Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ruth Gorge Climbing: Whiteouts, Snickers and Pakistani Mangoes.

I know the internet's attention span is minimal, but bear with me. So here you go: Ruth Gorge: start to finish.

Apologies to the climbers for explaining obvious details, but not everyone (read: my family) understands the technical jargon. So no offense, but they matter more than you do :) 

It all starts with the packing of my things and storing them in Hanover. I say goodbye to my Boston mad scientist boss, visit my friends in the throes of final exams at Dartmouth, and eat some homemade sourdough waffles. 
My good friend Zebediah Engberg making some waffles for the traditional 'Waffle Wednesday' 
Goodbye Boston and hello new license plate to remind Zebra of what his name is in case he forgets. 

Pete is pictured to the left rocking some sweet glacier goggles he got bequested by the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club and holding the Vegas shirt that will reappear later in this post (he was my climbing partner for the trip, so you'll be seeing a lot of him). Lorin is seen on the right rocking her sweet purple onesie as she prepares for a marathon 36 hour CAD lab Solidworks push for an engineering final project. 

 I flew into Anchorage with one massive, 80 liter checked bag (under 50 lbs mind you because I carried the ropes stacked around my neck and rack onboard as carry-ons)

"Why yes sir, this rope is my pillow".

 We were greeted by Pete's mom and a giant bowl of homemade, chocolate chip, oatmeal cookies and nectarines at our 1am flight.

The immense pile of gear was pretty intense. Pete decided to practice his figure-4 technique on the basement rafters as a break from packing.

Pete's mom treated us like kings and had deluxe breakfasts waiting in the morning. Pancakes, bacon and berries. What more can you ask for? 

 Costco shopping was eventful. We purchased a 48 pack of Snickers and two giant jars of Nutella along with some cheese, summer sausage and pesto. We're not picky or selective eaters as you can tell.

There was a lot of chocolate on our trip.

 Pete practicing the Jumar setup in his dad's awesome basement/garage gear storage warehouse that's the size of a small house. Make that a medium-sized house. It's the kind of gear basement I will one day own, except mine will feature an automatic gear-retrieval system and have a ski waxing bench and climbing wall.

 We set up the Alpine Hammock in the basement to test it out. Thanks to the Alpine Hammock team for supplying us with two of these alpine bivies to take with us! More info here:

 Then the 4am drive to Talkeetna, getting in the small bush plane, the flight out onto the Ruth Glacier. All in style. Below is a pic of Denali (tallest mountain in North America) and our pilot.

Then the air taxi (a sweet new Otter) took off and left us on the glacier for 2 weeks.

Flying away.

We probed the area for crevasses and set up our camp. Probing is the dullest thing ever. You walk around with a giant pole and stick it into the ground to see if you feel a massive gaping hole beneath you. It sounds exciting, but it's really not. At least you can see Mt. Dickey behind me which is over a vertical mile in height.

 Yup. Super exciting. Cobra Pillar, our original objective is pictured below to my left.

 Camp building commenced. This involved sawing blocks of consolidated snow and building a fortress around our tent that looked very much like an igloo someone was building but lost steam halfway there.

The Moose's Tooth is pictured to my left. The snow wall we were building is required to help prevent strong winds from blowing over the tent during storms. 

 Our human-constructed barrier, our tent, our skis, our sleds and the most gorgeous weather we could have hoped to fly in on.

Our new home. For more than 2 weeks, Pete and I didn't have more than 200' (the length of a full pitch of rock climbing) separating us, because you can't just go wandering on the glacier alone or you'll fall into a big hole and won't get out. Group and partner dynamics can be a touchy thing, so I was lucky to have such an amazing, understanding, and psyched partner for the climbing partnership. 

After a brief nap during the hottest part of the day, we set off to see if the iconic Moose's Tooth route Ham and Eggs was in climbable condition. Mind you, at this point we've been up since 4am and had been in Anchorage as of that morning. Things move quick up here and we didn't want to lose the weather window that was fast closing in. 

