It’s hard to imagine a thing called snow here in the height of summer, but mountaineer Steve Gardiner gives us a close-up view of it in his essay “Summit Storm,” as he and his companions, overtaken by a blizzard on the slopes of Mount Rainier, must battle for survival:
“The seven of us stood together, feeling very small on the side of the massive mountain. The storm was a complete whiteout. The sky and mountain had become one.
It was a short conversation. We could not continue down. If we did, the next slip could be far more serious. We would have to dig in.
We fell to the snow, scraping with our ice axes. We had to get inside the mountain. I chopped the frozen slope, tossing the loose chunks. We could neither hear nor see them as they dropped. What an irony. The same substance which threatened to take our lives was the very thing we hoped would save us.
While the ice axes are sharp, they are narrow, not particularly efficient for carving caves large enough for seven people. I hacked at the snow and dug down vertically to make a flat face. Then I slashed horizontally back into the mountain. The snow was hardpacked, pounded by weeks of wintry winds. With each stroke of the axe, the snow broke off in blocks. As the horizontal hole expanded, I lay on my side, swinging the axe overhead, breaking out more blocks. I pushed them outward toward my feet and kicked them out the door of the developing shelter.
I rolled from side to side, chopping with both arms. At one point, I stopped, my arms aching from the strain. I thought about how sore my arms would be the next day, but then realized that if we didn’t get everyone inside, we might not be around the next day to feel the soreness. I chopped harder. Soon I had my whole body inside and could now stop going deeper into the mountain and could just expand the room I had already created. Others were working on two more caves nearby.
In less than two hours, we had created three small holes and could get all seven of us inside, out of the wind, and in the relative comfort and warmth of the snow caves. Outside, the temperature had dropped below zero, and the wind was fifty miles per hour. Inside it was calm and quiet. At 13,600 feet elevation, we settled in, not knowing how long we might be there. It was a strong storm. It might last an hour, or it might last much longer. We could only wait.
“Summit Storm” appears in the current issue of Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry. To learn more, visit deepwildjournal.com. It is also one of many exciting chapters in Steve’s recently published book, Mountain Dreams: The Drive to Explore, Experience, and Expand, a vivid account of the first decade of his climbing career, beginning at Devils Tower National Monument and climaxing in an attempted summit of Mt. Everest as part of the Wyoming Centennial Expedition. I can attest that it’s a thriller; I read every word of it! Available on Amazon. RK