Alaska - East Buttress of Middle Triple Peak
Alaska’s Kichatna Spires
Ascent of the 3,300 foot East Buttress of Middle Peak,
using a 27-mile ski-in approach
EXPEDITION SUMMARY by CONRAD ANKER
(First Published in Rock & Ice Magazine, Issue 51, September-October 1992)
The worst was over. In the morning we would begin the trek out of the Kichatnas, back to civilization. Sleep came easily, no harnesses chewing on our waists and no apprehension eating away at our minds.
Suddenly we heard a sharp crack reverberate across the granite walls. High above camp, gravity had been playing with a serac and tons of ice was hurtling in our direction. “This rig might mow us down!” ST drawled in a deadpan manner. We braced the tent walls as a huge blast of air shook the fabric for nearly a minute. Then it was silent again…
Each person has a powerful attraction to some spot on this amazing planet. It may be home or a place of religious significance. For me, Alaska’s Kichatna Spires, exemplifying the power and wild beauty of our planet, provide a continuing sense of reverence and awe. A granite batholith located at the southern end of the Alaska Range, the Kichatnas have spawned seven glaciers surrounded by multi-faceted spires offering numerous 2000 to 3000-foot walls. In 1987, my partner Seth (“ST”) Shaw and I climbed the Kichatna’s Gurney Peak. Looking across the Sunshine Glacier, we were awestruck by the classic proportions of Middle Triple Peak (at 8,835 feet, the second highest summit in the range) and its’ 3300-foot East Buttress.
This prow was first ascended in early June, 1977 by Andrew Embick, Mike Graber, Alan Long and George Schunk. At the time, the route was the limit of the possible; that fact, combined with its natural elegance, earned the buttress a place in Steck and Roper’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. The Salathe’ Wall of the North it may well be; yet, in 14 years the route has not seen a second ascent.
in 1991, ST and I decided to try the East Buttress. In order to give it a sporting chance, and to increase our own challenge, we chose to ski the 27-mile approach from Rainy Pass to the base of the route. This necessitated finishing the route and returning to the Pass by the first week in May in order to avoid trudging through spring-break-up muck. As if to accentuate the earliness of the season, we departed on the 22nd of April – in a ground blizzard.
Our first few miles followed the famous Iditarod dogsled trail, firmly packed and free of obstructions. Unfortunately, mushers steer wide of the Kichatnas, and we were soon skiing through rotten snow. Our commitment became obvious with each mile we plodded away from civilization. If one of us was injured, the other would have to ski out to initiate a rescue. Agreeing that the intrinsic rewards of self-reliance outweighed the risks, we revolted against our liability-obsessed culture and continued on.
As the scenery improved, a flock of curious ptarmigans hopped towards us, sensed we were friendly, then became our travel companions along the frozen bed of the Kichatna River. Several times we intersected bear tracks the size of Frisbees. We wondered if clanging pots and carabiners would scare a bear away or simply act as dinner bells for a thin bruin just out of hibernation. Sleds filled with 21 days of food tugged at our backs.
The first pitches of Alaskan walls can be the trickiest. The rock, only recently exposed after long, cold centuries under the bottom of a glacier, is often steep and loose. As I started over the initial roof, which was first climbed when I was only 15, I contemplated how things were slightly different in 1991. We knew the route had been ascended, and we were armed with an array of modern camming gear that was years from production back in 1997. We fixed two ropes, then rapped down and eyed the horizon in anticipation of a weeklong high pressue system. We had planned on climbing the 1200-foot lower headwall in a single push. To do this we needed good weather, a rare commodity in this part of the world. The clear night had us ready to commit to the route, but by sunrise a storm had silently slithered in.
Rising abruptly out of the Alaska bush, the Kichatnas are a magnet for inclement weather. Sunshine can be obscured with the speed of time-lapse photography, and storms can be interminable. In 1987, we had endured one which kept us tent-bound for 12 hungry days beyond our planned rendevous with the plane!
This time, as we retreated into our VE-25, we knew we were entering an unknown period of voluntary confinement, our release date completely dependent upon the weather. It was just as well, for that evening an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale shook the Alaska Range. The glacier quivered and we suddenly felt as if we had each downed five espressos on empty stomachs. We listened to seracs thundering down from their exposed perches and wondered what a quake of this magnitude would have done to our resolve had we been up on the wall.
After six stormy days, the winds became ferocious, snapping our tent around us. Our determination sputtered, and we felt isolated and dejected. If the storm didn’t lift soon, we would be skiing back to Rainy Pass, hungry for food and starving for a summit. The seventh morning, the weather cleared. Time to “get Western!”
We had five days of food for the route and two slim days’ rations on which to ski out. The weather had been dismal for the past week and could sour on a whim. This was our window. Efficiency saves time- and less time on an alpine route means less suffering and danger. Each of us would lead three pitches before handing over the rack, which began as a set of wires, a few Hexes, ten pitons, two skyhooks, two sets of Friends, thirty carabiners (plus a 100-meter 9 mm. rope and a 60-meter 10.5mm to tie it altogether) – a fair enough rack in Yosemite, but pretty light firepower in view of the monster we were after. We bolsteredour meager equipment with confidence and determination.
Belaying became an exercise in patience. Lentincular clouds, those harbingers of impending storms, skimmed across the horizon, tempting us to yell “Hurry up!” – but the words were irrelevant and a waste of precious energy. Following cracks and dihedrals, we did six “stretchers” to a small snow ledge, where we stamped out a platform for the tent.
Our second day dawned with only a hint of low pressure. We packed and anxiously began climbing the ridge to the base of the upper headwall, where, because it was early May, we encountered more snow. In this section the snow actually made progress less tedious because it allowed us to drag the haulpack upwards with relative ease.
