So the last page was about 100 KB again, a round number for a page size.
People's Monument: climbing
One of Those: climbing
Gold Dirt: the usual adventure
Cartoon Kayaker: kayaking
West Ridge: climbing
Old North: climbing
Ghost Dredge: the usual adventure
Hard Work: hunting
Frontal Sunburn: climbing
And this aint no bullshit...
The People's Monument to the Freedom of the Mountains
There we were mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. It was at the edge of night, in the dead of winter, at the northern most very precipice of the Wrangell Range, in the heart of Alaska. The mountain spread out below us. The storm raged. Exposed flesh froze in seconds. We stood in exhaustion, with a blank stare. If an expanse of snow beside us had not just collapsed into the cavernous crevasse, leaving us standing on a narrow bridge, we would have dug-in there. We staggered forward to solid glacier, collapsed, and started scratching out a snow cave.
Meanwhile, back at the start of this story, you may remember that we left the car at the Glennallen airfield, the engine compartment a solid block of snow after that genuinely amusing ploy the Paxon highway maintenance camp snow plow guy pulled-off on the Places page of this web site. We flew away and landed at an obscure and secret place, on the river beside an old trapper's cabin, with an old trapper, trapping, of course. Yeah, we were in a National Park, and so was he, and we each intended to be.
It was the mountain climbers versus the National Park Pigs, and we were slopping the hogs in a different pen that week. Oh, and if you want to know more about what all was going on, you might visit Alaskan Alpine Club.
Well, when you were expecting to be freezing in a tent after a cup of soup and a bowl of glop, to encounter a warm cabin with too much whiskey and gourmet rabbit stir fry, life was good. We told trapping, climbing and Park Pig stories late into the night.
The long trudge to the mountain began in the morning. It was early January. Things were nippy. Last time we saw the sun was in the airplane on the way in. Now we were on the north side of Mt. Drum. Our next chance at the sun would be when we reached the summit, if we reached it about noon or so on those short winter days. We trudged past the Wizard's Castle, a fortress of black jagged rocks on the ridge above us, silhouetted against the clouded, dim evening sky over a world of cold white snow. Something eerie was looking down at us as we slowly skied up the creek valley. The path ahead was fraught with peril, albeit as usual. We rounded a corner and skied through an area of blood spattered and tracked on the snow. The gnawed horns and some tufts of white hair were the only things left of a dall sheep that met a pack of wolves. Those louts don't even fire up the barbecue, or use spices, but only because they don't have opposable thumbs.
It was a long and boring climb to where we eventually reached the aforementioned crevasse the next day. It was late in the evening, and the wind was picking up to the serious number on the serious wind story gauge. It was so cold that day, it had been too inconvenient to drink enough water, especially with my moustache frozen to my beard as usual. We were exhausted and dehydrated. If you see the slide show, this was a bit after my camera froze, after I got a couple slides that turned out with a faded wash of the background. That's where, among the slides after the trip, I got out the old rapidograph and inked-up some slides with stick-man figures that made the rhetoric below look like a summer outing at the beach. An inked-in picture is worth a thousand lies.
We were right near the top, down a ways from a saddle leading to the summit. When the snow bridge collapsed beside my partner behind me, while I had paused to look back, so much surface fell away that I thought he was flying upward, for awhile. There was an ominous pause. There was a deep vibrating roar that traveled up through the glacier ice. There was a huge column of snow dust exploding up out of the crevasse beside us. The wind stripped it off a few feet up, and laced the sky with crystals of snow glittering against the patch of stars to the north. We didn't say a thing, and moved forward off the remaining snow bridge. Oh, by the way, if you read that scene in any other story, this is where it came from. I remember using this rhetorical sequence somewhere else, but, well, you know how these stories go. Sometimes they are here, sometimes there, damn lucky if you can even keep them in the right lifetime these days what with all this new fangled cybergoogle and all sloshing errant electro-magnetic silicone energy across the time lines. I tell you it just aint natural.
There were three of us. Two started laboriously digging the cave in hard snow while I hacked out a level spot and set up the tent to get quick cover. Things were getting a bit dicey, on account of the cold, the wind, and our exhaustion. We were each able to get the preliminaries attended to in the tent while the other two kept digging. The refinement in process to facilitate both the tent and cave was a necessity that particular evening. Exposed flesh freezes in seconds, you know. A third person cannot stand in that cold and wind while the other two are digging.
We finished the cave about the time the wind really picked up. I was tempted to leave the tent up and get into the cave, when the size of the chunk of rime ice that bounced off the taunt surface of the tent suggested that I get the tent down quick, on account of it costing me so much money, and we had a few more days to get back from this trip. I watched for rime ice bombs zinging overhead and down around me while I was pulling the stakes and poles. We were just on the downwind side over the top from the few thousand foot vertical south face of Mt. Drum, topped with huge gargoyles of rime ice, catching the full force of the storm from the south, and it was getting scoured with a wind that reached well over 100 mph by the time it all got to the top and came over looking down for a target. We were the target. The sky was raining chunks of ice. I was dragging the collapsed tent when I dove into the snow cave tunnel. Inside, the sound of the ice chunks hitting and crunching over the cave roof left us a bit amused with the thought of any circumstance that might have delayed us, such as that snow bridge perhaps breaking on the wrong side of my partner.
It was a good cave, a bit cramped, but with a thin upper level to lay in. The packs were left in the lower level to close the door. The stove was lit with difficulty. The cold white gas slowly started burning enough to get the rest of it burning. Until we got water, we were sitting on the edge of dehydration and cold, with our feet dangling on the wrong side, saved only by the cave.
The storm raged. The ice kept crunching down and across the roof a few inches above our heads, all night. There was no respite all morning. I had time to get my camera working again, so I wouldn't be the only one incriminated in the photos from the other guy's cameras. We thought we were hunkered in for the duration, but the wind died down just a bit after noon. We scrambled. It takes awhile doing overboots and crampons and all that in the cold. And we had this other little project with us too, that took a little arranging.
We were not far from the summit, but we got there after the sun was well below the southern horizon. We missed it and we wouldn't see it for a few more days. We set about the mission.
Well you see, under the newly proposed National Park Service mountaineering regulations of that particular time when the armed Federal Park Pigs were wallowing into Alaska by the truckloads, our climb would be a violation of federal regulations of such order that we would face a few years in jail on a few counts of said violations, just the first being the matter of there being only three of us instead of the required four. Who in Washington DC ever heard of less than four people climbing a mountain? Well, if it isn't a committee it doesn't exist in their mind, so it should be outlawed, of course. Prison for the peasants who don't travel by fours.
And well, there was this sign-making shop in Alaska, with some government contracts, including one with the National Park Service. The owners were Alaskans. So they told us we could tell the Park Service thugs exactly who made the full size commercial sign with the official National Park Service paint, letter sizes and aluminum sheet specifications. Approved for the wilderness by the National Park Service himself.
GO HOME NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
The wind picked up again. It was cold and getting dark. We bolted the sign to the aluminum poles, stretched out the cables and dug the anchors deep into the summit rime ice. That hummer was solid, humming in the wind, and on the summit of one of the prominent National Park Gulag mountains, much to our laughter, albeit said laughter stripped away from our lips by the wind, but heard throughout the realm to the north.
We then bolted onto the poles a thick aluminum plaque deeply engraved with the words:
In memory of the freedom of the mountains, destroyed in Alaska by President Jimmy Carter and his Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus.
Mt. Drum is the People's Monument to the Freedom of the Mountains.
Carter and Andrus were just the two mental midgets who flagrantly violated the Antiquities Act by using it to seize millions of acres of public land in Alaska, under the superficial rhetoric of saving it from their oil company financial patrons who were in on the scam as usual, for a ruse to again trammel the rights of the common people under more regulatory stagnation backed by police guns, like all governments, much to our amusement. Andrus and Carter were just like the rest of the RepublicratDemocans still are, and will continue to be until they finally achieve what the Kremlin did, making an unlivable bureaucratic morass that cannot be corrected. All that is whitewashed by the usual words for the good of the people and peace in the world, fooling fools funneling more money to the intellectually absent government drones. The people will eventually throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, parks and all, and wish they had earlier, just to get back their own private lives. It is the story of government, since the day government was invented. Government cannot comprehend the process of reasoning, and knows only insatiable armed force over everyone outside government, least government would have no reason to exist. How much of that tax dollar you were told was for public education and helping the aging poor, bought bombs for the president's wag the dog war or Park Service guns to point at mountain climbers in the mountains?
We took the pictures that turned out looking as cold as it was, and we beat feet for the cave, the wind again pummeling us with chunks of rime.
Next day the path below was fraught with peril, but it was down hill. That is when gravity is an advantage all day long. We survived, partied at the trapper's cabin, and slept comfortably. After another day skiing down the river, and a bit of an effort to find a landing strip for the arriving airplane, we flew out on schedule.
The summit picture of the sign was a front page picture in a local newspaper. We sent the poor Park Service dolts a full statement with many photos. They just don't have a sense of humor. They will forever believe that all humans are their enemy, oblivious to what Park chaps are themselves. Mud is not more dumb. Park Service dolts lace the wilderness with government signs telling you that you will be arrested for everything, but if a citizen puts up a sign in memory of American freedom that thousands of American soldiers died for in wars, the stinking government thugs, backed by the gullible dupes in the US military, go ballistic, and we laughed ourselves to tears. All manner of accusations of our crimes laced the government paperwork systems and public comments. But of course, we violated no law, and harmlessly exercised our lawful rights, criticizing the government. The environmentalists were outraged and mouthed the Park Service words in lip sync.
