A storm bashed against the pillar of rock and ice projecting from the South Face of Mount Bradley in Alaska, a barrage of snow in its swirling gusts. Mark and I dove into our tent, placed on the only ledge we’d found for hundreds of feet. We had planned to spend a single night on the route. This was our third. We were 3,000 feet up, with 1,000 feet of climbing still to go.
Between us we assembled a small pile: two energy bars, a half can of gas and a single freeze-dried meal.
“We’re going to need these for tomorrow,” Mark said quietly, and packed the bars into a stuff sack. I looked at the nutritional information on the meal packet: 400 calories each for dinner.
We did not discuss going down, though I remember wondering if we should. But, even as snow pounded the tent, we saw no viable reason to retreat, other than hunger. I thought back to years of reading climbing literature and the struggles detailed therein. I was sure this was it. We were doing it. What we wanted.
Mark was 31. I was 24.
It was April 2010, the Alaska Range. Mark Allen and I had met eight years earlier, when I was in high school and he was a greenhorn guide. He started as my guide on a mountaineering course in the Cascades, but as we climbed together the following winter in Washington State, a strong partnership developed. I then left for college in New Zealand and climbs in Canada, Alaska, Patagonia and elsewhere, and Mark dove into his guiding career. Though this trip marked the first time we had tied in together in six years, we fell right back into easy banter as we packed and planned. It was to be my first time in the Ruth Gorge. Mark had climbed there before and knew the lay of the land, but said with a smile that he had yet to make a first ascent in the area.
We flew in over the Ruth’s steep, dark, ice-plastered walls. I knew stories from each: Sean Easton and Ueli Steck pulling Blood From the Stone on the East Face of Dickey (2002); Doug Chabot and Renny Jackson retreating from high on the still-unclimbed East Ridge of Mount Johnson (2005); Mark Twight, Steve House and Jonny Blitz receiving The Gift on the East Face of Mount Bradley (1998).
High on the same East Face, a thin line of ice slithered upwards right of the Bourbon Bottle (1996 Greg Crouch-Jim Donini) route, on the tallest part of the wall. We imagined climbing steep ice in that magnificent position and willfully overlooked the mixed ground below. It couldn’t be that hard. We convinced ourselves that the route would take a day and a half: It was only a little taller than El Capitan and less steep, and I had been climbing that in under a day.
“It won’t be that big of a deal,” we told ourselves.
After one false attempt, we launched on April 2 with supplies for 36 hours, feeling strong and excited.
Seeking cold nighttime temperatures, we started climbing in the late afternoon. A steepening sickle couloir led to a deep cave, and as I pulled over its lip onto sustained steep granite, the sun sank and the range exploded with color: the horizon awash with oranges and reds. I hooked and torqued pitch after pitch on the smooth rock.
Taking over at dark, some 1,000 feet up the wall, Mark changed into rock shoes mid-lead. Under the beams of our lights, the exposure disappeared. We felt no fatigue. We were loaded with anticipation and emotion. We were having fun.
As the sun rose, we pulled onto a snow ledge and set up our tent, to sit out the heat of the day. I don’t remember being concerned that we still had over two-thirds of the wall above us. We were immersed in the experience and delighted with our first bivy, a mostly flat snow ledge hanging over the glaciated gorge below. When the temperature cooled, we started out again.
Just above us lay the thin ice ribbon. While it thickened 200 feet above our perch, it tapered to verglas on the rocks above our bivy. Taking the lead at 7 p.m., I gently tapped my tools into the verglas, searching for protection. The wall was steep, pushing my weight onto my hands; as I tied off a stubby ice screw, I visualized the satisfaction of finishing the pitch. Eventually, I reached thicker ice and then built a belay. Above us, the hose was fat with water ice nestled into a chimney. As the sun again set, Mark took over, swinging and kicking methodically above my stance.
Establishing a second bivy at sunrise, we expected to traverse right, into easy terrain. An extra night out? No problem. We still felt strong.
We awoke midday to lenticular clouds on the horizon, their atmospheric moisture whipped into uniform, ominous ovals.
Mark said, “Our window is closing.”
We packed quickly and continued up a steep, blocky mixed ridge, aiming rightward for the easier ground.
