American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Northwest Face of Kichatna Spire

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  • Publication Year: 1980

Northwest Face of Kichatna Spire

James D. Bridwell and Andrew Embick, M.D.

EMBICK: FIXATION IS NOT logical or rational but mine had grown stronger over almost two years, for an ice-encrusted, storm-beset granite tooth in the Alaska Range. The enticement and frustration I felt had been shared by others, for few rock spires—the Moose’s Tooth and Cerro Torre come to mind—have so easily and consistently shrugged off climbers. At least seven consecutive failures left little question as to the difficulty of this peak, and its great beauty has been a lure. The first attempt on Kichatna Spire was successful; in 1966 Art Davidson and Rick Millikan reached the summit via a hidden couloir on the northeast side which gained them half height. Climbing very late in the season, the six-man team worked for three weeks on the route; fixed ropes were necessary. (See A.A.J., 1967). Since then, besides serious attempts turned back by blank rock, huge walls and bad weather, other parties have been unable even to fly in, or upon arriving on one of the glaciers radiating octopus-like from this, the most central and highest of the group, immediately decided to do something smaller. In visitors to the area, intimidation, almost paranoia has long been engendered, starting when the Vulgarians first visited and “the immensity of the walls surrounding them suddenly took on the proportions of an absurd joke.” (A.A.J., 1966)

Three previous trips to the area had eased some of my fears, though not all. The northwest face seemed the most feasible, but it is ledgeless for most of its 2700 feet. Al Long had described his party’s experience on a try of the east face in 1978; bivouacking in hammocks in a storm, they nearly froze. Wanting to avoid repeating that horror show, or the use of much fixed rope, I spent the spring building a hanging tent. It would only hold two; previously a four-man party had seemed barely large enough to provide security. Now, I didn’t want to dilute the thrill of leading or the work of hauling or widen the margin between the strength of the team and the defenses of the mountain. But when I thought of soloing, my nights became filled with cracks expanding, crevasses gaping, knife-like flakes and falling ice. Luckily John Bouchard agreed to come and the fearful visions subsided.

John’s nerve and speed are of legendary proportions and despite his intensity and concentration on climbs, he is an amiable partner in a storm-bound tent. In late June we tried the northwest face. Initially we felt able to cope, at least marginally, with a barrage of falling ice, huge loads, days of storm, and the climbing which was painstakingly slow aid, free moves with hook protection when the poor cracks in our right-facing dihedral ran out, wild laybacking on expanding flakes, and delicate maneuvering past hanging blocks. Thirsty, we looked in vain for snow to melt. The tent did work; it was a shimmering yellow Da Vinci parachute, a home in the sky.

Our small bolt supply was being exhausted too fast, and we retreated, unwilling to risk being unable to descend. But aside from the proximal or direct cause of our retreat, or of any retreat, there are always others: for us, the isolation, our seeming slowness, and the unknown of the route above. And there are always doubts afterward, about the necessity of retreat, about our resolve, about ourselves. If the mountain’s real difficulties forced us down, a blow had been struck to our egos. And if we had simply magnified the problems, our fear and indecision had crippled us and our confidence was eroded further. To resolve uncertainty, then, is a reason to climb, and for me to return to Kichatna Spire. Returning might resolve what lay high on the mountain, and what lay in my mind.

Bridwell: On a cool May evening in Yosemite, Andy joined me outside the Mountain Room Bar with a glass of white wine and showed me his photo journals of the Spires—glossy 8x10s of fantastic walls, buttresses and an amazing rock and ice tower he said was Kichatna Spire.

Embick: Jim was a natural choice of partner; I’d first met him ten years ago when he led a rescue of my partner from the Lost Arrow. But I was in too much awe of him still, and why not? The hardest of the Valley hard men, the legends had grown up deservedly around him. We’d never actually done a climb together, and I couldn’t tell at the time how much he wanted to go, or how disappointed he was when he learned that I was going to make a first try with John.

Bridwell: I felt like Charlie the Tuna thrown back after taking hook, line and sinker. Then I got a letter that they had failed because of blank rock but that there was another line which might go. Could I come? I wrote back I’d be in Anchorage August 17th.

Embick: We were very late for an Alaskan climb; the Talkeetna pilots knew of no one else in the range. I wondered if Jim, on his first trip to Alaska, realized how bad the weather could be. Then I thought of his amazing ascent of Cerro Torre and my doubt evaporated. His confidence was solidly based and contagious as we got to know each other better sorting gear and waiting for flying weather.

Bridwell: The route looked like a real classic, a crack system perched on the edge of a magnificent vertical-to-overhanging prow leading to thin ice over 60° rock slabs. The ice coming off from 1300 feet above made us gun-shy on the schrund and we flinched from buzzing, whining fragments, only escaping their harassment when we reached the wall. The rock climbing started with some aid which would have been fun—a couple of knifeblades and a hook to some funky pins—but ice water was pouring down. The climbing was freezing wet misery, my fingers were useless sticks and water ran into my boots. In three days we managed to do four pitches, hauling and fixing. The O’Neill wet suit I’d used on the Torre really helped, as did the twenty Friends we had along.

