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Choss and Rain: Climbing (and Failing) in Alaska

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I went to Alaska with plans to spend five weeks in the Arctic. My friend Malcolm and I had designs on kayaking from a small village on the northern shores of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to a remote bay where we would head out overland to scramble up mountains, explore valleys, and search for the tens of thousands of caribou who migrate through the region every summer. But, like all good plans, it all fell apart pretty quickly.

Our kayak route was clogged with miles and miles of sea ice, an endless white horizon, the last thing you want to see when you’re planning is to set out in a thin skinned, folding kayak.

After two weeks exploring as far as our feet would take us over the tundra and waiting for the ice to melt, we threw in the towel. We had been defeated by the ice. So, we did the only rationale thing I could think of. We went climbing.

The problem was, everything I knew about climbing in Alaska started with a chartered bush plane flight. Having emptied most of my bank account getting to and from the Arctic, there was no way I could afford that. But, I reasoned, Alaska is a state larger than Texas, covered largely by rocks and mountains. There had to be some climbing that didn’t require a plane. Right?

I fired up Mountain Project and poured over the entries for Alaska. I was right, Alaska was home to dozens of climbing areas, everything from near roadside bouldering to bolted routes and alpine trad. I smiled, un-interested in the warnings of unstable weather, swarming mosquitos and ornery grizzlies that seemed to mark every area description.

Flipping through the options, I was entranced by a place called Resurrection Bay where “route development potential” lay on seaside walls under which whales, bears and moose frequently frolicked. There were warnings that “there are reasons why climbers have avoided this area: RAIN RAIN RAIN, multi-day challenging access, expensive. Make sure you have loads of time, money, and optimism to succeed here,” but we seemed to be on the edge of a rare window of hot, dry weather. That, and we were pretty good at ignoring other peoples’ advice, no matter how wise.

We set out for the town of Seward, where we planned to launch our kayak to paddle out in search of first ascents. Enroute, we stopped for a warm-up on the cliffs that overhang the Seward Highway just south of Anchorage. Here, a few minutes drive from downtown Anchorage, rocky bluffs where the Chugach Mountains meet the wide, muddy tidal flats of Turnagain arm are home to one of Alaska’s most expansive bolted climbing areas.

Most of the climbs start just off the highway and ascend up crumbly, moss and lichen covered schist. It’s hard to call it “sport” climbing, but most of the routes are bolted, single pitch outings. And, while you’re rarely more than a stone’s throw from the Seward Highway, the views out over Turnagain Arm and up towards the glaciated peaks at it’s end are stunning. On a clear day, I’m told you can even see Denali out across the inlet.

Sunrise Ridge, about 20 minutes south of Anchorage, is one of the only long, multi-pitch adventures on the Seward Highway, and it’s where we chose to stretch our legs in the endless sunlight of an early July evening. With a number of different variations, and lengths ranging from three to five pitches, the ridge is a popular route, especially as a post-work solo among local Anchorage climbers.

The climbing was easy, fun, and some of the chossiest rock I’d ever been on. Three bolts up the first pitch, I pulled off a handhold. Two bolts above that, I lost my footing on a long section of crumbling shale, raining pebbles down on Malcolm while I tried to excavate ridges for my feet and hands from the pile of tiny rocks. The crumbling rock and collapsing holds were a quick awakening to the unique fun that is climbing in Alaska.

We arrived in Seward late the next morning. A fishing village that’s embraced the booming tourist trade, Seward is home to a number of guiding services for the nearby Exit Glacier, Harding Icefield, and Kenai Fjord National Park. I hoped we could get some beta from local guides, but most were already out with clients, and so we got mostly shrugs and a few dire warnings to be careful of trying to access any rock on private property when we asked around for beta. One local kayak guide, who let us in on the location of some of the best shoreline camping in the region, told us she had friends who had put up a bolted route somewhere in Resurrection Bay, but she couldn’t remember sure exactly where it was. Gesturing to a map on the wall of her office, she vaguely pointed at the bay’s entire eastern shoreline.

We wanted to go light, but also had absolutely no clue what we were getting ourselves into. So, I carefully packed our rope, a double rack and whatever slings and hardware I could scavenge from my van into dry sacks.

We paddled for three days past cliffs and sea spires, but none with a landing spot for our kayak, calm enough waters to attempt belaying from our tiny boat, or rock that looked safe to climb. I thought about free soloing a few of the spires, but couldn’t puzzle out a way to get onto the rock that didn’t involve some serious time in the freezing ocean. So, we filled our days with paddle strokes, salmon fishing, whales, seals, bears, otters and the countless sea birds that call the Gulf of Alaska home.

On the fourth day, we arrived at a protected beach near the edge of Kenai Fjords National Park called Porcupine Cove. A single basalt cliff line rose above the high tide line, split by a prominent crack stretching to the dense forest some 60 feet above. Beside it, a massive block, likely another cliff that had collapsed sometime in the past.

