Crevasse Rescue Practice at the Mountaineer's Center in Magnuson Park
Dangling from rafters and laying facedown in a bed of gravel may not be the first images that come to mind when you picture what a mountaineering class might be like, but it was an important step in the BOEALPS Basis Climbing Class' path to the upcoming graduation climb. The Wednesday night class was held at the Mountaineers' Program Center in Magnuson Park. On the grassy fields and gravel lots outside the Mountaineers' Center BCC students puzzled over the set-up of a complicated configuration of ropes and pulleys. Inside in the main building students were making inchworm like motions as they shinnied up and down ropes hung from the ceilings
A crevasse is a fracture in a mountain's glacier that can be anywhere from a few feet to hundreds of feet deep. The icy fissure can be concealed by snow and swallow whole the unlucky mountain climber who unwittingly steps on the fragile snow bridge covering its surface. The threat of these frigid pitfalls is the main reason climbers travel roped up together across glaciers. By design the peaks selected for the BCC graduation climbs include glacier travel, so every student needs to know what to do in the event that someone on their rope team falls into a crevasse.
Crevasse rescue is divided into two parts: team rescue and self-rescue. Team rescue is what everyone was practicing outside. They were rehearsing how to set up a z-pulley system. A z-pulley applies the principle of mechanical advantage by using pulleys so that the force applied by those attempting to haul their climbing partner out of the crevasse will be magnified by a ratio of three to one. It is complicated to set up, requiring a precise sequence of steps to set and use the multiple pieces of necessary equipment: two pickets, two pulleys, three carabiners, and two prusiks. It requires a lot of practice to understand and this is under ideal conditions. In the field where the weather might be bad, where everyone is exhausted, and they are not thinking clearly because their friend just fell in a crevasse it is going to be even harder to set. That's why the class repeatedly practices crevasse rescue. The second part of crevasse rescue is self-rescue, where the climber in the crevasse attempts to climb back up the rope. The climber ascends the rope using a set of specially tied prusiks. One ties into the climber's harness and the other "Texas prusik" forms a set of foot loops. Through a repeated motion of crouching and standing up the climber can inch their way up the rope. Ideally the crevasse rescue will involve a combination of both team and self-rescue.
Gas Works Park Crevasse Rescue Practice 2002The
Nisqually Glacier Crevasse Rescue Practice
British mountaineer Joe Simpson's book Touching the Void describes his epic and miraculous story of survival that includes falling into a crevasse. By a pure miracle he survived, was able to crawl out of the crevasse, and dragged himself back to camp. In 2004 I saw the documentary film version of his story in the theater and was on the edge of my seat the whole time. I have experienced the inside of a crevasse, as a BCC student in 2002. As part of the class I was lowered into a crevasse and had to practice self-rescue until those up on the glacier's surface were able to set up a z-pulley and haul me out. The inside of a crevasse is a scene of terrifying beauty, a world of white snow, blue ice, and crystalline icicles that glint in the sun. Under the wrong circumstances a crevasse can be a frozen tomb for the unlucky.
For our crevasse rescue outing the BCC planned on visiting Mount Rainier's Nisqually Glacier, but weather was against us. It started off well enough the night before, the skies were clear when my carpool left Seattle for the park, but by the time we reached the cabin in Ashford just outside the park it was snowing. BOEALPS rented a cabin for the weekend, the same one as the Tatoosh weekend. There was a snafu in the communication and most of the class did not get the message that the cabin was available so we (Team 3) were among the only people staying there Friday night. I had my own room and got a good nights sleep unlike the Tatoosh weekend.
Those of us who stayed at the cabin got to Longmire at 6:45am Saturday to meet the rest of the team. On the drive in there was a lot of fresh snow covering ground that had been snow-free the previous week. We and the other three Saturday teams were in the Longmire parking lot waiting for the Paradise road to open when it was announced by the rangers that the gate was not going to open for at least an hour. The park rangers said that four to six inches of fresh snow that had fallen overnight on top of a week's worth of fresh snow. The snowpack had not given yet and the rangers feared that slabs up to 2 yards deep could slide. So all four teams trooped over to the National Park Inn to sit in the dining room for coffee & tea waiting for the gate to open. Our leisurely "Alpine Start" was fun and social, but was costing us valuable daylight.
There were fewer of us sitting around the tables that morning then had started the class. Our team lost a student just that week; she dropped the class after the crevasse rescue practice at the Mountaineers. Her fear of heights finally got to be too much for her. She was the third to drop from Team 3 and the second to drop out of fear of heights. The other student who dropped from our team did so because of a pulled hamstring. The class as a whole started with seventy-five students and by the crevasse rescue practice weekend was down to fifty-five. The intensity of the BCC is a shock and many are unprepared for it. The early starts, hard work, cold, hunger, and fear that are all part and parcel of mountaineering are more than many students bargained for.
