I have never felt so helpless in my entire life. I was plummeting down a steep, icy slope above the Middle Teton Glacier, at a horrendous rate, with ropes and climbing tools hanging from my harness, flinging about me, tumbling in whiteness. Amongst the chaos, the only image I distinctly remember is the red cap on the end of the ice screw that was hooked to the tool loop on my climbing harness at the level of my right hip.
As soon as the slide fractured, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. My brother-in-law, Bret, and I had just successfully climbed the Southeast Coulior of the Middle Teton. It had snowed for the past couple of days, which made the going a bit more difficult, but we managed to reach the col of the coulior in decent time. On the way up the snow was slightly soft in some places, but felt generally stable on the south facing slope. The sound of occasional rock and ice fall kept us alert, but clouds, and cool temperatures comforted us on the ascent. Once gaining the ridge we had a good view of the seemingly quick, and easy descent down the north side onto the Middle Teton Glacier, which was originally our planned ascent, but steered away from with the recent snow thinking the south facing aspects would be more stable.
Bret and I were roped together as Bret cautiously worked his way along the ridge until he could gain a full view of the possible descent. The Southeast Coulior fell steeply down to his right and the Middle Teton Glacier swept gently away to his left. In his opinion the northern glacier route looked good, and would be a much quicker decent than tediously down-climbing the Southeast coulior we had ascended. There were no technical sections or cliffbands between us and the gully below. I commented on not feeling comfortable descending a route we hadn't ascended, but other than that made no attempt to change our route of descent. Just under the ridge, the slope was steep, possibly 50 degrees, and looking at it I wondered if we should set an anchor and belay down at least the top section until the angle mellowed out a bit. Bret noted that the snow was different on this side, so soft we needn't worry about anchoring. It crossed my mind to dig a quick snow pit to evaluate the stability of the snow. At this point, I was below the ridgeline about 15 feet, and Bret was starting to descend below me, roped together, but with no anchors in place.
"This would be sweet snow to ski," commented Bret.
"Yeah, unless it slides," I noted.
"I guess it could do that," Bret said sounding somewhat concerned. "I am going to head over to this rock." The rock was a rocky island just a few yards down the slope and to his left.
Then it happened, more sudden than I had time to react. A huge fracture shot laterally across the slope in both directions, faster than the conduction of a nerve impulse. In that moment I felt as if I had failed the final exam. I had the tools, the knowledge, some experience, but failed to put them to use when it mattered most and now Bret's and my life were on the line. For an instance I thought maybe the slide fractured below Bret and my eyes quickly scanned up the slope to see where it had broke and if it broke by me. Then, like water skiing behind an F-16, I was yanked from the slope with amazing force and velocity. For a split second, before thinking about my wife and kids, I was in awe at the force with which I was pulled downward. Then I was in a cloud of white, and I felt my body tumbling out of control. I didn't know if I was buried or not, but it felt like I was. I remember think about all of the loose climbing equipment attached to me including my ice axe to my wrist, a snow picket to my harness along with multiple quick-draws and an couple ice screws. I tried to orient myself, but all I remember seeing was white and the red cap of the ice screw attached to my harness. The speed was astonishing. I felt like I was sliding on a fairly solid surface and so fast that I was frightened. I didn't worry so much about staying above the snow as I did about slowing myself down. I tried to get my feet in front of me, dig in my crampons, and feel for some type of tool hooked to me I could use to self arrest, but everything was flinging about me so much I couldn't catch a hold of anything.
Then I felt myself slowing down, which was relieving, but I knew in the back of my mind this may not be the end of the struggle. Was I buried? Was Bret buried? Had either of us been injured? The "feel" of the snow around me was thinner.
Finally, I stopped, not buried. I quickly looked to see Bret. He was about 40-50 feet below, above the snow. I felt o.k., but did a quick self-assessment for injury. Nothing seemed broken. Bret and I both let out a slew of curses. I looked uphill and saw my sunglasses and beanie a little ways up the slope. I untangled myself a bit then climbed up and retrieved them.
In awe, evaluating the slide, it broke on a north facing slope about 40-45 degrees at a narrower spot between two rocky outcroppings, then spread wider to over 300 feet. The slab was about 16 inches thick and ran about 1000 feet creating a substantial debris pile. A witness of the slide went back the next and took some pictures, which you can see on www.mountainTRIALS.com in the photo gallery.
We were lucky, and we both knew it. I was mad, because I should've known better and it could've cost me my life, and others as well. My only injuries were a small cut on the bridge of my nose, and my ego. Bret was uninjured. I was thankful, after the fact, that we weren't on skis which may have put is in the middle of the slab and probably buried us. I feel being roped together at least, and attempting to arrest, kept us above the bulk of the slide.
There are few better learning experiences than a close call. While I won't be doing anything technical for the next little while, I'll be back, with valuable experience under my belt and a new respect for the power of the hills. Mostly, I am just thankful that the last image of my mortal journey was not the red cap on my ice screw.
Cameron Peterson (June 4, 2005)
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