Because none of the National Park Service mountaineering rangers are competent mountain climbers, because no real mountain climber will work for the Park Service swine, they had to fly over the mountain to see what we showed them in the photos, the ones without the stick figures. Because no one in the local area would fuel their airplane, they had to fly from Anchorage in a larger airplane. Because no Alaskan pilot would fly an airplane for the Park Service thugs, they had to hire a lower 48 pilot to fly in Alaska mountain conditions. The story told by some Park Service sorts who spilled the beans from the dramatic stories told by those on board, was that the pilot flew under a cute little smooth, harmless looking soft white lenticular cloud over the summit of Drum, at strong urging of the idiot Park Service cops on board. They went inverted and almost impacted the mountain. That would have been a mess. We could have told them that they should be required by federal regulation fly with no fewer than four airplanes, roped together because they were flying over a crevassed glacier. They flew back to Anchorage. The pilot promptly quit his job and went back to the lower 48.
Undaunted and awash in your tax money, a month later the Park Service chaps successfully flew over the summit. Then there are two stories, an inside story that they saw the sign, and a public story that they refused to comment because the case was under investigation, of course, much to our open laughter.
This was only one of the events. There were others. The four climber party size regulation and some others were not heard of again, but the insatiable feds imposed more of the same, obeyed by fools who never ask the questions to learn what their rights are.
The sign was there a couple months after that, according to a local pilot. The sign is still on the mountain. It was first buried in the accumulating summit rime ice that year, then is slowly moving deeper into the glacier, down the north side of the mountain, and will melt out at the bottom of a certain short glacier in about 100 years, just about time for the centennial celebration of the People's Monument to the Freedom of the Mountains. Don't miss it.
One of those
It wasn't desperate until short final. Up until then it was one of those big money things, where the two of us got together and counted out all our money, including what, if we would have spent on a bottle of beer, we wouldn't have enough. So we didn't buy the beer, and we could afford to fly to a mountain that would have taken three days to ski to. Let a guy get a little money in his pocket, and first he gets lazy.
So we flew. We were with the famous late Ron Warbelow of Tanacross, a little north of Tok. Well, we had earlier convinced him that he should fly mountain climbers to glaciers, and he would make a fortune, since no one else in the area would do glacier landings. There was reason no one else would do glacier landings, but he didn't know that yet, so he got a friend to tell him some of the basics, and he started flying the very few of we financially destitute climbers wanting to go to obscure mountains requiring landing on a different glacier each time, incurring all the hazards for the minimum return.
Approaching the mountain of our interest, we were impressed with the rolling wave of clouds boiling over the ridge from the south and disappearing in whispy fingers reaching out toward us as we set up on long final. We were in a Helio Currier. Things looked good. Then about short final, when we were getting kinda low, between the towering mountains at hand on both sides, and the nasty part of the glacier below us, before we were at the narrow tongue of snow that looked like a good landing spot, the reason the fingers of wisp were reaching toward us, reached us.
The unique thing about a Helio Currier is the leading edge wing flaps, that are aerodynamically balanced to independently clunk forward if the wing stalls, to suddenly give it more lift, or something like that. When it happens in turbulent winds, the loud clunks of each wing's independent forward edge flaps randomly clunking forward and back, are rather dramatic, and flying the plane is like guiding a bucking rodeo bull to a delicate chair at a tea party table. I would have been impressed with Ron's white knuckle thrashing-about on his side of the plane, trying to stay on his side of the airplane and also fly the thing, if I weren't so fascinated with the unusual cloud formation rolling over the ridge above us. We planned to be climbing up there the next day. I didn't even know until after we landed that my climbing partner in the back seat was throwing-up the whole time from the first slam of the wind until touch-down. You don't often get to look at clouds with that much fury staring you in the face without their trying to rip your face from your shoulders.
We did touch down, with a bit of drama. Ron, he just shouted for us to hurry and throw our stuff out of the plane and close the door, while he fought the controls at near full throttle just to keep the plane on the glacier at one spot. These airplane pilots who own their airplanes, sometimes don't appreciate the spectacular mountain scenery. The cloud formations up on the ridge, looking down on us, were worthy of pondering with an analytical gaze.
I shut the door, and was a bit startled to see the airplane as suddenly rise away from us vertically, lurch forward a bit, turn, and get blown out of there faster than the departure of a government bureaucrat being asked a question.
Granted, the wind was a bit brisk, but nothing a person couldn't crawl against. It was mid day, in the dead of winter, in the heart of the Alaska Range, or a bit at the east end of the heart, on the north side, kind of the left auricle near the aorta, from one's own perspective. Too early to camp, and where we wouldn't have wanted to try, for the same reason the airplane couldn't stay there very long. It wasn't all that desperate, since we just got there, full of energy and all, and there hadn't been time for much to go awry. My climbing partner quickly recovered from his esophageal opinion of the most recent moments of flight. We leaned forward, and just before reaching the horizontal position, were able to move against the wind, up glacier. It was really easier than it sounds, since the closer we got to the steep north side of the mountain, the less the wind was able to reach all the way down to us on its little venture to the north. But it did take us a few hours to get a short distance.
We got to a place somewhere out in the middle of the glacier below the unclimbed ridge of our choice. We weren't all that sure how close we were, on account of visibility problems, on account of a certain portion of that cloud stuff curling down the slope and lacing across the glacier about eye level. Calculating from the approaching darkness that we were where we wanted to be, we dug-in forthwith. It was a classic flat glacier cave. We dug a trench, then dug in from the side of it. This time it was a square box shape, without much head room, but a castle compared to a tent. We noticed that the wind blew the snow away as we threw it out. When we finished, the only indication of the cave was a bamboo wand we put at the entrance of the trench.
Next day we set out a line of bamboo wands on both sides of the cave, in case visibility wasn't so good when we returned, and the cave being otherwise not distinguishable out on the flat glacier. We then toddled on up the mountain a ways, on a route no man had dared to challenge before us, for lack of any man's interest in such an obscure climb. We pitched our tent on a small spot we hacked out of the ridge, sleeping between the roar of the rime ice avalanches crashing down the faces on either side. One of those faces was the famous ridge between the summit and the perhaps equally high north peak of Rabbit Mountain, which is on the map with that name, but you won't find it. We were looking at the vertical side of the ridge. The other side was steeper.
Next day we reached the summit, after the usual spots of climbing interest along the way. Crevasses at the bottom of vertical ice are common on steep mountain-side glaciers, and always amusing. A bit nippy with the December wind being what it was up there on top. We looked to the right, and we looked to the left, and we reverently offered the ancient mountain climber's summit dissertation: Yeah, okay, lets get back down off this thing.
Sometimes you can get a day of good weather in December, but not this time. By the time we reached the bottom of the ridge, the ground blizzard along the flat glacier was as robust as they get. We couldn't see our feet. We took off our crampons and put on our skis and headed out to the center of the glacier, where we left our cave marked by a string of wands. We got there, somewhere out there, and saw nothing in the fading light. We preferred to find the cave, rather than dig a new one, since a lot of our stuff was in the one we already dug. This was one of those times when you looked down-wind no matter which direction you were moving, on account of the wind would freeze your facial skin, then peel off layers, if you looked up-wind. This made it a bit difficult to look for the wands. After aimlessly wandering about a bit, roped-up of course, each yelling at each other that we each thought the cave was in different directions, we methodically trudged along a grid pattern, by lengths of rope, marking each corner by wands. We were pretty much at the point of it qualifying for the old desperate story, since we could not really function too much beyond stumbling around in the wind, with our hands under our arm pits and our ski poles dangling.
We huddled for the decision to dig a cave, or maybe ski back to the base of the ridge to find respite from the wind, when we noticed a wand right beside us. That is embarrassing when it happens. Then came the debate as to whether this was a wand we had just left on our grid search pattern, or one on the line leading to the cave. During the astute analysis by our keen minds, it slowly became noticeable that it was the wand at the corner of the trench leading down to our cave.
You know the feeling of getting back home after a month long vacation. That's nothing. We dug down to that cave, pushed in the snow-block door, and started the party. If I had that cave right here, I wouldn't even wait to hit the upload button.
There I was mind you, and it was desperate indeed, and out of control.
It was the first time I had ever been on one of those obnoxiously noisy four-wheeler all-terrain ATV vehicles, on 2 August 2001. It didn't take but twenty seconds to realize I wanted one, most of that time trying to find the brake.
You can go quite a distance very quickly on one of those things, if you can hang-on. But you gotta be real careful about hanging on. The gas pedal is a little thumb lever on the handle bar, and it is rather sensitive. Go ahead, try to grip something, with your thumb stuck out, then because gripping it caused it to suddenly take off with you in tow, try to grip it harder without moving your thumb. You always learn faster starting at full speed, than you do reading the instructions.
But this weren't no joy ride. We were working, hard toilsome work on the northern front. Yes, it was in the heart of the pristine Alaska wilderness, with four-wheeler all-terrain vehicles, ripping up the trails as much as we could rip them up without losing control and damaging ourselves, and that was just to push over what grew up since the last time, so we could find the trail the next time. When it is daylight all night long in the summer, as of course you recognize about Alaska, you have to watch what is growing behind you, because it grows real fast, and you won't get back through it if you tarry too long where you went. We were ripping up the trail to get to where we were going to do even worse when we got there.
