Fun or Fear - New Route on Mt. Jezebel, Alaska
‘...so there was this girl..!’
Our new-found friends were telling us a story and we all screamed with laughter, the drinks rocking on the table. It seemed more outrageous with every sentence.
Uisdean and I had just returned from a few weeks in the wild Alaskan mountains, and after two pints we were almost steaming.
‘...we didn’t realise, but everyone was naked...’ Our drinks spilt as the table wobbled again, hands thumping on the wooden surface. ‘...and then she got both her thumbs like this, and..!’
The end of the story was too much to bear, and too good to write down. We all howled with laughter in the half-empty bar of the Fairview Inn.
From my hazy memories of the night, it seemed a fitting return to civilisation - especially as Uisdean and I were psyched from our new route on Mt. Jezebel, in the Revelation range.
Two weeks earlier.
‘Well!’ Uisdean replied.
I’m sure the more climbing trips we go on, the less we need to say to each other. This trip, to the Revelation mountains in Alaska, seemed to feature very few words, and a smattering of Spanish we’d learnt in Patagonia.
We sat beneath the steep - and unclimbed - north face of Mt. Jezebel (2880m), gazing up at the possibilities. From a distance, the broad wall held many lines; but on closer inspection there was only one viable route. Giant seracs threatened everything except ‘the chimney line.’
The air was calm on the glacier, but we knew strong winds blasted on the skyline ridge above. Large plumes of snow blew like streamers from the crest. Perpetually hanging in space, they were white smudges against a blue sky. The smudges eventually thinned, then vanished, blown far out from the mountain. Sparkling snow drifted slowly back to earth.
‘Hmm. Mucho viento!’ I said to Uisdean.
Our line was agreed. We thought the route might have three distinct sections. The first looked like steep snow; the middle was an enormous chimney which swallowed everything falling from above. The final section looked like climbable black ice, but was perhaps threatened by moderate-sized cornices.
There were so many unknowns with this potential route. We knew a line to the right had been attempted by two teams last year - although it looked pretty kamikaze. One party climbed a pitch, then retreated due to un-protectable steep sugar snow. The other party bailed when the leader fell off and broke his leg. He was rescued a day later.
Clint Helander, local Alaskan and veteran of the ‘Revs,’ has been in to try the north face three times - but hasn’t climbed a pitch. He was extremely helpful with providing lots of info, and I remembered his words: ‘when it’s safe, it’s not really in condition. When it’s in condition, it’s not really safe.’ Clint doesn’t intend to return. And then his final statement: ‘I finally felt OK about letting it go.’
But here we were, Uisdean and I. Like the guns we saw in the American supermarket, our sights were set on the summit, ambitions aimed high. We were locked, loaded and ready to fire this route.
The weather forecast was acceptable - although winds still blew on the ridge, a distant roar to remind us of its presence. ‘Hmm. Bueno?’
‘Si.’ We set our alarms for 4am.
After missing both alarms, Uisdean and I started up the north face. ‘Chopper Squadron’ had a reputation to live up to, after all!
We climbed many hundreds of metres of steep nevé. With each pitch, the route became more interesting. Nevé is that intoxicating mix of ‘relatively’ easy climbing, but often with no gear. It’s all fun until you look down and realise you’re 40 metres out, with no pro, and it’s suddenly turned into steep snow.
The second pitch had no gear in 60m. The third pitch was 75 metres, until I found a poor belay. The fourth was even longer... At least we were pleased not to be on vertical sugar snow.
We reached the biggest unknown factor of the route by mid afternoon. The huge slot, which gave the route its namesake, was like a giant elevator shaft or chimney stack. It rose straight up for about 75 metres. We hadn’t been able to see inside, wondering what lurked within... until now.
The winds on the ridge above had obviously decided we were having too much fun, so unleashed upon us. Between dark waves of spindrift washing down the cliff, we snatched upward glances. The chimney contained two overhanging mixed pitches of compact-looking black diorite, then a long overhanging pitch of snow. It was all capped by an enormous snow mushroom...
The spindrift flew into space when it poured over the lip of the overhanging snow, and there were no cracks on the side walls with which to aid around.
‘Huh!’ I said.
‘Huh’ Uisdean replied.
We ain’t no punters, and we’ve done enough climbing around the world to know when a pitch looks easy, hard, or really hard. And this chimney looked to be at least one level above Really Hard. We couldn’t see a way: how do you climb overhanging sugar snow? This isn’t Cerro Torre, either. The two shorter pitches of overhanging diorite also didn’t look good. I don’t want to say it, but in its current condition I’m not sure if it would be climbable...(!)
Perhaps one of my biggest weaknesses is I’m always psyched. If there’s a chance, another option, one more try, I’ll take it. But stood beneath this chimney as it unloaded heavy waves of spindrift, I couldn’t see how we’d get up it - and nor could Uisdean. Despite giving the route a good effort, we‘d been totally shut down.
We began rappelling - one of my least favourite activities in the mountains. We lost a lot of wires; but that’s better than losing your head. A few years ago, the prospect of burning through racks worth of gear and many metres of tat would’ve made me wince. But now I just accept it’s part of the deal with alpine climbing. I hacked at the nevé for ages to find anchors, and by the time I found something, I didn’t care that I’d only just got a new set of wires. Easy come, easy go. ‘Don’t bounce on this one,’ was all I said to Uisdean.
When we finally jumped over the schrund, we looked back up at the chimney, and up at the ridge. ‘Mucho viento! Poco loco!’
