It must be a scream—loud, clear, and immediate. Loud enough to carry over the high-altitude howl of the wind to rope-team members many-score feet away; clear enough to pierce the muffle of their Gore-Tex, fleece, and the tattoos of their own breathing and pulsing heartbeats; immediate enough to save their lives.
It should precede the first thought. Whether it is you who are falling, or you hear the scream out of the blue from another member of your rope-team, there can be no looking around, no “huh?”s, no instants of analysis, no questioning, no detectable decision of fight or flight. No nothing. There is no time for deliberation. Just an instantaneous firing of your limbic brain, an atavistic explosion of survival instinct over your conscious mind. Perception and reaction should burst from you in a cascade of events so rapid as to be simultaneous: a slip, a scream, an immediate launch into self-arrest.
In a single blaze of movement, you bring your hands and your ice-ax—which, until now, you have been using as a walking stick, dangling it from your uphill hand, spike down into the ice, pick pointing backwards—up to your body as you dive face-down onto the ice. Ax clasped in both hands now—one behind the adze, the other down low on the shaft at the spike—pull it diagonally across your chest like a rifle to arms. Then you are already in the self-arrest position before you hit the ground, and the weight of your landing drives the pick into the ice.
And already, in the very moment of your falling, of your dive onto the ice, your body, unprompted by your brain, has negotiated a decision tree, has already made these two vital distinctions: are you moving, and are you wearing crampons? If you are either not sliding down the mountainside (perhaps it is your rope-team member who has fallen), or you are not wearing crampons, then you must kick your toes into the ice, for two extra points of hard, steel friction. If you are moving and wearing crampons, then your body must ignore the temptation to plaster your toes into the ice and you must instead land with your knees bent, feet up in the air. Else, as soon as your front points dig in, your feet will come to a dead stop and convert your toes into fulcra; your momentum from linear, down-ice to angular, rotational; your ankles into shattered joints. You will rotate bodily about your toes, peel away from the mountain like bad wallpaper and arc back out into the sky in an involuntary, bone-breaking, backward somersault.
However your feet have been positioned, you must simultaneously be arching your back so as to press as much of your weight as possible onto the pick, driving it hard into the ice. That then, is the self-arrest position. However you get to it, you want to be squeezing the living hell out of your ax, pressing on it with all the weight of your future saved, because if your rope-team member has not been able to arrest his or her own fall and the long pull comes, then that thin, serrated metal blade is all that stands between your two lives and oblivion.
Only then can you count on your next heartbeat, your next breath, and then—only then—your next thought; one that will generally run something along the lines of “Holy fuck!”
So much for the theory. Of course, it turns out that there is a lot more to self-arresting than mere theory. As in everything you ever learned from text-books or half-assed, drunken dissertations, only the easy stuff is taught, the physics of it. The psychics are a different matter, and can only be learned the hard way: by experience.
Experience. It was the last day of spring and I was in the middle of a three-man rope-team, having just turned around at 13,700 ft. on Winthrop Glacier, high on the eastern flank of Mount Rainier, a frustrating 700 feet shy of the summit, the crater rim in sight on the horizon above. We were descending the steep (how steep I have no idea, but the phrase “bloody steep” springs to mind) glacier back to camp at Emmons Flats, and had gotten more than a little off the precipitous but well-beaten track that we had followed up in the early morning; a snow-path that had been evolving at the feet of climbers all season and therefore steered well-clear of all crevasses; above all, a safe path; a path that lay, well… from where we were, we had no idea where it lay.
But wait, that’s not how it starts. These facts, these players, they’re simply the shorelines of muddy, doubtful waters. Beyond and between them lies the truth, flowing from past through present, carrying event into misremembered uncertainty. Whorls of self-doubt trace effect from a simple, single cause, emerging from both players, in both directions; backwards and forwards. All is confusion, and only by triangulation, by speculating and intersecting the radii of the ripples of effect that emanate from the event can their cause be traced, if indeed, the truth can be strained from muddy waters.
