Kick, Kick, Swing
Just don’t look at it. It’ll be like it’s not even there. Besides, I’m not even the superstitious type, right? Right. So why am I so transfixed? Okay, just say a prayer. Wait, what the hell am I talking about, I don’t pray either. Calm down. That’s it. No not like that, definitely not like that. Look up, crane your worried head towards the sky, being sure to ignore the fact that most of the sky is currently blocked from view. Look at the route. Why did it even come up here anyway? This is in absolutely no way, shape, or form the proper place for a bird. How did it eat, sleep, shit (okay maybe that one’s not too much trouble, although when you factor in the eating issue…), procreate, enjoy, sing happy songs? It shouldn’t be here. This isn’t a place for the living. But I am here.
The carcass of the finch or wren or whatever it once was lay quietly in the snow just a few hundred feet below the bergschrund.
Oh how the stories always seem to go, running in their flaccid chronology from Beginning to Middle to End. Somehow this felt different, right from the middle on out. A chaos was fashioned by our frazzled heads into some kind of workable order; a plan born of a dream. The memories come fuzzy at first, even after just a few days as I sit here in the Spartan-like bunk in Talkeetna, lucidity more of an after-effect than an actual feature of the events. The buttress was huge. No, enormous. No, it was gargantuan, behemoth, grandiose while at the same time entirely understated. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, not at first, or second, or third. Possibly fourth. We spent our time in camp staring, and when we weren’t staring we were imagining. Hunter dominated.
We had received a healthy dose of type 1, grade A fun on the southwest ridge of Mount Francis. Starting a climb in the dead of night (11:40 to be more or less precise) was a novelty and immediately enjoyable. The broken ridgeline went down in the first round, KO’ed so to speak. We surprised ourselves with how quickly we moved through the cruxes, all of them easier than advertised. Above the rock, a snowy arête led us to the false summit where we were forced to turn a cornice to gain the slopes leading to the true terminus of the mountain. This final bit of snow was rendered especially exciting for me after my crampons had taken a tumble down the mountain, somehow freeing themselves from the elastic confines of the bungee cord on the outside of my pack. Note: when your pack is not full, DO NOT, under any circumstances, lash your crampons to the outside of it. They will fall off. At the top we spun ourselves around in dizzying circles trying to take it all in. Denali, Foraker, and of course, Mount Hunter lay all around us in full 360. “The big three,” we had muttered. I chuckled inwardly at the ineffectualness of our chosen descriptor for said three.
We had climbed Radio Control Tower first, several days before, in lovely weather. The idea behind doing this, we were to gather upon reaching the crest of that rather tiny knob, was to give the scale of the place a chance to sink in. We watched through binoculars as the “Bibler Come Again” exit at the top of the headwall was positively pummeled with spindrift.
The North Couloir on the Mini Moonflower had taught me the importance of proper nutrition. For our first “real” climb in the range we awoke at 2:00am and downed 200mg of caffeine, first thing. I am a caffeine “noob”. I do not drink coffee, at least not enough to speak of, and when I do drink tea it is usually devoid of the stuff. After our first simul-block I felt empty headed and jittery, my stomach doing little pirouettes inside the hollow cavity of my gut as if to say, “Look what you did to us, you shithead.” Several pitches higher, the cramps started in. My limbs took on the appearance of worms left to dry in the sun, shriveled and useless, while my face twisted itself into an unrecognizable grimace. It was, in a word, unpleasant. These (the cramps) lasted the duration of the climb and the rappels. It must have been an amusing sight as I hunched over, completely unannounced, in surprising pain. I thank JD for not pointing and laughing. This hard-learned lesson was one I would need to retain, and I reminded myself of it incessantly.
Etymology: < medieval Latin dēprīvātiōn-em, noun of action from dēprīvāre to deprive v.
a. The action of depriving or fact of being deprived; the taking away of anything enjoyed; dispossession, loss.
