Winning and Losing in the Revelations
The Revelations were first explored in 1967 by a team led by David Roberts. The pioneering trip included fellow Harvard Mountaineering Club members George and Rick Millikan, Matt Hale, and Ned Fetcher, as well as Art Davidson, who was still recovering from frostbite after making the first winter ascent of Denali. Studying the maps, they noted an alluring 9,200-foot peak at the head of the Revelation Glacier, whose ridges spread “just like the wings of an angel.” This peak became the object of their obsession. The team made six serious attempts on the south ridge of “the Angel,” but atrocious bouts of wind and freezing rain drove them to the verge of hypothermia, defeating their efforts again and again.
As their 52-day trip neared its end, the team had made several signifi cant first ascents, but had given up on the Angel. Then, one of the last days dawned beautifully—the best weather of the trip. Hale and Roberts headed up the Angel to remove some fi nal scraps of gear. Reaching their high point in record time, they could not resist moving a little higher. Unprepared for a safe summit bid, however, and with anguishing reluctance, they turned around early in the afternoon.
From the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, Roberts was involved in more than a dozen major first ascents in Alaska, including the Southeast Buttress of Mt. Dickey, the Wickersham Wall on Denali, and the Harvard Route on Mt. Huntington. After those climbs, one might assume that the Revelations would pale in comparison. Yet, in his under-acclaimed book On the Ridge Between Life and Death, Roberts devotes nearly an entire chapter to the range, and confesses that, “Of all the regrets I have about my years in the mountains, in terms of sheer, simple ‘what-might-have-been’… letting the Angel slip through our fingers when we were within 700 feet of the summit on a perfect day still stings the sharpest.”
My own obsession in the Revelations can be traced to Roberts’ single mention of one peak in his 1968 American Alpine Journal entry: “And from the plane we had glimpsed the hopeless labyrinth of Mt. Mausolus (9,170 feet), perhaps the toughest climb in the range.”
In what had become our annual spring ritual, Seth and I returned to the Revelations in May 2010, this time fully funded by the American Alpine Club’s McNeill-Nott Grant and the Mazamas’ Alpine Adventure Grant. With our focus locked on Mausolus, we decided to fly directly to its base. For 12 dismal days, however, we waited at a remote gravel airstrip, mired in low-lying clouds that kept us from flying. Then, under suddenly clear skies, we quickly found ourselves directly under the awe-inspiring west face. Even after years of mental preparation, the full scope of Mausolus looming above was overwhelming.
Solar waves radiated off the glacier, rippling the distant ridgelines. For five days we scoped the face, questioning its plausibility. The heat of the day brought down a constant barrage of avalanches, but at night, conditions firmed and the cirque became eerily quiet. We were vexed. We had waited so long and come so far. How could we not at least go for a look? The next night we sprinted up the couloir, climbing a deep trough of avalanche runnels. Logic told us not to be there, but our emotions pushed us higher. “I feel like we’re rolling the dice,” Seth said. “No,” I responded, “we’re flipping the coin.” It was clear that we were too late in the season for a safe attempt. Yet in only two hours, fueled by four years of desire, we climbed the lower 2,000 feet of the face. As the sky turned pink at dawn, we stopped to confer.
“Part of being a good climber isn’t about climbing the hardest route, it’s about making the tough decisions,” I said. “It’s about staying alive,” Seth replied. We agreed that we were relying too much on luck, and it was time to descend. The next night, temperatures hovered above freezing, and we watched deadly avalanches sweep the chute we had climbed 24 hours earlier. We felt lucky to have escaped.
By early afternoon, we were almost halfway up. I felt as though we were paralleling Hale and Roberts’ experience.
As I sat on the beach and dreamed of redemption on the Angel with Seth, the small plane nosedived into the banks of the Susitna River, killing him instantly. That tendril of smoke I had witnessed from the wreckage still haunts me. Now, as we fly toward the Revelations, Mausolus dominates a horizon of unclimbed peaks. Rob Jones executes a perfect landing on the narrow, boulder-strewn Swift Glacier. Pallid moonlight throws contorted shadows over the west face of Mausolus. Everything I see reminds me of Seth. I walk to a rock where he had erected a large cairn, but the stones have fallen. A soft breeze laps at the tent as I drift between sleep and restless consciousness. I am stung by the irony of the name that Seth and I had conceived for our route: “The Mausoleum,” a tomb for the dead.
A month-long high-pressure system has stripped the face of snow. Conditions are ideal, but the unstable weather of the Revelations will soon bring either snow or the heat of spring. Stars twinkle across an infinite sky, and as Scotty and I ski 10 minutes down the glacier toward the face, I feel calm and focused after years of preparation. Two thousand feet of steep, firm snow disappear quickly beneath my boots as I kick up the initial couloir toward a flawless 2,500-foot ribbon of ice plummeting straight from the summit. Scotty curses at me for not putting in enough protection. If anything comes down, it will pluck us off and hurl us to the bottom. I know the dangers all too well.
Massive overhanging rock faces continuously skew our perception. Moderate-looking ice rears toward vertical as we approach. Deep in the slot, we feel like we’re in the gullet of a gargantuan beast. Scotty leads a stout pitch of dead-vertical ice. When I reach him, he slumps at a hanging belay, crampons skittering against concrete ice.