And beyond the murky surface of doubt lie rocks of certainty waiting for anyone stupid enough to cross the stream, to plumb the dark depths. Rock—most accidents happen on the descent; any climbing text will tell you that. Rock—on our way down the mountain ourselves that day, we could almost have been writing the book. We had had all the ingredients of an object lesson in the making: rock—we had let down our guards and a momentary slip of concentration cost us an insulated bottle-warmer down the mountainside; rock—a poor leadership decision led us off-track into unmarked terrain; rock—poor follower-ship decisions meant we did not insist on the obvious fact that the bloody bottle-warmer was lost and gone forever and that our best move was straight back to camp; rock—we were supporting a tired, altitude-sick climber who just didn’t have the mountain in him.
Oh God, there he is again… that British guy from Rainier. Damn it, can’t a guy walk into the bakery on a Saturday morning without bumping into every asshole on the planet? What was his name? Mark? Matt? No, Mike, that was it: Mike. Maybe he won’t see me if I just duck back behind the rest of the line.
What, does he live around here, or something? Seems like I can’t walk downtown these days without almost bumping into him. I’m getting sick of this… this… this bullshit, this crossing the road when I see him ahead, or ducking into the nearest store. Damn, last time was embarrassing: I practically had to convert to Christian Science just to get out of their Reading Room, all because he just happened to be wandering down the street. It’s like he’s following me or something.
I can just imagine if we did meet: him coming on all innocent-like... “oh, hello, Brett. How are you doing?” Or “Long time no see,” or some crap like that. Probably nothing direct, like “so how about that time on the mountain?” No, probably something sly, like “so how about that beer you owe me?” Ignorant bastard.
Oh, Mike, enough already! How is it possible to sustain such a level of doubt? It’s the very worst of self-consciousness, and a trap I’ve tried so hard to avoid. So why, then, is it my self-doubt? Is this doubt not mine, but Brett’s, overwhelming him to the point of avoiding anything that would remind him of the event? Just what the hell went through his head, those months and years following, when he’d avoid me so obviously?
Oh, come on, Brett, m’boy, it’s been a year and a half, now, and you’re still ashamed? What is this, National Low Self-Esteem Day? I can’t believe it’s so crippling, this self-doubt. And I can’t believe I’ve sustained it since. It’s tiring. It’s time to get over it. Make like it never happened. Let it go. Just drop it.
And I could, too, if only he’d stay out of my face.
Should I even be feeling this doubt? I mean, beyond the dropping the bottle-warmer, did I do a damned thing wrong?
Or maybe that’s the point: I did nothing wrong. I was the neophyte, I needed guidance in strapping on my own crampons, my own gaiters, but on the slope I was fit and strong, toned by marathon-training and motivated by lust for the summit, for some sort of psychic redemption: reclaiming my immortality after my father had so recently been proved mortal. I was fit and ready and urging against the restraint of the rope for the top, while he, the self-described “mountain-man,” was gasping, vomiting behind me; while he, finally, had needed saving by a rank beginner.
Could it be simple embarrassment, then? But how then to explain the photograph I have of him, taken by somebody else, back at camp? He is holding an audience rapt in front of him as he holds one forearm in the air indicating a steep slope, and tumbles his other hand down it. Why spread the story of something that happened that high up on the mountain, and between only three people, none of whom suffered any lasting consequence? What happens on the mountain stays on the mountain, no?
Of all the people to be rescued, I can’t believe it was me. Why not him? Why couldn’t it have been me arresting him? I knew all about that shit. I had it down. Damned fool had never even worn crampons before. Or gaiters, even—idiot had to have Jimmy show him how to put them on. Fucking newbie.
I couldn’t figure it out. He had seemed like such a friendly, happy-go-lucky sort on our practice-climbs and pot-luck planning meetings. Was he somehow ashamed? And at what? At having fallen? Or at having gotten so close to the summit but been too sick to continue?
Shit, I was dying up there. Couldn’t breathe, and what with that constant bloody nausea, I was barely functioning. It still amazes me that I was able to put one step in front of the other, let alone find my way around snow-covered crevasses.
