Region: Delta Mountains - Alaska Range
Date: March, 2003
Route: Castner Glacier, north ridge of Triangle
Elevation Gain: ~3,700'
Partner: Alaska Alpine Club
Links: Alaska Alpine Club
The Day I Truly Lived & The Night I Thought I Might Die
Prologue: It's 2012 when I am writing this, 9 years since this trip happened. Time has passed to allow all wounds to heal, and for me to forget most of the names of those involved. It's time to come to terms with what happened. I'm over it, I learned many amazing lessons from this trip, and it's time to compile what I learned for posterity and for myself. I made it through the dark scary night, and am stronger for the experience.
Day 1:Being a part of the Alaska Alpine Club (AAC), the trip feels fairly well organized (at this point). We have the committed group, and the appropriate number of tents per people going. Only problem, I don't really have a set "partner" for this trip. In fact, I only know some of the people on the trip. But heck, that's what a group trip is for, right? Meet new people to climb with. And the info sheet (I need to find this in one of my Alaska boxes to scan), spells it all out for me. So I mentally prepare for what I need to do physically. I pack my gear, make sure I have all that I need, pickets, harness, z-pulleys, -50F sleeping bag, warm clothing, cameras, food, stove, fuel. Check!
We gear up and pile into as few vehicles as possible for the 3+ hour drive from Fairbanks to the Castner Glacier "trailhead" (really just a pull off on the road), south of Delta Junction on the Richardson Highway. My info sheet for the level B Triangle Peak trip says just 4 miles pack into camp. Hey, I can do that! I'm only a desk-jockey and the ONLY female on the trip, but I can do 4 miles and 50+ pounds in my pack. I may be slower than the guys, but we started around 11am from the trailhead, so 4 miles at 1 mph is 4 hours. Even with one hour of slop, that's an arrival at camp at 4pm. Plenty of time to relax and refuel for the next day!
Arriving at the trailhead, it's a sunny bluebird day, not too cold. I gear up and am ready to go shortly after the faster more experienced leave. Some leave after me, so I feel this is fine. It was one of the first times I had to put skins on my skis in the cold before - not easy! So I follow the tracks of those a little bit ahead of me. The first section is tough as we are in the terminal moraine portion of the glacier, lots of up to do before the flat of the middle glacier. Since Stan knows the glacier so well, as long as we follow the medial moraine, we don't need to rope up. Easier for a large group to travel a longer distance.
Click click click go my Fritchi bindings as I slowly slog up the glacier. I'm not worried at this point. I have all day to go 4 miles, and it's so beautiful! At one point I think to myself "I don't think my glacier glasses are blocking enough light", so I take them off. I'm blinded! 70% of my field of view is white snow, glistening in the sun. I put my glacier glasses back on, and feel better than they really do work! Lesson learned.
It's rather peaceful skinning up the glacier, there are a few people around me, so I know my pace can't be that bad. I converse with one guy, who is happy that I have a GPS running, since he wanted to know how far we had gone. At around 3 miles we come to a little rise in the medial moraine of the glacier, and can see ahead. Hmmm no camp, no fast group of military guys on snowshoes to be seen. The other guy starts to get worried. He's getting tired, and also only prepared for 4 miles to camp, and its getting into the late afternoon already. I don't remember when he turned around, but when he did, he gave me a frozen Snickers bar (the only thing I had eaten since that morning) and left with one of the "group tents". At the time, I still felt ok, and maybe this guy knew more about his body than me, or just had the bad feeling that camp was going to be much further than 4 or 5 miles total. Maybe I should have gone with him?
Now with the only other guy that was around me, gone, I ski alone for a few hours. I keep checking my GPS, and the mileage accrued keeps increasing! 4 - 5 - 6 miles go by.. Eventually it gets darker and darker and I have to get my headlamp. Snack time! With the dark and cold, the GPS stopped working, batteries dead. So all I knew was that I had to keep plodding ahead.
