Alcan to Ocean Icecap Expedition: A Close Call

Following in J’s tracks (“Jim” for now on, for the purpose of these accounts), I used my ski poles to probe for crevasses in front of my feet. It seemed like overkill given the area, but better safe than sorry, I’d thought to myself. Jon was behind, but would catch up after “using the bathroom”, the inadequate expression still part of my daily vocabulary.

Through my fatigue, I glanced up in time to see Jim half disappear into the snow, his right leg invisible to the thigh. Quickening my pace, my mind began putting the pieces together as he shifted his weight to his left foot, pushing off his ski poles until he could get his back leg out of the hole and onto solid snow. “Did you just almost fall into a crevasse?”, I said, pulling out my camera and turning it on to video. “Well, we almost lost Jim. How does it feel?” I asked, camera pointing his way. I was documenting this expedition, after all. “I wasn’t worried,” he replied. I panned back to the hole. “It’s not really that wide, but it’s wide enough.” I flicked off the camera and put it back in my pocket, probing the edges of the crevasse, peering into the blackness. Two and a half feet across, sheer ice walls glinting sharply. It would be hard to fall down, but not impossible. The bottom was obscured in darkness. And where there was one crevasse with unstable snow bridges, there would be more. Jim had been extremely lucky it hadn’t been wider.

“We need to rope up and go back for Jon,” I announced matter of factly. There was a long pause as I began digging out the rope from the top of my makeshift sled. I glanced up at Jim when there was no response. “I don’t want to cross that again”, he said, gazing down the narrow but profoundly deep crack. I was already flaking out the rope, double checking there were no knots. “What do you want to do, leave Jon to cross melting snow bridges by himself, Jim? We’re the ones with the rope.” He gazed down the hole as I grabbed one end of the rope and threw it to him. “Tie yourself in.”

Soon, Jon was tied in at the front, myself in the middle, and Jim in the back. “Ready?” I said. “Yup,” Jim replied. I looked down at his hand. “You’re holding your ice axe backwards”, I commented, pointing to his pick-forward ice axe and suddenly angry he’d been so hell bent on not going over crevasse rescue together in Juneau or Whitehorse. I’d pushed the subject then, and he’d replied “I know what I’m doing”. “What if you’re the one in the hole, Jim? Don’t you want to make sure I know what I’m doing?” We’d argued over it for twenty minutes, and his response had nearly sent me home: “We’ll figure it out when we’re out there.” The comment had left me more worried than I’d already been, so that evening I had a long email chat with Lynne, whose assurances that Jon’s skill, experience and competency in the mountains would be enough to lead us all safely through. Still, I’d been worried.

On the glacier the next morning, we woke up at 4am for a grueling 15 mile ascent to Lynne’s drop-off point. Jon informed Jim that they would both be taking a few of my items. Until that point, I hadn’t struggled to keep up. But as a non-skier, ski-shuffling across a mountain range with 80lbs of gear was exhausting work, and we weren’t supposed to be pushing such long days this early in the trip. We’d all agreed- we wouldn’t do more than 5 miles a day for the first week, ramping it up as we went to between 10-15 miles a day. This had been an important point that had been settled months before, but food was in short supply, the glacier had been unforgiving, and we needed to get to Lynne’s drop-off point, fast. “It’s just like walking” Jim, who had been a competitive skier, had said a dozen times. It wasn’t just like walking, but I was slowly getting the hang of it. While my own strength levels hadn’t seemed to change much over the first week, Jon’s strength and energy slowly started increasing as we approached Lynne’s rendezvous point, until he was powering up the mountains like a steam engine. Jim and I both seemed tired, but in good enough spirits despite the grueling ascent up the mountains.

Having packed extra food in case of an emergency, I shared my provisions with Jon and Jim at lunch, who were both running dangerously low. It would be a hard day, and one that wouldn’t end well…

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