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Steamboat Magazine

Northern Exposure, Part 3

08/14/2020 03:03PM ● By Matt Tredway

There was a backup stove, but we really weren’t prepared for this. This was not part of the plan. The sound of a whirring stove on a winter trip is pacifying. Hours are spent whiling away the time while melting snow to create a never-ending cup of tea. The stove becomes the focal point of the camp, just like the stovetop or fireplace at home on a cold winter's evening. It was the last damn thing we wanted to ration. An hour into our expedition, that was where we found ourselves. The weather swirled in with a little more gusto. Exiting the tent, we unknowingly peered into our future. It was light, but the cloud ceiling had dropped. Big flakes began to fall. When we checked the time, it became apparent that the afternoon and evening had escaped us. 9 p.m.

We crawled into the tent, put on our blinders to blot out the incessant light, and slept. Soundly. The day had been a blur from roadhouse to the glacier. We were now isolated – in fact, l wasn’t sure we could escape from there on our own. The fuel bottle and satellite phone were both stuffed into the bottom of a sleeping bag for safekeeping on the soon-to-be cold, snowy night. These two things had instantly gained a critical status. In the back of our minds, we were thankful for the presence of the other two climbers on the glacier with us. Though we had not met, or spoken for that matter, we would.

Ensnared in mountain drama, I was reminded of Yvon Chouinard's words: “The word ‘adventure’ has been overused. To me, when everything goes wrong – that's when the adventure starts.” That’s where we were. On expeditions, you are also required to live in the present. There are so many things that can go wrong, including twisted ankles, spilled fuel, dropped water bottles, sunburn and melted coats or sleeping bags. The list of things that can derail a trip is endless. Focus is required; it's not a time to worry about the past or feel too anxious about the future.  

It is exactly those circumstances that define a good partner as well. When things are good, it's easy to be at the top of your game. In the face of adversity, character is revealed. We all want a partner that is steady under changing conditions. Calm, cool and experience are characteristics that can't be replaced. Not to say the occasional F-bomb doesn't fly – l know, because l let them fly regularly. A good partnership is greater than the sum of its parts, accentuating strengths and minimizing weaknesses.

I'm not sure it ever got dark. I woke up once very late needing to pee and it was still gray outside. As far as the pee, I did so in standard mountaineering fashion: I used the pee bottle, instead of crawling out into the elements and marking up the first place that I came to. In the morning this was to be deposited in a site away from camp, away from where we gathered snow to melt. The caveat, of course, is to have a very distinct bottle that can't be easily confused with the drinking bottle. Mixing these two up is not a good look. 

The tent rattled in the morning. The poles were straining against gusts of wind, and accumulation was evident in the form of drifts, visible through our thin nylon shelter. The temperature had dropped significantly from the previous evening. The distinctive smell of mountaineering gear and climbing equipment had disappeared during the night, and now it just had the smell of icy cold air. Emerging from the tent, we saw that the upper reaches of the route were swallowed up by the clouds currently dropping snow on us. The only sounds were tent panels flapping and the occasional screech of wind high above us. True to predictions, we were being spared the lashing of wind that existed everywhere else in the area. The Root Canal didn't have the length to funnel the long blasts of Arctic air, but it did gust and swirl. We were hit with the reality of the stove situation as we made our way into the snow kitchen. Our jetboil stove made quick work out of snow, providing enough boiling water for tea and oatmeal. We adorned the oatmeal with a little maple syrup and laughed about the TSA agent fighting us about the extra 0.5 fluid ounces. 

Both Dan and I were quietly considering the gas consumption amount, guessing how much we actually had in the bottle, and how much we had used. If we scrimped, could we make it ten days on the two bottles? We used these types of stoves a lot on our EOS trips, boiling meals for students for days, and I couldn’t remember ever draining one. Still, what a hell of a time to run an experiment. The morning progressed and found us organizing gear and food, locating the equipment we would need for the climb and digging in for what appeared to be a long storm. It snowed steadily, and the wind gusted intermittently. During the brief moments of stillness, we grabbed binoculars and examined the route from the camp. Our necks cocked back to an uncomfortable angle as we tried to see the upper pitches.