Embick: Jümaring, I was amazed at the spacing between protection Jim had placed while apparently free-climbing through running ice water. He admitted he’d just been leap-frogging Friends for aid but I was glad to let him lead. The first day we went down in the dark; on the second, he was forced into a waterfall and down into the sun. On the third, in the same waterfall, I froze. Mare’s tails were coming from the south, from the storm-spawning Gulf of Alaska.

Bridwell: The route was in shadow and cold water sucked warmth and strength from our bodies and emptied any joy or motivation from our minds. But the weather held good and on the fourth day I miraculously found the small gold cross my wife had given me and I had worn on Cerro Torre. It was lying in a melted-out footprint on the hike up, and I knew all would be well.

Embick: I tried to jümar rapidly and stayed pretty dry but I was feeling butterflies while changing to EB’s at our high point. Above me was an off-width crack, overhanging for 130 feet and ending at a huge roof. At least it was dry. It had been in Yosemite that the techniques required for these too-big-to-jam, too-small-to-chimney horrors were worked out: The knee locks and heel-toes and arm-bars and elbow locks. I tried to remember what Dale Bard had written in the Chouinard catalog and I was glad I’d spent so much time this spring in Arizona in one of these horrors, struggling. It had been right-side-in then too, as well as seven inches, like this one, the worst size. Seven inches is too big for me to lock a knee in, and too small to jam an elbow in, so the same things were required now as then: effort, a whole-body effort which left me cramping and gasping; delicacy, to use what crystals there were outside the crack by wide stemming and inside as finger holds to supplement my tired arm-bars; and control, to pump, and pay attention, and relax and move fast enough and move slowly enough and not slide out or burn out before I finished. Luckily we had two tube chocks.

We hung the tent up under the roof, protected from running water and falling ice. Jim traversed out to the lip then exited above, water draining off his chin and elbows and gear and shoes. My pitch beyond was in the glorious sun and I lingered, drying myself and absorbing warmth and the panorama around me, granite and ice and sky.

Bridwell: My toes had become numb blocks of wood but inside Andy’s home-made wall hotel the returning blood brought stinging pain. Andy returned down the fixed line into space beyond the roof and jümared in to the anchors and the tent. His usual attention to detail had been evident in its design, materials and construction and we were able to unrope and hang up our wet clothes. The stove’s purr filled the tent with security and warmth.

Embick: We decided to go left near the top of the prow, chancing the huge roofs and thin ice rather than prolonging our time on the wall. My pitch to the lip and the beginning of the ice was awkward and strenuous. It began with knifeblades, rising up and out in a great arc as I leapfrogged Friends through more water, and finished with more knifeblades tied off, behind flakes above the roof. I was chopping away ice from the slabs above while my feet still dangled below. Higher, the ice was too thin except in a narrow runnel diagonalling up and left.

Bridwell: The climbing went much faster now. We could see the summit ridge far above us and to the left, an ice sheet like, I imagined, the north face of the Droites. Ice blocks rumbled off into space at intervals and we were finally free of the constant wretched flow of ice water.

Embick: We swung 330-foot leads on the long 9mm rope with an occasional screw or knifeblade or Friend for protection. In places, the ice was hardly deeper than crampon points but we moved as rapidly as possible, having left all our gear except a light pack to jümar with. One by one lesser peaks fell below us and we wove through a maze of rock towers, headlong in anticipation. Finally, in fading light, the phantasmagoric cornices of the north ridge and the vast grey depths of the east face were below us.

Bridwell: On the summit I knew it was going to be a cold night, one the lads would remember. I greeted my jubilant partner with unfelt gaiety. Why were we here, for what purpose had been the fear and cold and struggle to get here? We didn’t linger, but only paused and untangled the frozen ropes to rappel.

Embick: A pitch down, we chopped a hollow under a boulder into a small ledge and huddled, freezing through the long night. Jim’s Fred Beckey-model bivouac sack (a plastic garbage bag) emitted Camel smoke at intervals and we shivered sleeplessly.

Bridwell: Someday I’ll bring a notebook and pencil to record what actually happens during a long, cold night. The light came with painful slowness but fatigue faded as a rosy glow lit up the tops of the peaks and we started moving down the rappels.

Embick: We descended rapidly at first but as we gathered gear we’d

left we were weighted down to a ponderous slowness. Tired as we were after six days and unable to relax, we were just barely able to deal with the complexity of getting the bags and ourselves back under the roofs. At the tent we filled a bag with soft things and threw it off. It fell free 700 feet to the ice far out from the wall and shot over the schrund to the sunlit glacier below. We joined it hours later, at the close of an Indian summer, feeling more an easing of tension than jubilation. That would come later.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cathedral Spires, Kichatna Mountains, Alaska Range.

Ascents: Kichatna Spire, 8985 feet, second ascent, new route on northwest face; June 23 to June 30, 1979 (first attempt, Bouchard and Embick) and August 21 to 26, 1979 (second and successful attempt, Bridwell and Embick). (NCCS VI-F10-A3.)

“Ptarmigan Spire” circa 7700 feet, via east ridge from Cool Sac Glacier and couloir between “Ptarmigan” and Citadel (P 8520), first ascent, August 31, 1979 (Bridwell and Embick). (NCCS II.)

Personnel: John G. Bouchard, James D. Bridwell, Andrew Embick, M.D.

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