Around 7 miles, I'm starting to get really disheartened. I still don't see the lights of camp, and its beyond the time to turn around. Nor do I have a tent or a vehicle, so on I plod. Thankfully around 7 miles, another two people show up that started off later from the trailhead. It was nice to see other humans on the glacier. One of them was able to grab some food from my pack for me, and encourage me to keep going, "camp must be close now".
When I finally reach camp, around 7pm, I collapse. I just fall down and sit there. My body is wrecked! Some of the military guys have been at camp since 3pm!!! So one of them has a heart, and comes over, picks up my pack and carries it the last 3 feet. I hand over my stove and pot, and the group starts melting water for my dinner. That was really sweet of them, and it certainly helped me out a ton. They had built a pretty nice camp and had a series of pots boiling water, so I bet it wasn't that much of a hassle to add mine to the group.
As I finally get settled in camp and started eating dinner, another lone straggler, Johnny, arrives in camp. Oh no, now we have one more person than tent spaces. So somehow I get to share a tent with 2 guys, in a 2 person tent, lovely. I get the middle, and learn the meaning of "mummy bag", as I had to have my arms crossed when I was on my back to fit. So guess who didn't sleep so well? At least I was warm!
Day 2: With my ear plugs in, I didn't hear the first rousing's of the group getting ready. My tent mates were still and quiet. One dude, was fast and wanted to sleep in. Johnny, didn't feel he could summit that day, and also slept in. I felt awesome, and wanted the best chance I could to get the summit. So I tried my best to get ready in time for the leaving of the first group. But no go. So I waited for my two tent mates to get ready so at least we would have a team going up. The upper mountain required roped travel and some picket placement. So I carried the pickets and one of the other guys' carried the rope.
We skin up another glacier and a portion of the ridge, until most ditched their gear and booted up. It was soon apparent that my one tent mate was a beast and just powered up the slope, leaving Johnny and me behind. So it was Johnny and me. We do the best we can and go as far and as fast as we can go. The views are tremendous, and I feel strong, but we are not making much headway on the earlier group. We get up the the upper ridge, and we can see the first group making the final push up the mountain. Here is where we start thinking hard. Can we rope up and catch them quickly? Will they leave the snow pro set? Should we even try? This is where Johnny tells me, he never expected to summit on this day. So as I stare longingly at the summit, that I know is only an hour away, but the climb is over. Without a dedicated partner, it's over.
Consolation - the views are so beautiful. I can hardly believe that I am up here, in Alaska, mountaineering. This was a dream of mine to do. And knowing that if circumstances were a little different on this day, I easily could have stood on top of that summit. I was capable of it. That was most important, not that I made it on this day, just that I could - in the future - do it. This is my first lesson in not making ones goal, but still feeling like I accomplished something. It felt awesome!
Now it's time to think practically. We should probably start to head down, after our break to snap some pics, and try to buy some time before the earlier, faster group gets down. We slowly start to walk down the ridge and as we are going down the last slope to our skis and snowshoes, the first group catches up. My faster tent mate even skis past, the beast. I snap into my skis and carefully make my way down. Koflachs don't ski well. As I ski onto the glacier, the worst possible thing happens. My left ski tip goes under a lip of ice and and my knee violently hyper-extends. Not enough to be a major problem immediately, but one of those injuries that come back to haunt you, in about 4 hours. Clock is ticking, and I didn't know it.
~3/4pm - Back at camp we quickly pack up, eat, and get ready to go. We have 8 miles to ski out! Quick poll of the group - Majority wanted to stay another night, but most had to work. Sure, I wasn't the last out of camp, but I had to use the ladies room, and so I had to stop. No privacy out on a glacier, so at least if I'm in back, no one will see my lilly white ass. This of course put me precious minutes behind the main group. Some faster glacier skiers passed me, as I had left my skins on my skis. Glacier ice was followed my packed powder/sustrugi, and that whips you around like mad! Fast - Slow - Fast - Slow. My back was taking a beating, having to control my skis and my 50 lb pack. Lots of energy lost there. But I was making progress, I was keeping up, just behind. No one waited, and I doubt any one would if I had asked.
The miles ticked on, the sun set, and still the glacier continued. On and on it went. I was getting tired, I was getting cold. Keep pressing on. Forget about the pain in your back from controlling the large heavy backpack. Forget about the knee stiffening up from the earlier injury. Just keep going. There is no one behind you.
