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Arctic Rage

This week we are re-posting Kevin Mahoney’s account of Arctic Rage (WI6+ R A2, 4500′) from Alpinist 8. Mahoney and partner Ben Gilmore climbed this new route on The Mooses Tooth in March 2004. Mahoney recalls:

“Writing ‘Arctic Rage’ was as much a chaotic experience as the climb itself. Christian Beckwith [Alpinist‘s former editor-in-chief] contacted me the day after I returned home from Alaska and asked if I was interested in writing about my climb. He needed a feature for the next issue as one had fallen through. When I asked for the deadline, he told me ‘two days out.’ I only had four days before I left home again for my Rock Guides Exam with the American Mountain Guides Association. So instead of the rescue training I was planning on, I sat in front of the computer for twelve hours. The best I could muster was selecting the slides I would submit. Day two was more productive, as I wrote the whole story nonstop and submitted the first draft. Fortunately, Christian was a tolerant editor.” –Ed.

The east faces of The Bear Tooth (far left) and The Mooses Tooth, showing Arctic Rage (VI WI6+ R A2, 4500′, Gilmore-Mahoney, 2004). The Dance of the Woo Li Masters (VI WI4+ M6, Bridwell-Stump, 1981) shares the start with Arctic Rage, then moves left to take the weakness on the left-hand flank of The Mooses Tooth to the summit. The Beast Pillar (VII A5 5.10b WI4+ M6, Bridwell-Pfinsten, 2001) is a direct start to The Dance of the Woo-Li Masters. For a complete overview of routes on The Mooses Tooth, see Alpinist 4, Pages 20-37.

[Photo] Roger Robinson

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN I CARED. I cared about climbing in the best style possible. I cared how long it took. I cared what people thought of my efforts. I wasn’t basing my ego on my climbing; I was hiding my insecurities behind its thin veil. Inadequacy gnawed at me. Living the life of a climber on the fringes of society, I was falling short of expectations, both my own and those of others.

Now I no longer cared. I had left it all behind–checked it with my valuables back in Talkeetna. What was driving me now was rage. It was not the pissed-off-tantrum rage that had me punching walls in high school, nor the foul-mouthed-insult rage that came out when Massachusetts drivers cut me off every time I went to Boston. This was Zen rage: absolute detachment from the world, from the storm, from reason. It was the driving force that fed my body when the Clif Shots had run out, when the moment was real and the focus absolute. There was no foul language, no anger, just a single-minded tunnel vision of what needed to be done. More peaceful individuals might have called this state meditative or being in the zone, but such words had no place for me now. Pull on my hood, cinch up my gloves, lock down my leashes, tighten my grip on my Cobras. It was time to get this thing done.

Ben Gilmore topping out of the Cauldron on the first attempt. The Cauldron, a tight, narrow, eighty-meter ice funnel, is the only technical part of the climb shared with the 1981 masterpiece, The Dance of the Woo-Li Masters.

[Photo] Kevin Mahoney

BEN GILMORE IS TALL, LEAN, STRONG AND QUIET. In groups, he’s most often found in the corner engaged in conversation with another person about something other than climbing. Like me, he is from New England. We both grew up in small, blue-collar towns with long winters. Our families instilled a similar work ethic in both of us: work hard, finish what you start. Climbing was a luxury, but we applied to it the same ideals.

Our partnership started six years ago on an expedition to Canada’s Waddington Range, when we climbed the north face of Mt. Hickson. Our strengths seemed to complement one another’s: Ben had a stronger background on rock, and I had been spending all my free time swinging ice tools. Soon, though, the lines started to blur, and we just climbed whatever pitches fell our way. Since that first meeting we have been on seven expeditions and many climbing trips together. We each have done big climbs with other partners, but every year we seem to find a way to pair up in the mountains. In September 2000 Ben and I flew to the Buckskin Glacier below the east face of The Mooses Tooth with Scott DeCapio, Steve House and Mike Woods, looking for ice routes that had formed during the melt/freeze cycle of early fall. At the time only one line existed on the 4,500-foot east face. In March 1981 Jim Bridwell and the late Mugs Stump established The Dance of the Woo-Li Masters (VI 5.9 WI4+ A4) in perfect style, ending a quest that had involved more than a generation of top alpinists from both Europe and the States to be the first to climb the face.

