On beacons and Mt. Blackburn

The climbing scene is all-abuzz with the recent report of a rescue on Mt. Hayes last week. Two Fairbanks climbers set out to climb the East Ridge and made it up and over Levi’s Bump (10,500′) without incident where a storm forced them to dig a snow cave. They waited out weather then went for the summit. Apparently they went for the summit the next day – but bad weather forced them to turn around and head back just shy of the summit around 13,000′. They descended for a while, but the weather picked up – and after two falls they opted to dig a snowcave and bivy on the exposed ridge. I must note that all this is hearsay based on a report in the Anchorage Daily News – which probably is not reporting something. According to the news the guys made it through the night and come morning decided to press the little help button on their Personal Locator Beacon. A couple hours later the military buzzed the climbers in a C-130 and shortly thereafter the National Guard PJs – who are as close as you can get to modern Ninja warriors – showed up on a Pave-Hawk and plucked the climbers off the ridge. An hour later they were back in Fairbanks.

As I stated – the news probably isn’t reporting something – but I hate reports like this. It’s what makes the “pay for rescue” crowd come out screaming for blood and what leads to legislation like the beacon legislation introduced in Washington and Oregon.

I hate to judge. For all I know the storm opened up the bergschund turning the walk down into an epic struggle- possible? Not really. It’s more likely they were just cold, tired and scared of avalanche danger which had probably escalated during their nighttime bivy. They did what countless other people have thought about doing: They called for a rescue instead of taking the risk to get back to their high camp.

Climb up here long enough and you’ll have a couple great bivy stories yourself and chances are you’ll probably hear even greater bivy stories from friends and acquaintances. One of the best “stuck on a ridge oh god we’re going to die” stories out there is Jeff Benowitz’s “Strange Vibrations” which was published in Climbing Magazine in March 1995. Benowitz tells an amazing tale about enduring days inside a snowcave just below the summit of Mt. McGinnis after an ascent of the Cutthroat Couloir. They fought sanity and dreamed of a helicopter rescue. Knowing that a helicopter wasn’t going to show up, they were forced to descend a wind-loaded ridge after their cave started making popping noises in the night. If you can find a copy it’s well worth the read.

Another great bivy story that comes to mind is of local climbers Roger and Mary Kemppel on Mt. Barrile. They had ascended the Japanese Couloir and were on their way down when foul weather and poor visibility forced them to hole up on the summit ridge for a night. They endured the night and then descended the NW face the next morning. When I asked Roger how the night was he responded with a classic understatement: “Oh it wasn’t so bad. Kind of nice actually,” Roger said. “My wife didn’t like it though.” One can only imagine what the night was really like.

Anyways- enough about other people. I have a handful of fun bivy stories and one of the best is from a May 2005 ascent of Mt. Blackburn. One day I’ll write a real story about our climb – but for now I’ll jump to the good part…

BlackburnHigh camp on the N Ridge of Mt. Blackburn.

Wayne Todd, Carrie Wang, Ben May and I had put in a high camp on the North Ridge (a slight variation of the NW ridge which is the normal route). We had climbed a rather nasty icefall and set up our camp on a small and rather exposed bump.

Wayne in the ice fall below high camp.

A couple days later the weather cleared and Wayne, Carrie and I set off for the summit. Ben opted to stay behind. The climb up went rather smoothly. Easy route finding and no real difficulties. Our route took us up the North Ridge to 13,000′ where we joined the normal route. From 13,000′ – 14,000′ the route ascends a narrow ridge till you reach a broad summit plateau which you slog up for 2,000′ and close to 2 miles.

Carrie heading to high camp.

Ben near high camp.

Moving up through the icefall to reach high camp.
Serac hell.
Wayne leads the upper slopes to the ridge.

The summit was a nondescript bump – plus we couldn’t see a thing. Having gone from 11,000 to 16,390, with only one quick jaunt to 13K for acclimatization, left me felling rather ill. Plus during the ascent the wind had picked up and by the time we reached the summit my nose had already started to turn black.

A climber will notice four things in the above paragraph: (a) we couldn’t see a thing, (b) we had gone from 11K to 16K and were feeling ill, (c) the wind had picked up and (d) my nose was turning black. At the time I registered all of the above and a deep “oh shit” knot was forming in my stomach. I remember Carrie turning to me and saying, “Your nose is black.” I took my balaclava and covered my nose, thinking to myself “Well not much you can do about your nose right now- might as well put it out of your mind.” Normally one wouldn’t be able to just push a black nose of your mind- but things were going downhill fast and we all had the realization that shit was going to hit the fan sooner than we realized.

Wayne & Carrie on the summit.


On the summit of Blackburn

So we set off. We literally started running down the summit plateau. Running at 16K when you have a frostbitten nose and are reeling from altitude sickness isn’t so easy- but I managed to at least move faster than normal. At one point I pitched into a crevasse – but Wayne and Carrie were moving so fast that, as I fell into the crevasse I was jerked forward into the lip – and without a moment’s hesitation somehow managed to pull myself out and was on my feet and running again within seconds.