Finally the gate opened at 8:30am. We raced to our cars, but still ended up behind a line of at least thirteen cars on the winding road up to Paradise. In the Paradise parking lot it looked like there was fifteen inches of fresh snow they were still plowing away. In addition to BOEALPS there were groups of backcountry skiers & snowboarders, and two Mountaineers groups training for a Rainier climb by hiking up to Camp Muir. All of us marched out of the Paradise parking nearly simultaneously so that there was a line of over one hundred people tromping out of the parking lot. I was envious of the backcountry skiers, the fresh powder looked like great skiing. The freshies were great for the skiers but for those of us on foot it made for hard work breaking trail. All the Mountaineers group had snowshoes and trekking poles, but BOEALPS was sticking stubbornly to its tradition that students need to learn how to hike in snow without snowshoes or trekking poles. A policy that I understand and agree with, traveling in snow is a skill that needs to be learned, but at the time it's harder to be so detached and analytical.
It was May 5th, Cinco de Mayo and in honor of the day several instructors wore sombreros. Around the country people were eating nachos and drinking Coronas and margaritas, but other than the sombreros you would not know what day it was on Mount Rainier. The conditions were distinctly un-Mexico like, being as it was a total whiteout. Visibility was, at best a hundred feet, so we were navigating by map and compass. We were travelling between the Moraine trail and Skyline trail heading toward Glacier Vista. We had just reached the edge of the Nisqually glacier when the decision was made to turn around. Between the late start and the whiteout it was going to take too long to find a suitable crevasse. So we stopped for lunch and hiked back until we located a small cliff for z-pulley practice. Sonny's Team 2 went back to Paradise, which was a good choice; there were huge cliff-like snow walls in the parking lot that could simulate a crevasse.
It was a real bummer for the students that they did not get to be lowered into a crevasse. I know from my own experience as a student in 2002 that the crevasse rescue day was one of the highlights of the class. Getting lowered into a crevasse was like visiting an alien world. The next day the Sunday teams had perfect weather and reported finding an amazing crevasse. Lead instructor Tony said it was the best one he had seen in eight years, wide open and all blue ice. Head instructor Tim reported there were an insane number of backcountry skiers on Sunday. He counted two hundred cars in the Paradise parking lot Sunday morning, mostly skiers and snowboarders. D'ohh! In mountaineering one day can make all the difference.
Nisqually Glacier Crevasse Rescue Practice 2002
Lake Serene Trail Maintenance (near Mount Index)
I like to think I'm in good shape and tough because I climb mountains, but there was nothing like a day of trail maintenance work to hand me a reality check. As part of the Basic Climbing Class students and instructors are required to devote a day to trail work with the Washington Trails Association. The day we spent building a bridge and clearing drainage ditches left me sore and exhausted. It reminded me that I have a cushy office job and that it's been years since my soft computer programmer hands have known hard manual labor.
The day began at 8:30am in the Lake Serene Trail parking lot. Starting at 8:30am and being only an hour's drive away meant meeting my carpool at 7:15am in Greenlake. After weeks of starting my BOEALPS BCC trips at 4am, this felt like an unheard of luxury. Half the BCC teams were out on their graduation climbs, so there was only one other Saturday team (Team 4) at Lake Serene. At the parking lot we met two Washington Trails Association crew leaders who issued us hardhats, gave a brief safety lecture, and introduced us to all the tools we would be using:
- McCloud – Heavy rake
- Pick mattock – Very similar to a miner's pickaxe, but with a adze
- Pulaski – Fire axe & adze, named after a famous Idaho forest ranger
- Grub hoe – a heavy version of a garden hoe
- Swede Hook – for carrying logs
- Loppers – for snipping branches
- Peavey – Logger tool used to get leverage on logs and wrench them around
- Sledgehammer – used to pound rebar
- Drill – a large power drill with two-foot long drill bits
- Power carrier (totter) – a motorized & tracked wheelbarrow
After a short hike up the trail we met up with two backcountry trail crew foremen from the Skykomish Ranger District who explained the plan for our day's work. We were building a bridge over a creek. It was not far, maybe a fifteen minute hike up the road from the parking lot, but we were building it backwoods-style with whole trees used to build the bridge stringers and the abutment sills were built up from log sections stacked up perpendicular to each other Lincoln Logs-style. Further up the trail on Federal land the bridges are made out of steel with concrete abutments. The early part of the Lake Serene trail crosses private forest company land. The Forest Service has an easement through the property that allows the access for the Lake Serene trail, but since the government does not own the land they do not want to build a permanent bridge.
During a winter storm a tall hemlock tree had blown over directly across the creek. Since the tree had fallen just about smack-dab in the middle of where the bridge would span, it was decided to leave the fallen tree in place and construct the bridge over it. The rest of the bridge would be built from yellow cedar. The Forest Service guys would have preferred to build the whole bridge from yellow cedar because the oils in the wood make it highly resistant to rot, but they still hoped that the hemlock/cedar bridge will last ten years.
