Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Trip to the Arrigetch - Brooks Range, AK

The news of being hired to work in the Emergency Department of a large Trauma Center was bittersweet, knowing that my friends Brian Prince, Adam Ferro and I had a planned trip to Alaska to climb in the Arrigetch, only four months after my orientation was supposed to begin. Few month prior we received the Mugs Stump Award which granted us funds to cover most of the travel expenses for the expedition, yet I was fully prepared to encourage my friends to split my share of the grant and go on a trip of a lifetime without me. Asking for a vacation such a short time after getting hired was not mentioned in "Impressing the New Boss for Dummies," yet sending her the official release of the grant and stacking shifts worked magically and I was granted nineteen days off.
Having read about the Arrigetch in a David Roberts` book early in my mountaineering career made me aware of the remote range with large granite spires. Even though I always had a strong desire to see the range with own eyes, it was hard to dedicate so much time for a place known for unstable weather, a place more than three thousand miles away, when the best granite and the range with the most stable mountain weather is a few hours away, here in the Sierra Nevada. Especially for someone not interested in being bored in a tent for days while the storms are raging. Getting a new job was a blessing in this regard, as I loaded my phone with study material and brought a book with much to learn about critical care nursing. As long as we were not gonna get eaten by a grizzly bear it would be a good trip with good friends.
Working with a minimum amount of time one would need to go on such an expedition did not allow much time for screwing around. The Same day I flew to Anchorage, we drove north to the town of Coldfoot in a long push. Unfortunately, it was raining and we had to wait a few days before we could fly out to the base of the mountains. We don't have much advice for accommodations in town, as the only hotel there seemed too expensive and instead, we crashed in an abandoned building. Local ranger station provided us with the permit, bear-proof canisters and amusement in form of educational presentations every evening.
When the weather allowed us to fly in, we learned that the biggest sandbag of the trip was the approach up Arrigetch Creek. Brian thought the approach to the base of the West Face of Xanadu would be five miles. How bad could that be?! Because it rained heavily for several days in a row before we arrived, the water in the river was so high that we couldn't cross the creek separating a small island on which we landed and the land. It took us about two hours to wander around looking for a crossing, giving up on that idea and setting up the tyrolean traverse to get our packs across. After that, we hiked towards Arrigetch creek hoping to find the trail, through bushes and across several other creek crossings. We were happy to finally find the trail but to call it a trail is misleading. It was more of a muddy groove with water running through it. Traveling anywhere else would be hell, so this was our best option. After walking for a few hours I was in doubt it could be five miles to the base, as Xanadu still looked very far away. Later in the trip, we realized it was more like fifteen miles, not five.
On the second day of the approach, we saw a peak named the Albatross. Although not something we planned for, it was a striking granite spire with what had to be an exhilarating summit block. Soon after passing beneath it we were in a raging thunderstorm and had to camp short of the pass we were hoping to climb over before we could attempt Xanadu. In the morning the rain ceased, yet the pass was covered in clouds and still invisible. On our side of the pass, the beautiful southeast face of Albatross was being illuminated by the sun. We adapted to the conditions quickly and set off to find a direct line up it.
We climbed all sort of terrain, from solid alpine rock with fun pumpy moves to dangerous overhangs with flakes stacked like a house of cards, waiting for someone not careful to give them a good pull. Since all three of us had a good amount of experience climbing varied terrain in the past and trying to stretch our seventy-meter ropes to the limit on every pitch, we made a relatively quick ascent as not much time was lost for route finding. The route up the Direct Southeast face was approximately 1,700 feet with difficulties to 5.10+, which means the wall is actually taller than the NW face of Xanadu, which appears taller than it is on the map because several hundred feet of slab below the base of the wall make it appear larger on the topo map.  The cooperating weather resulted in incredible summit panorama. Dark and intimidating Northeast Face of Xanadu, called the Graylin wall to our right. Walls, spires and imposing ship-like prow formed the sunlit granite ridge to our left. It was one of the most exposed, scenic and memorable summits for all three of us with the views our photographs do not give proper justice to. On top, we found a summit register with only signatures in it being those of the men who did the first documented ascent of the formation. Since then, it is believed at least two parties topped out the incredible peak.
Long summer days allowed us to return to camp, make dinner and fall asleep before it got dark - in mid-August it got dark for only a couple of hours. All three of us were physically beat from a tough three-day stretch yet the following morning the weather was clear enough. Few hours after we got back from climbing the Albatross, we decided to load up on coffee and attempt the NW of Xanadu. Although we didn't have the much-desired energy, we got over the two passes and to the base of the wall in good time. By then the wind picked up and the clouds thickened yet we found a 70 meter, five-star corner and climbed three and a half more pitches before the first drops of rain with a healthy dose of arctic wind forced a retreat from about halfway up the wall.
After that, we were tent-bound due to intermittent rain. Without accurate forecast and our provisions running out, we could not come up with a great plan of actions. Things were simplified after two days when we had only half a day's worth of snacks and a dinner left. It was not raining that morning but the clouds surrounded the mountains. We could have hiked out and bought another week's worth of food from the airstrip or hike over the 2,000 ft pass, attempt to climb and hike out to the airstrip to get food after. We chose the latter.

