While descending in a cloud of snow and ice, I feel a sudden tug at my waist. My body surges forward for a moment before the rope goes slack. “Everything all right?” I yell into the wind.
Despite being 30 feet apart – the same distance for a first down on a football field – I can’t see or hear my climbing partner. Odds are he can’t hear me either. I yell louder. No answer.
I’m not convinced he could hear my call if he were standing next to me.
At that moment, I suddenly feel very alone. The moving rope is comforting – it’s a safety line, it makes me feel connected. And now, with it stopped, that comfort has dissolved.
Confidence is tenuous – what takes years to build can falter in an instant. I continue to wait. It’s cold. The wind feels sharper now – the bits of ice more penetrating. I hold the rope in my gloved hand; I can see ice accumulating on it.
I watch the rope closely, hoping for a positive sign, but bracing for the worst. Glaciers can be secretive. He could have slipped into a hidden crevasse and landed on a false bottom. If that lets go, the rope I’m holding will violently pull me toward the same icy cavern.
I grip my ice ax tighter and position my left leg higher on the slope. The sharp edges of my crampon puncture the blue glacial ice as I take a quick inventory of my rescue gear – prusiks, pickets, pulleys, extra rope. Everything is within reach.
I remind myself that he’s probably fine – he probably slipped and is adjusting clothing or a crampon. But, should our situation deteriorate, I know what to do. I feel my confidence return. “You’re fine,” I remind myself out loud.
Just then, I feel a subtle tug in the rope, the type of tug that means things are likely OK.
Relieved, I start forward, keeping a bit of slack between us. “Well, he’s at least moving,” I think. “Things must not be too bad.”