Imagine if you had to commute to work every day, sitting on a noisy machine that was doing everything a bucking bronco does, and more, while you were being rained on or sitting in the cold wind the entire trip to and from work. Appreciate paved highways and automobiles. The reason an all-terrain vehicle is used is that the trail is so bumpy and twisty that you don't want to walk on it. Of course that is when the four-wheeler handle bars are therefore always attempting to violently jerk your arms off, in both directions, and you dare not lose your grip, while you control your thumb with the skill of a surgeon. It isn't so bad when one side of the seat drops out from under that cheek, but when the other side kicks you, you tend to grip the handle bars harder, which, if your throttle thumb does not remain relaxed, suddenly accelerates you forward, which amplifies your next problem, like the tree branches clawing at your face if you were lucky enough to miss the trunk. A rational adult would choose another job. But of course we kids love this sort of stuff. I gotta get one of those ATV things.
We were out a ways from Fairbanks, in nice summer weather, among the moose and bears and chirping birds twittering about the boreal forest. Squirrels chattered as they waved their bushy tails from overhead branches, and bounded from tree to tree. Blueberries and cranberries festooned the hillsides and stained our lips. Rare and succulent cloudberries, their bright cloudy orange color glistening in the sun, too many to eat, accented the soft green moss carpeting the spruce and birch forest slopes. Dew drops, gently nestled in the moss, caught the sparkle of the sun, and gave it to us as their gift.
I was stooped with aching muscles under a heavy load, laboriously clawing my way up and down steep slopes, sometimes the thick moss absorbing my entire step to leave me no higher than I was before I made the effort, sometimes moving inch by inch among a maze of criss-crossed, fallen small tree trunks, often crotch high, sometimes fighting my way through dense alder brush, being slapped in the face by branches attached to brush I was pushing aside, and sometimes all three at the same time. Remember, this aint no bullshit. And digging into my shoulder the entire time, in addition to my pack straps, was the heavy steel of a drill auger, with a gasoline motor. Sticking out in front of me, the drill stem seemed to catch on every branch within its long reach. Of course the other guy bounded through the trees holding the dinky little light hand-held GPS satellite positioning thing fooling us into believing that we were where it said.
You need to know about forest fires in Alaska black spruce. Black spruce often grow in dense stands covering expanses of land. They do not grow very tall because they grow where other trees won't grow, in permafrost and other unpleasantries for tree habitat. Also, interior Alaska is a fire ecology. Lightening-started forest fires are the norm in summer, where these meddlesome humans don't interfere with Mother Nature. When the black spruce burns, the result looks like a stand of toothpicks. Then the willow, alder and other brush grow, to become quite dense. Then the burned spruce rot off at the bottom, and fall over, creating a criss-crossed puzzle of overlapping, small poles holding each other above the ground at an inconvenient height. Passers-through must fight the vertical brush and the horizontal puzzle of inter-laced poles. Long legged moose love the areas of tender new breakfast salad served where short legged bears and humans move slow and mumble unsavory things.
After such mumbling, each time the guy with the GPS said, "here", we fired up the drill motor, and all the creatures felt the earth shake as we gouged a hole into the virgin ground, or at least the spiders within a few inches of the two inch diameter drill fled for their lives. We were in search of the wily soil sample, at bedrock. And every time that we found one, which was every time we drilled a hole, the other guy's pack got heavier, which after awhile made me feel pretty good about only having to carry the drill.
Exactly why were we collecting these soil samples? Talking to a mining geologist or a miner is to choreograph a rhetorical ballet, certain to entertain you, and leave you with real questions unanswered. Nearly every soil sample of the miner's interest will contain either gold, silver, platinum, tin, lead, copper, zinc, bismuth, arsenic, uranium, glitterium, half the periodic table of elements, and sometimes more, with a full explanation of each relationship with each other and the rocks around them, but never anywhere near economically viable concentrations, of course. Then watch them rush back out into the field to stake claims for miles around what is nowhere near economically viable concentrations. Check back in a few decades and notice how many different owners have acquired, leased and sold or abandoned those mineral claims which were staked again. Then look out on the land itself, and you will see the smucks at the start of this story, working for someone else who is certain that the anomaly of mineral concentrate is just where the other guy didn't drill or didn't recognize the aforementioned relationship to the other rocks. And all of it occurs in the opposite direction or at least four ridges over from where the story was told, on account of it's all a secret, you know. Nobody shouts, gold, when they find it. But somehow, everyone finds out.
If it is all a bit quizzical out on the land where these humans keep scratching and scraping the dirt and rocks to get something that glitters, it gets more amusing when you learn your way up through the layers of the human thrashing-about that keeps the dirt so unsettled. Those boys who fuss over leases, options, contracts, orders and such paperwork for production and non-production of gold, more than a miner fusses over the usual gobs of gold goobering up the sluice box riffles, play a game that makes ATV driving look mature. Make some inquiries about sources for a few thousand ounces or more of gold, for a friend of course, and laugh at which otherwise obscure government agencies get noticeably excited. If the public learned what money is and how it worked, your current government would collapse within hours. No government-funded school will ever teach what money and law are, and how they work, least government would lose its ability to violate the law with impunity, and tax you currently three times the rate that collapsed the feudal system.
And the why of this soil sampling drudgery? Women. At least they are the more intelligent of the species, in their wanting to wear and display baubles and bracelets and chains of glitterium, in the comfort of social settings, while the men are therefore foolishly enticed to go out there in the rain and mosquitoes and wind, overlooked in the above description, to grub and grunt in the dirt and rocks and muck, snarling at each other if anyone gets too close to what might be a streak of glitterium somewhere down in the muck and rocks.
But the more valuable knowledge is more often where you do not look. Many things attract people to many places, but the only thing that can direct you to the places that no one otherwise goes, is the potential of something in the dirt, out of sight, unrelated to anything that can be seen on the surface. To chase after what cannot be seen is to occasionally stumble onto obscure places of astonishing beauty or intrigue, where no human has prior gone, except for those crazy prospectors who are therefore not believed.
The harsh Alaska interior is at first glance lush green, when it isn't frozen white in the long winter. Ridge after ridge fade back into the haze from the all-natural forest fires. With a closer look you notice a lacework of micro-climate and soil differences streaking the hillsides and flat lands. If you don't like what you are walking through, keep walking and you will shortly be in quite a different setting of vegetation. The soft green moss under the black spruce suddenly changes to alder thickets guarding the leaf-covered ground of the aspen forest sometimes not far from stands of larger white spruce accented with wild roses. Fingers of white-barked birch trees among the spruce lead to solid birch stands often offering raspberries for your repast along your stroll. Dense carpets of Labrador Tea thin-out at dense carpets of blueberries. The list goes on, with remarkable variety in short distances. Most magic are the ridge top forests just below the tree line, where the rocky soil and harsh weather create a forest of miniatures, with the tallest aspen, birch and spruce just over head-high. All of them are gnarled and contorted into such comical and quizzical shapes that you often stop to gaze at them in wonder. With both feet on the ground, at eye level you can be looking at the tops of trees as old as the giants in the valley, and they look that old. They grow from a carpet of silvery gray moss flowing among occasional flat stones. Clusters of bright red cranberries, purple crowberries and whatever those single orange berries are, play across the miniature forest floor.
Along a steep hillside, we came upon a stand of aspen wherein nearly every tree was distinctively chewed by porcupines, from as recent as the last few days ago, to over a decade ago, with the bark around the older chew areas slowing growing around the scars. I had never seen a porcupine restaurant so popular for so many years, and the why of it may find its way to the x files. Interestingly, it was next to what was previously a pond that should not have existed on a steep hillside. Odd things are out there where nobody but odd gold seekers go.
After a long day of looking over our shoulders for the bear in a bad mood looking for food after stumbling through the old burned area, camp is a pleasure. This time we were styling, staying in a real wood shack instead of a tent. It was a masterpiece of scrap plywood and boards hauled a long way out into the woods on an aforementioned four-wheeler or snow machine. The old scrap wood was cobbled together with local spruce poles in sort of a jig saw of pieces of wood, along with a cheap aluminum door that was painted to look as ugly as the shack. The stove pipe made a warbling noise in the breeze, sort of like it was trying to tell us something. The door opened only part way because part of the floor was sinking, and the other part tilting up. The tin on the roof actually kept the place dry. And the outhouse was not yet chewed to splinters by the porcupines. Imagine being sound asleep, laying against a plywood wall, on an old rusty bed springs with one missing leg on the bed frame, on the wall side, when in the middle of the night, a quarter inch on the other side of that wall, a porcupine started gnawing away the plywood, with his sharp incisor teeth. It is always a question of whether to jump and scream, or freeze in fright. I recommend the former to share the excitement with your colleagues.
Unlike the times we had to hike to where we were going, and carry our grub on our backs, the wine and rum and whatever was on sale when we left town, with two four-wheelers on the trailer, facilitated our evening dissertations on the potential economic enhancement of mineral exploration. There being so little gold in the dirt, which is why gold is what it is, we figure that this superlative Alaska adventure, at the very heart of Alaska's gold rush history, might be marketed to people who want to experience the real thing, for a modicum of their poke, of course. Beyond the grand adventure in the wilderness, in pursuit of the wily mineralized soil sample, for which no other wilderness guide offers such a program, especially with such high standards of reality, we could guarantee the finding of an actual soil sample, and maybe throw in the whole mineral claim that it came from, after we poke through the dirt a bit. Besides the intrigue of the sample collecting, for which we would derive our pauper's income from both the clients and the exploration company without telling either of the other, and the remarkable cuisine of culinary ingredients more secret than directions on gold maps, the clients would be exclusively privy to the stories of how their grand adventure program was created, in detail, certain to leave them laughing as robustly as we and that warbling stove pipe.
