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Addicted to Danger: A Memoir about Affirming Life in the Face of Deathby Jim Wickwire
From Chapter One: Crevasse
We moved down the Peters Glacier slowly, a sled between us loaded heavy with supplies. Twenty feet of rope linked us — too close, we knew, but required by the rough, undulating surface beneath our feet. A glacier is not a fixed, solid thing. It flows like a river, with currents, some parts smooth, others rough. Where it changes direction, or where the angle of its slope steepens, the surface will split, creating cracks as deep as a hundred feet. A thin layer of snow can make them invisible.
Chris walked in front. I walked behind, righting the sled each time it flipped. The afternoon sun beat down on us, softening the snow, casting long shadows. Moments after we had decided to head toward smoother ground, Chris broke through the crust and plunged headfirst into a crevasse. I was concentrating on the sled and did not see him fall. Just as I sensed trouble, the rope yanked me into the air, then down into an icy void. "This is it," I thought, "I'm about to die."
In an instant, the sled and I slammed on top of Chris. Stunned but still conscious after the impact, I checked myself for injuries. My left shoulder felt numb and I could not raise my arm. (I later learned my shoulder had broken.) Suppressing an urge to panic, I glanced around and considered what I should do. Balanced awkwardly with one foot on the sled, the other against a slight bulge in the ice, I tried my best to reassure Chris as I took off my pack and squeezed it into an eighteen-inch space between the walls. Then, using my pack for support, I shoved the sled off Chris into an area just below us, where it lodged.
All I could see of my companion were his legs, still in snowshoes, dangling behind his large black pack, which had compressed to half its normal width between the crevasse walls. Suspended facedown, parallel to the crevasse bottom far below, he yelled, "I can't move, Wick, you've got to get me out!" Trapped under the pack, Chris's entire upper body was immobilized. When I noticed his left hand, twisted back, caught between his pack and the wall, I grabbed it and asked if he could feel the pressure. "No," he barked, "I can't feel anything! You've got to get me out, Wick!" I assured him, "I will, Chris, I promise." I tried lifting him by his pack, but hard as I pulled, he would not budge. Within a few minutes I realized I could do nothing more for him until I got myself out of the crevasse.
The tapered walls were as slick as a skating rink. The distant slit of daylight looked a hundred feet away. To make it to the surface, I needed to put on my crampons — steel spikes attached to each boot to prevent slipping. Luckily, they were on the back of my pack. In a space so tight I could maneuver only by facing the wall, I awkwardly pulled off my snowshoes and strapped the crampons on. Then I retied our rope to the back of Chris's pack, clipped a three-foot aluminum picket and a pair of jumars — mechanical devices to move up and down a rope — to my waist sling, and prepared to climb out. When I tried kicking the front two points of a crampon into the wall, they bounced off. I tried using my ice hammer, but without room to swing my arm, I barely made a scratch. How could I get out if I couldn't penetrate the ice? I began to panic. "Calm down," I told myself, "think of something that will work."
I tried chipping out a little indentation, narrower than a finger width, and placed the front points of my crampon on the tiny ledge. I edged myself up, placing my back against the opposite wall as a counterforce. The front points held my weight. Using my good arm to wield the hammer, I slowly worked my way up the cold, glassy walls, chiseling a ladder of little ledges as I went. Three chips and a step up, again and again. I concentrated harder than I ever had before. The whole time Chris kept yelling from beneath his pack, "You've got to get me out, Wick! You've got to get me out!" Between puffs and grunts I continued to reassure him, "It'll be okay, I'll get you out." And I felt sure I could.
Despite my impatience to reach the surface, I never let the distance between indentations exceed six inches. I knew that if I fell back down, I would probably get wedged, like Chris, between the walls or be hurt worse than I already was. This was my only chance. Near the top, where the shaft widened to about three feet, I twisted my upper torso, drove the ice hammer into the lip of the crevasse at my back, and pressed my feet against the opposite wall. With one rapid movement, I levered my body over the lip and onto the surface of the glacier. It had taken an hour to ascend what turned out to be a twenty-five-foot shaft.