The crux of all glacier travel is avoiding the massive crevasse holes that are everywhere. Above you can see the Cobra Pillar in the background and the non-linear ski track we took to get through the minefield. Below is pictured the icefall we had to navigate up to get to the Root Canal glacier and the start of Ham and Eggs. 

 Big, dark, scary holes. Snow conditions were not ideal in the evening because the snow was still soft, but it enabled us to get to the base of the route and, if it was in climbable condition, to climb during the night when there would be less rock and ice fall on the climbing route itself. It all makes sense if you think about it.

 More churning masses of the glacier.

 At least the views are incredible as always, but you had to watch your step. The backpacks were heavy because we brought our ice and rock racks as well as crampons, ice tools, bivy gear and a stove to melt water. We kept the glacier-travel rope taut between us, because we realized the risks we were taking traveling as a party of only two across this terrain.

Pete navigated past some pretty sketchy snow bridges on the approach up to the Root Canal. It may seem like you can just step right there, but it's so steep and the snow so deep that I had to take my skis off just to make it up 10 feet.

 Pete said: "watch me", then stepped out onto the snow bridging the two sides of the crevasse. The glacier let him pass through, but not without both his ski pole and whippet punching through on both sides of him, so that he had to rely on his balance and the friction of the skins on his skis to get across.

Not pictured is the rest of the Root Canal approach (much longer and steeper than it looks) and the unfortunate condition of Ham and Eggs. Around 3am, 23 hrs since we woke up, I was exhausted and asked Pete if we could turn around. Pete being the understanding partner, put his climbing ambitions on hold for me and agreed to descent, so we began the snaking descent back to our camp.

Navigating back at 3 am. At least it never gets dark in Alaska. 

A much-needed recovery nap, and we set off to see how things were looking around the corner at Peak 11,300.

 To say it was beautiful would be an understatement.

We skied up and climbed up a little knoll to get a better look. It involved some snow swimming to get to the top.

 But we made it eventually.

 And were rewarded by views of the Tooth and the surrounding Ruth Glacier Valley. You can see the Root Canal and the icefall path we were taking to get there the night before on the right.

Then the fun began. And by fun, I mean our complicated relationship with the weather. We woke up several days to this:

 It rained. So we dug out a giant cave for our cooking tent, complete with a bench and a table. I should mention here that our objectives for the trip were anything and everything we could get on, however, we REALLY wanted to get on the Cobra Pillar and the Eye Tooth. Alas, the weather was not cooperating.

 We carried a sattelite phone with us to have contact with the air taxi company (so they knew where and when to pick us up) and to check weather forecasts. Here Pete is pictured calling to get some more bad news.

Take a look at the picture above. In front of Pete is the mountain Mt. Dickey. From our camp at its base, it rises over a vertical mile up to the summit. Yup. Over 5000' in vertical gain. There's a route that goes up it called Snow Patrol that's over 40 pitches long (VI WI5+, 5250'). Maybe someday.

We did several skis out when the rain would lift to check out moderate routes like Hut Tower down glacier. These resulted in having to put soaking wet socks and gloves and hats on our stomachs at night to dry them out after we'd get caught in some downpours. Such fun. There's nothing like the feeling of wet socks that you stuffed down your pants.

And we ate our food. Such as honey by the spoonful (pictured below).

There was a little bird we nicknamed 'Stuart', that provided company for us during our weathered, tentbound days. Here he is pictured in all his glory. Pete has over 100 photos of him on his camera. He was a big part of our life. 

Then we saw a 12 hr window in the weather forecast. We decided that we had to seize it because there was a storm moving in the next week and temperatures were going to drop. 

Small people on glacier for scale. 
This was our chance. Unfortunately 12 hrs wasn't a long enough time for us to make an attempt on the Cobra Pillar, no matter how optimistic and ambitious we are. It would be a more than a 24 hr push for us if we did it in a day. Longer if we took our time getting up all the pitches or bivied on route or at the top on the giant mushroom. Goldfinger was a more manageable objective for 12 hrs. 

