I was too excited to sleep much. As quietly as possible, I arose, slid into my boots, and slipped outside.
Clouds swirled around the peaks that towered over me. In the distance, back toward Talkeetna, I could see a cloud front settling in. I grabbed my camera and snapped some shots of the drama unfolding before me.
There, in the middle of nowhere, I could not have imagined being anywhere else. Seeing the landscape, the light, the shadows, the clouds, the ice through my camera, only I existed. I was experiencing nirvana. Not in the Buddhist sense of course, but I can say with great certainty that while behind the lens that morning, I experienced perfect happiness. In that very moment, Russell, ten feet away from me, vanished (sorry Russ!). In fact, had he awoken and greeted me, I might have asked who he was.
The following are the shots I took that morning.
As if that majesty weren’t enough, the moment I put my camera away, clouds as thick as mud and as dense as cotton candy rolled on top of us and our vision was obscured for the next several hours.
When Russell woke up we made breakfast and coffee.
Today was intended to be a skills building and scouting day. We were going to ski to the cirque that held the Eye Tooth. That would give us a chance to practice our safety systems with far less weight. Provided it didn’t get too warm to safely build an anchor, we had talked about lowering me into a crevasse so I could practice some skills down there.
Then the fog rolled in.
Our plan turned as soupy as the fog and we just…laid around. I journaled. Russell slept on the sled. I slept.
It was a moment of complete surrender. The fog was too thick to leave our camp. We could hardly see from the tent to the ‘mid. We therefore knew we could never navigate the dangers of the glacier, let alone a bergschrund. We would have had no idea whether or not we were even approaching the correct cirque. So we waited. I slept some more. I journaled. I slept.
Leading up to this trip, I had been somewhat sleep deprived. What with starting a new company and planning our then upcoming trips my girlfriend and I had been working somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 hours a week.
So I slept.
Eventually the clouds cleared and we decided to scout. It was at this point that we realized we had next to no beta for this climb. The route maps which would only help us once we were actually on the rock and whatever information we had committed to memory. The only piece of gear that either had forgotten was the guide book.
Granted, the original hardmen didn’t have guidebooks. But hey, we’re not the original hardmen. They also flew on scouting missions and had maps. We had none of that. It was all sitting in the pocket on the back of the passenger seat in the Black Beauty. Another strike against that wonderful cursed machine. The only information we had was the route maps; equally important information so we know what we’re actually climbing. The problem is that they gave us zero information about where the climbs were.
We made do. Based on our flight in and where Jok had told us the climb was, we figured it out. So we strapped on our skis, roped up, and took off. Immediately, my heart rate skyrocketed. I was so nervous I wanted to puke. Every little seam in the snow that we crossed I treated as gingerly as though I was walking on ice cream cones.
We arrived at the cirque without incident, crossing some mammoth crevasses. The snow conditions weren’t appropriate to build an anchor and drop me into one of them, so it didn’t happen.
Russell led the whole time. As he turned around to come back toward me, I asked him, “Want me to belay you in?”
He though about it. “Nah. I’ll be fine.”
Two seconds later: FWAP!
His ski plunged into a hole and he was on his face in the snow. Immediately I braced myself and belayed his rope taut.
“You ok?!” I could not belie the anxiety in my voice.
“I’m fine,” he chuckled, “It was just a rock hole.”
Rocks under the surface of the snow cause the snow and ice to melt much more quickly around them. This creates holes next to the rocks. These rocks can be house-sized. The holes around them can be quite deep. Luckily, the hole Russell fell into was itty-bitty.
He stood up and I belayed him to me, then back out again until he was leading and we were skiing. We arrived back at camp without incident.
We awoke around 9:00 to fog just like the day prior.
Each of us silently and vocally cursed the clouds. Today is the day. Eye Tooth. We ate breakfast, drank coffee, and discussed our strategy.
The Eye Tooth is 23 pitches (A pitch is often the length of a rope, about 60m, though sometimes more and sometimes less). 23 pitches is a HUGE climb, by any standards. We’re talking 2900 feet; that’s 200 feet taller than the tallest building in the world. Throw some glacier travel in the mix and we were looking at a minimum of a 24 hour adventure.
