenty to think about, besides the plethora of group leader things that are always under consideration, as we down-climbed. Slowly, but surely, we did descend. As we came to each picket, we stopped, and I unclipped the climbing rope from the system, pulled it out of the snow and attached it (via a carabiner) to the outside of my pack. In order to facilitate the process and avoid having to remove my backpack each time, I clipped them where they were left dangling down to the side. But, since I was attaching them to the downhill side of my pack and we were going downhill, they hung freely and besides occasionally hitting me in the leg, were out of sight and mostly out of mind.
Since we were dealing with anchor removal, we moved a little slower than the others. But the crevasse and steep part at the bottom brought our five rope teams all back together as the whole process slowed to a virtual crawl. I watched from above as first Mike’s rope team and then the others made their way down, across a monstrous and fresh avalanche debris field at the bottom and finally out onto the mostly flat and open glacier. Eventually, all four of the 3-person rope teams in front of us made it down and were moving steadily out into the open and it was finally our turn.
There was one anchor, composed of two pickets, left up near the big crevasse and I clipped myself into it. I took all of the slack out of the rope between Matt and I and belayed him, as he downclimbed and then crossed over the debris, to what had become the “safe” side. And then, it was my turn. It had become clear to us both, that it would eventually come to this and it did.
He had a picket and drove it into the snow with his ice axe, creating a new anchor. He clipped himself into it and got into position to belay me. It was obvious, that the best he would be able to do in the event of a fall, would be to keep me from tumbling on down the glacier to a point somewhere below him.
Once he was ready and in position, I pulled out the pickets, and then, because of the steep angle, turned in toward the snow to back my way down the quickly steeping slope. About a third of the way down, since the dangling pickets were now on my uphill side and the trough we’d created got deeper, the dangling stakes began digging themselves into the bank each time I stepped down into one of the snow steps.
You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. At that point I couldn’t stop anywhere to better secure them to my pack. I was still 40 or so feet above Matt and I suddenly started thinking about the steel spikes, better known as crampons, attached to the bottom of my boots and what they might cut or grab onto as I fell. I started breaking out into a sweat, even though it was cold and shady since the sun was blocked by the ridge. I struggled to think of options or solutions to my plight and the only one I could come up with was to suck it up, keep on moving and not fall. And so, that’s what I did.
Matt carefully kept the rope between us snug, but avoided pulling on me and kept any slack from interfering with my feet. Time seemed to stop, or at least become inconsequential, for the few minutes it took to get down the steep part. When I did reach the bottom, I turned to face Matt and the debris field. The fresh chunks of snow and ice were suddenly not much of a concern and Matt took pulled me in, somewhat like a fish on a hook, as I moved toward him. By the time I got to him, the rest of the group had disappeared on out onto the glacier and it was just the two of us, standing there. I took off my pack to better stow away the pickets for the rest of our walk out and once done, took out my water bottle and took a big swig of melted snow. And then, it was time to celebrate and that’s when it all started.