Why Go Back?

Last season I had a rough trip to the Alaska range. And now I’m going back but I’m not sure why.

Bad decisions were made, probably starting first with the drive. We thought it would save money to drive up there in my truck based off of some math that neither of us actually did. I roughly multiplied the miles by the price of gas at the Shell nearest to my house, then roughly subtracted that from the price of two flights plus baggage. Problem was, gas prices in the Yukon are Insane, so are food prices and that drive was too long to eat nothing but Clif bars. So, because we didn’t have a restriction on how much stuff we could drive up with, we just rummaged through our gear, throwing piles all over the basement (Matt lived in the closet under the basement stairs, I lived in the cold room with the missing window across the hall). We threw a full haul bag and three enormous duffels of climbing gear, along with our $100 beat-to-shit, 20-year-old North Face tent, in the back of the truck. And off we went.

gear pack

At the Canadian border we picked up a hitchhiker, a Cree guy who had been detained by the border patrol overnight for being drunk. Matt was apprehensive about picking him up, because he was sorta still drunk and looked a little rough, but I reminded him that “he can”t possibly kill both of us”.  I’m 1/16 Cree so we’re practically cousins. We listened to his rambling but incredibly interesting stories about how a Blackfoot guy had knocked out his front tooth and how he used to travel as a professional powow dancer. We learned a lot about what life was like for Native Americans in Alberta as we drove him 8 hours north up to Rocky Mountain House. He offered to introduce us to “Serial Killer”, apparently a nickname for his weed guy but we politely declined. He was shaking pretty bad from alcohol withdrawals by the time we dropped him off. We ate some nasty pizza there and pushed on through the night driving further and further north through Alberta and into BC. By dawn we were approaching the Yukon. The warm winter had melted the usually icy road and allowed us easy passage. We drove on, spending twice what we had anticipated on gas and swerving around various vermin and fauna. A lady on the side of the road, in the literal middle of nowhere, flashed us on the second day, also we saw a grizzly bear.

Eventually we were gearing up in Anchorage, buying things we had forgotten like fuel canisters and doing a massive Costco run. In Talkeetna, we festered with other climbers while waiting for the weather to clear so we could fly in and shared the bunkhouse with a very sick Japanese team who had picked up a nasty lung virus from traveling.

ak range
Sultana (Foraker) on the left, Begguya (Hunter) middle and Denali on the right.

Although our main objective was the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter, we were seduced by topos of routes in the Ruth gorge while bored at the bunkhouse and decided to fly there first despite the 10 feet of snow that had fallen in the past two weeks. The sense of excitement and horror you feel flying into the Alaska range for the first time cannot be put into words. The Ruth glacier appeared below us as we circled lower, both Matt and I craning our necks to spot conditions on lines we recognized from topos. We landed and made camp next to some friendly veteran climbers who offered use of their cook tent. They convinced us to go for a moderate warm-up climb and we decided on “Wake Up” on Mt. Wake’s northeast face. Although rated WI5 5.6 by the first ascentionist, subsequent parties had reported it to be much easier. So we left at 3am the next day to attempt our first Alaskan route.

Ruth Gorge
Our camp in the Ruth
Mt Wake Nate
Climbing the route on Mt. Wake

The snow in the Ruth gorge is deep enough that you need flotation to get around. Snowshoes work but are extremely slow, so both Matt and I brought our alpine touring ski setups. We skied up to the base of the route and noticed an exceptionally large Serac (dangerous hanging glacier that’s slowly falling over the edge of a cliff, prone to avalanches) on Mt. Wake so we moved our asses and red-lined ourselves to safety. At the base of a large granite buttress we stashed our skis, switched out AT boots for mountaineering boots, and donned crampons. Off we went booting up easy snow to the base of the route. After a scary pitch of vertical, un-protectable sugar, we arrived at the long moderate corner system that would take us to the ice and mixed pitches at the top of the route. We climbed unroped in the early morning darkness until the sun came over the mountains and started roasting the route. The cornices looming over our heads spurred us on to keep moving fast before the sun caused them to rip and sweep the gully we were in. After a productive season of climbing in Hyalite we felt confident enough to climb the crux ice pitches unroped. We reached chest deep 60 degree snow flutings at the top of the technical climbing and dug down to the rock, built a mediocre anchor and roped up for the final two pitches, finishing by drilling up through a cornice. The sun had gone over the ridge and we had been climbing in the shade and freezing our asses off, topping out into the sun was a good feeling. We enjoyed a long brew and after much debate decided to slog the rest of the ridge to the summit of Mt. Wake.

mt wake
Mt. Wake. (summit not visible) Wake Up is the snow ramp to the far right next to the rock buttress. The Serac is dead center. I didn’t take this photo, I found it on Cascade Climbers.

Few people have stood on the summit of Mt. Wake, but ask anyone who’s been up there and they’ll tell you it’s actually pretty underwhelming. There is no spire of rock to stand on and pose for photos, only a cornice the size of a hotel. On the way down we made an effort to stay far away from the cornices on the right side of the ridge. I got distracted while looking for the descent couloir and strayed to within 25 feet of the edge. Suddenly I broke through, as the floor dropped out below me I jumped and rolled to my left, screaming SHIT to let Matt know I had fucked up. He ran left (still tied in to me), ready to huck himself off the other side of the ridge to save us both. But the cornice stayed intact, leaving a strange hole several body lengths from the edge where I broke through. Alaska was showing its teeth. We reached the Col between Mt. Bradley and Mt. Wake and stopped for a final brew. The descent down the couloir below was scary, a wind-loaded, 40 degree snow slope with an icefall at the bottom. We had no other choice so we started down, our nerves fraying after our first Alaskan-scale alpine adventure.

