The Entropy Wall
A direct route up Mt. Moffit’s north face.
The Hayes Range has long been a sort of local range for Fairbanks climbers. It doesn’t have the glamour appeal of Denali or the Ruth Gorge, and access is a problem. (The Talkeetna pilots don’t like flying there—distance and uncertain weather make the trip a significant financial risk—and the interior has a shortage of pilots equipped for glacier landings.) As a rule, there is never more than one climbing party at a time in the entire range. In addition to this remote feel, the range is immature in that it hasn’t been picked over for decades by good climbers. Few have heard of Mt. Shand, Peak 10,910', or Mt. Balchen, but these mountains offer plenty of opportunities for those looking for adventure.
In the eastern Hayes Range, the north face of Mt. Moffit rises 2,300 meters above its own private spur of the Trident Glacier. The glacier is bordered on the east by the still unclimbed northeast ridge and on the west by the northwest ridge, which, with four ascents to date, qualifies as the “normal route.” This configuration means that the only time sunlight touches the face is for a couple of hours at dawn and dusk near the summer solstice, when the sun barely sets. Active seracs on both sides of the cirque make it a dangerous place to hang out. However, not far away is an idyllic meadow at the base of the northwest ridge, which, if not for the overzealous ground squirrels, would make the perfect base camp.
Brian Teale, who has been putting up hard ice and mixed routes in Valdez ever since it became Alaska’s premier ice climbing destination, completed the first route on Moffit’s north face with Harvey Miller in 1989. They climbed a 2,300-meter ice line to the right of the huge rock wall in the center of the face. The lower third of the route was a frozen waterfall to the left of the fall line of seracs high on the right side of the face. The upper part presented a choice between sustained but objectively safe ice and mixed climbing to the left or somewhat lowerangled ice, threatened by seracs, to the right. After the lower part of the route, they were eager to find more moderate terrain. With reluctance, they went right. They reached the summit after spending more than a day under the seracs. Brian’s only comment was, “It was like playing Russian roulette with only one chamber empty.” Although their route was certainly one of the biggest in Alaska that year, they stuck with the local ethic of the day and did not report it.
In March of 2002, after my first season of ice climbing, I got my first real taste of alpine success with the second ascent of the Cutthroat Couloir on McGinnis Peak, just east of Moffit. By June, I had convinced myself that I was ready for Moffit. Jeff Benowitz, Fairbanks climber and alpine mentor, and I flew into the mudflats next to the Trident Moraine with plans for the left variation to the Miller-Teale route. There had been two weeks of splitter weather before we flew in, so of course we had two weeks of crap. After we completed the approach in the rain, the clouds parted to reveal four independent, simultaneous avalanches. We never set foot on the face, and the more I looked at it the more I felt that I just wasn’t ready for such an objective.
In May 2006, I took the opportunity to return to Moffit with Alaskan legend Carl Tobin (formerly of Fairbanks, now from Anchorage) and Aaron Thrasher (also from Anchorage). Combining my age with Aaron’s still fell well short of Carl’s, but we were tasked by Carl’s wife, Nora, with checking his knot. Our objective was an ephemeral ice line that occasionally was visible on the 1,400-meter rock wall to the left of the Miller-Teale. Based on reports coming from the rest of the Alaska Range, it was a dry year, so I figured the left variation of the Miller-Teale would make a good contingency plan. We flew from Talkeetna to the Trident Glacier and proceeded to get three days of snow. The rock wall was completely ice-free and the snow above the Miller-Teale was not stable, so it was time to find another objective.
Since we had a big rock rack but modest ice gear, we went to the northeast ridge. We had 24 hours of good weather, but after a few pitches of time- consuming climbing over nasty gen darmes, and realizing that we had done less than 10 percent of the hard climbing, we took our last opportunity to bail without having to reverse the ridge. After a dozen harrowing 70-meter rappels down a gully on the east side of the ridge, we realized we should have reversed the ridge. More bad weather arrived, and, low on rack and motivation, we soon commenced the two-day hike to the road.
I spent the fall of 2005 in Yosemite, and there I met Colin Haley, who had two weeks, a ton of motivation, and $30 (which included his share of the gas to get back to Seattle). Our climbing styles were compatible, and after a few long routes we parted with vague plans to do something in Alaska the next season. Somewhere along the way, I commented that Moffit’s north face looked like a granite and diorite north face of North Twin with 900 meters of snow and ice above it. He replied, “Send me a fucking picture!” On July 4, moments after the flight ban resulting from the North Korean missile test in 2006 was lifted, we flew into the Trident Glacier mudflats, set on a direct route on the north face.
During the first few days of unsettled weather, we made the 25-kilometer round trip to get the rest of our food from the airstrip. On July 9, my handy FM radio caught the Fairbanks forecast for “mostly sunny followed by two days of partly cloudy,” so we sorted the rack and awoke at 1 a.m. We set foot on the face with two nights of food and three of fuel, just as the 3 a.m. sun touched the upper reaches. As expected, the granite bands offered high-quality climbing while the diorite was easier but looser. We led in blocks, with the leader in rock shoes, carrying or hauling the small pack, depending on the terrain. The follower wore boots and followed with the bigger pack, jugging when it was faster. After 19 pitches, we bivied on top of a pillar of granite. So far, the route had gone almost all free at 5.9. The most exciting part for me was dodging a microwave-size block that Colin’s rope had knocked loose on an icefield near the end of the day.
