Undoubtedly, the five candy bars I ate in celebration of successfully getting down and across the avalanche debris field caused the distress. I should’ve known better, but for various reasons, it’d seemed like a good thing to do at the time. However, once my stomach settled, and I was back home, I realized the whole thing had at least 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. We spent six days on the mountain’s lower West Ridge but ultimately retreated before getting anywhere near the summit because of a storm and “technical difficulties.” The fact we got everyone safely back down off the mountain and onto the main Kahiltna Glacier was the reason for the celebration. And for me, the highlight of that celebration was the candy bar eating, or at least the first part of it. My rope partner, Matt, and I were the last ones down the mountain. Once there, the two of us found ourselves alone as the other rope teams had moved on toward our old glacier base camp. I like to think that had some of the others been waiting for us, we would have all rejoiced together. But since that wasn’t the case, Matt rested and reorganized his gear while I did what seemed most rewarding and began eating.
Just a few days before, during the ascent, our four rope teams snaked our way up from the middle of the Kahiltna to that same point. But this time, we were going the other way. Instead of trying to figure out an ascent route, the two of us were busily stowing away unneeded climbing gear, thinking about the return to flat ground, and anticipating the flight back to Talkeetna. And in addition, I was eating candy bars. On the way up, we were paused at that spot in our attempt to climb what’s often considered the world’s most challenging 14,000-foot peak as we pondered the 100 feet of 45-degree snow blocking our route. Thankfully, we had Mike and Topher Donahue 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 onto the relatively lower angle slope above that.
The climbing on the steep section was difficult. Heavy packs made the going particularly slow. But the snow steps that developed as each climber worked their way up created a steep (but negotiable) virtual staircase. Additionally, the solid snow picket anchors, which kept us connected to the mountain, created a measure of security. 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 the small and flat shoulder, where we set up our Camp 1.
Getting onto the actual mountain and above the crevasse was plenty for our first day. We made camp and dug ourselves in on an avalanche-free flat ridge top for the night. We thought we’d climbed about 1000 feet above the glacier that day, but because of the fog and clouds, we couldn’t see back down to determine how far we’d actually gone. Nevertheless, for various reasons, we felt like it’d been a successful day of climbing 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.
The small ridge where we set up our tents continued up to a band of rocks, indicating the start of what’s considered to be the most challenging section of the climb. Having never been there before, I could only imagine that the climbing ahead was a somewhat more intense version of what we’d experienced earlier that day. So I was content to stop where we were.
We cooked supper outside that evening on a small table we 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 8:00 pm to hear the daily 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 pleased to hear that no significant storms were headed our way.
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 process. Then, 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 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 windblown falling snow. Before moving, I thought through the various things we’d left outside. Are they covered, I wondered?
Finally, I could take it no longer and got up. Once outside of my bag, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t as cold as I’d thought. 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 flung around by a howling wind. What little there was of the faint Alaska summer night light was dulled by the heavy snow and fog. But I could see what my body could feel. And that was that it was full-on winter outside, and we were in the process of being overwhelmed by a snow event.
I looked at our five tents and saw that the snow was well on its way to completely covering them up. All around the tents, random straps, parts of pots, and handles of various sorts stuck out of the snow. The snowflakes were humongous and were quickly piling up on my fleece cap and sticking to my face. Thankfully, the large scoop shovel we’d brought along was only partially buried, making it both evident and accessible.
I grabbed it and began clearing a trench around each tent, which caused the snow accumulated on the top of each to slide down to the ground. I then shoveled that pile off to the side, which de-suffocated 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 the tent. It didn’t seem like anyone else had even stirred during the operation. I savored the warmth and relative calm of my -25 degree bag and was initially content with what I’d accomplished. But then, as I lay there, questions about tent weight loads and airflow 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 slope above, I began envisioning a mythical avalanche building above us. And I speculated about what would happen if a tent, with three occupants inside, just blew off the mountain.
While there were still 4 hours until breakfast, which meant plenty of time for another round of good sleep, it didn’t happen. Instead, I suddenly had a lot on my mind to think about and just lay there, warm but doing a lot of wondering.
