The Burkett Needle
The voyage of the celestial tramps
by Lionel Daudet, France
translated by Marina Heusch
Unbelievable! He is there, unmoving, having landed just next to us. His wings barely quiver on the cold, white snow. It is one of the first traces of life that we have encountered: a butterfly, red wings flecked with black. Brother Butterfly. Later on, we will see a fly, a spider, a few foolhardy birds, and that will be all. Whatever can he be doing here, so far from everything, at our first bivouac?
And we, what are we doing as well, cut off from the world, isolated in this inhospitable region? To climb a mountain. What a great excuse for Seb and me to find ourselves in the middle of this very wild coastal chain of Southeast Alaska! Just think: 41 days, during which we will have the luxury of savoring every second. But also, 41 days without listening to the radio (or having a radio, for that matter) and 41 days of eating nothing but pasta. And 25 days on the wall!
When we pulled our double pulkas onto these immense white tentacles separating us from the ocean banks where, a few days earlier, a boat had dropped us off, we did not yet realize any of that. And certainly, it was much better that way.…
A storm of unparalleled fury, and here is our mangled tent, our pulkas blown away. Welcome to Alaska! A bad night in a snow cave dug out in great haste, and now there is nothing left to do but get back to the portaledge, up there, at the foot of the fantastic Burkett Needle.
From the beginning of the game, the pitches prove difficult. A first dihedral of perfect rock, ideal for warming oneself up and awakening one’s senses. A seam of honeycombed black rock shows me the route before it peters out on a short, difficult, overhanging section. Above, as soon as I recover my balance by locking off on small crimps, a smooth slab.… On vague smears, I shift from the left, hesitate, climb a bit, downclimb, resolve to put in a bolt.
An attentive hand takes out the extra slack. The gaze of the belayer ascends the length of the wall, coming to rest at the front end of the rope. I hesitate to commit completely, so far from the bolt. A fall, now that we have no possibility whatsoever of rescue, is not really an option. We can’t afford to smack into anything up here. My mind empties itself, becomes as white as the snow, fills up with a surreal light. Delicate crossing of the feet on questionable little nubbins, my fingers dig into vague relief in the rock and I move on.…
The days pass in this way. Time appears to crystallize into a single instant of eternity. We fix pitches higher and higher, without the difficulty letting up, taking everything out of us. Protection is at times delicate to place, low temperatures do not facilitate movement. I toil on the fixed ropes. Behind me, Seb cleans everything. A last pitch on the empty horizon leaves my toes cold. Icy feet too tight in rock shoes—but how could I have climbed otherwise? Insidious, sneaky frostbite sets in.
The summit of the first buttress! A great happiness in the blue sky, a timid sun that does not tarry to cloud over. We celebrate the event with a delicious almond paste. The following snowy arête sends us into ecstasy. We walk between heaven and earth in the middle of a spectacular landscape: these flat glaciers, these gigantic faces, the lofty soaring of the Burkett Needle above our heads and far away, very far away, the Pacific Ocean.
We move the bivouac by hoisting abominable bags up a snow couloir to the breche, grunting like boars with the effort. Backtrack to set up the Tyrolean with the arête: pendulous rappel, climb a rock pinnacle. It’s one of the rare moments of touching warm rock, and it is so good.
We, the celestial tramps, pursue our voyage to the summit by moving the portaledge one last time to the middle of the Needle. The “Negresco Bivouac” welcomes us. Indeed, it equals all of the palaces of the world. So much the better, because we will stay here 14 nights!
A blizzard of wind and snow sweeps down upon us, obliging us to retreat into the Negresco Bivouac. The days play out slowly. Reading, writing, eating, talking. Occasionally, more than 48 hours pass without being able to stick our noses outside. When we can go out, it is to remove the snow from the portaledge, which threatens to be buried under heavy snows.
