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Lightning struck the mountain as the heavens cracked with thunder. Snow and ice burst loose like boiling water, and I was swept down the couloir, a steep gulley plunging down the flank of the mountain. Runaway snow felt like galloping wet sand and hissed like snakes. It was a hell of a way to spend a summer vacation.
It was mid-July 1986, and I was in the Wyoming Wind River Range toward the end of a 30-day Wind River Mountaineering Course with NOLS, the world-famous National Outdoor Leadership School. Headquartered on the edge of the range in the cowboy town of Lander, Wyoming, NOLS was the premier outdoor adventure school of my time. Once I was on purpose to become a NOLS Instructor. At least I was until love, romance, and a broken down car got in the way. Nevertheless this 30-day NOLS mountaineering course proved to be one of the most pivotal points in my life.
Back then I planned a career in outdoor adventure and sought concentrated training in hard skills such as alpine rock climbing and glacier travel and in soft skills such as teamwork and leadership under pressure. Along with those skills NOLS also taught natural history, science in the field, environmental responsibility, wilderness navigation, and backcountry first aid, all knowledge I desired. I had one semester left in grad school, too, back east in Richmond, Virginia. And, to be sure, what I most wanted as an ol’ farmboy from Virginia was an immersion adventure in the Wild American West. And I got it.
A veteran NOLS instructor, Michael “Mike” Collins led our expedition. Mike was Apollonic. He was a decorated ex-Marine with long blonde hair from New Hampshire who found his soul in the Wyoming wilderness. He told us of sitting in a wheelchair all grogged out from painkillers being awarded a medal by then-President Ronald Reagan for being wounded in combat during the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. Mike thought the little war was stupid, but he gave it a gung-ho go-go-go and got shot up for it. The mountains called him West after he got out of the Marines. It’s where he healed himself out among horses, rocks, stars, sun, snow, and climbers. Mike was never rattled, or at least didn’t show it, and always seemed calm, collected, and solid even if somewhat fatalistic.
John Toll of Iowa served as Mike’s assistant and second-in-command. He was full of grit and gumption, as short as an ear of corn, and as intense as a Zen monk in combat. John thrived under pressure and seemed determined to throw off the gravity of being from the cornfield realms of Iowa. In turn, Fergus McCormick, who carried a guitar in a blue case lashed to his backpack, assisted them as an apprentice trip leader. I don’t remember where Fergus was from, maybe New York, other than he went to Reed College in Oregon.
Some of my favorite memories were of Fergus grinning after lugging his big guitar up and down across big mountains, unzipping his blue case, pulling out his guitar, and start playing. He’ll strum and sing way out there on the side of the mountains amid rocks and trees and wind. Intoxicated with music, we would feel like a million miles in the middle of nowhere but in the heart of everywhere. All three young men were remarkable in their own way. To all us students they were Superheroes. God-like, even.
Called the Wind Rivers or the Winds for short, these mountains paralleled the Tetons to the West as part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. After surviving a hellish blizzard on the Fourth of July in subzero temperatures, we continued our off-trail traverse of the Wind River Mountains from the northeast to southwest.
After another fierce storm cleared the skies we successfully summitted Gannett Peak on Saturday the 12thof July. At 13,804 ft Gannett is the highest mountain in Wyoming, even taller than its more famous neighbor the Grand Teton. The latter thrusts up only to stop short at 13,775 feet squat.
By the 14th of July we arrived at Bull Lake Glacier atop a wide plateau. This glacier was connected to the large Fremont Glacier complex. There on the edge of Bull Lake Glacier at around 12,120 feet our NOLS group set up camp. Across from us to the west was Indian Pass, which looked steep and slick with a cloak of heavier than usual late-season snow and ice. To our right the northern gate was guarded by the shoulder hump of Jackson Peak, at 13,517 feet the eighth highest mountain in Wyoming. We actually had to descend off Bull Lake Glacier to the base before climbing it.
South to our left an unnamed tower of rock pierced the sky. Although at about 12,836 feet it wasn’t as tall, the unnamed mountain looked steeper and more challenging than more massive Jackson Peak. As tired as we felt, a group of us wanted to bag it. I wanted to bag it. Back then I kept lists of all the mountains I climbed and all the rivers paddled, states I’ve visited, and all the national parks and wilderness areas I’ve entered.