The climbing involved short boulder problems interspersed with pathes of snow. One pitch, a 5.6 section of ridge that we straddled au cheval, had us hollering like cowboys on payday! In rapidly deteriorating weather we reached a small ledge decorated with a faded orange rope and a rusted Lost Arrow piton. This scant trace of humanity revitalized our spirits, and we fixed another 80 meters of rope before setting up our second bivouac on the wall. The cloud ceiling dropped and the wind began to howl, but somehow we felt at peace with both the mountain and ourselves. The gales became our tireless companions, singing to us in eerie, subliminal tones.
The sun didn’t shine the third morning; it was painfully clear that we were in the center of a Kichatna low pressure system. During a brief respite, we dashed from the tent and ascended to our high point. ST must have paced and stomped a mile at the belay stance as I shuffled gear up a snow-packed dihedral. It was good to get the ropes fixed, but to continue in that weather would have been stupid. Although the cliombing was well within our abilities, the storm would decide if we would summit. On our fourth day, the weather really went nuts. We struggled with our willpower; thoughts of the level ground and comfortable sneakers tempted us to retreat from this windy void, but the lure of the summit was stronger.
The restless night wore away to a bleak dawn. As we reluctantly crawled out of the sanctuary of our blue cocoon and ascended the rime-coated ropes for a day of stormy climbing, it was obvious we would be in for even more agony. The pitches above our high point necessitated unearthing protection placements from the drifts of snow and cowering from the wind at the belays.
The weather went downhill as we went up. Soon our eyes were iced shut, and staying warm at the belays became the crux. Five pitches later we finally attained the summit icefield. At that point, we were tempted to call it good enough. We had done the technical portion of the route, and only the plodidng lay between us and the true summit. Sharing my determination, ST led up into the howling void. Another 30 minutes and we were on top. We had fulfilled our dream to stand on top of a nondescript patch of snow with no view. “Big deal,” I thought to myself. “The world is still full of human misery which we haven’t done anything to alleviate!”
However, by challenging our minds and our bodies beyond what we thought was possible, we had in some ways shared the misery of the less fortunate. After19 days with 27 miles of skiing and 3,300 feet of difficult alpine climbing, we turned around and began our crawl back to civilization.
The descent to camp was a horrendous ordeal. The wind and snow circled about us with the energy of a wolf pack closing in on a lame caribou. Our faces barely withstood the abuse of scouring spindrift. We were running on nothing more than our will to survive. A slip would have been out of the question. At 6 p.m. we reached our high camp, jubilanty dug out our tiny tent and brewed out last full dinner. The mountain had tested us, and as if to tell us we had passed, the weather abated to a heavy, windless snowfall.
Anticipation ran high the next morning, our fifth day on the route. We had hoped to find and use the 1977 descent anchors, but unfortunately the first sling, which had seen 14 Alaskan winters, had no back-up. We both hopped on the ancient orange loop- and it held. Rappelling off into the unknown, we tuned in to a new level of awareness. The storm was in its third day and the upper reached of the peak unleashed waves of snow that hissed down over us to remind us who was really the boss in big mountains. It is on descents that you risk that one little irreversibly fatal mistake. Rappel anchors were consumed in 50-meter intervals; a #Friend, a bomber Leeper, a #8 Stopper, a #6 Hex, a 1.5 TCU, a standard angle and a #3.5 Friend.
Time is also irreversible. The instant ST was reaching to clip into the anchor just one final rap above the glacier, the snow ledge he was standing on gave way. I hadn’t knotted both ends of the rope and ST went sailing over backwards into the snowstorm. Suddenly, our reality changed from one of apparent control to one that was way beyond our comprehension. We had been thinking about kicking back inside our tent and had let down our guard.
For ten frightening minutes I hollered for ST. Finally, I heard him moan. He was alive, laying the snow far below with our rope piled all around him. I had no rope. How could I get down? As spindrift avalanches packed wet snow down my collar, I began down-aiding the easy cracks. Wild thoughts accelerated through my mind. Why did this happen? We were already strung out after 19 days in the mountains and now this!
My pack was in the way an I wasn’t going to bivy there, so I pitched it off. As I continued down, the crack got steeper and thinner. Just as the thought of jumping off entered my list of options, the two pieces of gear which attached me to the mountain ripped away. Glancing once off a flake of rock, I landed in seven feet of deep powder. I had fallen 100 feet.
There we both were, floundering up to our armpits on something resembling terra firma. As we wandered down the glacier toward basecamp in a euphoric haze of success and exhaustion, I passed out in the snow a couple of times. This was a preview of our impending ordeal – we were still a long way from civilization.
A ptarmigan, disoriented by the storm, called to us as if we were his kin. The ptarmigan was our first glimpse of life in a week, a sign we had left the dream world of Middle Triple’s East Buttress. Our celebration that night consisted of a few shots of rum and our last PowerBar.
The next morning we headed for Puntilla Lake, with lighter packs and sleds, but weighed down by malnourishment. The snow had been melting, exposing sled tangling alders. We forded the frigid waters of Moose Creek, a wonderful opportunity to wash our feet.
Our last day was one of exquisite suffering. We were down to one soup packet with 12 miles of hard travel left. Two miles from the lodge, the snow pack disappeared. The ground was thoroughly saturated and hiking was a ridiculous proposition, so we just left our skis on and slogged through the quagmire.
When the lodge caretaker stepped out to greet us, he bluntly demanded to know why we were stupid enough to embark on such a frivolous and trying journey.
To climb such a spire in strict style was for us a personal goal, a goal not easy to explain. Every hardship is a blessing, it’s just that sometimes we don’t realize it.
“For fun.” I answered meekly.