Week three on the glacier and things had gotten a little loose. Almost everyone had flown home. It was snowing. The light stuff that drifts down and slithers off of your tent in the middle of the night, that blows in gently from the north, past Denali and into the Ruth Gorge but still lets you peer into the murk and see those ghostly, drifting shapes of mountains a mile across the glacier. Ryan threw more cardboard onto the fire and we blasted the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack from my tinny speaker, standing over the embers as they drifted eastward, some still alight, down the Gorge.
“I’m on VACATION!!!” I screamed to the flurries, an homage to our buddy Freddie Wilkinson, who’d yell this during the first days of a trip.
When I first came here, almost ten years ago, I was young and determined. Now the dangerous spark of ambition has been replaced by something akin to…relaxation? There wasn’t any work in the Ruth Gorge, just shoveling and breakfast and lunch and dinner and piles of piles of candy. (Nothing like an expedition help those love-handles crop up.) Eight of us had flown in in early April, climbing and digging like moles and tinkering with our five MSR Whisperlite stoves. When our buddy Elliot—a new dad—flew in to join us for a quick attempt on Mount Bradley, he set up his tent and slept for a day, the silence of the glacier cradling him to a sleep he’d not enjoyed since the birth of his son.
The Ruth gorge is tame by Alaska Range standards. It’s a quick flight, and I’d wanted to go there because after shoulder surgery I hadn’t climbed anything harder than 5.9. I wasn’t sure how climbing with a pack would feel. But I’d ice climbed some, and there was no better place to get the legs and lungs tuned up than Alaska. Tired of being hurt and out of shape, I wanted back into the thick of it. And without a defined objective, this trip accrued none of the brooding, doom-and-gloom feeling of other alpine forays.
But vacation was almost over. Tomorrow we were going to try and get up something. Nick, Ryan and I were the only ones left. Cleaning up our fetid camp felt like hosing down a dorm room at the end of a semester: in the rush to hop on to single-engine Beavers and twin-prop Otters and go back to work, our companions abandoned mounds of trash and discarded food. Nick, Ryan and I shouldered the burden of dealing with the excess junk. Such is humanity. After wading through a stash of candy our buddy Andy had secreted away in an underground snow cave, (talk about excitement!) we realized burning the cardboard and paper would be a prudent, if slightly illegal, way to ease the weight of a strained aircraft when we flew home. Hence the bonfire. And if one is about to go alpine climbing in a light storm, no better soundtrack exists than Last of the Mohicans.
I’d almost hopped on a plane myself: Alexa was home and swamped and stressed in an accelerated graduate degree in nursing at UNH. From what I could tell of her texts on the Delorme inReach, she was eating worse during her study breaks than we were in our lavish base camp. But, true to her wonderful form, Alexa’s seething jealousy at my being on a three-week climbing trip manifested itself as support: “Don’t come home unless you climb something!”
All I needed. When the plane pulled away I did not get on, postponing my return by five days or so. We remaining three decided to go try the Eye Tooth, the 3,000-foot nub of granite tucked between the Moose’s Tooth and the Bear’s Tooth.
Ryan Driscoll has become my main companion on these alpine climbing trips. I don’t know why: Ryan marries an unyielding stubbornness with a light-to-nonexistent grasp on reality. He smokes cigarettes in the tent entrance. The guy couldn’t navigate his way out of a wet paper bag. If you pulled out a topo and asked where on the mountain he was, he couldn’t tell you, though he’d argue about it for days. Still, his legs are the size of my torso and there is no one I’d rather spend $1500 to lie back-to-back in a shared sleeping bag with, shivering and pissing into our respective Gatorade bottles. Which, decanted into its purest form, is what vacations are all about.
Nick was a wild card. I’d framed a house with him once. December rolled in and the guy still didn’t put a hat on. He moved around the jobsite like a squirrel in the midst of an acorn frenzy. He’s about half Ryan’s size, with a shock of red hair that makes Raggedy Andy look mundane. But Nick’s a dynamo in the mountains, fueled by a fire Ryan and I—jaded and lumbering—can only dimly grasp.
We left the bonfire in the middle of the great gorge. The next day, as blades of sunlight leapt over the horizon, we kicked a thousand feet worth of steps and removed the ropes from our packs.
Ryan’s lead was the real one: sugar snow covering blank slabs, protected by gear that would crumble out of the crack if you breathed on it the wrong way. Nick and I belayed as Ryan’s curses were carried down-glacier.
“Great job, dude.”
To Nick in a whisper: “He’s so fucked.”
“Yeah, he’s fucked. Look how far he’ll fall.”
To Ryan again: “Awesome work! Killin’ it! That cam looks good!”
I led an M5 pitch and a spooky pitch of WI5 before handing Nick the rack. I fed him out rope as he sped out of sight. When there was none more to pay out, he tugged on our knots like a leashed border-collie that had just seen an errant Frisbee.
“CLIMB WITH MEEE” Nick yelled.
“That little rascal’s making us simul-climb,” I said to Ryan.
Ryan choked on his cigarette as he fumbled to undo the anchor, trying out Nick’s new nickname.
“That Little Rascal. He’s too fast for us. His red hair is on fire. He’s crazy. These goddamn gingers are just nuts.”
We laughed and followed Nick up to the ridge. The sun shone down in full and we rock-climbed in bare hands over perfect alpine granite, whooping and hollering. Eight P.M. found us in the thick of gendarmes and scary snow, picking a spot to bivouac. We settled for a cozy little ledge. It was wild; thousands of feet of drop on either side.