On the right-hand side of the face was an obvious line, but that September the only ice seemed to exist to the left, around the corner…and, quite simply, the east face looked too hard. Ben, Steve and I did a new line on the southeast face that had some amazing climbing and great bivies, but the east face pulled at us every trip we made below it. The east face gets under your skin. Once you have skied beneath it and scoped out a line, it gets into your head. Fear of the unknown keeps it down, but it’s always there, quietly nagging at you. Bridwell may have had that same nagging feeling: he returned in May 2001 with Spencer Pfinsten to do the second ascent of the face via the Beast Pillar (VII A5 5.10b WI4+ M6), a direct variation to his historic line.

Now in March 2004, Ben and I were back for another crack. Supported by the Mugs Stump Award, we were going to answer that little nagging voice in the back of our heads.

PAUL RODERICK LANDED US on the Buckskin Glacier on March 20, directly below the couloir between The Mooses Tooth and The Bear Tooth. We quickly got to work. The skies were clear and the temperatures mild, but it was winter in the Alaska Range, and winter storms in the Alaska Range do not care how well prepared you are. We dug a quincy for our kitchen shelter, installing it with discipline.

The following day we skied down the glacier to see our line. Our intent was to do the route all free in a single push with only a rack, a stove and belay parkas. No bivy gear. It goes to show just how delusional you can be in the comforts of home with a thermostat and a roof overhead. On the glacier we realized the obvious: the face was too difficult for us to climb without sleep.

We returned to camp, racked up and organized, then cracked open a bottle of Canadian Hunter
Whiskey in honor of the first-ascent team. Toasting their style and boldness with a couple of fingers poured into our plastic cups, we tried to settle our nerves so we wouldn’t be awake all night.

At 4 a.m. the stove hissed, burning our bagels as we focused on the smell of coffee rising from our mugs. Silence was too much. “Ben, put on Freddie’s mix!” I muttered across the quincy. Soon Jane’s Addiction was whining above the hum of our stove. Sealing up camp in the dark, we clicked into our skis and silently glided across the glacier.

Sunrise found us a thousand feet up the approach gully pulling out the ropes. Bridwell and Stump had dubbed this first bit of climbing–the only technical climbing we would share with their route– the Cauldron, “a steep, narrow ice venturi 250 feet long,” as Bridwell described it, “which collected every minute spindrift slough and amplified it into a blinding, freezing torrent of misery.”

Another 1,000 feet of fifty-five degree snow with near-vertical steps brought us to the base of the real climbing. Temps were mild if not warm–a comfort but also a serious concern. I took the first block, starting up a tight, vertical, sustained chimney with sporadic sploshes of ice on one
side. There was just enough ice to call it an ice pitch and just enough gear to call it reasonable. When my calves screamed for mercy, I braced a shoulder against the rock; when the ice was too thin to take a pick, I wiggled up the chimney a few moves to gain the next ice patch. Gear was hard won and time-consuming. After sixty meters, I scraped, chiseled and hammered together enough pieces to feel good about the anchor, hauled the packs and brought Ben up.

When he arrived I wearily took off for the next pitch, agreeing to stop at the first sensible bivy sight. I exited the chimney and the climbing eased off, only to rear up again. This time it was vertical “snice”: icicles loosely connected by blowing snow. It looked like it should hold a pick and be climbable, but my picks just sliced through the powdery mess, offering no security at all. My last piece of protection, a ten-centimeter screw (“but it has a Screamer!”), was twenty feet below me. Every time I tried to gain some kind of purchase I was left trembling, hoping my balance wouldn’t fail and my front points would stay put.

After twenty minutes of clearing snow and junk ice I found the closest thing to a crack that the compact granite offered and stopperheaded a number four nut, equalized it with two junk pitons and pretended it would hold more than body weight. My next job was simple: find a place to bivy.

