The view from Jack’s ledge: my personal account

When looking dead on, the east facing layers of the wall gave little away. Water ran down from hanging snowfields in the evening heat, wetting out many of the lower gullies that would have been funnels for rockfall even without streams cascading down. Pitching it out through weaknesses we couldn’t see on the bare rock would keep us on the wall for days. Sometimes, turning my head to the side helps to cheat the lack of direct perspective into finding a viable route—maybe that ledge connects. Maybe I just can’t see how.

Perhaps not strangely, trying to write the experience of watching Jack, my climbing partner, fall some weeks ago feels so similar to the process we took in scouting the route: looking at an unclimbed, unknown face to decipher a safe way up. Seeing the broad picture, while knowing that the details too fine-grained to be visible at that distance could well snag the whole attempt. Or prove the small holds that hold up a path through difficult, vertical ground.

A couple of reporters I respect did a fine job of telling the story. Why add to that? Why go on? Because writing, for me, is processing. I don’t sit down with the full compliment of ideas that remain after I’ve stopped typing. Time accrued between all the movements of key strokes, pathways crossing and ideas smashing together in the effort to paste them from the football fields of loose papers in my head to somewhere some other human can read them—what results is always more than where I start. So I’m unapologetic in that this is a personal account.

Internet content is so perfect so often–blue skies, huge stoke, big success. I’m a human being, and want to be viewed as such in my pursuits. This post is another contribution towards keeping balance in who I am as mediated by my blog.

A lot of people have asked how I’m doing. This piece is also for them, because my goal here is to process and evoke more of what was going through my head as things went down, the sorts of things that don’t fit into newspaper stories or pithy quotes. Things perfect for rambling along, like I usually do, on this blog.

Of late, I’ve tried to broaden my range of mountain mentors. Climb and ski with people who have seen gnarly things happen. Who have experience. Who can teach me the safer ways to do the things that I want to master. Jack is absolutely that guy—he’s done a lot in different conditions, and put in his time. Hell, he just turned sixty. So when he fell, I was pretty sure he’d get his axe in quickly.

He slid out of my vision, obscured by the rock bend in the couloir. I yelled his name a couple times, then heard rockfall beneath me, then silence.

Maybe he couldn’t hear me. I yelled again, and started traversing back out into the snow, where I could eventually see the bottom of the snow couloir. Some 500ft beneath me, the snow ended on a scree bench, with a big rock on the right side. Jack wasn’t on the snow, wasn’t on the bench. I yelled again.

The dull idea that he might be dead arrived. If he hadn’t stopped, he had probably gone to the bottom of the basin. My mind went straight to Touching the Void, a classic of mountaineering literature, in which a climber cuts the rope to his partner then assumes his death, only to later find that his partner survived. Recovery or rescue, I had to climb down and take a look. There’d be no peace if I didn’t do that. Maybe he’d survived.

Melt in the snow had shaped the surface of the couloir into a V-shape with a runnel in the crotch. That runnel had the hardest snow and made the best climbing on the way up. Gravity pulled Jack straight down it, and his ride had erased the steps we’d kicked. I’d plant my axe, kick both feet down, plant, and keep moving. It took forever. Imaginary phone conversations with Jack’s wife Leslie, who I’d never met, played in my head. What would I say? Kicking both feet in, I thought about the long, solo walk out if I found nothing below me. I thought about walking up the steps of the Belly River ranger station, about how I’d report a fatality. The words I might use.

We’d been more confident about the couloir than any other part of our route. Once there, we were home free. We’d have been atop the ridge in another 300ft. Perhaps we’d gotten too excited. Maybe lost focus, or didn’t properly respect the steep snow, an element I spend so much time on as to be dangerously comfortable. Plant the axe.

Whether alive or dead, I reminded myself that my own safety was key. Nothing heroic or risky—I was getting myself out of here. Make each move count. Kick the steps. Plant the axe. Go take a look, and then make a plan.

My crampons finally crunched into the scree at the bottom of the couloir. A pile of slush had come down the runnel with Jack and fanned out on the ledge. I still couldn’t see below me, so I traversed climber’s right for an angle. Something in me braced for seeing his body on a ledge. For not seeing anything at all, and having to walk out bearing a news so much heavier than my pack.

His green shirt caught my eye first. He sat on a ledge perhaps 200ft below the snow, head in his hands. Nearly empty, his pack lay behind him. It must have broken open during the fall. His helmet was gone. Somehow, he’d fallen down 500ft of snow and then through the ledges of a waterfall to stop here, not just alive, but sitting up. A rope and some of his gear glistened where the water ran around them a hundred feet above.

Alive. There’s so much vitality in just the word. It had been roughly an hour since Jack had fallen, and all the whirring in my mind had its answer. Alive I could work with. Injured, we could handle that. Instantly, everything changed. This was no recovery, no long walk out with terrible news, no situation beyond my ability to change—this was a rescue. Climbers understand focus on a goal, and I now had one: see how he was, and then make a plan. Keep moving forward.

