3 suns; three whole days of sunshine! That's what the weather report said and after a solid month of rain we were psyched. Work was out of the question with such a forecast so I emailed Eric a tantalizing note and topo file showing a proposed route up Byron, down the east face and across to the Northwest face of Carpathian. He took the bait hook, line and sinker, stopped by to sort gear and on Friday morning at 5:45 I stumbled into his house with an absurdly heavy pack and we jumped in the truck and skipped town at 6 am. . Our packs were gigantic and unwieldy; we carried a full alpine rack (6 screw, 4 pickets, 3 cams, 3 nuts, 4 pins) glacier gear, two tools, stove, pot, dinner, bivy sacks and bivy clothes (puffy pants and puffy jacket). But we had grand plans and thus could not think of anything we could leave behind to lighten our load.
We reached the parking lot, sorted through gear once again and by 7:30 were hiking down the trail making light of the Forest Service signs that alerted us to impending doom on the glacier above. By 8am we had reached the ice and were staring up at the route. Initially we had planned to take the normal route - which is the west ridge. However the glacier looked good so we decided we'd head up the ice and gain the summit via the North glacier.
We strapped on the crampons, pulled out the ice tools and started up; meandering up the low angle ice and then steering up and right (south) aiming for a tongue of ice that was mostly crevasse free. At 9am we reached the base of the ice fall and promptly front pointed up 200' of 60 degree blue ice to a shelf where we encountered snow and opted to rope up. Almost immediately the route began to get exciting. I traversed a snow bench and encountered a tongue of snow that snaked its way up beside a network of gaping crevasses which I protected with a couple pickets. Eric followed, peering down into the deep blue chasms below.
Once above the initial icefall the angle lessened and we plodded our way upwards jumping over and weaving around gaping crevasses. The mid-section of the glacier is fairly casual hiking - albeit a bit of care must be exercised, as there are numerous gaping holes. Eric lead us back and forth around the pits, occasionally dropping to his hands and knees to peer inside a crevasse to see how under cut the lip was. However - apart from one section where we had to jump and carefully tip toe it was easy travel.
By 11 am we had crested the lower ice fall only to suddenly come face to face with the imposing final 500' of steep ice. We couldn't see the top section of the glacier from below and we stopped and regrouped while trying to find a way through the mess of ice and crevasses. To the far right the glacier was quite active - large rocks and ice chunks having been spit out at regular intervals. Likewise in the very center there was quite a bit of debris from icefall. We stared at it for a while and then opted to attempt a ramp that angled up and right just left of the far (active) edge of the glacier.
By now it was almost noon - not a good time to be attempting an ice route in August on an active glacier. However we justified it by pointing out that we were choosing a path with (relatively) low objective danger that avoided most of the potential ice fall.
I lead the first block; around 300' of ice up to 50 - 60 degrees which accepted our ice tools with one reassuring "thunk". After chipping away the top 3 inches, ice screws easily sunk into the glacier ice providing reasonable protection. I had one exciting stem over a gaping crevasse and after I had exhausted all my carabineers I sunk my tools, clipped off on them for a belay and brought Eric up. As I was belaying Eric up the glacier let out a series of groans and pops and we could feel the vibration where we stood. An un-nerving feeling I again told myself we were safe. Eric tensed and then practically sprinted up to where I was belaying.
Eric lead the next block of ice; the pitch started out on 60 degree blue ice. After about 100' Eric encountered the first of two crevasses that we had to climb up and over. The first crevasse was easily bypassed via step to the left, however the second crevasse was pretty intimidating. The crevasse was a deep fissure that cut the slope at a 45 degree angle. Eric set a screw on one side, downclimbed about 10 feet and then leaned out over the crevasse (about 4 feet away), sunk his tools and then flagged his foot out of left over the crevasse - sinking his crampons into a short step just wide enough for a few crampon teeth. Then with a grunt he pulled himself over the pit letting out a nice "whoop!" when he was safely up and over! After he had climbed about 15 feet I started simul-climbing behind him. Looking down and seeing that I was now climbing, he stopped to (thankfully) sink a screw to protect me when I reached the crux spot he had just hoisted himself over.
I followed Eric's lead, kicking my crampons in deep and sinking my ice tools deeply. The first crevasse wasn't as bad as it looked from below - however the second crevasse was worse then Eric made it look. I sunk my tools on the opposite lip, then pulled them out and re-sunk them. Then I pulled them out and re sunk them again to be sure. I then flagged my foot out and over the gaping pit and (trying not to look down) gave a grunt and hoisted my gut up ad over the lip (all the while swearing to eat less ice cream in the future).
Once over the crevasse Eric picked up speed and we cruised up the lower angle snow. At the top of the bench we encountered a massive school bus sized chunk of snow overhanging a crevasse. Upon seeing this we traversed back to the left where we reached a safe bench and collapsed for a break.
On the bench the view were incredible! We were now above the north ridge of Byron and Whittier Passage and Prince William Sound glistened under the blue skies. Whittier on a clear day is a pretty amazing sight and we sat and stared out at the blue water in amazement.
After a small snack I lead off, meandering up and around the school bus crevasse and under wild sculptures of snow and ice. Eric followed and I kept stopping to pull out the camera and snap photos of him on the ice with the water and glacier below.