After we landed, set up camp, and ate lunch, I dove into the thick brush above the cliff and found some decent trees to set up an anchor. Rappelling the route for inspection, it looked promising. The upper section was littered with detritus from the forest above, but the rock looked OK. The crux would be a short overhanging section of rotten rock, but below that was a splitter crack. I looked out over the ocean, and, as if on cue, a sea lion popped it’s head from the waves and stared back at me dangling from the cliff.

After a few technical face moves, I made my way into the crack. The rock felt weird, almost like climbing on a chalkboard, but the hand jams were bomber, there were plentiful footholds, and I was on toprope. It felt like solid 5.9. Starting to feel the flow, I made my way up the lower crack, stopping just below the overhanging crux.

From there, I had two options. The direct line would follow the crack into the overhang, through a couple powerful moves on rotten rock onto an upper ramp to the final, I hoped, easy slabs above. The other was to step far to the left, onto an exposed, blank looking section of near vertical slab.

“Take!” I yelled down, sitting back into my harness to weigh my options. From above, and from the ground, it had looked like the chalkboard-esque rock continued up the entire route. But now, halfway up, I was staring at crumbly, dark gray schist. As I hung there, feeling around the holds on the overhang, the wall was dissolving under my feet. It seemed like every second hold snapped off in a rain of pebbles, moss, dirt, and other assorted choss.

Eventually, I decided on the lefthand route. I pulled two more moves up the crack and stepped left, easing my toes onto the thin edges and balancing my way onto the exposed slab. I wished I had set the anchor more to my left, realizing a fall anywhere above me might start a nasty pendulum, swinging me into the crumbly, jagged edge of the overhanging section.

Precariously balanced, I exhaled, sucked my hips to the wall and started up the slab. The first few holds felt good, and my confidence was starting to return when I heard an inaudible popping noise and looked up to see the edge I had using for my right hand had come off the wall, flaking off like a giant fish scale. I dug my toes in and held tight with my other hand in a sort of lopsided, desperate starfish pose. My face pressed against the dirty rock, I inhaled quickly, sucking in dusty, dried moss.

Thankfully, I held on. I would have been safe either way, held in place by the toprope, but I didn’t relish the idea of taking a big swing into the rocks to my right, so I downclimbed below the overhang and had Malcolm lower me to the beach. It was his turn.

Malcolm quickly dispatched the lower section of the route, reached the crux, and tried to muscle directly up the crack. He made it about four moves before pulling out a massive chunk of rock and dirt, and then lowering back to the deck.

We each tried again half a dozen times, even exploring a potential face climb to the far right of the crack. But each time we hit that band of crumbling schist, pulling and kicking off holds we had depended on during previous attempts. As afternoon became evening, it was clear we weren’t getting up this wall on a toprope, let alone climbing it clean from the ground up.

I pulled the rope, Malcolm bushwhacked up to clean the anchors and I resigned myself to bouldering on the nearby block. It was fun, with a couple challenging problems on it’s one overhanging side, but the ridiculousness of our plan was starting to weigh on me.

I laughed, because frankly, there’s nothing else to do when you spend three days on approach to fail to toprope a single-pitch climb. Over dinner, we talked about our plan to cross Resurrection Bay the next morning and start searching for the mythical route we had heard of back in town. That night, we slept beside bear tracks on a narrow stretch of beach between the ocean and a tiny lake.

We woke up to rain. Like a cold, gray sheet, the water fell down, sideways, and sometimes even up from the ocean. From our conversations with guides in town we knew this kind of weather was more the rule than the exception and so, weather window closed, we packed up camp and set out, paddling the whole way back to Seward in one long day.

North of Anchorage, sandwiched between the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, the Talkeetna Mountains are one of Alaska’s best kept secrets. They are small, as far Alaskan mountains go, and lack famous summits like Denali, Hunter, or Deborah. But, what they lack in height and fame, the Talkeentas make up for in something I was desperate to find, easy to access granite.

About two hours drive north of Anchorage, past the city of Wasilla— famous as the place where Sarah Palin got her political start on city council— lies Hatcher Pass, a high mountain road home to the largest collection of developed granite climbing in Alaska. Lucky for us, the rains that had socked us in from Seward back to Anchorage seemed to be avoiding Hatcher Pass.

We decided to start in the Archangel Valley area, lured by the promise of 10-15 minute approaches. Driving up the rutted out dirt road, we entered a sweeping alpine valley, complete with babbling brooks, rolling green and yellow tundra, and towering granite cliffs. It was the first time I’d ever driven to alpine climbing.

We spent our first afternoon exploring the rock closest to the road, ticking some moderate crack climbs off, warming up and trying to make sense of the guidebook ratings, scratching our heads when, more than once, 5.8s gave us more trouble than much harder routes.

The next day, we turned out eyes to Toto, a classic six pitch 5.10 Hatcher Pass trad route a stone’s throw from our campsite. As I started leading up the first pitch, it felt good to be back on granite, to have a renewed faith in our gear placements, and feel like most of the holds would stay on the wall.