Alpine climbing is a series of unknowns all lined up. You find the answers to them one by one, and if you’re lucky you might get to the top of something. The climbing question had thus far been answered. I had been trying, without much luck, to find the answers to the gear and anchor questions on this pitch. Now, where were we going to sleep?

A vertical mass of snice had formed beneath an overhang; it was about twenty feet to the rock above with no obvious way to reach it. I set to work. After several false starts, I sliced through into air. A few more slices and a window opened to answer the anchor and bivy unknowns. Two hours later Ben and I were laid out in what we dubbed the Duplex: a two-section snow cave with separate windows and anchors.

A good night’s sleep and a stunning sunrise fed our hopes for the day. From the rooftop of his side of the Duplex, Ben reached high enough to get a stick in good ice. Forty meters of overhanging, thin, alpine ice, a mix of water ice, neve and snice with periodic rock gear and a thirty-foot runout later, we had our warm-up: a tenuous WI6+ R pitch we called the Balcony Exit.

The next pitch looked hard, but Ben was psyched and the sun was out. After more steep alpine ice with hard-won rock gear, Ben was ninety feet up and faced with an offwidth that was just past vertical. He dug out a chockstone at its base and slung it, but the foot-wide crack offered nothing else for at least another thirty feet.

“I can see up into the offwidth,” Ben yelled down. “It looks like cavity hoar with a glaze of snice!”

“Well, you better get after it, but be safe,” I responded. I didn’t take his concern seriously. Ben always expresses concern right before he sends his hardest pitches.

Many minutes passed with a series of grunts and falling snow, but barely any movement. Then an anguished sigh. “I can’t do it!” I didn’t really understand what he was saying. Ben can always do it. “What’s the problem?” I yelled up. “It’s really hard climbing with no ice or gear,” he responded. After a few more anxious tries he was back at the belay. “Why don’t you give it a try?” he told me. “It’s too sketchy for me.” This had never before happened to us in the mountains. We have been turned around many times because of weather or injury or gear failure, but never because we couldn’t climb something.

“If you can’t do it what’s the point in me trying?” I asked nervously. “We can’t go down until we’ve both failed!” he reasoned.
Somehow, I saw his logic and headed up with the rack. After struggling up the start of the pitch on toprope I entered the offwidth. I nervously gained his high point multiple times, only to end each attempt with the same whimpering, followed by retreat.

Neither of us was willing to risk a huge fall over a marginal chockstone 2,500 feet up the east face of The Mooses Tooth in late March. If the climbing were at all secure it might be reasonable, but it was harder and more insecure than anything we had ever done, even with bolts nearby. A fall was certain, and there was no way to aid the crack. Temperatures were too warm, the face was shedding large quantities of snow and ice, and our fuel was low.

Four hours later we were back in camp, defeated.

THE MORNING AFTER OUR RETREAT we woke to snow and bitter, cold temps. Maybe someone was looking out for us? The next six days blended together, each one bringing new snow. We passed the time skiing up and down the runway trying to keep open our only escape to the real world. We weren’t willing to accept total defeat, but the weather window wasn’t getting any bigger.

Reluctantly we decided to try another objective: an unclimbed dihedral system on the southeast face of The Bear Tooth. The line looked appealing, but the approach, a 1,500-foot gully guarded by seracs and avalanche slopes, was scary. There was no sign of any recent serac activity though, and, after a break in the weather, we reasoned impatiently that the gully had had time to clear itself. Putting all sense aside, we skied up with enough gear, food and fuel to stay on the route until our time ran out.

As we skied up the avalanche cone, we joked about the nature of our logic. I took my camera out to get a photo of the lunacy, when a white cloud filled my viewfinder.

“Avalanche!” we both yelled.

I fumbled to put my camera away while Ben tried to point his skis downhill, huge pack and sled in tow. Instantly we realized there was no hope of escape and instead braced for the blast. Light tingles of powder tickled my face. A wall of wind filled my hood, knocking me off balance.

Then, quiet. It had only been a powder blast. There was no debris. We gathered ourselves up and headed shamefully back to camp.

