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Under Pulse

Posted on: April 16, 2018


This story first appeared in Alpinist 61, which is now available on newsstands and at our online store. We occasionally share stories from our print editions on Alpinist.com, but each issue contains many stories that are only available in print.

See the note at the end of this story to learn about the underpinnings of the tale.

[Photo] Kari Medig[Photo] Kari Medig

CAN YOU HEAR IT? I couldn't.

But after the initial storms had passed, it all settled down and the sky cleared. We were nine days out; we'd rounded the west end of Mt. Logan near Mt. St. Elias, and we skied our track like a tiny pin pushing into the vastness of the Seward Glacier.

Into the silence.

Forty miles long, fifteen wide. We could see where we hoped to be in three days: the rocky exit pass across the snow-covered ice. All around us towered the ivory walls of the highest mountains in Canada, and not an echo.

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If you stopped, held your breath, you could hear the distant sound of a carpenter hammering on a sheet of plywood: your own blood in your eardrums.

But behind that, in between the beats, was something else.... A pitched ringing, a throbbing like the noise of faraway traffic. As if a great machine were whirring. Perhaps, I thought, the mind fills the void with something familiar, for the expanse diminished us to insignificance and made us shiver in the sun. And although our voices carried to each other, they passed us too, and disappeared into the distance.

The morning of my awakening was the same: still, clear, expansive. When someone suggested the rope, even though the glacier was pan-flat, we all grabbed for it—relishing the connection to each other. We each loaded our sleds and buckled in, and then shouldered our small backpacks of water and rescue gear.

In the afternoon, as I brought up the rear, I sensed a shift in my inner ear: a Doppler effect of the ringing that stretched ahead, while leaving behind an eerie hush. And then the snow beneath me shifted, and a massive crack shot out on either side like a lightning bolt.

The sled, mindless, went first. And where its 130 pounds went, I went, too. I shouted and hoped my friends could brace themselves in time.

I fell through the crevasse and below the ice into a massive cavern. The rope slowed, and the weight of the sled began separating my pelvis from my spine.

My sled was heavy with water, food, fuel, shelter. Everything. My survival.

Now it was killing me. I pounded the buckle until it shattered, and I rode the rope bounce in relief. The sled fell like a bomb to smash in the depths. I listened for its ricocheting impact; but there was no sound.

A breathless eternity.

And then it hit. But instead of shattering cold plastic, there was a deep metallic bong and clatter.

I dug a headlamp from my rescue pack. It was late May, and because there had been only three hours of dusk each night, the beam was unused and strong. Far below, glinted a greenish patina on the old copper sheathes of some great pistons: the oiled shafts silent, but the steam slowly rising seemed to seethe. Great gears of bronze: teeth larger than houses. Heavy transit beams. The foundations of the gigantic machinery—this clockwork that propelled the realm above, paused in its inexorable drive—was lost in this underworld gloom, out of reach of my light.

Then with that familiar ringing, a faint pulsing hum like a heartbeat, the gears started again and began to turn.

And the rift above me—perhaps torn open by the pause below; a mistake in the grand scheme—started to close.

I fumbled with slings on the cable-taut rope, and I started to climb, inching upward at slower than a glacial pace.

Then the rope jerked, and my partners pulled me in lurches from the dank abyss. I pushed with arms and legs through the narrowing vice of the crevasse walls, surfacing just as the ice closed at my heels.

My partners collapsed on the snow, exhausted. But I couldn't stop looking around at the glaciers that grinded for miles toward the seas, the mammoth peaks. The scale of it all. The ringing silence: a metronome of a great living being. How could I explain what I had seen, when I barely believed it myself?

I hear that heartbeat now, as if it were my own. In the rhythmic thunder of waves on a shore, the calving of an ice sheet, the rumble of an avalanche. In the fear of it stopping. It's all I can hear—now—under everything.

Editor's Note

Jerry Auld's personal experiences on vast, silent glaciers, including a close call when he nearly fell into a crevasse, were partly what inspired him to write this imagined encounter with the inner workings of a giant, mysterious machine hidden below the surface of snow and ice. The other inspirations, he said, had to do with concerns about climate change. Alpinist asked Auld to share more about the elements in his story that are grounded in real events. Here is what he wrote:

I did do a ski circumnavigation of Mt. Logan in Canada's Kluane National Park in 2013. My team accomplished this in 11 days mainly because we had perfect weather the entire time—cloudless and windless—almost surreal. I never had to turn my headlamp on the entire trip, and we often had to stop hauling by mid-afternoon because the snow would soften too much for us to pull the sleds. So we got to see this enormous mountain and its surroundings from all angles without hindrance, and get to revel in the awe of just how huge it all is while having absolutely no sound at all.

It was those two elements: the absence of sound—except for what we generated ourselves—for days on end, and a landscape whose scale we never could get our heads around. And then, while probing a crevasse field, I punched through and clung by a ski tip and my forearms until my sled could get pulled back, and I could clamber out. It was a monster slot, with an unseen bottom and hard, Stygian walls. I've dropped a leg through plenty of slots, but this shook me.

At rest, in the three hours of late-May dusk that passes for night up there at that time of year, one could not help sensing that the enormous land that we lay upon was alive but slumbering—all this powerful kinetic energy pent up.

Of course, the signals of climate change are magnified in the North—just a few years after our trip, a river at the end of the Kaskawulsh glacier that you fly up had shifted in a matter of days to flow a completely different direction—and on the trip I had been pondering what happens when these massive processes suddenly fail, or at least lurch, like a machinery that is starting to seize.

When you are in the palm of such a setting, it is hard to not feel the importance of keeping these environments working. I wanted to tell that story—to visualize a wounded Earth that is starting to stall, and how tiny and bewildered we become in that situation.

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.
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