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Steamboat Magazine

Northern Exposure, Part 4

08/21/2020 03:12PM ● By Matt Tredway

Dan Smilkstein climbs a steep pitch on the Moose's Tooth with the expedition's ski tracks visible on the Root Canal Glacier below.

After a bumpy patch, Dan started out. I was back to the present, at least for a moment. I was focused – nothing would bring back the ATC, and there was a lot at stake now. This rock pitch was imposing. Rising up from the steep snow, we felt much more air beneath us than is typical of a first pitch. The pitch wasn’t clean, with the storm’s accumulation still choking the cracks. Dan took the pick of his ax and scratched around for a potential site for it. He managed to find a likely spot for a Camelot, inserted it and clipped the rope. Secure, he began to move on. Placing his foot on a snow patch on one side, it suddenly gave way and there was an immediate tug on the rope. Cam inserted into the crack, the system snapped into place, and the slip pulled us into the immediate present. We exchanged glances, and he started up again. Game on. As Dan disappeared from sight, the rope continued to feed through the munter. At last, l heard him call that it was my turn; he reeled in the slack, and l was on belay. I removed the anchor and traversed the steps to the rock. Now clean, l picked my way up the crack and cleaned gear as l advanced. Traversing the corner, l came to his belay spot. We were anchored into the granite wall, standing on steep snow.

Ahead of us was the first of several cruxes. It was described in the guidebooks as an ice pitch, but in reality it was anything but. The steep snow lead up to a 15-foot rock chimney capped with a foot-thick lens of ice. A difficult mixed pitch. Knowing l was still rattled, we restacked the ropes and Dan started up. “Strenuous,” “thin” and “exposed” are the words that came to mind. Dan is strong – always has been – and bold. I have seen him lead horrific rock pitches and scary ice. He wasn’t afraid, but l was, and I was just watching. He slowly maneuvered up the chimney, balancing delicately on his crampon points, and hooking tiny crystals in the granite. He found a potential spot for a screw in the recesses of the cracks…no good. He tried again and clipped the rope through after it was driven to the hilt. A cam was finessed into a small crack, but there wouldn’t be any more protection until he pulled the cap, which looked overhung. Several more delicate moves and he was leaned back to a near-45-degree angle, swinging blindly at the overhang. One swing, then two. He caught something solid and committed to the ax. Bodyweight now transferred, he swung his left tool to the same level. A stick, and he was secure above, but there were exactly zero footholds. Smearing with his crampons, he looked for anything that could take some of the weight off of his arms. His foot caught something long enough to advance one ax. Still hanging, he repeated the process to advance his other tool. Now high enough, he did a pullup to overcome the lip. I held my breath, waiting for these crampons to bite into the snow.

Moments later, Dan was moving up the steep couloir toward another anchor. It was my turn as the rope snugged on my harness. Following the same moves, l started up. The chimney sucked me in, and I felt the security of the rocky arms surrounding me. It worked, but created a big series of moves to get out and onto the ice. Keeping Dan’s moves in mind, l blindly reached out to catch the ice above me. One swing, fueled by adrenaline, stuck, and l pulled my feet out, scratched for purchase, and swung my other ax. Slowly I advanced my feet to nothing in particular and pushed. I had created a sort of wedge, with pressure on both sides. Using the static force of my feet, l locked off my left and wiggled my right tool out of its hold, then swung it to advance. I was so thankful not to be on the lead. Repeat, inch up, repeat, until I was able to kick a front point into the ice cap. I was through. I took a moment to breathe and get a grip on wild emotion. I climbed to the belay perch Dan had established, and continued up the couloir, now leading the next pitch. Later, when I asked him to recount the lead of overhanging ice, this is what he said:

“After we achieved the top of Pitch 2, we were looking up at one of the climb's crux pitches. I felt confident, and after gearing up, I did an upward right traverse on 60-degree snow to the base of a six-foot-wide ‘ice’ curtain that rapidly steepened to vertical. Moving up the curtain a few feet, I placed a long screw that went into what felt like Styrofoam-covered air. The screw pulled back out without a twist. Not good. A couple more feet up and then it felt more like ice. I was now 50 feet out from the belay without protection. A fall is twice the distance of the rope out: 2 X 50'=100'… but who’s counting. I excavated the Styrofoam-like ice, found good ice and placed a screw. Another three feet up and I found a small, horizontal ice-choked crack. I cleared this with the ax, and placed cams. Life was good, and now all I had to do was climb.  