Back at Base Camp, I thought over the experience. We didn’t actually climb any higher, into the chimney proper, to really see what the pitches were like. We stood about 20 metres beneath, and they sure as hell didn’t look good... but could we absolutely certain? Maybe you could tunnel deep into the sugar snow and find a crack in the back? Maybe it would form ice after getting the summer sun?
But after further thought, I agree with Clint’s comments. I think the snow mushroom is too dangerous, and the overhanging sugar snow in the chimney won’t be consolidating any time soon. You could drill your way up the side walls of the chimney - or there might be a crack - but, for us, it’s not climbing by fair, safe or rational means.
There aren’t any other logical or safe lines on the rest of the north face-proper, so we decided to focus our attention on the east face of Mt. Jezebel. This was first climbed by fellow Brits Pete and Ben, and there were plenty of amazing lines left. In between eating the usual vast amounts of peanut butter, we got psyched.
After scoping out the face, we decided on a line which looked impressive and with plenty of adventure. The start looked like the meat of the route (we hoped), followed by plenty of climbing to the summit. The descent was unknown, but we knew the weather looked good for a few days. ‘Si. Mas mas mas! Bueno.’
And so we started, under the cold cloak of night, our skis crunching towards the east face of Jezebel. Uisdean fired the first pitch as night lifted and dawn spilled onto the glacier. Technical and thought-provoking, our pitches often took time. Uisdean’s ‘Steak for Breakfast’ pitch involved mixed climbing alongside a vertical step of neve, then kicking onto it and quickly running for the sanctuary of easier ground above. Further pitches were steep, always long, and often run-out. We’d explored our comfort zones whilst climbing run-out and steep neve on our north face attempt, so this felt very familiar.
After Uisdean’s block, I led several long pitches up the couloir, chasing the sunshine as it spread across the east face. In ten minutes, Uisdean went from freezing cold to boiling hot, then cold again as the shade returned on his belay.
A final crux pitch took me a long time when I discovered - to my horror - that the steep wall of ice I aimed to climb was totally detached from the rock. The sheet of ice hung five inches away from the rock, like the skin of an onion. I committed to it with a few high side runners, then climbed higher and further away, heading for the re-attached ice about five metres above. I climbed carefully, meditatively, although I’m sure I was also making all sorts of noises. ‘Watch me here, no bueno!’ I shouted down. The onion-skin of ice was so brittle I broke a 12-inch-square hole into it and put my arm inside as a better hold than my ice tools. I almost laughed when I looked into the hole and saw my ice pick poking into the inside of the onion skin, almost touching the rock underneath.
Long stretches up a couloir took up most of the afternoon, linked by a wonderful pitch we nicknamed ‘The Gift.’ Expecting more hard and involved climbing, we were delighted to find a long slither of thick ice. Uisdean raced up it, plugging in solid ice screws and pulling over the lip. ‘A lucky break,’ I thought.
We met the east ridge of Jezebel towards the evening, thankfully moving together for most of it until we found a bivi platform which was flat and - crucially - faced east so we could welcome the morning sun.
Our bivi passed smoothly, except for a brief episode of fiery cramp, and we shivered into the sunshine after a ‘relatively’ warm night. The sun warmed us instantly when it popped over the horizon, like life being breathed back into our lungs.
The remainder of the route featured some ‘classic alpine bullshit.’ We traversed up and down, weaving left and right, avoiding towers and traversing snow slopes. We tried to judge when to pitch and when to keep going.
Finally, though, we reached the northeast summit at 12.30pm, in clear, windless skies. It felt like a real treat to be somewhere so special, after a rewarding experience, and with perfect weather. So many ‘unknowns’ had finally been answered. We could relax on the summit, lying down and soaking in the view of endless mountains.
Once back in Base Camp, after an involved and slightly stressful descent, we could reflect on the route. We’d rapped into the south-east couloir, which made for a quick walk down, but to the wrong side of a col. We sweated in the sunshine, wondering how to get over this final hurdle. All we wanted was to be back on the Fish glacier, beneath the east face, but the 250m wall in front of us looked complicated. Thankfully, another ‘lucky break’ of a couloir climbed a direct line up the left side. Four long pitches, then four long raps and some down climbing… and we whooped into the darkness as we crossed the schrund back into the Fish glacier.
The beers flowed in the Fairview Inn, back in Talkeetna. I remembered when I was first here, in 2012, and we’d walked out of the packed bar in the early hours. It felt bizarrely surreal in the 24 hour daylight, and being fairly drunk had a lot to do with it. As we staggered out, we passed a man loading bullets into his gun, going into the bar. ‘Shit!’ I said, and turned to my new American friend. ‘Relax man, this is America…’ he said.
Uisdean and I had enjoyed fantastic weather and some great climbing... It was weird to be back in civilisation!
Thanks to the Mount Everest Foundation and the British Mountaineering Council for their grant support.
Tom would like to thank Mountain Equipment, Petzl, La Sportiva, Julbo and Tent Meals Expedition Food.
Uisdean would like to thank Grivel, Scarpa, Mountain Equipment, TRAC Oil and Gas, OTE Sports Nutrition.
Thanks to Rob Smith (Bobby Big Dick) and Ben Silvestre for the weather forecasts.
Thanks to Owen and Rocio for letting us use their ski bag.
Thanks to Clint Helander for lots of information on the Revelation Range.
Thanks to Dana, Heide, Magpie and Rosco for letting us stay.
Thanks to Doug Hawthorn for the lifts to and from the airport.