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Pigeon Spire, diabetes and a bergschrund

My 250th day of climbing was to be shared with Martin, my first T1D mountaineering partner; our objective, the west ridge of Pidgeon Spire–modestly rated at “only” 5.4 was a long way away and we had to make use of all available daylight to get back at a reasonable time. Stefanie’s cold that she had been nursing for a few days and on the 4 hour approach had taken hold and we decided that it would be better for her to rest in camp and that we would see her in the evening.

By this time I was quite certain that this was going to be a great day; I had never stepped foot on a glacier despite years of climbing many different types of rock so I was looking forward to that challenge as well as the realization of my long standing dream to climb Bugaboo rock! The fact that it was to be as part of a T1D team was just icing on the cake. Low carb icing, that is.

Before getting into the meat of this post which is visual, not narrative, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Martin Fuhrer for being so generous both in taking photos and in sharing them with me (and by extension with all of you) and just as the climbing was a seamless collaboration, in many ways this post fulfills that same purpose.

Sunrise after a half hour hike up the boulder field and transitioned onto the snowfield below the glacier. Full disclosure, I did not slaughter the Kool-Aid man in some sort of diabetic protest-homicide–that red on the snow is actually algae that lives in the snow!

Looking ahead at our approach: Snowpatch spire is on the left, Bugaboo spire is on the right. Between the spires lies the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col or snow filled gully. Our route follows the zig-zag track up the col and over the notch in the center of the photo.

Martin and the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col reflected…

The snowfield below the col provided a good place to get familiar with crampon use and ice axe skills.

Beginning the climb up the col. The snow was generally solid underfoot at this point. Minimal kicking was needed in order to get your feet to “stick”.

Martin Fuhrer, Snowpatch spire in the background.

This is me coming up the col, closer to the top. In the foreground you see the Bergschrund, which is similar to a crevasse. More on this feature later! This shot gives you a sense for the steepness of the col. Feeling my feet slide out about 6 inches from every foot placement before they would really stick was pretty horrifying. It was steep as 5.6 rock slabs but your feet would sketch out from under you!

Once I was even with the Bergschrund, I took this shot looking across it from the right. The gap from the top lip to the lower one is about 12 feet wide.

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I really like this shot because it captures the scale of the approach to the top of the col. You may notice that the snow runs out in the foreground and it turns to dirt/scree. Upon reaching the scree, I literally thought I was going to peel off and go zipping into the gaping Bergschrund below. Martin was cool as can be and patiently waited for my expletive-laden traverse of this particularly hairy section to be complete before sharing that we “should probably have gone up the left side, even though its steeper”.

Once we reached the top of the col, there was a glacier to cross before we got onto any rock. Vowell glacier with the Howser towers in the background.

I had eaten a stout breakfast and kept snacking through the approach. Apparently almost skidding down the col didnt release enough adrenaline to raise my blood sugar because I am at 137 just before taking my morning Lantus…It looks like 177 but thats a 3. Just to preempt any would-be fact-checkers…

This is absolutely one of my favorite images from Project 365. If you can bring your diabetes HERE, then you can bring it anywhere. Thanks to Martin particularly for being right on the money when I was shooting up!

After another snack and a little rest, we roped up for the first time to cross the Vowell Glacier. Here we are casting off onto the snow and ice, with Pigeon Spire prominent in the background-the Howsers are off to the right.

The glacier crossing was not all that difficult, but we took lots of pictures. Here is Martin grabbing another great shot as Pigeon Spire looms closer!

Lots of photos!

After crossing the glacier and approaching Pigeon Spire, I went low. Not a crazy low, but having a hypo just before you step off a glacier and onto a rock climbing route up a spire that is pretty remote (by most people’s standards anyhow) was a little disconcerting for me. I hadnt taken any fast acting insulin in days and I had been eating enough to choke a horse. I figured that this low was a result of my Lantus that I took just before getting on the glacier and the aerobic exercise of the crossing.

Martin at the base of Pigeon Spire preparing to negotiate the rock route while I am chowing yet another Clifbar and fretting…

The west ridge was our route…and what a ridge! It was like being on the ridgepole of a house!

Martin doing some ridge-riding–I got some great video of this too!

Off to the right side of the ridge–I checked my sugar mid-route just to make sure I wouldnt have a rebound high. I didnt.

There were several false summits like this along the way and the climbing itself was interesting and not at all challenging. We found some ice on the route which gave us pause…but it was nothing that made me wish I had lugged my crampons along! I was happy to have plenty of Clifbars along though and I ate several over the course of the climb!

Finally the summit and another sugar check. Still in range! I kept waiting for it to rebound high but it didnt. I kept burning it off!

Together Martin and I ascended the summit block. If you look in the bottom of the photo you will see my helmet balanced to capture video on the GoPro helmet camera!

