The wind was howling, snow was swirling and visibility had been reduced to about 10 feet. A pure whiteout. The kind where you can’t tell up from down and left from right. Stop skiing and look down at your skis and it feels like the ground is moving underneath you. Vertigo takes control and the only way to keep it in check is to turn and look through the thick fog at your partner who appears to be floating on skis in a sea of white.
I was roped up to Mr. 20ish-Grade-VI and I was sidestepping up the glacier, my ski pole probing the ground in front of me out of fear that there was a lip somewhere. Minutes before Brad and I had been skiing around unroped in search of cached gear when he let out a yell and dove backyards away from a gaping drop off. We were both disoriented from the fog so we dismissed the drop off as a combination of vertigo and perhaps a wind lip. We were wrong. Way wrong.
“Go left,” Mr. Older-Canadian-Dude yelled, staring at his gps. I was way off to the right and I really didn’t want to go left. Better to err on the south/right side of the glacier instead of pushing left. Somewhere to our left was a drop off. We all knew that but we thought it was way left, like 1/4 mile left. But Older-Canadian-Dude insisted once again. “The gps says go left. Go left.” Brad, in the lead on rope with Older-Canadian-Dude and Mr. 20ish-Ski-Patrol, consented and changed his course, veering left, up and over the rock band and across the glacier.
“I think we should stay right,” I said half- heartedly. But by now I was tired of arguing with the gps guy, so I stood and watched them push left. Brad skied ahead, gliding across the snow and into the fog. One minute he was there, floating in the fog. Then he was gone and 20ish-Ski-Patrol was on his side, skis digging into the glacier, the rope pulled tight and digging into the snow.
I took off running towards where Brad had dropped. A wind lip? Crevasse? No one knew. I approached slowly to where he had disappeared and saw a gaping hole.
Brad had fallen off a cornice and he was down there somewhere, hanging.
* * *
It sucks to harp on a trip weeks after it is over. I fumed for a while. Angry that I had let myself get drawn into a situation where an accident was not only possible – but probable. I didn’t speak or write of the trip out of fear that I’d lambast certain members of the party. Then I tried to turn it into a humorous outing when talking with friends. But getting schooled on a trip isn’t humorous – and when an accident occurs in a spot that has a historical record of similar accidents and it occurs after glaringly obvious signs then you’ve fucked up and laughing about it means you’re neglecting to learn from it.
In retrospect the signs were all there. I have some core rules for trips. Everyone should have: same or similar gear (Rule A), same or similar expectations (Rule B) and similar skill and fitness levels (Rule C).
Our group had none of the above. You can get around conflicts if at least one of these rules is met. For example, if one person packs extremely heavy food, gear and skis, yet that person is also fit as hell, then fitness level trumps the gear rule. Likewise if everyone in the group is dying to climb a certain peak, then you can mitigate skill / fitness differences. But if you take 5 people who don’t do stuff together and throw in conflicts for all three rules, then you have a recipe for poor group dynamics at best, and an accident at worst. We fared somewhere in the middle.
The signs for Rule A and Rule B showed up early. I was sitting in Older-Canadian-Dude’s living room mentally ticking off items I could leave behind. A sage Alaskan is said to have a saying for trips, “You pack your insecurities”. And it’s true; my insecurities made my pack far bigger and heavier than it needed to be; but it was nothing compared to what I was watching these guys pack. Their pack kept growing. Tennis shoes, cartons of eggbeaters, mounds of meat. And growing. Extra batteries, pajamas. Yet despite all their gear I noticed no one carried an ice axe, crampons or whippet.
I voiced my concern early, “You guys aren’t carrying an ice axe?” The collective answer was no, you don’t need an ice axe on the Wapta. “Crampons?” No one carries crampons on the Wapta. “Whippet?” What’s a whippet?
This in turn prompted an impromptu meeting with my friend Brad who had invited both me and Older-Canadian-Dude on this trip. We couldn’t change the minds of the other three – but despite his protests, I persuaded Brad to carry an axe, crampons and whippet.
