Wet and Wild in Kichatnas
Four thousand feet of rainy big wall on Middle Triple Peak by Kitty Calhoun
Kitty, something is bothering me,” Jay Smith said with apprehension.
“I’ve gotta go back and do that route on Middle Triple that Steve Gerberding and I tried a couple of years ago. Other climbers have been asking me about it lately. I keep telling them that the rock is choss, but they know I’m lying.”
Jay clearly was uptight. He pulled some slides out of his pocket and held them up to the light.
“See that pillar? Charlie Porter did a route on it back in 1976 and that’s the only time anyone has ever touched this face. Our route follows the discontinuous cracks straight up to the right of the pillar—4,000 feet of solid granite.”
“Yeah…" I interrupted. “But ya’ll nearly died trying that route before, right?”
“Well,” said Jay, pulling out stacks of slide pages from the drawer. “We were climbing alpine-style and it started to rain hard. We were six pitches up and had fixed our only two ropes above. Somehow the rain worked its way into our portaledge and got us wet as dogs. Our down sleeping bags were drenched and scraps of food and pieces of clothing floated on the floor of our ledge in a puddle.
“That night, the rain stopped and the temperature plummeted. Everything, including our two ropes fixed above, became frozen in place in a thick sheet of ice. We were shivering violently but couldn’t rap down until the sun came out and melted the ice off our ropes. When that finally happened, large sheets of ice came crashing down the face above.”
I watched Jay re-enacting the scene, then took another look at the slides. “I’ll have to think about this,” I said. “I can’t say I’m too psyched about the idea at the moment.”
“Yeah, but we’d do it differently this time. I’d fix the bottom part of the route and always keep two free ropes with us. If we climb as two teams of two and trade leading and hauling, it may go faster. This time, I’d bring a synthetic bag.”
“What’s the climbing like?”
“Mostly hard aid. Pretty sustained too,” he said. He didn’t seem to notice that I was becoming quite sullen.
I did not have much aid-climbing experience, and I was not excited about climbing in the rain. I remembered my first aid climb in Yosemite in 1987.1 sat up all night before the climb memorizing the information in Royal Robbins’ Advanced Rock Climbing. I got stuck in lots of predicaments, but with a little creativity, I managed to get up the wall. What the hell, I thought—I’ll try it and see if I like it. If I did, I knew of many other rainy big walls waiting to be climbed.
On June 27, we flew onto the Kichatna Glacier under a clear blue sky that would last for the next nine days. After moving camp over a pass and down the next valley, we settled into a routine: an hour wandering through the icefall with gear-laden packs to the base of the wall, jumaring fixed ropes, four to seven hours per 200-foot lead, then rap down and stumble back to camp. This, on average, took 19 hours round-trip, and the next day was a rest day while a fresh crew went to work.
On day 11, the storm arrived. First the clouds lowered, engulfing us in a white-out. Then a steady rain settled in. We had all been happy when we were climbing, but now each of us faced a long, personal battle with boredom.
Steve lay in his tent and told stories the whole time he was awake. He reminded me of the old people in the South, continuing the mostly forgotten tradition of storytelling. Like an old man on his rocking chair on the front porch, Steve would settle in with a cup of coffee and the tales would begin. One story ran into the other, and each was told with unending humor and enthusiasm.
Dan is a master craftsman. Every item still in his tent needed to be repaired or modified. When heavy-metal music was not blaring through his loudspeakers, I could hear him hammering, filing, or rustling through his possessions in search of another project.
Jay was the weatherman. His barometer provided little encouragement, so every hour on the hour, he would surf the radio stations, futilely searching for a long-range weather report.
I finished the books I brought and started to brood on the fact that I had only led one pitch so far. With four people sharing leads, nobody gets enough. I was proud of my pitch—modern A3 with lots of beaks and hooks. Still, I had a suspicion that I would not get any more hard pitches. It had taken me seven hours just to lead 200 feet.
“You want this pitch?” Jay had asked as I bumbled over the lip of a roof and tried to untangle myself from a web of slings and hardware.
“You think I can do it? What if I take too long? Is everybody gonna hate me?”
