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Stikine Icecap Ascents

Stikine Icecap Ascents

James Balog, Unaffiliated

THERE IS A MAGIC time on an expedition, months, maybe years, before you even set foot on a mountain. It is one of the finest times of the whole adventure: the night when, as you lay in bed with your heart racing, you first are hooked by that climb-to-be. The night’s vision is of success, perfect weather, and transcendental climbing; gravity has no pull in such musings, the clatter of rockfall and the hiss of avalanches no reality.

So phone calls are made and letters written. Replies are usually “Yes, I’ll go”, followed a month or two later by a retraction. Finally, a group of three looks as if it actually will arrive in the mountains.

Lists are made, tasks delegated. A pile of gear on someone’s floor begins with two carabiners, grows, and like some Thing in a science fiction movie, develops a life of its own, demanding trips to stores and the writing of letters to manufacturers. In short, it becomes possible that the climb is real.

And then the previously-rosy bedtime fantasizing goes black: the images are of cascading down a face in an avalanche and being suffocated; rockfalls take on a tangible mass and consistency and you think of how soft skin and bones are. And in direct proportion to the vividness of the possible tragedies, the prospect of a soft green summer with Lady Love becomes more appealing.

But in the morning, you cannot face the man-in-the-mirror with the idea of quitting. Plans roll on. Finally, the time until departure is no longer measured in months but in days. The climb becomes so real that you can visualize the actual physical gestures you will use to overcome the dangers. The night terrors, then, are over. Exhilaration at a new adventure buoys you along through the frantic final packing and visions of glory dance through the head again.

Until that moment when you walk through the gate towards the plane and look back at Lady Love. Ambition is again stripped of vainglory and you wonder, for an instant, if ever you will see that beautiful face again. But you turn, step onto the plane.

Mark Ippolito and I were playing Reinhold Messner. Since the hour when we had hopped onto the sandbar at the snout of the Baird Glacier, we had catalogued the comings and goings (mostly the goings, actually) of blue sky—just like Reinhold in the Himalaya. By the time we slogged for two-and-a-half days to the base of Mount Burkett, we had convinced ourselves that we saw a pattern and that we could expect settled weather on the morning of July 2.

Paul Clark was skeptical, but Mark and I were adamant. So, in the wee hours of a drizzly morning, we were eating breakfast. By the time we reached the south face, 3000 feet higher than Base Camp, the sunbeams would just have started pouring through the clouds. Or so we thought.

We dodged set after set of crevasses in the icefall below the face by climbing a steep snow ramp on the cliff to the west, then trudged out into the upper part of the icefall. Within what seemed like spitting distance of our objective, a buttress on the left side of the face, we peered over the lip of a giant, impassable crevasse.

Back down through the icefall we went. When it was time, according to our Messnerian calculations, for the sun to come out, it started to rain. In order to get above the crevasse, we climbed a buttress: slimy, mossy, rotten slabs and flakes; in spite of the fact that corners and overlaps were everywhere, there were no cracks, save those behind large teetery blocks. For other reasons, we had already started to suspect that the south face of Burkett was more of the same.

Though we decided to forget the rock route on the face, we continued upwards to prove out the route past the crevasse. We bivouacked, soggily, after rain-triggered avalanches cut off descent back to Base Camp. The next morning, we found a delightful little waterfall through which to downclimb instead of getting mixed up in the avalanches; we eventually made it to Base.

Two days later we returned, armed with ice-climbing gear and a tent for the bivy site and fortified by notions grandiose. We would climb 2000 feet of the face via a couloir on its left side, then force a way up another thousand feet of ice runnels and rimed slabs to the summit. We took no bivy gear, opting instead for a tightly scheduled, light-and-fast ascent. Wrong.

At midnight, with darkness settling across the icecap, we aided a short wall to pass a bergschrund and started up the couloir. The first two climbed and fixed a rope, while the third jümared with a pack of food, extra clothes, and anchors for 25 rappels or so.

To our chagrin, the snow never froze even though the skies were clear and the air cool. Instead of zipping up the couloir as we had planned, we wallowed knee to waist deep in 55° or 60° slush. Almost continually, bombardments of rock and ice rattled down: Paul and Mark both were hit.

