It happened so fast Robert Maiman lost all sense of time and continuity.
He and his partner, Dave Stephens, were skiing up the Athabasca Glacier on approach to the Columbia Icefield in the Rockies for a four-day ski mountaineering trip in May, 2001. Deteriorating weather left visibility just sufficient enough for the pair to navigate through the gauntlet below the cliffs of Snow Dome to the north — a site that regularly sends giant chunks of serac ice crashing onto the glacier below — and the crevasse-riddled icefall to the south. Despite having the third member of the group cancel at the last minute, and knowing the added risk of being just two on the glacier rope, the pair, who had skied the route before, decided to go anyway. With their camping gear carried by two, rather than three, their packs each weighed 30 kilograms. Thirty centimetres of fresh snow and a howling wind made travel difficult as they skinned uphill.
Skiing in the lead, suddenly Maiman's world turned dark.
"It was so abrupt; it was a complete loss of orientation, of all reality," Maiman recalled. "I was fully conscious, but everything was black. It all happened in a matter of seconds, and I was looking for clues. Then I saw a glimmer of light out of my left eye, and I realized I had my goggles on, and that was making everything darker. I started putting two and two together — I'm falling! Why am I falling? I saw the bottom of the crevasse rushing up to meet me and YANK! The rope stopped my fall and I slammed into the crevasse wall about five metres above a ledge."
Dangling in the cold dark space with his skis still on, Maiman felt sharp pain as he hung in his harness with the heavy pack on his back.
On the surface, Stephens watched in disbelief as Maiman disappeared and the rope connecting them zippered into the glacier, stopping just three metres ahead of him. Quickly Stephens built an anchor, securing Maiman from falling any deeper.
"To say I was freaked would be an understatement," Maiman said. Collecting his thoughts, he inserted an ice screw into the crevasse wall and managed to remove his pack and hang it from the screw.
"Taking off the skis turned out to be quite a chore as well," he said. "I figured I was about 12 metres from the sunlight above. I was in a slot about 20 metres deep, 12 metres long and two metres wide. Wild ice sculptures at either end and above made me cringe. I could see that the reason I fell so far was because we had been skiing parallel to this crevasse."