Enter dead, inspiring, frightening bird. Ambition was here, quite possibly too much. I wondered about our own fortitude. We had made (relatively) easy work of climbs that would not too long ago have been a very serious undertaking. It’s always difficult to say whether or not one is truly ready for a challenge that they know could very well be out of reach, just beyond the grasping. We approached in the fading light, trading words that seemed empty compared to what we felt inside. I told JD, “The person who lives in certainty never really lives,” and I tried to make those words my reality, embracing the expansive unknown that lay in wait. I felt both light and improbably burdened. We moved slowly on approach, sweating as little as possible to conserve precious water reserves. I remembered my Mini Moonflower schooling. No cramps, no cramps, please, oh please, no cramps. I pictured the height of the climb and then attempted to imagine how many of me that would equate to, height wise. Utterly useless. Better to just turn my brain off. Easier said than done. The surface of the glacier had stiffened with the setting sun, now crunching underfoot, and I hoped the crux would exhibit a similar response. I thought back to my childhood, the story of the little engine that could. I will be that engine, at least until I can’t. More crunching, or slipping, our skis making a zipping sound as we glided toward the hulking mass of granite, plastered (hopefully well enough) in snow and ice. To our left were our newly made friends, themselves off to attempt a north buttress route. We wished them luck in the form of ridiculous cheering and vigorous arm flailing, ski poles held aloft, and began our climb.
“You’ve got this man. You eat pitches like this for breakfast. You are the mixed master.” JD looked over to me appearing unconvinced.
Roughly 1,000 feet down we had crossed the bergschrund leaving our deceased friend behind. (Neither of us mentioned the bird to the other until afterwards.) JD had offered to lead on the first simul-block, taking us over 60 degree alpine ice with the occasional mixed move thrown in. A bit of near vertical powder kept things exciting and in short time I reached his belay. He handed the rack over and I started up the next pitch, intent on continuing to simul. “It doesn’t look so bad from here, kinda scary but I think we can both climb.” In the next ten feet I had drastically altered my position, both literally and otherwise. I yelled down to JD that, in fact, we would most definitely want to pitch this bit out. The rotten ice seemed barely attached to the wall, threatening to rip completely off with any serious swings or kicks. I muttered sweet nothings to myself and tiptoed up the runnel, placing mental pro in the mank. At the belay I unclenched my brain and swallowed heaps of air. JD followed quickly and after another easy pitch of actual ice we were at the crux.
Ping! “Good pro!” he yelled. I could feel the relief, albeit short-lived, that hit him. 30 feet of run-out, strenuous mixed ground saw JD kicking away bits of snice that guarded a seam in the back of a kinda/sorta compacted granite corner. I tucked myself further behind a cleft of rock and cowered, watching big chunks sail past. He stopped after each move to shake out, never letting the lactic acid build up, fighting away pump like a cornered animal. Two and a half hours had passed when I heard the call of “off belay”. It was now 5:30am. I sprinted from my sheltered stance, desperate to make up some time. Sprinted, that is, until I hit the brick wall of the crux, screeching to a halt at the start of the seam. It was maddeningly discontinuous, providing small openings with improbable stretches of blankness in between. I thought that maybe this section had been aided on the first ascent, Twight or Backes standing high in aiders and slamming in angles with half a body length separating them. I ripped out several useless pieces of protection and fought the pump myself, trying to climb quickly while still maintaining some semblance of control and poise. Several crystals exploded as I attempted to put some weight into my front points and I screamed. The two and a half hour lead now made quite a bit of sense. Pulling into the ice above, I gasped, having assumed that the difficulties would subside. While the climbing was physically easier here it was at least twice as dangerous. A bulge of overhanging mush guarded me from the belay. I sunk my tools to the hilt and lurched. I could hear my pulse ringing in my ears. Above me reared another 50 meters of the stuff. It was my lead.
