First Ascents in the Revelation Mountains

Publication Year: 1968.

First Ascents in the Revelation Mountains

David S. Roberts

On September 23, 1966, Rick Millikan and Art Davidson made the first ascent of Kichatna Spire, the highest of the spectacular Cathedral Spires. At sunset, standing on the tiny summit of this little-known range, they surveyed their horizons. To the northeast and south they could spot the familiar white giants that define the Alaska Range: Gerdine, Dall, Russell, Foraker, Hunter, and, of course, McKinley. But, seventy miles to the southwest, they saw the sky crowded with jagged blue silhouettes; here was a whole range of mountains they did not even know existed.

It took only that view, a look at the maps, and a bit of midwinter nostalgia to lure Art, Rick and me to those mountains the next summer. It took less to persuade Ned Fetcher, Matt Hale, and Rick’s brother George to join us. No mountaineers, we found, had entered this vast, nameless region. Lying on the westernmost edge of the Alaska Range, at the headwaters of three branches of the Kuskokwim River (the Big, the Stony, and the Swift), these mountains are so remote that they may not even be visible from inhabited land. And they offered, it was clear, as tough climbing as we could hope to do, and tougher.

Matt Hale, Ned Fetcher, and I, supported by an AAC Research Committee grant, planned to go in three weeks before the others to hunt for butterflies; we hoped also to use the time to reconnoiter and explore. On July 11, 1967, Jim Cassady, a likeable and skillful young pilot, flew the three of us in from Anchorage, landing at 5500 feet on the long glacier that feeds the south fork of the Big River. The "Revelation Range,” as we began to call it, was all we had expected. Comparable to the Cathedral Spires (somewhat less sharp and less crowded together, but with even greater vertical relief), the Revelations seemed to be made mostly of light-colored granite, varying in quality from superb to treacherous. In such ranges, an 8000-foot peak is a major climb (two expeditions to the Spires, for example, have bagged only one 8000er). The Revelations boasted thirty-four 8000ers and twelve 9000ers, all but a few apparently difficult technical climbs by the easiest routes. With good luck and good weather, we might get up three or four of them.

Our first few days were spent wandering awe-struck around Base Camp. We reconnoitered an important col, and chickened out beneath the slide- strewn slopes of another. We cavorted on the bottom fifteen feet of a 3000-foot face. We climbed an icefall and discovered a pinnacle. Finally, we got up the courage to try a climb, and started up the steep face of an 8600-foot peak. After two short pitches, we were chatting on a sunny ledge. I heard a noise, and looked up. A thousand feet above, a black ceiling arched over us. The sky beyond was littered with falling rocks. I yelled; Matt ducked under a prong; Ned and I shrank into the wall. The rocks shattered on the ledge, or whined by us and thudded into the snow below. Two little pieces hit Ned and me, but left us unhurt. As soon as it was over, we nervously rappelled off and scurried out to the middle of the glacier.

It was hard, then, to feel friendly toward these mountains. Already the major ones were flaunting their formidable personalities. Highest of them all (9828 feet) was a huge tower blandly named (by some soulless surveyor?) North Buttress, a monstrous mélange of hanging blue ice, sharp black rock, steep brown mud, and lush green grass. Seeming to guard our glacier against all invaders, its four-mile-long northwest ridge divided two 7500-foot faces. It was a proud peak; its head, as if aloof from its neighbors, always hid in a local cloud. No mountain west of it in the whole Western Hemisphere stood so high. Up the glacier a few miles lay "Apocalypse” (9345 feet), a massive Gothic structure split down the middle, like McKinley, by the contact line between granite and schist. Just above our Base Camp, "The Angel” (9265 feet), which we had chosen as our main objective, spread its benignly graceful wings. Facing it from the south loomed the gracefully malign "Golgotha” (8940 feet), painted with avalanche streaks and vertical, sunless walls. Nothing looked easy. Below camp, on "Pyramid” (8572 feet) and "The Four Horsemen” (8600 feet), semi-suicidal couloirs snaked upwards toward cols de sac. And from the plane, we had glimpsed the hopeless labyrinth of Mount Mausolus (9170 feet), perhaps the toughest climb in the range.