WITH FOUR DAYS LEFT IN OUR TRIP we decided to go back up on our original objective. We let the face clean itself for a day, then left camp on March 31 at 4 a.m. with four days of food and fuel, a rack up to a number four Camalot and extra cord for aiders.

The first 2,000 feet went smoothly, albeit with regular intervals of spindrift. The temps were significantly colder than they had been on our previous attempt, and our gloves were soon frozen stiff from all the snow climbing. With club hands, Ben started the Chimney pitch, moving up at a steady pace. At the end of the rope, he searched for the anchor I had used eight days earlier. The spindrift of the past week had coated the rock of the chimney, making a search for cracks tedious and often futile. Time started to tick; profanities began to fly. Bitter cold stole away at Ben’s patience until he finally got me on belay. The climbing was still enjoyable, but the temperatures were not.

One more pitch put us in the Duplex, where we settled in for the night. Ben used his wristwatch computer to gauge the cold. The temperature plunged to zero before the watch froze up and the LCD screen stopped working. Perhaps it was better not to know.

My side of the Duplex had suffered damage. What had been a cave was now more of a ledge with half walls and a meager roof. I curled up and fell asleep regardless, only to wake short of breath, packed beneath a couple feet of snow. I was being buried ever so slowly by the constant spindrift. From within my bivy sack I pushed the snow back with all my might, then fell back to sleep.

The ability to sleep anywhere and through anything is often a blessing for alpine bivies. This night it meant slowly being buried alive. I awoke again at 5:30 a.m., struggling once more for breath. I was ninety percent buried. After what seemed like an eternal struggle, I emerged from beneath the snow. This time I chose not to lie back down. Instead I sat with numb hands and frozen feet wondering what mischievous prank my wife, Claire, was pulling on her family for April Fools’ Day.

This was our day of reckoning. Would we be able to get past our previous high point? We agreed that if I couldn’t do it we would head home.

I pulled the block to start the day, then re-led the Balcony Exit pitch, finding it harder than I had remembered. Once Ben gained the belay we talked strategy. I would climb another weakness, right of our high point, then try to link it back to our line above the offwidth. I wanted to free climb, but I was prepared to pull, hang, grovel and make a deal with the devil to get up the pitch.

My hands were already frozen when I left the belay. I had to stop with every other move to swing my hands and curl my fingers back into my palms. This was going to take some time.

Three hours later I had pulled, hung and groveled, but I had also gained higher ground. Now I was squarely stuffed in the entrance of what looked to be an endless run of ice filling a tapering chimney.

Ben followed the pitch with the same mentality I had used to get up it, then took the rack and eagerly headed out. Momentum was on our side; we had pulled through our previous high point, and the ice above looked climbable. As soon as Ben started up, however, I realized the obvious: I was a sitting duck for everything he sent down.

I hid under the packs as best I could, but still I took some hits, first a few times in the thigh, then one straight to the face. Blood dripped down instantly. I wiped it clean; soon it was frozen and forgotten. All I cared about was the rope steadily moving through the belay device.

When I followed the pitch I realized that Ben had just led what was possibly the most perfect sixty-meter stretch of ice I will ever experience. The chimney measures four feet across at the belay, then rears to ninety-five degrees as it tapers down to eight inches before crossing over to a new, ice-filled crack. Every move was steep and required precise tool placements so as not to shatter the ice. Feet were often on rock; gear was run out but good when you found it. The setting, 3,000 feet up the east face, made this pitch, the Pipeline, the single most amazing stretch of rock and ice either of us had ever climbed.

Two more cold pitches of moderate ice with a few scratchy moves over rock and a little simulclimbing gained us a snow ridge where we could dig in. Two hours later we were tight in a cave we dubbed the Cocoon. We quickly devoured our ramen noodles and huddled with our hot-water bottles trying to fight off the cold, enjoying the clear skies and the fact that we were above the crux of the route.

Four and a half hours later we woke to swirling wind and falling snow.

Gilmore Starting up the Pipeline (“the most amazing stretch of rock and ice either of us had ever climbed”) on the successful ascent.

