Chapter I: How Bad Do You Want It?
On June 9th, our first day ever in Alaska, Max Hasson and I were treated to an incredible helicopter ride through the peaks of the Stikine Ice Fields. Our excitement rose as we passed the dramatic, scary north face of the Devil's Thumb, then peaked as the Burkett Needle appeared before us. Its steep, symetrical ridges culminated in a final tower of gleaming golden granite. Unbelievabley, it stood clear against a deep blue sky. Soon we were alone on the glacier with one of the most beautiful objectives I had ever seen before us. With splitter weather in place, we soon began the long task of establishing camp and packing fo an attempt on the needle. We would start as soon as possible.
All evening we scoped the route and studied carefully and seriously the glacier leading to its base. A quite broken glacier undulated towards the needle. Large crevasses were evidant, but so were the paths that avoided their depths. That all looked good, but it was the active icefall that gaurded the more gentle slopes of the glacier that caused the most concern. Out final decision was to take a line that was direct and safer than the others. It looked to be about AI3 and about 200 feet. Our plan was to simul quickly through this terrain and then regroup on the glacier.
Four hours later we are up, going through the motions of caffinating, hydrating, and eating. We each carry a pack. Our gear inluded a bit of food, clothing, a stove, fuel, a Black Diamond First Light, a skinny tag line, shoulder lengths and a small rack. The scale of Alaska immediatly struck me as we approached the ice fall. What looked so close was far, what looked small was big. We scrambled over loose rock running with water, kicked steps up a snowfield and then pulled out our tools and began climbing the ice cliff. The sticks were good, the movement of climbing exhilirating. I placed one of our two titanium ice screws and continued higher, through an ice tube and to the base of a 15 foot vertical step.
I placed our remaining screw, dispatched the last few moves and prepared to step onto the glacier. But then, to my utter disbelief, I wasn't on the glacier, but rather falling backwards, taking with me a blade of neve. I screamed like I have only once before, the other time also a long fall on snow and ice. With my gear 15 feet below boots and the slack rope between Max and I, the fall ended up to be about 5o feet. I slammed into ice blocks, bouncing, falling. I yelled "No, No, No!!!" until I came to a stop a few feet below and 30 feet to the left of a bewildered Max. In our many serious climbs together we had never had someone fall while simul climbing. I gathered my senses and came to three conclusions: I hit my head really hard, I bruised my left side pretty nice, and that despite of these things I could continue.
Now, before I worry (I'm sure I already do) any of you, I will say this: climbing is dangerous. I always do my best to eliminate or minimize risk. In my many years of climbing my accidents have been few and never have I taken such a fall in the mountains. Perhaps this knowledge is what had me back on lead withing five minutes. My heard hurt, but as I climbed higher I felt better, and soon was belaying Max off my tools. Hot as hell, I took my helmet off to remove a beanie and discovered my helmut was broken. Thanks God. Thanks Petzl.
We spent the next few hours cramponing through a maze of house eating crevasses.
Finally we arrived at the col at the start of the South Buttress. At this point we were both worked. Just hours before we had been in Peshastin! Since we left, it had been non-stop, with so much to do and little time for sleep. We needed to rest badly. Max set up the First Light while I started making water. It was about 11 AM and morning sun rays started washing away the pain and fear of the fall. I relaxed, enjoyed my spectacular position and let the melodies coming from our small radio restore my balance. After nearly three hours of hydrating, eating, and resting we pulled onto the stone.
"Unbelievable!", I yelled after sinking a nice jam on the first 5.9 pitch. I was more than impressed with the rock and the climbing. The glacier seemed like another day, a nightmare behind me. I was feeling good and it seemed Max was too. We climbed efficiently and made good time to the days first question mark.
On paper, the South Buttress of Burkett Needle has a handful of 5.10 pitches, many 5.8-5.9 pitches and one A3+ pitch. Although route descriptions we had read before the trip spoke of techno aid gadgets, Max and I racked up below the aid pitch with a selection of cams and nuts. We have never been limited by this simple rack, but in that moment I wondered if it would get us through. Our plan was to climb to the base of the steep section and try to traverse right on a beautiful stretch of face climbing. After establishing a belay we would pull the steep setion on its smaller right end. That was the thought at least.
Max led straight up from the belay and made technical 5.10+ moves above a funny blue alien. After this he cut right, surfing an awesome serious of features to a stance overhanging the Needle's gigantic SE face. I followed, impressed by Max's good effort on the pitch. It felt like 5.11 with the pack on, though Max and I later came to the conclusion that 10+ was a more appropriate grade.
I took us through 100 feet of golden, juggy granite and established a belay within 200 feet of the original route.
We climbed one amazing left-arching rope stretcher and found ourselves back on the original route. We had erased the question mark, establishing a three pitch variation to avoid the A3+. The rock had been generous again, rewarding our creative thought of traversing with just enough features to eek through. That it was so technically easy was a suprise, but a welcome one. Why tarnish a moderate route with one hard pitch anyway. This had to be one of the best 5.10+ climbs in the world I thought to myself.
The energy of freeing the aid section put us in a machine like trance of movement. We led each pitch quickly, placing little gear and swinging through belays without too many seconds lost. We shared few words, but rather lost ourselves in the great climbing. Finally, we arrived at the summit, a lonely platform thousands of feet in the sky. It was a great feeling to accomplish a goal that had been concieved of so long ago.
A night of rappelling placed us back at our tent. We brewed up, rested a few hours, and then treaded our way tenuousley down the glacier, finally reaching the valley floor after two rappels over the ice cliff. Back at camp we lounged, ate, and reflected on our experiance. In my mind I am struck by taking a bad fall and putting it behind me to finish the climb. Any other day I would have gone home after such an accident, but I wanted this one badly. Our tenacity paid off and I feel honored to have helped establish on the of most classy 5.10+ climbs in the world.
Stay tuned for Chapter II: A first ascent of a mountain we dubbed Silly Wizard Peak, climbed via the Thriller Arete