Falling in a crevasse on Hotlum Glacier, Mt Shasta
Hotlum Glacier with exposed crevasses
Hotlum Glacier with exposed icy spots
I climbed Hotlum Glacier on Mt Shasta on Friday (14th of September, 2012) and while jumping over one of the first crevasses on my way that day, my ice tool did not hold long enough in the ice while I was pulling my body up on the opposite ice wall (around 50-60 deg or so) of the crevasse’s mouth and started sliding down to its narrow but wide enough throat to swallow my body entirely and then digesting it for years to come. At first I was shocked of why it happened because in my mind I did everything correct and it seemed to be easy and feasible to do. I was not even mentally prepared for the failure. I usually expect the worst to be ready for the proper reaction but not this time. A fraction of a second later I realized the seriousness of the situation and the fact that if ended up deep down in that crag, no one might ever find me. No one would even look for me for at least a week or longer. My family and friends knew I was there but even I was not certain for how long because my plan was to attempt at list three different routes from the established high camp.
The crag I fell in
The hole I was stuck in
I slide down the icy wall waiting for the final impact but at the same time tighten my muscles, bend my body and position my arms around 90 deg while holding my axes tight. There is no sense to use my axes at that point; the distance is too short. Definitely I don’t want my arms to be stretched out at the moment of entering the crevasse’s throat. I feel my legs are already going down the narrow crag and feel defenseless that there is nothing I can do but wait for the crash. I imagine being soon in the darkness with some unreachable light above; something I practiced the day before on Bolam Glacier, except the crag was wider and brighter and with a solid bottom, and I had a full control.
Practicing on Bolam glacier the day before
Climbing up out of the crevasse
Looking up from the bottom of a crevasse
One of the icy bridges I crossed
A sudden “boom” interrupts my thoughts and my body rapidly stops. I feel the impact of hitting the vertical or perhaps overhung wall (the one I jumped from) with my back as well as the sharp pain in the right elbow which I used like an axe to prevent from disappearing in the narrow part of the crevasse. I also feel stuck in between two ice walls but am relieved did not go all the way down. “Oh man that was close, that was f… scary!!!,” I shout in my mind. I sense, however, the danger is not over yet. The icy walls are very slippery. I keep my body curved and hold my elbows tightly, even if it hurts me, on the icy wall just above the edge when it changes from vertical to a softer angle trying to prevent from slipping in completely. I can feel the mouth of the crevasse just waits patiently for me to relax, to relax my body, my muscles and then to suck me in entirely, perhaps forever. I don’t want to slide any further in that crag. I’m not planning to stay in it either.
“Am I injured? My back is OK. What about the pain in my right upper leg I just started feeling? Is it from the impact of contact with the icy edge of the wall? Is it broken? It would not be fun if so. There is no one around to help,” I speculated. The last time I saw any people was two days ago and they were on their way down to the TH. I examine my body by putting slight tension on each muscle and joint. My legs are not broken even though both hurt; the left one from stretching on the moving bolder the day before. My elbows are fine; although, I feel the pain in both. “All right, I’m OK. I can handle the pain. Let’s focus on getting out of this f… hole,” I comfort myself. However, I feel a bit ashamed about what happened and the fact I did not even think that my axe might not hold in the ice. Perhaps I would have used both axes or just walked around. But this was supposed to be a crevasse crossing exercise and fun, not avoiding them. That was the purpose of this trip. I jumped over crevasses and crossed questionable bridges many times. Sometimes there is no other choice, especially on the way down. This is an important skill. Well, what can I say? I was overconfident and now am fighting, perhaps, to spare my life.
I feel completely exhausted. The whole situation (the fall, the thoughts, immobility to move) burned so much of me, all oxygen I had in my blood. I need to rest before attempting any self rescue move. I understand I need to rest quickly because my position is only temporary and am not sure how long my body would be cooperative. In fact, I am like in a freezer. For now, however, cold is not the issue and I have to take advantage of that. “Let me try my feet if I can get any use of crampons,” I strategize. I try. It does not work. There is not enough room in the crag to properly kick. “It would be nice to have new and razor sharp crampons for every climb. Maybe that would help in a situation like this,” I keep myself entertaining. “Well in such circumstances I can only depend on my upper body then, my arms,” I continue assessing the situation. The conclusion of not being able to use my legs does not scare me though. I pulled up my body just with my arms before, even with a full multiday backpack. I know it’s possible. And it was not in the gym.:) The problem here is lack of space to swing any of my axes to securely place them in the ice. Also my elbows have to be locked continuously to prevent further sliding. My feet are in air. I feel like paralyzed. “It would be so nice to be roped this time and have a partner or two who would easily pull me out of this f… hole. And now I’m trapped in that hole and have to figure out how to get out of it. Is it even possible? Of course it is. It always is. Just think… Hey, don’t look around, there is no one here and won’t be any soon. You need to do it on your own. Do you want to stay here? Definitely not! So get to work,” I talk to myself in my head occupying my mind while resting.
