Monday, April 22, 2013

Accident in the Sluicebox

(left) The rock that had our name on it.  It must have landed directly on the two half-ropes that joined me and Andy together.  It took me a half hour to dig the orange rope out from under it before we could proceed down the mountain.  Accident happened at around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

    Andy and I had attempted the Sluicebox Couloir on the marbled Northeast Face of Mt. Osborn once before in the Spring of some years back.  We had gotten halfway up and been beaten back by severe spindrift. Same horrendous spindrift that beat back Joni Earp and me from halfway up some years before that.  Sir Benowitz and I also got halfway up the Sluicebox during an Iditarod in the years between, but the ambient temps were 40 below and there was no question, with our poor frostbitten toes, of continuing.
         Andy and I had high hopes for attempt #4, last Friday, on April 19, 2013.  We had carefully coordinated the climb over the phone between Fairbanks and Nome.  At last, everything seemed in place, weather, icy conditions, work schedules.  Andy arrived in Nome on Wednesday.  On Thursday we rode in abject comfort in the car to Mile 26 on the Kougarak Road, just this side of Nugget Pass, the current end of the road, where we both hopped on "Super Smooth Andy G." the Arctic Cat Bearcat .570, and rode another 16 miles over a thin Spring snowpack up Grand Central valley to the Grand Union Glacier, a little-known cirque on the hidden face of Osborn, a somewhat dark and ominous place.  We had a luxurious, snow-machine supported bivvy.  The wall above camp didn't make any noise that night.

      (left) Sluicebox Couloir on Northeast Face, Mt. Osborn, showing site of accident, taken two weeks previous to our climb. The spot marked is about halfway up, though it does not look as such due to foreshortening.  We were at the base of the crux fifth pitch, having just finished three pitches of simul-climbing up  forty-five degree snow.

        It is important to spend a day watching and listening to your route, to learn its rhythms and moods.  This, Andy and I did not do.  Current "Smash & Grab" tactics preclude this type of time-consumptive activity.  We decided to wait until the warmth of the day to start up the Sluicebox, reasoning that the place was a frozen hole to begin with and therefore nothing would be moving much on the wall, and that we would climb more safely if we were warm.  We should have waited until well after the warmth of the day had passed around noon or one.  As it was, we left the tent around 10:30 a.m., and roped up at the base of the couloir around noon.
        In fact, we were observing movement on the wall.  We had noted with satisfaction the night before how the place was "iced-up like Ben Nevis," but now the temps were too warm, and chips of ice tinkled down the wall everywhere making a wind-chimey sound.  The Sluicebox itself remained a shadowed icebox, frozen and still, but we worried about the sun playing around the upper ramparts of the wall.  I think both of us were well aware of the risk of rockfall, but even after I missed getting creamed at the base, we decided the risks were within the range of acceptability, and continued on up.  I want to think that our combined years of mountaineering experience came into play to make a reasonable decision, but the demon Retrospect now informs me that our decision to head up the wall, despite the temporarily warm temps, was mistake number two.  Mistake number one was ever making up our minds beforehand to venture up into that sorry Sluicebox.

(left) Andy coming up pitch 3, the place of soon-to-come nightmares.  Tell-tale sun shining on Grand Union Glacier below.  Creepy to think that this picture, I'm realizing now, must have been taken from the exact spot of impact only five minutes before.  Orange rope is clipped into the Lost Arrow.  The rock probably had its cross-hairs on me already, but waited for the second guy to crawl into the bullseye.

        Andy was in fine form, coming off months of climbing-bum style living, project cragging around Fairbanks, and trips to New England and Colorado in search of mixed and ice.  He cruised the WI 3-minus first pitch of the Sluicebox, where we found this year's crop of ice to be snice, an insecure continuum between snow and ice.  I've seen true water ice on the Sluicebox, but the ice is more likely to be snice, into which ice screws bite, but do not radiate much security.  No matter--  Andy found the first pitch to be "cruising."  I got pumped following it.
        Then it was my turn to lead.  My job was to plow upward through forty-five degree snow for three pitches and set Andy up to lead the crux fifth pitch, which I was glad to be off the hook from on this attempt.  Rock pro is remarkably difficult to get in the compact marble on Osborn:  what look like bomber blade cracks are bottoming, you just blunt and bend the Bugaboos trying to  them pound them into solid rock.  So pitches 2, 3, and 4, the ones we were about to nightmare out on, weren't very well protected.  No matter...  they weren't the least bit hard, either.