Then my skin broke. It was completely iced up on the glue side. I was cold, no body heat to warm it up. So I was left with one ski that stuck and one ski that slid. That's when the falling started. With my heels free, I had trouble controlling my descent. My groin did not thank me for the yanking it was about receive. My legs and knee were already mad at me. The glacier started going downhill more. Crap how do I lock my heels? Damn it! I didn't know how to use my bindings. The "logical" pull up on the back binding, didn't work. I later learned that you push down the back binding to lock it. Would have been useful knowledge at the time!
The miles kept ticking by, and I was getting colder, thirsty and hungry. My water was freezing in my water bottle, and I don't think I had more than a sip of liquid water left. My shoulders and back were so sore, I didn't think I could take off my pack to put on another jacket to keep warm. I was falling so much now, it took all my energy - both mental and physical - to just get back up on my feet. Being alone was starting to take it's toll now. Hypothermia was starting to set in and my mind was going and emotionally I was a wreck. After a big fall, I contemplated just staying down. Just staying where I was. I didn't have a tent or a bivy. Just a -50F sleeping bag, which with the breeze, would not be enough to protect me. There wasn't enough snow to build a quinsy. If I tried to camp, I would die of exposure. At that point, I wasn't sure if I cared. I was at my breaking point, mentally and physically. If I didn't get up and keep going I was going to perish out on that glacier. I have seen the edge of the mental abyss and it is not pretty.
So I got up that one last time, and kept skiing downhill. I had roughly one more mile to go (but I didn't know it), and I saw a flickering light ahead of me, down the glacier. It was a headlamp, of Johnny. Wow, my first sighting of a human since shortly after leaving camp (it was probably 10pm by now). I screamed and I yelled with all my might - STOP, PLEASE STOP! WAIT FOR ME! HELP! Johnny turned around, but kept on going, did not wait. He had his own issues with wanting to get to his truck and get the pack off his back. In retrospect, I'm not sure I can blame him - as he didn't understand my yells for help. But at the time, I was furious. I had found a spark within in me to propel myself down that slope. Pure anger and frustration got me through that last mile. Raw emotion saved me on this day. And thankfully by the time I got to the trail head, it had abated and was used up, complete exhaustion had returned. I asked Johnny, why he didn't stop when I yelled for help. He said he thought I was yelling to let him know I was there, and was fine. Hmmm. He said he was so focused on getting back to his truck, there was no thought in his head to stop and wait. He mentioned that if I didn't show up, he would have gone up glacier to find me. Again, I'm not sure I can blame him fully, I wasn't in a position to gauge his mental capacity at that point. It was also ~11pm.
Warmth! We drove back to Fairbanks, and I think we stopped in Delta Junction at a bar to get something to eat or drink. It's all rather a blur. I was just so happy to be off that glacier alive, that everything else was gravy. Either Johnny called the trip leader, or vice versa, but communication happened that everyone got off the glacier. Not that the trip leader could do anything about it at that time, being snug in his bed at Eielson Air Force Base.
Though arriving back in Fairbanks, I realized that my rank body was not crawling into my bed smelling like I was. The smell would likely permeate into the mattress! So not having a shower in my cabin, I go to the one at my work - The Geophysical Institute. But the cleaning dude insisted that he clean the shower room before I got in there! It was 2am!!! At that point I just sat down and waited. I wanted the hot water to seep into my bones and help my recovery process. I was going to need a lot of recovery. My body got better in a few days, my mind took a few months if not longer. But the emotional damage took years.
Post-climb analysis: Going into this trip, I thought I was reasonably prepared. I used the Ski Mountaineering class field trips as a gauge of my physical and technical skills. Speed wise, I was in the middle of the pack. Not the fastest but also not the slowest. Stan (Leader of AAC - but not on the trip) said that as long as I kept a steady pace, I would be fine. As far as mountaineering skills (prussic, glacier rescue, snow pro, etc) I was in the top portion of the class. I was one of the fastest up the prussic rescue in crevasse training. So I figured I was good to go on this "lower level" trip. In order to go on a C level trip, I needed this level B.