The noise of the creek running next to him kept him from hearing any of the yells I made as I got close. There was blood on his arms, pants, and as I reached him, the first thing he asked caught me off guard: “Where am I?” Head trauma was my first thought. I cleared up where he was, that he’d fallen, and handed him the water bottle. He knew who I was, and seemed pretty on top of things given how far he’d fallen, but asked several times how far he’d fallen from the snow.

The ledge was decently flat, but the loose scree and rocks had me worried that he was still in danger of falling, so anchoring him in seemed important. We’d split part of the rack before starting our ascent up the couloir, so I arranged a quick anchor and clipped it to Jack’s harness.

His right arm was obviously broken, he had rib pain, and complained of a little pain in his back and neck. A big gash just above his left elbow was still bleeding a little, so we taped that shut. I got him to lay down on his pack, and tried to keep him from moving, as the neck and spine worried me, but he still had sensation in his limbs. His crampons were tethered around his ankles, but had been blown off his boots somewhere in the fall. I took them off.

Several times, Jack told me he was sorry. I told him there was nothing to be sorry for, because he hadn’t died on me.

We had no cell phone, and it’s dubious as to whether coverage would have reached the ledge anyway. No satellite beacon. No radio. I thought about our options, then heard a telltale thwacking. Glacier National Park is cursed by helicopter tours that buzz overhead at least once an hour on the busy days. I could perhaps signal to them, and get word out that way. Jack’s tent is a yellow Bibler, so I hung it on the snowfield next to us and tried to write HELP on it with mud. You can imagine how well mud and water sticks to a single wall, four season, waterproof tent. Instead, I gave Jack the job of listening for helicopters. Every time one came by, I’d jump up and wave like the lunatic I hoped I’d look like with an orange shirt in one hand and orange stuff sack in the other.

D: “We’re going to get you out of here.”
J: “I don’t know how.”

He was shocky, but I was blown away how stable he seemed. There was no way to know if he had internal damage. It seemed important to find a better spot to him to rest, given that I had no idea how long we’d be there. Moving him wasn’t a good idea, as the neck and spine pain made all too clear, but he was in the middle of a rock funnel. I looked all over in a fifty foot radius, and realized that he was in about the flattest, widest spot. Pushing mud and rocks downhill, I dug out a platform for him, lined it with my pad, then inflated his on top of mine. It wasn’t far, maybe four feet, but the anchor wouldn’t work with the new spot. I slung a rock then deadman’d it in the snow above him, doubling my cordalette to make the new connection. Jack managed to butt scoot himself up onto the pads, and he was finally a bit more comfy.

I’d arrived at Jack at approximately 12:30. It seemed important to stay long enough to get him stable and see how he was doing. But with each passing helicopter, there came a realization that we were still a long way from help. My attempts to flag them down did nothing, which isn’t their fault—why would they be looking for injured climbers during a scenic tour, especially in a place like where we were? I began to reorganize gear out of my bag, taking only the bare essentials I’d need for a quick trip out. Near the top of Jack’s pack, I left my sleeping bag, food, his bivy sack, two liters of water, and some layers. He also had the stove and pot to heat up dinner if things got cold.

Leaving meant a series of gambles. That he’d remain stable. That I could get help to him efficiently. That he could put on the sleeping bag when it got cold, or open the pack with so little strength in his right arm. But as 2pm rolled around, I felt the daylight shrinking. To get out, raise the alarm, then actually have help get there that day, I had eight hours and change. I’d have a mission, a purpose in what I was doing. He’d be left alone, to deal with the pain and taking care of himself. I don’t envy that position, and I think it’s the way harder spot.

Just after 2pm, I held Jack’s hand for a minute, told him that I’d get help coming, and set off. On my decisions hung not only my own safety, but the ability to get the word out. In my mind, failure wasn’t an option. I had to succeed. Maybe this seems strange, but after so much high consequence skiing this spring, tons of time in no fall zones—such a mindset is a familiar place for me. Not comfortable per se; I’m too wary of the danger for that, but I can operate there without wigging out. Let me be clear: I’m no hero. I didn’t do anything extraordinary or way outside my comfort zone to help rescue Jack. If there’s anything that sets my actions apart from what someone else might have done, I’d cite that ability to operate in vertical terrain with a cool head, an attribute of any good mountain partner.

At the bottom of the snow, I found Jack’s axe in the slush pile. That gave me two, and with the steps I’d kicked, it was quick work getting up the snow to the ridge. Jack had given me some directions about the descent on the other side. As Jack’s daughter Lucy later pointed out, it might have been a little foolish to ask a guy who had just hit his head about how to descend to Lake Margaret. Instead, his directions were spot on, and I ran down scree and glissaded until the double-overhead vegetation swallowed me on the shores of the lake. Since there’s no trail around, I walked straight in, boots and all, and waded the shore to make better time.