“The ice ended in a hip-wide chimney that was capped ten feet above by a two-foot thick overhang and no opportunity of placing gear. I moved up high enough to make a blind swing with my left ax over the top of the ice cap. The first swing was not reassuring, but the second was solid. I locked off on the left and moved up high enough to swing with the right. It was a money stick. After four or five repeats of ‘swing, pull, frontpoint smear,’ I was standing on top of the ice. There was one more 80-degree section before the belay, but it was filled with ice and consolidated snow and felt like a casual drive in the country. Once I was secured on the anchor, I turned around and looked down 700 feet to our skis in the bottom of the Root Canal, then outward to the immense panorama of the Alaska Range. The answer to the question, ‘Why do I do this,’ was temporarily answered.” 

The snow was solid, but it resided in the gray area of not-snow-but-not-ice. It was solid, but not enough to accept an ice screw. I wondered how this ice and snow was actually hanging on to the steep, rocky slope. My feet wouldn’t fully penetrate to provide a full step, but I wasn’t just resting on my front points. While I was thankful to have a little more footing than ice, my calves would still be burning soon from exhaustion. Each swing of an ax created a puncture wound that l would draft with my feet. The days on Mount Werner were paying off, and despite the setbacks we were moving quickly and efficiently. On the lookout for places to insert gear on the rocky fins on each side of the couloir, l continued upward. I was comforted by the presence of the long pickets attached to my pack, knowing that if l felt rattled at any point, I could pound in one of these three-foot monsters and clip off. Nearly at the end of my rope, l spied an anchor in the rock left by a previous group. I veered to the right, clipped the anchor with a daisy chain from my harness, and gently tested it. Bombproof. I tied the munter hitch, clipped it, and began to belay Dan up the couloir. It was a long climbing pitch, but it went smoothly, and soon he passed me by. Instead of taking up his slack, l was now feeding it out as he advanced. The occasional change in terrain changed speed, but we climbed strong, swinging leads as we advanced. The simul-climbing of water ice pitches all winter had given us strength and confidence.

It didn’t take long before we were 1500 feet up the route. There was only one crux left, then relatively easy and protectable climbing. With the storm, we had no illusions about topping out the peak. That four feet of powdery snow was still sitting on top of the ridge. The avalanche danger would be the primary reason to avoid this, but the physical nature of wading up the slope was equally ominous.

After hours of climbing the steep rock, ice and snow, we had arrived at the fabled crux. The accounts we had read of the next 60 feet were varied and inconsistent, screaming of the fluctuating conditions at different times. Of the three possible routes through this section, one was an alpine ice section that rated AI4. l set up my belay in clear vision on this section. The ice was nonexistent for the first 20 feet, then incredibly thin to the top. In most places, it looked sublimated and rotten. It was doubtful it would take screws, and the rock didn't look like it would take gear. It was impossible to fathom that after the fierce winter we had endured, this ice wouldn't have formed up. What is needed for the formation of alpine ice anyway? Well, usually an ample amount of snow above the pitch, and days of repeated freezing and thawing. Melt, flow, freeze, repeat. Of all years, conditions should have been perfect, but still, l was looking at a bony remnant. This was a marked departure from some of the photos we had seen online. In some years it appeared as a huge drool, which wouldn't get a second thought. Now, the rock that would need to be scaled to even reach the ice looked loose and flakey. If l did get that high, I doubted l could get back down in the event of it being impassable. I was hoping for better news from Dan's viewpoint on the other side of the granite spur that split the couloir. “This shit isn't in over here!” l yelled. “The bottom is out, and the top looks like opaque swiss cheese…What do you have?”

