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n the raging storm, high on the summit ridge, I can barely read the compass. "If this is right", I report, "we're in deep shit." My climbing partner and son, Jeff, replies, "Let me check my compass." He digs in his heavily-ice-coated pack, comes up with his compass, and confirms, "We're in deep shit."
In the wind-whipped whiteout we can barely see each other or the edge of the sheer drop that has us stopped. We're dead tired, close to hypothermic. Now we discover that we don't know where we are nor what direction to go. How could experienced mountaineers get themselves into such a fix?
It's June, 1991, and Jeff and I are on a climbing blitz in Europe. At the moment we're somewhere on the summit ridge of Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest mountain, presumably pretty close to the north summit (Nordtoppen). Kebnekaise is at the northern tip of Sweden, 12 miles of wilderness trail from the nearest road.
Although at 7047 feet not a high mountain, Kebnekaise's location north of the arctic circle makes it perpetually icy, abounding with glaciers. Over the eons, these have cut deep valleys and steep sides, leaving a narrow north-south ridge, the fin of a terrestrial sailfish cutting high above the surrounding landscape swells. Two peaks form the major spines of this fin, Nordtoppen and the slightly higher south summit, Sydtoppen.
Our plan had been to traverse this summit ridge from north to south, passing first over Nordtoppen, then Sydtoppen. From there it's a gentle descent into the luxurious comforts of the Kebnekaise fjällstation (mountain resort) at the base of the mountain. Had the weather held - it was beautiful when we left Tarfalastugan (alpine hut) this morning - the traverse should have gone off without a hitch.
But the weather hadn't held. A couple of hours after we started up the north ridge toward the summit ridge, the sun departed and freezing rain began to glaze the rocks with ice. We thought it would be a passing shower. Had we known what loomed ahead, we would have turned back then. But we didn't. The slippery rocks were mildly challenging, with enough short vertical pitches to give us some good rope-belay practice.
Thus charged, we eagerly gain the summit ridge and head toward Nordtoppen. Then the storm ramps up, as if infuriated by our audacity in tackling this challeging route. Now it's a blinding gale and our compasses tell us we're in trouble. "How can this be," I wonder out loud, "this narrow ridge leads to the summit, without any major drop-offs. Something's wrong." We consult the map, to no avail. "Maybe we've gotten off on a spur of the ridge", suggests Jeff, "Let's go left a bit to see if we can pick up the ridge." No luck; same result trying right. If only we could see more than a few feet.
The wind has built up impressive three-inch horizontal daggers of rime ice on our packs and parkas. We're becoming tired, confused, and demoralized, and are now starting to think only of survival. "We have to get off of here", says Jeff. "Yeah," I say, "but how? We can't get down those ice-covered rocks, even if we could find them again in this storm. We can't consider continuing to the summit, even if we knew which way to go. And this drop-off could be 2000 feet straight down to the glacier below." "Yeah," chimes Jeff, "our options aren't all that great."
Over the side seems our best bet. The challenge is to find a route with some semblance of hand/footholds. Peering over the edge reveals almost-vertical, fairly-smooth rock. Too steep, too smooth, and we can't see the bottom. But at least it's in the lee of the wind and hopefully not too icy.
We check along the edge. It's all pretty much the same - unclimbable. But then a slight indentation in the rim appears, packed with snow and extending as far down as we can see, a thin ribbon of vertical snow. Bingo - maybe an escape route. "Think that goes all the way down?" I ask. "Who knows", says Jeff, "and if it doesn't, we fall the rest of the way. And", he continues, "these narrow snow-chutes can avalanche at the slightest disturbance." Well, that's encouraging.
"But", I counter, "if it does hold and goes all the way down, then it's our best chance. Better to die trying than to die of hypothermia hanging around up here. And at least we'd be somewhat out of the wind." Jeff seems calm and analytical: "Right, let's give it a shot." I, too, feel strangely calm, accepting, determined.
We make doubly-sure our crampons are well-secured and retrieve the climbing harnesses and rope from the packs. Soon we are clipped in and ready to go over the edge, out of that killing wind.