Our course broke into rotating small groups over the next couple days. It was a pleasant change of pace from the relentless marching. Feeling bony but strong, we engaged in day climbs with ice axes and had science classes in the fields. One day the mini-group I was in climbed and summitted Jackson Peak. We actually had to descend off Bull Lake Glacier to the base before climbing it.
The ascent was primarily a wickedly steep snow slog. One step at a time with each plunge of the ice ax shaft. At one point we had to chop steps out of the ice, which was a bit nerve wracking. It wasn’t a severe climb by any means, but the exposure was deadly. And it was a cool climb except that visibility was bad with rapid changes in weather. Clouds rolled in and pelted us with zippy flurries of snow then rolled away before curtains of sunbeams blazing down thru opening skies. Another climb of nearby Fremont Peak, third highest in Wyoming at 13,745 feet, was aborted when another storm hit us partway up.
Wednesday the 16th of July 1986 found my small group following John Toll down off the glacier to climb the unnamed peak. There were three of us students: Ray H., Laura B., and me. They were characters, too. Ray was a jovial older guy built like a bear who declared himself an avowed Marxist from New England.
Laura was from somewhere in the Northeast, too. With a thick head of orange-red hair, she was quiet, studious, and totally game to climb these mountains. Younger than me, Laura became famous, unfortunately, on our expedition for going snow blind. She refused to wear her glacier goggles one day on a glacier crossing because she didn’t like the way she looked with those big goggles on and went blind. It was our fault, too, because no one including our NOLS instructors caught it until it was too late. Snow blindness is basically a sunburn on the eyeball, especially the corneas. At first the eyes turn red and feel as if full of grinding, gritty sand. The constant wind buffeting us so high up accelerated drying out our eyes, too. Her eyes healed from placing cooled tea bags upon them. Our instructors declared the tannin from the tea accelerated the healing of one’s eyeballs. The tissues of the eye heal faster from sun and wind burns than the thicker layers of our skin. Took a day and a half. A few grumbled at the delay, and most of us appreciated a day to rest and explore our surroundings. Today, tho, she could see so well as to behold the storms. And laugh at her self, too.
Although I waggled my head and chuckled, I understood. Whenever I wore huge, slipover sunglasses over my big spectacles people point and shout, “Hey, look! A man in rilly HUGE, li’l ol’ lady GRANMA sunglasses!” For a few years after the movie of the same name came out in 1987, people would look again, laugh, and shout, “Hey, look! Robocop!”
Iowa John led us over to the base of the mesa-like rock tower just south of Indian Pass. We had to have a name for this nameless – at least on the map – mountain. As John hailed from the rolling flats of Iowa, he flippantly called out “Iowa Peak!” And the rest us of embraced the oxymoron with laughs and shouts. “Yeah!” we cried out in agreement, “Iowa Peak!”
The three of us students arrived with John at the base of Iowa Peak. We were clearly not the first climbers. In fact we were a little shocked at the astonishingly large quantity of human feces clumped among the rocks. Damn. Did these lazy ass defecators even bother to climb this peak, or did they come here to hide out around the corner from the pass and crap as if to get away with shittin’ all over the damn place? Well, they did get away with it. So much shit and snow and shredded toilet paper and rocks it would drive Bigfoot into a rage. With a wry grin, John launched into a brief lecture on minimum impact ethics.
“Well, whaddaya do out here?” one of my comrades asked. “You can’t dig a cat hole in all these rocks.”
“Pull up a rock, shit in the hole, then cover it up,” John said. “If you absolutely have to shit on top the ground, then cover it up with rocks. Even better, smear your own shit around first. Preferably with flat rocks.”
We nodded in agreement. All of us have been out in the field too long to say “Eww.”
“Well, ya gonna cover up all this shit?” someone asked, I can’t remember who.
“No,” John said with a quick shake of his head. “Leave it as a monument to human excess and stupidity.”
Truth is we probably wouldn’t had time to climb if we cleaned up all those mounds of human feces. We turned our attention to the fractured cliff face rising above us.
