[Published online in 2011, the excerpt above was taken from the 2004 story below.]
Thirty feet below the corniced lip of a narrow crevasse, I’m dangling like a limp marionette from the end of a nine-millimeter rope, staring in numb awe at a rippling splinter of luminescent blue ice—the size of a ten-storey building—jutting from the dark recesses of a rift in the Hotlum glacier. And what’s keeping me from plunging to the bottom of this frigid abyss? A figure-eight-on-bite knot, clipped to a screw-gate carabiner, attached to a harness strapped around my waist and cutting in between my dangling legs. At the top end of my lifeline, a three-point cordellette belay has been set with ice screws into the shady side of a sérac and tied off under the supervision of my instructor, Johnny R.
Now, Johnny’s the kind of guy you’d trust with your life, the kind you read about in extreme adventure magazines. Dedicated paramedic. Fearless backcountry ski patrol ranger. Respected mountaineering instructor. When not saving the bacon of bush-league climbers, Johnny’s a loving husband and father of two little girls, whose pictures he’s shown me half a dozen times in the last three days. But like all of us, Johnny R. has his flaws. For instance: he’s a sadist.
Johnny appears against blue sky at the edge of the rift. Legs spread wide, he positioning himself directly above my head, and reaches for the crotch zipper of his Gortex overalls. “Hold on. I gotta take a leak.”
I stare up at him, slack-jawed, not quite sure he’s kidding.
“Dude, there is only one way out. Quit sightseeing. You got thirty-feet of rope to climb.”
A glacier, I remember in a moment of terrifying sobriety, is a living river of ice—constantly moving, shifting, opening, and closing. Find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time… it will swallow you alive. Spinning slowly in my harness, teeth chattering—not entirely from the cold—I try to focus on the task at hand rather than the intimidating vertical walls surrounding me. Two bulky lengths of six-millimeter Perlon cord are knotted around my lifeline and clipped to a second carabiner at my side. Detaching one, I unravel two slip-knot loops and carefully maneuver them over razor-edged steel crampons strapped to my boots.
“Feet in,” I yell up to Johnny, pulling the stirrups taut.
“Sweet.” He replies. “Now, get your ass outta that ditch.”
The second length of cord stretches eighteen-inches up the main rope and cinches with a gravity knot I can slide and lock into place with downward pressure. I lift both legs perpendicular to the ice wall and push the stirrup knot up to meet the shoulder hitch. Then—praying silently—I stand erect in the harness. Miraculously, the knot holds my body weight, allows me to loosen the gate on the upper knot and slide it another eighteen inches higher up the rope. This ingenious device is called a Texas Prussic, and I’ve got twenty-eight-and-a-half more feet of practice with it before I’m out of this unstable deep freeze.
Mountaineering 101—Day Three: Self-Rescue. And one rhetorical question repeats over and over in my head like an involuntary mantra:
Aren’t you getting a little old for this shit?
The volcanic massif named after a group of indigenous tribes inhabiting what is now Siskiyou County in Northern California, looms like a lone white sentinel, 14,162 feet above the rolling hills of the lower Cascade Range. None stands higher above its base, is more massive, or more enshrouded in fantastic and fatuous lore than the one called Shasta.
Considered one of the Seven Sacred Mountains of the World, this majestic peak figures prominently in the creation mythology of the Wintu, Karuk, Okwanuchu, Pit River, and Modoc peoples. Shasta is also reputed—by some less credible—to be one of the traditional stomping grounds of Bigfoot, the ancient home of displaced Pacific Lemurians, discarnate Tibetan lamas, and various “ascended spiritual masters” like Saint Germain—a mysterious blonde person who apparently looks like a cross between Jesus and Bo Derek. You’ve got to be either crazy or enlightened to appreciate a place like this.
There’s no doubt which category I fall into. I’ve spent weeks trudging through the Himalaya in rain and snow beside yaks that smelled better than me, pushed the limit on bicycle and skis to heuristically determine just how far mind could propel the body before reducing it to useless protoplasm. I’ve talked my way into places most sane people don’t even want to go, bartering with Galil-toting Israeli Defense Forces in Hebron, arguing with Misr-wielding security guards in Luxor, and taunting Q’urán-waving Wahhabis in Sa'udi Arabia. And that was just for fun. But I have to admit, right now, I’m feeling… well…vulnerable.
My girlfriend would be so pleased.
There are two other climbers in Johnny’s class: Paul, a square-jawed, laconic environmental engineer with a soft Dublin brogue, and Willy, a lanky, full-bearded computer geek who’s had more experience with an ice ax than either Paul or me. He’s forty, Paul’s thirty-seven, and Johnny R. tells us he’s just celebrated his thirty-third birthday.
Removing his fleece cap, Johnny shakes out a mass of curly black hair. “How old did you say you were?” When I tell him, Johnny thoughtfully scratches his scruffy goatee, “Dude, I think you are the oldest dude I’ve ever had in my class.”
Well, doesn’t that make my dragging dude ass feel special.
At four p.m., we stow our rope coils and climbing hardware at the tip of the glacier’s mottled tongue and descend back to base camp, a talus-strewn amphitheater at 10,000 feet. Johnny R. calls this rock garden the “Hotlum Hilton” and laughs at his own joke every time he does. An early autumn storm hit Sunday, turning the basin into a ski bowl. Monday morning, we each slogged seventy pounds of gear up Brewer Creek and pitched three-season Trangos, melting snow on the GSR stove for drinking water. But the weather cleared on Tuesday, and subsequent sunny afternoons have converted the ground cover to gritty moraine veined with milky, mineral-laden glacial streams.
Our training is complete. We’re dead weary, but good to go, exhilarated by the primrose twilight sky and visions of standing on Shasta’s sacred summit in warm September sun. Johnny sets his alarm for two a.m., reckoning the final assent will require ten to eleven hours, flat out. As we hydrate, and load up on quinoa and sausage stew, he decides to tuck us into our sleeping bags with a cautionary tale.
“We have totally lucked out, gentlemen.” Johnny grins like a mountain gnome, and nods earnestly at each of us in turn. “Clear shot at the summit. But we gotta make that ridge below the headwall by first light, and then we gotta slip past the bergshrund by ten. Otherwise, dudes, we are fucked. I shit you not. We’ve had three toasty afternoons softening those icefalls, and Hotlum is one dangerous piece of real estate by mid-morning. Are you following me? Assuming we make the summit, we still gotta get back down, and that, motherfuckers, is where eighty percent of all accidents happen.”
I have the feeling he’s going to tell us about one of them.
“Three years ago,” Johnny begins, a deadly seriousness morphing his boyish face in the twilight, “I got called in on a rescue, maybe two hour’s walk from here. I’ve seen some fucked up shit happen on glaciers—especially with novice climbers who thought they were swinging dicks—but I never… saw anything… like this.”