Hours after we had begun and only half way up the wall, our situation felt desperate. The climbing continued to increase in difficulty and the conditions remained far from ideal.
I had spent far too long at the stance. Willing, trying, failing, and cursing the rock for not offering up better gear placements. My mind, as dark as the cloud surrounding us, was reaching it’s limit. The climbing had been challenging. I had seen more meters of dead-end terrain on this wall than I could count. Steep, loose rock flakes coated in ice hung down like row upon row of glinting shark teeth. Mercifully, every time thus far I had barely managed to dodge my way around the jaws and onto more moderate ground.
Now though, it seemed the jig was up. Above me was a short, steep dihedral. Committing moves were required before reaching the first possibility of a gear placement. My toes and hands, frozen into little blocks of wood, were not inspiring confidence. Jessica was calling out, I had been standing here too long.
Two weeks ago, under clear skies, we had flown into Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. Wild and remote with no roads or trails, it is one of the United States’s last great wildernesses. Our diverse team of four had originally convened in Fairbanks, Alaska, where we took an eight-hour 4×4 shuttle ride north along the Dalton Highway. We debarked at the town of Coldfoot, pop: 20. There, under the direction of our pilot, Dirk, we piled all of our food, equipment, and persons onto a cattle scale in order to assure that we were not overweight for the bush plane ride into the backcountry.
The single propeller started with a whirl. Even with headphones on, the drone of the engine dominated the hour-long flight. The plane, so light and small, was easily rocked about and moved by the wind. I imagined I was in a lifeboat being tossed around at sea. After a bit of scouting, Dirk set us down on a dry river bed. The plane landed almost like a mosqito, coming to a stop right away and barely needing any sort of “runway”. Twenty days later Dirk would return to this spot for us. Until then, we were on our own.
Back on the climb, I finally managed to build a hanging anchor a few feet lower. One marginal cam and a shitty nut is all that anchored us to the wall. Jessica climbed up to the stance and we hung there, slumped against each other and the wall like limp flags on a windless day, trapped in our silent grey worlds as the snow swirled around us.
Jessica was here for me. I was here because after four days of hard load carrying, ten storm-bound days of cold, rain, and hunger, and this being only our second (and more than likely last) chance to climb in the range, I wanted to finish this route. This day the forecast had promised a brief, 24-hour weather window before returning to its standard fare of rain, snow and cold for the next seven days. The plane was scheduled to pick us up in five. This was our last chance to either climb a new line, or walk away empty handed.
With the caution of a person trying to disarm a bomb, I gingerly unlaced my too-tight climbing shoes and removed them, trying my best not to fumble them into the void below. Slowly, with much rubbing and flexing, the feeling returned in my toes. Jessica soon pulled a thermos of tea out of her backpack and handed a cup of the piping hot liquid to me. As the warm cup thawed my frozen hands a sliver of light, of hope, returned to my mind.
The hike into our basecamp had been grueling. Even with our bare-minimum, 1200 calorie per-day diet of mostly dehydrated foods, the weight of our packs was oppressive. We had to make two complete trips to get all of our supplies from the drop off point to our camp, 12 miles (20km) as the crow flies up the Aiyagomahala Valley. For much of the time we followed the creek itself. Loose, slippery river rocks, rapids, and hip deep water were all too common hazards of the journey. The alternative was often undergrowth so thick that one could hardly fall down if they tried. On the last day of our load carrying, while hiking in early dawn of a silent, wet morning we spotted a grizzly bear mother and two cubs. From up on the rocky bank of the creek they watched us, unafraid and unmoving, their gaze following us as we made our way back down the valley.
I refocused on the climb. Like looking at it through new eyes, I began to see small features I had missed before; a small chip had fallen from the wall and exposed a tiny edge, a perfect foothold. The lower crack in the corner might take a small cam at two meters height, not four. Every climber has their own risk limits. While this climb was not worth pushing my personal boundaries, with these new discoveries it now felt safe enough to proceed. Jessica, too, seemed to be in a lighter mood. With the spell broken and the dark moment past, it was time to continue.
The pitch, of course, went fine. The few moves that felt like real rock climbing actually helped to warm my muscles and in only a matter of minutes I was standing on a big ledge with good gear. Again, I built an anchor and Jessica came up. Both on the ledge, with cracked, dehydrated lips we actually smiled at each other. I set off again. By the end of the next pitch the sun had broken through the clouds and the weather seemed to be clearing out. The last pitch, which lead to the summit ridge, was technically the hardest of the route. A steep bombay groove of increasing difficulty and decreasing rock quality lead to the top. Even up until the last move, I was unsure if the route would go.
In the end, our route, Ask and You Shall Receive (II, 5.9, 150m), took us 21 hours to complete from camp to camp. While quite small, moderate, and seemingly insignificant compared to not only the other routes in the region, but also our own ambitions for the trip, I am proud of it and the efforts we put into its completion. It should also be noted that the forecasted 24 hours of good weather actually arrived a day late, coming the day after our climb. All four of our expedition members, too drained from their efforts the day before (read about Tess and Anina’s harrowing adventure here), could not take advantage of this final break in the weather.
Only a few days later with the snows coming we began the hike out to the landing zone. In a process that always feels simultaneously too slow and too fast we were dumped back into the civilized world. Emails and news reports of Finland’s first terrorist attack and Trump’s seeming demolition of all things good left me wondering if I was ready to be back in this, the real world.