The sun ad heat were overwhelming so progress was slow and painful. Likewise the glacier was beginning to become soupy so we put our heads down and began pushing upwards, hoping to find a breeze on the rocky ridge in-between he East and West summits of Byron. Finally at 1:30 we reached the rocky ridge. Thankfully there was a slow steady breeze, which began to cool us down. We jogged up the final snow and talus slopes and around 1:45 were on the East Summit of Byron Peak.
In front of us, and 4 miles away, loomed the North West face of Carpathian. Eric and I tiptoed to the ridge on the far eastern edge of Byron and looked down to see a very steep loose shale ridge that did not look safe to negotiate. We dropped the gear, ate a snack and then began traversing back and forth along the ridge hoping to find a safe passage down.
We hiked up and down the ridge hoping to find a route but one never materialized. Furthermore - the north face of Carpathian looks absolutely horrific for an August ascent. Crushed, we decided that an ascent of Carpathian via the ridge from Byron was not possible for us. A summer ascent is, perhaps, possible, but one would need to to be fully confident of very steep and very loose shale in order to reached the pass East of Byron. A better time would be May at which time one could descend snow slopes and thus bypass the loose rock. So we ate some more food, picked up our heavy loads and began humping our loads back to the West summit.
On the West summit we relaxed a little longer, soaking up the views and reading through the old summit register. I had climbed Byron on September 14th, 1997 with my friend and climbing partner Jeff Munroe. Jeff and I fell while descending the West Rib in June of 1998. He survived the fall but with massive internal and head injuries. Jeff recovered, learned to talk, walk and drive again, but passed away in 2001. Upon seeing our entry in the log book I closed my eyes and remembered sitting on the summit with Jeff looking down at Whittier Passage. He was so amped to be climbing and stood on the top looking in all directions and shouting in glee!
On our descent Jeff was traversing around a television sized boulder that dislodged and feel into his arms. I was just downhill of him and turned around to see him pitch backwards with the rock in his arm. He landed on his side and managed to push the rock down and away from him. He then did a full somersault backwards and towards the massive cliff on the south face. Somehow he dug his fingers into the rock and caught himself. He then quickly stood up; as he stood a water bottle fell out of his pack. We both watched in silence as it bounced 3000' down the south face realizing that Jeff had come within inches of falling. "Don't tell my wife about that," he said. We both laughed uneasily and then continued down carefully.
Eric and I descended the West Ridge carefully. Aside from dodging a couple rocks that Eric tossed at me (one at my leg and one at my head) it was uneventful (but painful given our huge packs). We reached the base of the ridge at 5pm, took another nice long break ad then quickly descended the steep loose gully that drops down to the glacier.
By 7 pm we were finally off the glacier and glad to be down and safe!
However - the story doesn't end here. On the way out we had a very surreal encounter with a couple of tourists: When we finally reached the end of the moraine there were two tourists taking photos: a young girl taking picture of her father. In the past I've found that tourists love to hold ice axes and brandish them for photos. Numerous times while climbing on the highway I've had tourists stop and ask what I was holding. Last winter a family stopped next to us and I handed my ice tools to a toddler who promptly began hacking away at an icicle while his father snapped about a hundred photos. So I decided to be nice and offer my ice tools to the guy so he could get some good props for his photos.
I walked over, calling out to the man, asking him if he'd like to hold an ice axe for a photo. As I approached them, both the man and his daughter quickly jumped off the snow and began moving away. I called out again and then man stopped. I approached him and asked if he'd like to hold an ice tool for a photograph. He looked at me funny, so I swung my backpack to my side, pointed at the ice tool and asked once again if he'd like to take a photo holding the tool.
The man suddenly turned to his daughter and yelled "RUN!" He then looked at me, eyes wide, and shouted, "Stay away from me!" and began running as fast as he could (which wasn't very fast). He and his daughter jogged back to the trail where his wife was standing with and infant. He yelled something at his wife, who also tuned and began running. He then picked up the infant's stroller and together all 4 of then began jogging down the trail.
I stared at them in amazement trying to process what happened. When I told Eric what happened he thought I was kidding. We began walking out, the man and his family, evidently unable to run longer than a full minute had stopped just a short ways up the trail and were walking briskly - looking back over their shoulders every three of four steps. We continued walking our own pace - only to find that we were gaining on them. The man then stopped, picked up a huge stick, bunched his family up and around him (I remarked to Eric that they looked like a group of bewildered musk ox) and stepped off to the side of the trail.
Feeling guilty I approached the man and apologized. "I'm sorry sir but I didn't mean to alarm you," I said. "I was only trying to offer you an ice axe so you could take a photo with it."
The man looked at me, evidently still scared for his life. "I got three kids," he said. "I don't take chances. If I had a gun I would'a shot you."
Needless to say this statement shocked me a bit. "Well sir - if you had done that then you would have gone to jail." I answered, then turned and began walking away. Eric and I shook our heads trying to process what had just happened.
We reached the car a few minutes later. A few minutes later the family emerged from the woods. The man was feeling a bit stupid for his reaction and walked up, "Oh I wouldn't 'ave shot you," he said. We both laughed and once again I apologized. We shook hands, chatted for a minute and then he and his family drove away.
When they had left Eric pointed out the irony of having climbed a steep glacier route that was groaning and popping only to be return to the trail where a person threatens to shoot you. "That's the last time I'm ever going to be nice to a tourist." I told Eric. We laughed and hoisted our absurdly heavy packs into the car and drove home for pizza!
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