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Into the Depths: The Terror, Luck and Tragedy of Crevasse Falls

INTO THE DEPTHS:
THE TERROR, LUCK AND
TRAGEDY OF CREVASSE FALLS

By Lynn Martel

“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 

Lynn Martel originally wrote this piece for Volume 4 of the Canadian Rockies Annual. Get a hard copy with more stories here.


Photo by Paul Zizka.

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.

Sometimes they happen to the woefully unprepared, such as Canmore-based author Bob Sandford in 1970, when he was a 20-year-old with no mountaineering experience. While descending the Saskatchewan Glacier, he tried to cross one of the fast-moving creeks that flow on a glacier’s surface on hot, sunny days. 

“One moment I was looking at the sun-sparkle of splashing water, a moment later I was in the centre of a waterfall plunging into complete darkness beneath the ice,” Sandford recalled. “The waterfall cascaded down a series of ice lips to join the river that flowed beneath the glacier.”

With only a few inches of air space between the water’s surface and the ice ceiling, he smashed into boulders and scraped against the glacier’s underbelly in darkness. Before he had time to panic, he was spit back into the sunlight on the glacier’s surface. Equal parts traumatic, wondrous and miraculous, the incident shaped his life: four decades later, Sandford is a senior water advisor with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.   


A few kilometres north, the Athabasca Glacier – one of six outlet glaciers flowing from the Columbia Icefield – is the most visited glacier in North America. The irresistibly desolate domain of hardy mountaineers during the frigid winter, the glacier is a prime tourist attraction during summer months. The parking lot for those visiting the Athabasca is two kilometres from its toe – a walk that is lengthened five metres each year due to glacial recession. Thousands of families hike the interpretive trail every summer. Some use makeshift bridges to span the outlet flow – a raging creek on a hot day – to walk on the glacier, despite numerous signs warning them not to. 

Tragically, more than once an adult or small child has fallen into a crevasse and succumbed to prolonged exposure after rescuers tried frantically to save them. In September 2017, an experienced climber and his partner fell into a millwell (a large hole) on the Athabasca. Rescuers pulled them out, but they were dangerously hypothermic. One was unconscious and did not survive.

“My heart sinks a little bit every time we get a call and someone is in a crevasse,” admitted Lisa Paulson, a visitor safety specialist for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks. “Despite all the practice you do, you can never quite prepare for how complicated it can be. Crevasses have all these funny shapes, and they’re always different. It’s usually complicated, not straightforward. And commonly not a good outcome, although I am always hopeful, and we act as fast as possible to get to the scene as safely [as we can].”

Often snow bridge remnants must be cleared, ideally without knocking snow onto the victim. Other crevasses in the area might necessitate slinging the rescuers right to the crevasse’s lip – a difficult and at times impossible task for helicopters to accomplish on white glaciers. Occasionally, avalanche control work is necessary before accessing the site. 

“You can’t see what’s down there until you’re in it,” Paulson said. “Sometimes you strap an additional headlamp to the rescuer’s foot. It’s not always straight down; you may have to place directional screws to navigate to the person.”

A slender person falling into a crevasse presents extra problems – when they lose consciousness, they slip down further. Paulson attended just such a rescue on Snow Dome. 

“They get wedged in so tight you have to keep your head [with a headlamp attached] sideways,” she described. “In this case, the rescuer had to [enter] upside down.”

Complicating things, a storm was moving in, presenting an extra challenge for the rescue team and the skilled helicopter pilot waiting to transport the victim. This man lost consciousness, likely hypothermic from being wedged in the ice. “After using glycol and the chipper, we were all thinking we’d pulled pretty much as hard as we could, but we gave it one more go and surprisingly we managed to pop him out.”

A brief weather window allowed Paulson and the victim to board the helicopter, but as the pilot lost his reference in the flat light and rotor wash, she was obliged to strap into the seat harness, which prevented her from performing first aid. The pilot recovered his reference, and two minutes later they landed safely in the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre parking lot, where paramedics were waiting. 

“Jasper Associated Ambulance cared for him and transported him,” Paulson said. “But he didn’t survive.”


