Buried Alive: Three Days of Doubt and Terror on Alaska's Peak 9448

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As you look south from the boreal forests covering the hills near Fairbanks, Alaska, you’ll see the modest Peak 9448 on the southern horizon. It perches between Mount Hayes, which lends its name to the northernmost arc of the Alaska Range, and the twin silhouettes of Hess Mountain and Mount Deborah. In the late 1970s and 1980s, I made multiple forays to those three peaks. Over time, as I grew more familiar with the range, 9448 seeped into my intentions, seducing me with the steep, sweeping ice on its spear-tipped north face. Like its larger neighbors, the smaller doppelganger’s 1,000-meter nordwand also fronts the Gillam Glacier, a place of raw, peerless beauty. Without an official or local name, its topo-mapped altitude is its moniker, as it is for many Alaskan peaks.

In April 1984, I attempted the north face with my friends Roman Dial and Ron Peers—the wall was unclimbed and in my “home” climbing arena: reason enough for a go. We’d climbed a third of the way when heavy snow began falling. We excavated and then passed two days and nights in an avalanche-shielding hibernaculum before conditions eased and only threatened, rather than promised, disaster. And so, into the maelstrom we descended, enduring the anxiety of exposure to a stormy, sloughing face.

The north face of Peak 9448, Hayes Range, Alaska, two weeks post-accident. “If the scan was higher resolution, you could see the fracture lines of the slab just below the ice face, below the rock band under the summit,” says Matt VanEnkevort, Carl Tobin’s partner on the climb. “Carl set off at least one-third of the face. It was massive.”

The north face of Peak 9448, Hayes Range, Alaska, two weeks post-accident. “If the scan was higher resolution, you could see the fracture lines of the slab just below the ice face, below the rock band under the summit,” says Matt VanEnkevort, Carl Tobin’s partner on the climb. “Carl set off at least one-third of the face. It was massive.”

Roman and Ron would never try the peak again, but for me it remained a priority. At the time just 30 years old, I’d experienced a string of successes, climbing new and coveted (by me) routes on the Hayes Range’s Peak 10,910 and Hess Mountain (with Roman in 1980 and 1984, respectively). During that era, as I hit my athletic and experiential peak, I became a glutton for the alpine. In May 1983, Dave Cheesmond and I set out on the East Ridge of Mt. Deborah—where we ran into three crazy Brits. We five banded together for the first ascent of this 4,000-vertical-foot climb. As the UK climber Roger Mear described in the 1984 American Alpine Journal, the final stretch climbed “knife-edged arêtes, gaps and gullies, and bulging, flat-topped cauliflowers of rime, all helter-skelter to the top.” Later in 1983, I joined the team that made the first ascent of the 11,000-foot Kangshung Face of Mt. Everest; while six of us summitted, I did not, succumbing to frostbite at 25,000 feet.

Drunk on my successes, I’d become intoxicated, way past noticing the dangerous hubris in my attitude. Failing was a crushing blow that could overwhelm my self-esteem. I had to return to 9448. Simmer became boil, and I recruited my friend Matt VanEnkevort for a return visit in September 1984.

Early autumn in Alaska—known more for its hunting than alpine successes—was an odd time of year to climb. But there were exceptions, like Andrew Embick and Jim Bridwell’s 1979 ascent of the Northwest Face of Kachatna Spire during the final week of August: crystal-clear, calm, and “warm enough.” Having just returned from fieldwork measuring the glacial mass balance of west-central Greenland, I was in need of a climbing fix. Matt and I were flown from an obscure airstrip in Fairbanks’s Goldstream Valley directly to the Gillam Glacier and left alone, with no radio, immediately below 9448’s north face; our scheduled pick-up would be eight days later, a span of no contact with the outside world. In 1984, the only “Spot” available was the tight one we had deliberately placed ourselves in.

Landing on the Gillam Glacier en route to attempt Peak 9448 in 1984.

