How do I deal with the fact that really the only reason I’m alive is because of luck? At the very least I should be recuperating from broken bones or frostbite from an overnight on the side of a snow slope, or worse, learning to cope with paralysis from slamming my spine on one of the multiple cliff bands over which I tumbled on the way down. Instead, as the bruises fade and the scars turn to pink and dissolve, I’m left to contemplate how the two previous people to do what I did were removed from the area in body bags, and I’m still here with nothing worse than a few haunting memories, surface wounds and lost skiing hardware.
In March 2015, I was lucky enough to survive a fall on the Wapta Traverse in the Canadian Rockies. This is a recount of the story in an attempt at catharsis: how to acknowledge what happened, to thank those who helped and how to learn from the experience to move forward better than I was before.
Memory can be a blessing and curse: maintaining alertness throughout the entire fall allows replay at any given moment. It’s not PTSD, but the images and sensations of the entire event were so salient I feel they’ll be anchored in my subconscious until my final days come. The meticulous ascent to the Balfort High Col – regularly consulting GPS, avoiding crevasse openings, diligently ticking off mileage and vert to avoid serac fall, yet not too fast to ensure the three roped groups remained in sight for more efficient and safe terrain coverage. There was the full group assembly at the top to assess conditions, consult the map, and debate the current location and GPS bearing. The group recounted information from previous travelers and experienced guides, and developed the mutual decision of a path forward. Acknowledgment of nearly full white out translated into teams un-roping for the gradual descent to Scott Duncun, the conclusion being slow, steady progress without worrying about maintaining tension on ropes was the best way to go.
There was the initial leisurely descent and a glance backward to ensure the team was together, and then…gravity. In an instant the view went from blank, flat, whiteness, to a void and the brief sensation of free fall as my ski tips went over the edge, then the washing machine as I tumbled unrestrained down the unknown vertical below. The Hollywood slow motion effect was real, as while I tumbled multiple questions surfaced: How did this happen? When do I lose consciousness? How hard am I going to hit? When does it stop? Where am I? All the questions were rhetorical, though, as the time slowed and instinct rained supreme: try to stop. After the cliff bands ended, and it was apparent I was on snow, I used the one ski left on my left boot to arrest the fall. Finally, the descent ended. Upon self-assessment and that of the surroundings, rather miraculously, I only had cuts and bruises, or the adrenaline appeared so strong, I couldn’t feel anything major. How did I just survive that?
After glancing around and up, the immediate response was how to get back to the group. It’s white, and I fell a ways, but some of the ‘up’ seemed doable. Where was my gear? Again, the questions popped up quickly and constantly. The other ski was not visible, whippet was located, the second pole was not. The snow was deep, the slope steep and appeared very unstable: How did I not start an avalanche and how I am still alive? Is this slope going to release in a slab avalanche? No matter: the flight or flight reaction dictated I must start to ascend to rejoin the group on the glacier.
After the first few minutes, the slope became steeper, the quantity of snow increased and reassessment of hazard became necessary. The one ski was critical as a deadman on the climb: each step up required accompaniment of leveraging the ski anchored in the fresh powder on top – it would cut of the top foot of powder and allow for improved upward progression. It was getting deeper, the angle getting more dangerous, and the upper cornice was emerging from the cloud: It was large [20-40 feet], overhanging and insurmountable alone, with a large backpack and without appropriate equipment. Further, it also seemed unstable, with a large release being very dangerous with probability unknown, but with potential given what the team saw in previous days earlier in the traverse.
Upon reassessment: the map revealed potential to finish the descent of the slope down to the Balfort Glacier, and accompanying such a plan the hope of finding the second ski and pole for improved means of travel. Further, with the size of the cornice, it was unknown what the remaining nine members of the group would be doing in reaction: would they hunker down in the tempest on the col, or start descending to the Scott Duncun Hut with intentions of alerting authorities? Unknown, but given what was visible above, the best option was to go down…Start descending.
