Mick Fowler on Escaping a Crevasse in the Tien Shan, China
An excerpt from Mick Fowler’s upcoming memoir No Easy Way, available October 4, 2018.
Mick Fowler, award winning mountaineer and writer, is releasing his third volume of memoirs, No Easy Way, on October 4. Fowler, a British Mountaineer and climber, has been a fixture in the climbing and mountaineering world since the 1970s. He served as the Alpine Club (UK) president from 2011-2013, won his first Piolet d’Or in 2002 for his ascent of Mount Siguniang in China, his second in 2013 for an ascent of the Prow of Shiva in India, and a third for his ascent of Gave Ding in Nepal in 2015.
Fowler was also one of the first people to climb the grade E6 and was instrumental in developing challenging and adventurous sea stacks and seaside cliffs. Fowler has documented his adventures throughout the years in critically acclaimed memoirs. In this latest volume, Fowler writes about balancing a full-time job with annual trips to some of the greatest ranges in the world. He explores obstacles in his climbing and everyday life, from escaping crevasses to being diagnosed with cancer.
Below is an excerpt from Fowler’s No Easy Way in which he describes falling into and escaping from a crevasse on his way to a big mountain objective.
Off we went again on the deep, unconsolidated snow, over ground we knew was riddled with crevasses. Neither of us felt comfortable. We switched positions. Probing carefully, I wasn’t in front for more than twenty metres before I felt the snow around me beginning to collapse. I tried to jump back but to no avail. The snow around and beneath me appeared to be bottomless hailstones and I could feel it giving way and sucking me down. With a sense of resigned acceptance I surrendered to an experience akin to being sucked down a giant plughole.
My body was pulled forwards and my face forced hard into the snow. Snow was jammed into my mouth and nose and down the open neck of my clothing and then I fell into blackness. There was no jerking halt – I just kind of floated down. It didn’t strike me fully at the time, but Paul was obviously being pulled across the surface. Later he described being dragged through the soft snow like a giant snowplough, only coming to a stop when a veritable dam of snow had built up in front of him.
I came to a gentle halt. My senses first registered that I was hanging in complete darkness. The next sensation was one of extreme discomfort as water poured down my unzipped neck and my specially chosen lightweight harness cut harshly into my thighs. I could feel my body temperature rapidly dropping; urgent action was essential to avoid a bad outcome. Removing my sunglasses shed new light on the situation: I was hanging completely free and our single seven-millimetre rope had cut deeply into overhanging eaves adorned with huge icicles that poured with water. I was rotating slowly and could see that I was ten metres below a surprisingly small entry hole through which weak rays of daylight filtered. A metre or two below my feet was a fragile twenty-centimetre-wide ice bridge where a huge icicle had somehow frozen across the crevasse. Either side of this I could make out glistening, gradually converging ice walls plunging into blackness. I dangled forlornly, rucksack pulling me backwards and snowshoes and ski poles feeling an ineffectual encumbrance. All in all, it did not seem to be a great position to be in.
‘Slack!’ I screamed as loudly as I could.
I thought that if I could get into a position where I was at least half supported by the icicle bridge I might be able to escape the water and be in an easier position to sort myself out. But immediately after I had shouted I feared I had made a terrible mistake and Paul might lower me all the way into the blackness.
Perhaps fortunately, there was no response whatsoever and I instinctively knew that my shouts were being completely absorbed by the snow and ice. Braced ten metres or so back from my entry hole, Paul had no chance whatsoever of hearing me. It was entirely up to me to do something.
At the point where I was dangling the crevasse was perhaps two metres wide and I could just about touch the far side. Above me the wall on my side overhung gently. I had last practised prusiking out of crevasses on the Kent sandstone in 1970 and this was not the ideal spot to test my memory. In any event there seemed little point in ascending a rope that ended in an icicle- adorned horizontal overhang pouring with water.
My first priority had to be to get out of the water. I was getting increasingly wet. The hood of my down jacket had wrapped itself around my neck and the wet clamminess of the fabric was pressing uncomfortably against my skin.
The far side of the crevasse was just about vertical and I was pretty confident I could climb it if only I could remove my snowshoes and somehow get into a position where I could use my axes and crampons – both of which were attached to the back of my rucksack.
As a first move I wriggled my wrists out of the ski pole wrist loops and carefully made sure that I clipped them into my harness. The light was such that it was difficult to see clearly, and if I dropped any crucial equipment that would be the end of any climbing aspirations for this trip. Next, I swung my rucksack round in front of me, removed my axes, and after some tricky swinging manoeuvres, managed to get one of them well placed in the wall. At least I could now clip into a secure placement, get out of the main flow of water and not be completely reliant on Paul, who I guessed must be hanging on to the rope for dear life and wondering what the hell was going on down below.
My footwear posed more of a problem. Removing my snowshoes was difficult but the more serious challenge was my crampons, which I had foolishly tied on to my sack with a length of thin black cord. In the gloom of the crevasse it was difficult to pick out the knot. The situation was not eased by my contact lenses, which allowed excellent distance vision but made close-up work extremely blurred. I contemplated getting my head torch out but decided that the risk of dropping things was too high. Instead I removed one contact lens to give me some close-up focus and, with increasingly numb fingers, picked at what I could now see of the knot. It was with a sense of relief that I finally managed to remove my crampons and clip them safely into my harness. Further contortions followed as I tied them to myself to prevent them being dropped while I secured them to my boots. Eventually, after what seemed an age, I was ready to climb and screamed up to Paul.
‘Take in … ’
As expected there was no response, just the sound of water pouring from the icicles. Communication was impossible. I started to climb but the ice was so hard that I had real trouble getting secure axe placements. Fortunately Paul sensed the slack rope and took in until finally, with the help of a very tight rope, I was able to thrash inelegantly out of my entry hole.
Gasping on the surface I felt distinctly like an exhausted seal emerging from a blowhole. Paul was kind enough to comment that I looked like one too. Falling in crevasses, I decided, is not to be recommended.
The trouble with getting out of a crevasse on the same side as your partner is that you still have to cross it. After a rest, I proceeded to do so with extreme caution and much crawling. Despite the soft snow we both replaced our snowshoes with crampons and held axes at the ready. Anything but risk a repeat of my earlier contortions.
By nightfall we had managed to descend to the main Muzart Glacier. The snow had been falling amazingly fast, so much so that what had been snow- free moraine on the way up now avalanched frighteningly. What had taken a few hours on the way up took a whole day to descend.