National Geographic
Menu

Courting Death by Cold Water

Sy Cloud and Chris Wrobel descend through the lower Kalhiltna Icefall. Image taken during March Alaska Range Project expedition. Photo by Carl Battreal.

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit organization connecting outdoor adventurers with scientists in need of data from the field. He also organizes his own expeditions, contributing to research on wildlife-human interaction, fragmented habitats, and threatened species. 

—-

My organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), exists to connect the science and adventure communities and partner them to improve scientific knowledge and understanding around the world. Carl Battreall, one of our adventure volunteers or “adventure scientsts” is an Alaska based, professional mountain and glacier photographer who has explored and photographed over two hundred glaciers in twelve mountains ranges in Alaska.

His adventures take him all over the Alaskan wilderness and ASC has been lucky enough to be connected with him over the past year. Carl’s glacier images have been published in countless books and magazines and this past summer Carl started a multi-year project called “The Alaska Range Project” during which he will be collecting data for ASC ice worm and water isotope studies and ASC’s glacier photography project with Project Pressure.

Recently I was talking with Carl about his inaugural year of his project – the highs and lows – and how collecting data for ASC projects fit in. Carl responded by telling the story of the scariest day of his 15-year professional career in the mountains, and how his greatest disappointment was tied directly to his data collection efforts. To really get a sense though you need to hear it in Carl’s own words.

Shadow of Mount Church is projected in the clouds by the rising sun. Image taken during the June Alaska Range Project expedition. Photo by Carl Battreal.

From Carl:

I hate cold water. I always have. 

I hate cold water. I always have. I have never liked like cold swimming pools or swimming holes, no matter how hot the outside temperatures were. When I moved to Alaska, my dislike of cold water grew. I learned  that is was possibly the most dangerous thing in the state, more dangerous than the bears or avalanches.  Cold water was an unforgiving killer and I swore to avoid it as much as possible.

We were a group of four, on a two-week, fifty mile glacier traverse of the Neacola Mountains in Alaska. I was there to photograph the mountains and glaciers for my book project, The Alaska Range. I was also there to collect water samples for one of ASC’s scientific research projects.

It was on our second day that we came to a cold, glacial river that needed to be fjorded. We searched and searched for a decent crossing but weren’t having any luck. Finally, we found a spot. It was only ten feet across, but moving fast. We were all starting to shiver after attempting multiple times to cross in different locations. Quickly, we set up a pack line, Andy, then Patrick, Colin and me at the tail. We listened to Andy’s commands ” left, right, left, right!” I kept my head down, swearing to myself that I wouldn’t swim. We were hardly moving, I looked up and witnessed water boiling deeper up Andy, nearing his naval. Colin was shaking, so was I. And then it all ended.

Self portrait of the photographer collecting water samples from a unnamed glacier. Image taken during the June Alaska Range Project expedition. Photo by Carl Battreal.

Andy went first, in slow motion I watched him go by, down the river. Then Patrick, six foot four and 250 pounds, gone. Colin and I held our ground but it was useless, down went Colin.

I screamed, I was going to die the way I told myself I never would. 

I screamed, I was going to die the way I told myself I never would, via cold water.  The next thing I knew I was under water.Proper river swimming etiquette goes like this: Unbuckle your waist and sternum strap before crossing. Take pack off and sit, facing down river, feet up. You then use one arm to paddle to shore while the other arm holds onto your pack. What I was doing was text book alright, text book on how to die!

I was rolling sideways down the river, like a big rock. Under water, then above, under then above. I screamed for help each time my head was up. What had I done wrong? I had made a stupid, critical decision. I had kept my sternum strap on.

I tried to unsnap it while I was rolling but my hands were unresponsive and I was panicking.

“Shut up Carl, no one is going to save you. Save yourself.” My brain said, ignoring my cries for help. I struggled and got myself pointed down river, looked at the river and realized I was about to float near the shore, I flipped, swam like hell and clawed the bank, I made it.

Reflection of Mount Moffit. Taken during the September Alaska Range Project expedition. Photo by Carl Battreal.

Not all expeditions go as planned. This was the single scariest experience I have had in my fifteen years as a professional mountain photographer and explorer. In the end we were all fine. I ended up with two broken toes, sprained wrist and a bruised ego. However, the thing that disappointed me most was not that the trip ended early, or that I didn’t get any photographs for my project. It was that I was unable to collect the data I was supposed to for ASC. 

The thing that disappointed me most… was that I was unable to collect the data I was supposed to for ASC.

Working with ASC and their partner scientists has elevated my own project, adding extra significance to each expedition. I have six expeditions planned for next year’s Alaska Range Project and I am looking forward to continuing my partnership with ASC and contributing to as many scientific research projects as possible.

To learn more about Carl’s Alaska Range Project visit www.thealaskarange.com. To see more of his incredible photography visit www.photographalaska.com. Read an expanded account of the “Neocola Nightmare” on Carl’s blog. You can also keep up with ASC and all our adventure and science partners on our FacebookTwitterInstagram and Google+!

NEXTFrom Mexico to Canada: 5,000 Miles Under Human Power