"You're the strongest", I note, "so I'll go first and kick around and try to make it avalanche; hold on tight in case it goes." I have confidence that Jeff could hang on and haul me up if the snow-chute disappears, and if the snow didn't hold then that route is no go. "OK," he said, taking a solid sitting-belay stance, anchored with boots and ice axe, "and keep talking to me."
Over the edge I go. Crampons and ice axe bite into firm, only slightly icy, styrofoam-like snow and hold - perfect. "Feels good", I yell to Jeff. "Hold on, I'm going to try to make it avalanche." Then I kick frantically at the snow - ten, twenty savage blows. It doesn't budge. It's weird. With outstretched arms I can almost touch the bare rock on either side. Yet that thin ribbon of snow holds firm. The shout up to Jeff is almost optimistic: "Looking good. Give me some slack - I'm going down."
I work my way down, kicking in steps about six inches apart. The ice axe gets lowered only after I get a solid grip with both feet. Unfortunately we've each brought only one ice axe, for self-arrest purposes, not anticipating a vertical climb. After downclimbing awhile I faintly hear Jeff call: "That's it - yell when ready." I'm down one rope pitch - a bit less than 150 feet. Now it's Jeff's turn.
I plunge the ice axe into its full depth, check that it's solid, clip into it, plant both feet, and prepare to take up the rope. "Come ahead", I yell. Though I can't see him through the white-out, directly above he wiggles over the edge. Now we're both on that thin, white, vertical ribbon of styrofoam. If he slips before he gets down to me, he'll rip me off my stance and we'll both plunge to the bottom, wherever that is.
I keep taking up rope, and pretty soon he emerges from the mist, first feet and then butt. And then we're together. "Fancy meeting you here", I say, "but maybe we should stop meeting like this." "OK", replies Jeff, "but let's wait until the glacier. The snow's great," he continues, in a serious vein, "let's hope it lasts."
"Right," I reply, "keep going for that glacier." He inches past me and now it's my turn to belay from the top. At least now if he slips I have a good shot at holding him until he can get another grip. Of course if the ribbon avalanches ...
He disappears into the gale. Steadily the rope plays out. When it's almost gone I holler "That's it - yell when ready", and wait. Finally a faint "Come ahead" wafts up. I retrieve my ice axe and start down again. I try to be even more careful now, since one slip here would take us both off the mountain. Dead tired, I move slowly, making sure that each foot is securely placed in the footholds Jeff has kicked and that the ice axe is planted solidly.
Then we're together again, 250 feet down from the top, alone together in a white uncertainty. "Keep going," he says.
After several pitches - how many? who's counting? - the snow stops, blocked by a rock outcrop. We can't get around this blockage, only over it. The bottom is still not in sight. There's surely a sheer drop down from the edge of the outcrop, but I can't tell how far.
I set a belay - a really solid one, thanks to the ledge-like top of the outcrop - and yell to Jeff "Come on down. We've got a problem."
When Jeff arrives I belay him as he creeps to the edge to survey the situation. "Not too bad," he reports. "It's climbable, and the snow continues not too far down. There's some ice on the rock, however, which might make it tricky getting over this knob."
In addition to being the stronger of the two of us, Jeff's the better rock climber. So the decision is easy. Since I am the more likely to fall, I will go over first. Belaying from the top, he'll be able to hold me if I fall. We trade places and I crawl over the edge.
The face of the outcrop is a slightly overhung jumble of jagged rock, with great hand/footholds, had it not been coated with ice. The base of the outcrop and resumption of the snow ribbon are about 30 feet straight below.
I work my way down a few feet, but then the holds turn into greased pigs - I can't seem to get a good grip on anything. As the rocks slowly slip away into the shadows, I yell "Falling!" at the top of my lungs and pendulum out over the void. As I twist in the howling wind, Jeff yells back "Gotchya, but we better do something quick."
There's a slight protrusion in the outcrop just below me: "Let me down a couple of feet." As Jeff lets out some rope, I grab the protruding rock and desperately hang on. "Take a break", I advise, "I'm okay now." Well, sort of; I don't dare move a muscle until Jeff gives the word.
