We have all heard or told a story about how stupid we were when we first started climbing, and how lucky we were that we scraped by without serious injury. This is not that story. Luck is not always with the beginners, and the clueless and stupid are not always under some kind of supernatural protection.
Our party consisted of 2 teachers, and, as I remember, 15-17 students between the ages of 15-18. One teacher, Mr.C, was trained in mountain travel. The rest of us had no real experience to speak of, though we thought we were hot stuff, as most 17 year-olds believe. We had been out camping in the snow a few times, and had hiked up some loose exposed rock ridges, and had even learned the rudiments of belaying and rappelling. But this outing was different. Only half of the students involved had been on the previous trips, limited in scope though they were, the other half hadn’t really been outside much at all.
The details of our equipment would be tedious to list here, but I must highlight some of the more extravagant articles. 2 polyester quilts clothspinned together for a sleeping bag, Caterpillar brand smooth soled construction boots, and an iron kettle were among our cutting edge gear. Vinyl or rubberized cloth raingear was de rigueur. Blue jeans all around, with good old ribbed cotton ‘long johns’ to keep us warm and cozy in the elements. Some people had old ski pants. I distinctly remember at least one denim skirt among us.
Our goal was moderate enough, Mt. Askom is not a fearsome tooth requiring technical prowess. But it had snow on it, and the backside was kind of steep, plus it towered over us during the long school year, and was thus a natural choice. Old logging roads crossing up almost to treeline helped the undecided stragglers see a possibility.
The plan was straightforward. Friday we hike up to the summit and camp. Saturday we hike down to the lake, set up camp, and pursue our leisurely activities such as rock trundling, stomping on the rotten lake ice, trying to knock down cornices, starting fires without matches, etc. Sunday we hike out the valley below the lake at or about tree line, contouring around to the logging road and waiting Land Rover. School starts as usual on Monday morning.
Except for some minor illnesses the first day went smoothly. The night was cold and clear, we used the last hour before dark to assemble blocks of shaley rock into rock shelters to protect us from the wind. We gathered together in a large circle, with a couple quilts over us, and enjoyed some friendship and shared warmth. Someone had a tent, the rest of scattered back behind our little rock walls, and had a relatively comfortable night.
The next morning we were all thirsty, especially two students whose minor illnesses got worse, with intermittent puking throughout the wee hours. Our other teacher, Rhona was also feeling a bit piqued. But no matter, the lake, mostly frozen over, was clearly visible, we would just scamper down there, scoop up some water, and cook up a long satisfying breakfast.
Mr.C saw no reason for us to all stay in a Boy Scout line, and gave us free rein to go at our own pace, and more or less find our own way.
We were 4 boys in front, picking our way down, when we came across a long gully filled with snow. We had been glissading on scree and snow the entire school year, and saw no reason to not take advantage. But this was April, and the snow had been in a freeze thaw cycle for at least a month. At that early hour, the upper reaches were warming and softening in the sun, but the bottom was ice. Halfway into the glissade we came to a flatter section where we stopped to recon the rest of the gully. It steepened, then the snow melted out amid boulders and small trees. To take advantage of this free ride without getting killed, we decided to send our packs down, and follow cautiously after. We stationed 2 at the end of the snow to catch the packs, I was in the middle, and another was at the top, flatter section. We sent down our own packs easy enough, not too concerned about what was happening to their contents as they skidded away downslope.
[img:454708:alignright:medium:One of the gullies to the right of the photo, the scene of the accident.]
Then the others started to arrive, having followed our tracks. Heidi soon came on the scene. I had a thing for her, and felt manly and protective, giving expert advice on how she should proceed. We decided (she decided) that she could use the bottom of her external frame pack as a brake, and glissade the rest of the way down. She reached behind her, pushing the ends of the aluminum frame into the snow and began. The whole packframe-as- ice-axe idea worked for about the first 10 meters, but her speed was such that her pack started lifting out of the snow, and she started bouncing. Up and down at first, but then she tried to use her heels to slow down and began spinning sideways. At this point her pack exploded, first to go was the cloths pinned quilt. The 2 boys at the bottom bravely tackled her as she flew past, and together they came to a stop in the softer melting snow at the bottom.
