Having prepared our packs the day before, we manage to eat breakfast and drive to the trailhead and get started by 3AM. As we rumble on the dirt road in the darkness, everyone sitting up straight and a pile of packs (as well as two hikers) in the back, it feels like the start of a proper adventure.
Like a little torchlight procession, we wind our way upward on the zigzag trail, first through open meadow, then through forest glades, as the first glow of dawn slowly appears.
We reach 10,000 feet altitude, and pretty much the end of the trees, by sunrise. Because of the clouds, the sunrise is spectacular.
Sunrise from about 10000ft altitude on Teewinot Mountain
We continue upward until the trail ends just below the pinnacle known as the Worshipper (located as it is next to a larger pinnacle called the Idol). Here it is time to don gaiters and helmets, and take the ice
Andrew on the snow slope in front of Worshipper and Idol
After we cross the snowfield, we work our way upward over steep rock, which requires class 4 scrambling in some places (i.e. you have to use your hands, but there is nothing difficult about it). We find bits and pieces of zigzag trail, and use it where convenient.
The climbing party (except Markus)
We must find a particular gully that is our route to the summit. After some erroneous poking around, we gain the correct one and work our way up it, until stopped by a steep and apparently unclimbable section, which by this time has plentiful water gushing down it. To continue, we experimentally kickstep our way up a small steep snowfield to the left, and climb from the top of that. The climb is not easy for an inexperienced climber, and I almost fall off at one point, after committing to some inadequate handholds. I make it however, and so does Peter. We both strenuously advise that a belay (i.e. rope protection) be set up for the others. Andrew climbs up and does the belay for Caroline and Ewart. It takes a long time to set up, but they do the actual climb very quickly.
While all this is going on, I have climbed a nearby plateau where I can watch the proceedings from a bird's eye perspective. I also form a strong opinion of the route from here, partly correct (i.e. cross back over to the gully and go up it) and partly incorrect (from such a high angle it's hard to tell what's steep and what is not).
I get an empty feeling in my stomach, which means I have not eaten for too long. I reach for my food bag in my pack, and, this is not good, it is not there! I must have forgotten to pack it again when stopped for food somewhere earlier. Now my bagel, two power bars and a bunch of granola bars are gone, and I'm feeling hungry, which is very bad on a climb like this (it turns out later that the food was not wasted, as we meet the rangers who found it and ate it!)
Luc kicking steps into the final snow slope
We are now close to the summit, but the air is thin and the empty feeling in my stomach has spread to my muscles. In other words, I'm close to bonked. I beg some food from the others and gain about 300 calories (nobody has a serious excess of food). Some salty chips from Andrew really help.
The summit itself takes some exposed scrambling to get to, and is a narrow pointed pinnacle with abysses on three sides. To slip while up there means death. Luc confidently stands straight up and is photographed. The rest of us show varyingly less courage.
On the summit (almost)
But in the back of our minds (at least in the back of mine) is that we're 6000 feet above our trailhead, of that 1500 feet off trail, and we have to get back down. It took us nine and a half hours to get up, so it is now 12:30, so there is no time pressure.
Peter: We got up at 2AM ate some breakfast (noodles + oatmeal for me) and made our final preparation, we were at the trailhead by 3:15 AM. We made great initial progress. It was turning into an interesting scrambly climb. Sometime after it got scrambly, I started to bonk badly (despite breakfast and constant calorie intake) and had to stop to eat a most of my remaining food and some of Andrews.
The rest of the climb was beautiful and challenging. With a lot of easy rock climbing/scrambling and some snowfield crossing. One rock section was fairly challenging and quite a bit beyond my comfort zone, but once I committed going back seemed worse. I put everything into getting around that section. Once the Adrenaline wore off I was bonking again (no energy + the shakes). We still had to get Caroline and Ewart around this section, so they put on harnesses while Andrew set up a belay. I just tossed them the rope which is all I could manage at this time. Soon we were back together and scrambling onward. The rest of the way up I had periods of normalcy mixed with blood sugar crashes. On attaining the summit area, I was pretty weak and light headed and the summit was very exposed so I made no attempt to do anything demanding. I simply put my hand on the true summit and returned to less exposed place to sit.
The summit area views were Spectacular! Jagged craggy rock surrounded us, an alpine feast for the eyes. This was the best summit view that had ever awaited me. I shot pictures with abandon. After soaking in the scenery and a Dare cookie or two we began to descend.