On our fourth day we set out with ten days’ food, a collecting jar, and an insect net, on our "Butterfly Traverse,” a forty-mile circuit of the main spine of the range. Two nights of dry beds beside warm fires almost restored our faith in the magnanimity of the mountain spirits. On the third morning, however, before we had caught any butterflies, the rains began. They continued almost without pause through the four days it took us to complete our circular stagger back to Base Camp, and through three more of soggy huddling in soaked sleeping bags after we got there.

For the most part, the rain was merely unpleasant; but on the last day of the "Traverse” it became dangerous, when we had to climb ten rock pitches up to a pass near Base Camp. Carrying 50 to 60-pound loads, cramped by our Kelties and hard hats, and drenched to the skin, we found the rock climbing a severe effort; worst of all, each of us had to spend two-thirds of his time standing still, belaying. Soon we began to shiver steadily, and when, just below the pass, the rain turned to wind-blown snow, we verged on exhaustion and exposure. Even a fast stomp back to Base Camp failed to put the warmth back into our bodies.

Only a pair of minor summits (7100+ and 7800+ feet) that we claimed after the rains let up mitigated our impression of the hostility of our surroundings. The first, "Century Peak,” was a delightful seven-pitch climb on crumbly rock, with here and there a tricky move, and one strenuous squeeze-chimney that Matt led nicely. The second, on a many- summitted mountain we called "Hydra Peak,” found us setting out in sunny calm and hurrying back in another torrential rain storm, soaked to the skin all over again. By the time we got dry, three days later, it was August.

On August 2, Cassady brought in Art Davidson and George and Rick Millikan. They cheered, us up immediately. One look at the Angel, on which we had only reconnoitered the approach to the south ridge, had them itching to get started on it. For the next week, we sent a team of climbers up on the mountain almost daily. The others ventured into various corners of the glacier, attacking lower peaks or simply exploring. It was a hectic, exuberant week. Rick and George found that the rock on the Angel was the best around: clean, sharp, and rough. And our ridge turned out to be a rare thing: consistently good climbing, with spectacular exposure every foot of the way, yet nothing on it too hard or too dangerous. On their first try, moving exceptionally fast, and doing almost all the climbing (including some rather bold stretches) unroped, Rick and George climbed the first and apparently more difficult half of the route. "You can’t believe it,” Rick said, when he got back to camp. "Everything just works out.” But it was a big mountain, and would clearly require at least one bivouac, probably two.

Meanwhile Matt and I had climbed the little "Sentry Peak” (7294 feet), which stood at the southeast corner of the glacier; George, Art, and I had half-circled Golgotha in search of a thinkable route on it; and Matt, Rick, and Ned had front-pointed up a steep icefall that was only the beginning of one’s worries on Apocalypse. These were happy days—we never felt overburdened with a single objective, but could wander pretty much where we pleased. A few days later, Art went up with Matt and Ned to film some climbing on the Angel, while the other three of us scrambled up its easternmost subsidiary, "The Cherub.” Finally, Ned and I tackled "The Vanishing Pinnacle,” a 400-foot needle of rock that could be detected only in profile. On it we found the hardest climbing of the expedition (F6, A3), climaxed by a wonderfully exposed, vertical-aid pitch, upon which sweeping ridges converged from either side, meeting in the miniscule summit.

During these days, we also made two serious attempts on the Angel. After several years of experience with expedition-style climbing, we had agreed to try the Angel alpine-style. With almost no fixed rope, sleeping in bivouacs instead of camps, each pair would push for the summit on each attempt, instead of slowly building up the route. On August 7, Matt and I set out in dubious weather with bivouac gear. By noon, a few snowflakes had begun to fall, so we turned back. To our chagrin, the weather improved slightly that night. The next day Rick and George set off. By evening they had set up a bivouac tent on an airy rock platform at 7900 feet. But that night rain fell, and turned to snow by morning. They got wet and cold, and slept very little. It was all they could do the next day to retreat. The rough, clean rock had turned treacherously slippery; what had been unroped scrambling became serious climbing. Weeks later, Matt and I were amazed to come upon anchors that George and Rick had had to leave that stormy day to rappel on nearly horizontal pitches.

