I hate cold water. I always have. When I was a teenager I wanted to surf, but the water (central California) was too cold for me, even with a wetsuit. I have never liked like cold swimming pools or swimming holes, know matter how hot the outside temperatures were. When I moved to Alaska, my dislike of cold water grew. I learned that is was possibly the most dangerous thing in the state, more dangerous than the bears or avalanches, cold water was an unforgiving killer and I swore to avoid it as much as possible.
We landed on the shores of the ethereal Turquoise Lake. It was late afternoon and we had many miles to cover. There were four of us: lead guide Andy, clients Colin and Patrick and me, the tag-a-long. I was not a client or a guide, however, I was not an outside observer, I was part of the group and I wanted to make sure that everyone felt that way.
There have been many stories of photographers joining expeditions, brought on because of their mountain skills, not their photo skills, whom later let their team down, putting photography above the well fair of the group. I was not going to be that photographer. This was not my trip.
We worked our way up valley, switching between boots and river shoes, crossing braided streams, then rocky cliffs. It was drizzling and I was not amused. Alaska was having the best weather of any summer anyone could remember, except in the Alaska Range and except for me. This was my third trip this year and once again the weather was foul. But my mood was still high, this was only day one of a twelve day trip, the weather would get better.
Our goal that day was to camp near the firn line on the Turquoise Glacier. There is only one way to get onto the Turquoise Glacier and that was on the other side of the river. We marched on spongy, glowing green moss and around black lichen blanketed rocks. A fine mist hung on the mountain tops, we felt were sneaking into the mountains of Mordor, there was a gloomy, dark feeling to everything around us.
We reached the crossing spot, a place Andy had crossed before. It looked big, swift, scary. Andy went out a third of a way in the brown river and decided that it was too swift. It was already 7:00PM and we were wet and hungry so we decided to camp at the crossing and tackle it in the morning when the volume would be lower and we would be warm and well rested.
We had a great dinner under the cooking tarp, learning about each other, telling jokes, sipping a little whisky (Colin owns a popular bar in DC and had brought up some of his finest drink). The rain let up around 10:00pm and I spent the last hours of daylight photographing the moody cliffs and the abundant waterfalls that descended down every gully.
We got up early but had a leisurely breakfast, no one seemed motivated to tackle the river. It had rained all night and the river looked more swollen than the night before. During our after dinner explorations we had discovered a heavily braided section up river and decided that would be the better crossing.
We were already a little behind schedule and had a huge day ahead of us, including a high, steep pass. We needed to get moving. We lugged our monster packs to the first of many braids and put on our river shoes, wrapping our boots over the back of our necks. We were only a mile from the toe of the glacier and the water was cold, evil cold, ice chunks were floating by. Quickly my feet went numb as we splashed through braid after braid, looking for a good spot, nothing. My feet slowly became bricks, lacking feeling. I was feeling nervous and apprehensive, I was having doubts the river would go. My feet hurt.
“Can we go another way, the other side of the glacier?’ I asked Andy, the only one familiar with the area.
“no, the river is the only way.” he insisted. He had crossed the river multiple times before, it would go.
I have always been known as mister safety, the guy who always turns back. I have had many disgruntled climbing partners, not impressed with my lack of courage and unwillingness to push the safety envelope. Part of me wanted to just say no, no way, and yet I didn’t want to be that guy again, safety boy, the one to alter the trip, end the journey.
We found a spot, ten feet across, but moving fast. We were all starting to shiver a little, it was time, now or never. We set up a pack line, Andy, then Patrick, Colin and me at the tail. We listened to Andy’s commands: left, right, left, right. I kept my head down, swearing to myself that I wouldn’t swim. We were hardly moving, I looked up and witnessed water boiling deeper up Andy, nearing his naval. Colin was shaking, so was I.
And then it all ended.
Andy went first, in slow motion I watched him go by, down the river. Then Patrick, six-foot four and 250 pounds, gone. Colin and I held our ground but it was useless, down went Colin.
I screamed, I was going to die the way I told myself I would never would, via cold water. The next thing I knew I was under water.
Proper river swimming etiquette goes like this: Unbuckle your waist and sternum strap before crossing. Take pack off and sit, facing down river, feet up. You then use one arm to paddle to shore while the other arm holds onto your pack.
