The Falls from Hell
Horror: Benighted in Deep Snow
By Peter Austen
January in a cold winter. There were four of us (Al, James,Timo and
I ) training for Mount Everest on Twin Falls, a 1000 feet waterfall
in the Smithers area in North Western British Columbia. It had taken
us 3 hard hours at 20 below to ski in while breaking trail. If we got
through to the top this would be the second or third ascent of this
classic icefall. We still had to overcome five 150 foot rope lengths
to reach the top. The climb was menaced by a huge bowl of powder snow
which led from the summit of Hudson's Bay mountain to the top of the
icefall but the avalanche forecast was moderate. It was snowing as I
brought up James where I had just placed 2 ten inch long ice screws
to form an anchor station.
We carried on up into the swirling flakes. The wind was ripping through
at 20 miles per hour. The windchill factor made it 40 below. Normally
you bring the whole works for emergencies: candles and lighters for
fires, sleeping bag, delectable goodies and other creature comforts
but we thought we would be down that day and had left everything with
the skis.After 2 more pitches I had to burrow through the snow to find
the ice underneath and then sink my ice tools firmly into it.
Looking into the gloom I could just discern a vertical shallow corner
leading into the unknown. I forged on. When climbing difficult ice all
you ever think about is the next 10 feet. Your mind is totally focused.
I looked down. The rope fell vertically and endlessly down between my
legs through 10 ice screws and carabiners. I could just make out James'
face looking up. I suspected I had very little rope left and the friction
on the iced up rope was making every movement a huge effort.
I called down, "How much rope left?"
A thin voice drifted up," 20 feet."
I knew I had to find a stance and quick. Fear lends wings to the righteous.
With calves screaming, hands like iron claws and feet of stone from
retreating circulation I pulled over an icy overhang on to a heaven
sent ledge with an angel in the corner. "Good morning, "I
said. and then pulled myself together. The angel was a small spindrift
avalanche, gently floating down past the ledge. I realized my mouth
was as dry as the Gobi desert, partly from dehydration and partly from
fear. I bashed in some snargs, ( hollow metal spikes), clipped in the
rope and jumped up and down for 10 minutes until my extremities came
excruciatingly back to life. The only way to kill the pain from these
hot aches is to stick your hands in snow.
The angle eased off but the snow got deeper and deeper and heavier.
I kept out of the way of the main gully above as small slides were becoming
increasingly frequent. Roping down anywhere now would have been highly
dangerous because of the avalanche risk from above. There was no choice.
We had to carry on.
We struggled, all moving together to save time, tied to our 2 ropes,
in a full scale blizzard for one more hour in chest deep snow, only
covering perhaps 400 yards horizontally at the top of the icefall. Why
there was not a major slide I do not know. Large ghostly trees loomed
out of the maelstrom of swirling snow. Condensation had formed inside
our Goretex gear and soaked us through to the skin. The snow was neck
deep higher up and we only made progress through a seal like floundering,
tunneling type of motion. It was now obvious we would have to find a
sheltered bivouac in the trees, out of the wind.
We were soaked to the skin with exertion, had no dry clothes and now
loomed the awful prospect of walking up and down the hillside all night
to keep from freezing our limbs or freezing to death. It was pitch black
when Al thought he saw a nice spacious ledge. He grabbed a tree and
started to lower himself down. It was a snowy illusion. There was a
1000 foot drop directly below his boots.
The snow was mostly powder and a snow cave would not work. We stomped
about trying to stay cheerful. We all checked pockets for anything useful
and miraculously James came up with a book of matches which he produced
with a flourish and a triumphant smile. There was a communal intake
of breath as we saw the matches and we realized that we may yet have
saved our limbs from frostbite. But would they light? Paper matches
are notorious for getting wet and not lighting. It was critical. We
made an unbelievably careful fire base and James scraped a match. It
did not light and our hearts sank like the Titanic.
James scraped again and the third match lit. We humbly gave thanks.
The wood was wet but we kept it going by blowing ourselves into choking
fits. We were dying of thirst until had a brainwave and melted some
snow in his helmet by holding it close to the fire.
"Try this," he said with a look of profound delectation and
passed it over to the first person on the left. Timo was the victim
and he tried it. Big mistake.
"Bluueeaagh," he said. The amazing liquid left his mouth in
a beautiful arc and sailed right over James' head.
Our backsides were frozen beef but at least we survived the night intact.
At sunrise in the morning the snow slopes were loaded with six feet
of fresh snow. The trees, almost invisible now, groaned and creaked
under their fresh burden of white. They trembled and shook off heavy
coats of snow like strange green animals. The avalanche risk was extreme
and it was madness to try and escape. It would have been safer to wait
two days for it to settle. However like typical testosterone loaded
males we were impatient to get out. Besides we had told our wives to
call the police if they had not heard from us by 12 noon Monday. It
was a very tentative bunch that roped down the fall line that morning
expecting the rush of sudden death at any moment. Any untoward swish
made me throw my head round immediately.
Reaching the base at nine a m we ran as fast as we could back to the
skis and put distance behind us. A sudden whirring sound became audible
and a helicopter landed beside us.
"You guys OK ? Someone's wife called the police that you were overdue.
Need a lift?"
"Nah. We are fine. She should have waited a day to give us time
to get out. These things happen. Just thirsty but we don't need any
help. Thanks for stopping by."
"Don't mention it."
They buzzed into the sunshine and silence drifted in again. There was
a big bad boom and our heads swivelled round as one. A massive avalanche
was thundering down the falls and spreading sideways over our path of
30 minutes beforehand. Ice climbing lost its interest for us that year.
For the rest of the winter we went skiing.