Blood From The Stone
If it weren’t so big, it would almost have been fun. Five-thousand feet of vertical winter on the east face of Mt. Dickey, Alaska.
Our plane spiraled in descent beside the east face of Mt. Dickey. My face was plastered to the window and my hopes were plummeting. I could not see the line of ice I had suspected would be running up this mile-high face. Coupled with the forecast of a huge storm system due to plow into the Alaska Range the next day, our chances to climb were dropping as fast as the barometer. Our K2 Aviation pilot set the plane down, making the first tracks of the year in the Ruth Gorge. No other climbers had yet arrived; alone and without any radios we felt the isolation of the place. Dickey’s shadow soon swept across the glacier and covered us as we pitched camp. The temperature instantly plummeted. It was March 12 and still Alaskan winter.
Ueli Steck had spent his savings to fly halfway around the world in the hope of climbing a route he had never seen on a mountain he had never heard of. I apologized for talking him into coming out here. It appeared as if we would have a better chance of squeezing blood from a stone than climbing this mountain. We set up base camp watching the clouds roll in from the Pacific. At bit of Scotch eased us into reconciling ourselves to the fact that this would likely be one of those trips spent shoveling snow and working through our stack of novels.
Mt. Dickey soars to the unimpressive elevation of 9,545 feet. What is impressive, however, are the southern, eastern, and northern flanks of the mountain, which all rise nearly vertically 5,000 feet from the Ruth Glacier. The southeast pillar was climbed by Roberts-Rowell-Ward in 1974; the Wine Bottle Route (northeast pillar, Bonapace-Orgler, 1988) offers 51 pitches on the buttress bordering the right side of the face. The south face is home to some horrendous rock and hosts a few routes. The north face remains unclimbed, and the massive serac band towering over it leaves some clue as to why.
The east face begins steepening in earnest shortly above the Ruth Glacier. About 3,000 feet of near-vertical granite leads to a final section of snow-and rock-bands. A small cornice guards the summit. Anyone willing to expose themselves to the elements could find crack systems in quality rock for a summer big-wall ascent. Additionally, it would be possible to deviate to the right halfway up our route and climb a super-cool ice finish through the headwall.
And the white plumb-line falling top to bottom between our line and the Wine Bottle Route? It begins as frost and powder stuck to a featureless vertical wall. Maybe it will form up fatter in the right year, though.
In May 2001, Dave Marra, Conny Amelunxen, and I had started up the east face. We began at 9 p.m., planning to climb at night and sleep during the warmer daylight hours. The initial pitches were plastered with ice, but it was melting out as we climbed. We decided that no matter how bad we wished otherwise, the conditions weren’t right to be on such a large undertaking, so we turned back.
In 2002 I returned with Ueli, hoping that the early season cold temperatures would make conditions more favorable. We had run into each other a few times over the years and got along well. Ueli had recently finished a new direct line on the Eiger’s north face, and at age 26 he is the most talented alpine climber I have yet tied into a rope with.
We planned for three to five days round trip. Bivy sacs, isobutone hanging stove set, a pair of rock shoes, Ueli’s toothbrush, and two cameras came with us. The face looked like it would offer varied types of climbing, including some aid pitches, so our rack reflected this. We carried a triple set of cams, a double set of nuts, and eight ice screws. Fortunately, a European and an ex-big-wall climber did not have to go through the ethical dilemma of whether or not to take bolts. About 20 8.8mm Petzl self-drive bolts with aluminum hangers went onto the rack.
To climb as fast and hard as possible, we decided the leader would go without a pack and the second would carry both. The fastest and most practical way to second was by jugging, meaning the anchors would have to be solid. We would lead in blocks, since with only 12 hours of light we wanted to get the most distance out of each day.
Even with clouds rolling in we decided to head up and take a look. Our first day of climbing ended five pitches up, and from there we fixed some ropes and headed back to camp to wait out a two-day storm. We had each taken one fall, my first ever in the mountains, and it looked like the difficulties increased above. I had fallen on relatively easy terrain, pulling out instead of down on my tool as it hooked over a rock, and I dropped a few feet onto a cam. I took a minute to promise myself to climb better and not be lobbing off when it counted.
