Originally Published: August 8, 2001 6:45 p.m.
It is a whiteout. The snow-covered ground blends into the white sky, blotting out shadows, clouds and horizon.
A small group of youngsters is climbing a mountain with a desire to reach its summit. With lost sense of depth, direction or distance, their only mechanism to stay on the right path is a small mountain compass and their trust in a couple of guides.
In mid-July of this year, Kate Pierce and her five friends – all members of the Young Life group in Prescott – climbed Albert Mountain, the highest peak in British Columbia.
"We were one of the few groups to ever summit Albert in a whiteout," said Kate Pierce, a recent Prescott High School graduate. "You couldn't see around you. There is all this fog. You couldn't tell what is the sky and what is the snow. I looked beside me and five feet away I couldn't tell if it was a drop-off, or going uphill, or going downhill."
Equipped with tied harnesses, nine people climbed above the tree line, linked together some 40 to 50 feet apart.
"Glaciers were constantly moving down," said Teressa Correl, a leader of the group.
Because of the whiteout, she said, they were unsure where they were, so they took a different route to avoid the glaciers in order to get to the top of the mountain.
At one point, the fog was so thick that they passed a suitable campsite. Being completely disoriented, they continued climbing up – instead of back down to the site – until guides realized they needed to return.
"By the time we got to the camp almost all of us were wondering why we were there," Pierce said. "Every day was a struggle, but it was a good challenge."
The group began its mountain journey at the far corner of Albert's base camp. The first day, they climbed to about 3,000 feet.
"We all definitely struggled the first day," Pierce said. "We hiked for about 12 hours and it was just a rigorous hike."
Correl said they were surprised at the amount of additional strength they mustered.
"We have learned (on this climb) about ourselves and our limits," she said.
They camped for the night. The next day, members of the group decided to continue their dangerous adventure even though it was obvious that weather conditions would be an obstacle in achieving their goal. Yet, at this point they still were unaware of just how dangerous and challenging the expedition would be.
They climbed another 2,000 feet, reaching the tree line. Firs, oaks and pines were replaced with ice, snow and rocks. They set up their camp in the snow.
"At our first camp in the snow, you couldn't dig far enough to reach the ground," she said. And, with temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit, "It was so cold all the time we didn't get to sleep very much."
The next morning they all got together and guides instructed them to choose whether or nor they wanted to go to the summit.
"Because of the whiteout, it was not very likely that we would get to the top," Pierce said. It was pretty dangerous because we were going over crevasses."
The cracks in ice, she said, occasionally are a hundred feet deep and the snow often conceals them.
If a person happens to fall through the crack, "It can take almost 20 minutes to get you out" because of the cold, she said, and the rescue attempt becomes a major struggle.
Correl said that they actually went over two crevasses, where "you could see crystal blue colors," something that you only watch on a National Geographic program, she said.
To keep warm, they wore layers of clothing made of wool and fleece, with rain gear over it. With their tents left in the camp below, they used tarps as their "shell" to protect them from freezing temperatures.
The next day, the mountain became the enemy. In the whiteout, the crew had difficulty staying on the right path, and consequently had to follow the two guides' steps with added concentration.
"When we got to the snow, they (guides) would 'kick in' steps," Pierce said.
"It was really important to have good steps" because otherwise "you can fall down the mountain."
The harsh weather conditions on the mountain slowed the group's progress. At close to 7,000 feet in elevation, they decided to rest for the night. But, the hardest part of the ascent was yet to come.
"We took a different route that no one else had taken before," she said. "We got to name a few glaciers and camp sites."
On the fourth day, the group left its campsite around 1:30 p.m. After five hours of intense climbing in the whiteout, they reached the summit.
"We summited at 6:30 p.m.," Pierce said. "We were one of the few groups to ever summit Albert during a whiteout."
Pierce and her friends spent about 20 minutes at the summit – 8,308 feet – taking pictures and looking back at the last four days. Everyone picked up a rock and, holding it in his or her hands, thought about the day … their hike … and prayed.
"We just threw a rock off the side of the mountain" to let go of their emotions, she said.
The climb down was somewhat easier. At certain spots, having their rain gear on, Pierce and her friends were able to slide down the mountain slopes in a "glaciating" maneuver.
On the sixth day, they reached the base camp.
"The experience of being together as a team was great because of the difficult circumstances," Pierce said. "The experience itself brought us so close together, and the times we had to share together were amazing."
Correl said that she might have had doubts about taking such a trip had she known what the weather conditions on the mountain would be.
"Looking back, I wouldn't change anything," she said. "It was the most amazing thing I have ever done."
And Pierce, on the other hand, said that she has a better appreciation for Mother Nature as well.
"You are up on this mountain feeling so small," she said. "You realize how God made that mountain and everything around you. They were huge, beautiful and powerful."