This is part 14 in a 17 part series that discusses my experiences during my NOLS Semester during my first summer in Alaska in 2013. We spent 75 days in the backcountry, 25 days sea kayaking in Prince William Sound (discussed in parts 1-5) and 50 continuous days hiking and glacier mountaineering in Wrangell Saint-Elias National Park (Parts 6-17). Part 1 of the series can be found here
I ambled my way along the probed out walkway to meet with the instructors on the moraine, a couple hundred yards away. It had only been a little over an hour, but the sunshine that was upon us a little while earlier had already been covered up by gray clouds that now filled the sky. The few of us that were already there started working on the first ice anchor, while the rest of our team continued to pack up and break down camp. Since we only had three ropes that were 150 feet long and one that was 200 feet long we would have to rappel down to stations at the end of each rope. From there we would create platforms, plant new anchors and continue further down the face with a new rope. The instructors were giving us a lot of responsibility in this whole process by giving us the task of building every anchor. As we screwed in the ice screws to create our first anchor system we discovered that the ice was not of the best quality, but it would have to do. By this point, it had already started snowing again. Only an hour and a half window of clear sky had prodded us to move. With the first anchor in place, we watched as Kevin made the first move down the face, dropping out of sight after 20 yards.
We waited for a while at the top while Kevin was stomping out a platform for a new station below. Eventually, we began to move one by one down the cliff and over one of the four crevasses we would have to cross. Little did we know how much more waiting there was going to be as we all moved down to the first station. The next rope was dropped and we watched Andrew go further down, as another student and I waited for the moment where he would be ready for us to come down and build the anchors. I considered ourselves lucky at our platform because we were able to find ice under the snow. This enabled us to use ice protection, which took a significantly lesser amount of time than that of snow anchors. We then began the waiting game for over an hour, waiting for everyone to proceed to our station, then down to the next platform below before further travelling down ourselves.
This process continued for many hours as the snow fell on our clothes and our gear. By the second or third station, all of our gloves had become soaked. It was not only a struggle to keep your hands warm but your body as well, due to the minimal amount of activity. On each platform, you would find people stomping the snow, swinging their arms back and forth or playing some crazy dancing games, all in an effort to stay somewhat warm. Our rain jackets (that were prototypes from Gore) further hampered some members of our expedition because the jacket did not seem to keep water out, but rather let it sink in, resulting in more layers becoming wet. Even through all this hardship, there was no complaining by anyone. It is amazing how after certain experiences one can build up a very large tolerance for hardship and adversity. At that point, we had already been through so much on our expedition and we just tried to make the best of each situation we faced.
After more hours of waiting, we finally moved down to what we hoped was the last station. As t snow continued to fall, he day was turning into night, which meant that the cold air was about to become a whole lot colder. We had already descended more than 500 feet, so we were hoping that the 200 foot rope would allow us to reach the bottom. It took a while to set up this last anchor as the snow was too wet and soft, which is not ideal for placing anchors. With time, the anchors were set and Kevin was the first one to travel down to the bottom. Once again after 50 yards he disappeared over the edge, moving further down the face. We got the word to proceed. Kevin also yelled that we should rappel without our backpacks because this section was quite difficult. Andrew helped me adjust in to the new rope as I prepared to be the first one after Kevin to move down. This last section had two crevasses, with the final one running about 5-10 feet wide. I began to move down, nervously jumping over the first 2 foot wide crevasse, safely landing on the other side. As Kevin had done earlier, I disappeared from view of the group as I descended over the final crevasse. Kevin recommended a certain spot on a snow bridge for me to land based off his descent, different from where he punched through. I landed on a snow bridge and moved back before punching one of my legs through the snow as well. My leg dangled in the open air of the crevasse as I quickly pulled myself up and continued down to Kevin. After 800 feet, I had made it to the end. I then hooked up to a new rope, to move further down the slope to create a probed area for us to wait as the others descended to the bottom.
I started probing the area around 1 am and thankfully found an area without any crevasses below, so I was able to move rapidly as other members came down about every 15 minutes. After I had finished, there was nothing for us to do but wait. Our gloves, as well as the rest of our layers, were still wet at this point with no immediate solution in sight. Others began digging random holes with the shovels just for fun, but the warmth that resulted quickly wore off once you discontinued digging. By this time, about half the group had made it down to the probed area and we took turns going through roles of caretaker and patient as many of us slipped in and out of hypothermia. Another group member had brought my backpack down on his descent. On that day, I was carrying my tent group’s snacks and peanut butter and we decided to share them liberally with the others, hoping that it would result in warmth. Sharing food is a lot harder than it sounds on these types of expeditions. With only a snack and two small meals a day, many of us were constantly hungry. Especially on the glacier as our metabolisms ramped up because of the cold and physically demanding travel. While the food helped, it did little in the long run so I decided to take action. In the middle of the early morning, I decided to lead some workout classes to boost morale and keep people warm. My seven or eight sessions consisted of all kinds of moves like jumping, squats, chopping and shaking your whole body. Not only were we exercising but I led the exercises with some fun and catchy phrases to make sure people were engaged! When we were doing karate chops with our hands I asked people what they were chopping and my friend Jessie immediately yelled, “Cheese!” Everyone had a good laugh, especially when doing the monkey dance (with monkey noises of course). The instructors and other students still above later told us that they were jealous of the fun dance party that was going on a few hundred yards below them. I was also told the next day by a couple students how I had made their night. If there was one event of the trip that I was most proud of, this was definitely it as I was able to boost morale and keep people relatively warm, preventing them from slipping into hypothermia.
