I woke up Sunday morning and reported to snow school. This is where they teach me how to live out in the field and save someone if something happens. There are four of us in the class, three men and myself. Our instructor, Ben, starts us off with putting up a basic tent and getting equipment to sleep on in the field. I got my sleep gear issued from the US program while I was in Punta Arenas, but I watched the other guys get all their gear. I have to say I was really shocked at how much warm comfortable stuff they get to go into the deep field:
US sleep kit (mine): foam pad, Therm-a-Rest pad, sleeping bag (a zero degree bag, which I thought “what the hell, it gets well below zero”), and a fleece liner.
British program: foam pad, Therm-a-Rest pad, some kind of shag carpet looking sheep skin thing, fleece liner (a thick one), and a great sleeping bag that cost like three times as much as the REI one I was issued.
We were all talking about the differences between the gear, and Ben said, “Maybe it’s because you Americans are so much tougher then us Brits.” I promptly corrected him and said, “No it’s either because we are just not as smart, or we’re cheap, or probably a little bit of both.”
After this, we got our climbing gear together to go learn crevasse rescue. A crevasse is basically an opening in the snow that may or my not be visible. If you fall in one it’s bad because sometimes they are VERY deep. So if you are going walking around on the ice, you need to be roped up to one another. Anyway we head out up over this hill that’s by the base to this area that has a cornice, which is like a shelf of snow hanging over a cliff. So Ben proceeds to show us everything you have to do to save a person who falls into a crevasse (we just used the cliff for demonstration, and stuffed a duffel bag full of snow for the person). Since I’ve never actually seen a great climber do all this stuff first-hand Ben is now the coolest person I’ve ever met, and he does it all with a British accent, which makes it even better.
After lunch we head back up the cliff and Ben asks this guy Mark, who is also in the class if he wouldn’t mind hanging over the cliff for a while. He says he doesn’t mind, and then I jokingly say, “And I’ll save you.” Ben says, “That’s right you are going to save him because you need to learn this stuff for when you leave for the field.”
So the first thing I have to learn is how to use and ice ax to actually stop Mark when he falls into the crevasse. I actually have to stop us both because when he goes over his weight is going to take me with him. So Ben is tied up to me and we practice this by him just pulling me down the hill and I have to stop myself. What you do here is you have your ice ax in one hand and when you start to slide (which comes on quite fast) you have to flip around, face the mountain, jam the shaft of the ax into the snow, and hold onto the top to stop yourself. Ben and I tried it a few times and I didn’t do great but I managed to stop myself. However, you want to try and do it really fast because the longer it takes for you to stop the further down the crevasse your partner goes, and if you don’t do it quickly enough then you fall down the crevasse too and you are then both screwed.
Ben says “Okay, now we are going to try it with Mark.” My thought, or I might have said it out loud was, “You’ve gotta be kidding me!.” Ben says, “You’ll do fine, and I’ll be tied to you and I can stop both of you from falling if I have to.” So I look at this Mark guy and I say, “Are you okay with this?” He says he is, and I think, “You’ve got to be on drugs if you think I’m going to be able to stop you.” Now I’m pretty freaked out but I have to do it, so here we go. Mark is walking off toward the end of the cliff and Ben is reminding me that once I stop him I have to take this little rope loop (it has a name I just can’t remember) that is attached to me and wrap it around the ice ax to take the weight off my upper body. So I give myself a little pep talk and, oh no, there goes Mark over the cliff. I turned around so fast and jammed that ax into the ground and used all the strength I had in my stringy arms, and to my surprise, I stopped him quite quickly. Ben then comes to help me remember what to do to secure Mark and then we go down near the edge to check on him. There he is just hanging and then Ben looks at me and says, “Okay, lets go pull him up.” I say “okay,” but what I really meant to say was “no way.” So we set up this pulley system with all this climbing gear and then I’m supposed to be able to just pull him. This guy wasn’t a huge guy, maybe 160-170 pounds, but honestly, the concept that I can pull this guy up is just not mathematically solid to me. I start to pull and I’m really making no headway since I’m standing in slippery snow. Ben says, “Turn around and just dig your boots in and start walking up the hill.” (Easier said than done, Ben). I turn around and I think my shear will to be done with this exercise gave me the strength to climb up. It took everything I had and at one time I was practically crawling up this mountain. But I did it. I pulled Mark up. By far the hardest thing I had to do in my life ever, even harder then advanced calculus.