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 mountain’s lower West Ridge- the fact that we got everyone safely back down to the relative low angle and wide open Kahiltna Glacier, was the reason for the celebration. And the candy bars were the highlight of that celebration, at least for me. Since my climbing partner, Matt and I were the last ones down and the only humans to be seen or heard anywhere in the glacial alcove (and on the relatively safe side of the avalanche debris field) where we’d stopped to repack our gear, we were content in the realization that the whole group had successfully made it down.
Only a few days before, our four rope teams had snaked our way up from a camp located out in the middle of the glacier to almost that very same point where the two of us 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 in and on our packs, anticipating the flight back to Talkeetna and eating candy bars– way back when we’d first been at that spot, we were paused in our attempt to climb what’s often considered to be 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’s 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 that developed as each successive climber worked their way up created something of a steep (but negotiable) staircase. Along with that, the solid snow picket anchors, which kept us connected to the mountain, created at least some measure of security. And so, we did move relatively safely upward and forward, albeit a little slowly. By late afternoon, with clouds and fog moving in, we’d 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, but because of the fog and clouds, couldn’t look back, down or out to see how far we’d come. For various reasons, we knew that it’d been a good day and were satisfied with our progress. The fact that we’d stopped where we did turned out to be a good and/or lucky thing as well.
The small ridge where we set up 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 following day.
We cooked supper outside that evening, on a small table which we’d created from the snow. At 30 degrees F, the air was relatively warm and only a gentle breeze stirred the thickening fog. We turned our walkie talkie/radio on at 8 pm to hear the Park Service broadcast of relevant, Alaska Range news and localized weather forecasts. It was geared to disseminate information to the various climbers out in the general area, and we 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 and quiet world, warm in my sleeping bag and satisfied with where we were in the whole process. Sometime 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 more fully awakened and became more conscious of my surroundings, I realized that the almost silent tent I’d gone to sleep in was now getting pelted by snow and that a gusty wind had developed.
Before making my move, I thought through the various things that we’d left outside. Were they covered, I wondered?
I could finally take it no longer, and got up. Once I’d wiggled out of my bag, I was pleasantly surprised to find that It wasn’t as cold as I’d thought it would be. But when I unzipped the door and saw the snow piling up at the base of the vestibule and heard a gust of wind 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 flung around by howling winds. What little there was of the faint, Alaska summer night light was further dulled by the heavy snow and fog, but I could see, what my body could feel, which was that it was full-on winter outside and that we were in the process of being overwhelmed by a snow event.
I looked around at our five tents and could see that the snow was well on its way to completely covering them up. Around and between the tents- random straps, parts of pots and handles of various sorts stuck up out of the snow along with 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 that we’d brought along was only partially buried, which made it both 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 what I’d been able to do. 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 both away and protected from any sort of slope above, I began thinking about the avalanche that was most assuredly building somewhere up above and waiting to spill down and engulf us or what would happen if a tent, with 3 occupants inside, just blew away.
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 to think about and mostly just lay there, warm, but doing a lot of wondering.
As mentioned, Alaska Range summer nights never get all that dark to begin with, but by 8 am, enough light was working its way through the still howling storm, so that I could look outside and see that the tents were in need of another bout of snow removal. By this time, others were beginning to stir and when one of them, 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 simple fact that a lot of snow had fallen, but then, seemingly almost gladly, got on out, picked up the scoop and went busily to work.
Our plan had been to be up, packed and on the move by 8:30. But after seeing and hearing what was happening with the weather we concluded that there was not going be any climbing on that day, which meant no pressing need get up and going. Even though things were mostly warm and calm inside the tents, outside it was still snowing and blowing. With the new snow, avalanches had become more of a certainty than a possibility and as I lay in my bag I kept thinking of the various items that had become buried under the foot of new fluff. We’d chosen the sensible and were hunkered down in place. Suddenly, there’d become no urgency to getting up and cooking breakfast, other than the fact that a lot of hungry people were ready to eat and by mid morning would be going stir-crazy.
