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Big Expedition, Fred Hutchinson Climb.

It is my belief that every mountain is climbable. It is also my belief that every mountain will not be climbed every time it is attempted.

I was asked to join the Big Expedition by Matt Farmer, Farmer as he is known. I barely knew Farmer, in fact just weeks earlier we had met over burritos and beer in Bellingham, WA. At the same dinner I met Dawn Glance.

I knew of Farmer, in that we have mutual clients in the small world of being a mountain guide. He was well respected in the industry and my first impressions were that he was a great guy who was a straight shooter. Dawn also gave a great first impression and it seemed she had a passion for climbing ice and mixed climbing, so she was first rate in my book.

Farmer and Dawn were to be partners on the Big Expedition and they wanted me to join and bring a partner who was going to fit our team and had similar attitudes towards risk. Bayard Russell came to mind immediately.
Our objective was to attempt an unclimbed Alaskan peak (8,290’) in the Fairweather Range of Glacier Bay National Park. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle created the Big Expedition to raise awareness to the challenges and importance of cancer research.

Joining four individuals who have never before climbed as a group and had not known each other prior to the expedition takes a lot of trust for the members and for Fred Hutch. Trust is intrical to all interpersonal relationships. It allows us to bond and meet challenges without hesitation or doubt. We would be expected to assess the situation in the mountains come to a consensus about how to handle it and carry out our plan as a team. That was our charge now we had to carry it out.
The expedition started in Seattle June 11, 2008. We would have a day to shop, organize and pack. Then we were off to Gustavus, AK; our jumping off point. Captain Jim would drop us off in Reid Inlet with his fishing boat. For a few hours on the boat it was easy to forget we were here to climb a mountain. Humpback whales were all around and seals were lounging along the shore.

Once we were dropped off and the boat buzzed away our first task was to get 750 lbs of gear and food from the shoreline to the glacier where we could start to ski and utilize our sleds. This would take three trips over two miles of unstable moraine and gaining twelve hundred vertical feet.

On the very first carry I stumbled upon bear tracks, Grizzly tracks. I wanted to get a picture and gain perspective so I laid down my baseball hat next to them. I realized how big the bear was when the tracks were wider and longer than my hat with a visor. Plus the claws extended a few inches past the pads. It was a big bear. Each subsequent trip I would peer with paranoia over my shoulder as I hauled salami, bacon, sausage, pepperoni, and beef jerky up to the glacier.

Once fully installed with our kit we went to work establishing camp. Within minutes I broke my toe piece of my ski binding. A few minutes later Dawn hollered something about a bear. At first it didn’t register then I realized what she was saying and joined the orchestra of shovels and ice axes and taunting with shouts of false bravado. Fortunately the bear took no interest in us, or our two hundred pounds of food.  We made it through the night eating Belly timber bars and snickers. The bear had given us a hall pass and we sorted out my binding, back in business.

The next few days were filled with packing, moving up a long flat glacier, unpacking, eating and doing it again. A lot of sweat and blisters allowed us to establish base camp by day four at 5000 feet at the head of Reid glacier.

After a few days of much needed rest, with rain and snow as the excuse, we carried our climbing gear up to the Reid/Gilmore col and scoped the route. The northeast ridge of peak 8290 was our objective. To access our route we would need freezing conditions to allow us safe passage under the east face of peak 8290. The face was constantly shedding avalanches. The skies were clear and it looked promising for a freeze. We decided to spend the next day organizing for the climb and hope for a freeze the following night.

Sometimes everything can come together and you still don’t make the summit, that is just alpine climbing. Eager for the climb we could barely sleep in the afternoon sun. By 7:30pm we were all up and eating dinner and drinking as much as we could. With a final tweak of our packs we set off at 9:15pm from camp. The snow pack had set up just enough under the 30-degree temps. Our first challenge was to gain the ridge. With our skis cached at the edge of the monster moat we belayed each team member across the jumbled bridge and over to a flat area on the N.E. ridge. Our plan was simple; carry bivouac gear to the base of the N.E. ridge cache it and attempt the climb then descend the route back to the cache. The bivy gear would allow us the wait out unstable snow conditions for the traverse back to base camp. The teams would be Dawn and Farmer Bayard and me.

Conditions seemed reasonable but there were still plenty of questions to be answered up high. The first pitch off from the ledge required a belay up slab rock with sugar snow plastered over it. From there we were able to put away the rope and solo together. The rock was very freshly exposed to the elements after millenniums of glacial work had crushed, scraped, and ground the granite into a defined ridge of plates, flakes, talus, boulders, and sand that were teetering on each other in a fine balance that begged to be toppled. There was snow to sneak onto to avoid the layers of chaos however the snow was also precariously bonding together from the light freeze we had experienced. The surface of the snow had an inch thick crust that would collapse under body weight and under was a mess of wet corn snow looking for a reason to give into gravities pull.

Bayard and I climbed first and pushed ourselves through three discussions of “should we keep going?” We would both agree that it seemed sketchy, but I was hopeful that it would get better a little further along. We connected islands of loose talus between slopes of 60-degree snow. Above hung a large but partially receded cornice. Optimistic was not the word you would use to describe our mental status. It was 2:30am and concerns of sunrise heightened as the colors in the Northeast sky morphed from a purple to red to orange. Once it made it to bright yellow we were not safe on the slope. To the southeast hung dark clouds with precipitation already hiding Taylor Bay 40 miles away.

We had pushed it as far as we could to still feel like we had reasonable control over the situation. From about 400 feet and a desperate traverse to the summit we turned around. Turning around shy of the summit is one of the most difficult decisions to make in the mountains. There is always baggage involved: disappointment, guilt, and self-doubt. Once you make the first step down it all dissolves into relief. Not relief for the end of the physical pain but relief that your mind can focus on one thing, getting down safely.

We joined Farmer and Dawn to let them know we were done. They had come to the same assessment and were just as happy to beat it out of there. We down climbed several hundred feet together, which was painfully slow with the encroaching storm or sun which ever arrived first. We decided it would be faster to fix a sixty-meter rappel and send three people down it and then I would clean the rope and down climb. This allowed the fastest descent for most people and kept them safe from rocks and snow that I would surely dislodge. We followed this strategy for several rappels, as the storm started to fill the air with snow, until we were safely back at our cache. Once there we did not linger. We still had to get out from under the East face avalanche alley before the storm worsened. Anxiety is the best medicine for summit angst. We did not make it to the top and the conditions were such that we did not want to return. All emotional baggage about the lack of summit was dumped into the yawning moat as we rappelled over it and back to our skis.

Back in camp ten hours after leaving it we breathed a collective sigh of relief and tipped a toast to the mountain with the last of our scotch. Peak 8290 was not going to allow passage to its summit with out a steep toll, which we were not prepared to pay. Risk is inherent to climbing mountains, for some it is corner stone to the appeal. For me risk in the mountains is to be embraced and cherished as a part of experiencing life in a very sublime and primeval way. Like coveting the forbidden apple, temptation has to always be removed from judgment when making decisions in the mountains.

Proud of our effort and content to let peak 8290 reside unclimbed until she is ready we packed up base camp and pointed our skis down glacier.

(Posted Jul 1, 22:50 by Kevin Mahoney)

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