Saturday, May 17, 2008

Two weeks in the Revelations

Sometime around when I first started climbing, I heard rumors of a remote mountain range full of massive unclimbed granite spires. Over the years, I heard more and more about this supposed place and slowly came to believe in its existence.

A brief mention in the purple Alaska Climbing book by Colby Coombs and Mike Wood proved that the Revelations were indeed more than just a sort of Shangri La. Years of combing the American Alpine Journals and using my growing network of local climbers, more and more information about this remote Mecca came to the surface.

"The Revelations have weather like the Kitchatnas (which have terrible weather), but worse...much worse!"

"Royal Robbins got rained on for 23 consecutive days."

"It cost me less to fly to Australia than it did to fly to the Revelations."

"I wasted two weeks waiting in Talkeetna to fly in."

"Get ready to spend a fortune!"

So far, things didn't sound encouraging.
Regardless, I studied and researched these peaks like a college paper, while my college studies took a backseat. The Revelations became a sort of sick fascination which consumed my every thought. Topographic maps became more and more detailed with penciled in routes, several peak names and random scribbles.

In the fall of 2007, the American Alpine Club awarded me with the Mountain Fellowship Fund Grant to attempt an unclimbed 9000' peak in the area. After getting a few friends to commit, it was on.

School finals came in late April and I hurried to get them done so I could leave on time. On Tuesday, April 29th, I gave an 8:30 presentation, handed in my last final, and rushed to get out that day.

Our pilot Rob Jones, was personally recommended from Paul Claus. He had taken most of our gear and headed to the glacier already. Jack from Alaska Air Taxi delivered us in his beaver. The flight in took us past the Tordrillos and Neacolas to the south and Denali, Foraker, Hunter and the Kichatnas to the north.

My stomach twisted in knots as the erratic skyline grew taller and more detailed.
We landed and after a few minutes the pilots took off. We were alone in the middle of nowhere, and it felt awesome! No other climbers, not even another soul anywhere near us. We were out there, really out there.

The SW ridge of the Ice Pyramid from our basecamp.

Constructing a solid base camp was our first priority. Walls were built to protect us from wind and snow drifts. That night we settled in and ate a large dinner, bratwursts.

Day two we spent reconnoitering around our cirque. A pass we had hoped to cross had a large burgeschrund with funky snow above it, so we backed off, not wanting to set off a slab above the hole.
The SW ridge of the Ice Pyramid appealed to the group, so we set off to try it on day three.
We grossly underestimated how long it would take. By 2PM we had reached the ridge proper, only 4 pitches up. Steve couldn't find a good way above on the fifth pitch so we made two full rappels off the ridge. I punched my leg through the schrund on the second rappel and saw only blackness. A look behind showed only three feet left on my lines for the rappel. A close call, but not a big deal.

The ridge would go, but it was going to take a serious alpine style effort. Seth had a good idea when he suggested that we search the area for what he called the "low hanging fruit."

On day four we compiled a bivy system to use on the ridge: A two-man tent with two sleeping bags for three guys. We hiked down glacier to recon other peaks and try it out. At the confluence of the three forks of the Big River Glacier sat a beautiful unclimbed peak labeled 8385' on the topo map.

The Exodus from up glacier.

A long 30 degree snow couloir led to a hanging glacier. A series of steeper couloirs arched towards the summit. We chose the left couloir which appeared to lead right to the summit. Technically easy yet still fun, the couloir yielded to a lower fifth class pitch then to another scrambling pitch to the summit.
We had achieved the first ascent of the Exodus.

Steve, Seth and I on the first ascent of the Exodus

After descending, we made a quick dinner at the boulder bivy then sauntered back to basecamp.
We threw our remaining time and effort at the Ice Pyramid. Confident in our system, we took food and fuel for three days that could be stretched to four.
On day one we climbed 10 pitches to a small bivy ledge on the ridge proper. difficulties up to probably 5.7 were encountered, with the 10th pitch having an awkward off-balance move above shaky gear.

Steve leading on the Ice Pyramid.

Steve seconding on day one.

Steve leading on day one.

Steve on an airy rock ridge.

Three in a two-man tent, no problem!

Day two put us into harder climbing, and we traversed and climbed up an additional five pitches to a protected ledge with a good roof.

Seth dominating pitch 15 on day two.

There was just enough snow to make the moving slow and tedious. Clint leading on day two.

Our bivy spot at the end of day two.

Day three was do or die. I was still feeling charged so I led every pitch, which all had the most technical climbing of the route. The 16th pitch had an airy traverse out of the cave to an awkward overhanging rock step with good pro. I hung my pack so I could free the step, and Steve double carried both his and my pack to the belay another 60 feet higher. What an animal!

The guys weren't feeling like we were going to be able to get up and down the route by the end of the day, but I pressed on. With such a good stretch of weather, we were all just waiting for it to really sock in and get bad. Steve and Seth gave me one more pitch to check it out and see where the route was going and how far we were from the summit. A major gendarme blocked easy access on the ridge proper, so I traversed then dropped down below it. A steep and tricky rock step blocked a thin snow chute. My chi was in check and despite the move being very heady, I committed and pulled it. It was one of those moments a person dreams about, outperforming one's perceived abilities.

I was stoked until I looked down at Seth and his eyes were about as big as grapefruits. I could see he was looking below me. When I looked down, I noticed my last, and only piece had fallen out. "You wanna get some pro in dude?" he said. I got in a purple nut and kept climbing. Needless to say, I got to the top of the pitch and had one more difficult but manageable move to make. Seth and Steve were anxious to get down and the descent was by no means going to be easy. After a long debate, it was decided that retreat was the best option.

Looking down on Seth, Steve and the whole route from the highpoint of the route.

It was hard to bail when I could see the summit so close, 6-8 easy pitches from the top. It would still have taken another whole day to get up and down had we topped out though, so it ended up being for the best I guess.

Multiple raps brought us closer to the ground but the threat of stuck ropes on such a large face was always on our minds. Of course, on the fourth rappel, it happened. Seth and I felt like we were going to puke. I honestly thought I might quit climbing with that single event. 2000' up on a face in a hanging belay with only 40m of rope is terrifying. Luckily Seth took the initiative and reclimbed a difficult pitch to free the rope. We traversed and rappelled to our first bivy after a long day.

Seth Rappelling just before the rope got stuck

In the morning we made four rappels and touched ground by 2pm.

Seth rappelling to the ground on day four.

Sure enough, that evening the weather started to move in. The wind began to blow and snowplumes rose off the summits and ridges of all the surrounding mountains. As our pilot Rob had said, "the Revelations know how to blow!"

The next day we packed up our stuff and hiked out 22 miles over the next two days. We arrived at Rob's lodge and he was there waiting for us with beer and moose steak. It was a perfect ending to a great trip.

As I reflected on the trip over the next few weeks, I realized just how lucky all of us were. Not only was the weather almost perfect, but three good friends safely came out of a remote mountain range as three great friends with memories that will last a lifetime. Of all my mountain adventures, the Revelations inspired me and awed me more than any. Such a remote and untouched area is rare in this day and age. I left with an absolute desire to return and my mind constantly stirs with ideas and future plans. These are the moments I live for.

Thanks to the American Alpine Club for helping to make this trip possible through a Mountain Fellowship Fund Grant.

"If you are lucky enough to be in the mountains, you are lucky enough!" - unknown

More pictures can be found here:

Click here to read a trip report on the American Alpine Club's main website.