The first two pitches went easily. Pitch one was another confusingly hard, but fun, stretch of 5.8. Pitch two was easy 5.7 with a weird move through wide cracks near a mid-pitch belay station. Pitch three was a wandering stretch of 5.8 climbing that bounced between a bolted arete and a run-out slab where you had to excavate gear placements from beneath a mix of living and dead moss and grass. It was one of the strangest sections of climbing I had ever found, something I was starting to realize was par for the course in Alaska.

Next was a sustained, 5.9+ thin finger crack that ended below a section of the climb that had collapsed in a recent rockslide.

Rain started falling around halfway through my lead, but with much grunting and atrocious style, I finished the pitch just as the precipitation started to darken the low angle slab between the top of the crack and the belay station.

“It’s just spitting, it’s fine,” I muttered to myself as I set up the anchor.

The wind and rain picked up as Malcom made his way up the pitch, valiantly finding traction for his feet on the rain slicked quartzite. As he topped out the crack, I smugly dismissed the rain, just in time to watch his legs fly out from under him, the wet rock and lichen conspiring to form an icy slick surface on the slabs.

He recovered and picked his way gingerly up to the belay where we debated our options. I wandered out to the start of the next pitch, a gut-wrenchingly exposed stretch of 5.9 around a blind corner.

“Maybe if the rain lets up?”

Malcolm shrugged, happy to follow if I was willing to lead. I reached around toward the crack I would have to climb and wiped a pool of water from the rock into my palm. We were going down.

Our descent took four hours when I managed to get our rope stuck on the first rappel, forcing me to jug all the way back to the anchors, rebuild the rappel, and descend a different line. We were drenched and shivering by the time we made it back to the van. But, I was excited, it was still the most consistent climbing we had managed to do in all our time in Alaska.

The next day was clear, sunny, and warm. Still tired from our attempt on Toto, we spent a lazy few hours climbing single pitch trad routes on the Monolith, another nearby crag. Nothing was standout memorable, save for getting shut down on a 5.9 route called Zig Zag, but the climbing was fun and relaxing after our previous day’s epic.

That night we ate peanut butter noodles and made a plan to climb High Dive, another classic Hatcher Pass multi-pitch, the following day.

The sun was burning when we started down the Reed Lakes Trail the next morning. We hiked for an hour and a half, passing turquoise alpine lakes, waterfalls, dozens of day hikers, a few backpackers, and what looked like awesome single-pitch climbing and bouldering in the Lower Reed Lakes area.

Eventually, we arrived at a larger lake and picked our way to the far shore where a series of granite cliffs stretched up alongside a wide, sweeping waterfall. We racked up as clouds started rolling in over the mountains.

The first two pitches were classic, easy Alaskan trad. In other words, they wandered, had weird grassy run-outs, and required digging out gear placements. The third pitch, ostensibly the reason to climb the first two, is the real fun part. Twin cracks stretch up a sheer granite headwall, hanging you out over a primordial alpine landscape, complete with rolling clouds, shimmering lakes, and summer snow-patches hanging near the summits of the surrounding peaks.

It was a perfect stretch of climbing, fun-hard with easy gear placements, powerful moves, and one of the most picturesque topouts I’ve ever found—a tiny platform under a roof that offers a view, on a clear day, all the way to the ocean.

Unfortunately, I only had the view for about 30 seconds. As Malcolm called up to confirm he was on belay, the clouds picked up speed, pouring over the surrounding peaks down towards the lake below. He dispatched the pitch quickly, but it was starting to rain as we moved on to the short 5.6 section that finishes the route.

We climbed quickly as the rain picked up. After a quick summit high-five, I coiled the rope and we started to walk off, deciding against rappelling the route in the coming weather, our experience on Toto still fresh in both our minds.

The skies opened up, letting loose a deluge of biblical proportions, immediately making me regret my decision to walk down a wet grassy slope in my climbing shoes. We slid, slipped, and shimmied down the slope, alternating between boot-skiing in rock shoes and glissading on the wet grass.

I was soaking wet when we arrived back at the base of the climb. But, I was ecstatic. We had managed to climb an entire route in Alaska. We hadn’t retreated because of choss, been rained off, or been shut down by one of the countless natural forces that seem to conspire against anyone adventuring in the 49th state.

We trudged back the van on muddy trails, smiling wide and soaked to the bone. All told, I only managed to successfully climb two moderate multi-pitch routes in Alaska. Measured against a failed Arctic expedition, a questionable trip to climb in Resurrection Bay and countless other rainouts and failures, it shouldn’t feel like a successful trip. But, if I learned anything during my summer in Alaska, it’s that failing and changing plans comes with the territory, just like choss and rain.

Special thanks to Kelsey Gray for writing the indispensable Alaska Rock Climbing Guide and to the Alaska Rock Gym, the best place in Anchorage to retreat when the weather shuts you down. 

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