Apparently the prospect, memory or concept of sex crosses the male mind every eight minutes on average. (Who measures these things? And how?) If ever there is a cure for the wandering mind it’s a four hour walk down a glacier in summertime, when crevasses are open, icy maws with white flecked palates and blue throats that drop into deep dark throats, the bottom of some being invisible. No mind, not even a male one, wanders off when the next step into soft snow might have you crashing into empty space. It happened on numerous occasions this morning. Despite being VERY focused on where I was placing my feet.
In the dim light leaking into the hut from a hazy moon I checked my watch. 0324. Damn. Not because of the time but because once awake I knew a latrine visit was in order and once that chilly episode was behind me there would be no more rest for another day or so. For we were due to arise at 0400 in order to be fed and kitted up and out the door by 0500. A large storm was due to sweep the mountain with 100km/h winds and snow, much like what we experienced on Wednesday. The portents were ominous and confirmatory of the local weather forecaster who had not let us down all week. Due to blow for two, maybe three days, we needed to be off this pile of ice and rock before it hit. Our plan is to get far enough down the glacier for a chopper to pick us up mid to late morning.
The previous day had been still and hot but at midnight the first light breeze moaned into the hut. I woke and drifted back to sleep but the sound unsettled Elke and she said she slept fitfully for the rest of the morning. We had all seen the high cloud warning the previous evening and that, together with the sound of the breeze made us uneasy and conspired against Elke’s rest. The routine of assembling gear, putting on clothing (ensuring no air gaps/leaks), donning equipment, checking ropes and then knotting and coiling the same and then rigging for crevasse travel was all done in silence. Mostly. And under the soft glow of headlamps. The water bubbling over the soft hiss of gas was briefly put to coffee and hot chocolate but I barely sipped mine and emptied it. I wanted to be on our way.
Crampons are the last item to be fitted. Sharp pointed they are essential for safe travel over ice. But they damage floors and other equipment. So we close the door to the hut and fumble with them outside, when we are less lithe for our layers of clothing, and are weighed down with gear and packs and with fingers numb from cold. Crampons can be fiddly things but I learned the hard way last year that you don’t want these things to dislodge in a crisis moment. No one does, so we all pause on our knees in the cold air in some sort of worship to safety as we silently clip in, check, tighten, check again, tighten some more, check front and back, run fingers around the toe and heel clips to ensure your eyes are not deceiving you, tuck the loose straps in, stand, test your weight on them and twist feet a little to ensure those things are snug and tight. We stand as one and look at each other. In the moment, we say nothing. I want to grin but it’s dark and if I did I’m sure it’s lost in the snow and ice. Then we check knots, clips and gear. Elke quips “Five oh eight, not bad” and starts up the hard, encrusted snow that has mounded up between the escarpment and the back of the hut. (Last night a little cavity in that mound conveniently was my ‘fridge’ in which I placed some chocolate mousse to set).
For the first half hour we step down from the high point of the glacier. The scrunch, scrunch scrunch of crampons on frozen snow is a rhythmic and soothing sound. The waning moon highlights the mountains that lift on each side which in turn throw pearly light back onto our glacial stage. It’s enough by which to comprehend the grand scale of what surrounds us but it is not enough to give us the detail we need at our feet. For that we need our head torches and in companionable silence, broken only by that scrunching, we become three blobs of white light moving across a white sheet. White flanks lift into the sky around us, streaked with vertical ribs of naked rock, black now in the night, but textured by crack and fissure and colour under the light of day. The wind has sculpted the 45cm of snow that fell two days ago and we need more specific detail underfoot than the moon, or those cliffs looming over us with their gloaming light will ever reveal. We scrunch down into the dark, watching the rope, our feet and the snow.
Things change after half an hour. The foundation under our feet is the ‘bedice’ (as distinct from ‘bedrock’) of a glacier and as it moves downhill it folds over the rock of the glacier bed far below it. Ice is not the most flexible substance so it cracks open when forced over high ground in its path. At this time of the year the cracks are usually obvious – disconcertingly so. But that storm has swept snow over the glacier and confused the picture for us. In sunlight snow will hint at what is underfoot. Faint depressions, white lines vaguely whiter than the surrounding snow. But under our headlamps these warning signs are washed out completely. And of course a fresh layer of soft snow hides everything. Third in line on the end of the rope I am not expecting the ground over which others have passed to suddenly open up beneath me.
But open up it does and down I go. Fortunately my pack and my reactions mean I don’t go as far as I might. And that rope stretched tight in front of me is of course a great reassurance. As I fell the ice pick was flung at full stretch and it’s now locked into the ice on the other side of the crevasse. And I have thrown myself forward as well so I am halfway out even as I fell in. I check my footing to see if I can lodge a crampon into something but there is only empty space below me so I pull on the ice pick as Carolyn keeps tension on the rope and backs up. I roll out as best the back allows me to roll. A quick check of everything, a readjustment of the pack and off we go again. Though I have to confess the footsteps are made a bit more delicately from this point on. Not that I had been stomping along. Far from it. Let’s just say there is more feeling put into each step than there had been prior to that fall. But it doesn’t really help and I plunge down for a second time and repeat the extraction process. This time I look back at the hole I created and am disconcerted by the size of the fissure below it. My colleagues have crossed it on a bridge of frozen snow only centimetres thick but my weight won’t let me away with it. Which by the way is roughly 75kg + 17kg of pack + 5kg of rope and 5kg of other gear. A tad over 100kg.