Like Sandford, Robert Maiman knows he’s lucky after his accident on the Athabasca Glacier in May 2001.

He and his partner, Dave Stephens, were skiing up the Athabasca for four days of mountaineering on the Columbia Icefield when, suddenly, Maiman’s world turned dark.

“It was so abrupt; it was a complete loss of orientation, of all reality,” Maiman recalled. “I saw the bottom of the crevasse rushing up to meet me and YANK! The rope stopped my fall and I slammed into the crevasse wall.”

While Maiman dangled in the dark, cold cavern, Stephens quickly built an anchor on the surface. Unable to haul his friend out, he skied down the glacier to get help, carefully retracing their uptrack.  

“I was about 12 metres from the light above,” Maiman said. “I was in a slot about 20 metres deep, 12 metres long and two metres wide. Wild ice sculptures at either end and above made me cringe.”

Drilling an ice screw into the wall, he managed to remove his pack and hang it from the screw. Removing his skis was equally laborious. He then put on every piece of clothing from his pack, including his life-saving down jacket. Using extra rope coils stored in his pack, he lowered himself to a shelf five metres further down. Attempts to climb out with his crampons and ice axe proved fruitless. 

“I resigned myself to waiting and sat on my pack trying to keep warm,” Maiman said. He spent five hours sitting there, contemplating life and death and hoping a serac – a large, broken chunk of ice – didn’t fall into the crevasse.

Once Jasper National Park public safety specialists arrived, it took them just 30 minutes to rescue Maiman, but bulging ice walls and dwindling daylight forced them to leave his pack behind to be swallowed by the ice. Twelve years later, the pack melted out, mangled and stinking, along with his broken skis. The lessons were sobering.  

“The experience did make me a better mountaineer,” Maiman admitted.  After the incident, he conducted additional research and improved his situational awareness to become more cautious about the orientation of crevasses. He also chose not to travel on a glacier with high crevasse risk with only two people, and began to carry ascenders to provide extra assistance where needed.

Your best bet, according to Paulson? Get professional glacier travel and crevasse rescue training from ACMG guides and, on a snow-covered glacier, wear a rope.

“At least with a rope on, the person should not fall too far in, and chances are the partners can arrest them,” she continued. “You might end up with a dislocated shoulder, but chances are you won’t die. If you’re not roped, it’s serious. Crevasse calls – they’re tragic for rescuers, and for surviving party members.” 

RESCUE TOOLS

Parks Canada public safety specialists use a variety of tools to assist in crevasse rescues, including pneumatic chippers, tripods, specialized shovels to dig in confined spaces, and a hand-cranked, human-powered winch. “The winch is good because the raising operation can occur in a small space, which is important when there are other crevasses in the rescue area to be mindful of,” Paulson said. “It also allows for easy raising and lowering in small, measured amounts.”

They also use restaurant-grade glycol. When a warm body touches ice, ice melts. As the person cools, an ice film forms on the body, freezing it to the ice. “We spray/douse the glycol where their body touches the sides and let it percolate down, and it melts the ice film, making it possible to pull them out. Crevasse rescue can take hours.”

Lynn Martel originally wrote this piece for Volume 4 of the Canadian Rockies Annual. Get a hard copy with more stories here.


Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada’s Glaciers

A new book by Lynn Martel, published by Rocky Mountain Books

Buy it here.

With the state of global ice constantly in the news, one mountain journalist examines Canadian glaciers to uncover their secrets and their future.

From a mother/daughter duo who spent five months skiing across icefields from Vancouver to Alaska, to scientists discovering biofilms deep inside glacier caverns, to protesters camping for weeks to protect their beloved local glacier, western Canada’s glaciers are dynamic, enigmatic, exquisitely beautiful, sometimes dangerous environments where people play, work, run businesses, explore, and create art every single day.

Author Lynn Martel is one of them. With gorgeous images by some of the country’s best outdoor photographers, Stories of Ice shares the excitement, the mystery, and the wonder of Canada’s glaciers and poses questions about their future.

Learn more.


Author of three books of adventure and nine mountain biographies, Lynn Martel explores the Canadian Rockies backcountry by skis, boots, camera and the written word.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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