Almost all of the students had now made their way down and now the instructors with the help of Ben would be ferrying the backpacks to the bottom. A lot of us regretted not taking our backpacks during the final ascent, not realizing that the others would have to transport them. We tried to do our part to help, attaching our prussics to the final rope and moving up to Kevin to grab the backpacks as he tossed them down to his location. During this time, the sun was beginning to rise and our hypothermic conditions continued to show as we refused to start making some hot water. There was ample time and some that desperately needed it but we made excuses until a few of us finally wised up and got started. Less than an hour later, a group roped up to find an adequate area for camp, just as the instructors finally joined us in the perimeter. All together again, we exchanged hugs and rejoiced in each other’s company as the misery of waiting had finally ended at 6 am. I can say with certainty that the 5 hours spent waiting at the bottom was one of the worst, if not the worst, times I felt on the entire expedition.
I drifted in and out of sleep, sitting on my pack as I belayed my friend Asa, who was probing the final section of our camp. He finished relatively quickly and I moved to set up my group’s tent right away. With the tent set, I happily shed my wet layers and curled up in my sleeping bag. The nightmare was finally over. We had made it after travelling for 20 hours, descending 800 feet and moving only a quarter of a mile. The exhaustion that everyone was feeling showed in the creation of our bathroom. Not wanting to take a lot of time, those who built it simply probed out a walkway to a tiny circle that had no privacy wall. We were all comfortable with each other at that point and nobody had any problems with what we called our minimalist bathroom. I woke up an hour later to consume my first meal in over 15 hours, wolfing it down before moving back into the depths of my sleeping bag.
I awoke to a voice coming from the vestibule of our tent. It was Kevin, telling us that we would have to move because of potential avalanches from the hot sun. Looking at my watch I noticed it was only 1 pm. We had had less than 5 hours of sleep after a mentally and physically exhausting 24 hours. It was best that we left the area though, considering that we could hear avalanches every few minutes in the distance and there were signs of previous avalanches at the bottom of the mountain face no more than a few hundred yards away. Slowly, we proceeded through our usual routine, packing up our gear, taking down the tent, tossing our skins on our skis and finding a spot on a rope team. While we were waiting to depart, our rope team had multiple falls while waiting in camp. I, myself, was guilty of a majority of the falls. After about 5 falls myself, and 8 as a group, only a hundred yards from camp, I decided to take off my skis and just walk the rest of the distance in my boots. It seemed to be a wise choice as the other members of my team and members of the other rope teams continued to fall on the slight down slope.
After about two miles, we finally arrived at the larger moraine. But what was that glorious sound? Running water? Yes! We couldn’t have asked for anything more and we, the parched glacier travelers, rejoiced in the bounty and beauty of the clear, ice cold flowing creeks. I felt so happy at the time to be able to drink as much water as I could and not have to battle thirst and dehydration, at least for the time being. Consuming only about a liter of water in the past 36 hours, the running water was not only a luxury but a necessity in my case. On this moraine, the rocks that covered the ice were sparse so we would have to create a flat surface with the surrounding rocks in order to avoid sleeping directly on the ice. This process was fine at first but I quickly became frustrated. My feet were hurting even more from the salt rashes and I was simply mentally drained from the previous day. I told my tent mates that I was fine with getting the shorter, incomplete side but I just wanted to be done. They understood and we quickly erected a tent before moving over to the kitchen to enjoy a nice meal. The rest of the day we watched from camp as the avalanches rumbled down the mountains behind us until late in the evening. I estimate that we saw over one hundred avalanches that day and we became so accustomed to them that by nightfall we were acting as if they were no big deal.
We discussed how lucky we were to have that small window of sunlight that pushed us to go because with the high sun today, the potential for avalanches and the heat may have made our journey much worse. It was nice to relax but beginning tomorrow we would face the unknown of the lower Copper. With 3 days until our re-ration and 12 miles to go, the long days were certainly not over yet.