The photo above is looking northeast toward the snow chute where Charlie almost died. Should have died. Should have lost his footing and slid into the freezing water.
But that is a 2010 photo.
This year, 2011, that chute is much, much larger because Charlie is hiking earlier in the year and because the winter snowfall has been over twice the annual average.
Charlie says he’s looking up at a steep, wet, probably unstable, ten-meter climb to the crest. Unstable and wet, of course, because it’s been raining heavily for the past two to three hours.
(You’re looking at this side of that chute and the crest. If you look closely at the tip, you get just a hint of the other side, which drops back down to the water.)
Below is Upper Bertha Falls. That water drops hundreds of feet from Bertha Lake and ends up down at Lower Bertha Falls where it quickly segues into Bertha Creek and finally empties into Upper Waterton Lake.
Charlie talks about Lower Bertha Falls at the beginning of the chapter you just read. You’ve seen photos of the falls before in Part VI, Chapter 12, but maybe a reminder of what the falls looks like would be useful.
And a reminder about the bear grass, which isn’t in flower yet up at Bertha Lake.
(Once again, since it’s raining on Charlie’s hike around Bertha Lake this time, he’s using photos from previous trips.)
This is what the chutes along the east side of the lake looked like in 2010.
That last chute on the left is the one that nearly did him in.
Just before Charlie gets to what the two guys at the Visitor Center described as an almost straight-up wall of snow, he looks toward the north end of the lake and sees the campsites.
Below is a view from those campsites looking southward across that point on the right toward the far end of the lake.
Imagine that whole east side on the left and the far end, which the sun can’t get at for most of the day, being almost totally covered with snow. And imagine all those snow chutes being absolutely huge.
This is the west side of Bertha Lake, which has no snow in most places because the sun is able to get at it. It’s not blocked by the mountains.
This year, it’s overcast, though, and it has already started to drizzle by the time Charlie gets to the part of the path in the photo on the right.
Several times, Charlie stops and scans the avalanche chutes across the lake. But he can’t see them very well. It’s just too socked in.
And as he nears the southern end, he begins to notice more and more streams running down the wall of the cirque and into the lake.
You see this big mountain stream when you first arrive at Bertha Lake. It drops down from the snows on top of Bertha Peak, which has an elevation of 2298 meters.
But there are many more streams like the one below all along the bases of Mount Alderson and Mount Richards.
Notice how the stream runs under the avalanche snow. It hollows out a path, and in so doing, it creates a snow bridge. And that’s what Charlie is really concerned about. How thick is the snow that’s left above the steam bed?
And with the added weight of the rain, which began to worsen when he was about halfway down the west side, how much weaker would those bridges be by now?
Even branches in the snow from the avalanche debris would weaken them.
Charlie’s left leg does break though on the very first snow bridge, although, with the help of his poles, he’s able to keep his balance.
Nonetheless, he barely breaths as he eases across the rest of the bridges.
But when he finally reaches the southeast corner of the lake and looks north, he’s immediately faced with an even more ominous “major-mother stretch of snow,” to use his phrase.
And he knows that all the chutes from here up to the north end will slope really steeply toward the lake. All of them.
And unfortunately, during the day the surface of those major-mothers softens and then refreezes at night, gradually forming a hard crust.
One misstep on that crust today, and, worst-case scenario, he could easily slide down into the lake. And with his extra layers of clothes, his heaviest hiking boots, his biggest backpack, and the lake water just above freezing, he’d almost certainly drown.
Below is the very spot where he irritated a tendon on the outside of his right leg last year from kicking into that crusty snow to get solid a foothold.
But again, you’ll have to imagine a lot more snow than what you see here. Several feet more. The shoreline to the left is covered, as well as many of those trees. The snow slopes right into the lake. And that’s exactly where Charlie will end up if he loses his footing.
Another view, which might help. You have to use your imagination, though, to raise the snow several feet to cover the shoreline and trees on the left and to cover that rock ledge just under the water. None of those things are showing this year.
And that’s why Charlie sees nothing but a “major-mother stretch of snow,” and is beginning to wish he were at home on the patio with BJ.
The photo below is an hour later. But remember – much more snow and no rocks along the shoreline.
And that’s how Charlie spends his time going up the east side of the lake toward that final snow chute at the north end.
And don’t forget, he’s hiking in a heavy rainfall, and he’s really afraid that the added weight of the rain is making the snow even more unstable.
So by the time he reaches that last chute, he’s fully aware that he can’t go back. It would be over four kilometers of snow bridges and snow chutes that are much wetter and much heavier and much more likely to give way.
And that’s why, when he looks around that final rock point, which is only a couple feet from the open water of the lake, and he sees that almost straight-up, ten-meter wall of snow, he feels a scream begin to well up from deep within.
And for the first time, he becomes clearly aware of the distinct possibility, even probability, that he might be about to die.
And that’s why, when he finally reaches the crest and looks down on the other side, he come close to letting go, and just sliding into the lake, and having it over with.
He has no energy left. No will to fight.
However, as you just saw, he does get himself under control, and he does cross over the crest, and he does make it down to the flat ground on the other side.
But on his way back to the parking lot, he decides he’d better not tell BJ about this chute, or even about the snow bridges, because of the way she reacted when he told her about his almost dying on Lineham.
Some things, he thinks to himself yet again, are far better left unsaid.
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