Epic (n.): a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures, or the history of a nation.
Alaska, 1991: a ptarmigan spoke to me from 90 feet up Middle Triple Peak (8,835 feet), in the Kichatna Range. Seth Shaw and I had just ticked the second ascent of the venerable East Buttress (VI 5.9 A3; 3,300 feet) in grotesque conditions. As we made the last of 20-some raps to the glacier, the Fates dished out more adventure: the snow dollop we stood on gave way while we built our station. Boom! The rope, a 100-meter 9mm cord, whipped through Seth’s device. He hadn’t yet clipped the belay and fell 90 feet to the glacier, pulling the rope with him. Tethered to a couple of pieces of gear with no rope, I feared Seth had fallen to his death. It was then that the ptarmigan spoke…except its usual churgle-churgle came out sounding like English, like a distant, incomprehensible conversation at the end of a hall. I strained my ears. Was the ptarmigan saying all would be OK, or warning of utter doom?
The classic, proto epic is The Iliad and its sequel, The Odyssey, both sung by ancient Greece’s Homer in the eighth century BC. Later, in Hollywood, the “epic” came to define a genre that spooled on for hours, with chiseled heroes racing around in chariots. The common theme: adventure…and returning to tell about it. For us climbers, the unknown, the dangerous, and the mysterious draw us to the map’s edges. We dread the danger, yet deep inside want the soul-baring, character-defining experience.
To bare our souls, Seth and I, climbing together 10 years, started our Kichatna odyssey simply enough: keen to add the “sit start” to this classic alpine rock route first climbed in 1977 by Mike Graber, Alan Long, Andy Embick, and George Schunk, we would ski the 60 miles in from Rainy Pass, pulling kiddy sleds laden with two weeks of food, double cams, and a handful of pins. The early spring snow lent itself perfectly to 20-mile days. Snow bridges led over Happy River, and the brown bears lay dormant — or so we hoped. As with any incipient epic, the weather was clear and dry at basecamp, around 5,000 feet on the Sunshine Glacier, luring us deeper into the maw of the granitic Kichatnas.
Lewis and Clark’s traverse of North America some 200 years ago, though not a climbing journey, has all the components of a Greek epic: separation from civilization, crossing a threshold, transformative experiences, and re-incorporation into society. Despite fierce predators, uncharted land, extreme weather, malnutrition, and indigenous people both hostile and welcoming, no one died and the 33-member party returned with rich, heroic tales.
Jump ahead to 1913, over the South Pole, where Spartan souls pitted themselves against bitter cold and soul-numbing darkness to be the first. The story of Shackleton in Antarctica is the gold standard for suffering. Having missed the plum of the pole itself, Sir Ernest aimed for the “eliminate problem”: walking across the continent. But he and his team, held fast by the pack ice, never started their traverse. They instead wintered over in their ship, drifted northwards on the pack ice, sailed 700 miles across the tumultuous South Atlantic in a lifeboat, and eventually made it back to civilization. All this on a steady diet of seals, hard tack, and penguins.
Dining instead on oatmeal and ramen, Seth and I, after five days of skiing, eventually reached the Sunshine Glacier. In the same way that Greenland is mostly ice, Sunshine Glacier remained cloaked in a perpetual cloud. Well, there was some variation: it would drizzle at the warm part of the day, and snow at night. We festered in our nylon prison and hoped for a clear spell that might allow us to escape this prison of our own design.
Climbing — in particular alpine climbing — has adopted the epic form. Shipton and his Himalayan peregrinations were of epic scale, yet he was far too self-effacing to spray. The story of der Reinhold and his brother der Gunther traversing Nanga Parbat in 1970 after climbing the Rupal Face is legend. In the same range several years later, the understated English hardman Doug Scott saw God in some form after crawling broken-legged off the Ogre. Aye, it’s a veritable rite of passage. Get in over your head, run out of food, and hobble back to civilization. Then share your tale with a subtext of, “It wasn’t that bad.”
Mine and Seth’s only contact with the outside world was an Anchorage rock station running a promotion of “A Vacation a Day in the Month of May”. Each day, the DJs awarded a trip to Hawaii or some other tropical locale. We, on the other hand, sat on a glacier rationing oatmeal — we’d eaten through our allotted two weeks’ worth of calories in hopes of a weather window. Then, after 12 days festering, the Fates decided to either test or reward our efforts. The sun came out; it was time to climb.
We started up the route that morning, making swift progress on continuous crack systems and well-featured granite. The first night found us below the “a cheval” snow ridge, 1,200 feet up. The second night we spent at a sweet little patch of snow at ridge’s end, just below the final headwall. And then, the Fates decided we needed our transformative experience. The pressure dropped like a rock and with it came thick, wet snow from the Gulf of Alaska. We held fast three days, counting our M&Ms, rationing our fuel, and fantasizing about hot showers and coffeehouses. On the last day of food, the weather lifted enough to warrant tackling the final headwall. We zipped the tent and headed out.
The climbing was standard alpine fare. Not too steep, just the right amount of gear, and fun enough to keep our interest, the summit calling like the sirens of Lorelei. Yet fate would have its way — the weather closed in and made us suffer after only four hours. We continued to the ridge crest, feeling the updraft from the West Face. Like crabs, we scuttled left, arriving at what, in the middle of the storm, had to be the summit. No joy, no jubilation, just an eerie sixth sense that we had overdrawn our limits and luck.
We rapped down, leaving single-point stations as waypoints. One more night in the tiny tent, and then the following morning a shortcut down the northeast shoulder to the hanging glacier. Within spitting distance of the Sunshine Glacier and the horizontal, Seth took that fall, leaving me alone with a smattering of gear and no rope — the Big Daddy of transformative experiences. I downclimbed with tether slings and supertape, coaxing placements out of the iced-up crack. Seth had survived and was sitting in the snow. With a little patience, I would be on the glacier with him. And then the No. 3 Friend I was hanging off gave way. I, too, fell to the glacier, 60 feet to the galcier. Winded, with a chest full of snow, I waded through the deep powder that had saved my life. I embraced Seth, happy we were alive. As we trudged back to civilization, the talking ptarmigan came up — we both had heard the bird. Was it real? Our rational side knew that birds don’t talk, yet we heard some thing. Maybe death had come close enough to change our auditory perception.
Our journey in Alaska wasn’t anything exceptional. We repeated a route that had been climbed years before. We were gone just a fraction of time. Yet the hallmarks of an epic were all there, conspiring to make this my most memorable mountain experience. My dear friend Seth died in a crevasse fall nine years later. Our shared saga now rests within me. It is rite of passage that happened once, yet due to its intensity will live forever.