What I was doing was text-book alright, text-book on how to die!
I was rolling sideways down the river, like a big rock. Under water, then above, under then above. I screamed for help each time my head was up. What had I done wrong? I had made a stupid, critical decision, I had kept my sternum strap on.
I tried to un-snap it while I was rolling but my hands were unresponsive and I was panicking, Mr. Calm and Collective was freaking out. Then I snapped out of it.
“Shut up Carl, no is going to save you, save yourself.” My brain said, ignoring my cries for help. I struggled and got myself pointed down river, looked at the river and realized I was about to float near the shore, I flipped, swam like hell and clawed the bank, I made it.
I lay there, half way in the river screaming at my useless hands as I tried to undo the strap. Finally, I got it unbuckled and dragged myself on the shore. I put my head in my hands and tried to comprehend what just happened, why I did what I did. I was terrified but alive. I looked up and saw Patrick way up river, Andy and Colin were down near me. Andy looked at me and gave me the thumbs up, I returned the signal. Then put my head in my hands again. I looked at my legs, gushing blood, my feet were purple, swollen, cuts everywhere. One of my river shoes had been torn off. My ankle looked broken, but I didn’t feel any pain, but there could be no way that I was okay, everything looked bad. I looked up, Andy was still staring at me, Again he signaled, thumbs up or down? Down I signaled this time.
Something else seemed wrong, I couldn’t see well, I had lost my glasses. Luckily, I had a pair of prescription sunglasses too. But something else was not right and then I realized, I was on the other side of the river, they were not.
I was shivering and then my years of experience kicked in.
“Your own your own now, time to get moving”, I thought.
I stripped naked right there on the rocks, opened my pack and pulled out my dry bag, opened it with worry, but everything was dry. I put on warm dry layers and socks. I grabbed my tent, sleeping bag, water, a little food. I looked at Andy, he knew what I was going to do. I also noticed that Colin was jumping up and down and that he didn’t have a pack.
“Where’s Colin’s Pack?” I yelled across the river. Andy pointed down the river.
I don’t think I have ever set up a tent so fast and within a few minutes I was in my dry sleeping bag, eating food, getting warm. I sat there, angry at myself.
Ego usually plays the main role in mountain accidents. Had my ego played a role? Was being tough and brave all of a sudden important to me? It was strange. Part of me did believe the river would go and we made a team decision, my gut however knew it was a bad idea. No one was at fault, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had messed up, that I let Ego prevail.
And then there was the sternum strap issue that almost drowned me. It was a conscious decision. I knew better but I still didn’t unbuckle it. I think part of what I was thinking was that an explorer never loses their pack, your pack is your life. The other thing was that the pack was heavy and the sternum strap kept me balanced. If I had been calm, I would have unbuckled the strap as soon as I saw Andy swim. But I wasn’t calm, I was cold, scared and stubborn and was NOT GOING TO SWIM! If I would have just relaxed and went with the river, my swim would have been a much less dramatic of an experience.
An hour later I heard my name called. I crawled out, Andy was on a river bar mid-river.
“Are you Okay?” he yelled.
“Yes, I have got food, I am warm and I think I can hike out.” I screamed over the rage of the river.
“Okay, we are heading out, I will return, maybe tonight.” He waved and the three of them descended into the mist.
My swim was terrible, however, the others did fine. Andy got beat up a little and lost a river shoe. Patrick managed to muscle himself to shore, on his hand and knees. His knees were swollen and he had lost his boots and poles but he was in good spirits. Colin, the one with the least experience, had a smooth swim, calm and relaxed, until a huge rock hit him in between his legs, making him let go of his pack.
They hiked the four miles down to the lake shore. Colin carried Patrick’s pack because Patrick had no boots. On the way down they watched Colin’s pack float by and get stuck on a bar in the middle of the river. When they reached the shore, Andy called Lake Clark Air and scheduled a pick up for Patrick and Colin. He also told them to,
“Bring me a pack raft.”
Back in the tent. I kept going over and over the event in my head. I couldn’t shake it. I was mad and disappointed in myself. I believed the trip was done, I mean, Colin’s pack was gone (I didn’t know at the time that Patrick didn’t have boots either). I tried to listen to music but realized everything on my iPod was sad and depressing. Then I remembered that I downloaded a bunch of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me podcasts, just what I needed to lighten my mood.