The temporary bridge we were replacing was a super rickety looking span constructed from two-by-fours. I would not be surprised to see something like that deep in the backcountry on trails only visited by hard-core outdoorsy types, but I could not believe that's what had been put in on such a popular trail. It looked really dodgy; it was an ambulance-chasing lawyer's wet dream that screamed liability lawsuit.
There was a long list of tasks required to build the bridge: stripping bark off the logs, hauling 16+ foot long logs up the trail to the creek crossing, gathering river rocks to fill-in the sill abutments, digging out the hard clay dirt to create sloped approaches to the bridge, hauling up the trail and stacking the decking planks that would be used to build the bridge walking surface, notching the hemlock tree for the cedar sills, trimming and shaping the cedar sills so they joined perfectly, and finally drilling holes in the logs and pounding in rebar with sledge hammers to hold the structure together.
After lunch, less people were needed to work on the bridge, so many of us were shifted to trail work. We were digging out and fixing trail drainage ditches. Important work to keep the trails from washing away in rainy Western Washington, but it felt like chain-gang labor compared to the fun of building a bridge. My motivation was helped by the many kudos we received for our work. Lake Serene is a popular trail and the whole day we were passed by a steady stream of hikers heading up to the lake. Many of the hikers thanked us for our volunteer work. At the end of the day one of the Forest Service guys complimented us on how well everyone worked as a team. That was a real testament to the success of what the BCC teaches, because mountaineering is all about teamwork.
We did not finish the bridge on Saturday, but the Sunday BCC teams did. The report from the Sunday teams was that just about the minute the bridge was finished hikers were already walking across it. I have hiked across bridges like the one we built hundreds of times so it was cool to help build one and see how they are constructed. When I did my trail maintenance day as a BCC student in 2002 it was just trail maintenance work. It was important, but not as glamorous as building a bridge.
It is easy to take for granted the extensive hiking trails system we have at our disposal in Washington State. Our day of volunteer work with the WTA was an important reminder that all those trails do not happen by magic. I really respect that the BCC makes trail work a part of the course curriculum; giving back to the system of trails that we all use to access the mountains. The next day I mailed out my membership check to the WTA.
Here is a thank you note from the WTA detailing the work we did:
Thank you for getting all your folks to come out and give back to the trails! It was great working with such a motivated and professional group. We really knocked out some great work and logged some monumental person-hours on that trail. We like to send out thank yous to people attending events. If you could please forward the two sections below to the relevant groups. Their participation and donation of time was really appreciated. The USFS was impressed by the work we were able to get done.
Thank you and I look forward to working with you all next time!
Cleared out drainage systems on the North and South sides of the stream crossing. Created new drainage dips and ditches on the north side of the trail to protect the approach to the bridge system. Brushed approximately 1/2 mile of trail around the stream crossing. Placed two sixteen foot stringers across the sills and cribs and secured them in place. Started major excavation of approach to create a nice graded lead-in to the bridge. Started collection of small and large rocks for the bridge and turnpike foundation. Staged the decking for the next day.
Thank you all for all your efforts Saturday! It was a hot day but we all worked hard and got a lot done! The bridge was set up for completion for the following days. As of Sunday people were walking across the project and commenting on its deft engineering. Hikers coming through were excited to have a good bridge to use, instead of that dangerous mystery bridge. Also, we were able to complete a lot of water control in the area. A bridge is only as good as its approaches! Great dips were made on both sides and the brushing groups really knocked down a bunch of eye-pokers. Where water was stagnant before now it flows away from the tread. Again, thank you all for your time! --Zack
Laying of decking across stringers. Completion of foundation for approach crib structure. Starting the turnpikes on either side. Creating dirt stairs for hikers to use more safely around the work site. Brushing and ditch clearing.
Another hot day at Lake Serene! We were able to kick out a lot of work thanks to all of BoAlps' energy and teamwork. We left the bridge Sunday all but completed, save for a few finishing touches. It was great to see the first few hikers use what we put so much sweat into. The approaches turned out great! I was impressed by the sizes of the rocks the scouts were able to find, especially hidden in the root-wad. That retaining wall structure will hold up for many years because of that ballast. Also thanks to the brushing vigilantes up the hill, you cleared the approach and optimized some drainage that really needed some love. On a side note, shortly after the event some EMT's had to answer a call up the hill to retrieve a distressed hiker. I'm sure our bridge shaved important minutes off their rescue! You were all a great group to work with and I thank you for your enthusiasm and eye towards safety. Thank you all for your time and I hope to see you all again in the near future!
ReferencesGraydon, Don; Hanson, Kurt (Editors). Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. 6th Ed. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1997. Pages 347-363.
Simpson, Joe. Touching the Void: The true story of one man's miraculous survival. 1st Perennial ed. London : J. Cape, 1988; New York : HarperPerennial, 2004.
Lake Serene Trail
Washington Trails Association
Mount Rainier National Park
Kendall Peak with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (1 of 5)
Devils Thumb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (2 of 5)
Sun and Fun with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (3 of 5)
Crevasse Rescue Training and Trail Work with the with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (4 of 5)
Little T Graduation Climb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (5 of 5)