When he's ready again I continue inching down the outcrop. This time I manage to make it to the bottom and rejoin that thin white lifeline of snow. "Made it." I yell, "let me get set and then it's your turn." I wedge myself between some rocks at the base of the outcrop; it's not as secure as the belay stance at the top, but solid enough, hopefully. "Come ahead," I yell, and watch as Jeff inches over the edge.
If he should fall as I had, he would hit the snow at my feet and bounce on down for another 30 feet until the rope either jerked him to a stop or jerked me after him. Neither happens. I don't know how he manages it, but he downclimbs in good shape and pulls up beside me. "Not bad," he reaffirms, "what happened with you?" "Just testing your belay skills," I mumble, completely outclassed.
After a brief rest we're on our way again, pitch after pitch. We're in the groove now, and a bit more confident that our thin white lifeline will hold.
Imperceptibly at first, the slope gradually becomes less severe. Soon we no longer need our ice axes, but still belay each pitch, kick in steps, and descend ladder-like.
Then we hit the bergschrund, where the valley glacier meets the mountain. Bergschrunds tend to be ugly crevasses, technically difficult to cross, and privately we had each wondered what this one would be like, should we get that far. But snowy debris from our escape chute had plugged the bergschrund, building us a bridge - it's nice to have things go right for a change.
Soon we are on the glacier, bidding adieu to our now-beloved lifeline, hanging out of the mist like a big white rope. It's still steep, but now we could have walked down side by side, kicking in steps with our heels. But there are lots of crevasses, so we walk in single file a rope's length apart.
Finally we leave the steep part behind and plop down for a rest. The storm is still with us and bites in when we stop. We're tired, really tired; it's been about 14 hours since we set out this morning. Hypothermia looms - we need to find shelter soon.
According to the map, there isn't any shelter for miles. We're on the wrong side of the Kebnekaise massif, the desolate east side; the fjällstation, with its soft beds and hot meals is on the west side, totally beyond our reach. The nearest shelter is Tarfalastugan, where we spent last night, two glaciers, two low mountain passes, and eight rough miles away.
"Should we build a snow cave or try to make it around the mountain to Tarfala?" asks Jeff. At 23 he's young and strong and can handle it either way; he knows that at 54 I'm the one hurting the most. "Not a good spot for a snow cave," I offer. "We should have thought about that back where it was steeper. It'd be too much work here. I don't know if I'm up for that. I'd rather try for Tarfala."
It's about 10pm, but darkness is not a problem in this land of the midnight sun. The questions now are: will the crevasses be a problem? and will I be able to push on for another rugged four hours? We shoulder our packs and head north.
Jeff's in the lead. He's better at "reading" the glacier than I am, as has been evident in previous outings. Crevasses are often hidden by thin blankets of crusty snow. Like a good quarterback reading the pass coverage, or an expert kayaker reading the river, a good glacier reader picks up vital patterns - in this case subtle contours that signal a crevasse and suggest the best way through.
Crevasses are everywhere, but Jeff twists us safely through. It's all pretty much a blur to me, stumbling along behind, often jerked forward by the rope as he sets a determined pace up the glacier. We had landed in the middle of Rabots glaciär, and now we have to walk up it, an elevation gain of about 600 feet, to cross the first of the two passes into the Tarfala valley.
After about an hour and a half we reach the end of the glacier and the jumble of rocks that marks the first pass (Firnpasset). It's a struggle against the wind to cross and descend onto another glacier, Passglaciären. "Well, at least this one's downhill," remarks Jeff, surveying this dauntingly steep glacier. Fortunately it's smaller, with fewer crevasses.
Soon we've dropped most of the elevation so laboriously gained on Rabots, come to the end of Passglaciären, and hit the trail to Tarfala. Time to shed the rope and crampons; Jeff grabs them and stuffs them in his pack to partially pamper his pretty pooped pop.
After an eternity of forcing one foot in front of the other, we top the pass at the edge of Kebnepakteglaciären. And there to the west, across Tarfalajaure (Lake Tarfala), in the light of the wind-whipped midnight sun, flicker distant ghostly hints of the Tarfala haven. Literally and figuratively all down hill from here.
