Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Reality Face: A New Route in the Alaska Range

I stand in awe. Axes plunged before me and a knee pressed into the slope, my eyes dart between Denali, Huntington, Hunter, Foraker, and my climbing partners. A sea of clouds cradles a sparse scene of blue sky, the highest peaks in the Alaska Range, and Seth watching Jared cut away part of Reality Ridge with our mini shovel. Descending the terrain ahead won't be easy, but I'm ready to take it step by step. The rope pulls at my waist as Jared climbs out of sight. Seth and I pick up our tools and follow him down.

Three days earlier, Jared and I had been ski touring around the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier scanning peaks for climbable lines and for Seth Timpano, our friend who was scheduled to fly in and join us that day. By evening we had found both. The sunset cast alpenglow on the Mega Mid as we took off our shades, looked each other in the eyes, and committed to leaving for our chosen route the following afternoon. High fives sealed the pact as icy air drove us to our tents, one last night in the big bags calling our names.

The sun beat down as we skied to the base of what we were calling Reality Peak. Finding the sweat line, I kept a deliberately slow and consistent skinning pace. Seracs crowned the tight cirque. I kept my head down. I knew they were up there. It wouldn't do any good to look at them anyway.
Seth and Jared about to start the route

Leaving our skis and starting up the route felt like a refreshing drink of cool water. The sun had left the east facing aspect and the snow quickly refroze as we swiveled around and over the bergschrund. Jared punched a staircase up 2,000 feet of steep couloir and then brought us into the gut of the mountain via snicy slabs. We brewed up below a 1,500 foot rock wall infused with a sliver of silver ice, a windy path up an otherwise overhanging bastion of stone. A full moon, and then twilight swept over the Alaska Range.
Jared navigates the 'schrund
Seth climbs the initial couloir

Still night. A few lights flicker in the south to remind us of where we came from. Now, our reality is all encompassing. It looms above us, around us, and inside of us. Ice, snow, fluted ridges, a crashing serac in the otherwise silent evening; the landscape sets itself deep in my being. We have accepted this mission and our trajectory is set for up. Up towards the ice runnels, the snow mushrooms that crown the face, the corniced ridge, the summit, and even the stars. For now, there is no end in sight.  
Jared leading snicy slabs into the gut of the wall

Gear passed hands as the stove purred. I took a pull off my Nalgene and put Seth on belay. Ahead, steep ice broke through dense, Sierra like granite. We hooped and hollered through four pitches of the best climbing an alpinist could hope for. Sticky ice made for one swing placements. When the way looked tricky, a perfect path would present itself. As each rope length revealed itself, our excitement grew. The ice burrowed through tight runnels and then opened a bit as it cascaded over steeper ground. I grabbed the rack and started kicking and swinging up a series of curtains. A moderate pitch put me below a snicier, steeper section. With my first swing came my first cramp. How could I be cramping? Did I not eat enough? Did I not drink enough? It didn't matter. Fighting the pump, I overcame the steepness and fired in a belay.
Seth heads towards the goods
Photo by Jared Vilhaur

"Have another pitch in you?". Jared blows out an ice screw as soon as the question passes his lips. "I think so," I reply. Doubt dances through my words, shaking my voice as it taunts my confidence. I reach for a GU in my back pocket. My arm cramps. Oh shit.  
Myself leading a steep ice curtain on day one
Photo by Jared Vilhaur

The next pitch tested my arms again. I had to rest on my tools. It frustrated me, but I was cramping and couldn't afford to smash my ankles on the ledge looming just under my junky snice screws. Pulling onto easier terrain I ran the rope out and spent too much time trying to find a belay. Finally, a funky cam, a mushy ice screw, a tiny nut, and a pin came together to offer a safe anchor. I leaned my head against the wall and pulled the rope up as Jared and Seth climbed below. A new day was rising and sunlight crept down the mountain before washing over us. We stripped layers, had a sip of water, and started a beeline through steep snow and ice chutes. We hoped the ridge had a place to set up our First Light as brew-thirty had passed long ago. We daggered up the slope and wondered, "will it ever end?".
Seth climbing past wild flutings to reach the summit ridge
Photo by Jared Vilhaur

I'm knackered. How long have we been on the go? Jared checks his watch and waves his arms to ward off the cold. "17 hours". I should have ate and drank more. How many times do I have to learn this lesson? I stumble into the saddle atop the 4,000 foot face we have just climbed.

"Let's get that tent up."

"It's time to brew."

"You're fine now, but don't step over there. There's a crevasse to your left, a cornice on the right."

Weather's moving in.