Only female on the trip - At the time I wasn't intimidated, I wasn't going to let being female stop me from going. Talking with two of my female Alaskan mountaineering friends, they said I was brave to go on the trip as the only female. Brave, eh? I guess I get it now. All the military guys on the trip were probably just showing off their testosterone to each other.
My biggest take-away from this trip, is that I will never let anyone be left behind on a trip, ever. I have worked hard to communicate and make sure that everyone is on the same page, in case there is any separation. I am very uncomfortable when there is a straggler or someone who is having problems.
- Lack of concrete partner: My Bad - no one to check up on me or make sure I was ok during the trip. Johnny waited at the trailhead for me, and said he would have started back up the glacier if I didn't arrive, but I was alone, for ~7 hours on a glacier, at night, in winter. The info sheet said that I needed to pick my partner. Not knowing anyone on the trip, I should have tried harder ahead of time, but most Alaskans are loners.
- Lack of team mentality: AAC Bad While it was clear that the AAC does not do "guided trips", there was no group mentality to how we got into or out of camp. Usually on trips of this nature, it is typical for there to be a "sweeper", someone who is experienced who hangs back to help with the stragglers. A sweeper could have helped me, and therefore sped up the descent. Since while I was having a couple problems, another person could have pointed out my errors, and fixed them possibly. All I needed was a hand to fix my skis, someone to grab a coat. There was too much "every man for himself" in the mad dash for the trailhead and home.
- Lack of experience with my ski gear: My Bad I bought a new mountaineering ski set up for this trip. Koflach boots, Fritchi bindings, JR racing skis. My previous BC touring skis did poorly on a previous class trip, and I didn't want to have to carry 2 sets of boots. So when we left camp, that was the first time I skied downhill, and subsequently couldn't get my heels to lock. On most of the glacier terrain, it was fine, as it was too flat. But the higher slope angles became problematic and led to some falls. I should have spent more time learning how to use my skis, and not write it off to, it will be easy to figure out when I need to do it.
- The Info Sheet was wrong: AAC Bad The info sheet said 4 miles to camp. It was 8 miles according to my GPS and all maps. I mentally prepared for 4 miles, and so did others. The one guy (with a tent) turned around because it wasn't 4 miles. Trip leaders need to be very clear about trip basics like mileage, especially when heavy packs that weight 42% of ones body mass are carried. Afterward, I talked with Stan (leader of AAC - but not on trip), and he said that if he put a more realistic mileage on Triangle (or made it 3 days), it would push it to a Level C trip, and there wouldn't be a B trip, and people would not go on the Triangle trip. Hmmm? So I did a level C trip? This was the main crux of problem, I trusted the leader of the AAC. Since this trip, I no longer "trust" someone else's routes and will do my own map research.
- Not keeping food within reach at all times: My Bad My food was in my pack, and not accessible while skinning up the glacier, or down. This lead to being weaker and more tired and overall being slower.
- Not having enough upper body strength to put pack on and off: My Bad Since I was mostly alone on the trip (no partner), I needed to be able to take my pack off when I needed food, water, more clothing. But since I wasn't strong enough to lift the 50lb pack, I didn't take it off. For the next trip (Silvertip), I started lifting weights, and pack weight was no longer an issue.
- Have your own alarm clock: My Bad Not waking up with the first group, cost me the summit.
- Never partner up with someone who doesn't think they can summit: My Bad Kinda Johnnny's lack of motivation didn't help us catch up to the group ahead. I had the strength in me to summit that day, and was only an hour behind. A concerted effort could have let us catch up, when the first group was transitioning for the technical section.
- Never go without a bivy: My Bad A bivy could have saved my life in case I did have to camp on the glacier alone. It weighs so little, and does so much. On a majority of winter climbs, a bivy now resides in my pack.
- Lack of communication: Everyone Bad I'm sure, with more communication on all sides, many of the issues encountered could have been overcome. But that's why I had taken the class, and was participating on the trips. To learn, and learn I did.
Photos: (View Slideshow)