Behind us the mountain was transforming at a rapid pace. The cloudy skies had become a maelstrom, a lenticular had formed over the summit – and worst of all – we were inside the lenticular.

We ran like hell – moving past our wands too scared to even take a second to remove and carry them down with us. The top part went easy- but then we reached the knife-edge ridge that we needed to descend for 1,000′. We regrouped and transferred all the pickets to the leader and Wayne set off, then Carrie, with me bringing up the rear. 60′ in-between each climber.

When I think back to that descent it plays like a slow motion horror movie. The winds were howling – easily steady 50mph or higher. Carrie was only 60′ in front of me but all I could see was the rope disappearing into a cloud of snow. In front of me the ridge was disappearing before my eyes. Chunks of snow the size of soccer balls lifted into the air and exploded into powder blasts. I crept forward following the rope, my ice axe planted solidly with every move – my body braced against the constantly buffeting wind. It was surreal – I recall it as if it was a dream. The rope stretched out before me into a gray void, pulling me down a disintegrating ridge. The snow rising in plates and chunks and vanishing off the ridge. I couldn’t see it, but I knew that just one meter to my left was the 11,000′ West Face. A void of unimaginable consequences.

After Wayne burned up all the pickets we regrouped, and I set off first working my way down without a rope to guide me. I have no idea how long it took – time inside the storm had no meaning. The only things with meaning were a deep ice axe placement and a solid picket every 200′. My focus tuned out everything else. No world outside of the present, no world beyond the rope. Only my axe and the ridge and wind and the snow.

We made it down the ridge. At 13,000′ the ridge broadened and we jumped over a lip to seek shelter behind a wall of seracs where we had cached a stove and bivy sacks. A short rest and we were off again – pushing down the route in darkness and snow. We made it about 500′ before realizing it was a bad idea. A quick huddle and we decided to head back to the sheltered serac.

The serac was sheltered from the wind – but not the snow, so I traversed over to an overhanging crevasse and started chopping out a ledge. An hour of work and I had excavated a platform long enough for our legs and butt. I squirmed into the cave and worked my way into my extra clothes and bivy sack. My feet hung over an open crevasse but it seemed safe enough.

Carrie followed me in and we curled up together and spooned. Wayne, who doesn’t have an extra ounce of fat on his body, spent the night pacing back and forth at the lip of the crevasse. My nose was numb, my feet cold and I worried about my toes but it didn’t stop me from closing my eyes. I cast aside all worries and slept deeply, my mind descending to open grassy meadows with toes curled in grass. Wayne and Carrie later told me I snored.

Self portrait in the 13000′ bivy crevasse.

As luck, divine providence, or the ghost of Dora Keen would have it, the day dawned clear. We emerged from our crevasse about 5 am and were soon moving down. Avalanche danger was a concern, but we had no choice. High camp lay 2,000′ below us and we couldn’t stay where we were. So we pushed downhill, protecting with pickets where we could, weaving around obvious snow pillows – but generally just pretending that the route was avalanche safe. A couple hours later we stumbled into camp where Ben, eyes wide after a fitful night of sleep wondering what had become of us, greeted us with hot water and food.

Looking down at high camp.

Looking down at high camp.

We collapsed into the tent blissfully unaware of the next horror that awaited us.

That afternoon hell opened up once more. The storm renewed with an intensity that I had never seen before. It raged for 12 solid hours and someone had to be outside all the time to shovel the snow off the tents. We took shifts: each person would endure the storm for a full hour of mad shoveling. Shoveling consisted up picking up a shovelful of snow and tossing it into the wind, only to have the hole you just dug fill up again. The hour of work went by in a mad dash of constant throwing and brushing with spindrift working its way down all open spots on your body. We shoveled for dear life, fighting hard to keep the tents above the snow – knowing that if we were to fall behind we could well lose our tents and gear. After the hour was up we’d rotate and get about 3 hours of fitful sleep with bodies braced against tent walls to keep the tent from collapsing.

And then 12 hours later the storm dissipated without warning. Like a faucet turning off – no winding down, lulls and starts. Just one minute raging wind and snow and the next a quiet calm.

Clear skies just after the storm.

We all emerged and looked into the sky: crystal blue and clear. Then a frantic packing began; gear grabbed and shoved into bags. But something didn’t feel right. “No,” I protested. “No, I won’t go down now. There has been too much snow in too short of a time. We need to wait for it to settle.”

Wayne was adamant, “We go down now. If we wait, another storm may come,” he reasoned. I held my ground. There was no way in hell I was venturing out onto those slopes.

The debate continued back and forth. If we stayed the risk of getting stuck was possible. If we descended that night the risk of avalanche was high. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Then in the middle of our argument we heard a crack. Across the valley on the North ridge the slopes cracked and propagated, the slide ripping across and dropping through the icefall. Then it propagated further, the avalanche crown moving across the face, snow ripping down through the icefall and filling the valley below. It continued across the face – and then it dawned on us that it was moving towards the slopes above our camp.