You might notice that cats will chase a string, and dogs will chase a stick, much to the amusement of humans. Ferrets are more fun. One of the games they like to play is the rolling hole game. Select a tube, a couple feet long and maybe five inches in diameter, closed at one end, made of steel or something reasonably heavy. An old 105 mm howitzer cannon shell is ideal, if you have one in the pantry or somewhere handy, preferably one you have already emptied, probably toward Washington DC. Bring the ferret into the room. Lay the tube on the floor, at one end of a room. The ferret will see the dark hole and immediately run into it. It's sort of a genetic thing with ferrets, like the cat and string, dog and stick, human and computer. Thereupon, as soon as the ferret gets inside the tube, roll it the length of the room. Part way along the roll, the ferret will come back out of the tube, still rolling. He will then walk sideways a ways, dizzy, and look goofy. You will laugh yourself to tears. He will then stand still while his head is still wobbling. The tube will have stopped at the other end of the room. Then the ferret will look around and see the dark hole again. Like the cat after the string, right back into the dark hole. Roll the tube back across the room. Same show. Do it until you are exhausted from laughing. When you put the tube away, the ferret will be noticeably disappointed, and start looking for another dark hole.
It was another one of those remote places along the Alaska coast. And yes, of course it was desperate, or I wouldn't have been there. At one spot along the vertical sea cliff, a separate rock rose from the water forty feet high or so, not much over four feet from the main cliff, with vertical walls. The narrow slot between the rocks was maybe thirty feet long or so. I watched the ocean swell hit the separate rock, roll around the sides, and rush toward the center of the slot from both ends, with great force. The rolling waves of turbulent water coming into the slot from each end met at the middle, exploding upward in a tall geyser squeezed between the two vertical cliffs. The column of water then crashed back down, pushing two heavy waves back out of the slot, leaving a deep hole in the water at the center of the slot, just about the time the next swell came around the corners, to rush toward the center.
Like a ferret and a dark hole.
I paddled into the slot, turning my paddle lengthwise the moment the slot was too narrow. I was too late. The return wave promptly spit me right back out of the slot. I went right back in. I was too early. The return wave spit me right back out of the slot again. There was only one moment to be at the right spot, to ride the wave. I paddled into the slot again, and caught the wave, and was suddenly rushed to the center. There was some jostling around when I met the wave from the other end, but I didn't have time to consider its nuances, because I was as suddenly rushing straight upward fast enough to feel the wind come down around my ears, and see the jagged rocks close on each side, blur past me. That was why I was there.
It was at the top that I was profoundly impressed with the view way down to the level water, and the view of the rock up there. I was also seemingly suspended in time and space, on top of a turbulent column of water, which suddenly recognized that the ferret was in the tube, and kicked my kayak. I instinctively turned my paddle crosswise against the rocks, to stable the kayak. Mistake.
Oh, the maneuver was successful. I was instantly stable, about the same instant the bottom fell out from under me. If you had the next generation of computers, and I hooked up my mind, you would be looking straight up, at your paddle, jammed between the walls of the slot, way up there so far it seemed almost out of sight. Your hands would feel uncomfortably empty, while some mighty powerful hydraulic forces were laughing uncontrollably.
First, I sincerely felt that I could do this, on account of the intense incentive. There was only one way to get that paddle back, only one way, and kayak paddles cost a lot of money for people who are kayaking instead of working. It would also be convenient to have the paddle to prevent what was likely on the immediate schedule. Well, if I left the paddle there, and by rare chance someone else came along and saw it, they would immediately know what happened, and they would be laughing at me. I quickly pulled in my hands to avoid their being shredded by the rock walls during the dance, which I figured out an instant before trying to touch the rocks during all of this. Then I leaned way forward to counteract a shift to the rear, then back because I went too far. But it worked, and I stayed right in the middle. Mistake.
It is a bit unsettling to be down in a hole, and look up to watch a vertical wave of water rushing at you, angrily smashing its way into a narrowing slot between jagged cliffs. It is more unpleasant to quickly look behind you to see the same thing. I closed my eyes and held my breath. There was quite a bit of jostling around, and a lot of water. I shot straight back up, reaching up just in time, at the perfect position, to grab my paddle, turn it lengthwise, look at the frightening view, and ride the falling water back down.
I wanted to go forward, but the kayak tipped backwards, and I let it go. I came out of that slot like I did not want to be there in the first place. And the paddle was working hard the moment I reached the end of the slot, to escape the next swell coming around the corner trying to push me back in. The escape being successful, I sat there in the relatively calmer water, in a bit of a daze, watching another next swell roll around the corners, crash to the center, explode upward, and come back down like it intended to reach out and slap me one more time. I back-paddled.
I did not go back into the hole. I think I heard something laughing.
But I know where the place is. I have just not yet got my paddle unjammed from this computer.
Some things you just don't like to think about much, on account of their being a bit frightening, but if you do, you will learn much, starting with the obvious conclusion to not do that again.
There we were, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. It took a lot of effort to get there. It was in the heart of the Alaska Range, late in the winter, at the head of the Turkey Glacier, a particularly awesome place rarely seen. We had to be lost, because where we were had no useful name at the moment. Well, we recognized that the mountaineering prominence of the area required a location reference to conveniently tell the stories. The glacier was a significant branch of a named glacier, among an array of other branches not easily described by which branch it is among them. Discussing an appropriate name for a branch of a named glacier, it was mentioned that the thing was a bit of a turkey by its odd position on a complex glacier. Turkey Glacier. Locals know it well.
The first time we got there, we were primed with ignorance. We flew in, at no small depletion of the financial larder. We were attempting what several other teams had attempted, who had failed, for good reason. It was the west ridge of one of those mountains with some name. This was not an easy thing.
The photo shows the head of the Turkey Glacier, ending at the southwest side of Mt. Hayes, with the west ridge on the left side.
The base camp was posh, in a spectacular setting. We appointed it with a large snow cave with an igloo dome. After serious homdihooming and astute comments while standing on the glacier looking up and pointing now and again, just like in the hokey Hollywood, tourist, and adventure guide advertisement movies, we chose the approach through the icefall, fraught with ice avalanches from tumbling seracs, but avoiding another ice avalanche outwash and a snow avalanche slope.
Emerging at the upper end of the icefall the next day, we found an old picket from a previous team who tried a route closer to a lower section of the ridge, then up the ridge instead of across the basin and up the headwall. We later identified the team by the home-made picket. These climbers are proud of the stuff they make or modify. We took the useful picket back with us. Our basin camp at the top of the icefall was set out on top of a broad serac just starting to form as it tipped toward the icefall, in the middle of the basin. We got onto it from the relatively safe side. Huge crevasses protected us from ice avalanches off the glaciers hanging above us.
Four days later we crawled back out of our storm-battered tent and descended immediately, for fear that another storm might notice our escape before we could run far enough. Not much was left of our route through the icefall. We scrambled down over fresh ice rubble which buried our previous tracks. We passed one tall serac of picturest nature, veiling its deadly potential. We reached base camp. Next morning we looked up to see that the tall serac had tipped over during the night, and wiped out a couple hundred yards of our tracks. But that was not the frightening thing.
The photo shows just a little nearby ice avalanche coming down on Turkey Glacier, over a little ways from camp.
Then things went to hell, on schedule, on account of their being four of us, and not even two Alaskans much agree on anything. But that is another story, during which two of us climbed a couple lesser hills in the area. The airplane arrived at the scheduled time, and we were outta there. Later we learned that one of the four, a new guy from Anchorage, had told climbing stories not unlike this one, before he went into the mountains to get the answers to the questions we foolishly did not ask. He did the same thing with some other Alaskan climbers, with the same results, much to our mutual laughter. Don't ever believe any of this stuff, or anything else, until you ask your own questions, and question the answers.
The second time we got there, we stopped a little short. After restocking the financial larder for awhile, we drained it into an airplane again. The pilot, Horace Black, is one of the most experienced and respected pilots in Alaska. The weather was a bit scosh, but it often is. We were set up on long final to the landing spot on Turkey Glacier. Off to the right was a gap between two hill masses, Rap Pass, about mid final on the approach. Off to the right was also from where the wind was coming that day. Next thing we knew the airplane was on its side, being blown at a disconcerting speed toward a yet unclimbed rock face of impressive nature on the west side of Turkey Glacier. Horace calmly pulled back the stick and let the plane keep dropping on its side. The blast of wind dictated that we make a 180 turn before we arrived at the rock face, in only one direction, toward it. I watched the rock face streak by under the horizontal wheels, of course checking out route possibilities since we were close enough to see handholds, and there was nothing else I could do, and my eyes were very wide open. First wisely maximizing the only opportunity to miss the rock, successfully, Horace then leveled the airplane just in time to skim over some glacier seracs reaching up with a grin to grab another airplane. There was a pause of silence as we flew down glacier, before Horace calmly said: I don't think we will get in today. We agreed.