Though I feel weak from so little food (and too little hydration as well) it doesn't take much strength to descend. I am too careless on the snow, descending the steps that Luc made on the way up, and fall. Oh boy, this is steep! It takes a couple of moments to remember my self-arrest position and execute the maneuver, by which time I have slid about 10 metres. I'm proud to have managed it and not ignominiously crashed into the rocks below, but I don't think the others saw. Other than that there is no problem until the part where we had to do the difficult bit of climbing up. I chat with another person coming up, and he says that yes, this route is all class 4 (nontechnical scrambling) but you have to be an experienced Teton climber to find the class 4 stuff! Later a ranger explains to me that the easy route up this part is on the other side of the gully, and looks impossible at first sight. That's why we missed it.
We set up a rappel using the entire 70m length of Andrew's rope. This allows us to descend not only the tough bit (I tried to downclimb it, nearly fell, and gave up) but some more stuff below it. The rappel goes quickly. Luc collects the anchor webbing and brings the rope down by downclimbing it all, which is no problem for him, though he slips off the steep bit of snow slope and has a hard landing.
The descent seems endless, probably due to my weakened state. Finally back at the big snowfield. We only need to cross this, and we're on trail for the remaining 4500 feet down. Instead of going down on rock to reach the standard boot track traversing it (which another hiker does) we start at the top and kickstep our way straight down. I fall again, and once again execute the self-arrest maneuver, as inelegantly as before. Then I am more careful, and cross with no further trouble.
Peter: I was quite depleted after reaching the summit and pretty much out of food. Also food didn't seem to help much. I am very wary of descents, as I usually out of gas completely and mistakes come much easier. I was hoping for a swift safe decent out of any areas of potential danger. Unfortunately this was not to be.
The trip down was going fine. We did a cool single rope rappel (with Luc gathering the gear and downclimbing). This got us past any of the tricky down climbing. I was feeling much less anxious as we only really had a last snowfield to descend before it turned into a hike out.
Andrew and I are standing there, looking back at the others making their way across, when we see Caroline fall and slide. She nearly manages to stop, but then speeds up again and crashes into some rocks. Her ice axe is still stuck in the snow near where she fell, and one of the others carefully makes his way down to retrieve it, while Caroline picks herself up and announces that she is unhurt.
The fateful snow slope
It takes quite a while to get things sorted out. It is plain that Ewart is in no shape to walk anywhere today, and he repeatedly offers to spend the night right here, until he is well enough to hike down the mountain. Eventually he is helped across the loose talus slope to a place where a shelter can be improvised, a couple of rangers are dispatched by radio to come up with supplies and bivouac equipment, and all of us and three of the rescuers hike down as night falls. By the time we reach the cars, it is as dark as it was when we left in the morning.
I am so exhausted now from the lack of food that I go right into my tent and crash, while the others drive into town to have burgers.
Ewart: Whilst descending the snowfield, I was purposefully ensuring that my ice axe was as firmly embedded within the snow as possible at all times - I weigh a lot! The next thing I know is that I have slipped, and am starting to descend the mountain at an increasing rate of knots. There is no time to grab the bottom of the ice axe - it has already popped out of the snow. I grab the ice axe and try to get into the self-arrest position, only to hit some rocks, be thrown into the air, hit the snow again, followed by some more rocks. Fully conscious the whole time, I am aware that had it not been for my helmet and backpack, I would surely have been dead, my head having bashed into rocks on two occasions. When I finally come to a rest, I know that nothing major is broken - I still have movement in all my arms and legs. But I am dazed, and very grateful to still be alive.
I try to get up, but no sooner than I try to do so, Caroline arrives on the scene and tells me not to move. I have no problems obeying her orders! She immediately starts to attend to a gash above my right buttock. As she does this, rangers Mikal and Andy are on the scene - they were descending at the same time, and saw the whole incident. They soon take charge, checking me out very thoroughly. They ask if I can walk, but it is hopeless - I am getting continual muscle spasms in my arms and legs, and I cannot put any pressure on my left leg (during my descent, it was the left side of my body, as well as my backside, that took the brunt of the knocks). I ask how my Nikon FM2 fared - it was in my backpack wrapped in my fleece and goretex jackets, and otherwise unprotected (I find out the following day that the lens was damaged, but the main body appears to be OK).