I was still very concerned about my legs and especially my feet. They were very swollen but I felt no pain nor did any of the cuts hurt. I cleaned out as many as I could but ran out of wound care supplies. I tried to keep them elevated.
Twenty four hours past and still no Andy. Plenty of scenarios were running through my head. Again, my self-preservation mentality kicked in.I decided to prep for my escape. First, I needed to decide if I was going to be able to hike. My feet felt really strange; was it a cold related injury? impact injury? Or were they swollen for other reasons? I decided to hike up to the glacier and see if I could cross at the toe and come back down. Andy was positive it would not go, but I would rather take my chances with a glacier than a river, no matter how sketchy it was.
My feet worked, they felt strange but no pain. The glacier would go, I was sure of it. Unfortunately, on the other side of the river, near the glacier’s toe, was one of the most spectacular and frightening waterfalls I had ever seen. It exploded out of the mountain with utter rage and descended to the main river without hesitation, it was impassable. Another option was to head down river but at some point the river hugs the cliffs and I would be screwed.
I didn’t want to accept it but, I was going to have to cross again.
Survival mode sent me into a series of decisions.I couldn’t cross without poles (I lost mine during the swim). So I took my tripod apart and created two poles with its legs. My pack was too heavy to cross by myself or to swim with, so I needed to lighten up. The bear canister was drenched inside so I took out all the food out. Everything that was waterlogged; rice, noodles and granola, I dumped in the river. I decided to keep four days worth of food. I didn’t have a stove so I dumped my fuel.
The rain had stopped and a good breeze came from down valley. I draped all my wet gear on the bushes. My plan was to watch this small stream on the other side. It would be my meter on how much water was coming out of the mountains. The night before the swim it was just a trickle, now it was flowing really well. When that creek went down, I would look for a crossing.
An hour later I saw two figures heading my way on the other side. It was Andy and Colin. Colin? Why was he still here? He didn’t have a pack! They walked past me and went to an area where there were no braids in the river. Andy looked at me, made a swimming motion and pointed at the spot.
“No Way!” I thought, “He wants me to just dive in and swim?”. I packed slowly, trying to imagine the suffering I was about to endure. Then I saw him blowing up a raft. (I would later find out he made a paddling motion, not a swimming one.)
We then shuttled the pack raft back and forth, first with my pack and then with me in it. It went without a hitch and the raft ride was fun. Our morale shot through the roof as we headed down stream, happy with our successful rescue.
“We plan to keep going” Andy said. I stopped.
“What? Colin doesn’t have a pack!”
“We rescued it with the pack raft!” Colin exclaimed.
With heavy heart I broke the news that I had dumped food and fuel. They had also lost food because of flooded bear barrels but they were bound and determined to continue the adventure. We stopped at the bottom of a pass that led on a different route. I got caught up in their enthusiasm and agreed to continue with them.
They hiked down to retrieve the rest of their gear and I stayed and rested. They were gone about three hours, long enough for me to come to grip with the fact that the trip was over for me. I was still rattled mentally and my feet were swollen and not right. Together, we barely had enough food and fuel for four days. We had a ton of extra gear: pack raft, paddles, ropes.
When they returned I told them I was going to head out. It just made sense, I was a third wheel now, possibly injured. I would carry the extra gear out and would give them my food. The fuel would last longer with just the two of them. I decided to stay one last night with them. We ate good and sipped more whiskey from the one flask that survived the river.
The next morning I left my two wet friends, huddle under a tarp. My pack weighed more than it did when we started the trip but I was happy to help them out. I wanted Colin to have a good adventure in Alaska. I was jealous that they were able to continue.
I marched for three hours under a heavy burden, both physically and mentally. It rained the entire time. My lifeless feet crossed slippery boulders, skirted cliffs and crossed braided stream after braided stream. The Neacolas were doing everything they could to encourage my departure. For the first time in my life I felt rejected by the mountains.
I set up my tent on the shore of Turquoise Lake and waited for the plane.Then the rain stopped and a brightness over took my tent. I crawled out to some glorious sun, the first I had seen the entire trip and at that moment the sound of the plane echoed through the valley. And for the first time in my life I said out loud,
” I hate you mountains”.