On August 11, an incredible storm began. Dark clouds lowered around us, and in the evening vicious gusts of wind whipped across the glacier. We took off the rain flies; even so, the flapping of the tent walls kept us awake. The winds got worse and worse, and in the dark middle of the night two of our tents collapsed, while the third (and strongest) had one corner blown in. We managed to repitch them and wait out the night. In the morning, though, we got an hour of disastrous weather: the winds, unabated, started drilling sheets of icy rain through the tents. We simply could not keep the flies on. Lying inside a closed tent, one’s face would be sprayed with rain, filtered by the merciless wind through the rip-stop walls. Outside, the mountains seemed to be roaring at us, and one could see the violently driven curtains of rain cross the sky like ocean waves. We abandoned the tents in favor of an igloo we had built the day before. There we huddled miserably, cooking hot drinks and shivering. We all agreed that we had never seen a Base Camp storm, even a winter blizzard or a McKinley gale, so threatening to survival. The snow on our glacier was getting shallow—the floor of the igloo had already reached bare ice, over which a steady stream of water ran. The rain attacked everything: food inside cellophane packages inside plastic bags managed to get soaked; a triply-bagged camera was ruined; and our igloo was eroding almost faster than we could pile new snow blocks on it. At last the winds let up somewhat; but the storm lasted three more days. The wettest of us had to stay up all night, with a stove going inside the tents, to maintain even a semblance of comfort. Our jokes turned flat, our dreams grotesque, our tempers short. During lulls in the storm we moved Base Camp a hundred yards closer to the shadow of Golgotha, where the snow was deeper; we also picked up food, pots, and hard hats that had blown as far as a mile from camp.

Once the vicious storm had passed, we never got a comparable one. But a steady diet of rain and wind was to be our fare for the rest of the trip. We could only claim a dubious day here and there for climbing, and we always had to set out under questionable skies. All the same, we were able to amuse ourselves by yelling insults at Huey, the God of Foul Weather, and by devising equally ingenious games. There was touch football, which George mistook for rugby; softball, which George mistook for cricket; and soccer, which George vaguely understood. There was Bleuet-cartridge golf, with ice-axes for clubs, garbage dumps for holes, and tents for traps. There was "hole-ball,” which combined the objectives of basketball with the ethics of war. The sedentary preferred "Botticelli” or chess, or the morbidly exciting board game, "Everest,” which Art and I had invented, replete with F10 pitches, avalanches, Jümar-jams, and lost dexedrine tablets.

For ten days we were confined near Base Camp. Finally, on August 20, I reached the summit of another of the Angel’s shoulders, "The Sylph.” The next day Rick, George, and Ned set off on our fourth attempt on the Angel, while Matt and I took four-day loads north to a neighboring glacier, from which we would attempt the 9000-foot "Mount Patmos.” Art, who had to fly out early, was left at Base Camp, waiting for Cassady’s flight, which had been due six days before. In the afternoon Rick, George, and Ned returned, having run into bad weather at the very beginning of the Angel ridge. Matt and I got rained on, but pitched camp on a sandy moraine at 4300 feet. The next day dawned partly cloudy, but better than we had been having. As we started up a tiring, 3500-foot couloir, we heard a plane. When we saw a Cessna flying up the gorge of the glacier, we knew Cassady had come. Soon we were in a gathering white-out. For hours we toiled up theblind couloir, which got steeper and steeper, until we had to resort to a six-inch-wide snow groove that split two plates of smooth ice. At last we front-pointed a pair of delicate and exposed ice pitches to reach the ridge. From that point on we traveled fifty feet apart, in the eerie, insulated world of white-out, until suddenly we broke through a cornice and emerged on the summit of our first 9000-er.

Meanwhile, back at Base Camp, the others had watched the plane land smoothly. They were a bit surprised when Erik Barnes, Cassady’s partner and our pilot in the Spires the year before, stepped out of the cockpit. Then Barnes told them that Cassady, flying in the Western Chugach a week earlier, had been caught in a downdraft and killed in the ensuing crash. Barnes, handling a plane he had never flown before, had found our base camp only from an "X” marked by Cassady on a large-scale map. He said that when he got there, the runway looked so short that he would not have landed if he hadn’t seen four figures running up it. It was a remarkable bit of flying. He took off with Art, leaving the other three until August 31, our fly-out date. Two days later, Matt and I returned, and only then learned the news about Cassady.