OUT OF CONTROL
Before we could regain our composure at this near miss, we could hear screaming up above. Two more girls, again following our tracks, were glissading down the entire gully, not stopping at the flatter section. As they came into view, they realized their mistake, and their screams of exhilaration turned to terror. They were glissading head first, and the look on their faces as they careened ever closer was beyond description. The expression ‘looking death in the eye’ is often bandied about as being brave, but it isn’t. These two were looking death in the eye, and their look was more honest than any I have seen since. One girl, Reina, was way out of reach, the other, Tanya, was heading straight for me. My position, halfway down the slope was precarious; I had only kicked in small steps, and was in danger of sliding off myself. But I crouched down, thinking that if Tanya’s head could hit between my thigh and calf, it might at least cushion her fall, or turn her around, or something. But she was coming so fast, and to my shame, the instinct of self preservation kicked in and I sprang up to get away. But too late, she smashed her shoulder into my ankle, putting her in a sort of flat spin while I spread eagled, trying to slow down.
One of the boys grabbed for Tanya just before the snow ended, but he couldn’t stop her, and she hit a boulder head first. She was unconscious, and we had no idea what to do. Reina, meanwhile, took a track more and more to the left, but she somehow got turned around and hit the rocks feet first. One foot got caught in between two rocks, while the rest of her body kept going, wrenching her knee, tearing tendons from bone.
I scrambled over to see how Tanya was doing, she was coming around, but was woozy, and bleeding enough to keep us scared. Reina was eerily quiet. We scrambled between the boulders, and could see her twisted lower leg. She didn’t scream or complain, we helped her limp to gentler ground, and she dragged herself into the sun. Her round dark vacuous eyes and pale shaking hands made it clear she was going into shock. Someone thought she should lie down with legs elevated.
It was a somber breakfast around the lake that morning. We chose to stick to the plan and spent the day around the lake, giving the girls a chance to recover. The next morning we organized ourselves for the hike out. We had 2 sick people that couldn’t carry their own packs. Tanya had a monster migraine, and couldn’t do more than carry herself. Reina was helpless, and it took 4 people to carry her without getting worn out. Our tarp and pole litter functioned Ok, but there was no trail. What we had expected to be a fairly simple contour around Askom turned into a bushwacking trudge. The thin forest held a large amount of deadfall. Fallen trees criss-crossed over each other at all kinds of odd angles, sometimes 3 logs deep. We had to sometimes carry Reina under a log, over two others, and sometimes between logs held apart by branches. No one got a free ride, We had eight extra backpacks to carry. It was no fun carrying two backpacks, one tied to the back of the other through the mess. It took the entire day to hike out less than 7 kilometers. We made camp close to the Land Rover, but not close enough to ferry everyone down that night to the vans. Two boys were sent ahead to drive the Land Rover back to school and tell the rest of the staff and students why we were a day and a half late. The rest of us gathered all our remaining food into a sad little pile in the falling snow. We shared the remnants and crawled into thickets for shelter. That night it snowed almost 30cm, making the morning hike out all the more sad and soggy.
On the ride out, Mr.C explained the best way to tell the story to the others when we got back. He stressed that we could tell what happened, but not to exaggerate the events and injuries. Looking back, I can see why he advised us thus, he was probably trying to save his job. But at the time it made sense, and the students injuries spoke for themselves.
I only still keep in touch with a handful of students that were on that trip. One died in a head on collision with a semi just months after. Another was my roommate for awhile in college. A third became a missionary bush pilot in Africa. 2 or 3 others I have kept in touch with have kids of their own, and I don’t know any from that group that still goes out and does more than just backpacking on trails, though I’m sure there are others who still ‘get out there’.
Reina was on crutches for 2 months after the incident, but she healed quickly.
Two years later, Mr.C was working at a different school, and was up in the mountains with his students, the place where he was most happy. While they were trundling boulders off a clifftop, the ground around them fell away. Everyone made a grab for each other, and Mr.C threw at least one student to safety before falling to his death.
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