And then we heard the rumble. Like a 747 taking off, the sound filled the steep chasm around us. It echoed off the tall granite walls, seeming to come from all directions. To a climber this sound is death, we looked frantically uphill to see what ripped and where it was coming from. No sign of it, I turn to Matt and we have time to speculate on the source of the avalanche before we see the powder blast filling up the valley between Mt. Wake and Mt. Bradley. The rolling white clouds of snow climbed the steep walls and slowly billowed up the couloir towards us. The serac we had noticed on the approach ripped, and it must have been big too. We continued down the couloir and across the icefall, veering right towards the route we had just climbed. Night had fallen while we descended and now it was dark, we traversed and climbed down towards where we had stashed the skis.

Avalanche Nate
Watching an Avalanche destroy our skis

Matt was about 100 feet downhill of me when he started yelling that he had found my ski. I was positive he was mistaking an oddly shaped rock or ice chunk. We were nowhere near where our skis were stashed, about 1,500 feet to the side and a few hundred feet uphill, but Matt kept yelling about it. I got down to him and there it was, half of my prized AT setup and only means of flotation. The rest of it, our boots, poles, both Matt’s skis, and some mittens I had stashed there, were gone. Scattered and buried. Rather than spending any more time there we started following our skin track out towards the great gorge of the Ruth.

We slogged for miles back to basecamp through waist deep snow, with me dragging my one remaining ski, trying to navigate a massive glacier in the pitch black. We hadn’t eaten in a while and our nerves were shot from a long, stressful day. The whole situation began to sink in, 3 hours post holing in a cold Alaskan night after losing thousands of dollars worth of essential equipment is enough to make you question your life choices. The reflective tags on the outside of the tent appeared in the distance. We collapsed and Matt fired up one last brew before we fell asleep.

I awoke the next day to a productive cough and proceeded to write an alarming letter to my girlfriend (now wife) about what a gnarly first day we had. Matt and I recovered but my respiratory conditions, contracted from the Japanese team in the TAT bunkhouse, continued to worsen. We ate and rallied and two days later followed our bootpack back across the glacier to attempt Seasons of the Sun on Mt. Bradley. After some fun ice and mixed pitches the route ended in a retreat when my puffy, which was clipped to my harness, snagged on a crampon and went tumbling two thousand feet down the face. Luckily enough it turned up at the bottom, although at this point part of me wished it was gone so I’d have an excuse to go home.

Rapping MT. Bradley
Rapping off of Mt. Bradley
Matt Mt. Bradley
Matt on Mt. Bradley
Looking over from Mt. Bradley

We got a hop to the Kahiltna from Talkeetna Air taxi. My chest burned and I coughed up gummy bears for four days. Matt got restless and dug out a palatial snow cave which we later had to abandon when the choppers that set up Denali basecamp wanted to land there. We had reached our main objective but I wasn’t into it anymore.

Military chopper pizza delivery service

The Moonflower scared the shit out of me, it was an ambitious goal to climb what is arguably the biggest, baddest classic in the Alaska range during our first trip. I took the first block and got us up the ice apron to the base of the difficult climbing, Matt crushed thin mixed pitches and the aid climbing on the prow leaving me with only the moderate pitches of the McNerthney Ice dagger and Tamaras traverse. Despite these being best climbing pitches I have ever done, I wanted to go down. My lungs hurt and we had made the rookie mistake of getting dehydrated. Near the top of the McNertheny Ice dagger, before the traverse pitch, about 1,600 feet from the ground, I reached up and swung a tool, it sunk into the ice but my arm muscle spasmed and my hand curled back towards my shoulder. I could barely breathe, and had been overgripping my tools and wasting energy out of fear. Telling Matt I needed to go down was not easy, he held his composure but I could tell he was crushed. Matt would have sent it with a better partner. So we abseiled through the night and reached the ground again just as the sun was coming up. We staggered back to the tent, slept and then got drunk on cheap whiskey we had found abandoned in the TAT bunkhouse (a remnant from a failed winter attempt on Huntington). I made it back to Talkeetna in time to call my girlfriend on her birthday. We drove south to Squamish, BC to climb solid granite in the sun. Julia joined us and we made a snap decision to move to Australia together, I wanted to be as far away from snow and ice as possible.

Moonflower Nate
Top of the ice apron on the BK
The bottom Pitches of the Bibler Klewin
Matt Moonflower
Matt on the twin runnels pitch of the BK

So why go back then? They say the best alpinists are the ones with the worst memories. That trip was miserable, I let my partner and myself down and scared the shit out of my girlfriend with my alarming letter. Maybe I’m going back because I want to prove to myself that I can be successful on big routes, maybe it’s to remind myself of how good and easy normal life is. All I know for sure is that Alaska has something more she wants to teach me.


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