After a debate on the best configuration for rope teams for the four of us, we decided to do the unusual and put all four on us on a single rope. We had a mix of skill levels and abilities, and decided the whole group would move faster this way. Off we went, clawing our way up a multi-pitch rock climb with helmets and backpacks with ice axes strapped on.
Wednesday 16 July had dawned blue and clear. We were all excited, even eager, for climbing this tower represented a true unknown. Yet all four of us remained relatively calm and matter-of-fact. Being out in the field for so long had matured us with a certain wisdom. And, to be honest, we were all tired. And we were focused and upbeat.
It’s been almost 23 years now this Spring of 2009 as I flesh this story out in words from old memories, tattered notes in #2 pencil, and faded Kodak print fotos. I can’t remember if we took turns swinging leads, or for the sake of speed we all stayed clipped into the rope in the same order we began. I can’t remember if I was the lead climber or the second. I know Laura was usually in the middle and John the Instructor stayed tied in at the end.
At the end of each pitch we would regroup briefly on little ledges. The views across the mountains and valleys were spectacular. But it was too scary to dig out my camera while climbing. My camera was an old Canon AE-1 and was deemed a bit heavy for this trip, but I carried it anyway.
We grunted over big rocks and shimmed up little handholds. We tiptoed and shoved, pulled and laughed, scraped our helmets against rock, and laughed and farted. We handled our rope systems as seasoned experts, belaying, placing pro, removing pro, and slinging gear. A handful of times, however, the rock on these fractured, blocky cliffbands would break off and bounce into the void. Each time we shouted, “ROCK!”
Halfway up Iowa the storm hit. Within moments we were enveloped in swirling wet clouds. Visibility dropped away. Snow fell, first as soft flakes, but faster and harder as frozen white pellets. The winds picked up again and began to stutter and buffet us on the side of the mountain. We had the beginnings of a whiteout. And it was our first whiteout while climbing. We laughed at our pathetic attempts to celebrate and John just shook his head at our silliness.
Our team came to a halt on a ledge to consider the situation. The rocks were getting wet and our hands were cold and getting colder. Climbing in soggy wool mittens over slick wet stone did not appeal to us. Should we start downclimbing and rappelling off? Hold up and wait it out hoping it’s just a brief, passing storm? John called the decision quickly.
“The fastest way down is climb up to the top and glissade down that couloir we saw on the other side of the peak,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Quietly with renewed focus we pushed ahead, helping each other as needed. At this point we didn’t care about climbing in good style such as not cheating with our knees as much as we cared about getting safely back to base camp. The snow fell harder. Distant thunder rumbled.
With a grim satisfaction I hauled myself up onto the summit of the mountain and stood up into the sky. Ray and Laura were soon at my side. We relished standing atop this 12,836 foot-high pile of rock, ice, and snow. Then John Toll popped up, short and elf-like in the storm and radiating confidence. He seemed to relish the challenge. Ray and I caught each other’s eyes and nodded. We knew it would make a good story. Laura just grinned and took a drink of iodine-flavored water.
“Iowa Peak!” we all shouted. “Woohoo! We made it!”
“Not yet,” our NOLS Instructor replied drolly. “Once we’ve all returned to base camp then you can say that.”
The storm seemed to clear briefly as clouds swirled open. Snow scattered in the breeze. It was cold. And yet I felt strangely jubilant and just a bit anxious. Something didn’t feel right. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I brushed it aside as simply fear of the unknown. We took a quick break to eat and drink, add layers, and coil the ropes. And take summit pictures, of course.
“Time to go,” said John.
With little talk, we got out our ice axes, slung on our backpacks, and then slid the rope coils over our head. To speed things up I took two ropes, coiled like circles in the classic mountaineer style, and threw them criss-cross over my trunk. I looked like a guerrilla chieftain with two rolls of bandoliers. My goodness, they were heavy. But I was strong and in great shape. Together we marched over the summit and saw the head of the couloirs were a bit of a ways away. Had to downclimb over wet rocks a bit. Pretty steep, too. Unroped. There were plenty of bomb handholds and little ledges, tho, so we scrambled on down. Roping up and setting up rappels would’ve taken too long as this storm barreled in, and we’ve all long become accustomed to the exposure of steep heights. Would’ve been quite different if this was much earlier during our expedition.
