Dome hunting in wild Alaska
July 2007: Kate Rutherford peered out the window of the Cessna 185 as it flew toward Dillingham, in southwest Alaska. For the next month, Rutherford would be working as a fly-fishing guide in Bristol Bay’s remote headwaters. Outside the window, the ragged 5,000-foot peaks of the Wood River Range cut the western skyline, eventually ebbing into gentle tundra, spruce forests, and glacially carved lakes. From this flat, marshy terrain suddenly sprung a cluster of five grey, granite domes, 200 to 600 feet tall. Rutherford’s eyes widened. The pilot, Rick Grant, banked around the largest formation, which abutted Tikchik Lake.
“I’ve been flying here 30 years and haven’t ever heard of anyone climbing them,” he said through the headset. The rock looked clean, split by cracks, and utterly enticing. I’ve got to come back and climb here next summer, Rutherford promised herself.
Friday, June 27, 2008 (Day One): The four of us — Kate, Madaleine Sorkin, Althea Rogers, and I — have arrived at Kate’s “promised land.” As we paddle our inflatable canoes around Tikchik Lake, we behold the dubious treasure: dirty, discontinuous cracks cutting up slabs and faces, and flaring horizontal cracks that pour grass gardens.
Earlier that day, Rick dropped us off on a gravel beach. The drone of the departing plane was quickly replaced by that of mosquitoes. We’re 60 miles northeast of the fishing town of Dillingham (population 2,500), hoping to find quality routes on the five main domes and dozen outlying crags.
Drawn together by a common alma mater, Colorado College, and a taste for adventure, we decided the previous winter to take a trip. That’s when Kate showed us an aerial photo of the Tikchik domes, the most prominent one a clean sweep dropping into Tikchik Lake. “It’s big, remote salmon-fishing country. We’d approach in boats!” Kate exclaimed.
We were sold. Our team would be: Kate, 28, a jewelry maker from Washington; Madaleine, 27, who works for a solar company in Boulder, Colorado; Althea, 24, a recent Colorado College graduate; and me, 28, a ski patroller in Bozeman, Montana. All accomplished climbers, we wanted experience developing new routes. Sitting at 500 feet in a state known for 18,000- and 20,000-foot, storm-lashed giants, Tikchik seemed like a good place to start.
Monday, July 7 (Day 11): Sweat drips down my neck, and mosquitoes struggle in my hair. Althea and I thrash toward a dome about two miles from camp. Kate and Madaleine, meanwhile, occupy a dome closer by, waist-deep in a multi-day cleaning project (two days so far) up a corner. Althea and I left at 1 pm, but just getting to the rock has been a battle through bog, alders, and tussocks — every step in this 3-D terrain a veritable walking emergency.
So far, nothing’s been easy: the airline lost Madaleine’s luggage, I spent two days on standby in Anchorage, and while hectically shopping in Seattle and Anchorage, we couldn’t agree on how much food to bring. (We didn’t bring enough chocolate.) Yesterday, our friend and Kate’s boyfriend, Mikey Schaefer, and Kate’s father, Mark, flew in. When they climbed out of Rick’s plane, they wore wigs: Mark had long blond braids, and Mikey a stylish brunette bob. Mark spent the day bushwhacking and scouting with us, and Mikey will stay the rest of the trip.
During our first climbing day, Althea and I managed a licheny, two-pitch crack system on a smaller crag. Kate and Madaleine pulled off three pitches. But the nine days that followed — leading up to today — we took climbing gear for long, soggy walks, mainly finding mud-packed flaring cracks buried in moss, scary slabs, and crumbling white overhangs. Still, occasionally we’d spot a good crack, and that kept us searching. So far, we’ve scouted three of the five major formations and most of the dozen smaller ones, walking a combined 40 rugged miles.
Now Althea and I head toward a 400-foot dome I call Wikchik Dome — kind of like Wick Chick, but facetious because the rock looks terrible. I pull on my head net as we enter an alder patch. “Hey, Bear!” yells Althea, to scare away any nearby, unseen browns. Wading through ferns, I slip in a hole and jack my knee.
“Holy crap — those corners, Em!” says the psyched Althea. (Althea’s psyched 98 percent of the time. The other two percent is sleep.) “This is Mecca! It looks like the Chief!”
I look up at the block-filled corners and white rock that, here in the Tikchiks, has the consistency of kitty litter. This dome resembles a smaller, chossier, more vegetated Cannon Cliff. If that’s the Chief, I think, I’m canceling my August trip to Squamish. If that’s Mecca, then send me to hell. I’m sick of climbing. Or maybe just the lack thereof.