Landing on the Gillam Glacier en route to attempt Peak 9448 in 1984.

Matt, tall, lanky, and with a shaggy mop of blond hair, grew up in Nordic-crazy Fairbanks, behind sisters who were Nordic-skiing heroes and coaches. Matt himself was on the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nordic team and qualified occasionally for international races. We’d met on the municipal ski trails near Fairbanks, and our first conversation was simply his spontaneous technique tip about more efficient poling as our separate trails shared proximity. It worked! I was instantly skiing better. We’d never climbed together before 9448; there’s always a first time.

Sharp alpine pyramids beg the alpinist to follow Emilio Comici’s maxim “I wish someday to make a route, and from the summit let fall a drop of water, and this is where my route will have gone.” That was my intent on my first venture to the face, and also on Matt’s and my return. After five days pinned at basecamp by storm, we began climbing on morning six under thin clouds that seemed to presage stable weather. We quickly gained height on steep, firm snow that occasionally offered a screw placement, moving toward a debris chute below a 300-foot rock band near the halfway point. (On my earlier attempt with Ron and Roman, we’d been slightly more to climber’s right—west.) Here, a light snowfall developed, and I was keen to pass whatever problems the rock band offered and perhaps outrace the storm.

However, after two pitches of technical, metamorphosed, and chossy Alaska Range crud, the storm picked up. Descending the rock band, we fixed and rappelled one climbing rope and then the other before downclimbing the debris chute in the building tempest. At the base of the chute, we unroped and began down-soloing the steep snow. Pouring from above, sloughs and small avalanches hissed over the wall, slithering across bare stone and ice, gathering force and urgency. We were in the middle of a wide river of whitewater turned to snow.

The ascent: Tobin moving up the lower snow slopes.

The ascent: Tobin moving up the lower snow slopes.

Matt: Below the debris chute, Carl suggested we unrope, since we were basically plunge-stepping down snow. This made sense to me too, so we began to move down individually. This probably saved both of our lives.

I was going first, about 10 feet below Carl, when I noticed that my gaiter was coming undone and snow was entering my boot. I stopped to fix my gaiter, and Carl took the lead. As he downclimbed about 10 feet below, there was suddenly an ominous Whoomph! Carl had triggered an avalanche that ran across nearly one-third of the face—a three- to four-foot slab atop a hard, frosty layer. I saw him go flying into the whiteout, and heard the thunder of the slide as he disappeared below.

I stood there screaming his name, but heard nothing. I descended recklessly, stumbling and sliding down the slope, then realized I needed to slow down. Large chunks of the slab were still poised on the snow. Once, I found myself walking on top of one without even noticing.

I had no sense of time during the descent. I stopped frequently to yell Carl’s name, hoping that somehow he had arrested his fall. As I approached the glacier, I saw that the crevasses at the bottom of the slope had yawned open into caverns, probably due to the volume of snow coming down. I continued to yell, and finally heard Carl screaming.

Matt was descending first when his gaiter needed a minor adjustment. He paused to fuss with it and I frontpointed past him. Then, after I took just a few more downward steps, the hard surface fractured underfoot. I immediately accelerated down the 50-degree slope, tumbling toward the glacier shrouded in cloud far below. I am going to get killed this time,* I just had time to think, spinning toward the abyss. As if on cue, an incredible shock wave swept through me.

[*Over a year earlier, when descending from a new route on the West Face of Mount Hayes with Dave Cheesmond (the following is completely “my bad”), a tenuous, and stupidly single, “Leeper-Z” rap anchor pulled and I fell backward onto the ice. I accelerated for nearly a ropelength before flying far over the bergschrund that had prompted the rappel. Groggily, and with a very belatedly discovered L3 compression fracture, I’d walked away.]

After a time whose length I can only guess, and very slowly, a crampon attached to a boot came into focus inches from my face. Whose boot? my thoughts slurred. Why is someone’s boot here?