Neither of us had necessarily trained for this either. We were both in great shape, but not exactly 2900 feet of climbing great shape. Russell and I agreed that we would be totally stoked if we climbed to the top of pitch eleven and turned around.
Finally, after an agonizing three hours, the clouds broke. It was noon. We sorted gear and rested and packed and fiddled with gear some more. We ate dinner at 15:00 and left camp at 16:00 (We had to start our adventure at this time because leaving any earlier would have put is in much, much higher danger of falling snow and rock at the base of the climb).
After skiing uphill for nearly three hours, we arrived at a massive avalanche field. Hunks of snow and ice, six feet tall and four feet across, were littered across the top of the cirque we were in. Later, from high up on the climb, the avalanche field looked like a great alluvial fan opening up into some sort of delta. We ate some food, took off our skis, and began to look for the line, exactly.
I got out my field glasses and my route map and my camera and we compared all three to one another. We deliberated for twenty minutes before actually heading over to the climb.
The mind is a funny thing. Both of us were looking at what we thought was the route. But neither of us was certain. However, we both so badly wanted what we were looking at to be the route that we convinced ourselves that it was the route. I’d been in a similar situation once in Yosemite. It resulted in sketchy, mungy, dirty, mossy, chossy leads, downclimbing that same garbage, and eating salami and drinking beer at camp. Luckily nobody was hurt. But read any mountaineering accident report and you’ll find that it is always a series of small errors that lead up to a major accident. A small error such as leaving the guidebook in the car.
Fairly confident that we were in the correct cirque and staring at the route we intended to climb, we set off on foot across the avalanche field. Once we arrived at the wall, which included climbing 45 degree snow, we knew for certain we were in the right place. It was 20:00.
The route commenced with 5.10b and 5.10a roof (At this point there will be a lot of climber jargon. For that I apologize). At the crag, those are both totally doable climbs. But we weren’t at the crag. We had flown into this place in an airplane that landed on skis. Because neither of us had really been training for this adventure, we didn’t feel very confident. Risking a fall so remote would have been really stupid.
This route was established in 1994. Since then a lot of snow has melted off of the glacier. Like an entirely new pitch worth of snow. A pitch that contains two 5.10 roofs.
We decided that the smart thing to do would be to climb the snow to the left of the route until we could find a more suitable attack onto the face. Russell found it shortly. I climbed up to check it out. It looked great. We climbed back down and grabbed our gear, climbed back up, set our anchors, and I began to climb.
By this time it was easily 21:00. There was still plenty of light, but it was growing colder.
I popped out onto the face about 20 feet above where the belay station is for the first pitch. Because of the convoluted route I chose, the rope had an insane amount of drag on it. Therefore I couldn’t climb down for a comfy belay and I couldn’t really climb up much further either. I built a delightful one-footed half-hanging belay.
“Russell! You are ON BELAY! Climb when ready!”
I put my parka and gloves on. It was definitely chilly. Russell picked his way up to me and decided to take the next lead. It was a fun 5.6 hands pitch with good protection in places. Like all alpine climbs it had some pretty runout sections.
By the time Russell belayed me up to his anchor it was 22:00. Two pitches in two hours. That’s not uh…not great. It meant that at that pace, it was going to take us until 8:00 to make it to the top of pitch eleven.
I led the next pitch and wound up meandering back around the corner instead of climbing on the face. The climbing there was really super fun. The highlight was a 5.8 or 5.9 box chimney that ended with pulling a couple of hand jams over a lip. Sweetness.
From there however the climbing deteriorated steadily. In fact, I was standing in dirt and gravel where I decided to build my anchor.
The light was growing dimmer. The synapses in my brain were firing more and more slowly. I checked my anchor twice, three times. Again, mountaineering accidents are little things that stack on top of themselves. The anchor was good. I belayed Russell up. It was currently about 00:30.
“Man, I’m starting to feel really tired. I had to check this anchor like three times to make sure I had it right.”
“Right on. What do you want to do?”
