A Brutal Truth: Sometimes Climbing Just Isn’t Worth The Risk
Over a dozen avalanches, rockfall, a core-shot rope, and single-piece anchors tested this team to the limit during a harrowing stormy descent from a remote face in Glacier National Park.
The sun rose and peaks emerged from darkness on the horizon as we pushed upward, laying air beneath our heels. It was April 2019, and Matt Cornell and I were aiming for the first ascent of the 4,200-foot Southeast Face of Mount Gould (9,554 feet) in Glacier National Park, Montana. I had set my sights on the wall years earlier and even drove to Glacier once with Graham Zimmerman to give it a try. But Graham and I had been greeted with sunshine and 60-degree weather—far too warm. The only hope of surviving an ascent of such a massive wall in Glacier is to go when the park’s notoriously loose rock is glued together by ice.
Matt and I had gained almost 3,000 vertical feet of steep snow and ice up to AI 5+ when I looked down to see our camp, marked by the yellow speck of our tent, safely tucked in an outcropping of rocks in the valley. Five miles to the east, the monstrous Many Glacier Hotel—empty aside from two winter caretakers—rose from the shore of frozen Swiftcurrent Lake. We’d biked 10 miles on the closed road to the hotel and then skied to the base of the wall the previous day.
Matt and I had met and hit it off earlier that year in El Chalten, Argentina. Having spent my late-teen years climbing around Bozeman, I had heard of his alpine prowess and bold solos in Hyalite Canyon. We had climbed only one day together, on El Mocho beneath Cerro Torre, but I knew he had grit, and he knew I could climb fast; we had a similar “Never too serious” attitude and a mutual trust. Matt grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, before moving to Bozeman, but I could tell how much he respected and loved the wild spaces that define the soul of Montana.
Ebullient, we laughed and joked—“We’ll be back in camp by noon!”—as we neared the upper headwall on the Southeast Face. The headwall sat like a wrestler with his chest puffed out, several thousand feet off the valley floor. Distinguishable by its gnarled gargoyles of rock atop each cliff band, and by loose, overhanging choss, this 1,200-foot feature posed the greatest challenge to our ascent. Many parties had attempted this wall, but none had succeeded due to technical difficulty, poor rock, and extremely high avalanche danger. In the 1980s and ‘90s, a short list of alpinists had lain siege to the adjacent East Face. Multiple parties failed until Jack Tackle and Alex Lowe climbed what they reported to be 1,500 feet of rather terrifying 5.10.
Matt and I climbed quickly toward a cold sunrise, until the steep snow and ice reared up into the headwall, where the few faint dihedrals and chimneys visible all seemed to end at formidable roofs. Matt volunteered for a heroic lead, traversing 30 feet to the right on a barely existent ledge to a series of shallow dihedrals. A series of loud expletives propelled him up choss barely glued together by incipient ice seams.
A tense hour crept by. I kept my weight off the only nut I’d found for an anchor. Then I heard a quiet “Off belay!” from 30 meters above.
Following, I found the climbing difficult as I torqued my picks in seams bursting with frozen moss. I removed the single Knifeblade piton that Matt had placed, his only pro on the entire pitch. As he peered down from above, I shook my head.
“Jesus, man. You are a freak.”
“And you should get the hell up here and take the next one,” he said. Banter is healthy when you’re trying to ignore deeply rooted fear.
I led the next pitch up the horizontal band of diorite that cuts across the entire face. What looked from below to be difficult, scary terrain proved to take good gear in surprisingly solid rock, with ample ledges to stand on and placements for my picks. With Matt’s arrival at my anchor, our momentum returned in full, and we hurried around a corner to find a couloir that had been hidden from view at camp.
The mountain rewarded our hard work in passing the diorite with an ensuing 300 feet of steep, styrofoam-like snow. We moved efficiently, keeping the ropes coiled and in our backpacks. It seemed we were floating upward as a cloud moved in and fog thwarted our visibility. We welcomed the calm, eerie silence that came with a lack of wind—there was nothing but the sound of our crampons kicking and our labored breathing amid the stone gargoyles standing tall in the mist.
The snow steepened again, and I led through to a veneer of ice hanging down like a whisper in the back of a tight slot of vertical dirt. Hanging my backpack from my harness in the narrow chimney, I labored for a terrifying 45 minutes, tapping my crampons into a half-inch of ice, holding my toes in a steady contraction. With no gear that would hold bodyweight, let alone a 100-foot fall, my only option was to seek the beam of light that illuminated the ledge above me.
When I finally crawled out the top of the chimney, I found glowing blue ice—perfect for building an anchor. I sat at the belay, staring at nothing in particular, just happy to be alive. It was snowing now, and small spindrifts pummeled my belay, but we were a mere 400 vertical feet beneath the summit. We moved another pitch upward to stop at a 60-foot dihedral with a seam in the back and a quarter inch of ice on one side. In now-pounding spindrift, Matt stepped just three feet up into the dihedral before I lost sight of him. Then he stepped back down.
“I’m not sure about this, man,” Matt said, turning to me at the belay.