The complete Wapta traverse starts on the eastern edge of Peyto Lake. You begin with a meander though woods and then you push out onto Peyto Lake and ski up-valley with Peyto Glacier hanging above you. 3 hours into the ski, Rule C came into play as I found myself continually getting ahead and then sitting around waiting for the rest of the party to catch up. Considering I was coming off a long recovery from a broken ankle, my pace was certainly not fast – yet I found myself pulling further and further away from the party.
But my forced waits weren’t too bad. I had never been to the Canadian Rockies in the winter and it was a nice spring day with high clouds. Avalanche danger was low and a crust allowed for quick and easy travel. Deep blue ice falls spilled over limestone walls and a ribbon of snow inched up the valley in-between walls of moraine. We made it to the glacier in about 5 hours and were roped up and skiing through the crevasse fields as the cloud layer dropped and the winds picked up, finally reaching the Peyto hut in late afternoon.
The Peyto hut is the first in a string of four huts that stretch across the Wapta icefield. Maintained by the Canadian Alpine Club the huts sleep anywhere from 8-20 people, are stocked with fuel and plush mattresses and have beautiful huge windows overlooking the glaciers and peaks towering just out the front door. Step out the door, strap on the skis and in 5 minutes you’re back on the glacier and headed towards the days adventure.
Our first day on the glacier gave us semi-clear skies and we headed across the Peyto Glacier en-route to the North Ridge of Mt. Baker. Across the glacier in no time then up the bowl to the base of the ridge. Only Brad and I had crampons and an axe, but that didn’t stop the others. Up the snow slopes to the north ridge, which was pretty mellow. Boot packing was easy and after one person went, the rest had a nice solid secure platform. When the ridge narrowed I was glad to have an axe and the final 50′ to the summit was hard snice. Spooky but just fine with an axe. Did I mention only two of us had axes?
Rule A was out in force and I sat on the summit and watched 3 people traverse the ridge with ski poles. All along I had expected the members of the party who were unprepared in terms of gear to turn back when they reached a section that was not safe without the proper tools. But none of them seemed phased by it. I didn’t know these guys; one guy was ski patrol, one guy cruised grade VI ice, one guy had done the Wapta 3 times. Maybe they do things differently in Canada, I thought.
When you’re out climbing and everything goes just fine it’s no big deal. It’s all good until something goes wrong. Think you can walk up that exposed icy ridge without an ice axe? You probably can, but the North Ridge of Mt. Baker has 1000′ of air on either side. One misstep with an axe and you only have a moment’s notice to make things right. If you don’t make things right, you take the slide for life.
But as I was saying, Maybe they do things differently in Canada. Everyone gathered on the summit as the sunny weather took a turn for the worse and the wind began doing her best to blow us off the airy perch. No one seemed concerned and then everyone turned and started downhill. Older-Canadian-Dude kicked his way down carefully followed by 20ish-Grade-VI who could probably climb steeper ice than me blindfolded. 20ish-Ski-Patrol was the exception. He started down then came back up. Then down and back up. I pulled him back to the summit ridge and gave him my whippet and sent him down again. 20ish-Ski-Patrol was only a few steps down when I began digging the rope out of my backpack to toss it down. But before I could rig a belay he was down and scrambling across the much mellower slopes to the corniced sidewalk.
No they don‘t do things differently in Canada. I thought. An unprepared climber looks the same here as everywhere else. This in turn led to a discussion on the summit with Brad about risk and gear and expectations. In other words, a full knock down on Rule Aand Rule B. It was agreed that they were stupid to come up here. And it was further agreed that they would not join us on any similar routes during this trip.
Brad and I down climbed the ridge without incident but by the time I reached the base of the ridge I was in a foul mood. We had exposed ourselves to a fair amount of risk without pausing to assess the implications of what we were doing. It was not a good way to start a trip.
