As you might imagine, in guiding -- and even climbing for that matter -- folks who are relatively new to the pursuit often ask similar questions. As such, it often behooves a guide to come up with standard answers and explanations that are easily committed to memory and recalled when the times comes.
One such example is what became sort of a standard response of mine when answering questions related to crevasse rescue. An extremely common question when teaching glacier based programs is always “have you ever had anyone fall to the bottom of a crevasse.” My standard response has always been something along the lines of, “if you're practicing proper glacier travel procedures, someone on a rope team should never fall into a crevasse past their waist."
This spring I was leading an Alaska Range Alpine Mountaineering course for AAI. It was a fantastic program with a great group of folks. We had awesome weather and accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. I will however say, that because of this trip, I now have to change my story...or in this case, my response.
As part of this program we spend one day climbing a peak in the Alaska Range. The glacier tour and ascent is a great way for participants to put into play many of the things we spent a number of days learning and practicing thus far in the program. On our climbing day, the guides (Forest McBrian and myself) split the team into three groups. We would each lead one team and climbers would take turns leading the other rope team between our groups. On the front of this rope team was, let's call him, Joe. Joe’s wife’s was a bit worried about the nature of climbing and mountaineering and to reveal his true identity might hamper his future climbing ambitions.
My team was in the lead when we came to a fairly thin bridge over what appeared to be a narrow crevasse. We each stepped over the small hole and across the bridge without incident. I noticed that the bridge was a little soft around the edges and I thought maybe the slot could be a little bigger than it appeared.
My team waited for Joe to come around the corner. I filled him in on the situation and gave him some instruction about how to minimize the chance of punching through on his way over.
Before I continue, I should say that Joe is not your average sized human being. He would have made an excellent linebacker in the NFL should he have chosen football as a career.
So Joe goes to step over the hole and no sooner does his foot touch the other side when the bridge collapses and he disappears from sight. Fortunately for us, we had just spend the day prior practicing crevasse rescue and so the teams were dialed on what needed to happen. My team -- back towards the hole -- lowered Joe a loop of slack and pulled him out. The whole affair took about 20 minutes and went very smoothly, despite another team member punching through (just to his waist) in the process.
In analyzing the fall, there were a few factors that contributed to Joe going into the hole beyond his waist. First and foremost, his team was practicing good glacier travel procedures and did not make any mistakes. The bridge that failed was quite large and very overhung. When Joe punched through, the bridge continued to fail around him and his rope cut deeply (4+ feet) through the upper lip of the crevasse. As his rope cut through, he was lowered that distance into the hole. Being a larger than average human being, Joe stretched the rope more than average for that length of fall as well.
So one of the lessons that I personally took away from the situation was that there are exceptions and special circumstances that can and will eventually contradict every rule you make in the mountains. I haven’t yet come up with a polished version of my revised response to the crevase fall questions, but it will likely be something along the lines of “you shouldn’t ever go in much over your waist if you are practicing proper glacier travel procedures, but it is possible given the right combination of factors!"