We geared up and decided that our best chance for a 12 hr push after a 3 day rainstorm would be a climb called Goldfinger. It's a 2000' 5.11a climb up the rock formation known as "The Stump" and is absolutely stellar. You can see it pictured above in front of Pete.

 It was pitch after 200 foot pitch of incredible, splitter, high-quality rock climbing. Pictures don't do it justice. Below is Pete coming up to my belay on pitch 2 in full stoke mode.

At some pitch that I can't remember, I think it was pitch 6 or 7, Pete was coming up to my belay, but we decided he should just carry on with his lead without us exchanging gear to save time. This allowed me to get some pretty exposure-heavy pictures that give you an idea of how gorgeous it was up there.

Pete is pictured as a tiny orange and neon green dot in the top left corner. Life here is a game of eye spy.

The corner we climbed was just perfection. We did get on the climb the morning after a pretty drenching rainstorm, so 3 of the pitches were wet, but they had just enough friction for the feet for us to be able to get by without problems.

The belays were equally stunning and apart from a couple hanging ones, there were comfy ledges to sit and rest the feet. 

I'll try not to bore you with too many splitter dihedral corner climbing photos, but we ended up taking a lot of them. Sorry.

Leading up some pitch and stemming before the transfer to the slabby traverse and my meandering way to the top. 

 Pete mentioned that there was an eagle flying above us when I was leading a roof. I called bullshit, but here's the proof below:

More stellar jamming.

Every pitch was at least 200' (except maybe 2 which were around 180'). There were a couple that were 215', so we got to do some nice, low-key simuling at times.

Snickers were the perfect cheap-man's energy bar on this trip. Worked wonders. It's still edible when it's frozen and it tastes delicious. 

 Our approach ski tracks photographed from about 900' up the climb.

 If you look very closely in the bottom center of the photo below you'll be able to see our tent. Yeah. Things in Alaska are pretty big. Like very big. Most of the walls in the area to climb are taller than El Cap. Too bad the weather is shitty a lot of the time.

 The clouds started moving in, and we could feel the time crunch of our weather window closing in, so we booked up as fast as we could.

 Still enjoying life, with Mt. Dickey (the mountain that's a vertical mile in height from the glacier) pictured behind me. Our tent is somewhere way, way, way down there at its base.

 I heard slurping noises on the next to last pitch from around the corner. My partner was slurping water from the rock about 40' up the pitch and took a selfie while doing so:

The views were clear from one side (clouds were fast approaching from the other), and it looked like a summit day for Denali, so we wished the guys some mental luck from our perch on Goldfinger. 

Climbing fast and light is often the fastest option. For the non-climbers reading this, it may be counterintuitive not to bring everything you'll need to survive with you at all times, but often, objective hazards are best past quickly. Yes, you may run it out on a 60' traverse, but you manage to avoid the mushroom cornice above that could obliterate you and your partner. Or you can try going off route to avoid the kitty litter that threatens to bombard and kill your belayer.

The constant mental questions:

In a sea of cracks, which do you choose? Which crimps do you grab, which creditcard footholds do you trust not to crumble and blow?

 There are always gremlins lurking in the back of the mind; constantly questioning: 'keep an eye on that', 'how's the weather looking?', 'hmmm... those clouds are moving fast', 'why is there moss in the crack, are we off route?'

But you can't ponder these questions. You don't have the time. Go with the gut. All of a sudden, all those hard life decisions in the real, civilized world start to seem more trivial. Easier. Less stressful. You become a better decision maker, and better at making those hard calls. Because as cheesy as it sounds, that hard conversation you need to have with a hypothetical significant other, or that difficult next career move choice you need to make, are not going to result in life or death. And there are people to support you, coach you, and pick up the pieces when you inevitably have some setbacks.

Pete taking a brief rest before we fired the final pitch to the top.

 The top included some 4th class snowy scrambling in which our poor rock shoes ended up buried in knee-deep snow.

 Pete scouting the downclimb.

We straddled the top, which is just big enough for two people to sit on top horseback style, snapped some photos and then hastily started descending to beat the weather. 

