Melting World: Full Excerpt

Dan Fagre of the USGS and his team of two— Kevin Jacks, forty, and Erich Peitzsch, thirty-three—arrive at the base of Sperry Glacier with impressive packs of gear, impressive not so much for their bulk as for the lethal accessories tied on top: ice axes, crampons, pitons, and ropes. It is a tight squeeze through the rock staircase—like threading the eye of a needle. A snag would be dangerous, but the three men slip through and break free cleanly. The wind has modified by now.

The team agrees a different technique for surveying the glacier is required. And they’re in luck. Fagre has one in his hip pocket, a trick for bypassing area—acreage—and measuring the mass of the ice instead. The mass test will be an even better diagnostic tool. He’s been refining the procedure for six years. It will show how much the glacier is receding due to global warming. Glacier National Park once claimed 150 glaciers. Now Sperry is one of only 25 that remain.

But first: precautions. To combat the threat of hidden crevasses, the three men don climbing harnesses and tie up to a fifty-meter, blue perlon rope. They attach crampons to their boots and arm themselves with ice axes. In case one of them falls into a crevasse, each man has ascenders to climb the rope back up to his comrades. The scientists will navigate the snow with half a rope length between each man. It will be critical that the line is taut. There is tension on the line to detect a fall quickly—like a quiver. If there is a fall, the second man will drive his axe into the ice deck, and the lower man will climb up the rope and out. That’s if everything goes according to plan, but mountains sometimes have schemes of their own.

Kevin picks up his ice axe. He joins Fagre and Erich at the edge of the rock rib, at the edge of the ice and snow. They uncoil the rope and tie bowlines to clip into their harnesses. The two men look to Fagre for instructions.

Dan Fagre just points, unusual for a loquacious man. Ahead, about 200 yards into the glacier, toward the headwall, is a bald spot. The snow has melted away or been scoured by the wind to reveal a stretch of disturbed ice and crevasses about the size of a football field. The ice is dark and shiny, like the frozen film over a flooded parking lot.

“No doubt there’s a bulge of bedrock beneath it,” says Fagre, “which the ice is sliding over. That’s why we see fractured ice.”

Fagre dispatches his crew toward the first ice patch. “Erich, you go first, my man,” he says. Erich is the most experienced mountaineer, having cut his teeth on the crevasse-laden slopes of Mt. Hood (11,240 ft; 3,426 m) while attending college in Oregon. Because of his skill, he is often the lead man on the rope. He has another advantage: He is skinny as a razor, the least likely of the three to fall in.

Once on the dark ice, Kevin belays Erich as he circumnavigates the patch. Erich records the ice’s perimeter with his GPS equipment, making hundreds of readings that he’ll plot back in the lab. Pacing off the ice patch takes forty minutes, but most of that is taken up by rope work. Each belay is a lifeline. Like a spoke, the rope plays out from hub to periphery. The team crisscrosses the oval ice as if spinning a web of silk.

Toward the end of the circuit, Kevin pays out the line to Erich so he can cross a snowbridge. The three-foot span connects two sides of a crevasse with the void looming underneath. The snowbridge likely formed when snowfall, adhering to the lips of the crevasse, spanned the gap. Meanwhile, an icebridge represents an incomplete tear in the ice, as the glacier slowly moves.

Ice is fluid in a glacier and advances like brittle tar flowing downhill. The weight and pressure from the ice above makes it ooze. It slides and stretches and, when it moves faster, cracks, especially around steep corners or bumps in the road. The face of a glacier manifests whatever its rump is sitting on. Its countenance may be smooth or pitted, a gentle smile or a deep grin. The scale of the grimace is proportional to the speed of the ice and hence the steepness of the terrain underneath. When the ice slides over a hump of rock and falls precipitously down the other side, it cracks slightly; its surface looks like it has been cut in to small ribbons. But when the ice falls more rapidly down a steep, broad incline, the face fills with long, deep fissures—a crevasse field. On this scale, Erich is standing over a moderate disturbance, maybe a rock

outcrop or two—a steeper slope than above. But it’s more than 100 feet beneath his feet. In between is a labyrinth of ice: It’s possibly riddled with holes, and he’s careful not to fall in. Gingerly, he steps off the bridge onto solid ice.