(left) Andy racking up at the start of the climb.  Notice the genuine bergschrund to his right.  "There are no real mountains on the Seward Peninsula."

      I got a good Lost Arrow into the marble, where I should have established a fixed anchor to belay the next pitch.  But I was inefficient, and I continued upward with a running below to the base of the steep ice pillar on the next pitch, where I put two screws into the snice.  I figured I would use that for a high anchor and lower myself down thirty feet to the Lost Arrow where I would be set up to belay the next pitch.  That way the rope would already have some screws for the next lead, and I would be tethered to the bomber Arrow.
          Andy was up to the Arrow already.  He got it out and racked it.  I had just finished equalizing the two screws when the rock came.  They always seem like such a presence, the Dark Knight suddenly flapping into your airspace, they are sensed with the sixth, not the vision or the hearing.  I took hold of the power-point 'biner and cowered under my helmet.  The Death Eater passed close over me. A huge snow avalanche followed that suffocated and threatened to sweep me.  Andy was swept, which I was able to infer when a tug of force came on my harness, which my new small-diameter ropes freshly ordered from A.M.H. absorbed magnificently well.  I was waiting for something hard to intersect me out of the snowy slipstream, with that weird stupid f-ing surety one gets that one is certain to survive this dreadful thing that has come.
        The avalanche stopped.  The screws had held.  Andy was screaming bloody murder a full ropelength below.  The blue rope was core shot for twenty feet, but the kern was intact.  The orange rope was strangely buried in the snow.  There was tension on the rope and on the screws, and I could not immediately meet Andy's frenzied request for "SLACK, PLEASE!, ON BLUE!!"  As a matter of fact, it took forever, with Andy screaming steadily and inaudibly down below, for my stupid puffy-gloved hands to arrange a little hoist system on the anchors to get the weight off blue.  But something more than just the blue was wrong.  Better tie the ropes off and just solo down to Andy.
(left) Andy and Super Smooth Andy G., posing on the way in, with the ice in the background we hoped to climb in days to come.

      Both legs were broken.  There simply wasn't any place on the scale for the pain Andy was in.  I am so thankful Andy is the consumate professional mountaineer, he was Doug Scott with a Potts Fracture on The Ogre.  "We're not dead yet!" said Bonington cheerily.  During the entire four pitches of lowering, Andy remained conscious and lucid.  Time and again he showed A.D.D.-rattled Ian how to load the rope the low-friction way into his Petzl Reverso belay device.  We used his backpack, not much more than a scrap of nylon, to make a little sled to go under his his heels, which allowed his poor mangled tib-fibs, both of them, to slide along down the slick surface of the trough we had plowed through the steep snow.  His catchy hot little climbing boots kept catching on the walls of the six-inch deep trough, whereupon we would have to stop, and both of us go into a deep trance, Vulcan plaktow, concentrating deeply to mitigate pain, while Andy's voice could be heard like a deep wolf howl, lasting one to three minutes, until the pain-wave had passed. and we could commence lowering once again.  Anyone who knows what's in an alpine climber's pack and who has been in such a Fou couloir will understand that there was no time to splint.
We don't know what happened to bust Andy's legs.
         Either the rock actually banged him, or more likely, Andy's legs got tangled up in a loop of slack during the 60 ft. fall;  when the ropes came tight, ouch...  He reported to me that he didn't feel pain until the fall-catch, which happened about fifty below the rock.  One time-consuming thing I had to do before we could rappel was climb back up to the top anchor where the avalanche came, to free the ropes and set up the first rappel;  but the orange rope was stubbornly buried under that marble missile that had suddenly entered our life like a new, unwanted family member.  Orange was weirdly glued under there, it took forever digging with an adze to get it out.  When orange was finally freed, the rope was intact.
        It was a random rock--  that is to say, neither Andy, the rope, nor I knocked it off.  But how random is a rock when you know there might sun still playing about the upper slopes?   I'm inferring the rockfall was rather singular in nature, one, single rock bounding down the wall.  Also, evidenced from the snow avalanche, that the rock came down the gullet of the Sluicebox, though it probably originated from the wall higher up.  The giant collection-funnel of the Sluicebox took it in and channeled it towards the funny men who were climbing up the funnel for reasons hard to understand.    

