American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Spice Factory

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  • Publication Year: 2006

Spice Factory

An Alaskan debut ends with a major new route on Mt. Bradley.

Maxime Turgeon

Everyone spices differently. Some carefully measure quantities, make sure aromas will match, and never make a mistake, while others just pour it on and see what happens. With the latter approach, sometimes you blow your brains out and think you're going to die, but sometimes you come up with something really memorable. —Brian Baxter

Scrickk! The dull tip of my blade rips from its catch, my hammer hits me right on the lip, and I’m off. That’s it! This is the end!

The psychological belay won’t hold this fall.

We’ll both end up down in the bergschrund.

Suddenly I wake up, the fabric of the bivy sack crushed onto my face. My toes are frozen and I cannot feel my right arm. Leaving the sleeping bags behind was probably not the best idea. In the last 18 hours we’ve climbed 600 meters up the highest face either of us have ever attempted. Flashbacks from the committing climbing and my four-meter fall onto a marginal belay—my closest call ever—are running through my mind like an over broadcast song. Uncertainty about what’s above makes my uncomfortable position even more torturous. We’re not even at the one-third mark on the face, and the business is far from over. The angle won’t ease until the summit. Our two- man bivy kit worked well in the comfort of our living room, but now the clock is running pretty slowly and I’m wondering, “What am I doing here?” A couple of minutes later we decide to keep moving.

Mt. Bradley sits proudly between Mt. Wake and the massive Mt. Dickey on the Ruth Glacier. Its north face is around 1,400 meters of steep, gray granite supporting summit seracs. This imposing, compact face first caught my eye as I scrolled through past expeditions’ pictures on the Internet. All my senses awoke simultaneously when I fell on that stunning white line splitting the face, like a thin filigree of icing dripping from the summit. The steep face marinated in my mind—the thought of climbing this line made any other project seem insipid.

On April 30 my friend Louis-Philippe Ménard and I are dropped on the Ruth Glacier, our home for the next 25 days. Having met three years ago at engineering school, we are on our first trip to the bigger ranges and we’re seeking some spicy thrills. We’ve already climbed a couple of big routes in Québec together, and we share the same interest in the mystical aspect of the unknown—in which we are fully immersed right now. The steepness and massiveness of the surrounding faces is breathtaking.

Shirtless shoveling of our camp quickly puts us in the mood for the unseasonably warm month to come. Despite our expectations, the frozen lines are really few and we can hear the background sound of rocks coming down the east- and south-facing gullies. In front of our camp, Bradley’s north face has a grayish, intimidating aspect, with few white ornaments. Our dream line doesn’t even exist!

With almost a month in front of us and with all the granite faces surrounding our camp, the situation is far from desperate. Worst case: we’ll have to use our “just in case” rock shoes. Attracted by the few ice stripes in the gorge, we cut our teeth on the east face of Mt. Johnson: the second ascent of The Escalator. We take 13 hours on the route and another 13 on the spicy descent. After two rest days, our legs are back to life and we take a ride up On The Frozen Roads of Our Incertitudes, on London Bridge. In less than a week, two second ascents have given us just enough confidence and courage to return—binoculars in hand—to the base of Bradley’s north face. Scrutinizing the whole face in sections, we imagine a linkup of snow and ice ramps, broken by some blank and mysterious sections, making a big “S” path across the compact face.

Drawn by the mystery of that line, we decide to have a peek at the first few pitches, carrying only a small rack. We could not ask for a better intro: the mixed climbing—a thin runnel of ice in a saffron-orange dihedral— is cinnamon sweet! The second pitch’s tricky traverse quickly cuts the pleasant candied taste, foreboding what might lie ahead. Nonetheless, a huge, slanting, snow-filled chimney presents itself and suggests a way forward, so we decide to wrap it up and save our energy for an alpine- style ascent the next day.

At 2 a.m., after a few hours of light sleeping, perturbed by all those first-ascent demons, we are trying to get into a rhythm as we enter the narrow gap between Bradley and Dickey. The shadow of the two walls closing the sky overhead makes us feel like intruders. As the light grows in

the Ruth Gorge, we make good progress through our previous high point and meet up with the sun at the base of the first mysterious section: the headwall. From the ground, this steep and almost blank wall had seemed to be the most problematic section of the line. Swapping leads the whole way (chance or bad luck?) gives me the sharp end of the rope for the improbable-looking wall.