An ice bridge figures largely in my own mountaineering history, and I will share the story with Dan once he returns to the lab. The year was 1974—it was August, the month Nixon resigned. I was climbing the Emmons/Winthrop Glacier Route on Mt. Rainier (14,410 feet; 4,392 m) in the dark hours of predawn, following another team that sported headlamps. I could see their lights searching the route above. Three of us—Jake Stout, Bob Underhill, and myself—were strung on a single line below them, like today’s rope of Fagre and his team. At dawn we turned our headlamps off and continued upward. A bright blue sky. We could see the crampon tracks in the ice of the three-person team we were following. The summit was a couple of thousand feet above.

Suddenly, we came upon a crevasse—blue and deadly. The tracks ahead of us went up to the edge and simply disappeared. The hole gaped six feet wide. No sign on the opposite side. We looked at each other in disbelief. Bob yelled into the abyss. No response. Jake uncoiled a second rope and descended. Once the rope was taut, Bob and I heard more yelling, echoing off the chamber. After a long delay, Jake ascended the rope with his report.

Yes, there were three climbers in the crevasse—on three ledges—about 120 feet (37 m) down. They had been crossing an ice bridge, when it collapsed under the leader’s weight, sending all three—a doctor and his wife and a friend—bouncing down the narrowing sides of the crevasse, like sand jumping about an hourglass. Their rope, their only means of escape, lay draped over their bodies like a fallen curtain. All three were alive but injured. Their mistake: They had not climbed with the rope stretched out between them. They crossed the snowbridge in too tight a formation, with the rope coiled, and were yanked one by one into the abyss.

We were their only hope for a rescue. I have often reflected, in the years since, what extraordinary timing it was that we happened upon the accident in the first hour of the emergency. They were stranded, and hypothermia was setting in. But they were still able to speak, to respond to our calls. Three of us in the sunshine, and three of them freezing in the hole: We had to act fast.

Since the numbers on each team were equal, we decided to match them, man for man. We set up a crude pulley system with our ice axes as anchors in the snow and our carabiners as pulleys. Each of us would go down in succession to retrieve a victim. I went first and found the doctor in a stupor on a shelf. He was bruised and bloody from what turned out to be minor cuts. I tied the rope to him, and Jake and Bob hauled him up. It was muscle-numbing work. Then, they tossed me the rope end, and I ascended with a mechanical device, called a Jumar.

While Bob went after the next person—the leader, Doug Peterson—I bundled the doctor in a sleeping bag to warm him up. Then I wrapped my arms and legs around him. He was shaking uncontrollably. But he had the wherewithal to instruct me on how to check his vital signs. His pulse seemed to be racing, his breathing fast and shallow. He was in mild shock. His face and arms were bruised red-and-purple. I administered first-aid on his cuts as best I could.

As it happened, a Rainier mountaineering guide had seen the fall from the next ridge. He sent a colleague to radio news of the accident, and then he crossed some treacherous terrain alone to help us out. He arrived with real pulleys and another rope. Quickly, he set up a professional rescue system, and we pulled up the other two easily.

By now, the doctor, who introduced himself in a quavering voice as Roger Pengilly, an internist, was calming down but he couldn’t walk well. He seemed disoriented. To check whether he had a concussion, I asked him what the date was and where he lived. He could answer those routine questions but he had no idea who the President of the United States was. I pressed him but he claimed there wasn’t one. Strange, yet he was insistent. I grew concerned. But it was I who was in the dark: Ford had not yet replaced Nixon. On the mountain, I was not up on the latest national news. So I thought Pengilly had had a memory lapse from the fall. Turns out: He wasn’t that badly injured, after all. His wife, Mary, was definitely dazed, however, and had suffered a broken collarbone. Doug Peterson was shaken but just bruised; he walked out with us, down the mountain. The Pengillys awaited a helicopter.

Before we departed the crevasse, Dr. Pengilly asked me to come near. He whispered, “The first million I make is yours.”

I’ve been calculating physicians’ salaries ever since.

That’s thirty-eight years of arithmetic. My climbing partners and I were just eighteen years old at the time.

Safe to say, we learned a valuable lesson: Follow the rules on a glacier. She will not forgive a mistake.