“You’ll do just fine.”
Easy for him to say, I thought, as I proceeded to rack up. What if these little beaks didn’t hold and I took a 200-foot whipper? I started up the only seam in an ocean of flawless granite. One beak after another went in; I was starting to relax and enjoy the routine. Then the seam disappeared.
“What do I do now?” I yelled down to Jay, who was fading into dreamland.
“I guess you’ll have to use hooks to get over to that little crack on your right.”
I placed my first hook. I was scared.
“Do you think it will hold me?” I yelled down nervously.
“There’s only one way to find out!” he yelled back, oblivious to the desperation in my voice, my sewing-machine legs, my racing heart.
“Oh God please, please, please…."
I gently transferred my weight. The hook held.
Several more hook placements in a row brought me to the crack and the security of more beaks, followed by tied-off and stacked pitons. One hundred sixty-five feet into it I reached some solid placements.
“How about I put the belay here?” I yelled down.
“Is there a fixed anchor there?”
“You need to keep going until you get to our old belay,” Jay yelled back.
Two hundred feet out. No old belay anchors. No solid placements, either.
“Now what, Jay?” I yelled, mentally drained after the longest lead of my life.
“Our old anchors should be there.”
“Well, they aren’t, so I guess I’ll have to down-aid to where I can get an anchor in,” I yelled, exasperated.
On day 23, despite high clouds and a falling barometer, the rain ceased. While it wasn’t exactly promising weather, we had only 16 days left until the plane was due to pick us up. Since the snowline usually recedes too far up the glacier for a plane to land in early August, we had agreed to meet the pilot at a makeshift site on the Kichatna River—which meant ferrying our loads of tents, portaledges, food, fuel, ropes, big-wall racks, clothes and sleeping bags over 30 miles of unknown terrain to the designated landing site. We figured it would take us at least seven days to do it. That left only nine days to complete the route. If it took only one day to get our haulbags to the end of the ropes 2,000 feet up the route, three days to finish, and one day to descend, we would have four days to spare.
Let’s go!” Jay yelled, as he guzzled down a last cup of coffee. It was 7:30 a.m. by the time we left camp. Jay and I were to jug 1,600 feet and lead two more pitches while Steve and Dan hauled the six haulbags. Every inch that I now jumared up had been gained by countless hours of work. Pitch two had been my lead. Pitch three was a great roof that Dan led. He had done a good deal of back-cleaning on lead and Steve had not enjoyed cleaning the pitch. Pitch six was the crux, and it had taken Jay nine hours to aid up expanding flakes. Steve and Dan had led pitches seven and eight, which were reportedly easier. By the time we got up the fixed lines and got the rack sorted, it was early afternoon and had started to drizzle again. Jay started out up a dihedral/ledge system that in 400 feet was supposed to take us to the top of a small pillar, where we would set up the portaledges. Jay and I arrived at dinner time, but Steve, the haulbags and dinner were far below. Shortly, Dan appeared around the comer. He lit a cigarette.
“What’s taking so long?” I looked down and could barely make out Steve huddled against the bags, shivering. The sun had slipped past the horizon.
“These bags are heavy—they’re saturated from the rain and we can only haul two at a time.”
We decided it would be faster for two people to body haul three bags at a time while one person jumared beside them to keep them from getting hung up. I was under the last set of bags when Steve jerked on the tag line to free them.
“Aaagh!” I yelled. A bag had dislodged a rock, which broke on my knee upon impact. I wasn’t hurt, but I was angry and tired. At 4 a.m., 21 hours after we started, we collapsed in our portaledge.
Rise and shine, sleepyheads. It’s noon already, the sun is out, and it’s your turn to lead,” I announced to Steve and Dan the next morning. Motivated by good weather and the realization that it was his turn at the sharp end, Steve fired up the stove to make some coffee. After a cup, a cigarette, and the sorting of the racks, Steve tied into the lead line—but Dan was still asleep.
“I hope you’re ready by the next pitch, or I’ll get that one, too,” Steve told him.
“What?” Dan rolled over.
“I’ll belay while you get ready, Dan,” Jay offered.
