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Scientist on snowmachine survives 75-foot plunge into Alaska glacier crevasse

Craig Medred
"It happened pretty quickly," Thomas Douglas recalled. "I remember falling mostly backward. I was going through the air. There was a bunch of snow. It was probably four or five seconds of just free-falling. It was really dark. And then I just sort of landed on my feet on a big block of snow." Loren Holmes photo

The morning after falling an estimated 75 feet into a crevasse in the Jarvis Glacier of Interior Alaska, scientist Thomas Douglas was back at work in his Fairbanks office -- a little embarrassed, more than a little apologetic, and very thankful.

Thankful for his own blasted good luck. Thankful for dependable coworkers, who went to call for help after his snowmachine disappeared through a hole in the snow-covered ice. And thankful most of all for the men of the Alaska Air National Guard's 210th, 211th, and 212th Rescue Squadrons -- the best of the best when it comes to Alaska wilderness rescue -- who eventually arrived in a Pavehawk helicopter to save him from an icy tomb.

"Those guys are amazing," Douglas said. "Totally focused and totally professional."

Douglas remembers hearing their helicopter show up three or four hours after falling in what he describes as a chimney. The whoop-whoop-whoop was a welcome sound. Not long after, "I kind of heard crunching'' on the glacier above, Douglas said.

"Then I heard, 'Hey buddy, we're going to get you out of here.’"

Douglas shouted back the obvious question: "Who are you?"

"I think he said, 'Bill,'" the 41-year-old scientist recalled Friday. Douglas asked Bill to throw down a headlamp to make it easier to see in the growing darkness of the crevasse, a climbing harness, some ascenders and some prusiks. These are the pieces of gear one needs to climb out of a glacier crevasse.

Experienced glacier mountaineer 

Douglas is well familiar with all of it. He is no stranger to glaciers. "In my previous life, I've done a ton of mountaineering," he said. "I've been in crevasses before."

Douglas has climbed in the Alaska Range and in the Himalayas. He has fallen in crevasses, something that happens in the mountains, and he has climbed down into crevasses to practice crevasse-rescue technique. The big difference between those crevasse visits and the latest was that in all the prior cases, he was roped up to other climbers and prepared.

This crevasse fall caught him by surprise. The Air Guard pararescue men who helped pull him out of the crevasse razzed him a bit about that.

Apologies to pararescuers 

"For my personality,'' he said, "their attitude was just right. I was sorry I put them in harm's way. I told those guys, 'I'm sorry I took you away from your families on a Thursday night.'"

As usual, the response from the PJs, as they are called, was predictable: "Hey man, this is great training."

It helped soothe Douglas's feelings a little.

"I feel, obviously, really fortunate," Douglas said, "but I feel kind of like an idiot." Friends have helped to reinforce this idea. Some of them, Douglas said, simply passed on the message that "You're a fucking idiot. They're totally right."

Too much knowledge, a dangerous thing

The Jarvis Glacier is a dinky little piece of ice, at least by Alaska standards, on the north side of the Alaska Range about 125 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Douglas has been working there for more than a year. Scientists are studying the glacier's retreat, and the melting of permafrost near the glacier in an effort to determine how these changes will affect the flow of water north toward the community of Delta. The area in and around Delta supports one of Alaska's few agricultural projects, and the success of agriculture is tied to hydrology.

So the Salcha-Delta Soil & Water Conservation District has partnered with the Cold Regions Research Engineering Laboratory, Douglas's employer, to study the Jarvis Creek watershed in the Granite Mountains. That study has involved collecting a lot of water and ice samples, which is what Douglas was doing Thursday. For him, it was just another day at the office.

"I have one of the greatest jobs in the world," he said, or at least one of the greatest jobs in the world if you like spending your time on remote glaciers surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery.

"I've been on that glacier a ton of times," Douglas said. "I've climbed in that area."

Last year, he spent time on the glacier on skis towing a radar unit up and down its length for mapping purposes. He has landed on the glacier in helicopters during the summer after the snow has melted and all the crevasses are fully exposed. He thought he knew the glacier well.

"I was pretty sure the glacier was fine," he said. "I think I had data overconfidence."

Bigger concern: avalanches

He thought the glacier so fine, he admitted, that he was paying more attention to the avalanche conditions in the area than to the crevasse dangers as he headed up onto a bench off to one side of the glacier.

"We were basically trying to get one more high-altitude sample," he said. "We went up on the bench. There wasn't really a huge avalanche problem where we were."

So Douglas decided to power up a little higher on his Yamaha snowmachine -- a hefty, four-cycle work sled, not a high-marking mountain machine. He climbed above the bench, he said, "until I looked above me and saw a giant icefall." It is not wise to hang out for long below such structures. Gravity has a nasty habit of pulling them down.

"I thought, I ought to get out of here," Douglas said. "Leaving known terrain was a mistake. When I started to slow down to turn," the earth parted.