The scramble down was short. We quickly found ourselves standing at the head of a long skinny couloir filled with snow. We could see all the way to the bottom where it ran out into Indian Pass. Partway down there was a slight dog-leg crook but still more or less a straight shot to where couloirs merged to open upon a broad apron of snow. I shivered with a mix of fear and pleasure as I felt the call of adventure and the challenge of the moment.
“Dudley,” John called out, using my middle name, which was what I went by back in those years. “You’re the second most experienced one here. I want you to stay back and take sweep.”
Ray and Laura were fine with that. They’ve had very little outdoor experience before taking this NOLS Mountaineering Course. But they knew how to self-arrest with their ice axes should they glissade out of control.
“We’re going to glissade all the way down. Glissade in control,” John said. “I’m going first. Then you, Laura. Next, you, Ray. Spread out a little so you don’t get on top of one another too fast. It’s a long ways down but not too bad. Faster than setting up pro and rappelling down wet rocks, that’s for sure. After Ray, it’s you, Dudley.”
“OK, let’s go,” Ray said.
“Any questions?” asked John.
“No,” Laura shook her head.
I nodded the all-OK. The snow was falling much harder now and the wind was gusting through the Pass between Iowa and Jackson Peaks. More thunder rumbled across the mountains.
John stepped off the rocks onto the snow at the top of the chute, sat down while gripping his ice axe to steer by, then scooted off. He masterfully shot on down the mountain and was soon at the bottom. He stood up, shouted, and waved. Laura went next. She scooted and stopped, shuddered and scuttered, and then away she went, zipping down the snow with a yell. Soon she was standing up next to John and wiping snow off her pants. They looked waaay down there in the middle of the apron-shaped runout beyond the bottom of the couloir.
Ray, a big guy, jumped on with macho gusto, turned around and gave me a grin. We nodded at each other, the tired equivalent of thumbs up, and off he went. Ray glissaded down the ravine toward Laura and John. Sometimes he went too slowly, then too fast, bouncing a bit toward the end, skittering to a halt in a spray of snow. My turn.
The couloir didn’t seem all that long, or steep, but once I sat down atop the snow it felt very long and steep. For a moment I felt fear. Then I took a deep breath. This was what I lived for. Adventure! Adventure in the wilderness! Doing things few people ever get to do! Yeah!
The couloir went straight down then bent right to left like a dog’s leg before straightening out again. A thin rim of rocks that dropped steeply over cliffs marked the edge of the dogleg. More snow fell and the clouds grew darker and stormier. It was time to push off, and I did.
Lightening struck the mountain at that moment. Thunder boomed as if a giant pounded heavy war drums in the clouds above. Snow exploded around me, and before I knew exactly what was happening I was being swept down the mountain in a river of snow.
The snow seemed to boil up and liquefy. I was head up, feet down, and shooting straight toward the edge of the cliffs in the bend of the dogleg. I could see snow shooting up into the air in waves of spray to spill over the cliffs. And I did not want to get blown over those rocks.
Quickly I turned over as I’ve been trained to do on a stable mountainside and self-arrested with my ice axe. Except this mountainside was moving. Bad idea. I just sank down into the snow. It continued to carry me down the mountain. After a second or third attempt I gave up in frustration and then had a brilliant insight.
An avalanche is essentially a river of snow washing down the mountain. I was also a whitewater kayaker. If a paddler ends up coming out of the boat, or if someone tumbles out of a raft blasting down the river, there was a specific way to swim whitewater rapids. You floated on your back, arms outstretched backpaddling to slow yourself down, head upstream to protect it from smashing into rocks, and your feet pointing downstream to avoid foot entrapment and to bounce off boulders. The lifejacket would protect your spine.
So I rolled over onto my back and began backpaddling with my arms, still gripping my ice axe in one hand tho careful not to stab myself with it. My body rose back up and floated on top of the moving snow as I rocketed down the mountain.
All thought was crystal clear. No praying or screaming or looking back or second-guessing. Just instinct and intelligence working together in perfect pitch. Responding to what is.