Alaska Range summer nights never get completely dark. By 7:00 am, there was enough light to let me see that the tents needed 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 and making eye contact, 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, he got on out, picked up the scoop, and went busily to work.
We planned to be on the move by 8:30. But after seeing what was happening outside, we concluded that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that day. And that meant there was no pressing need to get up and going. Even though things were primarily warm and calm inside the tents, it was still snowing and blowing outside. 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 were buried under the foot of new fluff. We had made the sensible decision to stay put and were hunkered snuggly down. Suddenly, there was no longer any urgency to get up or cook breakfast, other than that a bunch of people were getting hungry and would soon be going stir-crazy.
Mentally, I worked through a new plan for the day and the developing weather situation. I realized we’d done many things right, were well dug into a relatively safe spot on the ridge, and had plenty of fuel and food. And we also had a lot 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. So despite being “stormed in” on the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter, all was relatively good.
Cooking in tents is not a recommended practice. But we’d done it before and felt like we could mitigate the dangers, so that’s what we did and prepared a leisurely breakfast. By mid-morning, the snow had stopped, we’d finished eating, and everyone was ready to get out of the tents and be active. To that end, we got geared up and took a short reconnaissance hike to reconnoiter our route. We were soon on the move. By midday, we had worked our way several hundred yards further up the ridge to a prominent rock described in the guidebooks as the start of the crux section.
Once there, I peered over the “indicator” rock and got a dark feeling at what I saw. The steep 200 feet of narrow rock and ice chaos, the crevasse at its base, the snowstorm, and the endless gloomy skies were darkening the mood. But when I peered into the eeriness ahead and saw an old, fixed rope that seemed to be directing or luring us into a murky void, I got downright sick to my stomach. Because of the fog, I couldn’t see exactly where it went, but I could see enough to realize it led somewhere we didn’t want to go. At that point, I concluded our attempt to climb Hunter needed to be over. In retrospect, the heavy snow and fog were thankfully combining to save us from ourselves.
And so, we headed back down to Camp 1, satisfied that given the conditions, we’d done all we could. To actively occupy the rest of our afternoon, we built igloos and had a massive snowball fight. Even though the sky was still threatening snow, none had fallen since morning, and we could continue being active all afternoon and even cook supper outside that evening. All the while, I kept thinking about how we only had one more rest day built into the schedule. And that if it were used up for another snow day of play at Camp 1, our main concern would become just getting off the mountain and back to Kahiltna Base in time to fly out as planned.
After a fine supper of some noodle concoction, we sat around having hot drinks and enjoying the end of an eventful 24 hours. At 8:00 pm, we turned on the radio again to get the day’s weather report and determine how the weather might impact our descent. After the introduction, the broadcaster directed his first statement directly toward us. It was an unexpected shock, but we immediately focused 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, shocked, and stunned at first. I immediately thought about the six 36-inch aluminum t-stakes I’d bought right before the trip and added to our arsenal of protective snow anchors. Unfortunately, I’d mixed the new ones in with older ones. And since they were all the same size, shape, brand, and looked alike, I realized it would be hard to distinguish between the new and old ones. Then, after my initial confusion, I envisioned the snow anchor at the top of the big crevasse we’d crossed on the way up. It included two snow pickets, and our 14 climbers had relied entirely upon it only days before. Pure good luck that it hadn’t failed, I reasoned.
I didn’t hear the rest of the radio broadcast because my attention was elsewhere. Even though we were no longer going up and I’d just received sickening equipment news, the weather report was still important. While I’d heard none of the weather news, others in the group thankfully had and relayed the message that the forecast was favorable.
Eventually, we did retreat to our tents and got into our sleeping bags. I lay there for a while pondering the situation and ultimately came to grips with the fact that we’d turned back from the climb but had given it a good try. At the same time, I relished the fact that the pickets had not failed. My final conscious thought of the night was regarding the word “defective” and the nuances of what it might mean.
