There are three well-known peaks in the Alaska Range—Denali, Foraker, and Hunter. At 14,195 feet, Hunter is the smallest of the three but is considered one of the most technically difficult 14ers (14,000-foot mountains) to climb in the world. And reaching its summit was our goal for the particular trip this story is about, at least until lousy weather got in our way. We were a group of 13, including me and several other Outpost Wilderness Adventure leaders and two other non-OWA guides.
The place is remote, and getting to it is not easy. To do so, we first flew commercially into Anchorage. Then, a private bus took us from there two hours north to the small Alaskan town of Talkeetna. And finally, we flew via glacier/bush plane out to the established base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park. Kahiltna Base is a clump of tents that skirt a snow landing strip. One of them serves as a ranger station since the area is a significant hub for climbing activity. Once on the snow, we walked toward Hunter. Since most of the other teams of climbers head in the opposite direction toward the West Buttress of Denali, we were almost instantaneously on our own. After several miles of snowshoeing, our group stopped where the glacier forked off toward the West Ridge of Hunter to set up our first camp. Since only a few teams attempt to climb the mountain yearly, there was no line of climbers, footprints, or anything else we could follow. And so, we relied on maps, various personal observations, and experience to get us to where we were trying to go. We were there to climb the mountain and soon found out that, among other things, it’s a remarkably out-of-the-way place.
The area is a world of mostly snow, scattered rocky outcroppings, and massive mountains. The Kahiltna Glacier, a big river of snow and ice for all practical purposes, butts up to Hunter on its north and east sides. Like most glaciers, a maze of cracks, called crevasses, crisscross the surface. They occur due to various stress and movement forces on and within the ice. Sometimes they’re open or visible to the naked eye. But often, they’re covered with snow and ice, essentially making them invisible. While they can be just a few feet deep, some extend as much as hundreds of feet down into the depths of the ice river.
Curious people sometimes intentionally go inside glaciers via crevasses, utilizing accepted techniques and equipment. If going into one is intentional, they’re magical, dark, and mind-blowing places in a constant state of flux. Just as sitting on a mountain summit and observing your surroundings creates a sense of wonder, peering down into an enormous crevasse cavern does the same. As a person ponders the intricacies of that world, there is undoubtedly awe but also a realization that it’s not a place you want to fall into.
Just being out on a glacier is a serious business. Among other things, prudent glacier travelers typically spend significant time developing various techniques for getting themselves or others out of crevasses if need be. The amount of information a glacier traveler should have can seem absurd to anyone who’s never been out on one. And on top of the various skill and technique requirements, there’s also a lot of specialized equipment that needs to be understood, well maintained, and readily available. In a word, the place is complicated.
People usually travel on glaciers tied together to one or more others on a climbing rope, which creates a rope team when all are connected. If one person falls into a crevasse, the other or others can hopefully arrest (or stop) the fall and are then in a position to assist with any extrication or rescue. On the other hand, if a person fell into one and was unroped, they would just continue dropping until they stopped, whenever or wherever that was.
While moving out on the glacier, each rope team member walks with their ice axe in hand, ready to be used to create an immediate anchor in the event of a fall. As mentioned, crevasses are sometimes open and visible. But they’re often covered by snow or ice, making them invisible to the naked eye. To deal with the various kinds of crevasses, the rope team leader attempts to create a route along the glacier surface which avoids them. That’s hard enough to do when they’re open or obvious but even trickier when they’re covered or hidden. To deal with that, the leader uses a long pole and probes the snow ahead as they move along to feel for changes in the surface structure, which indicates places to avoid. I always thought that the whole process is akin to the uncertainty a blind person walking through the downtown of an unknown city must experience.
Probing the surface is a constant business. No place or route is considered “safe” until probed. And even then, and in the best of cases, “safe” is only a subjective term. And to top it all off, the entire glacier is in a constant state of change. This means that the information gained from probing is only valid for that particular point in time and not necessarily a few minutes later.
When all that combines with weather conditions, individual personalities, etc., many people put glacier travel on their list of things to avoid doing.
And so, the question arises—why even go out onto one, to begin with? There are multiple reasons for doing so. First, the wide-open rivers of ice sometimes provide the best routes or access to locations such as a specific mountain or natural area. And secondly, glaciers themselves are such magnificent places to experience that the risks and difficulties associated with being on one are sometimes worth the trouble it takes to be there.