The ski down put me at ease and by the time we were back at the hut hunger and tiredness had trumped my grumpiness and I fell asleep tired, sore and happy.
* * *
We were packed and skiing by mid morning with decent visibility. Across the Peyto Glacier up to the pass and onto the Bow Glacier making good time. Then halfway across, the clouds began to thicken and soon we were standing in thick deep fog.
Progress began to slow. For a while I led on following a set of ski tracks leading southwest, but soon other tracks intersected and the glacier became a network of tracks leading in all directions. We rejoined and the gps was dug out of packs, but apparently the person in charge of the gps neglected to insert coordinates prior to departing… Which meant that one person had to dig out the map and read out coordinates while Older-Canadian-Dude typed them in… Not the thing to be doing in the middle of a white out on a glacier but whatever…
Tensions were building between everyone… When the clouds lifted briefly and we were treated to a glimpse of where to go I jumped up. “Visibility! Let’s go!” But the gps session continued. And continued. Another 20 minutes went by and finally we were off again. In thick clouds. I was noticeably grumpy. It was going to be one of those days.
The hasty storm-inserted gps coordinates finally got us to the base of the col we needed to go over (after a bit of aimless wandering). Then up in thick heavy wind and snow to a rocky pass. “Go left and down a little ways and then curve right” were the instructions so off we skied, dropping down good snow into a basin and then trending right. Dropping and dropping. 1000′ down, bad communication, poor map skills and suddenly we were on a 35 degree slope looking down at something that shouldn’t have been there. Something like a 500′ cliff, an icefall and a valley that was a mile east of where we were supposed to be.
We regrouped, studied the map and turned around adding an extra 1000′ climb at a time when we all were thinking downhill for the rest of the day.
I jogged back to the pass where I then sat on my pack for a full hour while the rest of the crew slowly rejoined and recouped (Rule C). Afterwards it was an easy downhill to the hut with time for reflection…. Anger at myself for not reading the signs and for not being more proactive in decision making when it came to route finding. But again the warmth of the hut melted away my anger. Tired and sore, not so much happy. Tired and sore and sleep.
* * *
Morning brought decent weather and a deluge of climbers and skiers looking to push over Balfour col – the “crux” of the Wapta traverse. Weather looked decent so Brad and I elected to go up and give the summit a shot. We left the others in late morning and were soon skiing up through cracks and past icefalls en-route to the pass. But it was not to be. There was about 6 inches of fresh snow near the col and fresh avalanche activity. So we regrouped at the col, dropped our unnecessary climbing gear into a pit (marked with a probe) and turned back.
Back at the hut by midday and I couldn’t convince Brad to go out for another run so I went off for a solo ski lap on the Diablerets glacier in questionable weather. I got back just before dinner as the clouds burned off treating us to a beautiful evening and night.
The next day the group set out for Balfour col. We made decent time all the way up to the upper bench, but then the fog rolled in and we had to resort to following the gps. Our progress slowed to a crawl as we resorted to full gps navigation in the thick fog.
Our gps took us way too low to the base of a large rock buttress but at least it was a reference point so we hand railed the buttress to a flat spot which we mistook for the col. Brad and I unroped and skied off in search of the gear we had cached the previous afternoon. We wandered about for about 15 minutes but nothing looked right. The fog was so thick you couldn’t tell up from down much less pick out a probe buried in the glacier. It was during this bit of aimless wandering that Brad suddenly screamed and jumped backwards. “A cliff! A cliff! There’s a cliff in front of me!” I attributed his reaction to total vertigo but it was agreed we’d turn back and rope up. Lost gear is not worth risking a fall for.
Back to the group. Brad roped up with Older-Canadian-Dude and 20ish-Ski-Patrol and I roped up with 20ish-Grade-VI. “We need to stay right and go higher” I insisted. My gut told me we were in the wrong place and that we needed to err on the upper side of the glacier. “No. The gps says the hut is that way,” Older-Canadian-Dude said pointing off to our left into the fog. “We go left.”