Receiving the Mugs Stump award inspired us to climb in the style we thought the late Mugs Stump would prefer, one which would challenge us the most and the style which allows the mountain a fair chance to defeat our attempts - alpine style, no fixed ropes, as little as possible fixed gear. Midway up the wall, the difficulties picked up. We were able to get past several runouts with potential for serious falls without placing bolts and cruxes up to 5.11+ went free, most memorable was one that required finger lock campusing over a big roof. Doing all that with frozen fingers and climbing in a whiteout provided more drama than most would want on a remote alpine route, but after about seven pitches of climbing, most of which were full 70 meters, we were standing on top of the wall and only had the final ridge traverse left to get to the summit. About 400 feet of simul-climbing took us to the top of the route we later dubbed the Arctic Knight (IV 5.11+ R). Although happy with the result, the thick clouds and freezing winds didn't allow us to see much or stay long. It was a shame the weather did not cooperate, as the wall had great rock and amazing climbing that would be much more fun without screaming barfies. Because we had to get down from the wall, get down to camp, pack it, move it five miles down the valley, hike all the way out, pick up seven days worth of food and hike back to camp, the true crux of this day was endurance and willpower. Last several hours were horrible as we found our food cache at dusk and it started to rain heavily. By the time we returned to camp after sunrise, we were very tired, drenched and ready to ask grizzly bears to end our suffer-fest if we saw them nearby.

Unfortunately, our effort did not convince the weather gods to let us have a few more days of good weather to climb. Instead, I studied and got weather windows big enough to pick blueberries, which were actually very tasty! It rained for several days in a row and climbing was out of the question. Forecast for the following several days was horrible too, so we asked our pilot to pick us up four days earlier than originally planned. The stars aligned for us one more time - instead of sitting in a soggy tent we hooked up with Brian's stepdad who enough free time to take us flying in his small airplane and to take us salmon fishing for a few days. All of us had an amazing time, especially Adam and I since neither of us ever caught fish that big. It was a great addition to our trip and I was happy to bring a few pounds of smoked salmon for my mom when I traveled home to Central Valley through San Francisco. Even though we got only two ok climbing days, compared to my first trip to the final frontier the full Alaska experience was outstanding. The support of the Mugs Stump award, generous manager, great partners, challenging days in the mountains, blueberries, fishing and learning to operate a plane and not getting eaten by a bear.  We may have to plan another trip to Alaska!

                                                             [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collection (from Alpinist article)

                                                              Photo: me on top of the Albatross, by Brian Prince
Photo: Adam Ferro following one of the upper pitches on Albatross. By Brian Prince.