Suddenly I came to a stop. The avalanche had carried me about 200 feet or so down the mountain. I did not go over the cliffs. Everything was quiet. Silent. I was buried up to my chest, but my feet were not far from the surface. Heavy boots weighed them down. For a moment I sat absolutely still, petrified, afraid to move, concerned that any movement would trigger another slide. Little trickles of snow began to roll and slide down the chute all around me.
“Get down here NOW!” John shouted up at me.
“Come ON!” Ray shouted.
“Hurry!” Laura shouted.
“Now!” John ordered. “Quickly!”
Scared but with no time to be afraid, I wiggled loose and fought my way free. Fortunately, the snow was a mix of powder and clumps, so I got out quickly. In a blur of action I moved down and out of the main slide, a big pile of loose snow, and glissaded the rest of the way down. In no time at all I was at the bottom. I stood up, shaken but feeling a little bit like Superman with those two climbing ropes coiled across my chest.
“Are you alright?”
“Man, you don’t know how lucky you are!?!”
“Good thing lightening didn’t strike you!”
“Did you see that lightening bolt?”
“You do realize you’re holding a metal ice axe in your hand, right?”
The questions came fast and furious from Ray and Laura. Another rumble of thunder boomed through the Pass.
“Let’s get outa here!” John said.
We had to move out of the way of the couloir and back to camp. Halfway to camp the storm turned ugly. Thunder cracked every few minutes and the ground shook. Lightening struck all around us. I imagined rocks exploding. Flashes of light lit up the clouds.
Snow fell in wild, crazy flurries. Lightening flashed so much around us we could see the electricity crackling through the air. It reminded me of hot afternoon thunderstorms back in Virginia, but I felt as if we were in the midst of an artillery bombardment. We were terrified. Lightning, composed of concentrated plasma, snapped, cracked, and splattered everywhere as the storm lashed the mountains.
The storm raged after we got back to camp. Eventually it cleared, and we awoke to a beautiful, clear day. Our entire NOLS course was scheduled to cross over through Indian Pass to the other side of Titcomb Lakes this day. After we broke camp, packed up, and began a long trudge up to the top of Indian Pass, someone shouted out. Maybe it was John Toll.
“Hey, look over there,” I remember someone pointing out. “Over at the base of Iowa Peak.”
“What?” I asked as I squinted across the way, looking at where the avalanche occurred.
“You are so lucky. We are all so lucky. See, the entire couloir slid clean during the middle of the night.”
My eyes followed the pointed finger. Indeed, the couloir appeared swept half clean. A mound of snow stood piled up at the bottom against a ring of boulders. Apparently during the peak of the storm more thunder and lightening had triggered another and much bigger avalanche. Big enough to not only kill me but also bury my companions at the bottom. There would have been little hope in successfully digging people out under such remote and stormy conditions.
“My” avalanche was a relatively small and narrow one. Instead of an enormous shelf or slab cracking away from the flanks of some gargantuan mountain, it was basically a snow slide in a gully. Technically speaking in the vernacular of climbing I was in a “loose snow avalanche,” one that starts small at the top then grows bigger and wider as it descends the mountain like a growing waterfall. It was my first and only true avalanche.
I was lucky in a number of ways. For instance, the fact the snow was Rocky Mountain powder. Years later I got caught in a little snow slide on a winter climb on Red Mountain in the Washington Cascades. I was stuck up to my knees and hips in what local mountaineers dubbed “Cascade concrete,” wet, heavy snow that traps you and is difficult to escape from. According to my old Seattle Mountaineer climbing notes, most avalanches occur on 38 degree slopes, and 50% of all avalanche deaths are climbers (although they’re roughly the 5th cause of death among mountaineers, with simple falling being number one).
All of us stared across the way at the avalanche chute on Iowa Peak as we slogged up Indian Pass. It was a solemn reminder that in the backcountry anything could happen. Anything. Such as later on that day I and two other guys unwittingly and unknowingly walked out onto a frozen lake covered in snow only to feel our weight drop with a muffled crack. That, however, is another story.
Afterthoughts: All mountain peak elevation measurements listed above reflect the traditional measurements then in usage. Recent surveys since then have determined the entire Wind River Range to be on average five feet higher in elevation. During the time of our course we couldn’t discern the exact height of our unnamed peak from the tools at our disposal other than to know it was over 12,500 feet but shorter than the 13,000-footers.