The moon set in a red cloudbank blowing in from the sea. Pitch 9, then 10, then 11. Half-snowing and half-raining. By eight A.M. our turnoff up the runnels was nowhere in sight and the snow became even more soupy. In spite of moving as fast as we thought possible without unroping, we were six or seven hours behind schedule. Looming large in our futures: either a storm-bound bivouac without gear, or rappelling down the couloir in the height of the shooting season, or both. Down we went, pronto.

By mid-afternoon, we stumbled back to the tent. I lay down, boots sticking out the front door into the storm, and fell asleep.

Next morning a disgruntled trio concedes the match to Burkett. There is no reason to believe that either the snow or the weather will stabilize. (Ten days into the trip and we have yet to see more than 18 hours without rain or snow.) Around here, we conclude, early July is clearly that in-between season: too late for the frozen snow of winter and too early for the alpine ice and dry rock of summer.

Two days later, we are skiing across the Baird Glacier with light packs, bound for what we hope will be the first ascent of a beautiful, pyramidal-shaped peak (P 6610). The climbing is unlikely to be difficult, but we are looking for some quick accomplishment to pull ourselves out of the glumness corroding our spirits since Burkett.

Though not difficult, the route is a thing of great quality: perfect granite and knife-edged ridge. The summit is, in fact, untouched. But somehow, even as we start to descend, our depression returns and eats deeper than before. We each ski alone back to Base Camp; through the entire three-mile trip, those rotten little voices inside me bitch that such a climb doesn’t make a trip to Alaska worthwhile. By the time I crawl into the tent, the sludge is pouring out of the pewter-colored sky. Again.

Time is running out: just seven mornings from now, a plane is to land in Thomas Bay and pick us up. But down the Baird is a peak, an unbelievably perfect, Matterhorn-like thing (P 7030) that had immediately drawn our attention during the reconnaissance flight at the beginning of the trip. It has beckoned continually ever since. Though not at all straightforward-looking and offering a substantial chance of failure, it’s the finest option around and we decide to pull out the stops and get moving.

In two days, we stand beneath it. Two thousand vertical feet of tangled icefall block the approach from the Baird to a col on the east side of the peak. From the col, we will climb another 1500 feet on the east ridge to the summit.

We point our noses into the icefall with no idea whether we’ll be able to sniff our way through or not. Crumbling séracs, rotten snow bridges, up and down and around; but we follow only one blind alley the whole time and, three-and-a-half hours later, stand in the col.

The day is magic; for once, a spectacular view sparkles in the sunshine instead of our simply mucking along under overcast skies. We gobble lunch, then race off to go as far as we can by evening.

At first, the ridge is broad and shattered, then tapers down to a knife-edge with medium fifth-class moves that we scramble over. Then comes an overhanging needle and a deep notch before the final 700 feet of summit pyramid begin. Things are looking potentially more time-consuming than hoped for, so we simply set up a rappel into the notch and descend to our tent at the col.

On the morrow, we are, of course, socked in. No matter, because now the little voices inside are singing that the summit is ours.

Rappel around the needle, climb a steep snow gully, traverse a narrow arête of snow, and we begin the first pitch on the summit pyramid. The climbing, even in rain and snow, is positively exhilarating: F7 on the first pitches, followed by harder climbing on absolutely perfect vertical granite on the final pitches. We are skittish for a time after the first pitch when Mark is almost bombed by a rock bigger than he is, but eventually we calm down and cruise upward.

Only one thing clouds our psyche. We hope very much that this is the first ascent of the mountain. But we’ve seen rappel anchors, apparently left by a party of Seattle-area climbers in 1973; in our egotism, we worry that we won’t be the first to the summit.

During the last pitches, we see no more signs of the Seattle folk. And when we scramble the last few feet and pat those summit rocks, untouched since forever, whoops of joy—at each other and into the fog— say everything that needs to be said.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Stikine Icecap, Southeastern Alaska.

First Ascents: P 6610 via North Ridge, NCCS III, July 8, 1979.

P 7030 via East Ridge, NCCS V, F8+, July 12, 1979. Attempt on South Face of Mount Burkett.

Personnel: James Balog, Paul Clark, Mark Ippolito.