I am quite happy to stay up here overnight right where I am - after living in the Ottawa region for the past 30 months or so in a tent, spending a night 4,000ft up on a mountainside with a wonderful view and ice-cold melt-water to drink is no hardship, but a real treat. I know that what I am suffering from is trauma, and there is no way that I will be able to make it down the mountain under my own steam today. Everybody is being really helpful - from getting me water, to giving me remaining energy bars/food stuffs, to distributing the contents of my pack so that it can be taken down to the trail head. The decision is finally taken to have me camp out in a sheltered spot a short distance diagonally across the slope, although "short" in my condition seemed like infinity (it took about 3 hours from the time the incident occurred to me reaching my spot for the night).
I can tell that Andrew is visibly upset by what has happened, so ask Andy to leave me for a while so that I can have a quiet chat with Andrew alone.
Andy/Mikal have arranged for two wardens, Brandon & Helen, to come and stay with me overnight, and to escort me out in the morning if at all possible. Andrew wants to stay behind with me overnight, but I decline the offer and request that he descend with Andy and the others, get some decent food inside of him, not to mention a good night's sleep - I will be in my element up here, and I know that I will be in good hands.
My friends leave me with a pile of fleece and goretex gear to keep me warm/use as bedding, as well as a communicator. I arrange to give Andrew a call around 8.00am the following morning to let him know what is happening. Mikal stays with me until Brandon & Helen arrive, and the necessary medical information has been exchanged. They have brought up for me some food, a foam pad, a sleeping bag and a bivy sack, not to mention a more complete first aid kit.
The first question Brandon asks is why I think I will be able to walk out in the morning, as there is a helicopter on standby ready to air-lift me out now. I tell him that during the past three hours there had been visible mobility improvements, and that I would prefer to defer any air-lift decision until the morning - I also could not claim to have climbed Teewinot if I were unceremoniously helicoptered off. We decide to see how I am in the morning - provided that I can limp/hobble then we'll walk out. The helicopter is stood down, and Helen takes to performing a further medical assessment.
By this stage, I really want to go for a pee, not having done one since 3.00am (the body was in water conservation mode during the ascent), but the rest of my body just wants to shut down - I manage to hold off until the morning. Brandon supplies me with some anti-inflammatory drugs before I finally nod off, and again in the morning.
Peter: While descending the snow slope near Worshipper and Idol, I was second last in line and Ewart was last and far behind, he was having trouble with the snow all day, and clearly didn't like being on it. It half entered my mind to go see if I could help, but I was spent at this point and figured he would be ok, if he was going slow, he was probably going safely.
Moments later looking downslope, I could see Caroline falling. People were yelling instructions "Use your ice axe...", but from my vantage point I could see that she had lost her axe, but she was controlling her descent somewhat. When she plowed into the rocks it seemed in slow motion. By the amount of rocks moved, I thought the impact might have been greater than the speed first appeared. But she was up and saying she was ok quite soon. Luc started heading over to retrieve her axe which wasn't far from him. I was still wondering if she was really ok, when I heard a shout that Ewart was falling. Glancing up, it looked like he was heading right at me. Instinctively I dove for cover and wrenched my knee in a moat near some rocks. I then witnessed Ewart fly by me in a spray of snow, flailing and tumbling out of control, I instantly had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach watching him fly by and then be tossed into the air like a rag doll when he hit the first outcropping of rocks and then crashing hard in a heap, into the rocks below, not far from Caroline. I had once witnessed a fall of similar violence and that person just barely survived. At this point I was very shaken. I could see people converging on Ewart. All I could manage was to slowly make my way down the mountain. Driving my axe in deeply and holding onto it with a death grip at each step.
When I arrived, much to my relief Ewart was speaking. He was soon talking about resting for the night where he was was and walking out in the morning. I thought this was nonsense. I expected several fractures and he was not near any level ground to rest on. Painstakingly over the next hours Ewart crawled, walked, was belayed across snow, supported and dragged to a place where he could really rest for the night.
Climbing rangers were bringing additional supplies to spend the night with Ewart, and we were ushered off the mountain. On the way down, I spent much of the time by myself as my knee needed support of an ice axe and would still occasionally collapse painfully on me (this slowed me down). Reunited at the vehicle we headed into town for a very somber meal about 10:30pm. A fitful nights sleep awaited most of us.
Oh, the whole thing made the NPS bulletin (PDF file) too.
All pictures for this day