Nevertheless, we go for it. We build a tiny smoke fire at the base to ward off bugs, and I explode my wet gear onto a mat of lichen and moss, hoping for a moment of sun. Seconds later, the rain starts and my gear — still wet — goes back into the pack.
At 6 pm we rope up, having scrambled 250 feet of fourth-class juniper, birch, and alder. Althea starts up, bug net over her helmet and bear spray tied above her chalk bag. I follow, wandering across the loose, blocky gully, and pulling up past a fun 5.7 bulge. At the belay, hanging below twin hand cracks, I decide to like climbing again. We race thunderstorms up 5.9 to the top, finishing the third, final pitch around 10 pm. As we run down through the tundra, storms break loose over the Wood River Range, to the northwest. Beams of light pierce through steamships in the sky, reflecting silver on Nuygkuk Lake. We paddle home in a downpour. As we pull up on the beach, “the Wing” — our group tent — is lit by headlamps, and we can smell dinner.
In Alaska, the “Last Frontier State,” the Tikchik domes are not uniquely remote. Because Alaska rises sea level to 20,000 feet in a short span, and has fewer roads per mile than the Amazon Basin, harsh conditions, and a short season, it holds many unclimbed peaks and undeveloped climbing venues. Even the Ruth Gorge and the Devil’s Thumb, in southeast Alaska, have virgin granite walls. And “popular” areas like the Alaska Range’s Kichatna Spires only get a few expeditions a year. “Many peaks have 6,000-foot, unattempted faces guarded not only by technical difficulties, glacial river crossings, and miles and miles of churnedup moraines, but also by weather,” says the Fairbanks alpinist Jeff Apple Benowitz. Alpine temperatures can drop to -100 F with wind chill, and Anchorage itself receives 16 inches of rain annually. As Michael Wood and Colby Coombs write in Alaska: A Climbing Guide, “The weather defines the character of climbing in Alaska.”
Tikchik Lake sits in rolling marshland 150 miles west of Lake Clark and Lake Iliamna, at the tail end of the Alaska Range. But it’s not free of hazard. “There’s a vacuum of firsthand knowledge in the frontier areas,” says the lifelong Alaska climber Glen Deal. “You’re not just going on a climbing trip. It’s wilderness, which means food-rationing issues, bears, and remoteness.”
Tuesday, July 8 (Day 12): Rain pattering on nylon. My back is sore, and I feel like I’ve been climbing. I stick my head out of my bivy sack and look around the Wing. It sags, and the stuffsack I’ve been using as a pillow is wet. Wind rustles the walls, scattering raindrops. I retreat back inside my bag.
We spend the morning in the Wing, reading Cosmo and Foreign Policy. Madaleine and Kate say that with another day’s cleaning, their route might go at 5.11. Reluctantly, they admit it might be quality. That afternoon, we hang around a beachside fire. Moisture blackens the cliffs, and we do pullups on a paddle rigged between black spruce, loon calls echoing across the misty waters.
Thursday, July 10 (Day 14): After another day’s “gardening,” Madeleine and Kate go for the send, while Althea and I head to the dome adjacent Wikchik — dubbed Junior Dome by Althea for its size (and as retaliation for my facetious Wikchik name). We beach the boat and bog-skip to a corner system. I pull through the initial offwidth, and then stem and jam up a stepped dihedral, finding thin gear in a right-hand crack.
“Hey, it’s almost like climbing!” I yell.
“You are climbing, silly!” Althea says and then starts whistling a tune.
I step right onto a small ledge, and then follow a short slab and mantle onto a vertical grove of juniper and blueberry bushes 150 feet up. I sling and equalize alder bunches, and then belay up Althea. “What do you think the shear strength of Vaccinnium is?” she asks.
“These low-bush blueberries,” Althea answers. “I think I’ll write a scientific report.”
Next, a grassy ledge leads to a two-pitch system of squeeze chimneys. We drop harnesses and gear at their base; a free-solo squirm up clean rock leads to the summit.
Back at camp, we learn the other girls sent, too, and their route was stellar: a three-pitch corner with a Houdini crux — Talking with My Bug Head Net Bitches (5.11). The next day, we hope to check out the main formation’s slabby prow — the aerial photo of which inspired our trip.
Friday, July 11 (Day 15): It rains until 5 pm, but with eight more hours of light, it’s time to take the racks for a walk. We head into the bog.
