Graham Zimmerman’s Close Call

This article originally appeared on Climbing

The following story has been excerpted from Graham Zimmerman's excellent new book, A Fine Line: Searching for Balance Among Mountains, which was released by Mountaineers Books this month. It's a gripping and informative book by one of the most talented and influential alpinists of his generation. Get your copy here.

--The editors

Our pilot made a slow approach onto an unnamed side glacier off the primary Revelation Glacier and set the plane's skis down on the snow-covered ice. We stepped out and before us rose the massive, unclimbed west face of the Titanic, a 3,600-foot-high rocky shield threaded with lines of mixed ice and rock. It was an objective that Clint Helander had learned about from Fred Beckey, one of America's most prolific climbers. By then, Fred was over 90 years old and had decided that the wall was out of his reach, subsequently deeming it worth sharing. It was a stunning prize for two young men enchanted by unclaimed mountain faces.

We set out on skis in the middle of the night with small packs. We wanted to attempt the unclimbed wall in a bold style, with no sleeping equipment. We planned to complete the route in less than 24 hours.

Above our heads a shimmering display from the northern lights wove green and purple strokes of color across the night sky. It transformed, twisting and shifting at a barely perceptible pace. It felt dreamlike as we skied across the glacier and watched the aurora move in parallax against the peaks on the skyline.

The day before, we had made a reconnaissance of the face and had seen a pear-shaped couloir of snow that narrowed into the granite bastions above. Under those northern lights, we followed our ski track to the base of the route, where the wall above eclipsed the sky. We clipped on our crampons and started climbing.

The direct sunlight of dawn caught us as we pulled out the rope and tied in for the first pitches on a mix of rock and ice. It gradually steepened to vertical, forcing us to torque our tools in cracks and wedge our bodies in snow-filled chimneys to make upward progress.

Despite having never climbed together before, we moved well. Our styles of climbing were cut from the same cloth. We were in sync and talked little as we swung between leads.

The steep terrain quickly fell away beneath our feet. With so little equipment, we were not burdened by heavy backpacks. Using this to our advantage, we didn't bother to stop, opting instead for continued movement.

Higher on the wall, the ice disappeared. We alternated between hooking with our ice tools and jamming our hands into cracks. The frontpoints of our crampons screeched against edges on the granite. The quality of the rock was excellent.

The last hard pitch of climbing ended on a nearly flat ridge. The day was then moving on toward evening. Having stopped to brew water on our small stove, we sat, rehydrating and looking out over the range. To the south we could see the intimidating unclimbed north face of Jezebel streaked with ice and heavily laden with hanging seracs; beyond it soared unclimbed Peak 9,304 with a sweeping couloir running up its northwestern arete.

"Clint, this place is amazing."

"Right?" Clint answered. "And to think that these peaks represent just a sliver of the potential for new routes in the Alaska Range."

The look in his eye made it clear that chasing down these types of peaks was something that he intended to do for the rest of his life. I had the same intention.

It was a quick walk along firm snow to the summit, where we took another quick look at the range. The shadows were lengthening, and the colors were fading into the dark blues and grays of the later afternoon. Quickly, we started walking and then rappelling down the east face of the peak.

We landed on the glacier below just as the final rays of sun washed over the range. It was nearly nine in the evening. We had been on the move for over 16 hours. All we had to do now was walk on a glacier to the west side of the peak and back to base camp.

In the dark, we walked briskly over the undulating ice of the glacier. I was in the lead. Carefully, I watched as my headlamp beam ran over the flow of the ice; I felt in touch with it. We made our way down, jumping over smaller crevasses and side-running larger ones. I was exhausted, but still tuned in. As we accelerated down the glacier, I felt it wrap around to the west, pointing us back toward our base camp. I could sense where the crevasses were based on the flow of the ice under my feet. I was surfing its frozen veneer, headed for the safety of camp.

We reached our tents after nearly 23 hours on the go. The swirling rivers of violet aurora above us had faded, leaving a clear night. We drank whiskey under the stars as we looked up and quietly considered infinity. When we finally climbed into our bags, sleep came easily.

Two days later we slid upward, wearing mountaineering boots with our skis in touring mode. We were headed for the pass above camp. Feeling comfortable on the glacier, we skied without a rope and reached the pass with little incident. Having unclipped our boots, we stood looking out to the south over a skyline of peaks unfamiliar to my eyes. They were steep, with expanses of bare granite indicating where the angle was too severe to hold snow. Among the gray granite wound webs of snow and ice, offering potential passage through the walls.

In front, directly across the glacier, stood Peak 9,304. Its summit was an alluring wedge of gray and white. Its northwestern arete crashed down toward the glacier. My eye traced a line up from the bergshrund to the summit. It was a proud line. My body was energized by the sight of the peak and the clear weather. My legs felt strong, I was ready to climb.

"Clint, I think we should go for it. Looks perfect."

He demurred, saying he was still fatigued from our 23-hour effort a couple of days earlier. "It does look good, but I think I need to rest a little while longer."

I kept my mouth closed as I felt my ego flare with frustration. I knew that if Clint needed to wait, I needed to wait too. Rather than admit this to him, I clipped into my skis and turned them toward camp.

