Chapter One: The Alaska Range
|Freddie Wilkinson about to drop into the Peters Glacier, June 2014|
At 14,000 feet on Denali, Dana "Maddog" Drummond, Freddie Wilkinson, and myself sauntered over to the ranger tent in our big down jackets and booties. We slid around in the fresh snow and the walk over was tiring. On the way, we passed Steve House's camp. He was here with a bunch of kids my age. They were learning how to be incredible alpinists and getting advice from Steve on how to be great. But by the time we settled in to the ranger tent with the Denali Rescue Volunteers, I had gotten plenty of advice of my own.
"Michaelchuck," said Maddog, "You no longer have a girlfriend."
"My god!" said Sam Piper, a chiseled rescue volunteer and member of Yosemite Search and Rescue. "You came up here and left your girlfriend alone in the YOSAR campsite?"
"You no longer have a girlfriend," Freddie chimed in, "I have seen it happen hundreds of times, Michael. Trust me."
|Me, Maddog, and Freddie in the "Safety Zone:" the number one hub for hot gossip on Denali.|
|Freddie solos past some Denali suitors on the fixed lines.|
All I wanted was to go rock climbing with my girlfriend in Newfoundland later that fall, but as I had no girlfriend anymore, she climbing Half-Dome and getting romantic dinner in the YOSAR campsite from some other chiseled rescuer, this seemed unlikely. I was in dire straits. I had come up to Denali with Freddie and Maddog. Long before I met these two, I had heard of their legendary exploits, climbing big traverses they gave names like "Care Bear." Reading the American Alpine Journal in my college dorm room, I imagined these names. Freddie sounded like a kid, and Maddog sounded very scary. It was intimidating to be on a trip with them.
All spring long, we waited in our tent at 14,000 feet. The guides hunkered down, the alpine mentors were being mentored, Killian Jornet and his group of Europeans were buffing their tights for speed ascents, and the Denali Rescue Volunteers were skiing laps and checking in with Yosemite to make certain my girlfriend was getting California plates with her new man-friend. Freddie, meanwhile, was a man possessed. He had envisioned a brilliant traverse of the Alaska range and the weather was terrible. Maddog was chomping at the bit, too. These two were incredible endurance athletes. And me? I had no idea what I was doing here, surrounded by Mountain Hardwear stuff, about to traverse mountains I had forgotten the names of.
In the tent, Maddog and I read the book Shogun and pretended like we were in feudal Japan. Freddie listened to an NPR series about the Mongol hoards. From his demented cackles, I could tell Freddie was pretending to murder and pillage Maddog-san and Michael-san, over on the other side of the tent in imaginary feudal Asia. On it went.
Later on in the trip, we thought that maybe the three of us would like to sit in the same position in a different tent and maybe ski and walk out of the Alaska Range. It was a perverted part of the original traverse plan. Freddie looked like the Confederate General Pickett at Gettysburg if General Pickett had been told his eponymous, suicidal charge had been cancelled.
We skied down to base camp. Maddog and Freddie were finding out I was a terrible skier. I am used to being dead weight on expeditions and at home though. I was content.
|Freddie and Maddog in a whiteout on the ridge line of Kahiltna Dome. We bivied here.|
|Dana playing with his salami ration during aforementioned bivy.|
A day later, we broke through the clouds by descending Kahiltna dome and started skiing towards the tundra, just us three, Denali's massive north walls echoing our shouts through the clouds. We did not have so much food but we had enough. After a long first day, we broke through the moraines, up and over passes, onto hummocks of grass, and slid onto another glacier. We were alone still. We set up the tent on some rocks that night in thick fog and hoped to make it to the road, 23 miles away, the next day.
|Dana, Freddie, and a rubber chicken on the summit of Kahiltna Dome, about to drop into the Peters Basin and traverse out of the Alaska Range.|
|Dana on the ridge of Kahiltna Dome, the Peters in the background. Some of the best visibility we had had in weeks.|
|This was Maddog's way of waking us up in the morning. He is strong enough to one-arm me, Freddie, and a MHW EV3. NO PROBLEMS.|
Out was the way to go even though we each had only a few bars of food and one coffee package each. I swore at my skis and felt a little ashamed that morning but soon enough we were on to the tundra, 20 miles from the road, and all it would be was a 20 mile walk in freezing rain.
|Hiking up and over towards the Muldrow Glacier. It felt nice to be on greenery.|
|Looking back to where the Alaska range would be, the last day.|
We were tired and our feet hurt. My back hurt more than anything. Freddie and I kept yelling to the grizzly bears.
