Glacier trekkers learn crevasse rescue skills

Monica Gokey

It was almost 9 a.m. on a Saturday in early April when a muck-crusted F-250 from the Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna rolled up to a parking lot at the toe of the Matanuska Glacier.

Twelve students were waiting. Some were prepping for Denali. Others were there to learn how to take their skiing further into the mountains. Three bearded guides in puffy jackets introduced themselves and started hauling out gear. In the two 10-hour days that followed, the group underwent a crash course in safe glacier travel.

Lead guide Josh Hoeschen started right away on teaching knots. Flemish bends. Bighted knots. Munter mules. Necessary how-tos for the travel ahead.

The Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue course is designed to teach fundamental skills so that people traversing that kind of terrain "can pursue their own adventures on glaciers safely," Hoeschen said.

Spring brings more traffic to local mountaineering routes, which means April is a good time to brush up on safe travel skills. "May, June is the prime time for good Alaskan glacier travel," Hoeschen said. When the snow begins to melt in spring, it reveals cracks in the glaciers. Those cracks -- crevasses in glacier-speak -- are one of the major risks of glacier travel.

After Hoeschen's lesson on knots, students headed down to the toe of the glacier and fumbled their crampons into place. The first lesson: roping up.

Each student was equipped with a harness, similar to what rock climbers use. By connecting to one another on a rope, glacier travelers ensure that if one person takes a spill -- into a crevasse or somewhere else -- the fall will (likely) be stopped by others on the line.

Here's a hypothetical scenario. Four people walk up a glacier, clipped in at an equal distance from each other on a climbing rope. The first person, who's leading the way, steps out onto a snow bridge, which collapses beneath her. The rope tightens and the other three people on the rope feel the pull of the fall immediately. The climbers yell "falling!" and dive into a maneuver called "self arrest." Everyone falls forward into the snow, chest first, and punches their legs in while using their body weight to push the pick of an ice axe into the snow for traction. The rope goes taut. The fall stops.

But one person is still hanging in a crevasse.

Hoeschen and the guides went over two possible scenarios. One: the person who fell is fine and can climb up the rope and out of the crevasse by themselves using a piece of climbing equipment called an ascender. Two: the person is injured and needs a rescue.

The first scenario took a whole afternoon to practice. Hauling yourself up a rope is not intuitive. It involves oscillating your body weight between the ascender and a weight-bearing knot called a Prusik to inch upward.

Greer Gehler of Anchorage is one person who nailed the skill.

"Once you get it down, it was just fun to go up and down the rope," she said. "I like the idea of being able to get myself out of a crevasse."

Scenario number two, extracting an injured person from a crevasse, took a little more knot work and orchestration.

The instructors set up a practice area that allowed one student to safely fall over a short ledge while their teammates staged a rescue. Those doing the rescuing had to hold the weight of the fallen team member while setting up snow and ice anchors that could be used to rig a pulley system for hauling the fallen person back up.

Gehler said feeling the rope go taut with someone else's weight on the other end was more uncomfortable than she had imagined. "I was thinking of my heavier male friends and how much harder it would be in a two-person group, to have to be the person setting up anchors while holding all the weight," she said.

Rigging the pulley systems, which allow a rescuer to use mechanical advantage in pulling someone out of a crevasse, was something she'd be practicing in the yard before spring mountaineering trips in the coming weeks, Gehler said.

During the session, instructors checked in on four mock rescue groups to inspect knots and pulley set-ups. In cases where an especially light person was hauling out a heavier one, students set up more complex systems that boosted pulling-power. By the end of the course, each student had been both a victim and a rescuer.

Dangling from a mountaineering harness is uncomfortable. Combined with the shock of a crevasse fall, imagining a real-life scenario can seem terrifying.

But the Alaska Mountaineering School guides have been there in their own travels. And all three insisted that crevasse falls aren't as dramatic as the movies make them seem.

Guide Dustin Horton said he once fell while throwing a bag of human waste into a crevasse (which is actually the preferred disposal method on certain mountains). While the plunge caught him by surprise, he said the fall was a far from horrific.

The second day of the course focused on preventing cold-related risks common on mountaineering trips, like frostbite and hypothermia.

As the guides shared mountaineering stories with the class (including tales from a particularly ill-fated trip in the Alaska Range), exposure emerged as an ever present risk.

"It's always easier to stay warm than to get warm," Hoeschen said.

Back at the parking lot after nearly 20 hours of class, students unbuckled their crampons, coiled their ropes and turned in their equipment before exchanging contact information and pointing their cars homeward.

Philipp Kempf, who is visiting Alaska from Germany for his doctoral research, was one of those students. He's traveled on glaciers before, and said he was put off at first by the "no prerequisites" part of the course.

"I thought it maybe would be a bunch of couch potatoes and me," he said, but the course exceeded that expectation.

"Everyone comes from slightly different angles -- skiing, climbing, prepping for Denali," Kempf said.

Students and guides parted with goodbye hugs and handshakes. Looking at the group, you wouldn't have guessed that everyone had known each other for less than 48 hours. It turns out that hauling someone out of a crevasse, even a pretend one, is a great way to make friends.


Daily News correspondent