We pause and grin at each other and take a break. The day is starting to lighten and beneath a Middle Earth bluff of rock on which the Tasman Saddle Hut sits and around which thousands, maybe millions of tons of green ice rupture and thrust themselves we take photos of peach coloured mountain peaks and of a red riven dawn sky. The breeze is straight out of a cool room and has markedly picked up as we have descended but, with the adrenalin stirred by what is underfoot (or rather, by what is not) we have not noticed it until we stop. So we don’t tarry long. I reloop rope that has become unruly after numerous falls, lash it up and then we move on.
Along this part of the glacier the wind has swept the snow off the ice so those cracks are more easily seen. But soon we are in even more disturbing territory. Despite a few more falls into bottomless cracks we make good time and make for the head of the main glacial ice block . The glacier has turned left so it is doubly cracked and broken and buckled. The cracks here are metres wide, too far to leap. So we wander left and right in a lethal maze and try and work out a way through. We teeter on some and lunge for the other side. Ice has become slushy as the day starts to warm up and it is starting to feel rotten in places. The way to handle cracks we think we can jump is to not pause at the edge but have some momentum up and to leap even as the footing wants to give way beneath you. The ice picks are up and poised to smash a hold into the other side if necessary. Its hard work and we all end up waste deep in fractures at various points. We navigate over ice bridges only 30cm wide with blue green caverns open below us, revealing their gravel dirty teeth. Don’t look down.
Perhaps the most memorable piece of navigation was a particularly wide crack we ordinarily could not cross except a narrow wedge of ice rose out of the mouth of the thing and was conveniently placed within jumping distance of our side and would allow us to use it to make it to the other side. A stepping stone of sorts except it was maybe ten centimetres wide at the top, so toe and heel would hang in space. And I declined to try and see how deep the thing was. Some things are best unknown. The trick was to leap for it but try to not pause on it but have your momentum carry you through, leaping then for the other side. Only to be attempted when roped up but the rope also created a challenge. Once started we all had to go together, no hesitating. Off we went and last on the rope there was a moment of panic as I landed in the middle and felt myself being pulled forward before I could get my balance as Carolyn recovered her balance on the other side but was still moving forward after making her jump. A quick yell and she gave me some rope slack and I leapt for the other side. Daft stuff but exhilarating. Don’t look down.
We are finally off that block of ice but there is an hour of walking ahead of us to the chopper pick up point. And we are still on ice though with a different texture and shape and with very different traps. Drainage or sink holes hide under thin crusts of ice and snow, draining numerous tiny rivulets and stream into the bowels of this slow moving ice monster. I catch myself a couple of times and kick the ice I was about to step on only to discover an open drain the size of a dinner plate vanishing into the black. Great. Break a leg now and I would not be very happy. Water can be heard running beneath us. And wide textured matrix of cracks means we need to be alert to trouble everywhere. Including that which happens in your head. Depth perception is starting to mess with me now and sometimes I am not entirely sure what I am looking at, the ice and water is so clear and pure. If in doubt test with the ice pick and tap with the toe first. But by now the snow has gone and we are pretty much able to see what is underfoot. This gives way to rolling, mounded ice, cut through by magical streams of pure water running across beds of ice and decorated by fragile weeds of ice floating from the banks. The water is so clear its hard to see water levels in still ponds. There is something very Narnia about it all. But it’s treacherous for all its prettiness, with plenty of scope for broken bones, soaked equipment or vanishing beneath the surface altogether. For the sound of running water had gotten louder, not just from the surface streams but from the larger ones that flow beneath our feet. A stretch of ice sounds like we are walking across a drum skin and I am very happy to be delivered off it.
After four hours I stand on a rocky moraine, that debris that a glacier so carelessly discards and piles up on its sides (and in this case in the middle) like so much litter. We drop packs, change some equipment and radio the helicopter. There is time to eat a snack of lunch and to drink some of that clear water straight from the ice. I allow myself to relax for the first time all morning. The breeze rips up the valley through towering slabs of rock and tumbling millions of tons of green ice. I wonder what the weather will be like at the end of the day for our colleagues at the head of the glacier. I’m happy that our efforts have gotten us out and am delighted at the experiences we have just put under our belts. We all realise we have been so focused on getting through this we have taken no pictures of the traverse. A shame really, but understandable. I drag out my notebook and sit down. I check my watch. In eight minutes…
Diary 25 January 2014
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