The storm hit. The intended easier terrain ran with heavy spindrift, hissing down the concavities in the wall. Forced to aim instead for protrusions from the wall—areas the spindrift was flowing away from, rather than into—we landed at the base of a 1,000-foot gendarme. In clear weather, the climbing would have been fantastic—steep and well-protected—but the storm was flowing over and around us, choking the rock with snow. We pushed through seven pitches of sustained mixed climbing, grinding down the points of our crampons and tools as we scratched at the weathered granite. We climbed until we were spent, which is when Mark leaned out from a belay and yelled through the wind, “I see a ledge 200 feet below!” We fixed a line down to our third bivy.
Sleep was fitful. Our bodies were losing the edge we’d felt so acutely. Lying in my sleeping bag, I recognized the smell of ammonia, knowing from stories of adventures that it signaled immense muscular fatigue compounded with lack of nourishment. I pulled further into my sleeping bag and tried not to think about it.
The next morning we split a bar, and the weather cleared as we simul-climbed steep, exposed snow slopes and spines, clawing slowly up the tower through fresh snow.
At 4 p.m, after 66.5 hours—far from the projected 36—we summited.
Mark and I split the other energy bar and started down the West Ridge. Before us stood the rarely seen 5,000-foot East Face of Mount Huntington with its alternating spines of rock and ice—a beautiful geometry that quickly disappeared in banks of opaque white as a second storm closed in. As we lost visibility and snow loaded the slopes, we were forced onto steeper terrain, clear to the west side of the peak. Some 2,500 feet of unknown terrain separated us from the Backside Glacier below, on the far side of Mount Bradley from basecamp.
Mark and I spoke little, concentrating on our tasks, our focus refined by the seriousness of the situation. Rock anchors, V-threads and a free rappel over a gaping bergschrund passed as the sun set and the storm intensified, impacting into all the gaps in our clothing and gear. After seven hours we touched down, surrounded by seracs and snow-laden slopes.
Maneuvering by headlamp in the grey fog of the whiteout, we set up our tent beneath a rock overhang. It was our fourth bivy. The storm would last all day, bringing 12 inches of new snow. Our map showed that we had approximately seven kilometers of complex glacier terrain, over 747 Pass between mounts Dickey and Bradley, and back into the Ruth, to basecamp.
“We’re not going anywhere in these conditions,” I said. Mark nodded, poring over the maps.
We dozed through the rest of the night. The moisture-laden air was illuminated as the sun came up, but the weather did not clear.
“I wonder if we can eat our gloves?” Mark said. More dozing.
As morning shifted into afternoon, with a roar like a freight train, an avalanche poured over our rock awning. I woke in a state of panic as it pummeled our legs through the tent. The weather was clearing, sunlight hitting the slopes and releasing the snow.
“Time to go!” we said in near unison.
The avalanche stirred up the fear that had been steadily building since the first storm. I calmed my breathing. The measured actions of packing our tent and tying in as we prepared to move felt like an antidote, but safety was still far away.
We had eaten nothing in over 24 hours. Weakened, Mark and I struggled along the glacier through waist-deep drifts, trading leads every 100 meters. Cresting the pass, we dared to feel safe—then, as the sun set, a third storm blew in.
We donned our headlamps but their light reflected off the spiraling snow, eliminating all sense of direction and forcing us to rely on compass bearings. Darkness caught us out again as we zigzagged across the glacier, searching for camp, our progress tedious. All we wanted was to find the tent, for the ordeal to end. Seven hours after leaving that final bivy, in the dark, we peered across at a strange 12-inch rib in the snow, standing out from the uniform drifts, and followed it for 100 meters to find our camp, snowed under. A fan had formed in its wind shadow, creating the rib that guided us back.
We dug in, safe, 99 hours after departing. I thought back to our earlier hubris, assuming the climb would be easy. We had survived, but had learned that we were small among these grand mountains. And in learning that lesson, we added our tale to the granite walls around us.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 267 (January 2021).
Graham Zimmerman of Bend, Oregon, leads the Protect Our Winters Climb team (see protectourwinters.org). He and Mark Allen went on to a series of significant ascents in the Alaska Range, but none compared to the mental and physical trial of Vitalogy (M6+ WI5 5.9 R A1, 4,600 feet), Mount Bradley, April 2-6, 2010. The two remain dear friends and climbing partners.