Peter Austen - Demons of Green Lace

Kinney Lake

Demons of Green Lace
By Peter Austen

The Columbia Ice fields lie on the border between Alberta and British Columbia in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. They can be deathtraps for the unwary or careless climber. Several people die each year on these ice fields because they did not use a rope or were careless in its use when traveling over the badly crevassed glaciers. Crevasses are cracks in the surface of the ice caused by moving glaciers.

It was May, the best time for travel in the ice fields. Days can be warm and the crevasses are bridged. A few moments' carelessness almost cost me my life.
John, my companion, was a beginner and was full of potential and enthusiasm. He was six feet tall, dark haired and had regular features somewhat like a skinnier Christopher Reeves, also known as Superman.
This particular ascent should have been routine. We roped up and shouldered our packs in the early morning sunshine.

"Perhaps it's a shade too warm," said John. Was this a great understatement of the day's developments or a premonition? The face we wanted to climb was still 2 miles away and towered over us as it shimmered in the crisp spring air. We entered the realm of crevasses: holes which could be hundreds of feet deep.

It was seasonally much too hot. We kept the rope tight between us. A serac or ice tower fell over with a huge boom.

"Fawlty Ice Towers," said John, punning on the well known British comedy. The shower of ice blocks provided a stunning spectacle and a block the size of a Volkswagen Beetle rolled down the glacier and smashed into a million fragments, sending ice chips over our heads in rainbow colors.

It became hotter. We snacked in the sun and became dangerously languid. It was the perfect mountain day: blue skies, warm temperatures and superb views all round. The pointed peak of Mount Wilcox opposite rocketed into the sky. Sugar coated Chistmas cake peaks beckoned from every direction.

What could go wrong?

I kept turning to check if the rope was still tight but this was my first mistake. I should have let John go first so that I could watch him. My second mistake was that I had become careless and let him creep up to me with a slack rope. After all he knew it was dangerous but did not know how much, never having fallen in a crevasse. I should have lowered him into one before this, to illustrate just how real the danger was.

Swish! the trapdoor opened and I fell lumpily through the air. A thin bridge had broken and I plummeted into the maw of the crevasse. I felt resigned and strangely accepting of my impending destiny.
There was a jolt and the pile of snow which formed the bridge landed on my head. Blackness descended. I looked up at a faint hole in the canopy above.

I shouted. There was no answering shout from the blue hole above. All sounds are muted in crevasses. I tried to take stock inasmuch as my semi shattered nerves would let me. Ice hung all round like green lace. Vicious honeycombed tentacles pressed in on me on all sides. I was jammed by the hips almost upside down in a narrowing in the crevasse. My mind raced. I could see a greenish black gulf widening below me, beckoning me to oblivion. I was slowly freezing up. It had been so warm on the glacier and here it was 50 degrees cooler. I felt a clammy trickle on my hand. Blood was dripping slowly off my fingertips and vanishing into the void. My head and ribs were numb. I stuck my fingers in my mouth to stop the bleeding. I realized the rope was tight and led to possible salvation. John must be all right. The rope had unbelievably gone tight exactly when I hit the constriction in the crevasse. If this had not happened I would have gone through, been squeezed through the ice hour glass in the crevasse and would never have got back. This is the usual scenario when people fall in with no rope on.

I wriggled my way around to an upright position although my legs still dangled beneath me. The pain in the hips was unbearable. Luckily my rucksack had a waist strap and it had not been torn in the fall. I took it off with difficulty and jammed it between the ice and myself. With frozen fingers I managed to get a sweater out of the top and over my head. I inched my way up into a position where I could remain comfortably suspended across the crevasse, feet on one side, back on the other. Fortunately I still had my crampons on my boots. It was so comforting to plant them in the wall of the crevasse.

I suppressed an urge to shout again. There was no point. No one would hear me. I clawed off my ice axes which were strapped to the pack and started to climb out, whacking the axes into the ice as I went. My mitts were gone but fear of freezing gave me the impetus to keep moving. My hands were fat lumps fast becoming blocks of ice. Spreadeagled across my potential tomb I climbed towards the oval piece of blue sky above me. The rope loosened. It was not being taken in. I slipped as I could not feel my hands. Left hanging from wrist loops with feet dangling in space, I almost panicked but held it together. It took all I had to get back into a position where I could start climbing again.

I moved up. The rope moved with me. John was taking it in. I worked my way up to the hole, estimating the distance at 50 feet. I took it in 5 feet stages with frozen hands which I blew on at each rest. Violent shivers hit me and I knew it was incipient hypothermia. My toes had long since ceased to feel anything. I rammed the axes into the lip of the overhang at the top of the crevasse and saw John.

John pulled me out like a cork from a wine bottle at the same time I made a supreme effort to get out. I flopped onto the snow like British Columbia's budget: utterly spent. It was hot in the sudden sunlight. The whole eternal epic had taken only 30 minutes. The sun felt incredibly hot. I looked stupidly at my war torn hands. They didn't hurt at all. I was too tired to castigate John as to why he had crept up behind me, leaving the rope with 50 feet of slack. A beginner has difficulty imagining huge caverns running under his feet while walking on a flat expanse of snow. Like whipped dogs we hightailed it to the valley. It took me three months before I ventured on to another mountain.

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Peter Austen - Demons of Green Lace