“Spring… we have a problem…”
I slowly inched my way back from the edge, my body stiff, my heart beating up out of my throat. I turned to Spring and I could tell that she understood from my body language that something was wrong. I scanned around for options and couldn’t see any, today was not supposed to be like this.
“Thanks Ron” I whispered in reply as I came down the ladder from the sleeping area in the Cabin that morning. Ron was gesturing towards a fresh pot of coffee he had brewing, instructing me to help myself. It was some time after 5am. Myself and Spring had been lazy stirring awake, but when we heard Ron in the kitchen getting coffee ready for us, we got up quickly. We got our breakfast ready and sat down to eat it. I couldn’t tell yet if it was still dark out or if there were just dark clouds low in the sky. As we ate breakfast, relatively slowly, Ron shared a little anecdote with us, he said “You know, when I used to climb Mountains, the time we set to get up at, was the time everyone got up. There wasn’t any waiting around either, we got going right away”.
I understood the moral of his story. There is a maxim in mountaineering that goes “It’s later than you think” and Ron was right. If we had a hope to accomplish our lofty goal of summiting Mount Alpha today and then traversing to the Haberl Hut then we needed to get moving asap, but I was stalling as I still wasn’t sure about the weather as it was too dark out.
As the dull light of the morning spread I could see across the lake that the clouds were still hanging low on the peaks that rose above it, obscuring their summits from view. Ron returned from a trip outside and said that it was raining now. Myself and Spring made the decision to forgo our attempt on the East Ridge of Alpha. The rock would likely be slick from the rain and the low ceiling of clouds would mean that visibility would be poor, similar to the conditions we had encountered the previous day.
We still needed to make the Haberl Hut by that night though so we set out as soon as we’d finished breakfast. After a few minutes of hiking away from the Tantalus Hut we paused at a fork in the trail. Turning right would put us on the route to the East Ridge of Alpha. We took one last look at the weather, it was still raining and the clouds were still hanging low. We turned left.
We moved quickly along the steep north shore of Lake Lovely Water, and in a short while reached Lambda Lake. It was still raining consistently now so we decided to try and wait it out and found some shelter below some shrubbery.
We stayed there for close to an hour but the rain never let up. I recalled from the last weather forecast I had seen that the weather on this day was supposed to be clear by the afternoon. We wanted to wait for that break in the weather as the clouds were still hanging low which was obscuring our route to the Haberl Hut.
A chill started to overcome us so we pushed on regardless of the rain. Shortly after climbing above Lambda Lake we reached a plateau known as the “Russian Army Camp”, an analogous term, ascribed to Bruce Fairley it seems, relating to the vastness of this place, and not to any point in time that the Russian Army may have been here.
Here we decided to wait again as, from this point, we would be climbing up steeply inside the cloud ceiling. There was still a hope that the weather would break later in the day. We also weren’t in a rush. Looking at my GPS we only had another ~4kms to cover and a mere ~600m’s of elevation left to gain. In my mind we had also saved all the time we would have used to get up and over Mount Alpha.
After about 45 minutes the rain appeared to abate and we began to see breaks in the clouds to the East. The cloud ceiling had lifted high enough now that I could see the route we needed to take to get to the Ionia/Serratus col.. We pressed on.
We gained elevation quickly and soon enough we began sidehilling along the South slopes of Serratus. The sidehilling was loose and steep on compact dirt and wet, slippery krummholz. Care needed to be taken to not slip. In my mind though I knew that once past this section of difficulty that we’d simply need to cross the col. and then do a short rising traverse to get to the Haberl Hut. I projected that we’d be there in under 2 hours.
We stepped off this compact dirt onto a section of glacier about a kilometer from the col. and roped up for safety. I started to relax a little. It hadn’t rained in a while and the clouds did appear to be breaking up more and more to the East. Visibility had improved also. In my mind the worst of the day was over. As we approached the col. I could see a curious bergschrund had opened up close to Serratus, which blocked our ability to get off the snow onto the rock via the easiest point. I traversed below this gap and spotted what looked like another area where I could step across from the snow on to the rock below the col.