    Andy, you'll be reading this for sure, I want to apologize, I think the community will want to read these details, I don't know what to do but blog and blog honestly, life in the new and Digital age, man, I know you won't mind, it's all fresh and oozing out, you know for a fact I won't ever possibly manage to log these details into my poor long-term memory, may as well ooze it onto this Jetsons-like format, we'll put an edit in for everything I'm getting wrong, or we'll destroy the entire evidence, I blame it on the Internet Andy, it's sucking the story out of me incontravertibly, no laconic hardmen in this forward age, bizarre, man, "there is only love."

        Difficult lowering because of the paucity of the blades, little traverses sideway over to the marble to probe patiently with tools while Andy hooked butt cheeks on hastily stamped-out "butt ledges" in the snow, and suffered.  Tedious belay stations with tied-off Bugaboos and equalization, then ginger lateral transitions with Andy's mass as we transferred to the new anchor.  The E-word comes up again, Andy's experience, all those nights we discussed climbing articles, not a few of them about men and women put into the same position we were facing.  Thank you to Simon and Joe, Jim and Malcom, Sir Apple Benowitz of course, even Harlin and Robbins on the Dru, and a special thanks to Dave and SWEENEY for sharing their stories in print, and giving Andy and me something to draw from.  COL
       Got to the bottom of the route after hours of tedious lowering, shedding Andy's fancy ice tools and my puffy TECHNICAL MITTENS into mini-directional anchors and dropped gear, the expensive A.M.H. order dribbling away down the Sluicebox.  Merciful gods, no more gravels or snow came down that wretched slot again that day, my eyes glancing up there like the hunted, Andy's eyes glazing with shock, shock, shockamundo.  We would have climbed it.
           A long and horrible drag to basecamp began, 800 ft. down to the erratic.  Andy got going backward, me dragging him through the snow by his daisy, and using the hood of my Wild Things Belay Jacket under his head as a keel.  The whole way down, the rig was absolutely squishing the heck out of his testacles, which I was able to rightfully inform him, were unbreakable, and besides, it took his mind off the pain in his legs.  His Joe Simpson legs tippled along on their heels obediently behind him like merry little broken sleds. He was horrendously hypothermic and shivering violently, but able to inform me of this fact, which he did over and over again, which I told him was a good sign.
          We neared the erratics at total darkness, around midnight Beringial Time.  Super Smooth Andy G. was able to move Andy along the last 200 meters to the tent after Andy pulled a 5.9 move onto Super Smooth's handlebars.  We loaded Andy into the tent by his climbing harness, screws and umbilicals still attached.  These instruments of torture later proved a huge discomfort to Andy as the multi-hundred dollar ice-climbing accouterments dug into his lumbar region.
(above)  First-gen SPOT device.  Our faith in this fumbly little guy was greatly tested, but WHO ("objects with spiritual significance") can only be called THE BUTTON came through in the end, in the bitters of the morning.  Hard to see that damn 911 without my glasses, I kept hallucinating I was pressing "OK√".