He relayed that he saw a passable rock section that extended up for the first 50 feet. By passable, it would mean climbing 5.9 rock on crampons and ice tools. Expected. The crux was a mushroom of snow at the top of the pitch that overhung the entire section, possibly as a result of the past week's storms. Unexpected. How to scale that soft bulging mass was a mystery. We knew the snow wouldn't hold either of our bodyweights hanging on an axe. We could possibly get to the top and tunnel through, but what if the entire mushroom fell? It would take us out. Both of the options had serious pitfalls. Of all the problems, none was greater than the fact that the protection was thin or nonexistent. A fall here would be long, and all the impact would transfer to the belayer and the anchor. “Not great,” Dan said. “Not sure if there is an exit point.”

The Howse peak climbing tragedy in Canada’s Banff National Park from the previous month played out in the back of our minds. The world's strongest and best had pushed the envelope and paid the ultimate price. David Lama, Hansjorg Auer and Jess Roskelley had completed probably one of the hardest, most significant climbs of recent times, and were hit by an avalanche on their descent. There were no survivors. The climbing world was blindsided with grief. Not to compare the routes – theirs being so much more severe – but any Alpine setting is unlike a sport-climbing area, where friends are available to rescue you at any given moment. We were unsupported. In fact, our friends from basecamp were not visible on the route, having turned back earlier in the day. We were alone.

There was a long quiet period, as we each scanned the vertical puzzle above us, looking for a weakness that would be protectable. Was there a way to get through the worst of it? The more we studied, the greater the shortcomings of the conditions appeared. Could we have climbed it? Yes, but we would be flipping a coin as to a potential fall… And a fall in that place was not acceptable. The thought of lowering my injured partner – or him lowering me – down a few thousand feet of ice was enough. 

We had an exhilarating, huge alpine day in one of the world's most dramatic arenas. We had tested ourselves on so many levels. It was true alpinism: We were alone, climbing a freshly purged route, making all the decisions and climbing at exactly the pace we wanted. It had been a stark contrast from Denali, or Everest, or other popular peaks that literally crawl with people like a Disney attraction. We lingered, we celebrated the view, we took off the heavy packs and ate food, drank our bottles down. We took photos, savoring the moment and our accomplishments. A TAT plane flew in and left as we were clinging to our high perch. We could barely discern the actual aircraft, but its shadow swept across the surface of the glacier. Soon the tentacles of cold overcame our previously exercise-heated bodies, and it was time to move. The sobering reality of rappel after rappel without my belay device grew.  

Downward, Dan used his belay device, and used the double munter. It was slow. In 200-foot blocks, we rappelled. Taking turns, we would regroup at an anchor, pull the ropes from above, and restring through a new anchor. Coiling and throwing the ropes, we prayed for no knots or tangles, but the munters are built to cause twists… and they did. With each rappel, we untwisted, coiled and hoped for the best before the next toss. Then we would clip in and descend. Another, another, another. At some point, l got a mental block about trying the hitch that l had been using all day. We carefully checked anchors, knots, locking carabiners and ropes at every start. At one point, before I leaned back, Dan's scan noted that a small wired nut, a critical portion of the anchor we were about to load, had popped free and was dangling from the webbing. Adrenaline and instantly sweaty hands accompanied the pounding in of the anchor. ‘Remain vigilant,’ I reminded myself. ‘It’s not over ‘til it's over.’ At one point, instead of continuing downward, the route required us to go sideways across the top of a rock face. It was terrifying, as a slip would certainly swing us down and over the face. We would still be tied in, but hanging in the air trying to figure out how to ascend the rope and get back to the snow face. On our last rappel, I watched Dan descend down the steep snow face and disappear over the last cliff band. Moments later, a huge wet-slab avalanche followed him over the cliff. There was a terrific roar, followed by silence. I screamed down to him, “Are you OK?!” Again, no response. I quickly tied in and descended our red ropes. Down 150 feet, tucked in the back of a small enclave, Dan had found a small spot to hide and was unscathed. In fact, he had found an old piton to clip into. Had the timing been off by just seconds, he would have felt the full force of the slide. As l reached that point, l noticed our ropes actually reached the ground, and so continued my repel. Feeling exposed, and wary of another wave of snow, l kept descending the last 50 feet. Safely on the snow at the base, it took some effort to swing the ropes back to where Dan could grab them. It was much more effort, still, for him to pull the ropes, regroup and descend the last 50 feet. In retrospect, I probably should have stopped at that point with him, but at the time continuing on seemed logical.

