Monday, May 26, 2008

Situational Awareness 300' from the Summit

Marines, Seattle Mountain Rescue. Mountaineering. Surfing, snowboarding, scuba diving. All of these activities and professions require something called Situational Awareness (SA). While in the Marines, it’s absolutely mandatory for many events and without it bad things can happen. So on this climb, SA was something that I took quite seriously. Why not, right? It’s a dangerous environment and regular self-checks on myself and my environment are critical.

So it was amazing to me when it became blatantly clear that I had lost my SA at such a bad time.

Our team had just cleared the Hillary Step, and were roughly 300 feet from the true summit at 29,000’. Everything I had read, everything I had studied had told me that this was it- the Hillary Step is the last technical piece of the climb. Once you top the Hillary Step and scoot around this bulging rock that sticks out with an 8,000’ dropoff, you are there. Nothing left, it’s essentially a jaunt up to the top of the world.

So I was thinking that when I rounded the corner of the Hillary Step and saw Willie at the summit, flapping his arms and excitedly motioning me onward.

For the final push, I was in the lead, Tendi was right behind me, and Francisco right behind him. I stared up, excited at how close I was and taking the final steps to the summit. I started moving more quickly, and this is exactly where I lost my SA.

I was done, right? That’s exactly what I thought. I motioned forward placing one foot in front of the other on a trail that had only been broken by a few individuals so far this year. Faint crampon marks dotted what was essentially wind scoured hardpack snow, but at one point there was a thin line of softer snow, and it was here that I hesitated for a second. What was this? Should I step over the line, or just trust it and keep walking? I looked up- Willie was waving. I heard Tendi a few feet behind me and thought that I didn’t want to delay our team. So, without really thinking about it I took a step, landing my left foot directly on the softer snow. What’s the harm, right? Every book I have ever read tells me that I’m done with the climb and with the summit so close my mind is telling me that it’s a green light with no problems.

Within seconds, I’m hip-deep in the snow, one leg completely in a mini crevasse only 2’ wide, flailing around with that 8,000’ drop right off my shoulder. I was ok, still on the fixed line and without concern of sliding anywhere given that I was pinned to the side of the ridge by an entire leg submerged in this crevasse. Tendi came rushing forward and said later that he heard a 30 second string of muted curse words coming out of my mouth, hidden behind an oxygen mask.

I was aware enough of the mistake that I had made to be completely pissed at myself for losing my SA at such a time, and in such an environment. But it was a good lesson learned, in that I think I took my mask off at the summit twice, and only for an elapsed 2 minutes the entire time I was there.

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