Saturday. I float the Upper Kenai in my tiny Dory and thoroughly enjoy the say. It feels like summer; the sun is shining brightly and the salmon are rolling underneath my boat – I even manage to catch a couple. The Upper Kenai is pretty calm for such a nice day. Everyone sits around in the sun enjoying the weather… life is good.
Then Eric calls. Like a true yuppie I pull out the cell phone on the river and chat it up.
“Hello?” – “Climbing tomorrow sounds good.” – “Talkeetna mountains?” – “Weather looks good?” – “Lower Spire?” – “See you in the morning!”
I get home at midnight, throw the fish in the fridge and crash. The alarm wakes us up at 6:30 and i stand in the shower trying to wake up. Eric shows up at 7:30 (he practically lives across the street) and we’re off.
We reach the Reed Lakes parking lot around 9ish and soon we’re hiking up in a thick cloud. Conditions do not look so hot but the joke is it will burn off. Somewhere in the back of my mind a tiny voice whispers about climbing in inclement weather but i manage to silence it.
Around 10:30 the fog begins to burn off and we’re treated to a beautiful sight as the clouds part revealing the granite peaks all around us. At noon we reach Snowbird Pass where we stare in awe at the glacier and parting clouds.
We quickly start up the ridge, scrambling up about 500′ of talus that shifts and moans as we scamper across it. I make the comment about how the Chugach is known for such crummy rock – but you rarely find whole ridges of car sized boulders that rock as you run across them. However- the higher we go the more stable the rock gets. Finally we reach the upper slabs where we stop, pull out the ropes and some shiny stuff and rack up.
Eric leads up. His prowess on the rock honed by recent all night routes in the Alaska range I am happy to pass the sharp end to him and leisurely follow him up the wet mossy slabs. “Besides – you have the rock shoes.” I tell him.
The route begins with a mellow traverse around exposed blocks, heads up and across a wild move where one must bridge out across a huge block with massive exposure — and then up steep slabs. In dry conditions (like Colorado?) this would be fun enjoyable moderate climbing. As is Eric threads his way up the rock in his rock shoes and Yvonne follows by stomping on all the moss clods. However she manages to rip out every clod she steps on so I follow up utilizing a mixture of belly crawls, knee slaps and other creative slab techniques that I hope to never use again.
The first couple of pitches go quite quickly… but something in the back of my head is making a fuss. I look around – where’d our visibility go?
Eric scampers up the rock and chooses to take a nice chimney instead of the easy route around the corner. Yvonne looks on in apprehension.
As Eric nears the top of the pitch we hear what we were all hoping not to hear… a deep rumble.
Thunder! Yvonne’s eyes go wide. “We need to go down!” she says. Eric is busy building an anchor 200′ above us.
“No way – we need to go up and wait it out,’ i respond. I justify it by saying at least the spot above is sheltered whereas on the ridge we are walking lightning rods with our ice axes sticking out. Yvonne scampers off not really believing me… she soon reaches Eric and I run up to the belay as fast as I can.
I reach the belay and we work fast – – ripping off our packs and ice axes. pulling off our harnesses and metal gear. Lightning starts to smack the peak west of us and I stuff the metal gear behind some boulders, jerk the foam pad out of my pack and run back to where Yvonne is sitting. We pull ourselves up onto the pad and put our heads down. Eric balls himself up on the rope. The storm rolls in. Lightning, thunder, rain.
We sit it out. After all thunderstorms in Alaska are very rare — we all figure it should roll past in 20 minutes. An hour rolls by and the rain increases. Eric walks over to the gear and looks up at the route. “Should we go?” he asks. In response a lightning bolt smacks the summit of Higher Spire.
Eric turns and runs back to his spot. He thinks about it for a second and then down climbs to a cleft where we squeezes himself into a spot the size of a car trunk. Yvonne worms further back into an overhang and I down climb to an overhanging boulder where by turning myself sideways and inching backwards I can get out of the rain. I then put my feet in backpack and pull it up over my legs for warmth. I settle in and even manage to fall asleep for a while.
One hour turns to two. Two hours to three. Finally the rain begins to slow…. the storm seems a long ways away and there is about 40 seconds in-between thunder. All around is is blue sky and sun. We look at each other, grab the gear, rope and and begin climbing.
Eric leads the wet rock – the rain has turned the nice granite into slick slimy rock. At one point he slips and we hear an audible gasp as he catches himself.
We reaches the summit block, passing an old anchor on the way. At the summit blocks he pokes around and then opts to belay us up. Yvonne follows… she is about 3/4 up the pitch where thunder starts rolling again. Eric looks up and sees lightning smacking the top of Pinnacle. Yvonne is having trouble with one move that Eric lead and is trying to figure it out… “Ummm – there is lightning sticking the peaks nearby and I’m feeling real uncomfortable.” he tell her. Yvonne jerks herself up the move and clips into the old rap station.
I opt not to climb the pitch and tell Eric to get the hell off of there Eric complies and quickly builds the anchor… the storm is getting closer and we can feel the electricity in the air. I down climb and build another anchor so we can reach the lower ridges on the second rap.
Eric quickly raps off and reaches me a couple minutes later. Yvonne follows — she clips into the anchor with her rappel device and winds a prussic around the rope and then starts coming down. The storm races towards us. Yvonne continues down – but then she goes over and overhang and slips… her prusik knots up and she hangs suspended. She tried jerking it but it’s totally stuck. Nearing panic mode she starts jumping up and down, swinging left and right but the prusik will not budge. We’re all yelling back and forth… the storm is very close.
Finally Yvonne jerks off her pack, digs out a knife and cuts the prusik, dropping down onto her rappel device. She is then able to take the prusik off, finish the rappel and join us a few moments later.
The storm is coming but it seems to be lingering a few miles away from us so we opt to rappel another pitch. Eric goes down, traverses the wet slabs and then ties off the rope as a directional. he then begins poking around to find another anchor. Yvonne follows next and I go last – reaching the lower ridge as the storm moves in over us. My ice axe points straight up into the sky and as soon as I reach the lower slabs I rip off my pack, stash it 30 feet away from me and begin tugging on the rope. The rope feeds freely and soon it’s at my feet. Eric yells up – he’s found an anchor. I feed the rope to him and then down climb.
The light is eerie. Blue sky and sunlight to our west – storm clouds above us. Bright sunlight bathes us as Eric raps off towards the glacier.
Five minutes later we hear a “WHOOP!” I peer over the edge to see Eric run out onto the snow elated. The rope reached the glacier!
We’re psyched! Yvonne goes next and I follow a few minutes later!
I reach the snow and give a whoop, clip one end to my harness and begin running downhill tugging the rope out of the anchors.
It’s 8 pm… we’re down and safe! The storm seems to have abated and we all stand around in silence looking up. We then pack up the gear and begin hiking back.
On the way out rain rolls in again and we put our heads down and begin walking out. We reach the car at 10:30… wet, cold and stiff from our 3 hour wait in the rain.
We get home around midnight and limp into bed happy to be warm and dry.
Lower Spire has eluded us again.. alas. I guess we’ll have to go back!