It didn’t feel like a rescue. More like I was moving through the mountains at speed, with high stakes, and trying to move quick. Not much more than that.

My plan was to start looking in the campgrounds for a party with a satellite phone. If that didn’t seem to work, I’d hang my pack and trail run to the ranger station in the Belly, some seven or eight miles away. Running shoes had seemed like an excess, but now they were security. I took the time to walk back the wrong way to check Mokowanis Junction, and found Maddie and Jeanne as the sole occupants—they immediately offered their satellite communicator, and Maddie graciously spent the next hours typing out messages, finding signal, and hanging out with a smelly guy whose mind was elsewhere.

I’m guilty of disliking Spot beacons, satellite phones, and anything else that provides a link to the outside world in places where it shouldn’t intrude. I’m guilty of thinking that they create a false reliance on technology—and there is some truth to that. I’m guilty of enjoying the distance felt when you absolutely can’t mess up.  But when someone is injured or dying in front of you, those reasons seem stupid. We’re lucky to have incredible rescue folks, and live in a modern age in an advanced country. Deciding to not take advantage of that for the reasons I listed looks cruelly on anyone who cares about me or the people I’m out there with. Outdoor pursuits are often selfish, but that cruelty is beyond my own comfort. I’ve since gotten a Spot locator, and plan to get it running.

Eventually, it got past 7pm. The satellite text messages we were sending back and forth with the emergency dispatch and, by proxy, Glacier rangers weren’t going through. I worried that the rescue wouldn’t happen that night, which would leave Jack exposed. What if something had taken a turn for the worse? What if he hadn’t been as stable as I thought? With Maddy and Jeanne, I weighed the benefits of staying vs heading out to the Belly River ranger station. If I was leaving, I wanted at least two hours before it got dark. Wandering solo in the Belly after dark is a poor idea. Just as I was waffling, a new text came through instructing me to hike that way and meet a ranger hiking out to meet me. In minutes, my pack was on and I was out of there after some lame attempt to express my gratitude to the two wonderful people who had helped us so much.

Hiking at a fast pace felt good. I hurtled along, pushed by the knowledge that the window of daylight was closing. Somewhere by Cosley Lake, I met the ranger. Immediately, we sat down and fixed Jack’s location over the radio. This same ranger had seen us on our way in, and also ran into Jack last year when he and Al climbed the Cusp. He had been out hiking all day, summited two peaks with some mutual friends staying with him, and then bounced out to meet me after hearing about what was happening on the radio. I credit him with incredible care, professionalism, and hospitality, as we eventually walked back out to the ranger station, where I spent the night. I remember thinking on the way in that it’d be cool to spend a night there someday—be careful what you wish for, I guess.

As we hiked out, the radio periodically gave us some info—a park contract helicopter had spotted Jack, and he was waving back. Two Bear Air, a local search helicopter capable of doing a high angle rescue with their hoist, was dispatched and en route. Then things calmed down and we didn’t hear anything until the ranger called in to ask. It turned out that Jack was by then en route to Browning in an ambulance, which was the final bit of relief. We couldn’t hear the helicopters, as they were on the other side of Mt. Merritt. I felt a long way away from Jack, from the events unfolding. That didn’t stop me from sleeping like a rock though, so it must have not bothered me much.

In the morning, I walked out with my friends who had been staying with the ranger. Their company made quick work of the six miles out from the ranger station, and I really appreciate them for it. I got out, started texting family to let them know that I was safe and what had happened, then tried to get in touch with Jack’s family by reaching out on facebook. Turns out that they’d been trying to get my phone number, but nobody they’d asked had it. Meanwhile, I drove to Browning in case that Jack was still there. It was hot in the car, I was sweaty, and super hungry as I’d basically skipped two meals after hiking and climbing a full circumnavigation of Mt. Merritt. Before I went on my way, I relayed the story to Jack’s daughters and wife by phone. Jack was in Great Falls, and I offered to come down there, but was graciously asked not to to allow Jack to rest. Made sense to me, so I pointed the ship for home. Thanks to Ben for meeting up with me at the Two Med Grill for food—I really appreciated his company.

In the wake of all that happened, it hasn’t seemed to affect my mountaining—two days later, Matt Brake and I did a big climb with a significant bit of snow travel on top. It was attention worthy, but I felt at home. Two weeks out, I made a committing solo traverse over a route new to me through Floral Park. Boldness and risk still matter to me; perhaps I’m more acutely aware of the consequences.

Mountains sustain and provide so much for me and those who I adventure with while holding the potential to injure or kill us. It’s a relationship of love and real danger. The work of a mountaineer’s life is to walk the fine ridge lines carefully, trying to anticipate getting smacked down amidst the joy. There may be no articulate answer or solution to the opposing ways that a mountain can make your life wonderful and simultaneously threaten to take it away, but I’ll keep looking, rambling here, and trying to learn and experience what I can.

Jack is recovering well at home. He’s walking, in just a neck brace and cast, and spunky as ever.

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