While eating dinner and considering the weather, Colin commented that even if a storm came in we were committed to going over the top. The last thing I wanted to do was rap, but with 700 meters of unknown hard climbing and another 900 meters of easier ground before we could descend, it seemed a bit premature to rule out bailing. We still had enough rack to reach the ground, but Colin is driven. I chose not to think about it.
I got the first block in the morning. At the top of the first pitch I considered the consequences while staring up at a series of dripping diorite roofs as it began to snow. Colin sensed my hesitation and weighed in: “Get up there. It doesn’t look that bad.” After some nailing through loose blocks and back-cleaning twice, I finished the pitch and it was Not Too Bad.
Above a small band of ice, the main headwall began. There were three systems that looked like they might go, but I was only confident in one of them. It had the added bonus of bringing us to a huge snow mushroom under a roof that had been clearly visible from our base camp in the meadow. I had glassed it with binoculars in May and jokingly suggested that it would offer an expansive bivy, protected by the large roof. Indeed, after doing three pitches of mixed free and aid, I discovered that the bivy was better than I could have hoped. Situated under a three-meter horizontal roof, it had a perfectly level swath of snow two meters wide and 15 meters long, complete with railing. Even though we had only done six pitches, we hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before and couldn’t pass up such a sweet bivy. I was relieved that Colin agreed. After dinner, I lay giggling while rocks from the overhangs far above motored by like chopped Harleys.
In the morning, Colin aided the spectacular thin hand crack through the roof. When he neared the end of the rope, I felt a tug. Obediently, I paid out an armload of slack and was greeted with another tug. “Stop lowering me!” He had pulled a small cam from behind a loose block and taken his first ever aid fall. A few minutes later he was above the block and had the rope fixed. He had back-cleaned the roof, so I took the swing out over the void. It’s less scary when all you can see is cloud below. One more rock pitch and we hit the upper icefield.
We knew there was a mixed headwall at the top of the face, but now it looked more intimidating than we had figured. Colin got the first two pitches, and then it was my turn. A short tension traverse and some hooking brought me to a slush-filled slot. When the slush ran out, it was time for a few moves of granite squeeze chimney streaming with water, followed by a leaning ribbon under some froth, and finally straight-up WI4+. Back in the meadow, Colin had talked me into taking only two stubbies and one normal ice screw. Since he was belaying on screws, that left me one stubby and a bit of conviction that I could reach the one crack far above for some rock gear to belay on. I made it with a couple meters to spare, but was soaking wet and getting cold in a hurry.
In thermodynamics, entropy is a measure of disorder in a system.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system never decreases.
We had reached the end of the intrusive rock and, hoping to make the ice slopes above, I grabbed some rack and started moving in an attempt to keep hypothermia at bay. I should have brought more slings because the rope drag was horrendous for the final bit of loose hooking to an uninspiring six-piece belay. One more pitch of steep climbing put us on the upper slopes. We packed our main rope, now frozen and nearly filling a backpack on its own, and set off simul-climbing on the skinny rope. Two long pitches later, we unroped as the sun began to rise.
Soon, the angle eased enough to stop for a brew, so we kicked out a flat spot and started melting snow. I had the warmer sleeping bag (-5° C), and Colin had the belay jacket. After a couple of hours, the wind was moving enough snow that we both were cold. It was time to go. More clouds had come in, and it looked like the weather was for real this time. We summited in a whiteout a couple of hours later. We couldn’t dig a cave since, in the interest of saving weight, Colin had talked me out of bringing the shovel blade. Lacking a compass, we considered the time of day and the direction of a brief glimpse of sun, and headed in the direction we hoped would get us to the northwest ridge. After a bit of stumbling around blindly, we were indeed on a ridge, but in a brief clearing it became apparent that we were on the southwest ridge. That would take us very quickly to the saddle between Moffit and Shand, but getting back to our camp would be epic, to say the least. The icefall leading down the east fork of the Trident had not been traveled in 60 years and looked like a mighty unhealthy proposition. The alternative would be to descend a route that Jeff Benowitz and company had done on Shand, but it had a bit of technical terrain and there was an icefall that way, too. We went back up to the junction and turned down the proper ridge. A few more hours of descending brought us back to the tent, 38 hours after waking up at the mushroom bivy.
The damned snafflehounds had eaten my dry socks and my toothpaste, chewed my T-shirt into Swiss cheese, and filled the tent with fecal matter. I had learned my lesson in May and left the tent open, so at least they didn’t chew holes in that. Our food was safely clam-shelled in a pair of sleds, and we happily began devouring it while several inches of rain were deposited at camp and the face became plastered with snow. We both agreed we had just done the biggest and most committing climb of our lives. I tried acting tough by suggesting what next?” But for the first time Colin seemed to have had enough. We briefly entertained notions of climbing McGinnis on the way out, but we were fooling ourselves and just walked by. After some amusing antics with two people in a four-pound pack raft made for one and a shovel blade on an ice tool for a paddle, we made it across the Delta River and stepped onto the Richardson Highway.
Area: Eastern Hayes Range, Alaska
Ascent: First ascent of the Entropy Wall (2,300m, VI 5.9 A2 WI4+) on the north face of Mt. Moffit (3,969m), by Jed Brown and Colin Haley, July 10-13, 2006.
A Note About the Author:
Jed Brown, 23, was born in Alaska and calls Fairbanks home. He is a Ph.D. student at ETH Zürich, doing numerical analysis of ice flow.