“What’s up, Dan-O?” I asked.
He was awake, trying to find his other sock.
“Well, I had to waterproof my boots again last night and then I had to work on the video recorder…."
I didn’t listen to the rest. Dan was just being Dan.
By now, the aid-climbing was getting easier, and within two days we fixed another five pitches. Late on the second day, it started to snow. Time was getting away and we had to do something.
Our ledges were only halfway up the route; hauling those six wet, monstrous bags up to there had been absurd, and we hadn’t wanted to fix even this much of the route. It appeared that a gully above our high point might go free and lead up to the snow ridge to the summit. We agreed that as soon as the weather cleared, we would try to make it to the summit and back from our ledges in a single push.
By morning, it was raining heavily. Water had somehow seeped into the space between Dan and Steve’s ledge and fly and formed a large pool. Dan bailed frantically as Steve collected their cigarettes and other items they hoped to keep dry and cradled them in his arms.
Through the mist below, I was able to spot our three tents on the glacier. The wind was gusting so hard that each of them tumbled crazily about, held down by the one or two stubborn anchors that had not yet melted out of the snow.
“Well, if the tents blow away, it’ll be that much less weight that we’ll have to carry out,” Jay said in a half-hearted attempt to raise moral.
After two days, the wind was still gusting, and clouds raced across the sky, but the rain had stopped. At 5:30 a.m., we left the ledges for our summit push. Three of us huddled in the gully as Dan meandered up boulder-choked chimneys and across snow-covered slabs. Next, Steve led a classic mixed pitch that brought us out of the gully, finding an old piton left by his hero, Charlie Porter, along the way.
After another lead up an ice slope by Dan, I got the last two leads up to and across the summit ridge. Eight inches of wet snow barely clung to the rotten ice underneath and the entire muck threatened to avalanche. Below the summit cornice, I dug a U-shaped trough for my legs and butt, braced, and put my partners on belay.
Dan popped up through the clouds. “I’ve never done any climbing like those last two pitches!” he exclaimed. “This is just like in National Geographic!" My easy but scary lead had impressed this hard man. I smiled.
Summit day took 17 hours. On top, I shared Girl Scout cookies my sister had given me. I waited, hoping the clouds would spare us some views—when, to my horror, I noticed Dan side-stepping the 50 feet to the summit cornice.
“What are you doing?” I gasped. Every foot set off a tiny wet slide. “We’re roped together with no anchors. The entire face is going to let loose if you don’t be careful.”
“But we have to touch the summit,” Dan replied. Once he tagged it, we started down. On the descent, we left the fixed ropes in place, rappelling as quickly as we could while the afternoon sun melted the muck and large stones bounced down the gully.
As Jay and I started back up the fixed lines to retrieve the ropes the next morning, I kept reminding myself that at least our expedition had been a success. Now we struggled to clean all the fixed ropes and get our six haulbags off the wall. It was a strenuous and logistical nightmare, and we arrived back at our flopping tents on the glacier at 8 a.m. the following morning.
After a rest day, we went back to the base of the wall to retrieve the last of our gear, then packed up camp and attempted to carry and drag all of our possessions up over the pass and back down to our original landing site on the glacier. The snow had melted and was covered with deep sun cups. By the time we got to the old runway, it was 3 a.m. and raining again. Exhausted and frustrated by an endless battle to stay dry, Jay threw his sleeping bag in a water-filled sun cup and crawled inside.
We had exactly seven days left until pick-up on the Kichatna River, 30 miles away. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but all we needed was 400 yards of firm, packed snow for the plane to land here on the glacier. Deciding we had enough snow, the four of us spent a total of 224 hours over the next week, ski-packing the mushy sun cups.
On August 4, the plane landed and took off on our runway with us in the plane. One more skeleton in the closet was gone.
Summary of Statistics
AREA: Kichatna Spires, Alaska
NEW ROUTE: Ride the Lightning (VI 5.10 A4 WI3,4,000') on Middle Triple Peak (8,835'), June 27-August 4, 1997, Kitty Calhoun, Steve Gerberding, Dan Osman, Jay Smith