“GET READY IT’S COMING!” Wayne screamed. We grabbed shovels and ran to our snow wall – our eyes on the fracture line above us as it worked its way towards us; a line splitting the slopes above us and a wall of snow rushing towards our camp where we stood rooted in place, our faces twisted in horror.

The snow roared towards us – then abruptly it turned and flowed to our right deflected by an unseen crevasse – the river of snow flowing by us and dropping down into the icefall below. We stared in amazement – but I was drained of emotion. That an unseen crevasse had saved us from being buried alive barely registered on me.

When climbing one often searches for this; a moment when time becomes constant. I sense it skiing sometimes – when the snow is perfect and only the turn, the sound of snow moving under skis and motion of your body meld together in perfect fusion and a brief moment of clarity is reached where there is nothing outside of your immediate surroundings. But achieving this moment through grace is very different from achieving it through terror. With grace the moment is fleeting. It appears briefly and then fades away before you can really grasp it and by the time you notice what just happened, the moment is over. With terror the moment comes and lingers indefinitely. Even after you’re “safe” you tremble and are unable to escape the foul taste that lingers when one suddenly becomes aware of the fragility of life.

The debate on whether to stay or go was over. No one wanted to descend those slopes. We piled into the tent and stared at the walls. Ben pushed his back into the wall of the tent and started mumbling. “Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck,” he repeated like a mantra. I was unable to talk. We went to sleep trying not to think about the weather.

Again by luck, providence or the ghost of Dora Keen, the day dawned clear. As we were packing, Wayne pulled out the sat phone and dialed a friend who volunteers for Alaska Mountain Rescue.

Wayne spoke softly into the sat phone. “We are at 11,000 on the North Ridge of Mt. Blackburn.” He paused, and then read our exact coordinates into the phone. “We are attempting to descend but avalanche danger is high. If you do not hear from us by nightfall please send help.” He clicked off the phone and we looked down the ridge knowing what lay before us. I know all of us wished for a helicopter to come buzzing over the ridge…

But there was no helicopter. There would be no rescue. We had put ourselves here and we needed to get ourselves down so we began working down the ridge. We set a picket and rapped off the ridge and down to the icefall. I went first – working my way down with Ben braced in a sitting position as he belayed me through the ice. The snow was chest deep. I was on a 50 degree slope. By all laws of physics, chest deep snow should not cling to 50 degree slopes but there I was wading downhill in chest deep snow on a 50 degree slope. One step, then two steps, then three- and a whoomp; the sound of collapsing snow. The sound of impending avalanche. Time stood still again. By now it was getting old. I wanted off the mountain and I wanted time to jump into fast forward.

Not having a choice I continued on. Chest deep snow. Step four. Step five. Six. Whooomp.

Fuck I hate this mountain.I thought. But the snow held firm and I had a belay so I kept going – traversing down across the snow-laden slopes. Another huge whoomp killed my courage. I turned and cut across to a serac that balanced above us where I sunk my axe into blue ice. The teetering serac was the size of a car. It didn’t look like much was holding it in place – but it looked more stable than chest deep collapsing snow. I ignored the obvious and brought Ben over. Wayne and Carrie followed while we rigged a rap anchor. “Here take my screw” I said as I handed Ben an ice screw. “And leave it – fuck the V-thread.” We sunk the screw and rapped off the serac into deep powder below us. Rapping downhill in waist to chest deep snow – down 200′ and then off the end of the rope and wading downhill as fast as possible to a safe zone underneath a wall of seracs. We all reached it safely and then took off running downhill – the final 500′ being a wade down the gut of the avalanche path. I blocked out all factors and moved as fast as I could. Nothing mattered beyond the next step. Don’t think about the snow above you, don’t think about the crevasses below you. Run like hell and don’t look back.

We made it down.

Our route down.

Ben back to basecamp.

Back at camp we collapsed into our basecamp tent. Our perceived time returned to normalcy and thoughts of the storm were blurred as if recalled through a fog. We sat in the tent and in a couple days the pilot showed up and we were plucked off the glacier and dropped down to summer where I stood in the yard with my toes curled in the grass.

What of it? Did I learn anything? A few years later I slept in a snowcave just shy of 23,000′ and wondered if time had stopped as I watched the slow arch of the Southern Cross on the horizon. Not too long ago we got the ropes stuck on a route in the Alaska Range and had to downclimb 500′ of steep snow without a belay after 18 hours on the go. My mind focused on my feet and ice tools and everything else faded into a blur. When I got down the depth of my surroundings focused with clarity but there was nothing left to show for it.

Maybe we should have pressed the help button. Maybe overcoming the ego and realizing that there are others who can pluck you from risk makes you aware of the linear nature of time. After all – time cannot really stand still. It moves forward at a constant rate and any perception that it can be slowed or sped is fantasy.

My toes curled in the grass and the memory of our nights became a blur but nothing dropped away. On solid ground everything stayed in place and time moved forward while my memories stayed behind.

Paul coming to take us home.

Route Photos

North Ridge. May 2004.

North Ridge. May 2004.

North Ridge. May 2004.