Winning and Losing in the Revelations

Photo by Clint Helander

Photo by Clint Helander

The first ascent of Mt. Mausolus

Biting cold numbs my face, but between deep breaths I hardly notice. The last stretch of rope feeds through my belay device as Scotty crests the final snow pyramid of Mt. Mausolus. Beyond him, a fiery sun sinks behind the erratic spine of the Revelations. The air is deathly still. The western sky burns in a spectrum of oranges and pinks. “We did it, Seth,” I whisper. “We did it.”

The west face of Mt. Mausolus. Photo by Clint Helander

The west face of Mt. Mausolus. Photo by Clint Helander

Until our ascent, Mt. Mausolus stood as one of Alaska’s proudest unclimbed summits, tucked away in the Revelation Mountains, a range few climbers even know exists. At the southwesternmost rampart of the Alaska Range, the Revelations are a forbidding, untamed wilderness. While the summit altitudes are modest—just over 9,000 feet—the peaks’ sheer rise and mass inspire awe. Numerous mountains have mile-high walls. Towering, craggy monoliths are separated by torrential, glacierfed rivers and boulder-choked valleys. Only a few peaks have seen second ascents.

I first learned of the Revelations during a shivering winter bivy halfway up Mt. Yukla in the Chugach Mountains, near my home in Anchorage. My partner passed on rumors of an entire range that had seen only a handful of explorers. It seemed impossible that such a place still existed. As his 21-year-old protégé, I fantasized about one day leaving my mark among such mysterious Alaskan mountains.

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.”

When I met Seth Holden in 2004, he held near-legendary status among our group of friends. He had done weeklong ski traverses and had climbed volcanoes in South America, Yosemite big walls, and alpine routes in Chamonix and the Ruth Gorge, among other exploits. I finally mustered up the courage to invite him on a climb of North Suicide in the Chugach. It was a standard winter peak-bagging trip for him, but a testpiece for me at the time. Other than a failed attempt on the Moose’s Tooth, Seth and I did little serious climbing together over the next few years, but I constantly gauged my increasing skills next to his. As my infatuation with the Revelations grew, I knew that Seth was just the kind of partner I would need.

Hundreds of hours of research uncovered only vague information on the Revelations’ climbing history. I found that Mausolus had been attempted once from the east in June 1998 by James Funsten, Scott Rourke, and Mike Wood. They were shut down several hundred feet from the top by avalanches that almost cost them their lives. A single photograph taken by a local pilot profiled the peak’s 4,500-foot west face, a convoluted maze of discontinuous couloirs, arching granite spines, and precarious hanging glaciers. A stunning vein of ice traced an almost perfectly straight line from base to summit, a direttissima that inspired me from the moment I first saw it.

From left to right: Sinor, Holden, and Helander party in the two-man tent on the Ice Pyramid. The Bivy fun meter. Vincik and Helander on the summit of Mausolus. Photos by Clint Helander

From left to right: Sinor, Holden, and Helander party in the two-man tent on the Ice Pyramid. The Bivy fun meter. Vincik and Helander on the summit of Mausolus. Photos by Clint Helander

For three years after our first Revelations trip, I climbed almost exclusively with Seth. We constantly pushed ourselves on unclimbed routes in the Chugach, and fought Arctic conditions during winter ascents in the Alaska Range. Over time, I grew to become Seth’s climbing equal, and that brought me endless pride. Seth fully shared my maniacal fascination with the Revelations. We trained together and made a pact that the Ice Pyramid, Mt. Mausolus, and the Angel would be ours.

In 2009, funded by a Mugs Stump Award, we returned to the range. With our increased abilities and some luck with the weather, we reached the Ice Pyramid’s virgin 9,250-foot summit with relative ease. Yet while standing atop that glorious monarch, a peak prouder than any within a 10-mile radius, we felt as though we had taken second place. The look on Seth’s face was almost one of discontent. His quiet gaze was fixed upon Mausolus’ incredible west face, several miles to the south.

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.

Holden on the walk out of the Revelations in 2010. Photo by Clint Helander

Holden on the walk out of the Revelations in 2010. Photo by Clint Helander

Vincik following the crux pitch of The Mausoleum. Photo by Clint Helander

Vincik following the crux pitch of The Mausoleum. Photo by Clint Helander

When Seth and I laid our hands on the immaculate granite of the Angel’s south ridge several days later, we understood Roberts’ fascination. Our trip thus far had been full of fickle weather, damning conditions, and the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in the mountains. We couldn’t stop the “what-if’s” when it came to Mausolus, but both of us felt confident that, with a little luck, we would succeed on the Angel. Compared to Mausolus, it was safe from objective hazards. The beaming sun that sent avalanches pouring down Mausolus made for perfect climbing on the sound granite ridge. Only the sheer length of the climb was daunting; nothing on the craggy spine looked terribly difficult.

