As paid guides, Jon and I were leading another group of 11 for the Outdoor Center of Western Washington University. Other than the regular sun burn, the first day was uneventful. We made camp as planned just below 7000 feet on Heliotrope Ridge and spent the rest of the day teaching students rope handling, knots, and self-arrest.
On summit day, we awoke at 12:30 and were moving by 2:30. Bad weather hit us around 8000 feet and continued to get worse turning into a blizzard. We stopped at 8500 feet and decided to dig a snow cave and wait for conditions to improve. We waited for nearly an hour in the cave scrunched together with our legs sticking out. The weather prediction had said snow accumulation up to one inch but my legs and feet were disappearing under the new snow. It was getting worse. The snow was falling so thick that visibility was very poor. By then, the sun had risen somewhere above the storm, but the whole world around us was pure white. Our tracks leading back had filled in and it was impossible to follow them exactly.
We discussed our options and decided it was unsafe to continue up. I had lead most of the way to our turn around point, so Jon, the other leader, lead the way on the descent. Jon's rope team in front of me stretched out into the white nothingness with the illusion of floating in a fog. Then Jon disappeared. I saw the next person tied-in fall to the ground being dragged and then self-arrest using her axe. My mind went blank. Time passed very quickly and yet very slowly. Besides Jon, I was the only other person with glacier travel experience and crevasse rescue skills. I also realized that he was carrying the other half of the gear necessary to construct a pulley system.
The Snow Cave
I yelled to my rope team "Everyone be ready to arrest" and moved forward with extreme caution probing the snow ahead of me for the void. I moved beyond Heather who was still face down holding Jon's weight. "Jon! Are you alright?" I called. Nothing. I moved forward i bit more and called again. This time I heard something faint but couldn't make out any words. I was about 10 feet away where the taught rope disappeared. I could see how he had fallen in. As close as I was, with all the snow in the air, it didn't look like anything. The rope just ended.
I called again and then I heard my radio. I scrambled to get it out of my bag and was relieved to hear Jon was on the other end. He said that he was okay. He had landed head first but his helmet had taken all the force. "Should I set some anchors?" I asked. I had already started getting them ready. "No, I think I can see a way out if I walk to the side here, but I'm going to have to untie from the rope." A few minutes later his head appeared several yards off to the side. Everyone was relieved to see that he was okay, but we were shaken and not pleased to be in a whiteout in the middle of a crevasse field. The snow cleared up for just a few minutes, long enough for us to see several large crevasses here and there, not far away.
If Jon was in any way traumatized by the incident, he didn't show it in front of the students. But he did have me lead the rest of the way down. The weather didn't let up for many more hours until our tents were packed and were half way back to the cars. I'll give it another try in a month.
The setting sun lights Mount Baker, Colfax Peak, and Lincoln Peak
I was happy that everything turned out all right. I'd like to spend more time teaching self-arrest and rescue techniques but we are rather limited with the time structure of these organized trips. Thanks for the comment!