Our group of 13 made our way across the Kahiltna and up to our Camp 1 on Hunter. While on the mountain, we got caught in a storm and ultimately abandoned the climb. So, we returned to our previous camp in the middle of the glacier. And from there, on back to Kahiltna Base. Since we’d already been out for days, we had our rope teams (four teams- three of 3 people and one of 4) already organized. And so, after one night at our glacier camp, we packed up and began walking back, anxious to return to the “real world.”
It was the middle of the afternoon when we finally began leaving. The day was hot and sunny. We’d created a trail in the snow on our way to the camp, and our tracks were still there. So, it made sense for us just to backtrack to get back. We were all aware that while we’d probed the route a couple of weeks before, it still needed to be done again. But that’s not what happened.
We thought that by early evening, we’d be back at Kahiltna Base and feasting on snack food from the stash we’d left in our supply tent. Once the return got underway, there was a lot of envisioning of glutenous gorging as we kicked back in cozy tents preparing to fly back to civilization. Thoughts of the “real world” did not even escape me, as I found myself craving peanut butter crackers, tortilla chips, and salsa. In some ways, at that point, we’d all already gone back, even before we’d left our glacier campsite. Once the return process started, we weren’t about to waste any time methodically implementing it. By then, we’d spent a couple of weeks out and had decided that we respected and fully comprehended what was happening around us in that glacier world.
Except……for that critical detail called change. As mentioned, a glacier’s nature is one of constant flux. And to that end, anyone out on one should act accordingly. Change is a crucial and predictable part of glacier travel. It’s a simple fact that doesn’t care whether it’s the walk back at the end of the expedition or who the people are. It’s a simple axiom that doesn’t vary- what’s good and stable on a glacier surface one moment might not be the next.
And so, we left our camp and began the trek back. Three group members- Scott, Paul, and Matt, made up one of the rope teams and were the first to take off. Matt was the rope leader, Paul was in the middle, and Scott was in the back. It’s worth noting that Matt, in his mid-20s, was the older man on the team, Paul was in college, and Scott was still in high school. A second rope team left a few minutes after them, followed by my team of four a few minutes later. Finally, the fourth team, which included Mike and his son, Topher, our two most experienced glacier people and the non-OWA guides, brought up the rear. That meant that our most technically experienced people were at the back. While that was a sound guiding technique, it would’ve been good to at least have my team out in the lead to control the front end of things.
We figured the walk back would take about 2 hours. Given the time of day, lack of clouds, and assuming all went as anticipated, that would leave us with a couple of hours of daylight once we got to back.
As my rope team trudged along, my mind wandered from the task at hand to things beyond the Alaska Range. But thankfully, each time it did, I was jolted by a sudden tug on the rope or a gust of wind back to the glacier and the more immediate concerns related to it. Complacency was doing its best to suck us all in.
The two teams out in front were several hundred yards ahead. A long flat stretch separated my group from the back of the second team. I looked ahead several hundred yards and saw the lead group, followed closely by the second, slowly making their way up a small hump. Both teams topped out and disappeared as they headed down the other side. The fact of their temporary disappearance didn’t alarm me, but I was concerned to note how far ahead they’d gotten.
A few minutes later, as we crested that same hump, I saw the two teams still creeping along as expected. All was as it was supposed to be until it wasn’t. The first team was 300-400 yards ahead, and I watched helplessly as the event forever etched in my mind began to unfold. Scott went partially down into the glacier up to his waist as he seemed to get swallowed up by it. I immediately recognized that he’d fallen into a crevasse. Paul almost simultaneously sprawled onto his belly and into a self-arrest position, with his ice axe dug deeply into the snow. And after just a moment, Matt began scurrying around doing something. Initially, I couldn’t tell for sure what he was up to but could feel his mind working in overdrive as he anticipated his next move. We were too far away to yell anything as if that would matter, and things were happening very fast. I had an instantaneous, hollow, and almost sick feeling as I helplessly witnessed it all.
At first, from our distant vantage point, the only action I could take was to watch. Then, after the initial flurry of activity, all seemed quiet and under control. Scott was still partially visible, and Matt and Paul appeared to be doing what they were trained to do. As it turned out, Paul was, in fact, down on the snow, holding Scott from going anywhere, while Matt was creating an anchor to bear the total weight of all three of them.