A Black Diamond Firstlight tent is 48 inches wide by 82 inches long: a shortened sheet of plywood: tons of room for nearly 500 pounds of human. Still, for whatever reason, BD touts this roomy abode as a mere two-person tent. I got the stove going and we crammed in, separated from our dizzying world by a millimeter of fabric. Somehow, I scored the middle: by far the warmest spot. We ate and drank as much as we could, though I went to bed with that dry, chalky feeling in my throat: an indication the Gatorade bottle wouldn’t get the attention it deserved. The sun, low in the evening sky, made its round over Mount Dickey and popped out again, receding into the gloaming. Waves of mountains crested towards Denali. If it were ever possible to see cold, I glimpsed it stalking that great mountain’s summit, some eight-thousand feet above us.
There was not a breath of wind, and we three relaxed in our teeny tent on a teeny ledge in the coolest spot we’d ever camped. We tossed and turned and even slept a little.
As always, Ryan woke up complaining.
“My feet are freezing. You hogged the quilt.”
“Yeah, well, I’m stuck in the middle, Rhino. I didn’t even have a spot for my feet.” Bickering is how we make upward progress. This necessary squabbling prevents some stormy, trip-ruining blowout from occurring. Despite how many times we argue, I’m always amazed at how seldom my friend is correct.
Gatorade bottles dumped leeward, we fired up the stove again for breakfast. Coffee is a double-edged sword. One races to caffeinate. Then the caffeine races through one. With the tent down, our little ledge became inhabitable in a matter of minutes. We took turns racing to get our layers off and vacate bowels brimming with freeze-dried dinner and instant coffee.
“No one is going to be able to use this ledge for years. It smells terrible,” Nick said, his nose curled upward in disdain.
When you gotta go, you gotta go. Especially on vacation.
We led around the corner of the gendarme. Ryan’s lead, and the Eye Tooth knew it. The snow turned terrible again.
“Watch me,” Ryan yelled. This is mountaineer code for: “I’m terrified. If I fall, there’s nothing anyone anywhere can do.”
“I got you Ryan!” Nick yelled. Never an emptier promise uttered. A few more tool placements and a few more hapless pleas. Our stuttering upward momentum ground to a halt. The pitch was too dangerous. A slab covered in useless snow.
“I’m gonna downclimb!” Ryan yelled. We were bailing, so my hand instantly reached into the lid of my pack. Food rationed for days could now be consumed in minutes, and I insulated my cheeks with almonds.
All of a sudden, we found ourselves on a perfect, sunny ledge in the Alaska range without a task. We sat for a half-hour, lying on our packs and stuffing our faces. We still had to get down. We’d climbed 2,000 wonderful feet and had the best bivouac of our lives.
I led the rappels. My buddy Timmy Dittman had come this way and every sixty meters we found perfect fixed gear in granite cracks.
After three or four hours we were below the bergshrund, skiing towards basecamp. It was Friday the 13th, and I swore I’d tear my ACL trying to make turns in my mountaineering boots. Something had to go wrong.
After a while, though we crossed the last crevasse, back onto the central bit of glacier that’s about as dangerous as a cornfield in Iowa, if a smidge more scenic. Phew. We pointed our skis toward basecamp and untied from each other. The Little Rascal—Italian to the core and a hardworking Denali guide to boot—whipped up a big pasta-and-meat bowl.
In the morning, we did our best to clean our greasy stain of a basecamp up. Soon, we heard that familiar drone of a Beaver, and the plane circled low around the gorge before landing with a whump in the soft snow. The pilot had brought an apprentice out for the trip out and an extra body made getting off the ground even more dubious. The two pilots looked us up and down: three grimy climbers swaddled in patched puffy jackets with an impossible mound of gear.
“Holy shit. Why do you guys have so much stuff? We might not be able to fly it all out.” The new guy’s eyes widened.
We crammed in, piling ourselves next to white gas cans and ski poles and the green containers full of human waste (Again, lots of coffee). We set to work making the plane smell as bad as we did, and the poor pilot tried to get enough lift as he throttled down the gorge. By the time we took off, we were several miles downhill.
It seemed like a bad deal, getting on that plane. We didn’t want to get on board and the pilots would have been happy leaving us on the glacier where we belonged. Back home, we’d have to shower, check email: all those little inconveniences that made everyday life so boring. The Little Rascal had just closed on a house (Firstlight wasn’t big enough, I guess) and had mounds of paperwork waiting for him. We could no longer eat lard and candy guilt-free. We couldn’t climb thousands of feet or camp on airy ledges.
The thrum of the engine carried us over the tree-speckled tundra and back to civilization. There was a time when we’d have hit the bars, lurching back to Talkeetna Air Taxi’s bunkhouse in the wee hours of the morning. For thirty-somethings, though, ice cream sandwiches, itemized-lists of well-sorted equipment, and looming mortgages (I like how the prefix of mortgage is mort, which means death in French) are as good as it gets.
When I got back to Anchorage, my phone buzzed: Freddie. Wanna climb the Infinite Spur with me and Maddog? Ohh boy, did I ever! And they’d be leaving in a few weeks or so! Maybe I’d only have to deal with a fortnight of this non-snowy living bullshit. For an instant, my head filled with thoughts of the lofty central Alaska Range, of more bivouacs and stoves and grease and grime and banter, good friends and bad weather. Then I thought of poor Alexa, head down in the books, barely surviving off of Lara bars and Amy’s Organic microwavable meals, her car a rat’s nest of dirty nursing scrubs and stethoscopes and all my reusable coffee mug lids. I should save the money for next year, when we’d go in to the Alaska Range together.
I’d gone on vacation already and you can’t be too greedy.