Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Close call on Little Mac.

Little Mac sits on the south west side of the Lost River Range in Eastern Idaho, its a satellite peak of the larger Mt. McCaleb. It rises to 11071' over 4000' above the Lost River Valley floor. It will stand for ever in my mind as the place where I was almost laid to rest.
On December 22nd 2007 My self and Dan Gregory decided to climb Mt. McCaleb. We drove to Mackey from Boise and slept in the truck. It was a long drive because of snowy roads and we had a hard time finding the right road to take to get to the bottom of the mountain. It was 3 am when we finally settled down to sleep. ( it was also -12 F outside the truck which soon became -12 inside the truck) Dan didn't sleep very well he only got about 1 hour total, because he was wrapped up in just a blanket for most of the night. I on the other hand took my zero degree sleeping bag and slept like a babe in the womb for the full three hours of night we had. We hit the trail about 7:30 and had two miles of sagebrush and snow drift walking to reach the bottom of the mountain.
As a side note ranchers think they own all land their fat cattle feed on and therefore can keep anyone from crossing it, even to access public land. We found ourselves facing such a situation on our drive in to the mountain the night before. Some smart @$% put a fence across the only access road to the mountain and just to add insult to injury the jerk didn't even bother to put in a gate. I think I would have been happier if there would have been a locked gate rather than no gate at all. It was a real slap in the face at 3:00 am. ( next time I will make sure to throw in some wire cutters with my kit. )
Through most of the climb I was not feeling very chipper, It could have been a number of things; 3 hours sleep in the last 26, 14 pieces of fudge at the family Christmas party the night before (when it comes to fudge I have the self control of a bird dog in a chicken coop), or possibly the fact that it was blistering cold and I was going to be doing the equivalent of a marathon on 3 packs of instant oatmeal, 2 granola bars, and some Jeff Foxworthy redneck jerky. ( I wouldn't be surprised if it was made from rednecks, it tasted that lame) Needless to say the -10 truck and my sleeping bag were looking like Nirvana that morning.
We reached 9,000' at about noon and there was 10-12" of snow on the ground. We weren't to concerned about avalanches because there was so little snow. Usually it takes two or three layers of snow from different storms to create dangerous conditions. The wind was calm and the sun was out, and before we knew it we were in our shirt sleeves and sweating like pigs. When we got to the tree line we could see how much further we had to climb, and we realized very quickly that we were not going to make the summit of Mt. McCaleb. There were still about 4 hours of climbing at the pace we were traveling. This time of year the sun sets about 5pm and there was no way we were going to be on the summit when the sun set. It would be much to dangerous to walk out in the dark and cold.
The route to Mt. McCaleb climbs up the south ridge of Little Mac to about 9500' where the two routs split and the Little Mac route continues up the south ridge. When we reached 9500' we decided to continue up the south ridge and summit Little Mac, because it seemed shorter and closer. We climbed another 500' and the ridge began to level off, but it became very exposed with a 2000' near vertical slope on the west and a 1500' drop on the other side. It was very narrow at some points less than two feet, but the best part was the wind. I had mentioned earlier that there was no wind, well as soon as we topped out on the ridge we climbed out of the protection of the south face. The wind came barreling out of the NW like a train at a constant 20-30 mph, with gust of over 50 mph. It was pretty darn freaky being that high and that exposed with occasional 50 mph shove that you can't see coming. Twice I was knocked over and found my self face down on the ridge. Needless to say I did quite a bit of crawling, and hand over foot crab scampering across most of the ridge. At this point a part of the movie "Sahara" comes to mind when Al it talking to Dirk about the loser 45 yr old guy with a nasty wife and 2 kids that hate him. If you don't remember the movie I recommend a review of it was a great analogy. But I digress, I was really starting to consider the situation lame at that point. Thoughts of Bob don't take that dead end job, and Bob don't marry that harpy were rapidly filling in my brain. But the summit looked close maybe 30 minutes more. So we went the 30 minutes and guess what! Yup False Summit, and the true summit was over an hour away still. Dang it Bob!