I made my way towards it and, when I was close enough, I leaned forward to look into the moat between the snow I was on and the rock that I needed to get to. I expected to see a 10ft, maybe 20ft drop. The moat plunged down at least 100ft or more. It shocked me and I froze. I slowly panned my gaze along the edge of the snow and realized that what I was standing on was horrendously undercut. I was standing on a thin fringe of snow that couldn’t have been more than a few inches thick.
I could feel my chest tighten. My eyes stopped blinking. I cautiously backed away from the edge.
“Spring… we have a problem…”, I called out. She already knew.
I scanned for alternative routes. Another way forward. Spring was looking also. I suddenly felt extremely isolated here, trapped. Scanning for a way out. I had felt like this once before, almost exactly a year ago. I turned and looked out over the peaks rising up around me, across Lake Lovely Water. The clouds broke again to the East and I could see its hulk, dark and ominous, Omega Mountain.
“I’m fine guys really, don’t worry about it” I told the group. They seemed puzzled as to why I was on my knees. “What was that popping sound?” I asked myself. Everything felt fine now. Maybe it had been my imagination. I tried to stand up. A bolt of blinding pain shot up my left leg. I maintained my balance and put all my weight on my right side. I looked out to my friends who had come to this place with me and they looked concerned but also confused. What had happened? “Are you alright Leigh?” “I’m fine, really, let’s keep going. I think I just sprained my left ankle a little. A rock over there rolled awkwardly when I stepped on it. Lets get to the summit, it’ll wear off” I told myself it was in my head. I was being unnecessarily cautious and the pain I thought I was feeling was psychosomatic. Everyone started walking forward, I attempted to follow behind. I confidently stepped forward, weighting my left foot fully and I felt it again, a searing bolt of pain coming up my left leg. I braced against a nearby boulder to stop myself from falling over. Something was definitely wrong. What are my options now? Myself, Spring and 3 other friends were a stones throw away from the summit of Omega Mountain. It was Labour Day long weekend, 2012. To get here we’d scrambled up the West Ridge. It had had some exposure but the difficulty never felt greater than low Class 4 climbing. We had now gained a broad section leading to the summit that was nothing more than a walk. This terrain, which I was easily capable of navigating when able bodied now felt close to impossible to reverse with my ankle as it was. We made a decision quickly. We had cell reception at the summit and could call for help. If we tried to reverse the route we would not only lose cell reception on the West side of Omega, but I might risk further injuring myself. The distance to the summit from the spot I had injured myself would take me close to 5 minutes to walk normally, but hopping, crawling and being carried by my friends it took closer to an hour. I felt very small in this place and completely out of control. Clouds hung low overhead threatening to make the possibility of a rescue impossible until they cleared. My friends called the RCMP for help, within an hour a helicopter was able to fly to the summit of Omega Mountain. I, along with Spring, were quickly bundled in to it by Squamish Search and Rescue. Moments later I left the Tantalus Range behind.
Here I was, a year later, back in the Tantalus Range, back in a predicament, back feeling small and out of control. I could almost feel the jagged peaks rising high above me saying “Haven’t you learnt your lesson yet?”. I became aware of the slight, dull ache in my left ankle, that is always there now, always a reminder.
I took a moment to take stock of our options. We could always reverse our route but then we’d have to leave the Tantalus Range as we were booked to stay at the Haberl Hut, not the Tantalus Hut, which was now booked up for the coming week. I didn’t know if I had the energy to hike out either. We could reverse our route and bivy at the first available sheltered location and then hike out the next day. The nearest sheltered location we had passed was at the Russian Army Camp. We had no tent with us or sleeping pads as we’d planned to sleep in the Huts, but we did have our sleeping bags and emergency bivy sacks.
Neither of those options were appealing. The final option was to persevere and push onwards. I realized though that by going with the latter would be crossing the Rubicon. I knew nothing about the route from the col. to the hut and the information I had was for Spring mountaineering conditions, not the dry Summer mountaineering conditions that I could now, evidently, see for myself.