"DON'T hurt ME, Mr. BEAR!!!"
Maddog did not seem to feel tired and he simply walked towards the road, happy as a clam.
We crossed the McKinley river at night which was a little scary and limped to Wonder Lake.
Boots wet, eyes wild, I flew back to Boston. My girlfriend Alexa didn't break up with me right away, and instead we went to the beach. My feet were sore from my boots and I was pale and skinny except for my face. I kept looking around for anyone who looked like YOSAR but saw none. It would be good to go to Newfoundland with her in the fall. Maybe we could even share a tent like I had with Freddie and Maddog. That, I assured myself, would be swell.
Chapter Two: Jabo
|The South Coast of Newfoundland.|
"It is time to man up, Michael." I did not want to man up. I was in Newfoundland finally on the last pitch of Leviathan, a 10 pitch rock route. Down in camp, I could see Bayard Russell and Sam Bendroth drinking beer. And Alexa was sitting here, taking the rack, about to take the 5.12 exit instead of the 5.9 one despite the fact we only had an ounce of daylight left.
|Bayard, gesticulating, Bayard-style.|
Goddamn it! I thought to myself. I wish she had left me for YOSAR. Then I would be drunk with Bayard and Sam right now, instead of at a hanging belay in the dusk light.
"Go get 'em babe!" I cheered.
The trip, it must be admitted, had been going well. Newfoundland is an incredible place. The weather was great, and we were all having a great time; after three ferry rides and a 12 hour drive, Alexa, Bayard, Sam and I set up camp beneath Blow Me Down cliff, or, Jabo, as the Newfies call it. Right on the ocean, in the sun, was the place to be.
|The South Coast of Newfoundland.|
|Getting dropped off at dusk beneath the cliff.|
The south coast of Newfoundland is so beautiful it makes me ache to think of it now. There is granite and this granite crashes against the Atlantic. On top of the cliffs small scrubby vegetation survives somehow and in the bays and coves are two or three brightly painted fishing villages accessible only by boat. The people who live here spend their lives hunting moose and ptarmigan across the granite but more importantly they live by the sea, some seem to live on the sea, and this wonderful clash of rock and ocean is their home.
|"Life beneath Jabo was difficult."|
Life beneath Jabo was difficult. With only so much beer and so much coffee, a scant few films loaded on my iPhone, not to mention being stuck in a tent with Alexa, it was all pretty tough. Alpinists must endure, however, and we set our sights on Leviathan, Joe Terravecchia's classic route here.
|Sammy Bendroth of the sea.|
Alexa Siegel is a terrifying woman to be in love with. One time I read an article about men climbing with women and a lot of what they said did not apply to me. I have become used to falling off Alexa's warm-ups, having her learn things like ice climbing in a few short months (took me years), wobbling my way down ski trails after her, and silently pleading she'll take the next difficult pitch. Sometimes to redeem myself I make coffee, as her weakness seems to be an inability to wake up.
But in camp, coffee was running out, and Siegel was taking the rack. Quivering with fear, I handed her the quickdraws and put on another layer. Bayard and Sam, having already sent, whooped in our still-sunny base camp. I ignored them. We were about sixty feet from the top of Jabo. Still, sixty 5.12 feet is hard.
Alexa struggled, so I paid attention as I am unused to watching her struggle. There were still shards of daylight left. Finally, she called down. I yarded through the crux, pulling on quick draws with all my might. We scampered up, towards the descent, and down we went in the darkening sky.
|Alexa leads a 5.10 pitch on Jabo.|
|Alexa following a 5.11 pitch on Leviathan.|
|Okay okay an annoying couple photo but the other summit photo is two smelly dudes and a rubber chicken so it all evens out.|
|Alexa hiking down in the evening.|
We did some other climbs there, on the ocean. Sam and Bayard bolted a new route until the bolts ran out, and we went home. We spent a night in Francois, one of the tiny fishing villages, where there are no cars. It was perfectly chilly and our new fisherman friends brought us moose meat, pie, breakfast. We slept on the boat which smelled like diesel and were on our way.
Sam's van got a flat tire. It was Newfoundland's final, ensnaring, goodbye. Poor Bayard forgot to tighten the lug nuts all the way and when we were back on the road, the van stuttered like an Iroquois helicopter bearing down on a Landing Zone. We limped towards the ferry and back down to the lower 48, happy for now.