Gently, I nudged the boot away. A horrific pain lanced through my body. I ceased all movement, and the pain slowly subsided as I realized the boot was attached to my own severely injured left leg—and that my right leg was likewise useless, its bones seemingly connected only by skin. A sharp, bloody taste filled my mouth, and I reached for my face to feel a gaping hole in my left cheek.

As I gradually returned to my senses, I foggily recalled the slab releasing 1,500 feet above the Gillam Glacier, on an unnamed peak 60 miles from the nearest highway. Where was Matt? I held an image of him standing above the fracture line and hoped that this was accurate. I yelled for Matt, and from far above, heard a faint reply.

Tobin front-pointing up the debris chute below the mid-height rock band.

Tobin front-pointing up the debris chute below the mid-height rock band.

Matt: I found Carl on top of the snow, and made my way over to him. Cracks were open everywhere. He was in extreme pain, but lucid. I decided—or we agreed—that the first objective was to get him away from the slope, in case more slab came down. I ran back to the camp and grabbed a sleeping pad to use as a sled.

I got Carl on the pad, wrapping it around his legs. Both femurs seemed broken, and his left knee was seriously ripped apart. He took some pain pills Andy Embick had given him, but it wasn’t enough. I soon found the only way to minimize his extreme pain was to get on all fours behind him and use my head to support his back while I crab-crawled backward. I don’t know how far we moved. I remember Carl screaming, and I apologizing. Carl said something like, “Fuck that, just do it,” and so I did. When we reached the edge of the debris field, I set him down.

I went back and tore down our camp, and moved it to Carl. I got the tent up, and dragged him inside. Carl was extremely clear on what we needed to do, and I relied on him to help me do the right thing. We tucked him into a sleeping bag, and I got the stove going to melt snow. Then I stepped outside the tent and puked my guts out. The fear and tension had made a toxic brew in my stomach, and the only solution was to let it out and try to breathe. Carl remained much calmer than me.

The author reading in the tent before the climb and ensuing accident, unaware that its nylon walls would soon become a suffocating tomb.

The author reading in the tent before the climb and ensuing accident, unaware that its nylon walls would soon become a suffocating tomb.

When Matt reached me, the concern was etched on his face. My partner was young—just 23—a bit inexperienced, and certainly stunned. It was implicit that I, as the older, more experienced climber, was in charge of orchestrating my care, but Matt rose quickly to the task. And so we wasted little time: Any first aid could begin only after getting me off the avalanche debris—a field spread no larger than a cheap bar’s dance floor—and away from the storm-tossed face.

“My legs, Matt,” I said. “They’re trashed. They’re totally useless. We need to straighten them.”

Matt tried straightening my left leg (the one whose boot was near my face). The pain was intolerable, so deep and overwhelming that it collapsed into my sole point of focus; I felt as if a jaggedly jawed trap was intent on munching my femur, and howled like a dying animal till Matt stopped. I lay there panting, recovering, fighting unconsciousness. Then I asked Matt to grip me under my armpits and drag me until my legs were straightened. It worked. The pain was still intense, but at least we could evacuate.

We schemed how we’d drag me off the debris and then subsequently relocate camp—only a few ropelengths away—to that new spot. And so we began, Matt behind me, dragging me, while I sat on a sleeping pad facing backward, pushing off the snow with my hands. I’m sure it formed a hilarious tableau, two grown men propelling themselves through a snowstorm as if taking part in some child’s sledding game. But for us the stakes were deadly serious: get off the slope before it potentially slid again.

When the snow blocks were large and bumpy, the pain forced a telling tension in my body. Matt, cued by my groans and stiffening body, would accelerate until I relaxed; he gently touched my face, letting me know the pain wasn’t mine alone. After covering perhaps 100 feet, we exited the debris and ventured no further. Matt moved our basecamp, and as night arrived we hunkered down in our small A-frame Sumitomo tent.