The weather had picked up a bit, and by the time we got back to Delta Junction, things were like what we just escaped up on the Turkey Glacier. Horace was going to drop us off in Delta, where our car was, then fly back to Fairbanks. He had skis on his airplane, and the main landing strip had been blown clear of snow. After checking it out, we flew over to the military strip, during another amusing story of desperation known to pilots who fly long hours. Wouldn't you know it, the military had their once-a-year big winter training operation in progress at that obscure airfield, and C-130's were in the pattern, themselves fighting the wind. Of course Horace didn't have a radio in the airplane, since a radio does not make an airplane fly any better, and weight is critical for mountain landings, and they cost a lot of money. We circled a couple times near final approach pattern, to let some C-130's land first because they were bigger than us. The poor chap in the military tower was probably getting real nervous watching this little airplane bouncing around in the wind, obviously wanting to land, and not responding to any radio calls. The last of the string of C-130's went by and we set up on final. The guy in the tower was flashing the red-green light, not much unlike the concept of the Red Green Show, knowing we were going to land anyway so he flashed the standard caution light sequence rarely used. The long military runway was also blown and plowed clear of snow, and everyone watching was probably wondering what was going to happen when the ski plane touched down on the concrete runway. But there was a short narrow strip of flat snow in the lee of the plow berm, at the end of a string of parked helicopters. We skimmed a few feet over the top of the entire string of helicopter rotor blades, in turbulent wind, while everyone watching is still telling the story of what they saw. Our tail cleared the last helicopter, and Horace set it down. We promptly came to a stop in the strong headwind. Horace held the controls at near full throttle, and told us to dump the climbing gear out in a hurry. A military pickup came racing across the airfield, lights flashing, bouncing on the rough ground and through the snow drifts. A captain jumped out and crowded beside me as I was throwing out gear. We were standing in the strong prop wash with the ambient temperature somewhere around ten or twenty below zero, a bit uncomfortable, and the engine noise required yelling. The captain yelled at Horace that his landing was not authorized, and that there was a military operation using the airfield, and that he must shut down the airplane right then and come to the tower to fill out a report. Horace said nothing. Of course, had Horace did as he was told, the airplane would have promptly flipped backwards into the helicopters, but military personnel don't think much beyond their rank, least wars would not exist. I yelled to Horace that I had all the gear out of the airplane. The captain was still emphatically insisting that Horace shut down the airplane. Horace looked at me and said, shut the door. I reached in front of the good captain, shut the door, indicated that the captain should step back, and Horace took-off, almost straight up, what with the wind and all. The captain looked at me with a somewhat incredulous expression. I asked him if he would give us a ride over to the FAA station on the civilian side of the airfield since it was a bit chilly and he had a pickup for our climbing gear. I started telling him mountain climbing and old Army stories before he could respond, and loaded the pickup.
The third time we got there, yet another year, with only enough financial reserves to fly in, not out, Ron Warbelow's Helio Courier sank so deep in the new soft snow that we were landing on the airplane's belly, with the prop creating a major but localized snow storm. I hate that when it happens. It took a long time, laboriously packing a runway, with our skis, for the airplane to take-off. By this time another team had earlier attempted the same route, and got quite a ways up it, before encountering sufficient difficulties to illuminate the wisdom of a hasty retreat. The goal was thus more enticing. But we actually started that trip with another mountain in mind. It was socked in with clouds. We changed plans at the runway. One hill is as good as another. We dug a luxurious base camp snow cave, of course.
The view of an adjacent hill, before crossing the ice avalanche outwash.
This time our homdihooming and a roll of the proverbial dice suggested the wisdom of avoiding the deadly icefall we knew, in favor of the snow avalanche slope leading to the always-fresh ice avalanche outwash that we did not yet know. We survived the slope. At the edge of an ice avalanche outwash, you adjust everything, say OK, then listen to the clatter of your skis frantically stumbling through the ice rubble, hoping you do not hear a louder roar and see a huge white cloud blossom in your peripheral vision. We reached the basin, and skirted a couple more ice avalanche outwashes, to arrive at the bergshrund, the crevasse separating the mountain wall from the start of the glacier. Above us was the basin headwall of snow and ice, a thousand feet or so high.
The snow cave was ideal, at one of those places you can first dig a platform to stand on the steep slope, then dig straight into the slope, easily pushing the snow out over the edge. We went in from two spots, then dug toward each other on a higher level, leaving an open tunnel doorway, a closed tunnel gear room, and an elevated, thus warmer, sleeping and dining quarters. These are the snow caves one wants to live in a few extra days.
It snowed that night, and everything that landed on the headwall above us, slid down over us, with much of it stopping over us. Because the platform on the slope had been extended with the snow we dug out, there was room for a lot of snow accumulation. By the time we got dug out of our cave in the morning, first having to shovel all the snow back into the cave, we had an entrance tunnel long enough to get boring.
The photo is there on the headwall.
Part way up the headwall we found a piton and section of rope from another previous attempt. The team was later identified by the initials on the piton. We took the expensive piton back with us. The next cave was up on the ridge, a cute little flat saddle bordered by a bit of vertical rime at the top of the south headwall we just climbed, and dropping over a hanging glacier on the north, about three thousand feet. How would you describe the houses you built, to a person who really doesn't care beyond his comment, nice house? A snow cave on a climb is often at the edge of survivability, with imperative that it survive, leading the climber's mind to see in it more detail than in a town house. This cave was a bit cramped, with a low ceiling and one tunnel becoming the entire living area because the other tunnel was a bit drafty with spin drift each time anyone went in or out. Door position in relation to the wind is important, and rarely a choice. We dug the cave after the first night in the tent, which was heavily rimed from the moist south winds funneled through the saddle, the same cloudy wind that made climbing not an option that day.
It is about time in this story we are getting to what I mentioned that I don't like to think about much, if you struggle through a few more sentences. It was at the end of the following day, farther up the ridge. We were not far from the top of the west ridge, which is a very nice place indeed, but still a good ways from the summit. Between us and that nice place at the top of the ridge was a nasty section of rotten rock laced with thin rime, snow and melt ice. We could not get it done that evening. The last rational camp spot was half way back down to our saddle cave. Well, so, since we left rational when we arrived in Alaska, we decided to chop our way into the bulge of rime ice under our feet. We suspected that it might hang out over the basin headwall a ways, so we crowded the rock as much as possible. These bulges of rime ice are formed by moisture-laden south winds blowing up steep faces and plastering their moisture against thus growing gargoyles or rime ice, sometimes becoming as large as houses, before breaking off. We did some serious chopping and hacking in hard rime ice, and we created a reasonable respite from the cold dark night, somewhat more cramped than the last cave, but still quite sufficient. I was a bit unsettled to notice the crack between the cave and the rock, but by then it was late and we were exhausted. There was no escape to anywhere else. I was more unsettled a bit later when part of the floor fell into the crack, to reveal how substantial it was, and that we were on the wrong side of a vertical wall of rock, but by then we were in the bags about to sleep very well from our exhaustion, while outside was a cold wind in the winter darkness on an equally precarious spot, since it was the same spot. I damn near defecated in the old fart sack when, in the middle of the night we heard a loud, CRACK, and the whole cave dropped an inch. An inch is a very long ways, and I was comforted when we finally reached the bottom of it. But I held my breath for awhile, then breathed quietly. I decided that if we lived, I would never again dig a cave in a rime ice bulge clinging to vertical rock and hanging out over a void.
The above photo is the bit of a go through the nasty rock section...
A little ice crusting there in the beard.
We lived, and we decided to start the next day early, for some reason. It was a bit of a go through that nasty rock section, and then a ways to the summit. We got to the cold windy summit that evening, just in time to see the last photons of light stop short of our eyes and laugh at us. We got out the headlights for the old down-climbing grind through the up-coming wind. Of course ice commonly builds on one's moustache and beard, in the cold, but when it encrusts your eyebrows while you are trying to look down to see where your feet are groping at the ice, you would prefer to have decided to camp on the summit. For some reason, ice encrusting the eyebrows really hurts in the wind. I do not recommend it.
Those last photons of light only reached the camera lens.
Down off the summit block of rime, then through a labyrinth of rime bulges, and across a plateau, we reached the nice spot at the top of the west ridge. There was some homdihooming about the misery and danger of the next section in the night, versus the misery and danger of parking for the night before what could be a storm blocking travel through the miserable section for days. The deciding factor of course was the never-again cave which offered only fear, if that. We parked. Our cave at the top of the ridge, dug late in the night, exhausted, in miserable conditions and hard snow, was the likes of which I have endured only one other time. It was a one-person semi-trench tunnel covered with blocks and closed with our packs. We got the stove going without burning ourselves, barely, melted some snow, ate, then we may have slept, but only because the previous night was not so productive. I dreamt about shoulders and elbows, and not mine, for some reason.
No finer morning ever happened in the mountains, sunny, calm, spectacular view, and all that. Yeah, a bit chilly, but we each had a coat. We tarried a bit then descended. We held our breath as we passed the never-again cave, since we were walking across the overhanging bulge, to reach the next one, and the next one.
That evening, whilst leisurely relaxing in the patio of the saddle cave, secure in our triumph over sanity, but still many dangers before reaching the insanity of town, the faint sound of a small airplane droned steadily closer. We watched Clay, in his little yellow piper cub among big mountains, come straight at us from the south. Just before he reached the top of the headwall, a few feet above our heads, a small package came out of the window, bounced twice on the snow, then stopped a few feet short of the vertical north side drop-off. The precision of luck may be whatever one claims. Fresh fruit, steaks and ice cream. This mountain climbing stuff is hard duty. The ice cream was inhaled. The fruit was gobbled. The steaks would wait for the castle cave below the headwall.
Down at said castle, we saw two tiny black specks across the basin, which were out of place, and they moved. They were at the bergshrund below another spectacular climbing route. We were too smart to ski all that way just to satisfy our curiosity, but they weren't, much to our convenience. Two other local climbers. We didn't know they were coming to the same side of the same hill, and they didn't know we were there. They expressed admiration for our opulent snow cave, mentioning their austere camp. They were traveling light, with only those dinky little spoons sold in the climbing catalogs as snow shovels. Real mountain climbers carry real show shovels, not available in the usual market. We shared outrageous stories, some of which contained a snowflake or two of truth. We didn't mention that we were about to cook two steaks, because there were only two. Later we learned that they boldly set forth on this significant adventure with minimal food, very minimal. Tough guys, lean, gaunt. If we would have known, we would have shared the steaks. But stinginess and gluttony know no successful excuses in the balance of all things. The heavy load of fatty steak kept me nauseously aware all night that about half that amount would have been the rational decision.
