Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Complacency and the Crevasse

Every work endeavour is loaded with safety pitfalls; in mountain climbing there is the omnipresent glacial crevasse, which you often have to cross on your route up and down a mountain.

Sometimes, a crevasse is completely hidden under a layer of thin hard snow forming a snow bridge, which can very suddenly collapse under you.They can be very difficult to detect. If you can’t avoid them, at least you can survive them by being roped to your climbing partner who will hold you in the event of a fall.

The Robertson Glacier
When the snow bridge over a crevasse gives way, it is remarkable how quickly you plummet.You have no chance to react, one moment you’re walking along, the next you’re dropping. In my case I plummeted 40 feet.

I hit my head on the way down and I don’t remember coming to a stop.When I awoke my shoulders were pinned between two walls of ice; my pack was wedged beneath me, and I was nearly upside down. Below me the gleaming blue ice disappeared into a deep dark abyss sending a wave of fear through me.

I looked down at my leg and could see blood beginning to seep from the bottom of my left gaiter.
I was wedged in so tightly it was hard to breath, let alone move. I was also very concerned that if I shifted my weight I would become un-wedged and plummet further.

I felt totally helpless; paralyzed by my situation. It was at this point the thought of death entered my mind. How ironic, I thought, as this was the first glacier I had ever walked on twelve years earlier and now I was going to die on it.

Looking up the crevasse I had fallen into. I wondered how I was going to survive.

It was one of those days when everything seemed right; we had been climbing for over sixteen hours in good weather.We had climbed a new route up an unclimbed face and were starting to descend our approach glacier.The sun was beaming down and the entire glacier formed a big solar collector. I had stowed my outer layer in my pack and removed my crampons as the soft snow was balling up in the spikes, making it awkward to walk. My climbing partner remembered that he’d left his camera were we stopped for a break and headed 500 meters back up to the slope while I continued on down the glacier, following the footprints we had created on the way up.

I waited motionlessly. My only hope was that my climbing partner would return and find where my tracks ended.

The cold from the ice blue walls was working its way into my bones.Thirty minutes, one hour passed, more, I don’t know how long.Then the sliver of sky above clouded over and it began to rain.
The rain was funneling down the glacier into the crevasse, soaking me with ice-water.
At least drowning would be quicker than hypothermia ;-)

My thoughts shifted to my partner. Maybe he had followed a different track across the glacier and would never find me because of the rain. I had to figure this out myself, if I was to survive. I knew that fear was normal in this situation, but that panic would kill me. I focused on the facts of my situation.

What was in my favor was that in my fall, I had not lost my ice axe.Years of climbing experience had taught me to hold onto it whatever happened; yet I did not have enough room to swing it.
So with small movements I chipped away a little hole above me, just big enough to set the ice ax into.Then I took a sling I carried around my neck and attached one end to the ice axe and the other to my harness, to prevent me from plummeting further down the crevasse.

Now I could pivot myself into a vertical position and remove my pack. Luckily my climbing rope was on top and I had a lanyard with a knife attached around my neck. I cut ten feet off the rope and made a rope stirrup out of one end and tied the other to the bottom of my second ice axe which I managed to set just above the first.

I used the rest of the rope to attach my pack to my harness.Then slowly, with blood still flowing from my right boot, I very slowly chimneyed my way up the ice, using a single crampon and the rope stirrup attached to the ice ax that I kept replanting six inches higher.

I was wet to the skin. It was a race against hypothermia and I was still afraid that I would fall back down and not be able to re-climb the vertical walls of ice.The crux came at the top. On both sides of the crevasse there was soft snow that would not allow me to get any purchase, it was like quick sand, or trying to climb out of water onto ice that keeps breaking away.

Finally after intense effort I rolled out, gasping for breath and nearly convulsing as my muscles contracted with hypothermia. I had come out on the upper side of the crevasse and had to get down off the glacier as soon as possible.

What would have been an easy leap hours before now looked so much wider. Still, I could not be immobilized by fear or indecision. I leapt and to my surprise and relief, I made it. On my way down I met my partner who had realized something had happened and was coming back up to look for me.

Reflecting on this near miss experience, I notice a couple of key things that ended in my life being seriously at risk:

My partner and I knew the safety benefits of climbing together – we could support each other and be a backup if something went wrong.When we split up that day, neither of us gave a thought to the assumption we were making about each others’ safety – we were flush with the success of our climb, it was a gorgeous day and an easy descent, and we got complacent without even realizing it.

When we split up, we could have at least made a plan to ensure we both followed the same route down. Even more conservatively, I could have waited for him, or gone back up with him.At the very least, we needed a way to keep an eye on each other while we were still on the glacier.

For me, the learning was indelible. Ever since, I have never gone out on a glacier without making sure we are roped together, no matter how benign it looks.

Fight Complacency

If you think you have mastered your job, watch out!

Complacency leads us to take risks we know we shouldn't. However, taking those risks is a choice and an action on our part. Never forget that it is our actions that lead to injury.

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