Ueli whipped pulling a roof. He had climbed vertical snow until it was only an inch thick. Clipping into both tools, he hung and drilled a bolt. The snow ended just under a small roof. Choking up on the head of his tool let him reach over the roof and snag some more snow. Weighting it, his tool ripped and he was off. Without the bolt, that would have been the end of the trip. Ueli was hardly fazed, explaining that he occasionally fell in the mountains. He went back at it and finished the pitch without any other pro.
The storm ended, as they always do. With its passing we returned to our task, heading up onto the gray and white face.
From our high point I led a block of pitches up through a narrow, winding chimney system. Ice and hard snow with smooth granite walls—the climbing was dreamy, leading us higher through the sheer headwall. Ueli led the last two pitches of the day, then we rapped two ropelengths to a bivy. Out of the Alaskan winter ice we hacked a platform that was almost big enough to lie down on and thus passed a long night.
On our second day we made good time trending up left on a narrow ramp system. Serious run-out leads alternated with pitches of ice that would take screws. Ueli led this block, ending each pitch only when the 60-meter rope was tight against the lower anchor. We switched leads late in the day, only a few pitches below the top of the headwall. Here I battled upward in a bottomless, snow-filled chimney until deciding further effort was futile. I came down and drytooled off right toward a more promising line. After 35 feet of aid—the only sustained aid of the route—I left the line fixed and rapped to help chop another bivy. This bivy brought a smile to my face. This was the real stuff, one of the typical miserable alpine bivvies that you read about in the American Alpine Journal: chopped-out ice ledge, not big enough to properly lie down on, complete with spindrift and chilly toes. And, as Ueli noted, your partner’s spot always looks better.
Buzzing after a breakfast of chocolate-covered coffee beans and a hunk of beef jerky, Ueli was getting fired up for the pitch above. The deal was this: if he got us through then I would take us to the summit. Relieved, I belayed, thinking that whatever came afterward couldn’t be harder than this pitch looked. Ueli dispatched it proudly, grading it M7+. Two bolts for protection helped mitigate the poor pro opportunities and made the sustained climbing on crumbly rock and rotten snow somewhat sane. This pitch brought us over the headwall.
After crossing some icefields we reached an imposing black rock band. There was no way to end-run it. We both imagined that this would be hideous vertical shale, so I racked up mentally preparing to meet my maker. After a few feet of climbing I was amazed: I was getting in good gear. Cracks and solid edges accepted metal points. If I hadn’t been this high up, I swear I would have been having fun climbing an enjoyable mixed pitch.
The final roped pitch was a thin, detached curtain of faceted A16. Note to self: bring a file on these routes. It felt like climbing with two sledgehammers as my blunt picks smashed apart the ice. Our final anchor was one bolt in the only protruding rock. Our lead line had a good core shot in it by this point, so we left it clipped and soloed up the snow face, over the cornice, and onto the summit.
Here we spent half an hour feeling the euphoria, brewing water, sorting gear, and checking out the surrounding peaks. The continuity of the line, the stability of the weather, and the knowledge that our abilities were a match for the difficulties— all were in our thoughts. With moments of doubt, we had ventured forth without certainty, open to the possibility of an alpine line tracing its way up the east face, and the path had unwound before us.
Descending via the Dickey-Bradley Col, we raced into camp five hours later as clouds rolled in from the Pacific. Our tracks weaved drunkenly along the rolling glacier. But we had been granted the weather window we needed. We now focused on eating as much of our food as possible before being flown out. Stamping “OUT” in the snow in front of our tent, we hoped it would be spotted by a pilot flying overhead who would notify K2 to come pick us up. Luckily, this happened the following afternoon.
Arriving in Talkeetna, we found a town that hadn’t awakened from its winter slumber; there was no sign of the hordes of the climbers who would fill the streets in the following months. Boarding my return flight home only 12 days after arriving in Alaska, I realized that this seemed far too short a trip to have climbed such an awesome mountain.
I suspect that the Alaska Range will see heavy action as international political instabilities make many other ranges of the world less attractive destinations—and the Ruth will become one of the main attractions.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Alaska Range
Ascents: Blood From The Stone (5,000', A1 M7+ WI6+X), Sean Easton and Ueli Steck, March 18–20, 2002.