[Photo] Kevin Mahoney

ZERO VISIBILITY, zero communication, zero baggage in my mind. Blindly, I swung a tool above my head, weighted it, kicked my feet in, pulled up, then swung my other tool. At first, I got full swings, the solid dull sound of neve eating my pick to the shaft. Soon though, my swings were cut short as the angle reared to vertical. My first swing ended in a shattering of blue, hard ice; a second swing set the pick into the frozen steel.

Time dissolved. The rope came tight. Blinded by the constant pounding of a spindrift so intense I felt a kinship to the salmon fighting the currents of Alaskan rivers in search of their place of origin, I simply kept climbing. There was no hope of communicating or stopping to place an anchor. There were few screws between us. The ones that were there would have to do. A partnership matures when trust is absolute and the knowledge of one another’s ability answers the questions that can’t be asked.

We kept simulclimbing until it was possible to break right out of the bottleneck couloir that had funneled every flake of snow onto our shoulders. Shotgun Alley was behind us. From this point we resumed pitching it out with proper belays, even though the climbing was easier, to honor the rubric Murphy has given us.

“Climb, Ben!” I yelled as loudly as I could. Three hard tugs on the rope. Nothing–nothing but the raging wind and snow that had been blasting constantly for the last six hours. I kicked my heels deeper into the summit ridge and braced myself for another three hard tugs. The wind sent a gust that folded me in half. I got ready to yell again when the rope moved, slowly at first, then faster.

I knew exactly where he was as he climbed: now he was on the blue steel ice at the top of the couloir; when the pace quickened he was on the neve; then he was traversing under the cornice; now he was breaking through.

Moments later he was in front of me, collapsing to his knees.

“We did it!” he yelled through heavy breathing. “We fucking did it!” I just yelled. Nothing at all coherent; it was purely a release of all my anxiety. We had reached the top in a raging storm. The summit? We had no idea. Our high point was the obvious completion of our line. We sat on a flat surface in zero visibility. We knew we were somewhere on the summit ridge, but we couldn’t risk losing our bearings to find the highest point.

There is a moment of decision, a moment of acceptance that must happen once you realize what it’s going to take to get the job done. An open-minded willingness to commit. Climbing through the storm felt as normal as climbing in the sun had the day before.

Seven sixty-meter, V-thread rappels brought us back to the Cocoon bivy, where we spent a comfortable night sheltered from the storm. We woke to cloudy skies and light snow. Waves of anxiety came over me. I had dreamed throughout the night of avalanches ripping down the face, pulling our anchors. Ben calmed my nerves by grabbing the rack. Nineteen rappels later we were back on the glacier, plowing our way back to our skis.

It had been snowing hard for twenty-four hours and the constant stream of avalanches had filled in the bergschrund, but we still expected to see the tips of our skis sticking out of the snow. Instead, nothing. Endless white. We had left the skis in a place that was protected and set back from most of the debris. Was it possible they were totally buried? An hour and a half of aimlessly searching confirmed that they were gone.

Waist-deep wallowing across half a mile of flat glacier, a few wands barely visible, brought us back to our buried camp. Our dome tent was still standing beneath twenty inches of snow, and our quincy was fine. We cleaned up camp and started to celebrate.

The next day we woke to fourteen inches of new snow. Pick-up day. The clouds were still thick and the snow hopelessly deep. Could Paul land in these conditions? When he left us on the glacier two and a half weeks earlier, he told us to pack out the runway at least 400 yards with our skis. Well, if we had had skis we could try to pack out the bottomless new snow that had fallen, but without skis it was going to be torture.

After coffee Ben pulled on his gaiters and headed out. Reluctantly, I followed. Four hours later we had managed to wade belly deep, tracking out a couple hundred yards of runway. Would it be enough? Exhausted, we piled up our gear, wondering if Paul would be able to fly in this weather and land in this snow. The suspense was murder, so we returned to wading.

What seemed to be all at once, the skies started to clear and we heard an unmistakable, far-off buzz. Paul was flying!

Gilmore fighting icy gloves on the descent. Storms kept the descent interesting, spicing it up with the threat of avalanches.

[Photo] Kevin Mahoney