White River: On the glacier, there was bravery and dedication

The tragic incident fresh in mind, Crag Rats are able to give a vivid description of a recovery effort unlike any other. It took a well-practiced brand of teamwork last weekend to find Collin Backowski’s body under tons of snow and ice, and bring him off the mountain.

Mountain rescue volunteers all have many tales to tell. They rarely rush to do so, but when asked they will share what they do. It’s a somber thing, the retelling, especially when other sad incidents are also fresh in mind; the White River glacier incident was the second in several weeks’ time, on or around the mountain, involving a death.

In the White River recovery, rescuers tell of packing in heavy chain saws, a step that turned out to be as necessary as it was unique. The crew had to work quickly: Rising temperatures as well as the vibrations of the saws were causes for concern for everyone’s welfare.

The architecture of the tunnel-like snow formation, known as a “serac,” was also a concern. No one knew for sure if the lower end of the serac was stable, so they had to work carefully and they had to work fast.

As Crag Rat Brian Hukari succinctly put it, “It was such a big chunk that fell.”

Hukari explained that glaciers are “like slow-moving rivers, and as they fill in they crack and break up, and exposed parts jut up” and form caves or spaces.

“It was in our consciousness, that this was a really dangerous spot to be in, and we had to be careful and we got the job done safely,” Crag Rat Richard Hallman said.

There was another reality that the team respected: “We were careful using chain saws, started off taking pretty big pieces and using less of the blade as we went, because we didn’t want to hit him (Backowski),” Hukari explained. “The closest we came was about 2 feet above him, and it was shovel work after that.”

Certainly there will be analysis of what happened to Collin Backowski and his friends on White River glacier, and how they fell into harm’s way. The community mourns the loss of an adventurous young man.

Meanwhile, our thanks go out to the rescuers. They worked as a team to take rigorous precautions to enhance safety, but the fact is that more than a dozen local people willingly went up the side of the mountain, knowing conditions could be hazardous, and placed themselves in harm’s way.

The White River glacier tragedy is a reminder that, as Richard Hallman put it, “The mountain is in charge.”

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