My heart is going crazy as I sort the small alpine rack on my harness. As I’m working my way up a shallow seam I let go of one tool, thinking it is still leashed to my wrist, but it’s not. It flies into the air and falls on the snow right beside LP. It’s too far to downclimb, so I decide to keep going with the remaining ice tool; soon I clip it to my harness and then strip the gloves and go bare-handed. Attracted to a crack as if by a magnet, I hit a dead end and have to pendulum back left. Soon I find myself on delaminated ice. “I’m at the end of the rope!” I yell to LP. Shivering and sweating like I just threw up, I finally figure out how to make a decent belay among all the loose blocks. I’ve really pushed my limits this time. As I belay LP up, I don’t want to think about what is lying above.

What we had dubbed the “ramp” is pretty intimidating from this point of view: a slightly overhanging dihedral clogged by big, hanging snow mushrooms. Dejected by the superexposed ground, but determined to keep up the momentum, LP unballasts from the heavy pack and takes the lead. At this moment a pattern is set up between us. After seconding a hard pitch we feel it is our turn to commit, in tribute to our partner’s boldness. Three more pitches, a four- meter fall onto the belay, and a couple of hours of avoiding falling projectiles, and the “Hot and Spicy Ramp” is born.

We are still under the halfway point on the face and the climbing isn’t looking any easier. If we want to be able to continue, we have to find a decent bivy site to brew and try to sleep a bit. To our surprise we find a semiclosed cave made by accumulated spindrift at the edge of the névé that will give us access to the next ramp system. After digging a bit, we end up with a pretty comfortable two-man bivy. Without a sleeping bag, we wrap ourselves in our single bivy sack. An hour later, our feet are numb and we start moving again.

In semidarkness, we quickly get into the bath. The first pitch takes an hour and a half to lead, and I have to resort to aid to pull through the roof of a big cave. Then LP has to sling a huge loose flake to a tiny knob before it plunges onto me. While I’m seconding, the block falls right onto my belay stance and makes that deathlike burning smell. I’ve got goose bumps for several minutes afterward, as if we had just missed getting swiped by a 10-wheeler on the highway.

Through the rest of the day we cover four more pitches of new ground. We exit another hard-won pitch, a rock groove that forces us to pull on gear, and continue onto more forgiving, lower angled terrain to the base of a nasty-looking chimney. Hidden under our hoods at the belay, we are trying to figure out which way to go from the pictures we’d taken earlier on our digital camera. The pixels are convincing me that the snow-filled chimney on our right is the best way to go, giving us rapid access to the summit seracs. LP is more convinced that the way the spindrift is coming down from the left is the correct way. Finally he decides to let me have a look at the right option.

The steep, snow-filled groove doesn’t allow me to get all the way inside, so I start working my way up the rounded outer edge. The climbing quickly turns awkward, forcing me to clip the pack to a piece of gear. Soon, I resort to aid. I’m transferring my weight onto a hook placement when I get knocked off balance. My foot sticks in my aider and I flip upside down. I look down to see the block on which I was hooking fall right onto the pack. The sling holding it to the piece breaks, and the pack bounces into the air.

It takes us some time to figure out what has happened. LP is completely dumbfounded. We’ve lost a pack, but we’re both unharmed and the ropes are undamaged. We’re both shaky, so we decide not to push our luck. Wondering if our small rack is enough to rappel the face, we hesitantly start our descent.

Forty-eight hours after leaving, we savor the pleasures of our camp, the bitterness easing away in the sweet-clove warmth of food and shelter.

It dumps for almost five consecutive days. In between storms, we spot our high point on the face with binoculars and realize we’d gotten completely off route. We find the fallen pack two days after our retreat, its contents all there. When the weather improves we need something to bring back our good spirits—perhaps the Moose’s Tooth; we both agree we can’t go home without having climbed it.

We leave camp at 4:30 p.m. with the intention of doing Ham and Eggs at night to get the best conditions. We simulclimb the entire route, clipping belay stations as we see them. What a great couloir—just what we needed to restore our psyches.

Since our retreat from Bradley it has been impossible to take our eyes off the peak. It’s always there, like a good-smelling meal passing under your nose when your stomach groans with hunger. With all the technical ground still to cover above our high point, plus the complexity of the summit seracs, the prospect is very intimidating. We spend a lot of time scanning and reviewing each section of the wall with binoculars to convince ourselves that the recent snowfall and the melt and freeze cycle may have improved conditions on the second half of the route. Climbing this face was the reason for our trip to Alaska, and we agree we have to give it another try.

