Monday, April 4, 2011

I run for my life at the drop of a hat

We were up on Guy Peak spending a day practicing self arrest and crevasse rescue. The day was a perfect day. The world was a marble of blue sky and white snow; we kicked steps in deep powder and the boys told one bawdy joke after another for hours. For the first half of the day we slid down the mountain like penguins, belly down and head first, flipping around and digging in the metal head of the ax into the snow, screeching to a stop.

And girls? He's a firefighter.
The seven of us are planning on summiting Rainier, crown jewel of the North West, in late June. Now, it's important to have a strong, reliable team when you are doing something as dangerous as mountaineering.  It is essential to be able to depend on one another as situations can become very dire in literally a split second.  As I practiced my self arrest over and over, I thought about what a good teammate I was. I looked forward to the boys on my rope team pitching down the side of the volcano so I could save them all with my calm, powerful mountain safety skills.

Paul and Phil, if you read this, you only look sad because you didn't come to the brewery afterwards. You are not dead and frostbitten as it appears.
After a few hours, the snow was softening under the direct sunlight. The sky was absolutely cloudless and the air was warming up. John was setting an anchor system by digging his ice ax into the snow lengthwise and rigging it with a complicated array of ropes, pulleys, carabiners and knots. Physics in chrome and snow. I was watching studiously, nodding, saying "uh hu, sure, sure" like the rest of them, but secretly I was thinking there's no way in hell I'd be able to pull that off. If any of y'all fell into some big yawning crevasse on Rainier and it was up to me, it'd be Sayonara. I 'took part' in a white water rescue once, and while the other paddlers rigged up Z lines and yanked the dude out with ropes, skill and strength,  I helpfully gripped an unused coil of rope and peed myself.

Besides, by this point in the training my butt was soaking wet and freezing cold and it was hard to sit still. This is why mountaineering is tough. You're supposed to be paying attention to the intricate ropes and the snow conditions and the weather and all (I) can think about is how my butt cheeks are succumbing to frost nip. But I was determined to learn this rescue shit.  After all, this was merely a refresher course for me. I'd studied rescue and rope technique in the Alps when I was 16. (I'm rawther unsual that way, rawther well traveled.) Not that it made a lick of difference- I didn't get it then and didn't get it now.  It's not like I don't comprehend the idea of pulleys, levers, weight distribution. That's yer basic physics right there. But when it comes to putting it into practice, I'm completely dumbfounded. There's a reason I wear running shoes with little tighten-ties instead of laces.

John Lebens, the leader of our expedition

I half crouched in the snow and tried to focus on John. John in his green jacket. John looping another knot onto another biner. John and his super expensive but totally worth it glacier glasses. Should I buy those glacier glasses? I should have asked for them for my birthday. My birthday was a lot of fun. And so it goes. My mind started to wander. I looked up into the deep, heavenly blue skies, I looked East into the sharp, dramatic ridges of the Cascades. Then I looked over to my left, to the other half of the snow field that was divided from us by a little gully, and saw a mother fucking avalanche.

It was completely, confusingly silent, big chunks of snow swirling downhill in a very fluid manner. I was the only one to see it, and as I watched in horror it just kept rolling away down the mountain. It looked as if the entire hillside was just packing up and leaving. "Hey!" I say, finally, pointing with a fat, gore-tex gloved finger. "What in hell is that?"

(What in hell is that. What did I expect them to say? "It's nothing." "It's just a flesh wound." "It's just ketchup, sweetheart.") 

"THAT," Said Sheel, the most serious of the troop, sweet and normally soft spoken. "IS AN AVALANCHE." I lept to my feet, ready to spring, heart pounding. Avalanches are my second worst fear, right behind abstinence only education. The other boys looked over with mild curiosity. I was freaking out.

The boys descending, heading towards the avalanche slide

"Yes," continued Sheel, all business. Sheel had recently taken a few avalanche safety courses and, like me, was on high alert. He spoke in short, matter of fact sentences. "I read the avalanche conditions today were bad. The sun is starting to warm the snow. The snow is loosening. Avalanche danger is high. I suggest we get out of here as soon as possible. I suggest we tack beneath that cliff."

Well, that was all I needed to hear. I grabbed an ice axe and flung myself downhill. As I tumbled down I could hear a discussion going on between Sheel and the others. John pointed out that our side of the slope really wasn't in danger of avalanching whatsoever. Technically, I could see how this was true. The beginning of Guy Peak's rocky, snow-less cliffs began a short distance away. Between us and the cliff there was only a 50 yards or so of snow that could loosen and launch. The conditions were quite safe. But none of that matters when you are RUNNING FOR YOUR LIFE. Which I most certainly was.


I made it down to where our bags were, and frantically started packing up, thinking oh man oh man oh man avalanche avalanche AVALANCHE!! Suddenly the whole hill looked unstable, trembling like jello, dripping and melting and shaking,  the same adjectives that could be used to describe my own constitution at that moment. I hooked the ice ax to the outside of my pack and roped it down, then started taking huge bounds down the mountain.

As I took off, a little tiny voice piped up from deep within. Maybe you should have helped them pack up the demonstration equipment instead of leaving it all to John? Such a meek little voice.  TOO LATE! bullhorned my brain. SAVE YOURSELF!!

"Hey!" I heard Sheel calling from above, and I froze in fear. He was waving his arms, trying to get my attention. It was most certainly another avalanche and it was absolutely heading straight my way.

"I can't find my ice ax!' He hollered. "It's gone! Do you have it?"

I stood still for a moment. I had little flash of memory of being at the top of the hill and grabbing the very first tool that I could get my mitts on. I dropped my pack and looked at the ax. It was clearly much too long for me. It wasn't even the same color as mine. "MAAYYYBEE" I shouted to Sheel up the steep, snowy mountainside. Then, after a pause "How badly would you say you needed it?"


Since that day, the boys have made merciless fun of me, not just for taking off running at the first hint of danger, but also for grabbing someone else's tool on the way down.   But they can jest all they want. I still think I narrowly escaped with my life.

1 comment:

Tracy said...

I'm terrified just reading this post. Good lord why do you love adventures so much?!

Also, love your line about your second worst fear :).