I’d have been fine if he hadn’t been in such a god-almighty hurry. Wouldn’t listen to Jimmy, would he? Kept pushing the pace from the middle of the rope, catching up to Jimmy and dragging me along behind for the ride. All stop-and-go, stop-and-go. Why couldn’t he just slow down, adjust to the pace. So what if he was fit? We’re not all marathoners, you know; some of us have lives to lead.
Of course, that fat doobie I shared with Ian the night before probably didn’t help. I swear, what with the tent filling up with smoke like that and the thin air up there, I’d never been so high. Damn, that was some serious shit: I’d never hallucinated on weed before.
Maybe I’m forgetting something. Was there something I had done, or not done, on the mountain; something he blames me for? Maybe he blamed the whole episode on me; on my dropping the bottle-warmer at our turn-around. If so, why not Jimmy, our wannabe-guide, for his decision to lead us off-track to recover it? That damned thing was always a lost cause on a near-vertical landscape so vast and convoluted.
I owe you shit, dickhead. If it hadn’t been for you, we’d have been fine. We’d never have gotten off-track and nothing would ever have happened. Why’d you have to drop that stupid bottle-thingy? Wasn’t there enough going on, already, what with me throwing up, and all the ropes to sort out.
Bloody thing wasn’t even yours. Somebody lent it to you for the summit-day. Ungrateful bastard, letting it go like that, and then just “oops,” as it fell out of sight, bounding away, end-over-end. I’d never seen anything just disappear like that... damned thing just dropped off the face of the mountain. Blink. Oblivion.
“Oops,” my ass: your little “oops” nearly killed me. And what the hell was Jimmy thinking, getting us off-trail like that? We weren’t ever going to find it. Damned thing was two and half vertical miles down by then; probably floating in the White River, and heading for Seattle.
I can’t believe it: with such a bunch of bloody amateurs and such a fine line between oblivious and oblivion, between disaster and nothing at all, why did I have to be the one to cross it?
I remember I was rounding a near-vertical bulge in the glacier, I could see neither Jimmy ahead, nor Brett behind. All I could see was the few feet of rope leading around the nearly vertical horizon, and thousands of square miles of Puget Sound beyond.
All I could see, that is, until I started to notice the rope—the rope that should have been trailing behind me to Brett—in my right-hand peripheral vision. The right hand being the down hand. The waaaaay down hand... the Crumpled-Heap-Of-Flesh-Bone-And-Gore-Tex-Lying-A-Full-Vertical-Mile-Down-At-The-Bottom-Of-The-Glacier hand... Well, you probably get the picture: suffice it to say, there was no way the rope should have been visible out of that eye.
“No way,” I thought, turning my head to the right to watch the rope slip down the slope behind me and to the right, “unless, that is...” yes, there he was, “there's Brett,” doing the ugliest cartwheels I’d ever seen, directly down the slope... no ice-ax, no attempt at stopping, just ill-conceived high-altitude gymnastics. He was arcing towards the Greatest Dismount Ever. Quite literally.
Damned crevasse was covered with snow. I never even saw it. I was concentrating so hard on each step. I couldn’t see Mike or Jimmy anymore, just the rope snaking away, dangling in a big arc around this huge vertical ice-knob, so I was just trying to follow the faint imprints their crampons had left on the ice.
One step at a time. One step. Stop. Breathe. Find their next footstep in the ice. Another step. Breathe. Stop. Breathe. Keep the rope ahead of me slack. Breathe. Step.
And I put my foot down and it just keeps moving down, the snow giving way around it, and I’m stepping on nothing. No ice, no purchase, nothing solid beneath me, my foot disappearing directly into the mountain. I don’t even have time to think “crevasse” before I’m yanking it back out, but I’m catching the posts of one crampon in the straps of the other, and my legs are instantly bound together, entangled, and I am falling forwards under my own momentum. I put my hands out to stop myself, but when my palms open, my ice-ax drops from them, and before I have a chance to register anything at all, I am gravity's plaything, turning ass-over-tit, straight down the face of the mountain.