And that takes me to the candy bar event/celebration. After another rest day at Camp 1, it became time to head down. The extra day had allowed the snowfall from the storm to consolidate and slide (or avalanche) where it wanted to. During the night before the descent, the sky cleared, which meant 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 once again led the way, using the anchors from the ascent that’d been left in place. The two of them were careful to inspect each and replaced any that were suspect. Before departure, I decided to polish off my remaining snacks once we got down onto the glacier, celebrating a successful retreat. And that included the five jumbo-sized, highly sought-after Snicker bars I’d been holding back for a special occasion. They would all become bonus treats at that point since we were no longer going up and would be returning to our food stash earlier than anticipated. The idea of a food fest excited me, especially since I hadn’t had one in several years. And what better occasion could there be to have another, I reasoned.
As we descended, I was at the back. As the last person down, my job was to “clean” the climb or remove and haul out the anchors. One of the other expedition members, Matt, and I were on either end of the same climbing rope, which meant we were always connected for security purposes. As a matter of technique, the person on the uphill side of the rope typically belays (or secures) the person below. But it can also be the reverse, and the person at the bottom sometimes belays the person above. In that case, the best-case scenario is for the climber at the top to have an anchor above, limiting the scope of potential falls. But obviously, if the anchors are being removed, that can’t happen.
As we moved along, the belaying was straightforward enough whenever I belayed Matt, but not so much when he was belaying me. We both realized that my protection status was somewhat marginal, especially after removing an anchor. I thought plenty about the downsides of the situation as we moved along. But, I was fully confident that Matt would hold onto me in the event of a fall and would do the best that could be done given the circumstances. Along with my various thoughts came new questions I could not sort out at the time. Things such as how velocity worked in the case of falling objects, the whole situation with weight differentials (since I outweighed Matt), the ramifications of increasing slope factors, or what Matt would do if I fell on top of him.
There was plenty to think about besides the multitude of everyday group leader things. Slowly but surely, we worked our way down. As we came to each anchor, we stopped and I unclipped the climbing rope from the system. Then I pulled the picket out of the snow and attached it to the outside of my pack. To facilitate the process and avoid removing my backpack each time, I clipped them where they were left dangling down to the side. I thought I had a good plan when I attached each to my pack’s downhill side, figuring that would keep them from interfering with my movements.
Since we were dealing with anchor removal, we moved slower than the others. But the crevasse and steep part at the bottom brought our five rope teams back together as the process slowed to a virtual crawl. I watched from above as Mike’s rope team and 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 made it successfully down and continued moving steadily off into the distance. Then, finally, it was our turn.
I unclipped from and removed one of the two anchors I was attached to, which left one other, composed of two pickets, nearby. I clipped into that anchor and began belaying Matt as he climbed down. He soon made it to the bottom of the steep part, crossed the debris field, and got to what had become the perceived “safe” side. Next, he clipped into an anchor that had been left, turned, sat in the snow, and prepared to belay me. Once situated, he looked up, acknowledged he was ready, and smiled. At that point, it was my turn, and I began to move. It had become clear to us both that it would eventually come to this, and it had.
I turned and pulled out the anchor pickets and then, because of the steep angle, turned inward toward the snow to back my way down the quickly steepening slope. Unfortunately, the dangling pickets were now on my uphill side, and the deep snow step trough was several feet lower than the surrounding surface. So, the stakes began digging into the bank each time I stepped into one of the snow steps, pushing me off balance.
You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. There was nowhere suitable to stop 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. And then I began wondering about how far I would slide if I was pushed off the slope by a picket and fell to the ground. I started sweating again, even though it was cold, and we were in the shade. I struggled to think of options or solutions to my plight, and the only one I could come up with was to not fall.
Matt kept the rope snug but not too tight. He 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 for me 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 so much of a concern, and Matt pulled me in, 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, and it was just the two of us. I took off my pack to better stow away the pickets, took out my water bottle, and took a big swig of melted snow. And then, it was time to celebrate, and I pulled out my bag containing the candy bars.
So, I made it down without falling, ate a bunch of candy bars, and had stomach distress. But that was all short-term. It’s hard for me to put into words the longer-term lessons the event taught me. Indeed, I learned to not overeat rich foods. But more importantly, I learned a lot about the importance of maintaining focus on the steps ahead.