Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Being safe is hard work.

I've had to spend some time sitting on this one. Well...actually, I've not really wanted to think about it at all. It's really just in the last week I've started to digest the accident Seth and I had in Alaska this past April.

I haven't given it a second thought since flying home from Alaska on April 25 with my tail between my legs, and my head full of fear for my boyfriend. The day after Seth's accident on the Hayes Glacier, I received a call that there had been an earthquake in Nepal. Colin was trapped in Kyanjin Gompa in the Langtang Valley. After working for a week to help bring Colin safely home from Nepal, I just simply didn't feel like thinking about scary and bad things for a while.

I could recount the whole event play-by-play of what happened to Seth and I in the Eastern Alaska Range; But Seth did a pretty good job of explaining the experience from his perspective here. I just want to share with you the highlights from my perspective. I feel compelled to share because I want to use my experience as a tool to help all of you, my readers, be safe out there. Glacier travel and crevasse rescue is something we all learn, or should learn, but going from book knowledge to actually pulling your friend out of a crevasse is a big transition, and one that should not be taken lightly.

Colin recounted several of the accidents that occurred in the Chalten Massif this past season, including an accident similar to Seth and I; An unroped crevasse fall. However, the accident had a slightly different outcome and I think it's worth exploring why.

After one member of a two person team took an unroped crevasse fall on the Fitz Roy Norte Glacier, the safe partner simply didn't know what to do. He panicked and ended up leaving the injured partner in the crevasse while he left to find help. I'm drawing some subjective conclusions here, but I'd like to think that if the safe climber had dedicated time to understanding and practising rescue techniques this accident would have had a different outcome.

Now more than ever I am convinced that self-rescue techniques need to be practised again, and again, and again. Just as we practise our skills as technical climbers weekend after weekend, we need to dedicate some serious hours to practising the skills that keep us safe in the mountains.

Allow me to explain further the events that took place immediately following Seth's crevasse fall. To give you some background, before departing our camp on the Trident Glacier we deliberated on whether we should rope up or use skis to approach the base of our objective. Ultimately, we let our laziness get the better of us and we made what would turn out to be a very stupid decision. We chose to travel unroped and without skis. We did however, have enough forethought to wear our harnesses and have Seth break trail while I followed a few metres behind with the rope, just in case anything were to happen.

At roughly 11:30 am Seth and I walked away from our basecamp on the Trident Glacier and towards our objective. About 400 m from our tent we briefly stopped to assess our route and then continued. Several minutes later I recall looking down at my feet, then looking up again to see Seth gone. He was just simply not there anymore. The bridge that he broke through left a hole barely larger than Seth himself. I recall a feeling of absolute disbelief, and that it was terribly silent. I had heard nothing. It all happened so quickly that Seth didn't even get the chance to utter a sound.

After that, my mind clicked in to gear and I knew I was now in a rescue scenario. I yelled to Seth again and again, but heard no response. At the same time I examined the area in which I was standing, just to be certain I was not standing on a weak snow bridge myself. Following that I sat myself down, put on my helmet, pulled out all my gear, and had a sip of water. I moved quickly, but I also acted with purpose.

Once I had prepared myself I immediately started to build a solid anchor. I hammered in a picket as deep as I could. Thankfully, it hit firm snow and was VERY solid. Then I hammered in the ends of both my trekking poles with the baskets removed and finally I very firmly placed both my ice tools. I equalised the picket with both ice tools, and then separately equalised both my trekking poles and attached them to the primary anchor as a backup. Seth is a big guy, he weights 200 lbs. I wanted to leave nothing to chance, and have total confidence in my anchor before lowering myself to the lip of the crevasse.

Once I was satisfied with my anchor I fixed one end of the rope to it and began lowering the free end into the crevasse. Here's where I wish I had done something differently. When I fixed one end of the rope to the anchor, I left a tail of maybe 15 metres. In hindsight, I should have fixed the rope at 30 m, giving me 30 m to lower to Seth and another 30 m to use in a pulley scenario.

Next, I attached myself to the 15 m tail on a prussik and crawled to the lip of the crevasse being very careful not to break the lip. It should be noted that I continued to yell to Seth the whole time I was preparing an anchor, but did not receive any response. Finally, I reached the lip of the crevasse and gave a few more loud yells and heard a response from Seth. He was alive. Thank god! I estimate that it was about 10 minutes between the time he fell into the crevasse and when I first heard a response from him. We believe he fell about 15-20 m before coming to a stop on a small ice ledge, and that he was unconscious for about 10 min.