This morning, May 29, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. And for good reason: it is beautiful out. The stove purrs, the snow melts. The usual chicory and chocolate semolina is soon ready. Then we are hard at work. Aid climbing in this section, disquieting from below. Plant the small copperheads, place the micro-nuts, dance, dance in this pendulum that brings you back to a dihedral covered with verglas at the end of a 50-meter pitch.
Alas, the good weather of the morning is but a brief lull, and the storm doubles in strength again. Today will not be the summit day, though the summit is only 50 meters away. The snow pitter-patters, rolls along the icy wall, the blizzard of white breath angered by the two poor tramps. But tomorrow, certainly tomorrow, we will return for the last act.
On this last pitch, I find my greatest struggle. A triumphant icicle imprisons my beard and mustache hairs. My hair transforms itself into a chalky wig. The terrible wind molds me harshly into ice armor. Blinded, I take off my iced-up glasses. The refinements of free climbing no longer apply here. It’s all about moving on. Simply moving on!
Fifty meters become 30, then ten. And yet the top has never seemed so far away. Aid in the etriers, which fly away horizontally, Friends and carabiners that I disengage from a layer of ice, blessed cracks that I clear of snow. Struggle! Struggle without end! Not a single moment of respite in this white tornado. And Seb, who belays me, pursues a formidable stationary combat with this blizzard, which attempts to rip warmth and life away from him.
Summit! Unhoped for, unbelievable.… And yet I have just emerged here, on this snowy, ill-defined platform. No visibility whatsoever. A great silence inside and out, a long, white, infinite silence. Suddenly, I understand: what surprising luck! At the summit, we are sheltered from the wind, a haven of relative comfort that allows us to refresh ourselves before facing the elements again.
It is past 7 p.m. and nothing is finished. On the contrary. We face a difficult descent to find life back in the portaledge. Seb will take hours, twisting in the evanescent fog, to hammer away at the sheath of ice covering a fixed line. Finally, at two in the morning, we are able to throw ourselves into our bags, the only refuge of warmth in the middle of a landscape now occupied by ice.
Days beyond exhaustion as we return toward the world. Nights of barely four hours’ sleep, awakening with swollen eyes, bloated face, slow and uncertain gestures. Ski! Pull this monstrous bag! Come on, another step—one you will not have to repeat! Pause. Today, a couscous record: 600 grams each. We need that to hold up, to tackle the endless meters of the Baird Glacier.
The sections that we feared pass easily, and we will pull our bags much farther down than expected, thus avoiding tiresome double-load carries. An ugly glacial rain declares itself and chills us to the gut. This evening it is June 3, our 40th day. The celestial tramps finagle a last camp—a tipi—with the avalanche probe, the skis and the portaledge canvas. The water streams down the dirty ice and soaks our things. Too quickly, in spite of the bivy sack, our sleeping bags become saturated. Tomorrow, we will do one last carry on this dangerous spring ice; we will have the pleasure of finding Dieter and his hospitality, Ken who was worried, the inhabitants of Petersburg. We will see green grass.
There is a purity I am intimately acquainted with. I saw it in the gray sky, I breathed it in the flower growing arduously in the middle of the gravel of Thomas Bay, I caught it in Seb’s smile full of kindness, I heard it in the emotional voice of Vero, to whom I announced our return. Purity is there, everywhere, for those who wish to receive it.
Summary of Statistics Area: Coastal Range, Southeast Alaska
New Route: Le Voyage des Clochards Celestes (VI 7a+ A3+, ca. 1200m) on the southeast face of the Burkett Needle (ca. 2590m), May 6-31, Lionel Daudet, Sébastien Foissac Lionel Daudet was bom in 1968. He is a mountain guide, but does not work often as such because he has sponsors who support him. He travels widely and enjoys mountaineering with a strict ethic: no radio, no assistance, a traditional approach. In this way, he feels the real dimension of the mountains. He lives in L’Argentière-la- Bessée, France, a small and sunny village in the south of the Alps, with his wife, Véronique.