Friday, June 4, 2010
We saddled up at 7am with packs, ice axes, and crampons that we’d assembled last night, and we crunched our way out of camp.
Up we went, following the snowy trail that Mike and Jason had put in last night before dinner. (In fact, they’d both climbed the full height of the first long, steep rock and ice slope to the saddle that would ultimately take us to the summit so they could cut in big steps and lay a few anchors to freeze in overnight.)
Once on the saddle ridge, we watched the sun rise over the summit behind our objective (see video link above, and pic at left), and then we cut leftward up the slope toward an impossibly, ridiculously steep ridgeline that looked, to my uneducated eyes, undoable -- with Jason breaking trail, me behind him, and Denis behind me. Much of today’s climb was beyond 45-degree slopes, some as high as 65 degrees: STEEP!
It comes first and foremost from having expert guides who know what to look for, but also from the extra safety that crampons, ice axes, rope, anchors, and carabiners and good training provide as compared to regular, unroped, non-technical hiking.
But then soooo many things about today just blew my mind. That we got up that first slope at all was just incredible to me, but the fact that we did it so fast was just surreal. Standing below it in the snow of the glacier floor beneath that imposing face, it had seemed “an act of purest optimism to oppose the question in the first place."
But up we went anyway. Not recklessly. In fact, quite methodically and confidently; especially with our guides’ assurance behind us earlier that the snow conditions were damn near perfect for it today. For some reason, I’m realizing, every slope seems doable in crampons. Spikes rule.
For a guy like me who really appreciates knowing what to expect--or at least the rules--direction wasn’t always clear enough for me, but on this occasion, it seemed straightforward enough: “don’t worry about it” was the general instruction. “Step across, and put your feet right where mine were,” he called to me from up the slope. I looked down and across the small crevasse and immediately noticed that on both sides, the lip was close to solid ice, and his footprints weren’t even visible, so I took a second to look up the hill to see where they might have exited in softer snow and then traced them back to the lip again to see if I could figure it out… no luck. Hard snow on the other side.
Feeling my hesitation, and probably knowing full well that he’s got me on solid belay anyway, he seemed a little impatient. “Just step across!” But there was no additional information to let me know what he planned in case I needed help. Not knowing where to step exactly (but also not wanting to just go for it and risk doing it wrong, which might inadvertently cause a situation), I felt a little between a rock and a hard place. I did completely trust our guides, though, so gamely, I took my right foot and placed it on part of the snow bridge where my best guess told me his foot might have been.
But instead of staying on top of the crusty ice, or even post-holing through it into deep snow like we’d become accustomed to so far, my leg went straight through the snow and into… nothing. Air up to about my knee. Immediately, I felt the snow bridge sink around me, and I heard some clatter down into the hole below. I wasn’t panicked, but it did make me nervous, since this was completely outside any experience I’ve ever had, and had no idea what to expect, should it happen.
“Step over! I’ve got you!” came the direction… and that was what I needed to know. I believed him, but I still didn’t know what was below me or how far to step, so I reverified visually where Jason wanted me to go, and then took a big step over. And as I did, he hauled on my rope, which lifted me up and over the gap without a problem.
I found out later it was just a little crevasse, but having never had that kind of experience before or even being near a crevasse (much less hundreds of them) I think I was just feeling like I needed more coaching than I got. Nevertheless, I appreciated his professionalism, and that event alone was a major learning experience, made all the more valuable because it was a “puckery” one for me, as they say.
huge wall of overhung blue ice clinging to the mountainside (for scale, note how tiny our path snaking up the mountainside toward it is. The only way around was to the left, toward a thousand-foot drop over ice, snow, and rock to the glacier below. Jason methodically cut a platform for us just below the wall as Tyler skirted around the cliff and upward to set a belay for the remaining climbers. The approach to the left required an inward-facing shuffle-step, with the climbers using their ice axe in self-belay, heading straight up and to the left on a 65-degree slope of rotten ice and snow.
It was steep—very steep—but still seemed well within my comfort zone, but it nevertheless required focuse. I edged out off the platform and began the climb up, and as I approached the top of the cliff, Tyler said “Crawl on your hands and knees through that next section there.” Weird… until I realized “that next section” was a sketchy snow bridge over another crevasse, and prudence required that each of us distribute our weight over a larger surface area so it would hold as we crossed. Luckily, it did.
The only remaining obstacles (besides more crevasses) between us and the summit were a few steep snow fields, which we crested without incident. We hit the 10,451-foot summit of Mt. Frances at around 12:30pm, and a spectacular vista lay before us. Mt. Frances is situated in a very central spot, with incredible unobstructed views of all the major peaks in the area, including the West Buttress route and summit of Denali, the imposing south ridge. Tyler pointed out spots on that mountain I know about from reading: Windy Corner, 14,000 camp, 17,000 camp, and others.
In every direction were spectacular vistas:The Kahiltna Queen looked glorious; down the glacier from her, the full weight and power of Mt. Hunter’s electrifying, terrifying west ridge glared at us, now in full view (photo taken from a plane); likewise, the ~12,000-foot Kahiltna Dome in Denali's direction; across the valley, Mt. Crosson stands like an ancient pyramid, while her neighbor, 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker looms large, filling our entire field of vision. I find myself mesmerized by this mountain… and it was then that I resolved to climb it in May of next year.
So here we stand, in 0-degree windchill with smiles on our frozen faces, a full vertical half mile higher than the Radio Control Tower summit we crested a few days ago, happily munching whatever we had.
We shot lots of photos--we even got one of Denis and I with Denali's 20,000+ summit looming in the distance. After many more, and just as many laughs, it was too cold to stand around any longer. The other concern was that the snow conditions below us were starting to change with all the sun of the day on it. Time to go.
I roped up on the summit, prepared to head out, got hung up in the rope, and fell down before starting out. And although stumbling on the rope is serious business, I wasn’t in any danger, but I think it nevertheless took Tyler by surprise. “That’s the FIRST and LAST time you ever do that, all right? That’s not something to take lightly.” And he’s right.
All day while climbing, the sun had been heating up the hard snow, and we used that to our advantage to heel-plunge our way down even the steepest pitches in complete confidence. The snow conditions were softening, but still excellent.
Coming back to the ice cliff, we faced inward again and downclimbed with axes in low dagger and continued, but it wasn’t until I was back in camp with everyone that I heard Paul on the way down had actually fallen all the way into a crevasse up to his waist, legs dangling, help in place at the lip by the width of his backpack!
Tyler and Jerry hauled him out, and then later, Ben stuck a leg into yet another one up to his thigh. Even Tyler on the descent in a now-blistering furnace of direct and reflected sunlight stuck his boot into a tiny one and took a roll in the snow, so I feel like I got off pretty easily.