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Everything is calm. I can’t tell were I am; all the sensations of my body are gone except for a warm feeling all over. No more pain, no more sore muscles. Slowly I feel pressure building up in my bladder, and then my numb limbs come back to life. The pressure is soon too great, and my arm starts searching for the zipper pull. It’s nowhere to be found, but then I realize nothing seems to be restricting my movements. As I move, cotton fabric creates a nice tickling sensation on my skin. It feels like I am riding a cloud. I take a big breath and an incredible flowery aroma fills my lungs. My eyes pop open. I’m at home. Clothes, soft shell, and puffy jacket cover my floor. My journal, memory cards, and books cover my desk. Intense sun rays are coming through my window. Outside it is warm. It’s summer!
I had left home exactly a month earlier. Barely 10 days before that, I was in a depressed late-winter mood when I received an e-mail from Freddie Wilkinson. He and Ben Gilmore were going on a trip to the remote Yentna Glacier in the Alaska Range, and they wanted me to join them for an attempt on probably the highest unclimbed peak of the range. I had met Freddie years ago after my climb with LP [Ménard] on the south face of Denali, and since then we have been trying to get together to climb. Ben, on his side, is one of those Bad Asses that inspired me to climb in Alaska in the first place. It didn’t take much to convince me to go. They were going from April 19t to May 8. My girlfriend, Zoe Hart, was going to be in Alaska for her last ski guide’s exam and was going to be free from May 8 on, and we already had made plans to climb together. I couldn’t have asked for better timing.
On the 21st of May, Paul Roderick from Talkeetna Air Taxi landed Freddie, Ben, and me right at the wilderness boundary of Denali National Park, at the base of the Yentna, under a perfect blue sky. The high pressure lasted for the next three days, allowing us to set up camp and cache gear 2,500 feet higher, toward the base of the south face of the Bat’s Ears, our objective. As soon as we got back to camp from our little excursion, the weather crapped out and the poor weather lasted for about five days, until the pressure showed a shy little ascending curve. The next morning at 2 a.m. it was a go. We headed up for what ended up being one of those perfect alpine climbing days. We climbed a stellar-looking linear weakness that sears the face directly under the summit. The climbing went as smoothly as it gets, at about AI4+ M5+. Twelve hours after crossing the schrund we reached the summit, and as we walked and downclimbed down the steep west ridge the weather began crapping out again. What a perfect sucker hole! Twenty-three hours after leaving camp, we were back from a day of almost 6,000 feet of elevation gain.
The upper valley was totally socked in for the next five days, so we convinced ourselves that the chances of doing another route on the Yentna would be a big gamble, and that we would have a better chance if we were at Kahiltna base to get a good day of climbing during Freddie and Ben’s last four free days. On May 3 at 9 p.m., in the most improbable weather, Paul buzzed over the ridges. Our books and iPods went flying in all directions at the same time, and barely half an hour later a big mess of all our stuff was piled full of snow dust left by Paul’s Beaver on the side of the Kahiltna air strip.
The three of us were still half asleep, but our jaws all fell to the ground simultaneously when we turned toward the north buttress of Hunter. It was covered with the most ice any of us had ever seen on it. That’s how the next chapter of my trip began, which I would call ‘‘the perfect alpine week.’
Monday, May 5, at 12:25 a.m. The alarm goes off as the stoves go on. The blend of coffee, fried bagels, eggs, cheese, and bacon aromas finish waking up all of our senses. It’s 4 a.m. when we regroup at the base of the Moonflower Buttress. We pushed it a bit breaking track and we are all sweaty. Ben pulls off his socks, and a chunk of skin is hanging from his foot. Fuck!!!! Getting a half-dollar-size blister is a hard way to start a 4,000-foot route.
The first block was mine. Three rockbands, three climbers, easy to split. I followed Ben and Freddie’s directions, as they had already been on this section of the route. Stellar ice runnels, a steep snow traverse, and we were soon at the Prow. It felt like climbing through a history book. Freddie and Ben screamed encouragement from below as my tools sank and locked in the thin seam of the Prow. Before I realized it I was clipping the anchor of the pendulum. I knew that Marko Prezelj had done it free, and I was already too far committed when I told myself, “This sucks!” I kept matching front points on knobs, and just before I was really going to do in my pants the iced side of the gully was within tool’s reach.
The pace was set, we were making good progress, but the weather was deteriorating fast. By Tamara’s Traverse the spindrift is heavy. When I passed the rack to Freddie I could see in his eyes that he knew what was waiting for him in the Shaft. With our cameras sunk deep in our jackets, we tightened our hoods over our helmets. Freddie disappeared under a white curtain of snow, but the rope keep feeding. Every time it came to the end we joined him as fast as we could, keeping our heads down. By 5 p.m. we had made it to the top of the Shaft and onto the second ice band, but there was no way we could have made it through an open bivy in those conditions. Ben didn’t seem too worry about it too much. He took the rack and pulled us two more rope lengths to the left to a snow mushroom that had formed on a rocky ridge. An hour later we were all hanging inside a six-inch-thick snow shell, about two and a half feet wide by 12 feet long and three feet high. Besides the fact that Ben was super-pissed that he had broken part of one wall while digging, he had created the best shelter you could have imagined.