A long, slow fall 

Douglas knows about climbing falls all too well. Twelve years ago in New England, he was rappelling down from the top of an ice climb when his protection -- the pitons, chocks, bongs, cams and all the other pieces of metal climbers use to anchor themselves to a mountain -- pulled loose. He took a long, nasty fall into the rocks. He broke his leg, his arm and his hand.

"That was the last time I was in a climbing harness," he said. "I said, "I'm not climbing anymore."

He was clearly thinking about that fall on Friday, but said that what happened the previous day was strangely different. He remembers feeling the snowmachine starting to settle, and then he, the machine and the snow that had hidden the crevasse all began falling.

"It happened pretty quickly," he said. "I remember falling mostly backward.

"I was going through the air. There was a bunch of snow. It was probably four or five seconds of just free-falling. It was really dark. And then I just sort of landed on my feet on a big block of snow."

Automatically, because that is what years of experience had trained him to do, he started to assess his situation. He knew immediately that he was physically fine, at least for the moment. The rest of the situation didn't look so good.

"There was a little bit of a worry," he said. "The snowmachine was above me," and he could see one snowmachine ski hanging off the ledge on which it had parked itself. That was on the left. Above him in the crevasse to the right was a big block of ice that didn't look to be wedged all that tightly.

Communicating with coworkers up top 

Douglas started trying to deduce, "If I hear cracking, which way should I jump," as he remembers it.

Meanwhile, coworkers who'd seen him disappear into the glacier were converging on the crevasse. Douglas worried about them. "I was with a couple other guys," he said. "I didn't want them to fall into something because of my stupid mistake."

He yelled up at them he was fine. He told them to stay away from the crevasse, and asked them to get back down the glacier to where they had cellphone coverage to make a call for help.

Then he settled in to wait.

It's alive!

Unexpectedly deep in a glacier and unprepared for the adventure, Douglas noticed something he hadn't noticed before: It's noisy in there and a little spooky. "There's lots of creepy noises," he said. "Those weird popping noises are pretty unsettling."

All that ice is moving, like a living, breathing monster.

Douglas found himself thinking about the snowmachine and ice block above him, and what would happen if there was a significant earthquake, given that the glacier is close to the Denali Fault, which rocked the whole continent in 2002. He pushed such thoughts out of his head by doing what scientists do: He observed and analyzed. "I'm very analytical," he confessed.

He studied his new surroundings. The crevasse was three or four feet wide. The area where it had broken loose at the top was shaped like a canoe. He was on a snow ledge farther down. He could see blue sky above. Oddly enough, the GPS he was carrying still worked.

"I had four or five bars," he said. "I checked sunrise and sunset (times)."

His co-workers had left around 4 p.m. to make the cell phone call for help. He figured if he didn't hear something by 9 p.m., he'd be spending the night.

"I thought about my wife and daughter, but really I was happy I was OK," he said. "It probably helped that I've been in crevasses. I knew, 'Don't even try to climb out. You might get up 15 feet and fall. This is really serious, but you're OK. You're warm.'

"I've spent the night on bivvy's (bivouacs) on the side of mountains," he said. He knew what to do. He kicked out a flat spot where he could take a nap if he got tired. He took some photos of the inside of the crevasse, but still hasn't looked at them.

"I did jumping jacks (to stay warm). I kind of meditated a bit. I tried to stay calm."

Around 6 or 7 p.m., he said, a white helicopter flew over. "It wasn't that loud," he said. "I thought maybe it was an A-Star or a Bell Ranger. What's weird is that no one seems to know who that was."

No mistaking sound of Pavehawk

The helicopter moved off. Douglas wondered what the heck was going on. But about an hour later he heard the thundering Pavehawk and knew this was help for sure. The PJs threw him the rope not long after and he started climbing up. 

"I got my way up to the ledge where the snowmachine was," he said, and grabbed the snow samples. "I always tell people, 'Don't die for samples,'" but given that these were in reach, he grabbed them. Then he resumed climbing. It got tiring. One of the PJs yelled down, "Hey, we can pull you up if you want."

Go for it, Douglas replied.

By then, he was embarrassed enough by everything that had happened that there was sense playing the tough guy. "I obviously feel bad that not only was there a rescue, but that some of the people I work with were worried. My wife, she obviously wasn't too pleased.

"It was all my fault," Douglas said. "It's not going to happen again. I would hope that other people learn from this," too.

Snowmachining on Alaska glaciers is extremely dangerous even though some, like Douglas, do get lucky and survive terrifying crevasse falls. His injuries? He bruised his shin on the ascent out of the crevasse. How, he doesn't know. He bumped it on something. He describes the bruise as the sort you'd get banging into the tailgate on a pickup truck.

He's amazed he's so unscathed. "The amount of lucky I am...," Douglas said, letting the sentence tail off.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com