Californians in Alaska

Publication Year: 1970.

Californians in Alaska

Royal S. Robbins

I ADMIT TO reservations about the title of this piece. The human proclivity to categorization being relentless, I am not sure I want to be known as a Californian. We read of astonishing Japanese successes in the mountains and dismiss them, subconsciously perhaps, as done by Japanese. After all, they “climb in a more heroic myth than do Americans.” Still California is rather a long way from Alaska, in distance and in climate. One could get further, perhaps. Say, the swamps of Georgia. But the point is that we were scions of the Yosemite-Sierra Mother Earth, offspring of sun-worshippers. Could we do our thing in the rain and snows and glaciers and cold and harsh conditions of the Alaskan mountainscape? Ever since Chouinard wrote that call to arms in the 1963 American Alpine Journal, we have felt obligated to carry the Yosemite banner into hostile arctic regions of the earth. Hence the title.

Our goal is the Cathedral Spires of the Kichatna Mountains of Alaska. We sleep and drive, sleep and drive. On July 7 we pull into the tiny town of Talkeetna. Don Sheldon, the famous bush pilot, will fly us in. He reminds me of a climber – the nervousness, the quick, alert eyes, the energy. He first strikes one as a bit comical, a bit of a country cousin. He looks harmless, friendly, uncritical. But beneath his boyish exterior, beneath that disarming ear to ear grin, is a very hard man. Once or twice when his face is in repose I see he is finely chiseled and strong.

On July 9 we fly in and land on the Tatina Glacier. “The glacier is big enough,” says Don, “to land a DC-6.” Flowing its sluggard way down a canyon the size of Yosemite, it is surrounded on three sides by savage peaks seven and eight thousand feet high. The easiest route on most of these mountains would be challenging climbs. After the first ascents of these mountains, the story of their great ridges and faces will begin, a tale which promises to be long and exciting.

Don flies off and I am alone. It feels good. Four hours pass before Sheldon returns with my friends. We have done it. We are here, right in the middle of a host of virgin peaks, all waiting to be climbed. We are set to realize our dreams of first ascents in alpine conditions of difficult mountains with hard rock climbing. But the conditions will be even more “alpine” than we expect.

My companions are Joe Fitschen and Charles Raymond. Joe has been a friend from my early climbing days. He was part of that flowering of rock-climbing talent which bloomed in the Los Angeles basin at the end of the Korean War and which dominated California rock climbing until the advent of Charles Marshall Pratt of Berkeley in 1958. Joe achieved notoriety early with his historic 240-foot tumble down the steep slabs of Tahquitz Rock. His route of descent was subsequently climbed and named Fitschen’s Folly in his honor. He was ready to climb again as soon as his eyeballs returned to their normal position from one of contemplating his brain. From this stunt he went on to make the second ascents of El Capitan and of the face of Half Dome, as well as a host of fine first ascents in Yosemite and the Tetons. We had climbed much together and made a good team, largely free of the competitive struggle between individuals which often accompanies the struggle against the mountain. Joe has a beautiful wife, a lovely child, a home in the forest, and a secure position as professor of English – eloquent testimony to man’s need for something else, for adventure, for experiencing his manhood by facing danger.

I first met Charlie at Krehe’s pad in Berkeley. This small, scruffy domicile of Krehe Ritter was once the central meeting place of Berkeley climbers, and for six months housed five in cramped quarters, including Charlie and me. It was a haven for freedom of expression in the uptight world of the late 1950’s. We could play Brahms at ear-splitting levels, sing and shout, folk-dance, eat cheese and bread, and down jugs of wine, and bother no one, except perhaps Charlie, the Spartan of our group, who could usually be found studying intensely in the next room. His diligence was duly rewarded with a Ph.D. in glaciology at Cal Tech, and a position at the University of Washington which he would accept upon our return from Alaska.

We marvel at the mountains. This is it – the beginning of our adventure. They don’t look too tough. If we can get any break with the weather, we hope to get up quite a few.

Four days later we stagger back to camp drenched by a continuing downpour, all illusions of the accessibility of summits ripped from our minds. We have been out 41 hours with only one of rest, attempting North Triple Peak, an 8400-foot tower standing at the head of the Tatina Glacier. Beset by wind and drizzle on the ascent, we fought our way up difficult rock with freezing fingers to arrive on a fog-shrouded hump of snow we thought was the summit. When the fog cleared we could see the true summit apparently 150 feet higher and 400 feet away, but by then it was too late, for snow was falling heavily and we were fatigued. We fought our way to a lower level, where the snow changed to a very cold rain, and thence hour after hour cautiously down in the demoralizing weather to our storm-flattened camp.

It is a pleasant three days we spend in the tent while the wind, rain and snow rage against it. Our strength returns and with it our will to climb. The next day, July 17, the sun emerges after a morning rain. We dry our equipment and prepare to attempt Peak 8100. It sits across Monolith Pass from the Triple Peaks and will give us a good view of the peak we tried as well as of the great northwest face of Middle Triple Peak (on which we entertain certain unrealistic designs). Peak 8100 doesn’t look difficult, but neither did our first adversary.

All night a gusty south wind tears at our tent. At two A.M. it is at its height, whipping about us with depressing violence. I want to sleep another hour, but Charlie asks, “Why not get up now?” No good reason, so up we get. A vile morning. Early morning ughs. I cannot imagine climbing in such a wind, but events prove Charlie right. We reach the summit 11½ hours after leaving camp. We see now that we were only one rope-length away from the top of North Triple. Of Middle Triple, only the top third is visible. It would be a challenging climb in itself, without the 2400 feet of steep, smooth rock below. The sun is bright and pleasant, but below us is a sea of clouds, into which, after an hour of loitering, we descend, to meet increasing snow and wind until we are fighting our way down in a full blizzard. Snow covers the rocks. We can’t see. Traverses that were simple on the way up are serious now. Charlie and I often argue about where the route lies. He is usually right and I am resentfully amazed at the quality of his mind, the sharpness of his memory. Further down my ego is saved by luck as I intuitively select a route which leads us out of the difficulties. We are as long getting off the peak as we were getting on it.

