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.
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.
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!
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…
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.