Rather than play the martyrs, we chose to visit the only neighbors within 10 miles. The four of us were there, riding out the storm. Isolated.

Jay and Melissa were from Anchorage. Two 30-somethings, they had been climbing hard for years and had just finished a 5.12 route on El Capitan, Yosemite’s showpiece. They had an organized camp and exhibited all the signs of being experienced mountaineers. A brief conversation and they immediately offered to boil for us. Heaven. This would allow us to create most meals using hot water from their stove, and we had fuel for days. No one would suffer or want for anything. Solving that problem was a massive load off our minds. We would continue to boil our breakfast water using our stove, but boil for a day's hydration using their kitchen. Grateful, we promised to right the ship when we had the chance.  

The remainder of our day was spent in our camp, drinking tea and reading. We watched for the weather text from Dana and any word from TAT. We hoped for a clear day the next day, and conditions that would help purge the route of accumulated snow.  

I put earplugs in to drown out the tent flapping in the wind, and the sound of the snow battering us. When l woke, the sides of the tent were mushed in. There had been a lot of snow during the night…I mean, a whole lot. Pushing from the inside, we reduced the strain on the tent walls, but it was apparent that we would need to shovel out. In no hurry to head out into a swirling storm, l slid a little deeper into my sleeping bag. During the night, l had turned 61. I didn't feel any different – in fact, I still feel strong. My first winter outing was an adventure with a friend when l was 12, in the mountains outside my hometown of Gunnison. I recall waking up on that cold mountain morning vividly, and honestly felt about the same in this moment. Now, however, I was sporting the obvious signs of a lifetime's wear-and-tear, the most apparent signs being the freshly injected cortisone in my right knee, and weather wrinkles on my face that resemble a Tennessee road map.

Climbing that day would not be an option, and probably not the next day either. Dan was out first, shoveling out drifts from the kitchen area. The light Black Diamond tarp had survived remarkably well, and we congratulated ourselves for down-tying it from the inside and placing multiple dead-man type stakes on the outside. The tent just needed a trough around it, which we created quickly. Breakfast was fast, and we reestablished a trail to our neighbors’ camp to boil. The trail had completely disappeared in the storm, so this time, after packing it in, we used the crevasse wands to mark our way. This ensured we wouldn't have to guess at its location again. The snow came in with a vengeance that day. 

May 10th, 11th and 12th were like the movie Groundhog Day. Each morning, we awoke to a fresh layer of snow, boiled and drank tea, ate our food supply down, shoveled snow, read and watched the sky. It takes a different kind of stamina to deal with relative inactivity. We forced ourselves to ski around the root canal glacier to explore its corners, stretch our legs and work our lungs during lulls in the storm. The weather was consistent with the exception of a night of 45 mph winds, and another night when the temperature dropped so low we had to add layers inside our -20 °F sleeping bags. When the sun would pop out, even for a moment, we watched the surrounding cliff faces purge. It was good to watch all this and understand just how exposed we would be on the route if any snow came down. All this time we were in contact with Dana, and Dan's wife, Mo, via texts on the satellite phone. In an effort to preserve the battery, we limited ourselves to checking at max twice a day, resisting the urge to do so more frequently. After four feet of snow accumulation, and being tent-bound for days, we were rewarded with the news from Dana: the sun would make an appearance for maybe a couple of days on the 14th and 15th. 

With lots to do, we started by skiing over to the runway, as instructed, digging out the sled markers, and skiing in a track to give a little definition to an otherwise blank snowfield. With the sun came possibility that TAT may show up with more climbers, and possibly a stove. We dug out the storage sleds, organized our ropes and racks, and started preparing for the climb.  

By noon, we were engulfed in sunlight. Hundreds of avalanches sounded off during the afternoon, each echoing off the cliff faces. The route was mostly purged. We heard the airplane long before we spotted it. It circled once, then landed in our little field. A group of climbers and a group of skiers piled out onto the fresh snow. We ventured over to talk, and specifically to see if we had received a stove. The pilot's first words were, “You need to move your camp back further. That's where those guys were killed a couple of years ago when part of the serac fell off.” ‘What the hell,’ I thought… ‘There is no way the ice could travel that far.’ I asked, “Really? We are a long way off, and it would have to travel so far up the slope to threaten us.” “Believe me,'' he replied, “l picked up the bodies.”  

