Okay, it’s hard to whip up a cliffhanger (literal or otherwise) when I’ve been back from the trip and all over television and radio for months now and still have all my limbs and the same number of friends I went with. In fact, I came back with more. Friends that is, not limbs. But I didn’t know that at the time.
Today we were actually going to walk up the steep slope of the glacier and try to get to a ridge into the valley behind it where we’d have a view of the Northern Ice Field. Which is where the White Walkers from Game of Thrones live I believe. We’d be roped together, working as a team, each responsible for each other’s safety. We were clipped in to the main rope with carabiners on our climbing harnesses. On either side was a knot called a prusik that was basically a friction brake you could use to halt the rope from going out. You were also connected to the rope by a safety harness we’d fashioned from nylon runners. This also provided an easy and safe way to hoist you out of a crevasse if you were unconscious.
We began the now familiar walk up the valley, past the neon blue lake and zen balancing stone. Then up the wet hill of rock. We could see the snowline of nearby peaks had crept down slowly and steadily over the past week, a silent harbinger of the approaching winter. In fact, small flecks of snow were already tapping our shoulders as we made it to the top of the first rise.
We sat by a gigantic boulder waiting for Tom and our patient sweeper Alex to reach us. The palette was all moody greys, pallid whites and crushed blacks. The rocks slowly turned into clouds, sky and earth blending, as the storm spread over the mountains and swept down the valley. I finally understood why Christian teased Brian and I for our assortment of mostly green, black, and brown clothing. After living in nothing but bland shades of a winterscape for months at a time like he’s done on trips, you’d really appreciate a bit of color. Not to mention it helping you stand out in case of an avalanche or something.
We approached the glacier on the right side where Christian pointed out a series of moulins. (Not to be confused with this or this.) These were holes worn through the ice by the running water. Basically, a slippery wet tunnel to frozen hell if you fell into one. The first seconds might be like an exhilarating Slip N’ Slide, but then you’d break some bones on a rock and get wedged somewhere in the dark where you’d have a bit of time to place bets on whether you’d die from drowning, freezing or bleeding to death. Christian told us about one guy who fell into one and they found his body over a mile away in the river the glacier drained into. Wheeeee! Watch your step.
There were also crevasses here we had to hop over. They weren’t very wide, a couple feet across, but they seemed to go down forever. We could see the bright blue of the glacier ice reflecting up from below and hear the echoing trickle of water from their depths.
Christian picked a safe spot for us to start from and we began breaking out the ropes and getting our rigs and harnesses set up. It was approaching lunchtime, so since we had our packs open, Alex dug out a bag of almonds and our block of cheese, which had been whittled down from the size of a small moon to a space station. She gouged off what looked like a bar of soap for each of us. You’d laugh at eating it back home, but after the climb up here and the cold weather, we gladly devoured it.
We took turns double-checking that our knots were well dressed, our carabiners locked, and everything had a back-up system and we were ready to go.
“There’s on more important thing.” Christian said with a smile. “Every team needs a name. We will be Team Kuma.” This was the name of he and Alex’s Akita they’d talked about on the trip like it was their first-born child. It also means ‘bear’ in Japanese. It seemed appropriately exotic and badass, so we agreed, though Brian and I briefly lobbied for Team Merquen. Christian used the tip of his hiking pole to scratch the name in the snow with an arrow pointing our direction of travel and stepped forward. I thought he did it for fun, but realized when you were stretched out on a mountain in foul weather, it could be confusing about where to go or who’s steps you were following, so it was probably a good idea.
I was second in line, so I was kneeling feeding him rope. It felt like I was trolling for yeti with him as bait. In a minute or so the loop for me to clip in came along in the rope and I yelled “Zero!” This was the command to stop. “Clear!” was the call to begin movement again. It seemed like a strange choice of words, but they were short and distinct from each other, so you could distinguish between them in the wind and over distances as your team was strung out over the glacier.
I clipped myself in and checked to see Brian was ready to start feeding me out the next section of rope. “Clear!” I yelled and stepped out onto the ice myself. I could feel the weight of the rope tugging me backwards and the crunch of fresh snow under my boots. I followed right behind in Christian’s prints in measured steps.
“Zero!” This was Slater. I repeated the yell up to Christian. He clipped in and began following behind me. We repeated the process with Tom and then Alex at the rear.
I realized I’d been holding my breath for some time now. We were all very quiet and serious as we walked. Taking steps gingerly as if our feet hurt. The only sound was rock and ice breaking free from surrounding peaks and the echoes of its rumbling laughter bouncing around us. I let myself be distracted by the sheer rock face off to our right. It was a massive gorgeous rippling gray and black wall. Solid soulless smoke it seemed to be pushing itself up, reaching up to eat more of the sky with its jagged peaks.
It was an odd sensation being out here. I’d walked on snow and ice before, frozen lakes and rivers, but you felt really exposed on the glacier. Like you were a target for Mother Nature with nowhere to run.
We started to work in a leftward arc. Above us was a bank of ice ripped open by numerous crevasses as the ice stumbled down the incline. We wouldn’t be going that way. Instead we started a steep climb up towards the ridge. Christian, who was normally very laid back he was almost vertical said with the utmost seriousness “This is a no fall zone! There will be no mistakes here!” The fresh wet snow made the footing precarious and he reminded each of us to make them better for the next person by kicking your boots in nice and level, giving those who followed a firm stair step.
We weren’t at any crazy altitude or going at a fast pace—in fact we were going rather slow and careful—but Tom kept yelling out “Zero goddamit!” every few minutes so he could catch his breath and bellowing at Christian to go slower. Any slower and he’d be stopped. This also made it more dangerous for everyone because it was difficult to keep proper spacing in the ropes. You didn’t want to go so fast that you’d pull the person behind you off balance or so slow that you got tangled up in slack. You had to work as a chain. And our chain had found its weak link. Even the ever-professional Christian looked back at me and let out a few choice curse words into the wind.
We worked our way from the ridge around the far side of the valley and down the other side. Once again, going downhill was probably trickier than up. We made sure our steps were deliberate, digging in our heels and shuffling sideways as necessary. In short order, Christian led us back to our starting point and we began reeling each other in one after the other until we were all back on solid rock.
The snow had graduated to a full-fledged white out. The rock face to the right had disappeared as if it never existed. Soggy silver dollar sized flakes clung to everything, building up in your hood, on your hat and pack, turning your gloves into sponges. We quickly broke down our gear and coiled ropes. The storm followed us all the way down and back into our campsite, which we reached by early evening.
Like the ground and our tents we were now totally covered with snow. All of us were cold and wet. Christian said he would get dinner started. I asked if he wanted any help, but when he said no, I didn’t object.
The storm would shake us all night long, reminding us it was outside. It came knocking against the walls in every direction, the wet tent fly making dancing amoeba shapes as it pressed against the inner wall. We had to shake the poles throughout the night to keep the ice from building up on it. We heard thick solid sheets crack and crunch onto the ground when we did. It was as if the glacier had followed us back and wanted to walk on us.
But for now it felt heavenly to strip off the outer layer of gear and slide into the insulated pants and jacket and the welcoming cocoon of the sleeping bag. Alex brought us some mugs of coffee and cocoa and…are these Oreos?
They were! How they survived in her pack uncrushed this whole time is a miracle I’ve yet to figure out. “I was saving them for a special occasion.” she said.
“I think this qualifies.” I thought, zipping deeper into my bag and thinking the creamy chocolate cookie I was crunching on was the best thing I’d ever tasted in my life.
In Our Next Episode: Sure I’ll try some of your homemade plum brandy….