       Of course we had activated the SPOT device right away after the fall.  I handed it to Andy while I putzed at anchors, but feared he would surely drop the smooth, spherical little thing.  I knew at the time, however, that it would not function from the ogreish north wall of Osborn, from within the paystreak of the Sluicebox;  Paul at Outsiders had told me the SPOT satellite was in the southern portion of the Beringian sky.  The signal was surely blocked by an amphitheatre of marble.
       In the tent, Andy lay with his boots on, screws freshly sharpened by The Grizz as well as great boluses of ice built up in his butt-crack clothing digging into his tormented lumbar region.  "Butt!," or "My leg!" he would yell in turn.  "Andy, tell me again how much it hurts, tell me again, Man!"  We invented the word, "PROP!" to mean any piece of gear I could find to wedge under Andy's body to relieve the EXTREME racking discomfort.  Andy only wanted to find the way away to the more comfortable position that he knew would never come.  Inside the tent was a highly chaotic environment of sleeping bags and caribou furs and diced-up paraphanelia in which the blue flame of an MSR stove hissed away.   
      I had forgotten the SPOT device outside the tent, the two green lights like twin owls blinking away syncronously on 911...  futilely, we had come to believe.  Yes, people of the New Age, in the quick of the thing, Andy and I lost faith in the BUTTON and reverted back to the wilderness of our youth, when no one had a GPS, into which we believed I was now going to have to mount Super Smooth Andy G. and fly him back into town like a Nome-Golovin contestant.  Andy actually cursed the SPOT in the night.  "No, that thing ain't working, they're not coming!"  I'm sure it didn't help that you can't ever be sure if the caveman Ian is working the little devices correctly, I'm sure this didn't ever exactly boost Andy's faith or confidence.
      After a night of hydration, and the subsequent joys that follow, the time came for me to leave the tent in the early morning and seek a better SPOTTING location further down the Grand Central Valley.    But little did I know, little SPOT guy had successfully, and rather randomly I might add, slipped the 911 signal around the bulk of Osborn.  The 911 signal was received at 4 am in the morning from the exact GPS location of our tentsite on the Grand Union Glacier.  Not knowing this, I drove down Grand Central a few miles and shot another SPOT around six in the morning as the mountains lightened.  When I got back to the tent, Andy was sleeping, but alive.
           There are badasses that walk among us.  In a small town, everyone knows who they are.  They are the good people you do NOT want to see coming for you in their planes, machines, and helicopters.  And they were the very kind people who WERE most probably now on their way towards us.  Sure enough, here came Larry in a fixed wing swooping into the cirque and circling twice.  Then he flew down to where I had signaled around six a.m. and sniffed around there.  "He might just be a flight-seer."  Andy still wouldn't believe, keeping control to himself until the point he could be absolutely sure.  But both our faith in the new age figment of the BUTTON began to restore its brightness.  Drugs would not be long in coming now!  We are but insects with tiny antennae we use to communicate.  

          Andy heard it first.  "Helicopter!"  A Bering Air red Robinson,  with Cory at the controls.  It soon disgorged Wes from Norton Sound who wasted no time crawling into the stinking mayhem of our tent to administer to Andy.  Broken legs confirmed.  In went the the I.V.  On went the splints.  Wes and Cory radiated that certain badass thing that makes you think everything is going to be alright.  Just when we were wondering how we were going to get Andy over to the whop-whop-whoppety-whomping helicopter with just the two of us, the machiners arrived, Kevin and Stubby with the Nome Volunteer Fire Department, who somehow work together with Alaska State Troopers to help poor mangled and frozen people get out of the beautiful backcountry.  Everybody worked together to get Andy loaded in the front seat.  Off they went, spiraling up out of the cirque.  I was already packing up camp for the snow-machine ride to town, kindly helped by Kevin and Stubby. 
            The SPOT has three buttons, OK, NEED HELP, and 911.  There needs to be a fourth button:  DON'T LET MY WIFE KNOW YET.  As I hit little SPOT guy, I couldn't help but think what a perplexing event this would be for Kristine, and Raina.  The two of them were scheduled to go to Orlando on 152 that day at noon, Raina had been out of her mind with anticipation for weeks, I only wanted them to go to the Magic Kingdom and have innocent fun. 
       As it turned out, Kristine delayed their flight until the evening 153.  In the brief time I saw her, she told me that the Nome Volunteer Fire Department men and women had been spectacularly awesome.  Kigsblog would like to express the most massive of appreciation.  Paul, Matt, Doug, Dr. Head, Wes, Mike, Danielle, Colleen, Mr. Matt, community of Nome, the very famous "all the people that didn't get mentioned," all the people that kept our family members so well informed. 
       I don't know anything at the time of this about Andy other than they medivaced him to Anchorage.  I wanted to post on Kigsblog to get this information out there, I hope it's not too weird, it seems like information is what people want, people want to know.  Strange new digital world, it makes me highly uncomfortable.  Andy, once again, when you emerge from the surgery epic, we'll address the issue of Ian's informational Kigsblog post.  Glad you made it through to read the post.  If Kigsblog has been reckless or in denial of insurance complications by spraying this blogpost, let it be done in trust of human nature to help each other out of jams, and in the spirit of realtime sharing. 