There was a short posthole trudge across the glacier to our skis, dragging the ropes behind us in the snow. Once there, we coiled the ropes in silence, regrouped our gear, loaded our packs and skied toward camp. There was no fanfare. The experience was still intense in our minds. We reached our camp feeling the full effects of the day as our adrenaline surge subsided. We were satisfied with our efforts and decisions, but sorry the route did not lend itself to a safe ascent that day. From the camp, the entirety of the route seemed to continue to stare us down as we drank tea and tried to catch up on calories from our food bags. I imagined the route to be sizing us up, as we had done to it for so many hours. There wasn't much to say, really…we would spend days re-climbing the Moose's Tooth in our minds.

Hours later, a satellite phone conversation put Dana and Mo at ease, maybe for the first time in a couple of weeks. Another call to TAT indicated that the weather could hold in the morning, and we could be extracted, so be ready. We proceeded to eat heartily – no more rationing. Discussions with Jay and Melissa revealed that the first overhanging ice was more than they wanted to do that day. They were happy enough to be on the mountain and decided to retreat at that point.

By slowly packing the nonessentials, we did lots of work before crawling into our bags. Here on the Ruth, there were no forms of life. It's a world of snow, ice and rock: cold and harsh. In the lower elevations, things were coming back to life, the earth warming and turning green, the snow melting and water running freely. Tomorrow we would be flying back to the green. 

The day started out clear, and we packed quickly. Loading into packs and sleds, we skied down to the snowy runway. The time was 10:30 a.m., and a 12 p.m. departure had been discussed. Slowly, high cirrus clouds began to lace the blue sky. The precursor to a storm. No one mentioned these, though we all noticed and understood the implications. As the morning passed, the cloud-cover increased. By 11:30 a.m., a layer of stratus has moved overhead, blue sky had disappeared, and tiny ice crystals began to fall. The cloud ceiling had fallen steadily. At noon, l started to consider where l might put my tent for another night. Landing on the glacier requires, among other things, line of sight and a window to escape. There have been stories of planes landing on the snow, then not being able to take off for a couple of days. Climbers are much more suited to extend their stay than pilots are with their planes. Pilots will take no chances in that regard. Years previous, l had arrived for extraction at Denali, only to wait a couple of extra days for the weather to open up. 

Now, the conditions were deteriorating by the moment, and the wind was picking up. I quietly put our chances at less than 50%. When l saw the plane bust out of the clouds, l could not have been more surprised. It may as well have been a dragon from “Game of Thrones.” I had rationalized that we would probably need to dig in for a few more days before the next weather window materialized. All the while I had been mentally calculating how much food we had left, and cursing myself for eating like a pig the night before. Elated was an understatement.

For some, there is not a clear understanding of the sport. Certain people, climbers and non-climbers alike, become so fixated on a summit that it becomes the only acceptable outcome. “Did you stand on top?” they ask, and should l reveal, “Not this time,” there is a look of disappointment that washes over their faces. “Well, sorry you wasted all that time, and it wasn't successful – maybe you can try again.” It is difficult to explain that an expedition is not a waste of time, that it's all part of the same thing. Being in the mountains and putting it all on the line is a success in itself. The summit is only a few minutes of a massive experience. Exhilarating? Yes. A goal? Of course! Worth taking fatal chances for? Hmmm... All the climbers l surround myself with share the same thoughts on this: all think we should live to climb another day. And if you get to the point that a summit is all you can celebrate, then there are bound to be long periods of discontentment in your life, only briefly interrupted by summit stories. Summiting focus drives bad decisions, and ultimately accidents. The saying, “There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers,” rings true to a degree. We all put it on the line to an extent, but where you care to draw the line becomes the distinction.

Now at home, and basking in the afterglow of a sweet expedition, a Jonny Woodward quote comes to mind and resonates with me: “By itself, climbing means nothing. How it influences our lives beyond the crags means everything.”