At this point Dan and I decided it was in our posterity's' best interest that we give up the summit and retreat to the safety of anything other than the godforsaken rock we were so tentatively perched on. That was it, the mountain had beaten us by enlisting the help of the winds of the lower jet steam. But we also felt great relief at having come to this decision, only to realize that we had climbed our selves into a corner. The winds were constantly 40+ mph now and down climbing the ridge looked like a very grim prospect. Our only other alternative was to drop of the ridge onto a wind blown, very icy subsidiary ridge on the east side of the south ridge, but to get to that ridge we had to cross a small snow covered gully that turned into a very steep chute and ran 1500' to the bottom of an old terminal moraine. After about 30 seconds of debate we decided to head for the gully and get to the east side of the ridge and out of the wind.
If in this narration I could play music, this is where the dark sinister notes would start floating through the air, but it wouldn't matter much because the high winds would have blown them all away.
Steep slopes usually won't hold large snow loads because the snow keeps sliding off before it can build up. The gully we were about to cross was very steep probably 55-60 degrees and it had snow in it, and to my surprise the further we got into it the deeper the snow got. I didn't think much about it at the time but I will from that day forth see that as a very dangerous sign. High winds had blown all the snow from the surrounding ridges into the gully where it piled up and created a huge avalanche prone slope, add to that a couple of ignorant, frozen, tired, mules headed for the barn and you get a bad situation.
We got almost to the other side of the gully, I was leading stabbing in my ice axe dagger style and Dan was about 20' behind fallowing in the steps I was kick out. As a blessing from heaven we fell into sync, both with axes in the snow at the same time both stepping at the same time. The fact that both of our axes were stabbed in the snow at the same time probably saved our lives. In the next half of a second the whole mountain came alive and tried to drag us down to our deaths. The snow which we were walking on was in fact about 6' deep, and about 3' down there was a inch of powder snow that separated the two strata, creating a weak bond between the them. From the weight of our bodies and kicking steps into the snow we broke loose the top layer and it fractured right below our feet. We hung on to our axes and watched as everything below us went in to motion and slid away. Funny enough both Dan and I had the same reaction and exclaimed the vulgar term for defecation at the same exact moment, and stared wide eyed in unbelief that we were handing on to our axes at the top of the chute and not laying in a heap buried under 8' of avalanche debris 1500' down the mountain.
Both of us had our feet swept out from under us, but we were both able to hang on to our axes and regain our feet. The next few seconds were some of the most intense I have ever felt in my entire life. I stood petrified hugging the waist high overhanging slab that was still perched above our tracks, scared that it to would begin to slide and engulf us and throw our bodies down the slope over jagged rocks and ice shards to be buried in icy tombs till spring found our bodies and melted us out. We did some hyper monkey style moves to get out of the gully and on to the safety of the wind blown ridge, then I had to sit down because I was shaking too much to stand.Here is a picture of me standing next to the debris after we down climbed to the bottom. Click on the image to see a large view of the length of the avalanche.
In the next few hours I thought a lot about my three daughters and my wonderful wife that is 7 months pregnant with our first son. I think its safe to say that I felt like a real rat face, and for about 10 minutes I swore I would never mountaineer again. The potential for disaster was so close to becoming a reality, and both Dan and I would have left single moms to raise 4 children each. I can't believe we let our selves get into that situation, but even more can't believe how blessed we are to be alive and uninjured.
They say hindsight is 20/20, well I must be looking through the fog because I don't know if I could have made better choices. Sometimes thing that you don't plan for happen and there is not much you can do about it.
As a good friend and climber I respect said: "Oh well- the mountain will be there for you next time and you may be a little wiser. I tell myself that also, but I'm not convinced about the latter. " Sawtoothsean.

Welcome to Abram's blog, I have created this page to document my efforts of living a healthy happy life, preserving my sanity and it might be even a little diverting. The recording of the small things, I assume, will provide some kind of insight, hindsight, or some sort of sight, even if it be short sight to where my path is leading in life.