We got one! The second 8000-foot peak to be climbed in three expeditions. Roberts’ party got the best: Kichatna Spire - a superb mountain. Our hands are in bad shape, for the rock is more abrasive than Chamonix granite.

Only two days of rest this time. A raven visits our garbage dump. We name him Nevermore, and name our mountain after the crow. But another mountain is now calling, a big blocky monolith sitting two miles down- glacier with the easiest looking route on its sunny side. It is barely 8000 feet, but Roberts describes it as appearing complicated and tough. It looks bad but is nearly all rock climbing, hence attractive. We hike to its base and climb to a ridge at the beginning of the major difficulties. We pass the twilight here. The wind is now from the north and we think this presages good weather. Not so in the Kichatnas. We rise at six and after two pitches it is snowing. Through intermittent snow we climb all day, traversing a treacherous ridge to stand in fog on the summit at 4:15 P.M., 26 hours after leaving camp. On the descent we are struck by blustery winds and heavy snow, but the snow at least, if not the wind, is intermittent. Finally off the ridge and on to straight-forward rappels, one after another for 1000 feet. It is a grind up the glacier back to camp, and eerie, in the subdued morning light. The cold, arctic wind sweeps up-glacier from the north. It is like a dream of a Dali snowscape. Our figures are spectral – black as death against the harsh whiteness. Overhead the dark grey clouds. Plodding and trudging until we are sick of it and long only to be there. At last we are, at 2:15 A.M., after a 35-hour round-trip. We name it “Mount Jeffers” after the California poet.

On July 23 we awake at three P.M. to an onslaught of sleet and increasing wind. This continues for eight days with little abatement, sometimes raining, sometimes snowing, often both at once. Trapped in the tent, our spirits begin to flag. Time is running out. Are we to get nothing else done? We dearly want to take back one of the Triple Peaks as our grand prize, but they are receiving heavy snow. Should we again try North Triple Peak? The rappels are set up and we know the route. But go all that way for 50 vertical feet? We finally decide on South Triple Peak, which has the distinction of being rated by Roberts as probably the most difficult mountain in the range. The best route lies on the south side and should clear of snow relatively quickly. We have only a few days left. All hangs on the weather.

At 7:30 A.M. on July 31 the sky is clear, the temperature 27°. We climb over Monolith Pass and wend a tortuous way down Monolith Glacier. The icefall is nightmarish, and I almost get beaned by falling ice when we venture close to the still self-denuding south face of Nevermore. We camp by the snout of the glacier at the end of our first rainless, snowless day. A northwest wind dissipates the evening clouds. It looks good.

We arise at three A.M. and depart at five. The air is cool but not cold, the sky mostly clear. After reconnoitering the south face from a glacier at its base we decide on a southwest ridge approach. Contrasting sharply with the light granite above, the dark schists lead us to a notch in the ridge at an elevation of 6300 feet, 3000 feet above our camp at the foot of the glacier. We discover a good ramp on the west side which slashes up and leads to the great south bowl. Charlie leads across to a minor ridge which we in error follow for three pitches, then make three diagonal rappels to the east, partly crossing the bowl. After we scramble down a gully for 100 feet, I lead further east and turn the corner out of the great south bowl. We ascend the ridge between the south and central bowls – superb climbing – moving slowly eastward. Most of the time we are enveloped in thick cloud and have difficulty finding our way. At nine P.M. we turn a corner to find a narrow, lonely, snow-covered ledge just as rain begins. Our spirits sag. Are we again to be beaten by the weather? At 3:30 A.M. the rain has stopped, the eastern sky is bright yellow through ragged clouds. High mountains near Denali are in sight. A break! We are going to get it after all! We traverse east under a formidable wall, with one hard pitch of mixed free and aid climbing to turn a corner into an ice gully leading to the summit ridge. The rain returns, fine and hard-driven by an ever- increasing wind. We cross the gully and ascend to a notch in the ridge where we drop our packs. The weather is quickly deteriorating, the winds ferocious, the rain turning to snow. We think about the descent as we dash for the summit. It means much to us and is worth a little risk. We do the last 500 feet in an hour and stand on the summit at noon in a snowy gale. But now we have got to get down. We quickly descend, gather our packs, and climb westward along the ridge to avoid traversing the central bowl below. A bit of a risk. We could get hung up. After climbing as far along the ridge as possible, we begin our rappels into the mist. It’s raining heavily and very cold. We are fatigued and soon soaked to the skin with the cold rain. Shivering continuously, we begin to understand how a man dies of exposure. The last numbed rappel is finished at ten P.M., and we reach our tent at midnight.

It is a long haul the next day over Monolith Pass in a heavy rainstorm. Our tent is down and flooded and we pour the water from it. Much of our gear is soaked, but it does not matter now. We are satisfied.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Cathedral Spires, Kichatna Mountains, Alaska.

First ASCENTS: “Mount Nevermore”, 8100 feet, July 18, 1969, NCCS III, F7.

“Mount Jeffers”, 8000 feet, July 22, 1969, NCCS III or IV, F8, Al. “Sasquatch” (South Triple Peak), 8303 feet, August 2, 1969, NCCS IV, F8, A2.

PERSONNEL: Joseph Fitschen, Charles Raymond, Royal S. Robbins.