Rope management was okay in the beginning....

And then we got the rope stuck twice. Each with 15-20 min coaxing sessions as we did everything in our power to flick, tug, pull, shimmy and whip the rope down to us. Pleading and begging may have been involved. We almost gave up each time and resigned ourselves to having to jug up the rope, but the rope gods were with us that day, and we managed to get down without having to ascend up.

Below is Pete traversing over to an off-center rappel on a sturdy, foot-wide ledge that was very secure, but the exposure was mind-numbing. We finally finished our last 200' rap and made it to our stashed gear at the base. Check out Pete's black, sooty hands from rappelling the rope over and over again.

Then we skied out as fast as we could in the fading light.

 But of course the views were too picture perfect not to take a few more shots. And now a quick monologue on crossing crevasse fields: That slump and thunk sound when a bridge settles or something around you falls makes the heart skip a beat. Did we trigger it? Crossings of snow bridges and the fields are a mind game. How quick? How much time do we have? How soft?

We collapsed in our tents as the fog rolled in, and a few hours later we heard the recognizable sound of pit-patting water droplets on our tent, and were glad that we'd made the most of our 12 hr span of weather to get up some stellar rock. 

This was where things changed. A storm came in and weathered us in our tents for the rest of our time in the Ruth. Which was a pretty long time (more than a week) to be spending on a 60' x 60' patch of non-crevassed square. Temps dropped. Snow dropped. Hopes of a clearing dropped.

Here is an excerpt from my journal. Warning, it's definitely getting into some feely, philosophizing. That's what you do when you're stuck in a tent. Skip it or bare with me for the cheesiness of it all. You've been warned:  

'I guess I'm coming to the same conclusions that everyone who leaves for the mountains for a while gets: you gain perspective. What truly matters, what you should hold dearly. How silly all those mindgames and social weaving is that you play daily. The mountains make me more straightforward, both with myself and how I treat others. I sometimes get flack for being abrasive or breaking the hard truth too harshly when telling someone what I truly think. But I think it's better to speak the mind than to let things fester in pleasantries until the whole facade collapses. 

I'm unashamed for going for things I want. Why not aim high? As long as I'm truthful to myself and others along the way. The mountains definitely keep me grounded, because even the best of us get feelings of self-importance and pomp. But at the end of the day, it comes down to who can suffer the most, who can take care of others when they themselves are hurting, who can make sacrifices in their health, comfort or objectives for the other person---that's the true measure of someone's character. Take someone into the mountains and their true colors shine through or exposes the ugly underbelly of someone's real personality. I'm so lucky to have Pete as my climbing partner. He doesn't have a hidden ugly side. He's straightforward and truthful.  

Often, people don't like what they see in themselves when they're left alone with themselves. It's often ugly. No-one is immune, but it's necessary to see.'

Pictured is the Eye Tooth after a brief clearing in the clouds. Notice how unfortunately snowy it is :( 
It was pretty cold and temps were subfreezing, which brought to mind the quote of a crazy friend of mine: "if you're not solo-aiding in your sleeping bag, it's not too cold to climb". Apparently this has happened before. 

A swiss guide named Norbert and his climbing partner Rosa came by our camp for one day and managed to fly out before the really severe weather came down. They brought the party for their last night on the glacier.

Norbert is an IFMGA guide and when offered some dried mangoes we had, we got the response: "I only like fresh mangoes from Pakistan with a spritz of lemon".

He also is missing all the toes on his feet from a battle up K2. Apparently Messner told him after their successful summit that: "K2 is a summit worth losing a few toes for". Norbert was hilarious. He also brought 5 cans of very patriotic-looking Budweiser to share with us. I think Pete and I were the only group to ever fly into the Ruth Gorge without a drop of alcohol.

Sharing the wealth of the Budweiser. 

Pete, Norbert and Rosa with the non-Pakistani, non-lemon-sprayed mangoes that didn't live up to Norbert's standards. Also pictured are the American flag-decorated beers. 

