My boots are squeaking in the snow, my fingers are going numb and a biting wind is blowing from somewhere on the Columbia Icefields.
A sudden gale has raced over the massive icefalls of the Athabasca Glacier and is stinging that little spot on my face where my ski goggles and my hood don’t quite touch. It’s by no means the most frigid day that Jasper will experience this winter, but as I stand in the blue shadow of Mount Andromeda, watching Jesse Milner drill a screw into a dirty piece of ice with his gloveless hand, it feels like the south pole.
Screw securely fastened, Milner, who’s just back from a month in Belize, offers a comment on the weather.
“The ocean’s nice, but this is more soothing,” he laughs.
I shouldn’t be surprised. While he enjoys kicking back on a sandy beach, Milner is most at home when he’s looking over a sea of snow. A BC Ranger at Berg Lake in the summer and a ski guide in the Cariboo Mountains in the winter, Milner has placed an ice screw into this frozen fjord because he’s preparing to take an ACMG exam in just two weeks. To qualify at the ACMG’s top standards, he’ll have to demonstrate, among other skills, that he can execute a crevasse rescue.
On this day, he’s taken myself and Chris Williams, a local handyman and rock climber, to a practice session on the Athabasca Glacier. In our mock-scenario, we are imagining that Williams has fallen into a crevasse while skiing— not an uncommon risk in the Columbia Icefields area. Milner’s mission is to get Williams out and to teach us a thing or two in the process.
While I snap photos, perform jumping jacks and try to take notes with a frozen pen, Williams waits patiently in the crevasse. The aforementioned screw makes up one part of a secure anchor, off of which Milner will lower himself into the maw. Before securing Williams to a rope, climbing out and hauling his victim up, he’s devised a system of hitches, knots and slings with which he’ll have a 6:1 pulley ratio to haul up his friend. Less than an hour after Williams slipped through the trap door, he’s back on top, with a new appreciation for his down jacket.
While the one Milner has selected for our training outing is relatively shallow, a deep crevasse is serious business. Created as a result of stress generated from the movement of a massive ice sheet, crevasses pose dangers to hikers, mountaineers and skiers traveling on glaciers. Not far below us, on the tourist path, numerous signs announce crevasses’ ever-present danger. Numerous tragedies have befallen families here.
For Milner’s part, he demonstrates how crevasses are formed by slowly bending a Mars Bar that Williams has produced from his lunch bag. When the chocolate cracks under the tension and he’s satisfied we understand the principle, he pops half the candy in his mouth. Not sure if that’s on the exam, but his students today had to laugh.
bob covey // email@example.com