Skiing in mountain boots was challenging. I made tentative turns down the glacier, stopping regularly to control my speed. I was frustrated over the perceived difference in fitness between my partner and me--and simultaneously chided myself for being a bad partner. Waiting a couple of days to recover would be no problem, and it would certainly help me as well.

I dropped into a steeper pitch of skiing. I was well out of sight of Clint, who had remained at the pass.

"What the hell, Graham?" I asked out loud. "Why are you being such a dick?" I knew it was safer for us to stay closer together, but I didn't care.

It's an odd thing to consider how you are going to react when you are about die, but in that moment, I received my answer. It came in a long string of expletives as the hidden snowbridge beneath me collapsed and I fell into a crevasse. The world slowed as I felt myself bouncing between the walls as I accelerated downward. One ski popped off as my knee twisted. I came to a quick stop, plugged into a constriction in the hole, the wind forced from my lungs.

"Fuck!" I yelled again, as I tried to regain my breath.

Taking fast, frantic breaths, I attempted to assess my situation but was unable to move. Light was shining down through the hole I had created, now 40 feet above me. It cast over the crevasse a strange iridescent blue of poorly lit ancient ice. I was alone. Clint didn't know where I was--and, based on my initial assessment, I was both stuck and hurt.

I had fallen with enough force that I was wedged in the crevasse like a cork. I was pinned at my thighs and shoulders. My feet, one of which was still attached to a ski, could wiggle against the ice, but just barely. I could feel a protrusion in the ice painfully pushing into my left quad. This was not good.

Fear welled up and I closed my eyes. It would not, however, assist me at all in this moment, so I pushed it away, telling myself that I would be able get myself out or Clint would find me.

Squirming, I tried to unstick myself. But as I moved, I seemed to slip deeper into the crevasse. The fear came back. My heart rate went up, my breathing became tight. Again I closed my eyes, trying to calm myself.

This is bad, this is really bad.

I knew horror stories of climbers falling into crevasses and being irretrievable. Stuck in the ice for a slow and agonizing death. Some had been alone. Others had their partner on the surface, trying desperately to unwedge them from what would ultimately become their icy tomb.

How hard had they fought to get out? How hard would I fight?

I squirmed. I slipped a little farther down. The sides of the crevasse tightened their grip. I closed my eyes and calmed my breathing. Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck. I tried to meditate, hoping for a miracle as I felt myself starting to get cold.

"Graham!" I heard from above. "Graham! Are you in there?"

From the quality of his voice, it sounded like Clint was looking down into the hole. I tried to look up and see but couldn't.

"Yes! Clint! I'm here! I'm okay, but I can't get out!" I yelled back.

"Holy shit, dude. I'm so happy you're alive," he replied, an edge of desperation in his voice. "Give me a second, I'm going to build an anchor."

I breathed a deep sigh of relief and thanked whatever higher powers may have been available in that moment.

It took Clint over an hour to pry my body from the ice, using a traditional pulley system.

The feeling of being wrenched free from the constriction in the crevasse and then hanging above it was like being pulled from the jaws of death. I kicked off my remaining ski and watched it disappear into the darkness below. I would never see it again and I did not care. I pushed my back against one side of the crevasse and my knees against the other, trying to help Clint lift me. I slipped on the ancient ice, again fully weighting the rope.

When I reached the lip of the crevasse, I scrambled into the warm sunshine and dry heaved onto the snow. I crawled over to where Clint was sitting, tied in to his anchor system and still breathing heavily from the exertion. I dove into his arms, and he pulled me into a deep embrace.

"Thank you," I whispered.

"My friend," he said, "I'm so happy you're alive. Let's get out of here."

Excerpted from A Fine Line: Searching for Balance Among Mountains by Graham Zimmerman (October 2023). Published by Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

About the author

As a professional climber, Graham Zimmerman is one of the most acclaimed alpinists of his generation. After graduating from Otago University in 2007 with a degree in geography, he focused on alpinism, a pursuit that has taken him on expeditions to Alaska, Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and all over the lower 48 and Canada. His awards include the 2020 Piolet d'Or, 2016 Cutting Edge Award for Excellence in Alpine Climbing, 2014 Piolet d'Or Top 5 Finalist, and 2010 New Zealand Alpinist of the Year. Dedicated to using his platform for good, he holds leadership roles in a range of nonprofits and outdoor companies, including the American Alpine Club and Protect Our Winters. His sponsors include TINCUP, Outdoor Research, EXPED, and SCARPA. He lives in Bend, Oregon with his wife, Shannon, and their dogs. A Fine Line: Searching for Balance Among Mountains is his first book.

About the book

How do we reconcile our love of outdoor adventure with the inevitability of loss in high-risk sports? Still in his thirties, Graham Zimmerman has made first ascents from Alaska to Pakistan, and in 2020 he received the Piolet d'Or for his climb on Pakistan's Link Sar with Steve Swenson. A sponsored athlete who is sought out as a climbing partner, Zimmerman knows that he must find a balance between his ambitions as an alpinist and his social responsibilities--as a husband, climate advocate, and community leader. His generation has faced devastating grief in the mountains, and his cohort has witnessed firsthand the effects of climate change in the form of disappearing glaciers and increasingly erratic weather. Zimmerman writes of the exhilaration he feels while climbing but also the painful realization that summiting at all costs is an outdated model. As A Fine Line traces his journey, mountain lovers everywhere will see themselves in this coming-of-age story of adventure and personal reckoning.


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