I began mentally going 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 fires, burning a hole in the tent, explosions, releasing dangerous fumes and/or boiling water spilling on someone or something). But when done right, 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. And so, we got out of the tents and rigged up for glacier travel. We were soon on the move, and by midday, had worked our way several hundred yards further up the ridge to an obvious rock described in the guide books, which signaled the start of the crux pitch.
While the steep pitch, crevasse down at its base, the snowstorm and persistent gloomy skies 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 along with a foul adrenaline rush. I looked ahead and down to see an old fixed rope still in place along the ridge as it dropped, became convoluted and downright 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 under the best of circumstances for us to keep moving forward and began to have thoughts that perhaps all the heavy snow was saving us from ourselves.
We headed back to Camp 1 and in order to actively occupy the rest of our afternoon, built igloos and had a massive snowball fight in the flat area just below our campsite. Even though the sky was still threatening snow, none had fallen since morning and thankfully, we were able to continue being active all afternoon and cook supper outside that evening. I was cognizant of the fact that we had one more rest day built into the schedule and that if it was used up for another snow day, then moving forward toward the summit would at that point become mathematically impossible.
After a fine supper of some sort of noodle concoction, we sat around having hot drinks and enjoying the end of an eventful 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 toward us. It was obviously something of an unexpected shock, but we immediately focused our attention on his words.
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 big crevasse that we’d crossed, which was made up of two snow pickets, and how each of our 14 climbers had completely relied upon it.
I didn’t hear the rest of the radio broadcast, because my attention was elsewhere. It didn’t really matter what the weather report had said at that point, because with the news of the day, the only direction 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 ultimately came to grips with the fact that we’d given the climb a good try, but were simply going back. My final conscious thought was speculation regarding just what “defective” meant. I never came to a complete understanding of the subject, but for that moment in time just allowed myself to drift off to sleep after reaching the decision that I’d take the subject back up the next day.
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 to go ahead and slide where it most wanted to. The sky had cleared during the night, meaning that our climb back down was done under clear, blue skies. On departure day, we packed up Camp 1 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 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 just go ahead and eat them all at once as some sort of prize or reward, once the hard part was over. The whole idea of a food-fest of a sort 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 and easily 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 lend an extra hand if needed. As the last person down, it was also my job to “clean” the climb, or remove and haul out the anchors. One of the expedition members, Matt and I were on either end of a climbing rope, which meant that essentially we 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. The person at the bottom can also belay the person above, ideally with one or more anchors to work with. If there are anchors in the system, then the best case scenario is for the climber at the top to have an anchor above him, which limits the scope of potential falls.
Belaying was straightforward enough whenever I was belaying Matt, but when he was belaying me it was not so much, since I was removing the anchors as we moved. We both realized that for better or worse, my protection status was somewhat marginal. I thought plenty about the downsides of the situation as we moved along, but I fully expected Matt to hold onto me if I did fall or begin to slide down a slope and do the best that could be done given the circumstances. Along with my thoughts came new questions which I was not quite able to comprehend at the time, such as how did velocity work with falling objects, the whole situation with weight differentials (since I weighed more than he), the ramifications of increasing slope factors or what would Matt do if I were to fall on top of him.
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 except for 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 out in front of us made it successfully down and then began moving steadily off into the distance. Then, it was our turn.
I pulled out the anchor I was attached to, which left only one anchor, composed of two pickets, remaining. It was located above the big crevasse and final steep section and before Matt began climbing down, I clipped myself into it. I took all of the slack out of the rope and began belaying him, as he downclimbed. Eventually he made it to the bottom of the steep part, crossed the debris field, and got to what had become the perceived “safe” side. And then, it was my turn. It had become clear to us both, that it would eventually come to this and it had.
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 anchor 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 had cut deeply into the snow, 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 change or 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, which were 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, with no other choice, 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 the “safe side”, 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.