“Imagine walking down the main street of Bozeman or Boulder like this,” I say.
“What, like this?” Madaleine asks, lifting her feet high, springing between tussocks, and flailing her arms. By now, we’ve perfected the Swamp Walk.
We reach the backside of the main Tikchik dome with high hopes. Until now, I’ve felt like I’ve been cheating somehow — as if not being in the alpine, not waking at 2 am with a scared belly, and not facing rockfall, snow, and storms somehow invalidated our trip. I’ve felt lazy: we have a table, chairs, a dutch oven, and four tents. We came knowing we might not climb, but still had high expectations — more for ourselves than for the climbing. So far, it feels like we’ve climbed very little. We all wanted a route that inspired us, some sort of Tikchik opus.
But at this moment, battling mosquitoes through another alder patch, a rack of triples and a tag line in my pack, I realize not only are we paying our dues, we’re also having a pretty good time of it.
We boulder-hop around the lake, reaching the dome’s 300-foot northeast face, with its cracks and seams leaning steeply upward. Kicking back on a tundra-covered block, we snack on smoked salmon strips. “All this for a picnic,” Kate says, squinting through the binos. “Somebody should check out that big left-facing corner. Wanna split up? Madaleine and I can see if we can get to the prow.”
After much scouting, we don’t find what we’re looking for. Madaleine and Kate cliff out at the water’s edge, and we don’t have enough knifeblades for the seam in the leftfacing corner. It’s 8:30 pm, time aplenty to enjoy a couple mosquito-less hours atop the dome. We trudge up a ramp, scratching to the summit in time to watch the slow, sub-arctic sunset. Kate drops onto a ledge. “Hey, guys — come down here,” she calls.
“There’s some rad bouldering.” We spend the next hour highballing over tundra on clean, coarse granite — the best climbing so far.
Hundreds of feet below, greens, golds, and blues resonate from the trees, meadows, and ponds. In the crisp light, I can almost see individual needles and grasses. I wonder how many unexplored climbing areas like this lie in Alaska, and if anyone else will ever climb here. And though we haven’t opened a new Squamish, we’ve had adventures in a wild place. I’ve also gained a new understanding of the immense patience necessary to establish routes — and a great respect for the pioneers at other places I’d climbed, like Yosemite, Colorado, and New Hampshire.
As we slog back to the boats, the one major dome we haven’t yet climbed stands dark, two miles away. Although it’s the largest formation — and an early scouting mission was promising — we haven’t been back. With our remaining two days, we hope to find something good there. Unless it rains.
Sunday, July 13 (Day 17): After a day of rain, it clears. A noon boat launch leaves us beating up a drainage, and then ambling two miles toward Bog Lady Dome. We have 24 hours until Rick picks us up.
After thrashing through more alder and falling in tussock holes, we reach Bog Lady’s major crack system. Then we climb, all together. The four pitches unfold upward, each somehow matching its leader’s personality. The petite, clever Kate leads P1 — a delicate crack in a slight corner that pulls a roof. Next, Madaleine, badass and bold, aids up seams for 15 feet, and then runs out 100 feet of dynamite stemming, laybacking, and hand jamming, with a horrifying mantel finish onto a loose mud hummock.
I score the classic P3, which follows a traversing hand crack through a reachy, bulging corner. I then squeeze-chimney through kitty litter and finish with an exposed move onto a ledge. (It mirrors my fate of “no groveling, no gain.”) On P4, Althea — notorious for diving in over her head and then pulling things out of thin air — starts up the final hand and finger crack. She falls dramatically out of a wide section, pulls back on, and disappears. “This might be a while,” she shouts as dirt and moss rain down. She nails a pin, and then exits the last headwall via a spectacular, save-the-day foot rail.
After 600 vertical feet of fantastic movement, decent rock, good cruxes, and a midnight sunset, we top out Respect Your Alders (5.10+ A1). We’re psyched, but know it’s late, so we run over slabs to a notch, and then glissade 300 feet through steep alpine grasses, tundra, and flowers, laughing. The final butt slide lands us in the alders.
While Althea and Kate fetch our packs, Madaleine and I lie by the water’s edge, wind lapping at our faces. An obvious line up the biggest formation. Duh. We should have climbed it first, and I’m not really sure why we didn’t. Perhaps we wanted to check out all our options before climbing the one right in front of us. Luckily, we managed to squeak it out in the final hours.
Emily Stifler, a Montana-based writer, thanks the American Alpine Club (americanalpineclub.org) for helping fund this trip.