Norbert pulled out some menthol powder stuff that apparently you're supposed to inhale into your nose. Everyone put their hands out and on the count of three just went for it (there are some hilarious videos of this I'll post eventually). I ended up with everything on my face and not in my nose. One person sneezed, two others that shall remain nameless started crying. I think I won out in the end.

Before Norbert and Rosa left, about a minute before their plane was about to take off (the prop was spinning, the back was loaded and the pilot was ready to go), Norbert says: "Natalie! Have you heard of a selfie? Come here, I'll show you!" Here was the glorious result:

There was much shoveling to be done as we started getting not inches, but feet of snow at night. We made sure someone was always monitoring the snowpack on our tent, so that we wouldn't be buried in the middle of the night. Getting out of the tent and the warm sleeping bag every few hours to dig out the tent is not too fun, but it's the job that needs to get done.

Below are some shoveling photos when it was actually nice out. The whiteout conditions are not pictured because all it looks like is milky white foggy soup. 

We went through the 5 stages of the Kubler-Ross model about the state of the weather and our chances of more climbing:

  • First there was denial
  • Followed by anger
  • Then there was bargaining with the weather gods
  • Then the depression set in (in which I went and shoveled a trench to China and Pete didn't leave the tent for a full 24 hrs)
  • And finally there was acceptance of our fate. 

Pete and I were very lucky to be able to make the most of our 12 hr window and climb an amazing route as Goldfinger. Even though we'd obviously prefer 2 weeks of stellar weather, we were lucky and happy with what the weather gods gave us. 

Isn't Goldfinger beautiful? You can start to see where it got its name
Pete and I had to entertain ourselves in the tent. Pete's mustache was growing. He also donned the bequested shirt from Vegas. Ladies: this man is single and a catch. Get after him.

He also likes to eat Nutella in spoonfuls and sometimes even using his nut tool when the spoon got lost in the mess of the tent.

I went after the 5 lb block of cheddar cheese pictured in my right hand. 

The leatherman was a good choice for gnawing on things while reading. 

 We experimented with the amount of water to add to minute rice, and on our third try we struck gold.

There was a brief weather window one evening. Sun? Wait really? "Pete! Pete! Wake up! Come outside!" 

 We were so psyched to see something besides the whiteout blizzard outside, that Pete donned his tshirt and tights and went cavorting out in the snow. 

It's a miracle this boy is still single. Ladies, seriously. This is the man of your dreams. I can hook you up.

I was pretty excited about seeing the mountains peak out as well, so I did my best dancing with wolves impression.... and then promptly fell over. All captured on film by Peter of course.

STOKE. And the neon tights I purchased from the 'under 14' section at REI. Check out the Moose's Tooth and the Eye Tooth poking out the back.

The daily grind. I learned that I'm really good at spending large quantities of time in a tent. It really didn't bother me. Sure, I was bummed we weren't climbing, but I made the most of it and enjoyed the unplugged, chilled, tentbound life living. I read 8 books when I was there on the Kindle I borrowed and had 20 more left. I slept, I thought about life. The usual.
Reading some business management book that was downloaded by the previous owner. 
Winter ascents with long tentbound days: I'm coming for you.

I think I've discovered what I'm good at: chilling, relaxing and waiting for weather. Pete didn't deal with the tentbound whiteouts as well and got a bit antsy and then depressed when we couldn't leave our hideout for days.

The townhouse on the glacier. Even in the bad weather, there wasn't anywhere else I wanted to be. The fog was so thick sometimes you could taste it. 

You think about things when you're out here for so long. After a while, you can go almost an entire day without the need to talk to your partner, because everything's understood implicitly. You give your partner room and space. Personal space is a coveted thing out here, where you can't get away or run away from your 60'x60' square. To keep the psych up, sometimes people just need room.

I personally recharge mentally and do some self-evaluation at times like these. I think it's beneficial: candor, values, things you should do more of, regrets for things you said when you were in a bad mood, people you care about, people you really should cut out of your life...

