Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hell in the Sky (part 2)

No turning back now.


Photos by MCSN Andy Jandik

The last leg of our journey up Mount Saint Helens began at 6500', and several members of the party were already showing signs of exhaustion. Our column was struggling to stay together, as climbers fell more and more behind. Jandik and I were in the rear, trying to give encouragement, while Master Chief Jon McMillan, the senior member, took the lead.

An hour later, at 7300', we were within an hour from the summit. The team regrouped and assessed everyone's condition. Timberlake was in bad shape. Her feet were made of lead, and she was running on pure determination. Helens gave us no respite. Her cold took hold of us within minutes, and we had to keep moving.

The final hour was straight out of a bad dream.

Everything simplified. Thoughts. Movements. Reactions. Step. Step. Step. Step. Rest for 10 seconds. Step. Step. Step. Step. Rest for 10 seconds. Timberlake and I were alone, the group had disappeared into the clouds above us. Whenever she paused in her step/stop rhythm, I tried to say the words to help give her strength to take more steps.

Timberlake takes it one step at a time.

"This is gonna be a huge personal victory.  Every step is one closer."

Then I got a call on my two-way radio.

"Slaughter, Master Chief."
"Go for Slaughter."
"Slaughter, we're below summit. What's your status?"
"Timberlake and I will be there in 20 minutes."

Suddenly the sun broke through the clouds. A blue sky appeared and I could see our group huddled together above use. THEY'RE SO CLOSE.

"Timberlake, look! We can see our shadows! Can you feel the warmth?"

"Yeah, that's really sweet."

What the sun had revealed to me was our team, standing 50' below the summit. What I couldn't know was what they were talking about. The conditions would change drastically in the next few minutes, and it would affect everyone...

Master Chief maps out serious danger at the summit.

At 2pm, at an elevation of over 8300', Timberlake and I were steps away from the other team members. I brought my Sony A1U up and began filming in anticipation of the victory.

Two things happened then. The most brutal wind I've ever felt slammed into me. Unbelievable, 50mph blasts of frigid air stabbed into every part of my body. And that's when I heard the shouts.

Jandik: "Turn around Slaughter!"
me: "What?! No way man, I've got to film the damn summit!"
Jandik: "Seriously turn the f-k around!"
I was within 20 feet of the literal summit, and my team was blocking my way up. I wanted a shot of the crater, even though I knew the visibility was too poor to see down that far.

What I didn't know was one member had just been lifted up by the gusts and almost blown down into that crater. The drop off behind Master Chief is the drop to the crater, thousands of feet below. The lines he was drawing showed where new snowfall had created a soft, deadly trap. Several feet further and anyone could have plunged to their deaths when the snow gave out.

me: "Get the hell out of the way so I can get my shot!"
Master Chief: "Slaughter, we need to get out of here, now."
me: "Roger, moving."

Attempting to shield the A1U from wind and snow.

We had been climbing for 6 hours, in some of worst conditions possible. Our group turned around and began to slowly walk back down from hell in the sky. I felt great to have made it up, even if my final shot was filled with people yelling at me.

Timberlake was now in the lead with me close behind. We had taken about 10 steps when I realized how bad our situation was.

The wind was freezing my eyelashes, making it hard to keep my eyes open. 

Ahead of me I saw Timberlake stop, wobble, and start to fall backwards. She had nothing left. To the left and right of us the volcano sloped down, and to fall to either side would mean a quick trip to the bottom.

Frozen eyelashes, frozen water tube.

I lurched forward, grabbing her jacket.

"Are you ok?!"
[barely audible] "Yeah I'm good."
80% of accidents on Mount St. Helens happen on the way down. This is because folks spend everything getting up, with no reserves to get back. Timberlake and several others had given their all, and now alarm bells were going off in my head. What the hell have we done? Was this worth it?

This continued for about an hour. We reached the lava flow and rested for a couple of minutes. The team began to feel a little better, but we were still pretty frozen. The magnitude of what we had just done was sinking in. We felt good.

And then disaster struck.

Descending the treacherous rocks, cold and totally fatigued, Berumen lost her footing and fell downwards, bouncing off several rocks.

Beginning the descent.  Berumen would fall minutes later, changing everything.
With sunset approaching, and thousands of feet up on this unforgiving volcano, we now had a shipmate that couldn't walk.


  1. Wow, that's quite a story! Glad you guys were safe. I've really enjoyed reading your blog. :)

  2. Thanks Laura. I didn't know you had a blog. You're quite the writer! I like that quote about doing laps around people on the couch.