Years later as I scanned newer maps, some listed the height as 12,836 feet, others at 12,838 feet. Perhaps the latter number stems from the reset of traditional measurements. We certainly weren’t the first to climb it, and we found out later we had unusual winter-like conditions that summer. I haven’t been able to find a designated name. To our group of climbers from that particular NOLS Course, however, it’ll always be Iowa Peak.
Global climate disruption is also affecting the Winds with more severe storms, less precipitation, and more droughts. As a result there has been increasingly rapid melting out of the glaciers. Many I experienced that unusually snowy summer of 1986 have shrunk drastically. Photos from the 1920s to the mid-1980s (when I was there) to the 2000s show the sad loss of all that snowy ice. With warming temperatures come unpredictable conditions, flash floods, and encroaching, invasive plants, animals, and especially insects from now-hotter climes. Seeing the way the Winds look in Google Earth images dated 1994 and 2014 was shocking, too, especially seeing widespread expanses of barren, rocky soil devoid of snow and ice. There was so little snow in the upper gullies of Iowa Peak, basically a blocky rock tower, that I had a hard time figuring out which couloir did our group of climbers glissade down? Two chutes merged into one partway down. The couloir we set off down had snow in it all the way to just below the summit cap.
This essay was composed from old, pencil-&-paper journal entries and photographs from my trips in the American West in the Summer of 1986. The camera system I used was a handheld Canon AE-1 with a 35 mm SLR lens and Kodak Kodacolor Print Film. Unfortunately, my old journals and photographs of that wonderful and pivotal Summer Adventure were destroyed in the House Fire of March 2010.
Life goes on, of course. And I will always remember my NOLS Wind River Mountaineering Course. It changed my life. I miss the Winds and wonder if I’ll ever return. I used to think I would, but so many other responsibilities and distractions exist. I miss my former coursemates, too. Miss my NOLS instructors, too. Those three guys inspired us. They guided and mentored us to call upon deep aspects of ourselves we students didn’t even know existed. The magick of deep friendships forged between strangers in the wilderness got us through numerous difficult moments. Our rich interconnections allowed us to appreciate the sacredness and the unique beauty of the Winds and ultimately confront the fragility and the strength of our own humanity.
William Dudley Bass
15 May 2009
Revised and Reposted 17 February 2012
(Almost 26 yrs after the climb)
Final Revision 6 March 2017
(Almost 31 yrs after the climb)
Digging into the Past with Google Earth:
NOTE: This article was first published in my earlier autobiographical blog, Cultivate and Harvest, on May 15, 2009, at http://cultivateandharvest.blogspot.com/2009/05/swimming-in-avalanches_15.html with the photos published separately as “Photos for ‘Swimming in Avalanches’” at http://cultivateandharvest.blogspot.com/2009/05/swimming-in-avalanches.html. It was revised and re-published here this February of 2012, and is also a modified chapter from a book in progress narrating epic outdoor adventures in wild and beautiful places. Final Revision with additions of maps and Google Earth images are from Monday 6 March 2017. Thank you.
MAP IMAGES: All topo map pictures are from digital fotos taken of sections of “NORTH WIND RIVER RANGE Hiking Map and Guide,” by Earthwalk Press of California, 2013.
GOOGLE EARTH: All fotos of Indian Pass and the unnamed “Iowa” Peak of Knife Point Mountain/Ridge and surrounding areas are images dated 1994 and 2014 from Google Earth. I don’t know what the 1994 stamp on the map represents as Google Earth launched in June 2001, altho it may represent earlier fotos from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Keyhole, Inc’s EarthViewer 3D program. Google “acquired” Keyhole from the CIA in 2004, per Wikipedia. Hmnn…Isn’t that an example of the military/security-industrial/financial-education/prison-intelligence/surveillance complex? What’s really going on here?
Copyright © 2009, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017 by William Dudley Bass except for the three images from the 2013 Earthwalk Press map of the North Wind River Range and those three 1994/2014 images of Indian Pass and Iowa Peak from Google Earth. Otherwise ALL Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.