Throughout the day, I kept a keen eye out for any remnants of gear left behind by Roberts and his crew, more than 40 years prior. They had cleaned the route admirably. I was disappointed to find not even a single piton or fleck of gnarled cord to keep as a souvenir.

By early afternoon, we were almost halfway up. I felt as though we were paralleling Hale and Roberts’ experience.

Seven months later, in March 2011, I’m preparing for Mt. Mausolus again. My good friend Scotty Vincik and I are excited to attempt the peak that has eluded me for four years, but for the first time I am heading to the Revelations without Seth.

The night before we depart, I stop by Seth’s sister’s house. His nephew crawls across the carpet, while his dog Raspus pants beside me—both oblivious to the family’s pain. The air is thick and uncomfortable. As I leave the house, Seth’s dad, Pete, hands me a small package. I sit in my car afterward and read through the text messages I can’t bring myself to delete. On August 24, 2010, just before taking off in the plane, Seth had texted: “Ben and I had a great day down in Girdwood. What a day, we did a nice little scramble up Summit Peak!” I responded: “I have tomorrow off. Let’s go do a peak or something!” Seth never received the message.

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.

Helander on Mausolus, with the crux pitch looming above. Photo by Scott Vincik

Helander on Mausolus, with the crux pitch looming above. Photo by Scott Vincik

At dawn we reach the spot where Seth and I had turned around. I pause and remember the discussion we had, trying to rationalize our safety while drunk with desire. I shake my head in disbelief, knowing we had no business here in those conditions. But something in the air feels right this time. It’s too cold for avalanches, and the snow allows for quick movement. We know, however, that these conditions won’t last. We won’t get another shot.

A curtain of snow and ice provides the first vertical climbing as we branch left from the previous year‘s highpoint. We simul-climb through several pitches of thin, grey ice filled with bits of granite from past rock falls. From the ground we had identified a major rock slab, a blank spot that would either stop us or present a considerable challenge. I round a small corner and scream with elation—a shoulder-width cleft of ice provides moderate passage through the obstacle. Scotty cruises up to the belay, and I say, “We’ve got this man, we’re going to do it!”

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.

Holden approaching the summit of the Exodus. Photo by Clint Helander

Holden approaching the summit of the Exodus. Photo by Clint Helander

Fear grips us as the face comes alive. It’s early afternoon, and we would like to keep climbing, but the verglas ribbon promises no safe quarter. Above, there isn’t a ledge for at least 1,000 feet, but across a concave slab, a snow mushroom clings to the wall under a jutting granite prow. Scotty crosses toward it and installs an anchor for a semihanging bivy, his work hastened by the bombardment of rocks. We crack jokes at our pathetic ledge as legs dangle from hammocks of rope, but we stay relatively warm throughout the long night, despite the lack of comfort or sleep.

Dull moonlight slowly fades as the sky over the western Alaskan lowlands blooms into pink. It’s the same sunrise I’d watched countless times with Seth. I wrestle with guilt and sorrow that he isn’t here with me. The Ice Pyramid holds a purple glow, and I remember the time we’d spent dreaming of Mausolus from its summit. The last few drops of water fail to moisten my throat; we haven’t found a spot flat enough to light our stove since we started almost 30 hours ago.

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.

Vincik races rockfall on Mausolus. Photo by Clint Helander

Vincik races rockfall on Mausolus. Photo by Clint Helander

The sun pulls across the sky, hitting the western slopes of Mausolus, but the shadows hold me in paralyzing cold. I reach for the light, a mere three feet to my left. When it finally reaches me, I bathe in warmth. The angle of the upper face gradually eases, and we simul-climb toward the summit snowfield. I subdue my sense of elation. With no pickets, we move together, unprotected, up 400 feet of 60-degree snow, both aware that one mistake means two deaths.

Standing atop Mt. Mausolus should be the happiest moment of my life, but I find myself reaching for some elusive sense of fulfillment. Years ago, the dream had been simply to become Seth’s climbing partner and experience the Revelations. Atop the Exodus, I already longed for the Ice Pyramid. When we reached that summit a year later, we were too enthralled by Mausolus to fully relish our finest victory yet. And now, after hoping to find solace on the mountain that had shaped so much of my life, my heart fails to absorb the pure joy of well-earned success. Living this dream without Seth leaves it somewhat hollow.

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.

David Roberts on the Angel in 1967. Photo by Matt Hale

David Roberts on the Angel in 1967. Photo by Matt Hale

Early RevelationsBy David Roberts

From 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.