At 2 a.m. on May 20, with five days to go before our plane will arrive, we are once again gliding through the Ruth Glacier for a last-chance attempt.

Our positive vibrations are dampened fast, as the first pitch has deteriorated a lot. The climbing is much scarier, with unstable sugar snow and delaminated ice. We are very worried about how the ramp will look in these conditions.

However, LP says, “We didn’t wake up this early to turn back right away!” The sun rapidly touches the face and starts to heat everything. As the elements come alive, we manage to get to the base of the headwall. Rockfall on the south face of Dickey creates a terrifying atmosphere.

I wanted to lead the headwall again, and now it’s time to fulfill my wish. Back in the comfort of our camp, climbing it free sounded good, but at this moment I don’t really care. I slump my tool into a small seam and trade the security of the névé ledge for the first small edges. “Allez, Max, focus!” LP shouts. Hold by hold, I link the crimp sequence, flashbacks from the first attempt searing my mind. Soon I’m at the pendulum section, hesitating. “Come on Max! There’s plenty of rope out! I’m with you!” Tool in hand, I fully stretch my body and swing for a shallow dimple. As soon as my tool hooks, my feet rip. I can’t downclimb now. Every muscle tightens and I throw for the good crack. I’m above the crux.…

To our surprise, the ramp is in quite the same condition as the first time. We stretch the rope, making fewer pitches, and pass the bivy site sooner than expected. Still, we stop at the chimney just above, as it’s our last opportunity to rest at a decent stance. Since we brought a sleeping bag and extra instant oatmeal this time, our bivy proves restorative.

Just before sunrise, LP stands at the cave entrance below the roof. Hood on, his headlamp moving in circles, his tools leashed to his wrists and bouncing back and forth, he looks like an alien coming out of my dream. We have agreed to switch leads so he can tackle the harder pitches this time. I silently hope he will be able to free the aid sections, and the first one is served for breakfast! As we scratch our way up with crampons flat on the rock, palming our hands next to our feet and leaning back against the opposite wall, I can’t imagine we’re supposed to be ice climbing! But higher up we find better-looking ice and LP manages the improbable, freeing the roof and the next remaining aid section.

Totally absorbed by our progress, we don’t notice the big clouds building around us. An instant later, we find ourselves in a total whiteout, amid a world of seracs. Four hundred meters higher, out of breath, we chop a ledge that allows us to sit and cover our legs with the now totally wet sleeping bag.

Our words are few, giving way to sporadic spasms as hypothermia starts to take over. An hour later, the fog clears just enough to see the mountaintops and our proximity to the ridge. I give LP a shake: “Let's get out of here!”

For two pitches we head toward what seems to be the only breach in the corniced crest. Passing through it first, I search for the next obstacle and for a possible view of the summit, but there’s nothing else—we are on the summit!

The euphoria lasts for a few minutes as we contemplate the half-light that lends a supernatural pink glow to the glacial amphitheater below. The remaining low clouds emphasize the steepness of the surroundings faces. It’s 11 p.m. and the unstable weather pushes us to start our descent to the Bradley/Wake col before total darkness. Eight hours later we crumple in camp, not fully realizing that we have just done the biggest route of our lives.

The fog breaks and light emerges from behind Dickey. The only remaining cloud over Bradley’s summit glows incandescent red, as if the mountain is catching fire, angry at having been violated. Down on our snow couch, we savor the outstanding moments of this 55-hour spice fest, a satisfying result from our “pour it on and see what happens” approach.

Summary:

Area: Ruth Gorge, Alaska Range

Ascents: Second ascent of The Escalator (1,220m, Alaska Grade 3 50°, Shaw-Wagner, 2000) on Mt. Johnson (2,579m). Second ascent of On the Frozen Roads of Our Incertitudes (950m, V M6 WI5+, Constant-Mercader, 2003) on London Bridge (2,250m). Ham and Eggs (850m, V 5.8 AI4, Davies-Krakauer-Zinsser, 1975), Mooses Tooth (3,171m). First ascent: Spice Factory (1,310m, Alaska Grade V 5.10R M7 WI5) on the north face of Mt. Bradley (2,775m), May 20-22, 2005.

All climbs by Louis-Philippe Ménard and Maxime Turgeon.

A Note About the Author:

Maxime Turgeon lives in suburban Montréal, Québec, and has recently completed a degree in mechanical engineering. The experience in Alaska, he writes, “definitely opened my mind to an infinity of new possibilities and the call from the bigger ranges

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