And then a large collapse sound, accompanied by the terror of the suspected: The entire slope was shedding a sizable slab, so as fast as possible, I ran sideways seeking the relative shelter of a cliff band all while wondering if this was it: the fate of being buried in an avalanche seemed inevitable and the questions ticked off in rapid succession once again. But moments later, there I remained, not swept down, not buried, but shaking and alert from a close call – the entire slope hadn’t shed, just the more narrow area where I had be ascending. Continue descending…then another collapse and another rapid traverse seeking safety, with the stress that this slope was very unsafe and the current situation not sustainable. But the second collapse revealed the source of the furor: A member of the group was rappelling over the cornice, and in so doing had knocked chunks of the behemoth down the slope, triggering the slides, but also leaving a better path of ascent.
Both D and I were awash in the incredulity of seeing each other, albeit from a distance: his at my being alive and functional, mine at realizing the group remained above having rallied for a rappel into the white unknown. After acknowledgement, I continued downward in search of a better option: after seeing no second ski or pole, but instead what appeared to be a sizeable bergschrund at the base of an unstable slope of steep, deep snow and mixed terrain, up became the only way. A combination of bootpack, mixed moves and ascending the rope dropped by the team brought me even with D. Next came surmounting the overhanging cornice, which took a combination of ascending, and hauling by the team above. After 4.5 action-filled hours, I was in a snow cave having rejoined the team back on the Balfort high col. The weather had deteriorated further – with winds even higher than they were before the fall, and visibility as bad if not worse.
The team was able to bring my backpack to the surface which also had my remaining ski and everyone needed to move: The options were continue the descent to Scott Duncun, or stay in snow caves at the col until the next day: I could descend with one ski, so the decision was easy. Slow but steady group navigation following a GPS track ensued, with S and C taking the lead putting in the most efficient and safest known path to the hut. Miles ticked off, and the clouds parted enough to reveal our destination: after a short ascent, the group arrived at the Scott Duncun Hut just before needing headlamps, wet, hungry and tired from a day full in value.
Obviously the first sensation is that of thanks. If it weren’t for the team of capable and prepared colleagues, I was faced with couple of grim options: at least one overnight on the side of that face – in a white out, on an avy slope below a sizeable corniced ridge – sleepless night(s) hoping the face didn’t rip out or a large chunk of the cornice didn’t release to crush me. Given the forecast, prospects of a rescue via authorities weren’t certain for some time either. Hard telling. How the group rallied and their competence to safely retrieve me and my gear is another one of the indelible memories of the affair: Without their coordinated and persistent efforts, the ending of this story would no doubt be different, and for the worse.
After consulting the map the alternative was to descend to the Balfort glacier in hope of a rendezvous with the team at the Scott Duncun hut: initial glimpses showed potential of a full bergschrund between the cliff face and the glacier – that could have been much worse, and being alone with one ski, could have ended very poorly. That’s not to say anything about what would happen once I got on the glacier in the first place. Navigation would be poor with my GPS, there was plenty of new snow and an unknown crevasse status left potential for further and more catastrophic calamities.
So, given the options, how can I not be gracious for the insisted rappel and retrieval of my person, putting the rest of the group into harms way to bring back one member of the party?
Further, is it even worth putting all the pieces back together, reliving and learning from the entire experience to create a plan to move forward? I insist on ‘yes.’ I view the learning piece as critical. I often recall my reaction to the Columbia Shuttle disaster and the tremendous resources investigating [as best the scientists and engineers could], exactly what happened to bring down the shuttle and its crew of astronauts. Why put so much effort into determining every minutiae of the crash? Other evidence in my field of study are rife with memorable examples revealing the importance of investigative rigor: Tacoma Narrows, Three Mile Island, Aloha Airlines Flight 243, and so on. On the recreation side, with each issue of ‘Accidents in North American Mountaineering,’ annual debriefs of mountain-based mishaps together with mechanical failures all point to the same thing: learn from the mistakes and accidents of the past to be better prepared for a safer and better future.
I’d never needed rescue before. Sure I’d had big days in the hills resulting in late arrivals back home and some worry by emergency contacts, but never the sensation of having others mobilized for my retrieval from an outing. While ascending that slope, I could hear two passes by a helicopter. As was later realized, rescue teams made two attempts to reach the group after a member of our team activated a personal locator beacon. With visibility so low and winds so high, the heli would not make it to the group, instead retreating back to base at Lake Louise intent on another attempt the following day.