That was when Brad disappeared. One minute he was floating in a sea of white, the next he was gone and 20ish-Ski-Patrol was in a heap on the glacier with his skis digging into the snow.
I ran to the edge and looked down. Brad was hanging on the edge of a cliff. He had fallen off a cornice.
* * *
A spring ritual is the crevasse rescue game. Dig through the box of climbing gear in the basement, try and remember which leg loop is yours, find all the pulleys, ascenders and whatever else you’ve acquired over the years. Uncoil the rope. Dress up in your harness. Have one person grab an end of the rope, find something semi solid and pretend it’s your anchor. Then fall on your side on the basement carpet imagining you’re on the glacier holding a fall (the other person pulling). Build the anchor, attach prussicks, clip pulley. Lying on your side thinking, “No… That doesn’t seem right. How does that go again?” Re-rig the whole setup. “Get it right… Now it’s pulling properly. Yes… That’s it.” Once it’s all good in the basement, pack it up again. Refresh every spring and it becomes automatic. Throw the pile in the pack and you’re ready for the next trip. Reinforce your ego with the thought, “17 years of mountain climbing and I’ve never had to actually use those skills… I’m sure I’ll get it right when the time comes.”
Now is the time.
I turn to the rope team… Older-Canadian-Dude is just standing there. I screech, “Self Arrest!” He gets the point and falls to his side.
I drop my pack, get out of my skis and immediately pound a picket into the snow. 20ish-Ski-Patrol is holding all the weight so transferring the load from the rope onto the picket is simple. We back up the anchor with a buried ski, everyone escapes the rope and Brad is fully moved onto an anchored rope.
Then I work my way to the lip and start communicating. Brad is on a steep rocky 70 degree slope but he’s able to climb up steep snow to a shelf underneath the cornice. However his pack is so damn heavy (now is not the time to harp on Rule A) that he can’t manage his pack so we have to drop another rope for him to tie it off with.
After he’s situated on the shelf and his pack is tied off, I instruct the others to build a 3-1 while I dig out a shovel and begin cornice excavation.
Brad is perched somewhere under the cornice in relative safety… So I tie myself off and begin hacking. The cornice extends about 6′ and is perhaps 6′ deep. The rope has cut a nice V-notch into the lip but there’s no way Brad is getting over the lip without full on climbing equipment, so it’s up to me to cut it down to manageable size.
I hack away. The fog bank we climbed into has turned into a storm and the winds are howling. My goggles are buried in my pack and now is not the time to dig them out so my sunglasses slowly start filling with ice and snow. After a while I can’t see so I try taking them off… But the wind and snow is so ferocious that I’m forced to just scrape the snow off the lens and put them back on again.
Chopping down the cornice takes about half an hour. Brad has been standing underneath the cornice the entire time and has endured every single piece of snow and ice that I’ve chipped loose. Every chunk, every shovelful, right down on top of his head. While digging I try to avoid thoughts of a total cornice failure…. I also try to muster up every bad thought I’d ever had about him in the past. The idea being that the more bad thoughts I had about him the less guilty I’d feel about a worst case scenario (crushing him when the cornice collapsed) and the actual scenario (wet and frozen Brad who’s just had a sizable chunk of cornice shoveled on top of him).
Unfortunately I didn’t have many bad thoughts… Other than Brad’s choice in music there is nothing to dislike about him. Which meant half an hour of guilt laden shoveling interspersed with prayers that the cornice wouldn’t fail.
Once the cornice had been hacked through we rigged the 3-1. I’ll give it to Older-Canadian-Dude… He had his 3-1 system pretty dialed in. We rig together and soon everything is ready to go: one person yards up the backpack, the others start working on the 3-1 system and Brad starts inching upward slowly.
A little higher and Brad’s head can be seen without me leaning way out over the cornice. He gives the backpack a shove and up over the lip it comes followed by the skis. Then I rig the rope with butterfly knots every few feet and drop it down to Brad so he has some handholds to pull himself up with. And finally Brad is up and over the cornice.