After hastily clattering back through the ice avalanche outwash, successfully, we looked down the snow slope covered with fresh snow avalanche paths. The cold still air was laced with floating ice crystals illuminating columns of glitter, hanging out in the sky, where they grabbed the sunlight going to other places, and turned it back toward us. We picked the route that looked most stable, and plunge-stepped down the slope to base camp.
We began the long trudge out, since our astute financial reasoning facilitated the opportunity for healthy exercise, as opposed to sitting on our gluteous maximus strapped to an aircraft seat. At Rap Pass, dividing a branch of Turkey Glacier from a different glacial drainage, rarely if ever prior crossed, the wind was screaming. We were in a white-out, with visibility about ten feet. The rope was as stiff as steel cable, forming an eerie tangle of large loops when we huddled beside each other looking down the vertical wall on east side of the pass, trying to figure out how far down it was vertical. We had to yell above the screaming wind. We couldn't stand, sit, turn or squat without getting more miserable. Rapidly losing body heat in the wind, and at the edge of the lee side, we hastily placed an ice screw and I rapped over the side first. Twenty feet. Embarrassing. But dead calm. My partner was shortly off rappel. Then we considered how expensive that ice screw was, just twenty feet above us, and we could see what was around us. I walked around a corner, up to the top on a gentle slope, retrieved the screw, and walked back down. Remember that Rap Pass is a walk-over. We camped immediately in the serious calm of the lee side.
Next day we climbed a remarkably boring hill for the second time in its known history, after the Japanese first walked up it several years earlier, and after we failed a serious attempt on it during the first episode of this story. We then strapped on our skis, and slid down to the lowlands, down to fresh, hungry grizzly tracks through the late winter snow. We sharpened our ice axes and waxed our skis for running. A couple days later we were back at the road, the grizzly perhaps still following us, if not having found us, written this story, and looking out of your screen right now. If in the morning you see a drip of saliva below your monitor, turn it off immediately.
The ski down to bear country.
You don't think I can drag this story on for another paragraph? The west ridge slide show of the above words is one of the local classics having bored more people more times, each time someone's friends or relatives show up, than any show except the Black Rapids moulin show. You can ask to see it, and local adventurers will laugh.
The old north face story
There we were, mind you, and the north face loomed above, in the heart of the Alaska range, a bit to one side of the left auricle, just below the aorta. And if it weren't desperate indeed, albeit as usual, you wouldn't be reading about it.
Desperate climbing stories just don't get much more boring than this. Aren't you supposed to be doing something more productive?
It was just two of us on a casual adventure, with only a vague idea of what we might do when we got into the area. We found ourselves a few miles up a glacier in the eastern part of the range, ambling over toward a small peak commonly climbed, that is, by Alaska standards, maybe 2 or 3 times a year. About the place where the relatively horizontal part of the main glacier met the relatively sloped part of the side glacier, we noticed a discomforting settling of the snow on occasion, indicating potential avalanche conditions. This discouraged us from Plan A, the route up an obvious avalanche slope.
So we shifted to Plan B, toward the north face of the peak. The task was a bit daunting for our lack of preparation and equipment to do a steep face, but it was not an avalanche slope, on account of it being too steep to accumulate snow. The face had been climbed only one other time a few years prior. It was a picturest face in view of a main highway several miles down glacier. This would be the never-noted second ascent of an inconsequential route on a small peak, if we could meet such a frightening challenge. During the next couple rope lengths we concluded that we couldn't get up to the start of the face through the increasingly tenuous slabs of unstable snow on a slope. Every now and again a whuumph sound suggested that we should not be on a slope. So we carefully selected Plan C.
Plan C was to hold our breath and tip-toe one more rope length up a knee-deep unstable slab to reach some exposed crevasse walls and seracs where we could play on ice protected from the avalanche area. Plan C was so successful, and fun climbing through the ice, that after awhile we found ourselves above the ice, just one more pitch across just one more scary slab to the bergshrund at the bottom of the face. So back to Plan B. We set forth.
There is a lot of stress in willfully exercised stupidity, but mountain climbers can handle more such stress than the average person, tough guys that climbers are. We set up an avalanche belay with the full rope, closed our eyes, and went straight up the fall line. Just short of the shrund, a crack zipped across the slope, dropped the slab three inches toward me, and stopped. We reached the shrund and belayed across to the bottom end of the hour-glass funnel that was the gate to the face.
It was, however, a bit late in the day, as a result of our dilly-dallying around with changing plans, and this was not in the summer. It would soon be colder and dark. It was, however, more frightening to go down what we survived to get this far, so up was less troublesome to our minds.
The rocky hour-glass funnel slot was a bit dicey, so we were relieved to reach the better ground on hard snow above it. I was on one side of the slot, and my colleague on the other, above me, laboring-away with a difficult little problem spot when we noticed an odd sound, just in time for my colleague to yell, lift the rope. And we did just in time as several hundred pounds of sluff-off snow sizzled down the narrow slot of the funnel between us. We were where the entire face emptied whatever it decided to shed. By the time the sluff-off reached us it had been rolling over a thousand feet or more of ice and snow, pounding itself into hard little ball bearings of ice, not willing to stop for anything that wasn't rock. We decided it wise to go up one of the little snow arretes on the face despite the initial vertical effort.
Small mountain snow faces are boring. Not much excitement can be word-smithed into laboriously placing one foot above the other for a long ways. We arrived at the summit ridge, less than a pitch from the summit. Well, how were we to know that the cornice would be that much of a thing? We had been thinking about each thing we were escaping, not what we were heading for. The snow flukes we were using for protection were a fool's illusion, and would have skittered under the shallow snow right behind us down the entire face if we had even suggested their need. It is just plain miserable hacking and clawing an angled slot up through an overhanging rime cornice, pushed outward by being too lazy to hack more rime away, while the other guy stands in the cold portraying the image of belaying off three flukes that wouldn't hold themselves if they started to move, but misery is what it's all about, tough guys that we were.
It was the typical, stop, look both ways, then get down off the summit sort of summit in the windy cold dark night. It's hard to schedule all the summits for what you see in the pictures.
We went down the Plan A route that was too frightening to come up, of course. But events allowed for the avalanche conditions to be stabilized. Along a horizontal section of an otherwise comfortable ridge just below the summit, the now screaming wind held the rope horizontal in a long arc out over the steep side. It pulled us a little to the side we would have otherwise avoided. Suddenly I was laying flat, and one foot was not touching anything down in the hole it punched. This was not comforting. I started to push myself up, only to push my arm through the thin crusted snow, into where my hand could not reach anything. There was a lot of air below me, and only a thin bit of snow holding the part that hadn't punched through yet. This sort of thing happens on occasion, in the gradient of results from punching crevasses, and while disconcerting, is highly preferable to dropping all the way at first notice. By this time my colleague figured out that all was not ideal at my end of the rope that the wind still pulled out in a long arc over the void. He struggled against the wind to sink his ice axe for a belay. I gently rolled on my side, and squirmed away from the bridged crevasse.
We set forth without a word, on account of we would have had to shout above the wind. Just short of the top of the buttress, one of my crampons broke. That does not happen too often. But the slope was not serious, so we continued, without a choice anyway, a bit more slowly as I placed my bare boot against my ice axe each step. Shortly thereafter one of my colleague's crampons broke, conveniently at a place where another minor direction decision had to be made in the dark, which was as good a reason as one can get, amid a few other considerations at the moment, to camp immediately, albeit without all the amenities of a camp. This was not in any of the plans.
It was cold, dark and late after a long hard day. We were hungry, dehydrated, exhausted and out of water. We only had one of those dinky little emergency mountain climber's shovels (mistake), no stove or food (mistake), and just minimum bivy gear, but that was brilliant planning compared to anything less. The cave we dug was a one-person bivy hole, which was okay because we were sharing a half bag and a foam pad. Two people sharing one half bag in a tube-shaped cave offers an interesting sleeping posture. Despite our cramped and difficult conditions, I demonstrated the couth and gentlemanly attribute of taking off my outer boots. In contrast, my colleague, suggesting some obviously flawed reasoning, from my perspective, stuck his feet, with his large cold outer boots, down into what would have otherwise become a warm area at the bottom of the half bag. I was amused. But not to be outdone for flawed reasoning, I filled my water bottle with snow, and put it inside my coat to melt for a drink of water in the morning. The snow was quite cold and dry. That frozen spot was sensitive for years, and the tiny bit of water was of no consequence in the morning. Carry a stove and a real shovel.
Misery facilitated a highly efficient morning.
There they were, mind you, and it was desperate indeed. It was in the heart of Alaska, in a day before now, and the ghost need say nothing to tell you the story.
The skeleton of the secret creek gold dredge still holds enough tattered boards to hide ghosts among its works. The tall structure leans perilously to one side. You would decide to not walk under that side. Most of two walls missing, the many long lever rods, from the top driver room down to the belt-driven maze of heavy steel gearing, appear to be the rib bones of a bizarre giant sitting on a gravel flat, far out in the middle of nowhere Alaska, at the end of the road beyond the end of the road.
The old gold dredges of Alaska and other places, said to be invented in New Zealand, were monster machines of their day. Their heavy steel machinery was carted into remote places and assembled in floating barges two or three stories high. The creeks they worked were dammed to make a pond, then the dredge chewed its way through the ground, moving the pond with it. The chain of heavy steel buckets gouged the gravel and cobbles from the creek valley, dumped the rocks into a sluice inside the dredge, slurped up the gold, and spit the rocks out the back side, filling up the pond area behind it as it dug the new pond area in front of it.
Standing beside or inside one of the monsters, you will always wonder how they got such heavy steel machinery way out there in those days.