At first light, Matt, focused like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, left with a quick “Godspeed.” I returned the salutation, watching as the tent flap closed behind him, hearing him tromp off into the snow, plunging me into absolute solitude. We’d surmised that the nearest possibility of alerting anyone was no closer than 60 miles. Any path Matt followed through the northern wilds, without appropriate maps and without summer’s constant light, was loaded with glacial streams and wild animals—and darkness and freezing temperatures. We expected three or four days, possibly more, before he reached help.

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Matt: I took only what was necessary: crampons, a jacket, a sleeping bag, and food for two days—no stove or fuel. I left this stupid leopard-spotted neon-yellow necktie I had hanging from the center of the tent. I told Carl it was my favorite tie, and that I’d be back for it.

Around 4 a.m., I started heading down the glacier. The storm had eased, and got better as I descended. There were a lot of open, or slightly bridged, crevasses in the glacial ice. I tried to avoid the ones I could, but was also trying to move quickly. I held my axe high, with the strap on my wrist, thinking I would swing the pick into the ice if I punched through. Luck brought me down to the terminal moraine without a fall.

The terminal moraine is jumbled, and it took awhile to navigate. At the bottom of the snout, a drainage comes down from the west. I thought I saw something up there, and decided to risk the time to see if there was anyone there. I found a hunting hut, and inside was a still-yellow banana, so I assumed someone was around. I hiked a little up the drainage, yelling. I found no one, and decided that I couldn’t waste any more time, and so kept descending the Little Delta River valley.

Left alone in the raging storm, I had only my consciousness for company. I could slowly sit up and lie back down, drink a bit of water I’d gathered by boiling snow, and pee into a bottle. I had little appetite, and only once rallied to brew a Ramen packet: bad nutrition in a bad situation. Surprisingly, the pain of my injuries faded completely even though as I sat up or lay back down I could sometimes feel the free ends of my left femur grating past each other. I sat, waited, drank a sip or two of water, and ate nothing.

And I thought. As an undergraduate biology student in Fairbanks, I’d occasionally gone to sea for weeks, where I’d retrieved samples from various locations and depths as a means to understanding the ecology of a region—the Bering Sea—that was poorly known, but destined to become exploited as one of the world’s most productive fisheries. I’d visited its remote waters by ship, helicopter, or both, collecting data on photosynthesis underneath the sea ice, where the annual plankton bloom percolates in late springtime before the melt, getting ready to feed the animals that feed the animals that feed us, to some degree.

Perhaps, I thought, if by some miracle Matt summoned help, I could reprioritize myself and begin trying to professionally understand my world and its ecology, perhaps even teach others to appreciate the breadth of life on our planet. My fall could be a catalyst, I realized, to expand what I was, to explore new areas outside alpinism. While it was terrible to be so vulnerable deep in the mountains, the fall had also been useful in that it had, in one fell swoop, extinguished my hubris.

In fact, I cared little whether I climbed again. My focus was simply hanging on, surviving. It was as if I’d become the protagonist in a science-fiction novel, having fallen down not an alpine face but instead through a wormhole, to emerge onto some bizarre exoplanet where I had no ability to evade dark, alien threats rushing toward me. No longer falling, I was helpless nonetheless.

Tobin rapping just above the debris chute; the slough—and Tobin’s subsequent fall—happened shortly after this picture was taken.

Tobin rapping just above the debris chute; the slough—and Tobin’s subsequent fall—happened shortly after this picture was taken.

Over the next two days, the storm intensified, violently whipping the tent walls and threatening their destruction. Beyond the thin sheets of nylon, there was a life-ending tempest of roaring winds and hissing snow. Snow piled quickly to the tent’s ridgeline. I had to beat it away from the tent walls to keep my shelter from collapsing. This was my only activity.