At that point, I visualized a sickening chain of events. One, where the side of the crevasse broke off below Paul, sending both him and Scott plummeting down into the void. And then, the cumulative weight of the two overwhelming Matt, who is pulled in as well- while I just watch from afar, unable to do anything. Thankfully, it was only a fleeting thought, and I was relieved to return to reality.
So, back to the actual events. At that point, Scott was stationary and sticking halfway out of the crevasse. Perhaps, I hoped, the crack was only a few feet deep. I could see that Paul was continuing to provide an emergency anchor. And at the same time, Matt was finishing building the main anchor, and I saw him clip the three of them into it when he was finished. So, for that moment, all looked to be stable.
And it was, until the stuck and partially sunken 17-year-old Scott made a move to get himself out and back up onto the trail. When he moved, the rope leading to Paul cut deeply into the snowbank, which created unwanted slack in the system. Scott’s foothold was not substantial, and since he was hanging on the end of the rope, his actions caused him to go all the way in and completely disappear from view. When we first came over the hill and saw what was happening, I stopped to watch and assess the situation. At that point, I realized that we were too far away to offer any sort of assistance. But once Scott went all the way in, reality hit me like a baseball bat, and I began moving my team towards them as expeditiously as possible. As we snowshoed toward the scene, I continued watching the situation unfold but made every effort to remain mindful that we were still crossing a glacier ourselves. I wasn’t sure what I would do to help but suddenly had to get there as fast as possible to do whatever I could.
Within a few terrifying moments, we arrived at the side of the glacier opposite Paul and Matt. Initially, I noted that all appeared well anchored, and I could see that the rope was weighted, verifying that at least Scott was still attached.
We immediately probed out an anchor point for ourselves. We picked a spot well back from the edge of the crevasse in question and immediately began building our anchor. To that end, we pounded a snow picket deeply into the surface, backed it up with another, and finally clipped our entire rope team into it. I stayed attached but re-tied myself further back down from the rope’s end, freeing up about 25 feet at the end to pass to Scott if need be. When all was ready, I moved toward the edge with one of my team members belaying me.
As I walked/crawled toward the edge of the crevasse, I surveyed the entire scene more thoroughly. From my closer-in vantage point, I could see that the anchor system Paul and Matt had created looked solid. Perfect, I thought. They’d done it correctly. I heard Scott making random, nervous-talk comments, which was also a relief. Thankfully, he was conscious, I reasoned. And so, at that point, I had surmised that he was connected to the rope and alive.
Before the event had happened, snow was covering and hiding the crevasse. But it was now open where the teenager had fallen through. I could see that the crack was perhaps ten feet long and 8 feet wide at the top. From my new vantage point, I noted that the climbing rope ran up out of the crevasse to the sprawled-out Paul and then to the snow anchor just above him. I was eager to make eye and voice contact with Scott and further assess the situation. So, when I finally got to the edge, I quickly went down on my belly and looked in.
And there he was– dangling at the end of the rope about 10 feet below the surface. He appeared massive relative to the rope but almost insignificant compared to the inside of the crevasse. He hung down into an enormous, dark, and seemingly bottomless cavern. There was a jumble of ice ledges and walls below him extending 50 feet down until seeming to melt into the darkness. Had we ended up in such a place during training, we would have talked about how beautiful and neat it was and snapped photo after photo. But I saw none of that beauty this time because that’s not what I was looking for. Undoubtedly, Scott saw the same thing as well. We were both in awe, not at how spectacular the place was but at how big, unforgiving, and ominous it seemed.
My first words were simple but profound as I said, “Wow, that’s a big hole.”
As he’d learned, Scott had already begun connecting his backpack to the rope and removing it from his back. No one needed to tell him that he was hanging above almost certain death from a 10-millimeter rope. Undoubtedly, his situation’s “big picture” was overwhelming. And so, he just focused his efforts and energy on one micro-task at a time geared toward getting himself up the rope and back onto the surface. The enormity of the situation would’ve overwhelmed many people. But thankfully, Scott was not one of those as he continued to methodically work through what needed to happen one step at a time.
Within a few minutes, he started to realize how cold it was out of the sun, and I watched as he began trying to find warm clothes to put on. Even though it did nothing to make him warmer, I talked to him relentlessly to let him know that he wasn’t alone and help him think through the process. And at the same time, it made me feel like I was doing something to help.