Ok. I'm done with the meta-analysis. On with the story. 

A climbing pair named Bobby and Zach were dropped off on the glacier the day we climbed Goldfinger. They weathered the entire storm with us, and provided countless hours of entertainment.

Bobby and Zach got a 'veggie/whiskey/scotch' gift parcel drop from their pilot friend one day when the ceiling rose just high enough for the small cub to fly in. 
Below the pair are pictured in all their glory. Hopefully after we left they were able to get on at least something, because the entire time we were there, they were weathered in.

Bobby providing a boost. You know how outdoor clothing comes in very obnoxious bright, neon colors? Well there's a reason for that, because when you're out in the mountains, it's the ONLY colorful thing you see. The mountains are pretty black and white. Plus it's a way to locate your partner more easily in a whiteout. The technicolors brightened up my day.

 Bobby's best blue steel Zoolander, hair-whipping look. This is another one of those single men ladies. Get after it.

Moose's and Bear's Tooth pictured behind us, along with Goldfinger poking out all snowy. At night and during the day we would hear ear-crushing avalanche noises as the mountains shed the snow that was accumulating on them. It sounded like the loudest roll of thunder you've ever heard that lasts for a minute or so. 

 There's not much to do when 24 hrs a day you're pretty much just sitting or sleeping in camp. You make the most of any break in the weather. Whether it's to have a tent dance party to old-school Madonna or to take more photos of Pete in his hot, sexy Vegas shirt.

Or for Bobby to come tell us good morning at 5pm after we all woke up from a deep sleep.

Sleep schedules are completely arbitrary up here, since it never gets dark. Sometimes we'd think it stopped snowing, so we would do the tried and true 'stick the hand out the vestibule' test, but the noise was just muffled by the several inches already on the outside of our tent. 

'Is it snowing Pete?' 

'Yup Nat. Go back to sleep'

Bobby saying hi and singing some Madonna to us. 
Zach looking stoic. I was the only one without a mustache out of the four of us. I considered drawing one on for solidarity purposes, but couldn't find a pen. The boys said it helps them attract women, but I have my doubts.

More eating of the bare essentials: Nutella and Costco summer sausage. 

A quick note on how awesome my climbing partner was, and what I look for when I'm planning on spending 2 weeks with someone on a glacier. 

He's one of the most quiet, humble stoked human beings you'll meet. He's not yet 21, but has the risk assessment chops of climbers much older than he is. He's the kind of partner that stakes out the tent in the middle of the night when the storm is in full rage mode. He does all those little things that are the real legwork for getting up an alpine climb, but that no-one mentions when you hear them talking about their successes. He's also fun to be around and you can spend long days tentbound without wanting to kill each other.

On the day we had to fly out (Pete had to get back to Anchorage and catch a flight to Boston to make it back in time for the summer quarter classes at Dartmouth), the weather turned pristine. OF COURSE.

Mildly unfair, but you can't be bitter after 2 amazing weeks. I learned lots, have much more to learn about the big mountains and most important of all, we followed the commandments:

Come back alive

Come back friends

And get to the top 

In that order of importance. 

Check out the color of this wall:

I was just glad to be able to see the vistas, and that we had a weather window big enough for Pete to get the chance to fly out in time. Otherwise he'd have some explaining to do to his professors about why he couldn't make it to the first day of class...

Bobby and Zach decided to do a quick ski and check out how dangerous the avalanche conditions were. Here they are for scale in the bottom left. I still can't get over how big these walls are.

I missed my 5 year High School reunion (as well as my college graduation), so I wrote the Lakeside Class of '09 a note:

Shaking out our home of 2 weeks before getting picked up by the air taxi.

Final lamentful selfie before we flew out back to Talkeetna and Anchorage and the civilized world.

For those of you that missed it, this is what I did with the time when I wasn't reading a book or sleeping: Enjoy it at my embarrassment. Love you sis!

More to come, since my time here in Anchorage has been spent on the Kenai Peninsula fishing and watching Humpback whales, and running across 3 mile long mudflats. 

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