The Belly of the Beast

As I was being lowered, belly flop style, into a crevasse yesterday I couldn’t help but mutter, “Well this is the strangest decision I have ever made.”  In retrospect, strange might not be the perfect word to describe it.

Yesterday our team and three other teams (there were a lot of people up on the glacier) headed out onto the Nisqually Glacier in search of a crevasse to lower ourselves  into, thus creating an opportunity to practice pulling ourselves out.  In the mountains there are two types of hazards.  There are subjective hazards which are human created and controlled, like climbing routes that are beyond one’s experience, having the wrong gear, not wearing a helmet, bad decision-making… the list goes on.  The second type of hazards are objective, things that are beyond human control but, if you are smart and risk manage well you can still avoid.  These hazards are things like rock fall, weather, avalanches, and crevasses.  So what did we do yesterday? Go seek out objective hazards and get right up in them.

The day started at the Paradise parking lot under a low-lying misty cloud layer.  You could feel the sun through the thin clouds but we didn’t actually see it until we got up to our destination.  We hiked with our group out to the Nisqually glacier and took a moraine up the side of the glacier until we found a good spot to rope up and head out in rope teams.  As we continued to gain in elevation we were hunting for the perfect crevasse, not to overhanging, not too small, and god forbid not too big.  We didn’t find one that would work until we were at almost 8,000 feet.  Our team and all the other teams pulled in parallel to each other, probing for more crevasses all the while, and began to set up fixed lines and z-pulleys.  Soon all the deadmen were dug and our systems were in place and Dana asked the question, “So, who is going to go first?”  I word vomited, “I will” and then quickly shut my mouth to keep from actually throwing up.

You might be wondering how I was doing up there on that glacier since I am the worry worts of all worry worts… well, I wasn’t doing stellar.  I was nervous.  It felt counterintuitive to me to seek out a glacier (objective hazard, remember) and then just hang out on it all day.  Not to mention the questionable logic of lowering ones self into a crevasse, when not falling into a crevasse is pretty much the entire goal of glacier travel.  But of course, there is no better way to practice.  It was one of those situations where I knew, rationally, that I was safe, I had a back up belay as well as the rope team that was going to pull me out.  I had practiced z-pulleys with my team and I felt confident that they were going to do a good job.  Glaciers may move 6 inches a day on average but they weren’t just going to crack into a million pieces.  We weren’t in any avalanche danger, we weren’t in a rock fall zone, we were fine.  But try telling that to the non-logical emotional worried side of my brain.  The reason I went in the crevasse first wasn’t because I was super excited about it.  I wanted to go in to get it over with.

Being in the crevasse itself was kind of a blur.  I was completely focused on getting my prusiks set up so I could get out as fast as possible and swearing intermittently as the rope lowered me up and down and snow rained down on my head from the lip above.  Because I was the first I was also the guinea pig, which was great for me because they didn’t lower me in very deep.  The team next to me lowered their climbers all the way to the bottom, it took forever to pull them out!  Speaking of, I was glad to see that the crevasse had a “bottom”.  Of course, there is no knowing that it was the real bottom, it could just be a snow bridge or fallen ice, but mentally it felt like a bottom.  I had, of course, been expecting the crevasse to go down forever and ever, into blackness.  Being in the crevasse is a little like being under the skin of the mountain, because glaciers are alive.  They are creaking and moving, sliding slowly down the mountain face, powerful and cold.  There were loud thumps and deep cracks emanating from deep in the bowels of the glacier, making me jump and quickening my breath.  My team got me out fast, I probably only spent about seven minutes total down there.

Then we started going through the line up, ever person playing the different parts to allow us to practice the different knots and motions needed.  The day was so intensive, so real, that I forgot to eat, barely drank, just tried to focus and get it over with.  Towards the end of our rotation the sun warmed ice of the glacier started to cleave and we watched huge chunks of ice fall off of overhanging ice caves high above us.  We were in no immediate danger, but every time there was a huge crack and the rumble of cascading ice blocks and rocks we all whipped our heads around, hearts in our stomachs.

Once everyone had their time in the crevasse and practiced every part of the z-pulley we re-assembled our rope teams and hiked out, the first group out despite being the last group in.  Once back on the rope my nerves calmed considerably.  We were moving again, going somewhere, not just sitting and waiting for the ice to move us down the mountain at the incredible slow pace that ice moves.  I was able to guzzle my water and eat snacks out of my hip belt pockets and of course, marvel at how terrible I smelled.  It took me forever to figure out what my sweat smelled like, because it was different from my normal sweat, and that difference intrigued me.  It was stress sweat and heat sweat all baked back onto my skin by the rays of the sun, bouncing off the snow bowl and back at me from every angle.  It smelled like barnacles and little bits of seaweed at low tide when the sun has dried them out and left a coating of salt behind.  I smelled like hot sea shells.  I may have been a little delirious but that made a lot of sense to me at the time.

Getting off the glacier, and eventually, back to the parking lot was like descending the rungs of a huge stress ladder.  It felt amazing, it always does.  Being out on the glacier was nerve-wracking, but something that, given more time and experience, I know I could get used to.  It also made me appreciate the simpler climbs we have done, because, although they still have rock fall and avalanches and exposure to be worried about, they take glaciers out of the mix entirely.  As always, a day removed, I feel so much better about the whole situation, proud of myself, and excited to move on to the next adventure.  It is like something I was reading on an Mt Everest website (NOT because we are thinking of ever climbing it, but because Kyle and I had an argument about camping on glaciers).  The climbers who were writing about their experience said, “Fear is always worse than reality.”  I don’t know if that is always true, but on these outings it is certainly true for me.  The more I expose myself the more my fears back down and reality is tangible from the get go.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

8 thoughts on “The Belly of the Beast

  1. That’s really well-written and I think you’re exceedingly brave. But you sound like me in that you’d go first to get it over with and are really proud of your achievement afterwards. Fear sweat smells terrible – I didn’t realise it was different until my walking buddy commented on it one day when I’d had a scary day out. Normally my clothes don’t smell of anything when I take them off as I’d rather peel clothes off than sweat and only wear pretty loose clothing anyway but that day they did. We’ve noticed it since too when I’ve had scary days out.

    Your photos of the day are just superb!

  2. I love it! I do recall the sweat smell difference, though I’ve never done glaciers. And the thumps! I so remember those. Thanks so much, enjoyed it thoroughly.

  3. A very well-written account of your day on the glacier. Loved reading it. I love glaciers. They are so incredibly beautiful. I love walking on them. Their crevasses are gargantuan, awesome, gorgeous, and scary. Teresa Shattuck.

    1. Teresa, so good to hear that you love them! I need more positive glacier love it my life, it makes their dangers seem more respectable and less fear inducing 🙂 I’d love to get to talk with you some time about all your experiences!

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