We decided to press on. I could see a sliver of snow bridging across the bergschrund that we needed to cross. Spring shook her head at me as I ambled towards it. Water was dripping from the underside of it and from the way that light was penetrating it I could tell that it was likely hollow underneath. I contemplated building an anchor with our pickets and getting Spring to belay me across. I scrapped that idea. The only other option was a narrow spine of snow that had the bergschrund on one side and a wide crevasse on the other. It wouldn’t get us across the gap but it would get us to a chossy rock bluff, that, if we could find a route to scramble up and around it, would lead us to snow higher up that we could traverse to get to the col.
It was worth a shot. I headed out onto the spine. The exposure felt pretty high with the bergschrund above and a cavernous crevasse below. I got on top of it and Au Cheval’d along the spine until I could cross to the other side of it and step down to where it met a rocky bench. From here I body belayed Spring across. Once we were both secure I led up to find a way up and over this bluff. It was likely Class 4 but exceptionally chossy. Spring was perched on a narrow ledge below, sandwiched between the snow spine and a wall of rock so anything I dislodged would invariably hit her. I moved cautiously, but everything teetered and required me to steady the rubble with each step higher. I eventually made it up and around and could see the snow slope ahead. I body belayed Spring up again and then she led out across the snow slope. She scrambled up the loose rock to the col. and peered over. I could see her shoulders slump and mutter a weary expletive about the presence of another large moat on the other side. I followed behind and looked over. The moat below this section of the col. was so wide and deep that crossing it at this point was not an option. We Scrambled down the ridge until we found a gully leading down to a narrow finger of snow coming close enough to the rock that you could step out on to it. A new sling tied around a lodged rock at the top of this gully was reassuring also.
There was a narrow ledge covered in sand and pebbles that led down to this snow finger, but off to the side of it was a nauseating drop down into the moat below. We set up a handline off the sling after weight testing it and then I led down the ledge before committing to crossing over to the snow and trusting that this finger of snow would hold. Once across I exhaled and watched as Spring followed. She joined me on the glacier and we roped up again for glacier travel.
For the second time on that day I made a mental mistake. I got my hopes up that the worst was now behind us. In hindsight, I should have reserved that feeling until setting foot inside the Jim Haberl Hut.
As our reference on the route to follow we were using the book “Alpine Select” by Kevin McLane. In it, from the point we had now reached, it shows a nice dotted line leading along the West side of Serratus Mountain, across a solid snowfield. Indeed from my vantage point below the col now it appeared like the way ahead was across mainly solid snow. Low clouds were building around us, dulling the shadows, but I felt confident that once across this glacier we would reach the Hut shortly thereafter.
First point of note is that Alpine Select is now 12 years old so conditions on a mountain and a glacier can change a lot in that time, new crevasses can open or rockfall can alter a route… etc. Second point of note is that how quickly the winter snowpack recedes off the surface of a glacier can dramatically change conditions on it. This year the speed of snow recession had been above average.
We headed out, enthusiastic to put the col behind us. Within 100m’s though I started to notice the downhill angle of the slope increasing. Our visibility was marginal at best. We pressed on, traversing Serratus’ flanks before being confronted with a wall of broken, azure blue ice above us. Heavily crevassed with wide deep slots that we could not pass. The clouds lifted momentarily. I quickly tried to take in the conditions around me, now that I could see. To my left, below me, the slope plummeted away steeply, it abruptly turned to bare ice, and then broke up into impassable crevasses and slots further down, immediately to my right was the West side of Serratus with a wide moat running along its base. Past Serratus to my right was the direction we needed to go. It was an ocean of broken ice and crevasses, a world of difference to the solid snowfield pictured in our guide. Immediately in front of me and snaking towards a nunatak was a thin channel of solid snow. It passed a precariously narrow section that would push us up towards the moat to our right and a crevasse below.
We made the decision to make for the nunatak, a polished slabby bluff, and then try and find a way to downclimb it to a lower, flatter area of the glacier that didn’t have any visible crevasses on it. We faced in as the slope angle to traverse was at least 50 degrees. At one point it narrowed so much that I was placing the pick of my ice axe only a couple of inches below the edge of the moat with Serratus, and kicking my crampon front points in almost directly above the lip of a crevasse below me. Had it narrowed much more than this we likely couldn’t have moved forward. Eventually though we made solid ground. On all sides this slabby bluff appeared to cliff out. We scrambled around aimlessly, hitting dead end after dead end.
