Marolt: Big things in the big country, Part 1
(Note: The following is Part 1 of the transcript of an oral story I told for Writ Large last week at Justice Snow’s. Part 2 of the story will appear here Nov. 27.)
Imagine flying with a skilled and confident bush pilot. Checking in on a herd of caribou, tracing the path of a grizzly across a glacier, making tight circles against the face of a mountain to gain altitude and then diving, almost touching a ridge to find yourself instantly 4,000 feet above another glacier on the other side? It can stop the heart and drain the adrenal glands, and it’s the way I began my final mountain-climbing expedition.
Our pilot dropped us off in the middle of the immense Quintino Sella Glacier in Kluane National Park on the Alaska-Canada border, about 75 of the harshest miles on Earth away from the nearest settlement that could remotely pass for civilization. As he took off and the roar of his plane turned to the buzzing of a bee before fading completely, we were utterly alone. I knew the most important thing in my life. I thought of Susan and how she deserved my attention more than this desolate place.
My brothers, Mike and Steve, and close friends John Callahan and Jim Gile and I shouldered our gear and started the 10-mile slog to the isolated base of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest mountain at 19,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean, a mere 20 miles to the west.
It’s a cruel part of the world, the place where the Arctic Circle and Pacific Ocean cavort to give life to monstrous storms. Climbers claim snow fell so heavily here that it nearly buried them alive. The lowest temperature on Earth outside Antarctica was recorded here at 106 degrees below zero in the month of May!
The day we started was beautiful — sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and a mild 22 below zero; apparently it was the June thaw.
Our first night, we had ample glacier to set up camp on. We evaluated our safety. We were at least a mile away from the base of 17,000-foot King Peak lurching above. Avalanche danger? No way.
As we convinced ourselves, a tremendous “crack” sounded from above. We watched incredulously as a wave of snow cascaded off the gigantic mountain face. I was stunned in awe before scrounging my pack for my camera, and then I still had time to snap several frames before the horizontal frozen tornado rolled across the glacier for 2 or 3 miles, not more than a few hundred yards in front of us!
I spent the night calculating odds that couldn’t be calculated. I wanted to know the chance of a catastrophic event like that happening again while we would be crossing its path the next day. By morning, I was certain an avalanche that large couldn’t happen again in a lifetime.
Mike and I set off first to tempt fate, roped together for protection against plunging unwittingly into deep, deadly crevasses hidden beneath thin snow bridges along the route. The others waited for us to pass through the danger zone, reasoning that at least we shouldn’t all get killed together.
At the point we were most exposed to danger, I oddly began to feel the most confident.
“Pop!” I looked up to see a huge block of hanging glacier calve off — again — and it was careening directly toward us.
“So, this is the way it ends,” I remember calmly thinking. I watched the wall of snow grow as it descended and then disappeared behind a swell in the glacial floor. I prayed as I waited for it to reappear and end it all.
Then — nothing. Bewildered, we awkwardly ran the rest of the way through the danger zone, not giving death a third chance at us. From a safe perch on the other side, we looked back and discovered the gargantuan maw in the ice that had swallowed the avalanche completely. My heart pounded from exertion, fear and joy.
A day later, we began the ascent. The base area looked like the remnants from a giant cocktail spilled on white sand. One noteworthy cube of clear ice resembled a 20-story glass office building designed by an architect from Pisa. As we meandered upward through the jumble to the 13,000-foot saddle connecting Mount Logan with King Peak, the sky filled with long, wispy clouds, a harbinger of change in the mountains.
What wind that came abruptly with a booming announcement during the night worked itself into a storm that raged for eight days. During its one and only respite, we were outside the tent naively preparing to move up the mountain. A familiar plane droned overhead, and we flipped on the radio.
“I was worried,” our pilot yelled above the static. “This thing is huge and just getting started. Get back in the tents, and hunker down!”
(To be continued Nov. 27.)
Roger Marolt would like to give special thanks to Alya Howe, who organizes Writ Large and the Digital Story Lab at the Isaacson School for New Media, along with Justice Snow’s for its sponsorship of the events. Email email@example.com.
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