Three days after Matt left, the storm’s rage increased again. The wind stiffened to an even fiercer gale, and the snow accumulated at an ever more furious pace. Every time I cleared the tent’s sides, with my poundings and punches, it seemed that the wind and snow conspired to reach the ridgeline again. As I flailed at the tent walls, my legs immobile, I thought of Matt rhythmically trekking to the beat of his mission. He’d chosen to hike toward the Richardson Highway, more than 60 miles east through sub-alpine forest, across glacial rivers, sphagnum-padded patches of spruce, and sedge-filled bogs.

Had he made it yet? I wondered. He must have!

As the snow accumulated, the light dulled to a dark-gray sheen and the tent walls began to bulge obesely inward, slowly and with almost ominous intent. Would the wind shred the tent and expose me to the storm? Or would I be buried alive in this cold, sterile, monochromatic prison? It became quieter inside as burial became the more likely outcome. Snow piled toward the still-uncovered ridgeline. Surely three feet had fallen by now. Within the tent, I’d been able to knock snow away, to disperse in the wind, but eventually it had nowhere to go.

I sought a different tack. Holding a detached shovel blade, I cinched the tube-entrance drawstring firmly around my armpit and cleared any snow within an arm’s radius. It seemed to work. But when I loosened the drawstring and pulled the shovel back inside, the wind blasted spindrift into the tent, covering the floor and my entire kit. Now only an inch or two of tent ridge remained clear.

My frustration came to a boil. “Fuck!” I raged. “Fuck!” again and again. “Fuck!” I went on and on, raging at the forces killing me, raging and raging in wild, angry bursts. The futility of surviving a “non-survivable” fall only to die afterward, in spite of Matt’s epic efforts, was overwhelming. I screamed and screamed at the wind.

It was useless. The tent had become my tomb, my inert legs assuring I’d be buried alive.

Then: “Carl?!”

* * *

Matt: As fortune would have it, while I was heading down the east fork of the Little Delta, I saw a Super Cub circling. I signaled the plane, and they turned and landed down the drainage. I sprinted down, but the plane took off before I got there. I found the strip they’d used, and starting shouting. When a hunter emerged from the woods, I grabbed him by the jacket, shook him, and starting yelling something like, “Where’s the fucking plane gone?”—but he said they hadn’t seen me.

He did tell me about a moose-hunting camp another six miles down the drainage, which had a radio mast. So I kept going downstream, and made it there around 2 a.m. I walked through a herd of caribou in the dark; I could hear them around me, and saw sparks from a hoof strike on a rock.

I walked into the camp in the dark, yelling, “Don’t shoot!” It was the last day of moose season: I figured if you were still out there, you hadn’t gotten your moose and were probably ready to shoot anything that moved. I surely scared the crap out of the moose hunters when I burst into their camp yelling, “I need your radio, now!” I was so jacked with adrenaline that I would not sleep for the next two days, until after I saw Carl again in the hospital.

VanEnkevort shot this image of an injured Tobin, his face bandaged and covered by the sleeping-bag hood, before setting out into the storm for help. VanEnkevort worried it was the last time he’d see his friend alive.

VanEnkevort shot this image of an injured Tobin, his face bandaged and covered by the sleeping-bag hood, before setting out into the storm for help. VanEnkevort worried it was the last time he’d see his friend alive.

After days of solitude, withering, wasting away, trapped with only my thoughts and the damnable snow, I was suddenly, blessedly, no longer alone. My friends Roman, Clif, Don, and Mark had flown in a Huey helicopter from Fairbanks, piloted, I would later learn, by Fort Wainwright’s Air National Guard crack pilots. In desperate flying conditions, and in landing conditions that had to have been almost blind, the four rescuers had reached Gillam Glacier, and then skied several miles into the gale’s teeth to reach me, guided by Roman’s memories from our failed attempt on 9448.

As it would emerge, two days into his hike, Matt had stumbled upon moose hunters with a radio in the Little Delta River country. They made contact with one of the widely scattered people in rural Alaska. An alarm was raised, and the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, which included my friends, sprang to the call.