We pull up to the stugan at 2am. Inside the tiny hut, out of the wind, await those now-insanely-coveted bunk beds we left 18 hours earlier. In victory we jerk open the door ... only to see sleeping bodies stacked everywhere. One or more in each bunk, the floor is packed solid, even the entry is full; nary a corner for us. Gently reclosing the door in resignation, we give each other a "What now?" look.
"Let's see if there's a lee side", suggests Jeff. "If there is, we can huddle in our sleeping bags and survive a few hours until there's room inside." So around the hut we trudge looking for less wind. "Think that's unlocked?", I wonder, spotting a small door on the back. Jeff twists the handle and the door opens to the putrid smell of rotting garbage. Then we remember that these remote huts often have a small place to store garbage between the infrequent pickup runs. It must have been some time since the last service run to this hut, because it's jammed full of bulging, stinking, black plastic bags in a cramped windowless cubby.
"Welcome to my palace," intones Jeff royally, as he bends low and ushers me in with a grand sweeping gesture. I crawl over the bags, trying not to puncture them, and find a spot to nestle. Jeff squeezes in after me, shutting us in and the wind out - heaven. Immediately I fall asleep, blissfully certain that there's nothing sweeter than the smell of rotting oranges.
Two days later, in triumphant anticlimax, we summit Sydtoppen in near-perfect weather.
After our great garbage escape from the maelstrom, we awaken about noon to perfect calm. The seven-mile walk to the fjällstation is on good trail in breezeless bright sun. We check in and are assigned a room with four bunk beds. "You'll have to share with someone we're expecting tomorrow," apologizes the clerk. That hardly registers, and doesn't matter - we need food, not privacy. The spartan cafe is nirvana, the meager snack of dry crackers and honey memorable; the Ritz was never this welcome, a luxurious snack never this satisfying.
The next day is one of restoration, body and spirit. Our roommate, Lennart Bernhed, proves delightful. A native Swede, he helped found the sport of orienteering - map navigation while running. He's my age but in better shape; he had run the 12 miles of trail from the roadhead to the fjällstation. Lennart wants to tackle Sydtoppen with us.
The following morning, after breakfast, the three of us on our way up the trail along Kittelbacken (a stream). I am trudging along behind, still exhausted, floundering to keep up with Jeff and Lennart tripping lithely from rock to rock. This trail, unlike our ill-fated summit traverse, is the standard route up Kebnekaise. It goes up Kitteldalen (a valley) to the foot of Kittelglaciären, turns sharply left, and climbs to Vierramvare, a minor peak abutting Kebnekaise. From Vierramvare the trail drops 600 feet to the Kebnekaise south ridge and a clean shot to Sydtoppen.
"Be nice if we didn't have to drop that 600 feet," I opine as we reach the foot of Kittelglaciären. If we drop, we will have to regain that 600 feet, though Jeff and Lennart act as if they are up for anything. I sneak a peek at the map. "This shortcut looks good," I suggest, indicating a possible route that skirts Björlings glaciär. This glacier nestles at the base of a near-vertical wall, above which lays the the trail on the gentle ridge to the summit. "What about that wall?" asks Jeff.
"I bet we can find a way up here," I say, pointing to a notch just below Toppstugan, a rescue hut on the ridge to the summit. Judging from the map, the wall appears to be only about 100 feet high at that point - less than one rope length. If one of us could climb that, then the others could be belayed up. Lennart, who has no climbing experience, is game. So, mindful of the consequences of the Donner shortcut, we're off on another adventure.
Adrenaline pumps as we leave the established trail, to blaze a new one. High above Björlings glaciär we gingerly traverse a narrow ledge that points straight to the base of the notch. Lennart christens our route "the Wagener variation".
We reach the base of the notch. And what do we find but a short clone of our snowy lifeline in that other life of two days ago, angling barely 100 feet up to the summit ridge. It's an easy climb. But we are not the only ones who have opted for this route. A Swedish team had come across Björlings glaciär and are already cutting steps in the snow. We squeeze past them, climb up to the ridge, wave at the hut, get Sydtoppen in our sights, and sail to the summit.