It didn't really make much sense, and he was only suggesting a move of a couple hundred yards. But how dumb would it be not to heed this warning? It was going to be a lot of effort to move even a hundred yards in the new snow. We took the stove, thanked him and skied back to camp. The move was actually pretty easy in terms of tear-down, and Jay and Melissa, despite being farther away than us, moved as well. We resigned ourselves to just doing it. We also decided that we would just dig one kitchen to share between groups so that we could conserve energy. Moments later, it was underway. When it was complete, we had a platform that held both tents and a cook tent in the middle. Excited at the prospect of our new stove, Dan unpacked and got it ready. When he began to pump the fuel bottle, it started to leak gas everywhere. It was broken. Dan quickly removed the fuel and adjusted the O-ring. It was broken. No fixing it there – we had another broken stove. I was exhausted, and soaking wet from the powder and dig. A quick meal, and l was in the sleeping bag; Dan stayed up and visited with our new crew. That night, evidently, I rambled in my sleep. I carried on conversations that I can't recall at all, possibly as a result of an Ambien that I had popped to speed up the sleep process.

One of the climbing groups approached us with the prospect of making a plan. The group was led by a guide who said we should hold off from climbing the next day, as the route would be dangerous. He proceeded to tell us that he would go up to the first pitch with his client and examine the conditions in the morning. That actually interfaced well with our plans, and contented, we slept.

Up late by alpine standards, we watched the two advance on the Moose's Tooth. Roped from camp, they seemed to be overdoing it a little for a recon mission, but they were probably just being cautious. We watched them slowly move up the first snowfields, traverse the top of a cliff face, and head up to the first rock band. They kept moving. At that point, it became clear that they wanted to ensure they would be by themselves on the route. It didn't really matter, but we felt a little duped. Avalanches continued, and at one point the guide’s client was climbing through a choke and got hammered with spindrift. I was sure it would be a show-stopper, but they emerged, apparently unscathed. We stopped watching.  

They returned late and ended up well short of the top. A massive day, and considerable effort on their part. We were next. We woke early to hydrate, pulled together our last-minute gear, and started off. As we passed the guides’ camp, there were no signs of life. We glided across the valley on our skis and posted them up at the base of the outrun. There was a combination of thigh-deep powder and consolidated avalanche debris leading up the slope. In the early morning light, we started up. Struggling in the powder, it became apparent quickly that the only way to efficiently move up the steep snow was to follow the avalanche runnels. It felt faster, but we knew that all loose snow would follow the same route, as we had witnessed during the storm. We immediately felt the exposure. We simul-climbed the first 500 feet, until we reached the tiny perch at the base of the first rock band.

Shifting from leading to belay mode, l fumbled briefly with my harness to ready my belay device. The locking carabiner was hanging by itself. It was gone…Looking at the crevasse at my feet l was already sure what happened. I removed my pack and quickly searched for a backup. I always carry one for this exact scenario with my EOS kids. I had hauled an extra for days and countless miles, yet at this moment I didn't have a backup. “Holy shit, you need to talk me down right now, l’m freaking,” l implored Dan. We were quiet. ‘What are the implications,’ l thought to myself. Well, nothing big, I guessed, just safely belaying my partner up, and avoiding a 3,000-foot freefall as l rappelled myself down. I was rattled. Moments like these are what all the planning should allow us to avoid.  

This would not shut us down. There were so many ways to adjust. And the perfect climb is a unicorn…it just doesn't exist. I could go old school with the belay, using a munter hitch for the necessary control of the rope as Dan leads pitches. When l would lead, it wouldn’t be a problem. As far as the rappel, l could use the old school 6 carabiner breaker bar technique we taught at NOLS in the ‘70s.

Check back next week for part 4, and the conclusion to Matt Tredway’s story.