Silently, we watched as snow fell with intense purpose, as if to bury the mountain. The spindrifts were turning into small avalanches, hitting harder now, threatening to pull us off our feet.
I told Matt, “I don’t think it’s worth it.”
If we summitted, our chosen descent—the massive north face—would be harrowing even under perfect conditions. We could potentially descend the west face, but that would place us in a completely different valley with a nearly 20-mile hike back to our tent—far too long considering the already 10-foot-deep blanket of winter snow there.
“Me either,” Matt said.
I began building a rappel anchor at the perfect blue ice. As I worked on a V-thread, Matt kept his eyes up, letting me know when big spindrift was coming. “Now!” he would yell, and I would jump out of the way of a steady stream of white. We withstood several small yet powerful avalanches, until one nearly struck me off my feet.
“Let’s get over there!” I yelled to Matt, and we hurried to a cave 50 feet to our right that we had bookmarked as a bivy just an hour earlier. Arriving, we pulled out our only sleeping bag and draped it over our legs.
For 45 minutes, Matt and I sat and thought but hardly talked. We separately debated our next move: to stay and risk freezing to death, or retreat and risk being swept away. A loud rumble split the silence as an avalanche, ripping and cracking, barreled down our gully, directly onto where we’d been standing less than an hour before. Matt and I looked into each other’s eyes, wordless with disbelief. I shivered as a drop of water ran down my back. My waterproof layers were compromised.
Minutes later, another avalanche. Then another. The storm was intensifying, and we only had enough fuel for one brew-up to melt snow for water. We discussed the fact that while we could go days without food, if the storm lasted another few days, we would likely freeze to death in our wet clothes.
I took off my glove and felt the sleeping bag. “It’s wet,” I said.
“No,” said Matt. “It’s soaked.”
There was little debate. Though the storm had not been expected for another day, the forecast called for five days of wind and heavy snow.
“Down. We have to go down,” Matt said.
In his voice was a sliver of something near regret—an acknowledgment that a descent in these conditions was likely to be fatal. Yet knowing that if we stayed, we would likely never make it out of the cave, I agreed, and we stuffed the sleeping bag back into Matt’s pack.
I pounded in a single pin between two frozen-together blocks, and we waited until the next avalanche came—WHOO-OO-SH—then went. Four rappels as fast as possible, dodging only one small avalanche, got us out of the main gully and to a ledge above the diorite band we’d finished two hours before. The blizzard was punishing, and even with three hours of light remaining, we had almost no visibility. We kept our emotions at bay and our words short as we clicked into high gear and assumed our roles for the descent.
I led a long rappel down the choss face, reaching a small stance 40 feet left of where Matt had built a belay after his bold lead. There I found a seam and hammered in a Knifeblade, but it only went in halfway. I searched for more gear, but there was nothing.
Horrendous. It’ll have to do.
I tied the piton off and weighted it gently, watching the steel flex. By the time Matt got to me, I had found a tiny slot and hammered one of my tools a few centimeters in with the faint hope that, if the pin blew, the tool would save us.
Squinting upward, I pulled the ropes, but nothing happened. Matt grabbed on as well—still nothing. Mumbling curses to distract me from my fear, I tied a prusik on one end of the rope as Matt tied himself off to the other end. As I ascended the rope through the spindrift, so much snow poured down around me that I could hardly open my eyes, even with my head down and hood up. My arms burned as the snow pushed me downward, and my mind raced in a repetitive, metronomic panic.
Slide, slide, rest. Slide, slide, rest.
After a hundred feet, I stemmed in a dihedral, undid a tight, wet tangle of rope, and rappelled back to Matt. The rope pulled smoothly this time—until the end snagged 20 feet above us on a detached, microwave-sized block. We shook off our overwhelming frustration and softly flipped the rope. Matt handed it to me to pull from a different angle and looked down for an instant. Before I could even register it, I had flipped the rope and dislodged the block. It fell directly toward Matt.
“ROCK!” I yelled, grabbing his backpack and shoving him into the wall as the block grazed my jacket.
The rock deflected off Matt’s helmet and hit his shoulder.
“Fuck!” he roared.
My stomach heaved with nausea, but as he stared back at me, my fear was eclipsed by profound gratitude. Matt was alive.
The rock, we would later find, had chipped a bone in his shoulder, but Matt wasted no time complaining, just saying, “You need to lead the rappels from here on out. I’ll follow and pull the back-up pieces.”
Another rap took me to the top of a steep snowfield. To my left, a stream of snow 10 feet wide and three feet deep rushed down a runnel. To my right—same thing. The two runnels joined together about 300 feet beneath us, forming a V-shaped trap.
In a desperate effort to suss a descent, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone to check a photo I’d taken of the face the day prior. The background on my phone was a photo from when I was eight years old of my mom hugging me as I laughed and tried to escape.
How could I do this to her? She doesn’t deserve a dead son.
I shook off my guilt. No time for emotion. I could see that we needed to traverse the face approximately 500 feet south—climber’s left. I plugged a cam in a crack, clipped it, and rappelled 40 feet until I was standing beside the river of snow to our left.