I pulled Brad out of a hole over 10 years ago. He was leading over a bergschrund when it collapsed with a deep whoomp. Brad rode it down about 15′, I held the rope tight and then he literally levitated out of the hole. That rescue hardly qualified as a rescue because Brad was back at the belay in minutes. This time Brad clambered out from the cornice 2 hours after going over. He jumped up and gave me a huge bear hug, eyes wide with elation and fright. Giddy with endorphins he laughed hysterically and danced around totally disregarding his cold and discomfort.
With Brad back up we regrouped. The storm continued to howl around us and visibility hadn’t improved… Which meant we were pretty much back where we started before Brad took his fall. On the bright side, Brad’s fall enabled us to more or less accurately mark our position on the map.
We were supposed to stay right.
* * *
The rest of the day went agonizingly slow. We pushed our way to the col with me in front holding a probe pole out in front like a blind man. Once at the col we pushed up and over in total blindness. GPS and compass bearings got us down but I skied slow with the probe pole out in front tapping the snow as we went along. Every now and then someone would tell me to bear left but I ignored them and stayed far right – well away from the cliffs that dropped off to the east.
Eventually we made it to the next hut and soon we were packed inside, out of our wet clothes and inhaling hot soup. Sleep came early that night and we slept deeply, the winds rocking the hut, the fog blanketing us once again.
The next day brought bad weather. We had an extra day to kill but everyone opted to leave early. I voiced my dissent. I didn’t want to leave in bad weather; we were tired from yesterday, we had a layover day and more than anything, I had a bad feeling about travel that day. Yes… After 5 days of ignoring my gut instinct I now decided to listen to it.
The others could have cared less what I thought. They all wanted to get home and, more likely, get away from me. I had awoken angry and it showed. By now I was that member of the party whom everyone has collectively decided to hate. I was angry, I was bossy. It was almost as if the fall had reinforced my thoughts that this was a shit-show team and thus made me smug. No one likes someone who reeks of smugness. They voted me down.
So we left. Out the door into the fog. But it cleared soon enough and with just one (quickly corrected) false turn we were soon on our way. Across a glacier, a wide bowl and down a ridiculously dangerous terrain trap and finally to the flats and safety. Auto pilot was engaged and before we knew it we were racing down the trail to the truck and then driving away from the mountains and towards burgers and beer.
I relaxed and bought everyone dinner. They might have forgiven me.
* * *
Weeks after the trip I did a random google search for “Balfour Col Accident”. The first result was the write up in the 2003 “Accidents in North American Mountaineering“. The familiarity of the accident write up gave me chills: Up Balfour Col in decent conditions only to have clouds roll in; a point was reached where everyone thought they were at the col; unroping and skiing out across the glacier; a fall. Only that party wasn’t so lucky. A young Candian ski patroller fell off the cornice and tumbled about 500′. By the time his partners had figured out a way to get down to him, trauma had killed him. They had to leave his body on the steep slopes and ski out to the road to arrange for a recovery. The rescuers retrieved his body a few days later.
I read the report and once again thought about all the signs. Perhaps the only role my silly rules played was justification. Assigning blame to others rather than accepting that I was as responsible as anyone else. After all a team requires communication and requires people to work together. What’s the old adage we hated as children? There’s no I in team.
Or maybe we did everything just right. After-all Brad went off the cornice, the fall was caught and we got him back up rather quickly. No one was hurt. We didn’t blitz the traverse like pros and we made a few mistakes along the way… But in the end everything was fine.
Of course equally plausible is that once again I have over analyzed what is really just part of the game. Play it long enough and not only do incidents like this happen, but they become commonplace.
Maybe the rules and signs let you play longer, maybe they just make you appear to be an asshole around your partners. Maybe we were just lucky and I’m looking for ways to justify staying in the game.
Maybe that’s how it goes. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Good partners and bad partners. Good climbs and bad climbs. Lucky days and unlucky days. Sun or clouds or snow or rain.