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The spindrift starts: Pete Doucette at our attempted bivy spot. Is he smiling or grimacing?
When was the last time you broke the rules?Don’t get me wrong, I’m a New Englander, and rules are important to me. They got us through those first tough winters after the Mayflower dropped us off in Plymouth; they’re what get us through tough times today, like when another priest from Boston comes out of the closet or the Patriots have a losing season. There are rules for everything: rules for success and failure and survival. In the puritanical church of alpine climbing, there is one rule that’s sacrosanct: you need to go to the summit. It’s a good rule, and one I happen to believe in.
The fin: Fin Wall, above the Yentna Glacier south of Mount Foraker, Alaska.
But didn’t we all start climbing because it feels good to break the rules? At 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 3, I was sandwiched in my EV2 between two six-foot giants: Ben Gilmore and Peter Doucette. We bivied at the base of the Fin Wall, above the Yentna Glacier south of Mount Foraker. The wall had never before been attempted, a fact that probably had something to do with the six miles of convoluted crevasses fields, seracs, and icefall that lay below. We had just spent seven hours running the gauntlet through this maze to reach this spot, a narrow ledge dug out of a 50-degree snow slope at the berschrund.
Better wear a helmet: Should we stay or should we go now? Pete and Ben Gilmore contemplating our situation. Note the head gear: Ben’s one of the savviest hardmen in the game today.
Things were going all right: we had nothing to do for the afternoon except re-hydrate and prepare for our big push to the summit the next day. Then I heard a low hiss, and the tent began to shake. It was spindrift. Spindrift is a funny thing — it can be soft and cuddly, but at the same time extremely persistent. Imagine getting slowly strangled to death by a very big and very wet stuffed teddy bear. That’s what it’s like being caught in spindrift at an alpine bivy. I poked my head outside. Strange. It was barely snowing. Yet the 4,000 feet of concave mixed ground above conspired to create a raging torrent that slammed down on the tent every several minutes. Most alarmingly, snow was getting packed between the wall of the ledge we had dug and us: we were slowly, yet forcefully, getting pushed off the mountain. The clouds thickened and the avalanches increased in size and frequency. Then as if to accent the merits of our chosen bivy site, a small rock dropped from somewhere above, creating a neat little two inch rip in the tent fabric above Ben’s head… Hmmmm. …
In the cave: Mmmm? Pete and Ben cooking dinner in the snow cave. I thought the menu called for beer and nachos, but evidently I was mistaken.
When the proverbial s@#t hits the fan, an alpinist grabs a shovel and starts digging. I put myself on a 30-foot tether, waded a little ways down the snow slope, and started going for China. A couple hours later we had excavated a sort of long culvert tube, about five feet in diameter and 10 feet in length. It was bounded on one side by a 70-degree rock wall and on the other by sugar snow. Definitely a step down in the accommodations; the evacuated tent served admirably as a makeshift door.
Beauty a long ways from home: Pete and Ben on the summit ridge. Contrary to what they had told me before I started the last block, there was no free beer and nachos up there either.
4 a.m. came surprisingly fast. Three guys, eating breakfast (oatmeal and Earl Grey), putting on their boots, and going to the bathroom is a bit like a nightmare game of twister. By 6 a.m. though, we were out the door and climbing. The climbing was spectacular — a handful of serious mixed leads (thankfully, most weren’t mine!) with lots of snow climbing mixed in between to allow us to make timely progress. After 15 hours of climbing, at 9 p.m., we were standing on the summit ridge looking off the other side at tundra beyond. Though the summit of the Fin beckoned, maybe another two hours away, a thick soup of cloud simmered over the rest of the range. We started a brew and considered our options.
Was the weather getting better or worse? Who knew? We had no forecast or way to communicate with the outside world. Come to think of it, in two weeks we hadn’t seen a single plane. I thought about the 20-odd rappels we needed to establish back to the cave, and then the winding ski past all those seracs and over all those crevasses, and then carrying my skis up and over the icefall and downclimbing that snow couloir… Most of all, I thought about being stuck back in that cave if the weather did shut down on us, running out of food and fuel as we were slowly asphyxiated and buried by a giant, wet stuffed panda bear.
We decided to head home. It was the best decision we made the entire trip, even if we broke the rules. …Ben Gilmore, Peter Doucette, and I were awarded a Mugs Stump Grant (bdel.com/mugs_stump/) and had support from Mountain Hardwear (mountainhardwear.com) for our expedition to the Yentna Glacier.