He spoke very slowly and quietly at first. It was apparent he'd suffered head trauma, but after some back and forth he was able to confirm that he could set up his prussiks and would begin to ascend the rope. I then walked back to the anchor, grabbed a yellow evazote foam pad and left it near the lip of the crevasse under the rope that Seth would ascend. This prevented the rope from digging deeper into the lip of the crevasse and making it more difficult for Seth to ascend.

While Seth was ascending the rope (very slowly) I rigged my Petzl Micro Traxion on the 15 m tail of rope I'd fixed. I lowered this 15 m end to Seth and had him tie into it once he reached it. Then I attached my prussik to the "pull" end of the rope fed through the Micro Traxion and clipped a prussik to the belay loop of my harness. From there I was able to provide some body-weight assistance to Seth as he ascended. That night after we were safely home in Fairbanks, while I was taking a shower I noticed that my back, where the harness sits, was black and blue. I realised that I had bruised myself from pulling with my body weight against the Micro-Traxion to assist Seth. I was trying really hard I guess!

After about an hour to an hour and a half (it was hard to be sure) Seth was safely above ground. I remained attached to the equalised anchor that I had built, and I cloved Seth off to it as well. From there we did a quick assessment of Seth's injuries. He was able to walk, and the bleeding had mostly stopped. So, I removed all the gear from his harness etc., and put some warm clothing on him from his pack. Then I began to package everything up as best I could and set us up for Seth to belay me out. I was concerned that there may have been more weakened bridges in our area so I wanted to be extra safe and be belayed out to the "safe" zone of the glacier. I had to talk Seth through the belay process, he was still a little foggy. Once at 60 m, Seth took me off belay, took down the anchor, and we began walking in tandem away from the crevasses and towards our camp.

We arrived back to our camp without incident and I immediately set out some sleeping bags in the tent for Seth to crawl into. He laid down while I called Rob Wing, our Super-Cub pilot, to come pick us up. Rob was awesome, and said he'd be there in two hours. It's a long flight from Fairbanks and Rob still had to get himself to the hanger and prepare the plane. Once Rob was on his way, I got to work preparing warm liquids and some food for Seth. He was a good patient and just relaxed in the tent while I prepared food, and started to take down our camp.

I had just enough time to package everything up before I heard the sweet sound of Rob's Super-Cub. And just like that, as quickly as we'd arrived on the glacier, we were gone. What a crazy 24 hours.

I don't know why I'm sharing this. It's totally ridiculous. I can't draw worth a crap. But, here's the rough layout of my rescue system. Maybe this will help bring some sense to what I've explained above.
So, what's the moral of the story? Like I said earlier, I think it's practise, and it's alot of practise by yourself. This past season in Argentina I decided that I'd start to pass bad weather days in town by practising self-rescue techniques on the stairs of our apartment. I bought a booked called, Climbing Self-Rescue by Andy Tyson and Molly Loomis. Every time I was bored in town, which there is a lot of that kind of time, I would pull out the ropes and beg Colin to pretend to be my injured partner. Sometimes I wouldn't be able to bribe Colin into playing this role, so I'd just fill up water bottles and hang them from my systems.

For me, the exercise of understanding and then practising various self-rescue techniques by myself really solidified the skill. When Seth fell into a crevasse in Alaska, there was no hesitation. I knew what needed to be done, and I did it confidently. 

I want to encourage you to learn all you can from various sources; Practise with your friends, take a course, read a book, but most importantly I think you should spend some time running through scenarios on your own. When accidents happen in the mountains you are often alone. You can't rely on the fact that you'll have another body there the assist, or help with decision making. It is important that you are confident in formulating and executing a plan completely independently. 

So with all this in mind, I wanted to share some helpful self-rescue beta. First off, see if you can find yourself a copy of the book mentioned above. I found it useful because systems described build themselves from simplest skill to the most complex incorporating skills previously learned in the book. I also want to direct you to Petzl's website, www.petzl.com. This website is chock-full (no pun intended) of technical information and rescue techniques using many of their products. For example, the Micro Traxion, of which I am now a huge fan and will probably never walk on a glacier again without, has a technical information page where detailed explanations are provided on using the Micro Traxion in a variety of rescue scenarios. 

This brings me to a very important piece of beta. Buy yourself a Micro Traxion! Strong words I know, but after my experience in Alaska, it became apparent to me that the Micro Tracxion is well worth its 85 gram weight. Incorporate the Micro Traxion into your practised rescue scenarios, learn about it, become familiar with what it can do for you in a difficult situation. 

Just like climbing 5.14 doesn't just happen to you, successfully executing a rescue doesn't just happen to you either. It requires education and practise. So, go forth and learn, and stay safe out there!