With my left hand I place the spike of my classic axe on the icy slope and with my ice tool in the right hand attempt to hummer it down in to the ice. Unfortunately, there is not enough space to swing or even to fit the tool accurately. I can work only within a few inches of space. So I try the side of the ice tool and powerlessly poke the shift of the classic axe to sink it in the ice a bit. Then I attempt to lift my body on it but the axe immediately slips and my body sharply moves down. I block the fall with my elbows instantly. The emotion, however, burns all oxygen in my body again. So I rest and calm down. “I know I can do this. Just need to strategize properly. For sure I don’t want to stay in this hole or wait till someone would decide to climb here. Chad from SP mentioned he wanted to do Hotlum soon. Well I doubt anyone would walk near this crevasse,” I keep the conversation with myself. In fact, the glacier at that point is the widest and I’m at the place climbers usually don’t bother with.
The time passes and I am still in the hole. From now on I promise myself to be more productive, first of all to completely calm down. Trying any move desperately and in hurry makes no progress what so ever. It’s just a loss of energy and may only aggravate the situation. Due to the limited options, however, I decide to use the same strategy with my classic axe as before but this time aim it a bit higher to have more room than just few inches to swing the ice tool. I also come to conclusion (risky though) that the very thin and weak snow bridge in the crag to my left (probably most of my body went through it) may be utilized to my advantage as a point of support. Two weak points are always stronger than just one. All I need is to lift my body just enough to liberate my right arm and to have more room for my ice tool to work efficiently and securely. I need just one good thrust of my ice tool. The upper part of this wall is not even that steep. It just acts as a funnel with its hard and slippery surface difficult to penetrate with ice tools, and I am jammed in the narrowest part of that funnel.
I hold the spike of my classic axe a few inches higher than previously and gently hummer it with the side of my ice tool till it is secured enough in the ice. Then I elevate my left knee and negotiate, trying not to compromise my secured position too much, to rest it on the weak bridge. I understand (and am ready this time for) that if any of these points fails then 1) in the best scenario I would be back as before or 2) in the worst scenario I would be down the crag. The worst scenario awaited me anyway if I do nothing. So I move slowly and precisely pushing and pulling gently my body making sure its weight is distributed proportionally. There is no guarantee it would work to the end, so my fear factor and tension rise but I breathe frequently, stay focused and keep lifting my body up the crag inch by inch, slowly but persistently. “Lit bit more, lit bit more”, I comfort myself awaiting another fall. And yes it works. Once in the right position and with enough clearance I thrust my ice tool in the f… ice and am out of the f… scary hole standing on the top of the flat surface of the crevasse before even realized. I don’t even remember how I did the last part. I remember it was fast and easy. Who cares?! I’m out. And now I feel like a willed animal previously injured and after the cure being released from the cage in to the wilderness. I just got out of that cage. And I am free again too. Yes!
That wall above the crag was not that long, perhaps 2-3 meters or so but I was trapped on the bottom of the crevasse’s mouth, in its throat, and did everything not to be swallowed entirely by this ice animal. I did not even know how deep this crevasse was, and didn’t really care, but I was really happy to be back on the flat glacier’s surface. However, the rest of my climb stayed frustrating till I got back to my camp. While continuing climbing, though, I was not thinking much of what happened but rather focusing on preventing from another unfavorable occurrence. The wind was increasing with time and elevation and crazy dark clouds were coming from the other side of the mountain sucking and monopolizing its top. That was not forecasted weather. All of these were very annoying. I still crossed more crevasses on the way up and down but with paying respect to them, no more jumping over or crossing questionable bridges. Also on the steeper slopes it was too icy for any error margin, especially while descending. It would be very difficult, if possible at all, to self arrest and I had enough of adventures for that day. I made back to my camp safely and intact and decided to hike out to my car the same evening. I had a cold beer in the cooler in my car and I needed it after so frustrating day. After I came back home I noticed three bruises on my body (3 inches in diameter each): on the right elbow, on the right leg just below the heap, and on the back of the left shoulder.
Check out the short video from this trip showing Bolam & Hotlum Glaciers’ crevasses..