By Jerry Levin | The weather conditions were marginal, my fear of heights was kicking in, and our four-seat plane didn’t seem much larger than the models I had built from balsa and glue as a kid. My wife Sara was safely on her way to Fairbanks to visit a friend after the eight-day Penn Alumni tour we’d just taken together. I was now with Joey, a guide from the Alaskan Mountaineering School. Before takeoff he had outfitted me with an ice axe, goggles, insulated pants, and all the other expedition-grade gear we would need for the next three days.
Joey wasn’t the most articulate guy in the world, but he appeared to know what he was doing. He’d led several climbs to the 20,320-foot summit of Denali over the summer, and brought down the bodies of two men who didn’t make it. Our sights were set a little bit lower—on the mile-high Ruth Glacier—but for a 71-year-old mountain addict with a seriously arthritic ankle, hopefully that would still present a satisfying challenge.
The plane climbed high above the frozen terrain and then swooped down to survey the Ruth Gorge, an 8,000-foot defile filled with glacial ice. After regaining altitude and turning a corner so close to a mountain I fantasized about touching it with my hand, the plane landed on the glacier. Quickly organizing our gear on sleds, we headed up a saddle above the “runway” and set up camp in the deep layer of snow superimposed on the ice. Watching the plane circle as it rose into the gorge again, I felt thrilled and frightened. We didn’t expect to see that plane or any living thing—apart from perhaps some lichens and the occasional raven—for the next three days.
In the morning Joey helped fit me with a climbing harness, ropes, snowshoes, carabiners, and a device called a Jumar, which can be slid up a rope but not down. After running through a 15-minute crash course on glacial travel and crevasse rescue that didn’t exactly amplify my confidence, Joey started out toward the Ruth Gorge. I trailed at the end of the rope about 80 feet behind him.
The peaks of the Don Sheldon Amphitheater rose a sheer 5,000 feet overhead, but a dense cloud cover kept us from seeing very much of them. And once we reached the edge of the gorge, our route into it was blocked by an area Joey considered a potential crevasse hazard. We retraced the prints of our snowshoes to the tent, this time with me in front. So far, so good.
After grabbing a quick high-energy snack, we decided to explore a nunutak at the top of the saddle—a small island of stone where the bedrock broke through the glacier’s surface and rose perhaps ten stories to a small cabin at the top. Leaving our snowshoes behind, we climbed up to the gap between the ice and the granite, stepped over it, and began scrambling up loose rock toward the summit. My early-morning anxiety had receded. The weather cleared partially, affording a good view from the top, and I led the way down without difficulty. Crossing back over onto the glacier and moving toward camp, I felt proud of my new skills. Then the snow gave way beneath my feet.
Suddenly my body was in freefall, and almost as quickly my feet crashed into a ledge of ice. The rope snapped taut. About 15 feet above my head I could see a hole.
Crevasses are generally shaped like pears. I was still in the tunnel-like apex of the cavity, but the widening abyss opened into darkness just beneath my feet. Had I fallen any further, I would no longer have been able to touch any of the ice walls.
“Joey,” I called, trying to remain calm.
Finally, my third call got a response, and a moment later I saw Joey’s face peering into the crevasse. It quickly disappeared as he moved away from the aperture. Obviously it would do no good for him to come hurtling down after me.
“Drop your pack,” he shouted. It was roped independently; we could retrieve it later—assuming I was retrieved. “Use your ice axe and boots to get finger and toe holds… Start pulling yourself up.”
His instructions bolstered my confidence and I calmly followed each step. Between his pulls on the rope and my struggles, I came out with surprising speed.
I crossed back onto the nunutak and caught my breath. I had kept my cool and gotten out. That didn’t mean I wanted a repeat performance, but at least I’d been able to regain solid ground. After a little while I shouldered my pack again and stepped back onto the glacier, with Joey in the lead this time. “Follow my footsteps,” he said, and I thought I was doing just that when bang!—my leg disappeared nearly up to my crotch. My body bent like a hinge, part of me hanging through a plug at the top of another crevasse—or perhaps an extension of the same one—and the rest sprawled across the ice.
I shimmied and struggled, at first without deep concern. Then, as I realized I just couldn’t pry my leg free, adrenaline surged through my veins in a way it hadn’t during my first fall. But no matter what I did I remained pinned in place. I was tempted to straighten myself into a vertical position, but that threatened a freefall of God knows how far. Joey had stayed at the end of our 80-foot rope.
“Use your ice axe,” he said again. But the more I chopped, the more stuck I seemed to get.
“Try rocking.” I did. No dice.
I knew that if he was following standard procedure, Joey would have already planted his ice axe to serve as an anchor. And I knew I was securely roped, but none of that felt comforting. Not knowing what to do, I used every ounce of my strength to pull my foot out of the double-shelled mountain boot. With my second surge—thank God I hadn’t laced either the inner or outer layer properly—my foot came free and I could move again. Of course now I had no boot to get me back to camp. Frostbite had just become a possibility.
Very cautiously and at considerable risk to himself, Joey advanced toward me. Tightening the rope as he came, and pressing his belly against the ice, he reached down and retrieved the boot. Round two was over.
It was 5 o’clock when we made it back to camp. For the first time since we’d landed on the mountain, the sky was clear and filled with sunshine. We were in a “weather window.” Several planes landed, letting tourists walk around for 10 or 15 minutes before continuing on. My heart sank as the last one took off. We were alone on the ice again, and now I’d lost all confidence that we could safely trek the glacier. The passing of summer had weakened the snow bridges concealing the crevasses, and it seemed like the two of us should never have come here at this time of year.
After dinner a fog rolled in again and the window in the weather slammed shut. Throughout the evening, the sounds of avalanches filled the cold air of the tent until the darkness seemed to echo with a continuous roar of sliding snow. In the morning, the conditions were near whiteout. I felt trapped and increasingly anxious. In an effort to distract myself, I borrowed Joey’s copy of David Roberts’ On the Ridge Between Life and Death. The stories of climbers suffocating in snow-covered tents did not improve things. Several times we saw a patch of blue, but these were only teases. Day turned into another night, and the next morning the snow was still coming.
Repeatedly we dug our tent out of the drifts. We radioed a plane during what looked like an escape window in the weather, but it closed by the time the craft arrived. Another night passed. Glimpses of mountains through the swirling snow revealed an eerie beauty, and I momentarily succeeded in converting my anxiety into aesthetic appreciation, but back inside the tent I became uptight again. The frozen emotions that had enabled me to keep my cool during both my falls now cascaded in avalanches of their own.
I almost cheered when the ski plane came into sight the following morning. It landed and we hastily broke camp. The pilot had made several passes with the plane’s skis to flatten down the newly fallen snow, and although he was not certain we would be able to take off, we managed it, getting a splendid view of Denali’s flank as we flew through the Ruth Gorge.
An hour later, back in the hamlet of Talkeetna, I was greeted brightly with a blueberry muffin—but nothing in the way of questions or curiosity about the vicissitudes of our trip. And what would I have talked about: the flashbacks to that first crevasse? The tent-bound claustrophobia? The satellite radio calls to Sara, full of (false) assurances that this was really going to be the last of my crazy adventures? Talkeetna likes to call itself a “great little drinking town with a climbing problem.” Perhaps one look at me said all there was to say.
Jerome D. Levin CGS’61 practices psychotherapy in Manhattan and Suffolk County, New York. He last wrote about trekking in the Himalayas for the Gazette in March|April 2007.
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