“I think we should climb out onto the face and rap down.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Let me go no further without saying that Russell is the man. We had decided together just about everything on this climb, including that we would split the cost of any gear we needed to leave on the climb, that after the second pitch I would lead, and that we would head down after climbing only four pitches. No ego, no whining, just smart heads-up mountaineering. Russell is the man.
Russell put me on belay and I climbed what was the shortest, most difficult, most aesthetic, and luckiest pitch on the climb. The pitch began with a left-trending lieback that had little protection. In spite of what I said earlier about risking falls in remote places, the truth of the matter is that sometimes risking a fall is inevitable. This was one of those times. I say this pitch was lucky for two reasons. First, I cruised that tricky little section, which was around 5.10. Second, I continued to climb fun mellow hand cracks with great protection until I popped out on the proper face and climbed around a huge flake that was slung with rappel slings. Hell yeah.
While I belayed Russell up snow flurries fell around me, clouds ducked in and out from behind the peaks. It felt like we were in Valhalla. Russ climbed up to me, we high fived, and started our rappel. It was currently 1:30.
Our last rappel took us straight down the first pitch that we opted not to climb. Man, did it look sweet. I had been right however, the protection around the roofs was marginal at best. Which would have climbed nearly 30 feet of 5.10 without protection.
We returned to the true base of the route but our boots were 50 feet above us where we began the climb.
Russell asked me for my rock shoes which were larger than his. Without hesitation, he slipped them on and began kick-stepping up the slope, without gloves. Russell is the man.
While Russell was busy being the man, the light played in watercolors on the peaks across the Great Gorge.
By the time we made it back to our skis it was sometime around 4:00. The ski down was more of a slog. This was now my fifth time on skis. We were roped together carrying 40 pounds of gear each. If I picked up too much speed, I ran over my rope and tripped. If I went to slowly, Russell wound up pulling me, which was not his job, and I usually wound up tripping.
I fell so often that I soaked my pants through. The absolute low point of this slog was one particular kick-turn. A kick-turn is a way to execute a 100 to 180 degree turn on skis by lifting a foot and swinging it in a giant arc, then placing it on the ground. In the midpoint of a kick-turn the skier should look like he is doing a plies. Then he swings the other leg around and voila! Direction change.
Well, after countless kick-turns and a completely soaking wet ass, I fell. Again. Only this time where I fell the snow was a little bit softer. I fell uphill and so was in the appropriate direction to right myself and begin skiing again. I pushed myself but could not get the leverage I needed. I pushed harder but the strength didn’t come. I pushed with all of the might I could mutter and peppered in a string of the most volatile curses I could summon to give more strength to my will. Nothing. I just sank further and got more snow down my pants.
“FUCK! FUCK THIS BULLSHIT! FUCKING MOTHER FUCK!”
Russell looked up with, for the first time on the trip, genuine concern. He thought I was quitting.
“I’m not quitting goddamnit! I just have to take off my fucking skis again!.”
“Ok,” he chuckled, relieved.
We got down the rest of the slope without greater incident. By the time we skied past the bergschrund, it was 7:45.
On the ski back to camp, neither of us spoke. We focused all of our will and strength on sliding a ski forward, placing our poles in front of us, pulling and pushing.
At 8:30 we arrived at camp. We dropped our gear on the sled, stepped out of our skis, and went into the cook tent. Wordlessly, we snacked on granola bars, almonds, and peanut butter. In celebration, we took a pull of Maker’s Mark. At 9:00 we crawled into the tent and slept.
We woke up at 15:00 the same day. We made some coffee, poured some whisky in it. We melted snow and drank copious amounts of water. We ate gummy worms, beans and rice, granola bars, whatever we thought we wouldn’t want later. We drank more whisky.
The sun shone marvelously around us. We basked in its glory like demi-gods aware of our near immortality. We drank the rest of the whisky. We plodded about in camp and hooted and hollered and dug holes and played like little boys out before dark.
By 21:00 we were asleep again.