I took a deep breath, glanced up at Matt, who watched, ashen, and stepped into the stream, seeing my boots disappear. I fed slack into my belay device and dove forward, frantically swimming and fighting to the other side as the snow pulled me down and sideways. With the insides of my gloves and boots packed tightly with snow, I punched through, reaching a rock overhang just big enough to squeeze under. I stood in the alcove, safely unroped and glad to be out of the swirling snow. Matt lowered himself to the edge of the snow river, and I felt the same fear beaming out of my eyes that I’d seen in his: I don’t want to watch my friend die.
He disappeared within the snow for what seemed like an eternity, until one arm clawed out, and he emerged next to me.
“Fuckin’-A, Matt. Way to keep it tight. You good?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
Unroped, not by choice but because the small rock outcroppings yielded no protection, we continued across the face, traversing 70-degree snow for several hundred feet to another large rock band. Eight rappels down some of the worst rock on Earth got us to another snowfield just as daylight faded. Again with no substantial rock outcrops to take anchors, we downclimbed unroped to avoid both of us going if either fell. Our headlamps did little to illuminate the way, but came in handy when we were unsure of what our crampon points were on. I was rarely confident of where we were on the mountain. When I tried to look any distance away, the dense snowfall reflected the light back into my eyes, blinding me. Instead, I continually pulled my phone from my pocket and tried to distinguish small formations: caves, overhangs, gargoyles, and snow chutes that only became recognizable once we reached them. Most of our decisions were based on pure intuition, but occasionally I would find myself standing beside a feature that I could peg on my zoomed-in photo.
We climbed down a ridge of rock until it cliffed out, forcing us to the edge of another small couloir. Again we were trapped in a V-shaped avalanche chute and again we swam through, by now so exhausted and desensitized that it had little effect on us.
The rope stayed in the backpack as we downclimbed another 1,000 feet of steep snow, only to find ourselves on the edge of a massive buttress that disappeared into the darkness. My stomach sank with the fear of committing to the unknown, but we had no choice. I pulled out the slim rack and pounded a nut into a crack with the pick of my ice tool.
Rappel after rappel, we sent rocks tumbling into the night. Each time I reached the end of the rope, I built a one-piece anchor and huddled close to the rock as Matt rappelled and stones crashed past me, echoing through the wind. Our rope took a core shot. We hardly mentioned it, watching as each rappel stretched the core shot longer. Just keep going.
Nine more rappels. Just as I left the last piece of gear on our rack, we reached the snowfield at the bottom of the face. Now in the rain, we hugged each other and had just started moving toward the tent when the mountain roared. We looked up and to our right, seeing a massive avalanche burst off a cliff just above.
“Run left!” I yelled.
A moment later, another avalanche crashed off a cliff to our left.
“Run straight down!” Matt shouted.
I started to laugh. I could not believe this was happening: that we had dodged a dozen avalanches and swum through two; that every anchor but one had been a single piece, and they had all held; that only one of the hundreds of rocks we knocked loose hit us; that neither of us had succumbed to frostbite or hypothermia, or slipped; that the core-shot rope didn’t break. That we had the audacity to assume we were strong enough to prevail, that we were ignorant enough to think that strength was all we’d need.
We walked the short distance back to camp. I could not yet see the tent, but I could hear rain hitting the fly. We stumbled into camp to find the tent flooded. We lay down in puddles, in our soaked sleeping bags, shivering. That night, empty with fear, I spun inward, asking myself, Is this alpinism? Is alpinism courage or fear? Is alpinism pride or humility? Glory or guilt? Skill or luck?
The answers still elude me. They plague me every time I allow myself to plan my next alpine climbing trip. But perhaps the answers are less important than the fact that they have forced a brutal honesty in me.
The experience on Mount Gould burned all my romanticism—any aura I had built up around dying in the mountains—to a crisp. The conflagration, not a motivator but a destroyer, still burns in me, and I have yet to pursue a wall as hard and dangerous as the Southeast Face of Mount Gould again. Matt, however, continues to push himself, exploring the wildest places in the world with vigor and respect. He has since climbed the first ascent of a 7,000-meter peak in Pakistan and skied, solo, into remote regions in Alaska, where he soloed many first ascents.
The effect of the trip for me was not only destructive, though. It branded in me a will to experience life to its fullest and a commitment to do what I can to live long enough to make that happen. I have an ever-growing list of mountains to climb, conversations to have, meals to taste, clouds to watch, roads to drive. A loud interior voice reminds me, “It’d be a damn shame if you didn’t return home to see that list through.”
As Matt and I drove home, a text came through from my mom: “Thinking about you! I love you. Let me know when you get out. I can’t wait to see you!”
Tears welled in my eyes as I texted back, “Driving home now.”
Justin Willis, of Red Lodge, Montana, has been climbing for 23 of his 26 years, mostly in Montana and Wyoming. Raised with an alpinist as a father, Justin as a teenager represented the United States in 13 Ice Climbing World Cups.
From Winter 2021