I had the opportunity to meet up with the group I am climbing Denali with this past weekend in Colorado. I landed in Denver early Friday morning and went on a nice 5 mile hike up and back a groomed snowed trail, loosening my muscles and becoming acclimated to the elevation of roughly 10,000 to 12,000 feet.
The next morning we headed out to do some ice climbing. We went to Mount Lincoln which stands above 14,000 feet to an amazing frozen ice wall. It was described to me that the ice was similar to a stair as some of the ice was vertical and then other sections were at a 45 to higher degree angle. Eric, the lead of the climb, headed up first, placing ice screws in the ice for his protection. He rose about 100 meters above us and lowered another rope, having 2 ropes available for a blind and sited climber to climb. James and I headed up the ice, me on the left and James on the right. The wind was beginning to pick up and soft snow was beginning to fall as the temperature reached 20 degrees. As I climbed, I unhooked from each ice screw so I could continue up the ice. The difficulty increased as I climbed past snow capped bulbs jetting out and making it difficult to pull myself up. After climbing the 100 meters, James continued up the next pitch about 90 meters higher. I hooked into an anchor point next to Eric and he lowered the ropes to belay Marty another blind climber and Gil his guide on the next stint.
There was minimal protection from the increasing strength of the wind and the thickening of the snow, causing my body temperature to drop. Eric began to belay Marty and Gil as I waited for James to finish his pitch above us. After only several minutes of Marty and Gil climbing, Marty yelled out that Gil had an ice axe jabbed in his arm. It was difficult to hear and both Eric and I looked at each other, wondering if we heard him correctly. I yelled at Marty to repeat what he had said and he responded with the same comment, “Gil has an ice axe in his arm.” They then yelled to lower Gil and Eric told me that he could not lower one without lowering the other at the same time. As I was yelling down at Gil and Marty, James believed I was yelling up at him and he began to belay me, pulling up the rope. Eric wasn’t paying attention to me, being more concerned with Gil and the ice pick in his arm. I was holding the rope that James was pulling up and felt a knot and shortly after, the end of the rope. I quickly grabbed and held onto the rope, yelled at James to stop pulling. The wind pounded James and it was near white out conditions with snow blowing in his face. He couldn’t hear anything I said. The confusion happened below as well, with Gil and Marty yelling at me as I yelled at James. Meanwhile, Eric had a difficult time releasing them both. Eric asked me to pull on an ice axe as hard as I could to release tension in both of the ropes to allow Gil and Marty to repel down. Wind and snow blasting my face, I pulled as hard as I could on the axe and leaned back with all of my weight to release the tension in the rope. Eric began the lowering process and with much effort they were able to reach the ground safely. Eric wanted to make sure Gil’s arm was properly seen to and asked if I know how to tie the knot to enable me to climb safely. I told him, “yes” and hoped it was true. Eric repelled down to look at the assault and I began to tie the knot shaking as the wind bit my face and began to blow through my light jacket.
After three attempts to tie the knot, a knot that will prevent me from falling to my death, I unhooked my safety line and yelled up to James that I’m ready to climb. I quickly realized that this pitch was much more difficult than the prior pitch. I came upon bulges in the ice that not only jut out, but also had snow on the top making it very difficult to slam an ice axe into. The climb continued and I was abruptly halted. I reached down and realized that the carabiner that is attached to a lanyard, attached to the ice screw prevented me from continuing the climb up. I yelled at James to give me more rope and he lightened up. I kicked and ice axed my way slowly down and thought I was in a possible location that I could unhook myself to adjust my rope. I had to take my thick gloves off, exposing my skin to the miserably cold wind and snow and to feel around. I couldn’t feel the ice screw or the lanyard that was attached to the screw or my rope. I finally felt my rope and found a carabiner on it with nothing attached. I realized that I may have either kicked the lanyard with my crampons that are on my boots, cutting the lanyard or kicked the carabiner somehow and released myself. The weather continued to weigh on me as I climbed and after several more minutes of arduous climbing I finally heard James’s voice much clearer. I was finally at the top. James was still in the dark about the situation with Gil and it took him a some convincing to believe that Gil really had an ice axe stuck in his arm. James realizes that we should probably descend together and begins to unhook the rope from the anchor that it is attached to. The wind was much faster at the top and the snow was just biting us in the face, sending chills all throughout my body. I quickly realized that we could be in some trouble and told James that I wasn’t going to spend the night on the mountain. He says, “Of course not. We will get down somehow.” The weather beat on us, chilled to the bone and with much effort, we descended and made it back down.
Gil did in fact have an ice axe through his arm with both entry and exit wounds on the same side of the arm, needing eight stitches. Marty quickly responded, “I told him not to get in my way.” I laughed and asked if we are still going to climb. I am sure everyone looked at me and they all responded in sync, “NO.”
What an adventure on the ice.