|Brett leading 75 degree neve during the short night.|
|following the crux pitch.|
|Above, Brett led another section of 95 degree Neve and ice.|
I left my mind as we left the first ice band and I became only legs and arms, swinging and kicking with the rhythm of the air. We churned skyward. Now roughly 1500 feet up, the first signs of fatigue had begun to set in. My breathing was deep but steady, not yet ragged and frayed around the edges as I was sure it would be later on. It was spectacular. This second rock band was a nice reprieve from the difficult climbing we had just dispatched, a chance to regain ourselves. We simuled once again, flowing over ice with interspersed mixed ground, the terrain virgin as of that point in the season. JD led and placed gear as sparingly as seemed prudent in an effort to make the block as long as possible. When he finally called to me that I was on belay we had climbed several hundred feet up the ramp. I followed to him and took what remained of our rack (very little) while he switched me over. Our transitions had become seamless and neither of us felt the need to say anything. The slab of ice seemed unending and I breathed a sigh of relief as I crested the final bulge and a thin neve arête came into view. I scampered to it, leaving a screw at it base. The screams of my calves subsided to a dull roar. Another 100 feet up and I had reached a cluster of rocks for the belay. Around the corner lay the second ice band; a chance to sit on the bench and suck down some much need nutrition. After a short while we had settled there. The stove hissed its approval of our quick progress and we gulped down water. New strength surged in us and we were further buoyed by a hot meal. JD pulled out the radio and made a call to our friends, who had long since turned around and gone back to base camp. We were given the forecast as we rested. “It looks like things will hold until sometime Saturday. It’s hard to say when, it could be sometime in the night or you could have good weather until tomorrow morning.” We looked at each other and then gazed towards the sky. Thin clouds streamed overhead while a substantial bank built itself in the far off distance. We had time. “I think we are going to try for the top of the Bibler exit and then start rapping,” JD replied. The radio crackled to life once more.
“Sounds like a prudent decision.”
I had left the ice screws. This bit of wasted time stung my pride and after bringing JD over to obtain them I felt obliged to make up the minutes. I searched for pro and found none; I searched some more. Finally, a hidden crack presented itself: a solid cam. I roared towards the final slabby chunk of the pitch. The ground was easy and I was on fire, or rather my ass was, the flame underneath it lit by both my previous mistake and our high position on the face. Now above the short crux of the third rock band, the sun gleamed off of the leftward angling snow ramp that would bring us to our finish. It was hot. It was too hot. The snow here was the consistency of mashed potatoes. Although it would be easy to climb in terms of technical difficulty, we both worried about the structural integrity of our medium. I needed to get us through this fast, I quickly realized. The thought of wet slides crossed my mind. I acknowledged it and then buried it. Worry would do us no good, now was a time for decisive action. “I’m gonna try to take us all the way to the third ice band!” I yelled to my partner. I looked at the gear left dangling on my harness. It’ll be a stretch.
“34 hours,” I had told him. “Although none of it was planned. I wonder if that makes it better or worse?” We discussed our previous longest pushes without sleep over a meal; less of a pissing contest and more a means of ascertaining just how long we could go this time. I thought back to those 34 hours. They had been soul-crushing, pushing me to my absolute physical and mental limit, and we hadn’t even been doing any technical climbing for at least half of it. I stole a furtive glance at the Buttress and wondered.
We turned the corner and stepped into a different world. The snow that had been deep, slushy wallowing on the third ramp was here a chalky powder improbably clinging to brittle ice. We slowed significantly, quite possibly the result of pushing just a bit too hard on the aforementioned ramp. What had earlier been mere wisps of water vapor began to coalesce into full blown clouds. Precipitation was still only a possibility, if an ever growing one. To the west, base camp barely registered, a series of insignificant blips in an expanse of white. The irony of our “remoteness” on this unceasing mountain face was not lost on me. Kick, kick, swing, kick, kick, swing, kick, kick, swing, swing, swing, swing, swing, swing (well fuck that) swing, kick, kick, etc. We crawled as the minutes raced. Upon reaching the belay it was decided that I would take the Bibler Come Again exit, hold the thrutching please. The offwidth crux loomed above and beyond my line of sight. I detested offwidths, these being the sorts of pitches that made my reptile brain squirm nearly as intensely as my body always seemed to while climbing the damn things. I began. Thin ice runnels snaked their way through nearly entombed granite blocks. In the back of my mind an awareness of our somewhat outrageous position as well as the building weather bank sounded quietly but continuously, like tinnitus that (I hoped) had not actually come to afflict me. The crux reared its head and we dueled. Lance and sword-less, I settled for terrifically mediocre offwidth technique and oh-shit strength. I had been informed that the crack adjacent to the offending one would provide excellent hand jams. I had been informed wrongly. My breath quickened as I realized that was supposed to be a hand crack was, in fact, a thin hand crack. I could only fit one knuckle into the maddening gash even with my thinnest pair of gloves. The offwidth assumed an air of friendliness, the ice tucked into it all but audibly inviting me to “climb here”. We topped the Bibler exit at 9:00pm, 21 and ½ hours after leaving the bergschrund. It had started to snow on top of the semi-constant spindrift. We made our decision.