The expedition was nearing its end, and we still had not climbed the Angel. On August 25 Rick, George, and Ned set off on our last try for its summit. But within a few hours they were in the thick of a storm; they were forced to retreat even before they got to the bivouac tent. Two days later, the three of them left for a two-day try on South Buttress (9345 feet), on which Matt and I had spotted a feasible route the day after climbing Patmos. Matt and I planned to use the next day to retrieve the bivouac gear and hardware from the Angel: sadly enough, there wasn’t time left for another assault. But the next day, August 28, dawned utterly clear—the best day of the whole expedition. In record time Matt and I reached the tent, reclimbing the marvelous pitches Rick and George had put in three weeks before. It was our job only to haul down the gear, but we couldn’t resist going a little higher. By two P.M. we had reached the last question mark on the route. We were at 8500 feet, only 750 feet below the summit. We knew it would go. But we had only five pitons, one ice axe, and no crampons, and it would soon be getting late. The only choice was to turn back; but all the way down we kept turning our heads toward the summit and swearing, "If only. . . .”

Meanwhile, Rick, George, and Ned had camped on a moraine at the foot of a 4000-foot couloir on South Buttress. Ned got them off in the morning to the earliest start of the whole trip. For several hours they hiked in cold shadow, feet half-numb; then the sun hit them, and soon they were bathing in the fierce heat. The slope got steeper and steeper,the views more precipitous. Rick led a nice rock pitch that divided the couloir. Behind their backs they were conscious of the ice-crusted north face of the Angel, the summit denied us after six attempts. Perhaps South Buttress would help to make up for it. Just below the top, George got a burst of energy, and suddenly doubled his pace. The summit tower pointed straight into the sky, apparently corniced. George waited for the others just below it; then they roped up, and delicately climbed to the top. It was still before noon. They stood actually above the Angel, on one of the four highest summits in the range, with the best views of the whole trip.

That night we were reunited at Base Camp. The weather, true to form, turned bad, and we spent the next day, the last we could have used, lolling in our unfamiliarly dry sleeping bags. Two days later, Barnes flew us out.

Having to abandon the Angel, after all our attempts, when it was finally within our grasp, was a sore disappointment. And even though we had spent 52 days in the Revelations, we had to leave most of the peaks, including the highest and the toughest, untouched. But we were able to make nine first ascents, and to dream of dozens of others. Moreover, it was probably the most amicable expedition any of us had even been on. Good friends to begin with, we became better ones. The sense of achievement hardens; but one continues to remember the feel of sharp, sun- warmed rock, the shared silence of a summit, the noisy work of building an igloo, or the long conversations shouted over the roar of the wind from tent to tent in the night.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: "Revelation Mountains,” Southwestern Alaska Range.

First Ascents: South Buttress, 9345 feet, August 28, 1967 (Fetcher, G. Millikan, R. Millikan).

"Mount Patmos,” 9000+ feet, August 22, 1967 (Hale, Roberts).

"Hydra Peak,” 7800+ feet, July 29, 1967 (Fetcher, Hale, Roberts).

"The Sylph,” 7600+ feet, August 20, 1967 (Roberts).

"The Cherub,” 7300+ feet, August 4, 1967 (G. Millikan, R. Millikan, Roberts).

"Sentry Peak,” 7294 feet, August 3, 1967 (Hale, Roberts).

"Century Peak,” 7100+ feet, July 28, 1967 (Fetcher, Hale, Roberts).

Peak 6100 feet, August 6, 1967 (G. Millikan, Roberts).

"The Vanishing Pinnacle,” ca. 6000 feet, August 8, 1967 (Fetcher, Roberts).

Personnel: Arthur Davidson, Edwin S. Fetcher, Matthew Hale, Jr., George Millikan, Richard G. C. Millikan, David S. Roberts.