EXCERPT: INTO THE DEPTHS
CANADIAN ROCKIES ANNUAL, VOL. 3
By Lynn Martel
The terror, luck and tragedy of crevasse falls.
I was then lowered into the gaping hole. On one side the ice fell sheer, on the other it was rather undercut, but again bulged outwards about eighteen feet below the surface, making the crevasse at that point not much more than two feet wide. Then it widened again, and went down into dim twilight. It was not till I had descended 60 feet, almost the whole available length of an 80-foot rope, that at last I became tightly wedged between two walls of the crevasse, and was absolutely incapable of moving my body.
-J. Norman Collie, 1897
Climbs and Explorations in the Canadian Rockies
Collie, who was among the world’s most accomplished mountaineers of his day, and his companions were descending from their first ascent of the Rockies’ Mount Gordon when Charles Thompson fell into a crevasse on the Wapta Icefield.
As the lightest member of the party (conveniently, he was also unmarried), Collie was elected rescuer. Quickly fashioning a stirrup from a length of rope, and with another rope tied around his waist, Collie was then “pushed over the edge of the abyss,” and soon wedged in his own undesirable position. After tying a knot in the rope, he manoeuvred to lasso Thompson’s “poor pathetic arm” below him. Slowly, the men on the surface pulled the pair to safety.
“I could hear my heart thumping in the ghastly stillness of the place,” Collie wrote. Miraculously, neither man was injured, but both were nearly frozen. In an effort to be unencumbered, Collie had descended into the icy hole wearing only “a flannel shirt and knickerbockers.”
Glaciers form in places where more snow falls than melts in a year. Accumulating snow is compressed to ice, then moves under the pressure of its own weight. Where the incline of the bedrock is sufficiently steep, the glacier cracks apart, forming crevasses, which can extend hundreds of metres to bedrock.
Today’s crevasse rescue methods are more sophisticated than in Collie’s time. Modern climbing ropes, crampons and ice axes are stronger and lighter to carry. Skiers and mountaineers cross glaciers roped together, wearing harnesses and using collapsible avalanche probes to feel ahead for crevasses. Safe glacier travel practices and crevasse rescue techniques are taught with every intro to mountaineering course.
But with numerous glaciers in the Canadian Rockies appealing – and easily accessible to – sightseers and adventurers alike, accidents happen. […]
→ Keep reading this piece in Volume 3 of the Canadian Rockies Annual!
Author of two books of adventure and nine mountain biographies, Lynn Martel explores the Canadian Rockies backcountry by skis, boots, camera and the written word.
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