A play by play account of the descent is, I’m sorry to say, out of the question; far too much bonking and all that. This being said:
Wind whipped snow down at us with zeal and we hurried our pace. We devised a system that we would end up repeating 20 or so times:
- Designate someone (in this case JD) to spearhead the retreat.
- Person 1 (i.e. JD) rappels first, setting an ice screw anchor and a v-thread on arrival.
- Person 2 (it should be obvious) goes on to rappel, removes the ice screw anchor from the soon-to-be-former engagement, and descends to Person 1.
- **editor's note: nod-off repeatedly on rappel and slump onto your autoblock.
- Person 1 and 2 set to work on threading ropes, removing knots, pulling ropes, watching ropes fall, pulling ropes again but this time in a different direction, retying knots.
**Addendum: See Freedom of the Hills for the procedure employed when the ropes occasionally got stuck.
At the top of “the vision” we found ourselves the victims of unceasing and deafening spindrift. This victimization would become a theme of sorts. The creative parts of our brains were turned off and we became rappelling machines. A lack of food and water made this transition quasi-mandatory. We stopped after completing “the shaft” to take care of a few necessities. Snow was melted and bowels were moved. We felt much better. We moved into a dream world, each moment only loosely connected with the one before and after it. I felt like a zombie. Often I would be jolted awake by the call of “off rappel!” only to descend further and once again fall asleep on the anchor. With only two rappels to the bergschrund we found ourselves faced with a decision. JD rappelled straight down from the belay into a massive, blank rock scar. The word fuck rang through the hills. I put him on belay and he climbed back up to the anchor. I could no longer see any light in his eyes; my friend was a shell. We traded roles and I traversed across a ridge. Fixed tat! I rapped to it with what may have been hope growing in my heart. I could now see the bergschrund roughly one rope length below. JD joined me and I descended again. We were 20 feet short. I contemplated hucking myself across the five foot gap and then thought some more. Probably not wise, especially given your current skin-and-bones condition. JD managed to find some more tat to our left and he fed the ropes down to me. I fell directly into the maw, the ropes the only thing keeping me from being completely devoured. I clawed my way out and collapsed. Our skis, which we had left a day and a half ago, lay 500 feet down glacier. I managed to keel over with exhaustion five or six times in that distance. We reached our skis and shared half-hearted back slapping and congratulatory whooping. We were simply too tired to care much about anything other than sleep.
In the following days we regained our strength. My mind was still somewhere on the north buttress; day dreaming became my operative mode. We had climbed to the top of the wall, or at least the top of the technical difficulties. Our climb was, in essence, an attempt, a true ascent finding its terminus at the summit. This realization has not taken anything away from that day of climbing. As I boarded the plane to be taken back to Talkeetna I stole one last glance at the buttress. It gleamed brightly in the morning sun.
|leaving our first brewstop. heading for a short section of mixed climbing about 2500 feet up the wall, at the top of the 2nd iceband.|
|A beautiful hanging dagger above the ramp, futuristic. Is this the direct line that Edgar and Mills did in 2009?|
|Following the Bibler Come Again exit. The last technical pitch, an ice-choked 5.9 offwidth.|
|On rappel, after descending the Bibler-Klewin. The iconic "prow" pitch.|
I'd like to thank the Kellogg family and the Ritt Kellogg Memorial fund for making this trip possible.