Debate ensued amongst my rescuers over how best to secure me into the rescue sled. If I’d learned one thing over the course of this ordeal, it was that the less I moved, the better. I suggested they remove the tent poles and, using the tent as a body bag, lift and place me in the sled. Soon we were off down-glacier to the awaiting Huey. The occasionally intense pain I felt over the next few miles of bumpy terrain was assuaged by the pint of basecamp tequila, which I consumed entirely over the course of the ride.

As the chopper lifted into rough air and twilight settled over the Hayes Range, I caught a glimpse through gray-black clouds of autumn-tinged alpine tundra seguing into dimming boreal forest. Winter was coming, and quickly.

Over the course of three weeks as a de facto resident of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, I underwent three separate surgeries: splicing together the three sections of my left femur; a bone-grafting repair of a tibial-plateau fracture and tears of multiple ligaments of my right knee, which was voided of its shredded medial cartilage; and plastic surgery to repair the hole in my left cheek, perhaps formed when I’d kicked it with my cramponed boot. Wheelchairs, crutches, orthopedic steel, bicycles, and Nordic skis brought my legs, eventually, to the point of climbing again. But it would take time—months and months of time.

A preview of coming attractions: digging out the Sumitomo tent during the five-day storm that hit after the climbers set up basecamp.

A preview of coming attractions: digging out the Sumitomo tent during the five-day storm that hit after the climbers set up basecamp.

Weeks after the accident, my friend Dave Cheesmond remarked, “You can always do something!”—referring to a self-arrest he’d made in the Canadian Rockies and implying that I might have been able to similarly arrest my fall had I chosen to. I searched my memory for any possibility of controlling my flying tumble on that September day, but found no hint that I had any chance of doing so. The avalanche had been too sudden, the slope too icy and steep, my fall too topsy-turvy for me to have sunken an axe. Less than two years later, Dave and Catherine Freer were killed as they ascended Mount Logan’s Hummingbird Ridge. I still miss Dave, and wish he and Catherine had been able to do that “something” when the need arose on the Hummingbird.

The one thing I could—and should—have done was defer my date with 9448 to another time. But my caution was smothered under a load of hubris. I was negligently intent on “knocking the bastard off,” and getting out of the range before winter set in. As the storm developed, it was readily apparent that Matt and I were negligently past that deadline—I simply chose to ignore the signals. (For the record, there never was another attempt. Matt left Alaska and, armed with a business degree and an intense bicycling Jones, began working at a bicycle shop in Seattle, parlaying that ultimately into becoming a chief executive of more than one bicycle manufacturer.)

I’ve often wondered what it must’ve been like for Matt to be thrust into such a dire emergency and to be responsible for a severely injured partner’s survival. How many times in alpine history have such situations occurred? And how many have lived?

Jack Tackle survived on Mount Augusta because of Charlie Sassara’s efforts to reach a radio. But despite the selfless commitment of his team, an incapacitated Art Gilkey was simply swept off K2 during the famous American expedition there in 1953. The two Marks, Wilford and Ritchie, willed each other to return safely from Yamandaka, miraculously unscathed. Alpine misfortune has faced climbers with Herculean tasks, and on 9448, Matt was faced with his. He alone was capable of saving my life.

The rescue had all come about thanks to Matt’s determination. Without him, I would not be here today.

Carl Tobin has lived in Anchorage, Alaska, since moving back to the state a couple of years after obtaining his PhD in ecology from Northern Arizona University in 1993. He enjoys backcountry adventures, winter darkness, darker beers, wild places that remain wild, dogs, and following his children’s Nordic-skiing and academic ventures.

Matt VanEnkevort was raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. He learned to kayak and climb while in high school, and extended his mountain ramblings into the Alaska Range, Alps, Rockies, and Cascades. He left Alaska to race bicycles in the late 1980s and is now the CEO of a bicycle brand in Petaluma, California.