Out there in Winter on Mt.
By Peter Austen
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'
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
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
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.