The massive bucket-chain arm, like a long steel tongue sloping down from the top, anchors the secret creek dredge to the ground. The hull that once floated in water, is now mostly a hole in the cobbles, seen through the broken boards of the floor, slowly filling with gravel. On the last run of the dredge the pond dam was built higher to float the dredge onto a gravel bar, the dam was pulled, and the dredge was left above the frozen creek for the winter, waiting for a new dam to be built next season. But the pickings had been too scant that season, and the dredge never felt another fire in its boiler, or heard the clank of steel again.
From the deck, in the tool room, if you are careful to step on the more substantial parts of the floor, you can look up through gaping holes in the ceiling, to see huge wheels of iron weighing many tons, somehow still there at the moment, the thin shreds of rotted wood having not yet collapsed. The huge, thick iron steam engine on the main floor, well greased in its day, seems ready to fire-up for the next day's dredging. Back when it was running, the clanking and chugging and scraping of steel against rocks made the dredge the noisiest monster to ever invade the realm, the awe of every animal, and the reason old miners died deaf if they lived long enough to get old. They certainly never got rich, except in the stories they told.
In the morning fog one feels the ghosts still working there, too busy to notice your visit, and lost in the prison of noise still echoing in space. The loud steam engine could be heard above the bucket-chain crunching into the cobbles and gravel, clanking the buckets of rock up the steel arm and dropping their loads on heavy bars of steel as the water tumbled the rocks down across the grizzly and sluice, thick muddy water churning with rocks pouring out the back of the dredge, the unseen gold hopefully collecting down in the riffles, day in, day out, long hours.
The real work of it all was building the dams to make ponds in the creek to float the dredge, and cutting wood every day to fuel the monster's boiler. The monster ate trees and rocks, and it paid gold for its daily fare. But the cost of it ate all the gold too, and so its master stopped feeding it. It is still starving, but still there.
A great horned owl sat high in the dredge captain's window early morning and late evening, choosing which vole scampering around the old tailings might join it for a meal. Beaver silently plied the waters of the nearby pond, dragging branches of willow and poplar to their house along a steep bank. Sandhill Cranes stopped at the pond for the nights, on their way south. A few ducks were always somewhere in sight. Wolves howled to the east, the north, the west, the south.
The moose avoided the ghost, and avoided the wolves. We know. We were hunting. There were no moose. The ghost watched us leave, as it had all of its few and dwindling visitors.
Hard work moose
There we were, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. And that is why we went there.
This was not an adventure, and was just plain boring hard work that will make a person tired reading about it. This is text book stuff on what to not do to fill the winter larder with moose meat. Save yourself. Surf to another site, or go to the opera. Do not drag yourself through the following words, unless of course you want to laugh at the dolts who profess to be Alaska hunters.
I tried the easy way, the way everyone else gets their moose if you believe their hunting stories. Just drive out across the wilderness in an all terrain vehicle, preferably a borrowed one on account of they costing too much for a common folk to own, read that again, all terrain, until you see a moose, shoot it, load it up, and drive back. I failed. I think those stories are told by all terrain vehicle salesmen. There is a lot of terrain that they don't go nowhere on. The freezer thus being filled with frost alone, facing the psychologically debilitating trauma of showing up at the pot luck parties with only tofu burgers, desperation quivered down the stock of my rifle, I made an irrational decision. I would go where three years ago I concluded that I would never go again, and for dang good reason. But, unlike where I had been, there were said to be moose in that area.
Would it not be an idiot who would float down a river, a long ways, unloaded, a rocky river, then line back up the river, loaded, on the worst river for lining a kayak, with brushy banks and swift current, to hunt at a place where the moose were not along the river, but way up in the high country far from the river? Wouldn't you more wisely line upriver unloaded, and float back down loaded, after shooting the moose at the river? A moose is seven heavy loads that will make a vegetarian out of a thinking person. For the same effort I could have built a fence, domesticated two moose, eaten one and sold the other to pay for the fence. And just to get to the river we had to feed the automobile gas tank a frightful volume of petrol, and repair a flat tire.
His canoe appeared to gracefully float over the rocks, although I did see a few smears of red plastic on the rock claws grinning just under the surface, when my kayak painfully scraped through the gauntlets, leaving streamers of duct tape ripped from the hull. We were certainly alone on a magnificent river in the Alaska wilderness, golden autumn birch leaves wafting down in the breeze to float along beside. No one else was so foolish as to be on that river. We arrived at an idyllic camp spot, you fill in the words of your mind's best image, with fresh grayling for the evening meal cooked on a camp fire, only the first of the grayling meals. The crisp smell of autumn was spiced with the smoke of campfire coals sizzling fish on a grill. Reminds me of fresh roasted chestnuts, or something like that in the commercial. The setting was so perfect I think the Marborough Man rode by, in a Nexus SUV on a cloud. The hills rose above us in the narrow twisting canyon. The night brought the moon, the stars, the northern lights and a few satellites blinking across the sky. We do this Alaska wilderness stuff in grand style. But we forgot the cigars.
Well, so there weren't as many moose as we would have preferred. A grizzly bear to the east was hoovering blueberries where we wanted to see a moose. Another grizzly bear to the west was doing the same where moose were therefore not. This was not a good sign. Each day we trudged up the ridges and slopes, sat at desolate, rocky spots, huddling around a campfire made from the white skeletons of stunted trees that perished years ago where no new trees could grow in their place. We picked blueberries, some of them already frosted and slightly fermented, a choice flavor. We sat in the wind gazing through our binoculars, and gazing through our binoculars some more.
The thing about binoculars is that you always look at distant places far beyond where you would or could go to chase a moose. But then, that is the thing about binoculars and long days of abject boredom. Occasionally one of us would call the moose, using a rolled-up, duct-taped cone of birch bark to amplify the sound of a moose grunt, whereupon the other of us would laugh at the maladroit attempt. The sound of a moose conversation is just a simple, Ugh, until you attempt to duplicate it. And we would scrape a moose scapula bone through the branches of some alder or birch, to duplicate the sound of a bull moose raking the branches with its antlers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It didn't.
We were up at the tree line, on rocky soil where the view from the ridge and hill tops offered the diversity of arctic vegetation from moss to grass to brush to forest now in their array of fall colors from the deep green spruce to the brilliant red patches of crow berries. The silver-gray carpet of moss among the higher, stunted birch glistened in the sun. Vast distances of high tundra rolled into each next valley laced with fingers of forest and brush reaching up from the creeks. A golden eagle swept past on the air currents rising past us on the ridge. The passing ravens clucked at us but could see that we yet had nothing to offer them.
The wolves were howling around us. One day a wolf was close, somewhere below our spot on a rocky peak above our campsite. He howled. We howled. He howled. I thought I spotted him, seeing two parallel white lines against the silver-gray moss on a ridge below us across the river, the front of his front legs. But it was only his legs, without a body, and they did not move. I tried my best, with my large, painfully expensive Zeiss binoculars, to identify a wolf shape, and concluded my error, and looked elsewhere. He howled. We howled. He howled. It was some time later that I noticed that the two white lines were gone, and I looked more carefully. Just below that spot a ways was a silver-white lone wolf slowly walking down the ridge that was covered in silver-gray moss. When he stopped, only the parallel lines of his white front legs could be distinguished, nothing else. And he was very patient.
He, or maybe she, was a stealthy artwork on a spectacular canvas. We watched her as she slowly walked down the ridge, stopping for motionless long periods, watching as we were watching, and howling now and again as therefore did we. Against the low brown brush of the river bottom, she was a dramatic white accent. She noticed our tent as she nimbly walked close by it, but was unbothered as she moved along her intended path, crossed the river and climbed the opposite hillside. She gracefully loped up the steep hill as though it were level. She was looking for the same moose we were looking for, and would call her colleagues if she found him. That we were both still looking was notice that she and the bears had earlier found the ones we would have otherwise already seen.
Having watched the area to boredom, it was a close decision to trudge up the ridge on the last day, rather than head back out of the area, but trudge up we did, yet again. For another day, this time near some trees, we sat by a high campfire and looked out over the spectacular autumn Alaska wilderness near the Arctic Circle. We could see seven interlaced ridges between us and the horizon, from golden yellow nearby, to shades of gray, to snow laced peaks far in the north, buffered by valleys of light haze. In one direction the narrow river valley opened up into the broad high valley of beaver swamps below the last barren hills of rock. A few of the ridges were capped with the teeth of rock tors, the remnants of castles owned by giants in the past. I would have included the pictures but you've seen them before on post cards, they would slow the page loading, and I couldn't afford a camera after I got the binoculars.
Maybe I was looking at too many of those distant ridges, while my colleague was below me a ways picking blueberries, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a bull moose moments before he was about to disappear into the tree line offering him more advantages than it offered us. It was obvious that he had walked right past us, for some distance, quite close among the sparse brush, as I hastily retrieved my rifle against a nearby tree, loaded it and dropped the moose not a moment too soon, much to the surprise of my colleague as you might imagine. Surprised me too.
Like I said before, and said I would not have to say again, I will never shoot a moose that far from camp. That sort of stuff is for those dumb-assed kids who aint learned that lesson before. Each time that first time you sit down to put on your first pack load of moose meat, then crawl up your rifle, hand over hand, to the muzzle, your back screaming obscenities and insults to your mind for subjecting it to such manifest stupidity, your mind promises your back that you won't do it again, again. Well, does one carry seven heavy loads, or fourteen loads half the size that are still too heavy? Okay, so it was only three and a half for each of us this time, but one is too much. And the path is not a path. The rocks are not small, smooth or soft. The trees and brush are dense. The moss is slippery. The sticks lay in wait. When you trip, you don't try to catch yourself with already overloaded ankles on ragged terrain. Just go all the way down, hope your heavy pack doesn't land on top of you, and use the excuse to rest. You will need the rest just to crawl back up your rifle again.