Tensions were high and our energy was low. We’d been moving for over 10 hours now, with 45lb+ packs on our backs. We were both experiencing an oppressing fatigue, mentally, physically and emotionally. I started to feel almost detached from the trials we were experiencing. I felt an odd pressure in the front of my head like someone had stuffed it with cotton wool. Even if we could make the glacier below I still didn’t know how we could regain the ridge to get to the Hut above. Ahead of us I had spotted a couloir, but it appeared to have a wide break in it mid way up.
I’ve spoken to people before who’ve said that, after a horrendously long day in the mountains, only a few kilometers from their vehicle, they just sat down and didn’t go any further until the next morning. I remembered asking them “Why didn’t you just keep going?” to which they answered “I just couldn’t, I’d pushed myself as far as I could go”. Up until this moment in time I could not understand reaching a point where you could not keep going. It crossed my mind to just stop here, on this isolated nunatak, and just go to sleep.
We investigated a wet gully that appeared to dead end at a series of crevasses. It didn’t look promising but it was our only option. We headed down and, as we got closer, I noticed that one section of the snow abutted the rock and led to a snow slope free of crevasses. To get to it required traversing some downsloping slabs with melt water running over them that terminated in another deep moat but it would have to do.
We traversed the slabs, gingerly, and stepped across to the snow. Spring followed and we exhaled again. We headed down and across the lower glacier. As we came up on the couloir that I was sure had a break in it higher up I noticed now, below it, that it didn’t. Spring confirmed that she had also seen the break earlier but hadn’t said anything as morale was already low enough. I’m still not sure what both of us had seen, perhaps a shadow. Either way, it looked like this couloir was good and led in the direction of the Hut so we began climbing it. As we climbed I was glad that at least one obstacle along this route was proving to be better than expected.
Almost as soon as those feelings entered my mind the clouds closed in around us, dropping visibility down to less than 10ft.
We were back in a soup of grey and white. I looked at my GPS to see the waypoint for the Hut. I knew we needed to get off the snow at some point and on to the rock but had no idea where. We wasted a lot of time climbing off the snow onto rock, scrambling in the direction of the Hut, only to be met with a cliff, forcing us to reverse back onto the snow.
Eventually we scrambled along a ridge crest that appeared to keep going in the correct direction. Finally, after over 12 hours of being on the move, we spotted our first sign of life, which was actually a sign of death.
Out of the murky grey we made out the right angles of something man made, a plaque, a memorial by the NSR to Robert Donald McGregor who had died while climbing on Mount Tantalus. He had fallen into a moat and perished from the wounds he had sustained.
At that moment in time, with the day we were experiencing, that was the very last thing we both wanted to see and be reminded of. Spring exhaled deeply after reading it and we continued onwards in silence. I hadn’t told Spring, not wanting to alarm her, but we’d already passed my waypoint for the cabin. I just kept saying it was still ahead of us knowing it had to be out here somewhere.
We kept feeling our way forward, not knowing if this path would cliff out or reach the Hut. A brief wind blew past us and in the circling fog we could see the dark outline of a structure in front of us.
We couldn’t fully see the Hut until we were almost right beside it. We quickly unlatched the porch door and stepped inside, we peeled off all of our mountaineering gear and dropped it to the floor. We punched in the access code and entered the Hut. Nobody was here, but we’d made it.
The feeling of exiting the harshness of the environment outside and entering the relative luxury of this modern mountain refuge was surreal. It was a mix of elation at reaching our goal but it was also laced with a deep dread down inside my gut at the prospect of having to reverse that tenuous route to leave this place. I at once felt safe, but also trapped.
The panoramic windows, a boon to the occupant looking to experience the majesty of the mountains, were now merely a reminder to me of the conditions outside that we had endured.
We ate ravenously. Spring asked me to choose a bedroom for us to sleep in. I chose the one with the shutters on the windows still latched. I closed the door tight behind us. We went to bed. I curled up in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, but never fell asleep.
Continue Reading: Tantalust, Part IV: Risking Adventure