That night Freddie had his first experience inside the two-man snuggle sac, and almost didn’t want to leave it at 6:30 in the morning when the light started to come in from the window. The bastard snored! At least he is a small guy. We crawled out to a bluebird day. The perseverance of the previous day had paid off. We knew that we were going to the summit that day. Ben cruised through the Vision section, climbing it all free, I took over for the Bibler Come Again exit, and finally we reached the top of the buttress at 5 p.m. I could barely lift my arms, but Freddie was firing. Climbing as a party of three definitely has some advantages. We left everything except our puffball jackets, one rope, and two screws, and he pulled us all the way up the 1,700 feet of elevation gain to the summit in two hours. We could see all the routes each of us had climbed in the range.
The sixth block of the route had come: the descent. Ben was totally up for the task and led the 26 raps down the face, putting in more then 20 V-threads, and by midmorning on Wednesday we were back in B.C.
When I woke up it was already Thursday. Trading day! Ben and Freddie were due to fly home, and Zoe was waiting by the side of the runway in Talkeetna to get onto the glacier. “Not that I don’t like you guys, but what a good trade!” I joked while we were waiting. When Zoe stepped out of the plane her eyes were shining as brightly as the pin on her chest. She had finished her last ski exam two days before and was now the fourth American woman to get the full UIAGM mountain guide certification. On my side I had just done one of the best routes I had ever climbed. We had a lot to celebrate with the pizza and beer she brought with her.
The next morning we came up with a good celebration climbing plan. Zoe had been on Deprivation two years before and was super-psyched to give it another try. On my side, I was super excited to go back on the north buttress of Hunter for a second round.
Same time, same place. Sunday morning I was racking up at the schrund at 4, but this time with a nice warming kiss before heading for the pumpy, dead-vertical ice wall of the schrund. I might be getting soft, but there is something nice about kissing your partner before heading up a hard pitch. Or maybe I just spend too much time spooning with other guys at bivvies. We simul-climbed through most of the lower section of the route until the base of the Death Pitch. It didn’t take me long to understand the origin of the name. Twenty meters from the belay, with no screws in yet, on overhanging sugary ice, I was now desperately looking for protection. Unsuccessful, I pushed a screw into the crumbly substance on either side of me, both for the sake of my mental state and Zoe’s, and stemmed my way up, trying to focus on my balance. The rope was totally stretched when I finally found a good anchor crack.
The day was superb. We were now swapping leads as often as we could to relieve the second from the pack, and barely nine hours after crossing the schrund we were already at the base of the third iceband, feeling super-good about our progress. Here the route does a 300-meter traverse left and then back right the same distance to the final crux pitches. In the process of rehydrating and fueling up for the labor ahead, my fingers slipped on the fabric of my DAS Parka’s stuff sack. As it was speeding between our legs my French roots caught up with me and a “CHRIST DE CALISSS DE TABARNAC!!!!” slipped through my lips. The parka cascaded over the seracs and disappeared into the abyss. Oh well! “That’s a big chunk of weight right there that we don’t have to carry up anymore,” I suggested to Zoe. She offered me her small puffy and we started to traverse. At the end of the traverse left, we fought the temptation of taking a shortcut up the Bibler exit on the Moonflower and decided to pay tribute to Mark Twight and Scott Backes by repeating their route in good style by heading back right. All that traversing ended up to be quite time-consuming. It was 7:30 p.m. when we finally got to the base of the steep ice pitches. So much for our good time. The sun was now hitting the face directly, and chunks of snow and ice were falling all around. There was no way we were going to bivy anywhere around there. Up steep hard ice it was. It took us all the energy we had left, but at 11 in glowing light we were standing on the top of the last rockband. “Hey, Max, what’s the name of the route again? I know it starts with a D, but I just can’t remember it.” I thought Zoe was kidding at first, but when I tried to tell her the name I had to think a couple of times about it before it came back to me. Deprived was definitely our state, but 300 meters of calf-burning slopes and two hours later we were reaching the cornice. We had been climbing for the last 21 hours straight, and we were both feeling sick to our stomachs.
As an oasis in the desert, a vertical crack appeared at the end of my headlamp beam. I poked my head in to find a perfect tunnel that led deep inside the giant Styrofoam-snow mushroom. It felt so secure in there that after minimal chopping I took my harness off and we jumped into the sleeping bag. We instantly blacked out for two and a half hours. When we opened our eyes a really bright ray of light was coming in from the crack. It was still nice out. To the summit I was going again. We crawled out and regrouped slowly in the sun. At noon I stepped foot on the same snowy bump along the ridgeline summit of Mt. Hunter. My tracks were still visible from couple of days ago. It might seem silly to some to try to find the highest point of a snowy hill after climbing so much hard and technical ground, but at that moment it really meant something to me, adding meaning to the whole experience.
The wind picked up as we headed down the raps on the Moonflower,but despite the cold of the spindrift pouring on me my heart was warm. The weather had allowed me to share this amazing experience with my loved one. I was the happiest man on Earth. The mountain could pour anything on me now.
First ascent of the south face of 11,040-foot Bat’s Ears peak (3,000 feet, AI4+ M5+), April 30, with Freddie Wilkinson and Ben Gilmore.
Two ascents of the north buttress of Mt. Hunter to the summit in a week:
Free ascent of Moonflower Buttress (4,000 feet, AI6 M7), schrund to the summit in 40 hours, round trip from base camp in 52 hours, May 5-6, with Freddie Wilkinson and Ben Gilmore
Deprivation (4,000 feet, AI6 95°), schrund to top of the buttress in 21 hours, to summit in 32 hours, round trip from base camp in 41 hours, May 10-11, with Zoe Hart.