Arriving at the ridge we find a pleasant surprise. A roomy col offered an un roped bivy. We set the First Light up and crawled in, away from the cold wind that had joined us for the ridge climbing to the summit. Misty clouds swallowed the surrounding peaks and by the time we were in the tent, the white room was in full effect. 24 hours passed in a haze of cramped sleeping, careful snow melting, and trippy dreams. Like the old childhood game, "Red Light, Green Light", we awaited our signal to move.
Our bivy as seen while descending from the summit
Photo by Jared Vilhaur

Finally, out of the mist, the final 1,100 feet of Reality Ridge snaked before us. We quickly left the tent and packed each bag with a puffy jacket, a liter of water, and a few bars. A partial set of screws and some slings completed our arsenal. We snapped the rock gear together, threw it into the tent, and zipped the door shut. Immediately, the old Alaska adage rang true that everything is more difficult than it looks and takes longer than it seems it should. Before Seth had even stretched the rope out Jared and I were walking backwards helping him out of a crevasse. We bobbed and weaved through sugar snow, ice ribs, flutings, and a lonely rock or two. The exposure, although camouflaged with misty clouds, felt like a monster swimming just below the soles of our boots.
Seth begins the journey to the top. Of course, it is not the highpoint in this photo!
Photo by Jared Vilhaur

"We're deep now," I think. My eyes trace our line of steps on the ridge. I know we will have to reverse every insecure step we're taking. This realization relaxes me and I smile. There is nothing left to do, but to do what needs to be done. This is what we live for.

Eventually the sharp ridge softened and a cracked dome was our last barrier. I lurched through breakable crust and finally pulled the ropes in, stacking them at my feet, as Jared and Seth stepped onto the summit.

"How many days are we into this now, three?" Jared snaps photos 10 yards away. "Something like that," Seth says, squinting through tired eyes. I draw a deep breath as I try to take as much from this place as I can. It's energy is powerful and fleeting.

Halfway there.
Contemplating the descent ahead
Photo by Jared Vilhaur

Before leaving the summit we confirmed with one another that we would have to down climb the ridge. Our team trust was absolute and despite feeling a certain terror, we descended with confidence. Night overtook us as we waved our arms, down climbed, and then repeated the cycle again and again. The air was bone chilling. Our gloves froze and our calves ached. We became especially good at reversing insecure snow mantels. After three or four hours we finally piled back in the First Light thirsty and tired.

"It's 12:30 PM right now. Let's refuel so we can leave by 2:00," Jared said. We all wanted to rap the face below us at night. We didn't discuss that we might lose the race with the sun. It wasn't worth it. We had to get off the mountain.

"This is mind blowing". I state the obvious to Seth as dawn creeps on an edge of sky. 200 feet below, at the end of the ropes, Jared digs to find ice. I still cannot believe the position we're in. 

"Off! Thank you! Look good man? I do. See you on the flipside." Seth raps away from me. I turn my eyes to the wall above.

No way we're gonna beat that sun.
Racing the sun on the descent
Photo by Jared Vilhaur

We did not win our race with daybreak and early morning found us trying to ignore the nearly 4,000 feet of sunlit terrain above our heads. Pieces of ice tinkled down the couloir. Despite oppressive heat, no one took a moment to delayer. We just kept going through the motions and playing our roles with focused determination. Adrenaline was starting to well up in me. Go, go, go! Just then, three raps from safety, a Talkeetna Air Taxi plane sailed by us. Someone was worried. Finally, I hucked the schcrund and ran with all my might from the wall that had held us hostage all night. Jared and Seth were a few hundred yards in front of me. I had to deal with the ropes. When I saw them make it to the rock buttress were we had cached our skis I felt relief knowing they were safe. And then I kept on running. 

My edge bites the snow and I turn. Jared surfs on his splitboard and Seth points his skis in a straight, fast line . The Reality Face falls further behind us. Back at camp, we dig up the beers and open a sacred bag of kettle chips. A few sips and stumbles ensue. Alcohol grabs a depleted body extra hard.

A plane swings into the West Fork. We load the bags as another passenger asks us what we've done. "Uh, a face back there. You can't really see it." The passenger looks us up and down and then gazes out beyond our pointed fingers. One last deep breath to take all I can from this place and I climb into the Beaver.

Never going to forget this one.
The Reality Face climbs the center of the wall in the right hand margin of the photo
Photo by Jared Vilhaur
An account of a first ascent on Reality Peak (13, 100 feet)
The Reality Face (5300 feet, AI5, exciting ridge climbing) was climbed by Jared Vilhaur, Seth Timpano, and Jens Holsten from 5/21-5/24/2013

1 comment:

akalpinist said...

nice work! glad you guys found something. It was slim pickens in that heat!