Feature 15.8 Ascent To Safety: An Alaskan Tale Of Terror

By: Johnny Steele
“Hurry up, and help me! I’m going to die on a stupid snowboard trip, Jesus Christ!” Jack was babbling hysterically to himself.I screamed back, “Shut up! You’re not going to die, you might break a leg or something, but you’re not going to die. Hold on, just hold on, I’m coming as fast as I can!” I tried desperately to sound confident, but I sounded more like a panicked child.

It was looking bad. Jack was dangling by his harness, something connected to it was stuck on an ice formation that looked like a large inverted icicle. He was helpless, trying to get a grip on the slick ice walls as he swung back and forth. “Stop swinging, stop it! If that breaks, you’re done!” I shouted. I tried to look for some footing as I was lowered backward to negotiate my way down toward Jack. Ben and Gary had ahold of me from a rope about twenty feet up. Jack and I were stuck in a crevasse that seemed to have come out of nowhere-it swallowed us up as we unknowingly walked over it.

Gary screamed down to me, “What’s going on? Can you get to him or what?” “Yeah, I can see him. Shut up and hold onto the rope,” I yelled. I was shitting my pants, but Jack was much worse off. He was stuck, hanging above a deeper crevasse-a 25-dollar harness the only thing keeping him alive. I could see the bottom, but it was at least 30 feet down, and there was no way for us to know if it was solid. It could easily be a thin level of snow on top of another much deeper crevasse. Gary and Ben struggled with the thin rope as they tried to direct me over to Jack. Iggy was missing; he was off riding around on his snowmobile, oblivious to our situation. As I tried getting my footing on the nearly vertical wall, I thought about how I was going to kill him if we got out of this.

“Hurry up! Where the hell are you?” Jack yelled up to me. I clumsily moved closer toward him. Jack was now slowly spinning back and forth from the harness; he was facing the wall, trying to wrench his neck around to see me.My ears and fingers were freezing; I had lost one glove, my hat, and goggles in the fall. We’d just gotten off our sleds and were walking over to Gary and Ben-then boom! Straight down we went, in a fury of falling snow and ice, tumbling downward. In the midst of the confusion, we tried desperately to claw and grab at anything that would stop or slow our descent. Luckily, I banged into a small ledge of softer snow, which stopped me as Jack continued downward bouncing from wall to wall until his harness hooked on something. Everything was still for a moment as we realized what had happened.

Before our trip to Alaska, Ben urged me to buy a safety harness. Iggy and I went to an outdoor shop and got three of the least-expensive harnesses they had-one for Iggy, Jack, and myself. I thought how Jack would kill me if he new he was hanging from the cheapest harness I could buy. As soon as we disappeared into the crevasse, Ben and Gary scrambled over to the crack. They stayed back a bit, afraid that the surface they were on would also break away. But they threw caution to the wind and crawled closer, tossing down a rope to me. I attached it to my harness, and moments later, hung there-a freezing, sniveling, oversized marionette.

“Just hold on, I’m almost there,” I said. I became more confident as the distance between us shortened. “We’re going to get out of this, I promise.” My left hand turned dead white and my ears were stinging so badly it made my head pulsate with pain. I shouted up to Gary, “Lower me about five more feet to the right!” They sent me left. I was now about four feet from Jack. My plan was to get him to attach the slack in my rope to one of the free rings on his harness. I was able to kick in two small footholds for support-it was stable as long as I leaned against the wall and stayed still.

I figured once Jack got tied in, I could unhook myself and stay still as they pulled him up. Then they’d lower the rope to me and I’d hook back in. If that bastard Iggy was around, they could pull both of us up at once. It was doubtful Gary and Ben could do it without him. “Jack, you’re going to have to catch the rope-I’m going to toss it over your shoulder,” I warned.

“Okay, I’ll catch it, but I can’t feel my legs, they’re totally asleep.” The harness was cutting off the blood circulation to Jack’s legs. I tossed the rope. There wasn’t much slack-just enough to make it to him. He grabbed the rope and began tying it to his stretched-out harness. Just then, we heard the sound of a snowmobile from overhead-it had to be Iggy. Jack and I could feel him riding almost overhead, then we heard a loud crack and the roar of an engine, we knew Iggy had driven right above us-another part of the crevasse snapped. Iggy dove from the moving sled as it plunged downward, nearly taking him with it.

Jack and I froze in horror. The screaming snowmobile came barreling toward us in a cloud of snow and ice. I pressed into the wall, covered my head and closed my eyes, knowing I’d be ripped from the wall to my death. I screamed into the ice as I heard the thunder of the sled tumbling-with it, the avalanche of debris. Just as the sound seemed upon us, I smelled gas and felt a warm blast of air as it passed. It had bounced over us. Before we could even comprehend this miracle, the snowmobile smashed the floor of the crevasse, exploding in a ball of fire. The flames shot upward, heating the cavern in a split second. The heat felt good on my ears-instantly the walls of the cavern turned wet, then seconds later to solid ice.

As it refroze, my feet slipped from the footholds. I dropped straight down, sliding on my face past Jack, until I caught on his rope’s slack, ripping us both from the shelf that held him. He let out a terrified scream as we fell. A moment later we slowed and jerked to a stop-the longest twelve feet of my life. The rope had slipped out of Ben and Gary’s hands, but they quickly regained their grip. The two struggled to hold onto our now-combined weight. They screamed to Iggy. He was in a daze-in a state of shock and had no idea what was going on. “Get over here now! Quick, we can’t hold on much longer. Just grab the rope and pull.”

“What? What happened?” Iggy asked. “Shut up and pull!” Gary screamed. Jack was moaning in pain as we slowly began to move upward. When I’d ripped Jack from his hold, he whipped past me. The rope caught, and he swung sideways, slamming into the cavern wall. His moaning was reassuring-it meant he was still alive. The ascent to safety felt like an eternity, but we made it-battered and bruised, and with stories to tell. Afterward, I realized that buying the harness was the second best 25 dollars I’d ever spent-the first being the round of drinks for my friends that night at the bar.