As we conversed, I continued assessing the situation. Foremost, I was pleased to note that the entire climbing system was in good shape and working as intended. I could see that the knot where the rope connected into his seat harness was tied correctly and that it ran on up from there directly to Paul. And finally, I saw that there weren’t any big chunks of ice or snow poised to fall on top of him. Up to that point, all appeared stable, and I avoided thinking about what the consequences would be if any of those seemingly minor but crucial details were not right.
Previously, we had trained for two rescue scenarios. And so, in a general sense, there was a plan. In both cases, the first thing that needs to happen is to create a solid and reliable anchor independent of the self-arrester. That means any rope team member or members who haven’t fallen into the crevasse should build a bombproof anchor and connect the entire team and rescue system to it. And that’s what Matt had done.
Up to this point, the extrication procedure is the same for both options. But from there, the two diverge. The first one assumes the person on the rope’s end is conscious. In which case, the fallen person climbs up the rope and out of the crevasse on their own. The rope climbing process often involves using a mechanical ascending device, which grips the rope when moving in the up direction, thus allowing the climber to move up but not slide down. As anyone who’s performed the rope climbing process knows, the procedure can be confusing and arduous. And it can be made even more so if the fallen glacier traveler is wearing a backpack and/or pulling a sled loaded with gear.
If the climb-out-on-your-own technique doesn’t work, the other option is for the people on top to directly haul the person up and out. The least complicated way to do that would simply be to pull the person directly out. But that can be physically difficult to do and is not often practical. And so, various pulley systems that create mechanical advantage are often rigged up and utilized.
Scott’s situation was the real thing, and we all knew it. Matt had built a good anchor, and the weight had been transferred onto it. I was confident that Scott was well anchored, but even so, aware that there would be no do-overs. This wasn’t training. There was one shot at getting it right. Scott and I avoided looking down into the void because we realized that down there was where any little boo-boo would likely cause him to end up.
And then, I noted that his body movements and actions began visibly slowing down. Undoubtedly, I reasoned, it was because he was getting increasingly colder and the things he needed to do progressively more tedious.
After a short while and with little progress happening, I concluded that it was time to do something different. And so, I put a new plan into motion. I noted that there were three others on my rope team back near the anchor, and the area around them was flat. So, there was no more time for technicalities. We were a strong group of four and had an excellent surface to work from, so I decided we would pull him straight out. There would be no complicated rigging or remembering about who did what. We were merely going to pull him up by brute force to the surface.
As mentioned, I was attached 25 feet from the rope’s end, effectively leaving that much free rope to work with. The open or free end was coiled around my neck and right shoulder, so I took it off and laid it out to my side. I grabbed the end of it, took a few coils in my hand, and tossed it down to the dangling climber. Once he had it, I told him not to mess with his own rope but to tie this second rope into his harness so that he would then be tied into two ropes—one going up either side of the crevasse. Once he did that, he would be anchored to both his team’s anchor and ours.
When he was ready, I got up from the edge and worked my way back to the snow pickets that anchored my whole team. And then, each of us got a firm grip on the rope, made sure that we had solid footing, and pulled with everything we had.
In a matter of moments, we saw the red of Scott’s helmet, followed by the blue of his raingear, and finally the whole of his body. And then, in another instant, he was fully sprawled out on top of the Kahiltna with the sun beating down on him. Immediately, the hollow space in my gut began filling in, and my heart moved back into place. It was over.
Once up onto the surface, he rolled over onto his back. Then, he untied himself from our rope and moved toward the anchor his team had created. While he was coming out of the crevasse, there was a lot of excited yelling and screaming. But once he was completely out and the event was over, everybody quietly looked at everybody else and the surrounding world. The air felt lighter, and the crevasses became more visible.
We gathered our gear, re-roped, and within minutes our four rope teams were again headed toward Kahiltna Base. As we moved, I couldn’t help but notice everyone putting on coats and checking knots. It was good to be going forward once again. But our progress was slower and more deliberate than before, as the person out in front probed relentlessly. I considered the possibility that another crevasse was hidden and waiting to swallow any of us up. For the first few moments, I was almost paralyzed with crevasse apprehension and unable to move. But then, I looked at the miles of the glacier that forked out in every direction and watched the clouds part to reveal the summit of Denali. And my legs began moving on their own. Things were complicated, I concluded. But I was glad to be moving since it was starting to get late, and we had a lot to do.
I think that was the day my wrinkles actually took hold. I’ll be forever thankful that it worked out as it did. But it also clearly demonstrated the difference between “theoretical” and “real” and how interdependent the two are. For me, that was the day when practice became real.