Maybe it was the whisky, maybe it was the dehydration, maybe it was because we had slept all day, but I hardly slept that night. Around 00:00 it began to rain. We got out of the tent at 9:00. It continued to rain.
Our original plan had been to climb again this day. However, we didn’t know exactly where the route we intended to climb was located (no guidebook). We deduced that it must have been the line we could see rising directly up from the face nearest our camp. It looked doable and about the same length of the climb on our route map. We picked out features that the map indicated and decided that if the rain cleared up soon, we would give it a go.
The rain didn’t clear. Our window to climb the route came and went. We used the satellite phone to call and arrange to be picked up that afternoon instead of the following. We broke camp in the rain and skied back up to the runway. On our way, we found the biggest, deepest crevasse we could and hucked our bag full of poop into it.
I know what you’re thinking. “How irresonsible!” But, you remember the gruff, bald, mustachioed Ranger who dubbed us team Dragonbreath? His instructions were thus:
Find the biggest deepest crevasse you can and huck that sucker in there. I’m not talking about no six inch wide little baby hole, but a real big mamoo. Huck it good too. Don’t just drop it in there so it gets caught on a ledge or nothin’. You want that sucker to go waaaaay down there.
So, thats exactly what Russell did. I braced myself and belayed him out to within about two feet of the lip of a gaping maw of snow and ice. He swung the bag back and hucked that sucker good.
“Did it go all the way?”
“Oh yeah! I could hear it sloppin’ and knockin’ all the way down.”
The sun came out on our way up the Mountain House Runway. We unroped and got out of our skis. We sat and waited.
We got bored and skied up to the Mountain House. The Mountain House is a little hexagonal hut with six beds, a hibachi grill, and a wood stove. You can rent the thing year round. If ever you’re planning a trip to Alaska and want a mellow overnight excursion that is somewhat adventurous, I recommend looking into camping at the Mountain House; it’d be a lot of fun.
Anyway, a bunch of K2 planes came and went and David Lee from SAS came but his plane was full. We waited around for Jok who showed up with a representative from the FAA. She was there for a fly-along. She was kind enough but it meant waiting around for another 45 minutes while they walked around and took photos.
Neither of us put on sunscreen that day because it had been so cloudy initially. Then we figured that we wouldn’t be in the sun that long. Foolishly, I didn’t take a photo of our bright-red faces. It was about as bad as I’ve ever been sunburned.
The flight back to Talkeetna was really awesome. We flew directly over our camp. It was a blip on the surface of the glacier. What was home for five days would eventually melt away and be covered without any trace of use ever having been there. Jok showed us all kinds of cool stuff and explained this and that to us. The coolest thing was a moulin. The one we saw was huge and beautiful and bubbling and gurgling. Everything we saw on that flight stole my breath, from the glaciers to the creeks to the bogs.
When we landed, Holly Sheldon-Lee greeted us with a huge smile and water bottles.
“Hi guys! Im so happy you made it back safely! Listen, there’s moose-stew, and all kinds of other goodies back there you can help yourselves to! I didn’t have time to bake anything since you surprised us and came out early. I usually do that but I hope you don’t mind!”
Moose stew? Free food? Maybe she doesn’t realize how awesome that is for a couple of part-time dirtbags. She would have baked but didn’t have time? Just her telling us that was as good as eating fresh-baked apple pie in my book. We struck gold with Sheldon Air Service.
“Do you guys have a place to stay tonight?”
“We were planning to stay at the hostel again,” Russ replied.
“Ok, I’ll go in and call them and see if there are beds available for you.”
We unloaded our gear and a few minutes later Holly came out, beaming.
“Oh my gosh guys! Guess what! So there are these two climbers who have paid for beds at the bunkhouse but had to leave. The lady who runs the place is really old, so she won’t know the difference. You can just say you are those two guys!”
Russell and I looked at each other. “Sounds great!”
Holly took Russell into town to show him where the place was, it being a different hostel than the one where we had stayed previously. We finished packing our stuff into the Black Beauty, adopted our respective aliases, and cruised into Talkeetna.
Next time: The Fairview Inn, The Bunque Haus, The Bridge, and The (Other) Scam.