Pat Brennan and I sit atop Mt. Shastina. It is 11:30 am, February 19, 1977. We’re ecstatic. A winter ascent of Shasta, followed by a descent of the Whitney Glacier Headwall, has landed us at our second summit of the day. We pause for only a few moments, then head down toward the saddle where we have left our gear – ropes, axes, food and drink. We’ll lunch at the saddle.
Incredible weather has given us what every winter climber hopes for: perfect conditions and a comfortable window to accomplish our goals and get out safe.
We’re ready now to do the “get out safe” part.
From the summit of Shastina toward the saddle below is a narrow snow couloir. About 50 feet long, it looks like an opportunity for a simple glissade, saving a few seconds otherwise spent stumbling down the talus beside the chute.
I step out onto the snow to test the conditions and in one horrifying instant my feet are ripped out from under me as if I’ve been hit by a low-flying tackle – that feeling of slipping unexpectedly and totally out of control on an icy sidewalk – but in this case that “sidewalk” is tilted at a 45-degree angle: my vibram soles rocket down blue ice covered by two inches of powder snow. This is bad.
Time stops it’s normal flow, becoming an infinitely divisible continuum of stop-motion frames, inching forward as each instantaneous moment of perception is filtered by my being.
I’m on my butt, having just landed there after my feet slipped. This is very bad. I get a blurred snapshot of Pat’s face, eyes just starting to widen in surprise and terror, then I’m staring back down the chute, assessing all possibilities and seizing on the one most at hand. I lay back against the ice, trying to build up resistance against the pitifully thin layer of snow. May as well try to stop a planet with a wish. I raise my head, analyzing, searching, looking for the next possibility, the next opportunity for survival.
I start to slide down the ice, slowly at first, but accelerating with each passing instant. Five feet below a rock protrudes from the ice: It’s about six inches to the right of the center of my fall line. I aim my right foot for where the rock meets the ice. I’m conscious of the pressure of the ice beneath each part of me, my legs, buttocks, back and shoulders. I’m conscious of the incredible, liquid smoothness of it: an almost frictionless surface. One more chance, possibly my last.
Success! I hit the rock with my foot, flexing my knee to absorb the momentum of my fall. I see the dark crater beneath, see the mottled volcanic surface of the rock, see my boot superimposed over it as the rock, looking for all the world like an asteroid imbedded in the ice of some frozen outer planet, starts to rotate out of its crater. My body slows to a stop.
The rock plops back into its home but my body, having no such secure resting spot on the icy ramp, and still completely subject to the laws of physics and gravity, cartwheels ever so slowly to the left, while I remain flat on my back. The sky above is starting to show the first few high wisps of cloud, wisps that, high in the heavens, counter-rotate across my field of vision. Aware completely and perfectly of my body position, perhaps from many years of gymnastics training, I am completely oriented as, rock no longer within reach, I move from an almost total stop back into the acceleration phase of what is possibly be my final ride on my back, head first down the ice chute, toward the rocks below.
Head-first on my back, I continue to accelerate, each microsecond the wispy clouds in my filed of vision moving slightly faster. I am aware of the gathering forces of inertia and momentum, of accumulating kinetic energy directly proportional to loss of potential energy from my previous, higher position, of my body mass shooting deeper into Earth’s gravity well, and of the inevitable stop where the ice bottoms into the rocks below, where all the energy I’m accumulating will be converted into a train-wreck as the deceleration against the immovable rocks blinks out of my consciousness once and for all.
The sides of the chute are rushing past now, the wind roaring in my ears. By twisting my neck and arching my back, I can see the rocks below in razor-sharp clarity, rocks now rushing at me like an image in a zoom lens my consciousness still searching cataloguing sorting images analyzing angles flipping at faster-than-thought speed through possible futures most of which show me as a bloody unmoving pile of clothes and flesh at the bottom of the chute. The rocks are closer now, the nearest of them just showing their tops through the ice, like bergs afloat in the North Atlantic. Further below, the ice draws away from the rocks like a receding wave leaving the jagged unstable talus high and dry, a rocky shore toward which my ship cruises its inevitable course pre-determined by gravity and momentum. Gravity momentum. Gravity momentum mass. Gravity momentum mass rotation…
What happened once can happen again. What happened once can happen again. What happened once can happen again.
I spot one of the nearest rocks, just tipping out of the ice. Too small, and directly in my path. I have to do this right the first time. The only time.
I put my left arm straight out, over my head, toward the bottom of the chute. Spot the rock I need just large enough, just off to the side enough the rock slams into my hand like the blow of a sledge hammer I rotate in the last split second of my fall into an upright position, back still against the slope but head now toward the top of the couloir as my butt slams into a chair-like pair of volcanic boulders, perfectly cradled, bruising my entire body from the backs of my legs to my shoulder blade, bone-and-organ-shaped bruises that will take months to heal ticktickticktickticktickticktick…
“BRUCE! Are you OK? BRUCE!?”
Reclining in my volcanic chair at the bottom of the chute, I slowly assess my body for damage, numbness. I stand up almost fall over, then stabilize, as Pat stumbles down the unstable talus alongside the chute toward me, his eyes as big and round as dinner plates. He reaches me, afraid to touch me, fearing he’s seeing a ghost. Perhaps he is.
“Uh… (wincing) yeah. I’m OK. I think I can make it back to camp.”
“Man, I thought you were dead. I thought you were dead.”
Postscript: The following day, as we descended toward the car, an extremely violent storm slammed into the mountain. In the wake of that storm, one climber was dead high on the north side of the mountain, having been pinned in a snow cave for many days by the severe conditions.