The mid-March sun begins to bake the upper face. As a vertical bulge gives way to lower-angled ice, the silence is broken by the shriek of rock fall—the sound of death. There is nowhere to hide. The rock bounces toward us in an erratic trajectory, then hurtles past and into the void. The acrid stench of gunpowder fills the air and my throat tastes of bile. Another rock whizzes over Scotty’s head as he follows, close enough for him to feel it cut the air.
We jet for the summit, stashing most of our gear. We leave behind two-thirds of our rock rack but take every ice screw and wish for more. Even in our wildest dreams, we never envisioned 2,500 feet of steep, continuous ice. Our eight ice screws are laughably meager. The crux pitch falls to me. Cams, nuts, and pitons jangle uselessly on the sling as dead weight. The rope drapes downward to a screw I’d placed eons ago. My fear of the runout blends with the sheer thrill of confronting my limits on such a fine route. I know the consequences of an error, but as I inch higher, already 40 feet above the screw, I feel as though I am being levitated by some phantasmal presence. We are still a long way from the summit, but when I finally reach a belay, I revel in a feeling of success.
Before we depart from the summit, I open my pack and pull out the container I’d received from Seth’s dad. My throat swells and hands tremble as I carefully uncover its top. With a single arching motion, I cast Seth’s ashes to earth and sky, saying, “We did it, Seth, we did it.” In an instant the gentlest breeze rises up, spreading him across the highest point of Mt. Mausolus.
Clint Helander, 26, lives in Anchorage. After a summer of commercial fishing, he is currently on a climbing road trip from Alaska to the Lower 48, until the money runs out. Is four trips to the Revelations enough? “I’m just getting started,” he says.
By David RobertsFrom high on Kichatna Spire in 1966, we caught sight of another cluster of steep and savage granite peaks, 70 miles to the southwest. Back home that winter, I discovered to my greedy astonishment that those remote Alaskan mountains, which promised a challenge equal to that of the Spires, had never been climbed or even attempted. The range itself was unnamed.
In the summer of 1967, six of us spent 52 days in the heart of what we had the honor of naming the Revelation Mountains. We made nine fi rst ascents, but had to turn back after six attempts on the most beautiful peak of all, the Angel—the last effort thwarted only 700 feet below the summit.
During that summer, we endured the most fiendish weather I would encounter on 13 Alaskan expeditions. It was the only time I ever contemplated dying of hypothermia at base camp. Cooking pots, helmets, and other gear got blown a mile down the glacier; a hurricane ate the igloo we built; and in the age before synthetic insulations, our down jackets and sleeping bags turned into dish rags. While we clung to our collapsing tents on the Revelation Glacier, seven members of the ill-fated Wilcox party perished in those same storms, high on Denali.
On the flight in to the Revs, we passed over Mt. Mausolus. What a peak! It did indeed look like a “hopeless labyrinth,” as I described it in The American Alpine Journal. It was too far from our base camp to think of attempting it, but Mausolus haunted my thoughts for years after 1967.
Meanwhile, the Kichatna Spires became the hottest playground in Alaska, attracting such top guns as Royal Robbins, Charlie Porter, Conrad Anker, Kitty Calhoun, and Jay Smith. Within 15 years after our fi rst ascent of Kichatna Spire, virtually every peak in the range had been bagged, some by multiple routes. I assumed the same fate would befall my beloved Revelations, but for some reason (perhaps in part because of my lurid accounts of hairtrigger avalanches, falling rocks, and atrocious storms) the range stayed off the climbing radar.
Still, I would never have dreamed that 44 years would elapse before someone finally climbed Mausolus. In the spring of 2011, Clint Helander called me to exult about his triumph on the peak that had come to obsess his own waking thoughts. Twenty years ago, I would have been stung with envy, but by now I had mellowed sufficiently to feel only magnanimous joy for his fine exploit.
Not that I hadn’t obsessed myself about Mausolus after 1967. I had a pair of stereo aerial photos shot from some USGS plane, and as I stared at them I spent hours plotting the best route on that “labyrinth.” (The one I chose was not the line that Helander’s party stormed up last spring.) In 1979, I wrote a novel about an imagined fi rst ascent of Mausolus that cost the lives of two of its three aspirants. Titled simply Mausolus, the book was about to be published by a venerable New York press when my editor died of a heart attack. His colleagues, who despised one another in all possible permutations, scrapped my editor’s whole list of works in production. The typescript of Mausolus sits on a shelf in my basement today, and I’ve come to recognize that it’s just as well it was never published.
Ah, but when I think back to that 52-day adventure in the Revelations… Oscar Wilde was right: Youth is wasted on the young.
So I’m willing here to drop a clue that I would have confided to almost no one until recently: There’s a peak in the Revs that’s probably harder than Mausolus. It loomed over our base camp for seven weeks. One day, a huge serac broke off its north face, and the ice blocks ground to a halt only 80 yards short of our tents, as the sole climber in residence at the time fled barefoot up the glacier. We named the peak Golgotha. As of 2011, it’s never been attempted.
David Roberts is the author of 23 books about mountaineering, adventure, and Western history, including his climbing memoir, On the Ridge between Life and Death, and, most recently, Finding Everett Ruess.