And if a grizzly thinks he smells fresh bloody moose meat walking into his mouth, while you are stumbling through the dense brush, he will be correct.
When you reach the river, the work is supposed to get easier, if you didn't start the hunt by going downstream. If you are going to line a boat upstream, especially one loaded with moose meat, pick a stream that has nice gravel bars on at least one side the whole way. We didn't. When the brush on the bank is so high you can't get the lines over it, you gotta go into the water. When you laboriously wade against a swift current over your knees, you don't admit it. When you have to paddle against the same current, you end up getting back on the bank and clawing your way through the brush. When you do this for several miles, all day long, you promise to never do it again. When you come around a corner, while in the water, and surprise a black bear in the water, with your gun back in the kayak somewhere among the moose meat, hope that he is more surprised that you. He was. That he was looking for a moose, and there will be one less to find because of you, is why his friends are still complaining about him not having taken ours and us too. But he was only one, unlike the three grizzlies we saw later, who were so busy engulfing swaths of blueberries that they let us pass by.
But the moose is in the freezer. That is the quintessential Alaska sentence that counts above the others. My manhood and worth to the culture thus salvaged for the barbecue parties, next I will laboriously thrash my way to another website to toil away at more words, sweat dripping from my brow, finger muscles aching from the strain, energy draining from my meager brain barely surviving on the always scant larder of strong whiskey, foul cigars and dark chocolate, as rock and roll music pounds the cheap plastic housing on my computer speakers.
Full Frontal Sunburn
There we were mind you, and it was desperate indeed, and it never happened that way again. We made dang sure of it.
It was all new to us out in these Alaska mountains, but at the time we figured we were the experts. And we were. You can be an expert mountain climber just by going climbing while everyone else is reading climbing stories like this. All we had to do is to get far enough out there where no one could dispute the stories we told. That far out in Alaska is a toilsome trudge, or an expensive flight.
Don't know where or how we met old Pappy Moss, somewhere in Delta Junction, but what with we trying to impress him with our mountain climbing stories, and he impressing us with his flying stories, he holding the advantage of more flying that we did climbing, we ended up with what we figured was a pretty good price on flying to a certain distant mountain. It was pretty dang cheap by normal standards, and our first actual flying approach to a mountain. Flying is expensive stuff.
The deal struck, some time later we showed up at the Paxon Roadhouse on a dreary Spring day with low clouds. Looked like a no-go to us, but Pappy showed up a bit later in his Cessna 206, a good sign. He had this Alaska white beard casual sort of approach to things that differed somewhat from the total adrenaline volume of three young mountain climbers eager to claw at the sides of a fabled hill they had only seen on a topographic map. While we sat in the lodge, Pappy slowly drinking coffee, suggesting that we wait for the clouds to lift a bit, I was calculating the time and distance between touch-down and where we would like to be on the glacier for camp the first night. Of course after he told the story about getting caught in a narrow valley with descending clouds, pulling in full flaps and flying as slow as he could with the wheels knocking spruce cones off the tree tops, I appreciated his preference to wait for the clouds to lift.
After a few more of those stories, when he finally said we could try it, I volunteered to be on the second flight. One of the other guys and most of the gear went in on a light load just to see if there was a trail through the clouds. The plane skimmed over the hill, and we waited.
There wasn't a trail. They were shortly back. We sat in the lodge with more coffee and the story about the time Pappy threw pebbles into the brush around a moose to slowly move it down to the river before he shot it, so he wouldn't have to carry it so far. I never believed that story, but I've been waiting for the opportunity to try it. Those moose get heavier every year I get one, without getting any larger.
An hour or so later the second attempt to get to the mountain worked. Pappy came back empty, and the other two of us loaded up. There was enough space between the tundra hummocks and the clouds, just enough. We landed on an old miner's airstrip at the snout of the glacier. The airplane came to a stop in front of the big plywood sign stating in scrawled black paint that all visitors would be shot if they didn't turn around and fly. Nice to have a pilot who says he knows the owner of the airstrip, but not assuring when he turned around and flew as soon as we unloaded our gear. A bit more unsettling when we didn't see our colleague anywhere.
About the time we were beginning to wonder a bit, our colleague came walking out from the old weathered log cabins among the brush and rocks of the terminal moraine. He said the cook said the miners there were nice folks, and working the mine up on the adjacent hill at the moment. We hoisted our packs and started up toward the glacier. After awhile he told us that he ate half a fresh blueberry pie, and that we would have been welcome to stay there for supper and the night, and that they were having moose steaks for supper, but he figured we wanted to get to the mountain as soon as possible. Well, we did, but he didn't even beg a piece of pie for his two starving climbing partners. It worked out later.
No one goes to this mountain without mentioning The Rumbling Wall. A long horizontal-top south ridge holds a glacier above a vertical wall beside the approach glacier in a narrow valley where the sound of the incessant ice avalanches bounces back and forth between The Rumbling Wall and the Sister Peaks. We camped far enough away from The Rumbling Wall, but we did not sleep well, what with all the rumbling all night.
We scooted over the pass on the west ridge, past the only route that had been climbed, and that only once. We nervously skied across a couple ice avalanche outwashes, and camped below the north ridge, in yet another magnificent snow cave.
The climbing began in the morning, up a couloir. At the top of the couloir, on the north ridge, we saw a rarely seen, obscure section of the range. The fascinating new routes on newly seen peaks would have captivated our attention, if it weren't for a puzzling small black cloud seemingly hanging in the sky just out there a ways, between us and the next peaks, very black. About that time we felt the gust of wind in our faces, saw the bolt of lightning below the cloud, heard the thunder, realized how fast that cloud was coming straight at us, dumped our metal climbing gear, unclipped our rope and ran like no three climbers ever ran off a ridge, plunge-stepping down a steep couloir of fortunately deep snow as we felt the charge of static electricity and heard the crashing flash of the next lightening bolt just behind our britches.
Well, anyone who was as expert at climbing as we thought we were before that little thriller, would have recognized that the storm cloud had just passed overhead, and any expert climber would have turned around right then and climbed back up to a high camp. But we didn't slow our fear-driven flight down that coulior until we got to the cave below us, and spent the evening there discussing the merits of discretion. We cautiously sneaked back up the next day.
Funny thing happened up there on the ridge camp. The lesson of the previous day was still fused in my mind. I decided to stick an aluminum picket, for a lightening rod, on the top of a gendarme along the ridge, a ways from the tent. It made me feel safer, and I wanted to climb that gendarme anyway. The wind was brisk. Just after descending from the gendarme, I noticed an oddly different shade of white in one of my tracks in the snow. It was a scrap of paper. I had dislodged a note while climbing the gendarme, and rather than blowing it to the end of the earth, the brisk wind whipping around the lee of the gendarme had guided the paper into one of my steps. It was a note from the first party to attempt that route several years prior, mentioning that as their high point. Unusual to find mountain climbers who can write or read.
The climb to the summit was like all climbs, with tales of this difficulty on the horizontal section of ridge, that difficulty in the rime of the summit pitch, and all that tripe. At one point the traditional old admonition was stated: This snow fluke is only for psychological protection so don't fall. The summit offered the traditional old view of the inside of a cloud, and the stiff wind to prove that the dolts in it were tough guys. We promptly fled.
But conditions got no better back down off the summit, and those difficulties on the horizontal section of the ridge were not to be trifled with in those conditions. We dug in to sit out the wind. Nice cave, but we didn't have a few of the pleasantries, like pads to lay on or much food. And the wind made it evident that we were there for the night. Speaking of food, we decided to evenly split the one meal we had, filling each person's cup. The guy who got the fresh blueberry pie back at the landing strip, he had a small cup.
We melted three body shapes in the floor of the snow cave that night, and sallied forth into the wind the next morning, deciding that it wasn't as bad as our preference to get back to some food on the ridge camp. Just at the start of the nasty section, where the ridge emerged from the bulging cliffs of glacier ice draped over the upper portion of the mountain, we heard a distinctive sound beside us, and each turned around to watch a large two story house-sized piece of ice break away from the mountain. It was large enough and close enough to appeared to move in slow motion at first, then explode as it crashed down over the steep rock, and gouged a swath of destruction across the glacier below, with open contempt for our tracks to the lower snow cave. We decided we would adjust our route when we got back down there.
We left the ridge camp early in the morning, passing by our lower snow cave after only a brief rest stop. We trudged around the corner of the mountain, through the ice avalanche outwashes, over the pass, down to the camp below The Rumbling Wall. It was a long day, but it was late Spring so daylight was adequate all night. For idle reason after cooking a meal at The Rumbling Wall camp, we decided to press on, to reach the psychological warmth of vegetation at the end of the glacier.
We reached the snout of the glacier, on our last reserves of energy in the early morning. We walked out onto a sandy gravel flat by the river, which was melted clear of the snow still covering the glacier. We strew everything out to dry, laid out our pads, stripped bare ass naked to lay in the warm sun, and immediately fell asleep. Not a wise decision. Full frontal sunburn.
There was a moment of semi-consciousness sometime during that respite, but only a moment. I thought I heard an airplane in the distance, and then a sound as though the airplane was only a few feet above us going over at full speed. I genuinely thought it was a dream, maybe a remnant from that black storm cloud that went over us at full speed. After that, Pappy often told the flying story about he and his wife checking on the climbers while flying through the range, and following their tracks down the glacier. These mountain climbers are a questionable lot.
But we only had money to fly in, not out. The following two long days involved hiking through many miles of untracked dense brush and alder, slapping and clawing at us, with full frontal impact on the aforementioned full frontal sunburn.