EDIT:  Four days later, the hard man is still in bed in Anchorage battling Fat Embolism Syndrome .  I know you'll be reading this, Andy.  Holy Cow!  A lot of people sure love you!

EDIT:  Here is the THANK YOU that Kristine and I made for the Nome Nugget:

A big THANK YOU to Nome Volunteer Search and Rescue, plus the amazing community of Nome, for the help given to Andy and me on Mt. Osborn.  Not only did these people work together to save Andy's life, they also kept our families informed every step of the way: 

Jimmy West, Jr. 
Larry Eggert
Paul Kosto
Trooper Jon Stroebele
 Alaska State Troopers
 Randy Oles
 Stubby Octuck
 Kevin Knowlton
 William Halloran
 Jerry Steiger
 Danielle Sylvester
 Doug Johnson
 Kevin Bahnke
 Mike Owens
 Bering Air
 Corey Konik 
Wes Register
 Dr. Head and the Nursing Staff at Norton Sound
 Matt Slingsby
Tyler Rhodes

Thanks also for the prayers and consideration of all who have followed part 2 of Andy's epic.   He continues to progress in his recovery.


The families of Ian McRae and Andy Sterns.


  1. Great post, Ian. Thanks for the info. Maybe (probably not, but maybe) Andy won't appreciate it. But I know I do.

  2. Thankful for good buddy spot! Sorry to hear your run ended like this.
    Hope you heal fast, Andy.

  3. REally glad it worked as well as it did, despite the danged circumstances. Really glad you're all right! Best to Andy, whom I've not met.

  4. Damn.. .that thing is heinous.. sorry to hear Andy fell victim to the mountain. So unforgiving.. Get well buddy and live to climb another day!

  5. Thanks for the write-up! The climbing community here at UAF wishes Andy a speedy recovery! I met Andy at the climbing competition at the ice tower and I was struck by how humble, skilled and determined he is. Please let him know that we are all pulling for him!

  6. Wow. Not the least bit surprised to discover details of a successful retreat, rescue, survival, and recovery through such odds. The both of you are as hard and experienced as they come. My thoughts are with you Andy as you recover quickly and continue to inspire!

  7. 4/19 same day as my accident... Maybe we should just stay home and get stoned for a few days.

    Hope Andy heals up quick and well. Great write up Ian!

  8. I pray for Andy. I can only hope I helped out in some way.

  9. Scary Stuff Ian. Glad you guys made it out of their alive. Look forward to seeing up in nome soon!

  10. Keeping Andy in thought & prayer. I helped Jeff Apple Benowitz recover from his fracture. If Andy needs physical therapy or any help with physical recovery, pass along my contact info. Be glad to assist, Nathalie Croteau, PT @ Select Physical Therapy in Fairbanks, AK 907-457-5322. Godspeed Andy.

  11. Please pass this on to Andy...Oh man Andy! I thought I had you "all better" after the last little tumble in CO! Been thinking of you lots over the last few weeks as you are recovering! You better get better so you can come tell me all the mushing secrets I need. Thinking of you...PA Nicolle Hendrix :)

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  14. Good for him. Accidents do involve their particular setups, and it's astounding where it may take you to adjust. Hope you get back to your endeavors, and that you get as much mileage out of this incident as you can, and have your personal safeties ensured.

    Howard Kurtz @ Kurtz And Blum

  15. Accidents are inevitable, and most of the time happen when we least expect them. It’s nice to know that the emergency response team were there to rescue you and assist to your needs. Should you face another accident and you think a third-party is involved, you should secure legal backup and get proper compensation. How are you now? :)

    Cheryl Bush