Down, down, down—first ice, then sky, then horizon, then ice again. Arms flailing, catching at air. One crampon wrenching completely free of its straps, launching off my boot, landing spike-down on the ice, digging in a phantom foot. My legs are untangled at last but they’re no use to me now. I’m tumbling down, down, down.
I don't actually remember thinking much of anything. Certainly there was a stolen moment, a flash of, “that can't be right,” before I screamed “FALLING!” at the still-invisible Jimmy ahead, dropped to the slope, dug my ax in, and flattened myself against it. I do remember thinking then that it would be a moment before Brett finished his inelegant display and pulled the rope taut beneath me, so that I probably had time to decide whether or not to dig my crampons in or just to rely on the pick of my ax. In the end, I went for as much metal against ice as possible, kicked the toes of my boots in and lay hard on my ax.
That was all the drama, really. Turning my face to the left, away from the adze of the ax, I watched the rope that connected the falling Brett to me as it arced lazily across the ice, angling towards me, still bearing a faint memory of the catenary shape it had held when we were both upright. When it reached me, it straightened out, now pointing directly downwards, and creaked once as it tightened against the butterfly knot in my ‘biner. I don't remember any feeling of tension pulling me downwards, just that single, long creeeeeak, as it absorbed Brett’s swinging against the face of the ice and pulled him to a halt, some seventy, eighty feet below me.
I lay hard against the ice until I heard Jimmy crumping back towards me across the ice. Whether he had heard my yell or had simply wondered why my rope was tugging back at him and had retraced his steps back around the ice-bulge to see what was keeping me, I don’t know. But when I heard him, I dared to sneak a peek below me at Brett. He was situating himself, sitting against the slope of the ice, still taut on the rope. Jimmy said something to me. “Stay there,” I think. Hell, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was still in self-arrest and I wasn’t giving up that hold on life. Jimmy descended to Brett. When they got themselves sorted out and dug in, I made my way down to them and joined them for a breather.
He did stop me, though. I’ll give him that. I thought for sure I was a goner, spinning down the slope like that. I’m surprised I didn’t break anything. But no, just a wild ride eighty feet or so, straight down the mountain. Surprised the hell out of me when I came to, one good pendulum swing on the rope, then sliding back below him. I think I was laughing when Jimmy came down. And still laughing when he came down and dug in beside me, pretty as you please, “Jesus, are you okay, man?”
Yes, damn it, I’m okay. But, shit, I wish I hadn’t gone and said it… what was I thinking... couldn’t I have come up with something smoother, maybe saved myself the embarrassment? I mean, what a dumb thing to say, “Dude, I owe you a beer when we get back to Oly. Whatever you want.” Idiot.
I think Brett was still frightened and embarrassed. He turned to me and said, “Wow! When we get back to Oly, I owe you a beer. Whatever you want.” That seemed reasonable to me… I mean, what else was he going to say? The thing is, though, when we did get back to Olympia, where we'd both been living—and continued to live for the next year or so—in the tiny downtown, he never spoke to me again. He'd avert his face and pretend not to notice me whenever we passed on the street or found each other in the same line at the bakery.
So there it is: all the makings of a classic cascade of errors, successfully arrested. Textbook stuff, as far as the textbooks go. And that part I can deal with, and did. It’s the rest of it that has me stymied. No one mentioned the confusion, the re-examining, the falling into doubt, the creation of a story and that story’s re-casting in telling and in remembering. The consequences of an unsuccessful arrest are clear enough. No one said that it was the successful self-arrest that would have the aftermath.
What is the lesson then? That even a two-hour session on safety, on self-arrest techniques, the day before a climb can prevent tragedy? No, too specific. That one should not bring one’s ego to the mountain and expect it not to get bruised? Maybe. Maybe beyond that there is no lesson. Maybe this was just a tiny moment, important for nobody but me. Before this, I’d never told anybody other than my then-wife. What happens on the mountain stays on the mountain; the truth remains unattainable down here. The past is a different climb. The mud simply doesn’t fall from the river.