Peter Austen - Out there in Winter on Mt. Sir Alexander

Kinney Lake

Out there in Winter on Mt. Sir Alexander:
By Peter Austen

White outs-I have always dreaded them because you never knew when they would end, in hours or days. "Move to the right; back left; sideways." We were navigating with compasses on the Mount Sir Alexander Ice field in the Northern Rockies, close to Mount Robson after trying to make the first winter ascent of the peak. It was as thick as London fog used to be in Victorian novels in 19th century Britain. As I was dragged along on the rope I was imagining Imagine Jack the Ripper coming at me out of the fog. There were 5 of us on 2 ropes: Bob, Sigi, Craig, Larry and I. Larry loomed up in front of me.

"Don't kill me," I said.

"What are you saying, you twit?"

"Oh sorry, I was in my head in 1890s London. I read 'Jack the Ripper' last week."

We had been wandering about, semi lost and a quarter hopeless, on the glacier for 6 hours and we knew it was 40 miles of skiing back to the cars on the Macgregor river. Luckily there were spring conditions and the snow was hard. Yesterday two of us had reached 10,400 feet in a blizzard and 20 below weather on the west face of Mount Sir Alexander. The snow had been very deep and avalanchy with half inch depth hoar crystals (formed in very cold temperatures). The rock climbing had been pretty hard and committing. We had helicoptered in to Niloh pass. It was a whirlwind, hair raising trip as we had spiraled up crazily through huge icefalls.

The last night had been cold in our camp in the col (pass) between two peaks. The ring around the moon had presaged the coming blizzard. Our breath hung in the still air and the five of us had a measure of companionship.

The roped stumble continued drunkenly down the glacier.

We had to detour around many crevasses and it was very difficult to stay on course in the murk. It was colder than hell too. Worry niggled away at me. The thought of the unavoidable 38 miles still to cover had me biting my nails through my gloves. Everyone else was being terribly stoic.

The light got steadily better and my heart leapt. "I'm gonna live," I whispered. A pale watery sun broke through and the peaks all around lit up with a faint golden glow.
I fell on a steep slope. A 60 pound pack is a royal pain in the ass. I sensed something falling above me. Skiing low down on a slope had caused us to trigger a slab avalanche which had cut loose and was bearing down on us at high speed. I stared at it, horrified, my tree trunk limbs refusing to move. The white sheet slid sensuously down, picking up speed and splitting into blocks 3 feet thick. Another of my nightmares was happening. I did not have time to cast off my pack but fell over backwards, skis in the air. I was transfixed by the awful sight and couldn't move.

The snow was so dry it did not form a regular avalanche. The blocks burst into powder spray and we were covered with clouds of spindrift which went in mouths and up noses but fortunately did not bury us. We had been amazingly lucky and continued somewhat chastened, shaken and determined to pick better routes in future. To soothe our shattered nerves a camp was soon made on Kitchi creek. A superb fire was kindled from an old 10 feet high stump. As it glowed redder, wind blown and conspiratorial faces appeared around the circle.

The next day dawned misty and we wound back and forth across the river although the skiing was on a firm surface. After 30 miles of skiing zigzags over creeks, on spring snow we came to the dreaded Macgregor river. The span was about 60 yards, enough distance for nasty mishaps. The cars were downstream on the other side and we were nearly home dry (or wet). It was late March and the river was breaking up. We chose different places, not too far apart but without a rope. I was the last one across and it was on a thin crust of ice. The ice slowly disintegrated behind me as I skied on it. If I had stopped there was a good chance of going in the river. A soaking would mean kicking off the skis and pack and desperately swimming for it. I had to move fast. A rope could mean more trouble as it could drag you under. If you fell in you had to stop and build a fire or possibly contract frostbite. We had the rope ready on the bank to throw out in case of a last ditch emergency. Just as I reached the far bank a piece of ice under my skis collapsed and the back part of my skis went in. Fearfully I looked down backwards into a mesmerizing swirl of fast river carrying away ice debris. Larry grabbed me before I fell back in the river. Only my skis were wet. I heaved myself on to the bank with a sigh of relief. We all made it home in one piece after one of the most amazing wilderness winter
trips I had ever had.

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Peter Austen - Out there in Winter on Mt. Sir Alexander