Inevitably, there is a strong ambivalence accompanying the distinct sound of helicopter blades: the relief that competent professionals are there to help, and the empty feeling of putting yourself into a situation relinquishing your self-reliance. The conditions were not trivial: rescue workers were putting themselves in harms’ way to pluck me out of a circumstances I put myself into. Thoughts swirl that the scenario was completely avoidable, and the embarrassment of needing a helping hand while engaged in recreation predicated on independence was very real. I will forever remain indebted to the Wapta team that remained on the cornice and did not leave until I was safe, as well as the Canadian Parks Rescue Team that endured 24 hours of uncertainty and inclement weather to return my team and I to the safety of the Bow Valley.
And what now? This is the second strong lesson in humility I’ve received this winter: I took my first lead fall on ice in February, not at a local ice crag clipped into bolts but in ‘side-country’ terrain on a screw and screamer where a self-rescue would have been arduous for my partners should the scene have played out differently. Then this Wapta rescue where there were multiple moments I actually thought I wouldn’t survive. That was a sensation I had only read and heard about, and never felt, and admittedly an emotion I naively thought would never happen to me. It turns out I’m not immune.
It’s comforting to think there’s an omnipresent and omnipotent being constantly looking out for us – a guardian angel with the authority to determine when it is, or it is not our ‘time.’ Religions retain popularity based partly on this principle. It’s experiences like this that can certainly convince someone that such a being exists, and given my fate, I can’t really deny such a deity hovers in the ether around me. It also conjures the allusion that if you can just talk with it, and plead an outcome that is favorable in return for some means of reciprocity, you can better emerge out of the most dour of situations. Absent of actually seeing such a thing, however, one is left trying to make an experience rational, and as the attempts periodically surfaced these past weeks since the event, this much is clear: I played the odds of survival up there, and I came out ahead. I got lucky.
I’ve heard the inevitable clichés since the accident: that I’ve used up one of my nine lives, and that I should buy a lottery ticket and how people should be rubbing my belly because I’ve become a good luck charm. But how to make logical sense of the experience, and how should I walk away from this as I ponder my recreational decisions going forward? The most relevant answer is learning from the mistakes to mitigate risk in the future. After all, another cliché rings true: ‘you make your own luck.’ With our pursuits and passions, there will always be risk of injury or death – I’ll shy away from extrapolating that such proximity to real danger in my choices is the reason for my pursuits in the first place, but admittedly, getting scared and experiencing discomfort is a driver towards a more fulfilling existence. Knowing how best to handle difficult situations, and having the mental fortitude to make tough decisions and properly planning for the worst are all ways to reduce risk of a truly unfortunate outcome, and this chain of events bolsters my desire to do so.
I offer the most prominent lessons walking away from the accident unscathed:
- Knowledge of the itinerary, terrain and path – I was a last-minute addition to the group, and though I did research where the team was going and what to expect, I could have been much more thorough in planning. This was further emphasized by the rescue team who offered many outlets for more knowledgeable travel.
- Being prepared for the worst: I subscribe to the adage “plan for the worst, hope for the best” but sometimes stray from rigid adherence. When planning, identify everything necessary for the worst scenarios, and trim back only after considering what is safe for you and the team.
- Know your partners, and ensure you’re surrounded by the right people in the right circumstances. Sure, anyone can belay you with a grigri at the local sport climbing crag, but when you’re entering a situation where the objective hazards are real, make sure the person you’re sharing the experience with knows what to do when the unexpected happens
- Never underestimate glaciers and ice fields:
- Bring a reliable GPS – get a known track, path or bearings if they’re available and be prepared to stray from the ideal when bad weather hit
- Radios can prove vital for communication when bad things occur, so having a set of simple hand-helds can be crucial
- Have a Spot beacon with best functionality should the worst happen
- In a whiteout on a glacier, travel roped, slowly and with the most caution.
So, I continue my learning. Will I still always juggle the ‘why?’ questions that accompany the improbability of my fate? Yes. Will I come to grips with the reality that I can’t answer such questions? Hopefully. Will I exercise the lessons to prevent playing the odds in similar situations again in the future? Absolutely. My brush with death is an opportunity: a strikingly memorable lesson in how to be a better outdoorsman, a better partner, and deeply appreciative member of our community of adventure seekers.