Spring in the mountains
It was a beautiful spring day in the mountains. Middle of May, actually. And it promised to be quite warm. We hadn’t even made it to the summit and we were already in short sleeves. Although the snow had been rock hard when we started, it was softening nicely now and it looked like later, as it warmed up, the pristeen slope was going to be a corn fest, a tele skier’s dream.
Near the false summit of the ridge, some rocks were exposed. Don’t step too close; there is always that hazard of falling down between the rocks and the snow, which by May has melted away from the rock. Ooops! Too late. I went in with a grunt, well past my knee. Fortunately, it was no big deal. I leaned on both my ski poles and hauled myself back into an upright stance, and continued on my way; up, over, and down toward a dip in the ridge.
The dip in the ridge was really sort of a saddle, the top of an arcing cirque with huge cornices dangling over a steep bowl. The way the cornices were jammed together and leaning over the bowl reminded me of the inside of an igloo. The overhanging dome of an igloo consists of snow blocks, each block required to hold its neighboring blocks in place. On the far side of the saddle, the final ridge angled gently toward the highpoint, and I was already anticipating the awesome views that should happen from there.
As I worked down the last bit to the saddle, I looked again at the huge cornices. Cornices always give me the willies, and these were monsters. Twenty feet, thirty feet, maybe even taller. They were going to make a real ruckus when they decided to let loose. With the heat building so quickly this morning, maybe today was the day? With that thought fresh in my mind, I cautiously moved away from the edge. Then I moved a little farther just in case. OK, now I was waayyy back. Nothing to fear.
What the heck?
I confidently crossed the saddle and started up the other side. Kicking steps up the final ridge, I started to blow a bit of air. Ah, altitude. Plus, we were making really good time. The little voice in my head said just keep kicking. Work those poles. Kick. Plant. Kick. Plant. Feel the rhythm. Listen to your breath. But wait… in addition to my huffing and puffing, there’s another noise.
When I turned around, what I saw greatly alarmed me. Or maybe it was what I didn’t see. Because all I saw was the last 12” or so of a pair of ski poles sticking out of the snow, baskets up. And what I heard was sort of a muffled “hmmpph.” What the heck?
I charged back down the slope, following my steps but keeping my eyes on the poles. They were moving, and slowly getting longer. Charlie, who had been behind Jim, got to Jim about the same time as me. When we got to the ski poles, we were both dumbfounded. What we saw was Jim down in a hole, head starting to slowly emerge. He had fallen in a rock crevasse.
DefinitionsNow before I go too far, I have to straighten out some language. In a google search, I found lots of hits for “rock crevasse.” But to me, the links I followed were misusing the term; they were calling any crack in the rock a crevasse. So here are some dictionary definitions:
Crevasse: A deep open crack, esp. one in a glacier
Crevice: A narrow opening or fissure, esp. in a rock or wall
So as I am using the term, a rock crevasse is a crack in the snow with rock on one side. It is the result of the snow moving away or melting away from the rock. I had stepped in a small one earlier, but Jim had fallen in more than eight feet deep. And that was without making it to the bottom!
Charlie and I were very concerned for Jim, maybe even a bit in shock. But Jim had a different viewpoint (below the surface), pointing out that each of us was standing right on top of the crevasse into which he had just fallen. So we moved to safer stances to help extricate him. Because the snow was soft, Jim couldn’t get purchase to climb out on his own. So we sort of half-hauled him out.
All except his hat, which had gone even deeper in the hole and disappeared. He wasn’t too interested in going down to look for it.