Nearly exhausted, relieved to be alive, I lay on the snow and gasped for breath. Raising my head to look around, I was startled by the quiet and the brightness of the sun on the broad, tilted glacier. Though tempted to rest a little longer, a sense of urgency made me struggle to my feet. I knew I must work fast. If I didn't get Chris out before nightfall, he would die from the cold.
From the crevasse edge, I took up the slack in the rope and pulled with all my might. He did not budge. I tried again — nothing. And again — still no movement. I would need to go back down. I tied the rope to the picket, which I pounded into the hard snow. Then I attached the rope to the jumars (with nylon slings for my feet), which allowed me to descend swiftly but safely into the crevasse.
It took me about five minutes to return to Chris. Hanging a few inches above him, I tried to hoist his pack with my hands and one good arm, but nothing budged. In the hope that changing the rope's position would make a difference, I tied it to each of the pack's accessible cross straps and pulled. But still the pack did not move. I tried to reassure Chris, but when I drove my ice hammer into the pack, all I did was move the top a few inches; then it settled back into place. I attempted to use the power of my legs to lift the pack by stepping upward in the slings. Nothing was working.
I thought that if I could open Chris's pack and empty its contents, enough pressure would be released to let him move, but when I tried tearing its tough fabric open with my ice hammer I could only make ineffectual punctures. The pack, like a block of wood in a vise, was simply too compressed. Lacking equipment with which to construct a pulley system, I could not dislodge Chris. So, after two hours of continuous effort, I stopped. "Sorry, this isn't working," I conceded. "I'm going back up to try to get someone, anyone on the radio."
After hauling up my pack, I retraced our tracks to a nearby knoll, where I desperately radioed for help: "This is an emergency. Can anyone hear me? If you can, I need your help." I repeated the message again and again, but no one answered; I never really expected a reply. In this valley, so far away from anyone who might have come, our line-of-sight radio was useless. We had set out to climb Mt. McKinley by a remote, untraveled route, and this was the price we paid. No one would come to help. We were alone.
I went back down with little hope of freeing my friend and repeated the rescue maneuvers I feared would fail. Chris's incessant pleas subsided as he gradually realized I could not get him out. Having planned to climb Mt. Everest with me the following year, he said, "Climb it for me, Wick. Remember me when you're on the summit." A classical trumpeter, Chris asked me to take his mouthpiece there. "I don't know about me," I replied, "but someone will. I promise." We spoke of his imminent death, but I could not believe that so young and vibrant a man was actually about to die right in front of me.
After asking me to relay messages to his family and closest friends, Chris entreated me to help him die with dignity. However, I could think of no way to ease his suffering or speed his death. I asked him whether he wanted his body left in the crevasse or brought out. He said his father could decide. At about nine-thirty, six hours after we fell into the crevasse, Chris conceded, "There's nothing more you can do, Wick. You should go up." I told him I loved him and said a tearful good-bye. As I began my ascent, Chris said simply, "Take care of yourself, Jim."
Back on the surface, physically spent, emotionally exhausted, and racked with guilt, I pulled on a parka and collapsed into my half-sleeping-bag and bivouac sack — an uninsulated nylon bag used in emergencies for protection against the wind. Lying at the edge of the crevasse, I listened to my friend grow delirious from the searing cold. He talked to himself, moaned, and, at around eleven, sang what sounded like a school song. At 2 A.M. I heard him for the last time. Chris Kerrebrock was twenty-five. I was forty.
The next morning I wrote in my diary,
I feel indescribable guilt and failure for not getting him out and for leaving him to die alone. I don't know how I got myself out with my injured arm. I had to if I would see my precious wife and children again. I can't write more because of sobbing.
Copyright © 1998 by James Wickwire and Dorothy Bullitt
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