Then came time to descend…another awesome shot by Martin.

Here is what it feels like to carry a 70 meter rope for a route that went cordless and didnt have any rappels that required more than 50 meters of cord…overprepared!

Then we downclimbed the rest of the route, back down to the glacier.

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Walking the ridgepole on the way back down!

Back down onto the glacier after taking in a snack. It was about 5 PM at this point. We opted to take our time since the weather was beautiful and we had the option of not rushing our descent.

We retraced our steps back to the top of the col that was so tenuously ascended earlier in the morning. Back across the Vowell Glacier and with only our descent back down to the snowfield below the col blocking an easy descent back to camp, we almost had it in the bag. It was getting later but we still had light and both Martin and I had been avoiding low blood sugar. Now we were in an incredibly dangerous point of the day. We had successfully achieved our summit and “only” a little bit of descending was left to do. Distraction, exuberance, hubris even begin to cloud the judgement. We discussed the need to really dial in our descent of the col.

We had two options. Downclimb (no ropes, because belaying was thoroughly impractical) or rappel the col. Rappelling seemed to be the way to go. I wanted to validate having brought an unnecessary length of rope–plus I was scared out of my mind after almost getting chopped on the way up there in the morning! Martin agreed to rappel the route with me since it was pretty clear that we wouldnt both be comfortable otherwise (which was very nice of him, in retrospect!)

The rap route went down the left, steeper side of the col. Earlier in the day we had bypassed the Bergschrund by going around it on the right. Now, this gaping moat lay squarely in our path which would have otherwise been very simple. We had already committed to our descent by the time we saw how big it was…we talked about traversing out into the middle and down climbing but I was not able to accept that option. It was my first day on a glacier and warm temperatures had been melting it all day, so the integrity of the snowpack was diminished–a fact evidenced by frequent and loud rockfall from across the col. Snow and ice acting like glue, holding the conglomerate together would melt, releasing fragments of the mountains.

The sun was going down, and it sounded like we were in an artillery range, with rocks the size of home appliances strafing the snowfield below the col. Our path down and out of that environment was blocked by a crevasse!

It doesnt look that big and bad, right? Thats what I thought too–till I got down into the business. I had to rap straight down into the crevasse and climb sideways while on rappel to get far enough over to scramble onto the snowbridge that I am pointing out for Martin after I was through the worst of it.

I rappelled down into the Bergschrund and immediately I became aware of the dripping water from the upper lip of the ice and snow. Hanging in my harness I couldnt reach behind me (even using my axe) and climb out on the lower “lip” of the Bergschrund–it was beyond my reach by several feet. I looked to my right and saw sunken snowbridges. Some had totally collapsed and lay tens of feet below and were just shattered remnants of the volatility of mountain snow-pack. About 15 feet to my right however, there was a sunken bridge that had melted down but still was barely connected to the lower edge of the Bergschrund. This was our only hope. This narrow and rotten bit of snow, bridging the crevasse would have to hold–or else I would go swinging back, down and across into the jagged of the innards of the Bergschrund.

Translation: Broken limb/s at best. Internal bleeding or TBI (traumatic brain injury) at worst. None of these ideas appealed to me. I tried to avoid thinking about how the Bergschrund could also collapse on top of me in addition to all of the other horrific scenarios that were playing out in my mind. In order to avoid vocalizing these scenarios too vividly, Martin and I engaged in small talk to keep it light. Diabetes was pretty light by comparison: “So hey, hows your sugar been…mine has been a little low today…yeah I ate a bit up at the top of the col…”.

Martin was unflappable. He was calm as if he was sitting on a sofa in his living room. I on the other hand was flapping about like three sheets to the wind.

Upon reaching the snowbridge, I made an attempt to scramble up onto it. I had my left foot precariously balancing me on boulder-choked ice in front of me and as I attempted to stand up on the snowbridge with my right foot, the edge of the snow sheared off and I barely caught myself before swinging off to one of the fates that I had been imagining. I tried a second time. This HAD to work or else…

I planted my axe as far as I could in the rotten snowbridge and gingerly beached-whaled myself up and quickly scrambled up the other side and out of the maw of the glacier. I rapped down to safety…

Now I had to wait for Martin. From where I was, I could see him descend into the Bergschrund. Each minute seemed like an hour or more. I knew that because he was shorter than me, he would likely use a different sequence to put the moves together. I could see that his rope was angled off to the right and it was taught. I knew he hadnt taken a swing off to the side, so that was hopeful…

This was one of the most comforting sights I could see, as Martin emerged from the belly of the beast–smiling and still upbeat as ever.

We descended the remainder of the snowfield back down to camp together to eat, rest and celebrate the climbing life. Diabetes was good for small talk and it was just part of our routines.

That was my 250th day of climbing and my realization of a dream. My life absolutely changed that day, but that is a topic for a future post.

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