Spice Factory

Posted on: March 1, 2006


The north faces of Mounts Johnson, Wake and Bradley from the Ruth Gorge, Spice Factory (Alaska Grade V: WI5 M7 5.10 R, 1600m) on the north face of Mt. Bradley is indicated (conditions were far leaner than depicted when Menard and Turgeon established their route). [Photo] Seth Pollack

LP: "'23 kN' or 'Petzl'?" my partner asks. I'm already too familiar with our "flip the 'biner" routine to wonder who'll be leading first: either Max is a pro flipper or I'm just plain unlucky. I say nothing, pick up the bigger pack and start following our ski tracks to the base of the wall.

At 2 a.m. I can just discern the massive east buttress of Mt. Bradley plunging into the glacier. Quickly, as if I were placing myself between a huge vise, I step between Mounts Dickey and Bradley, then climb the initial snow slope on Bradley's north face. When I finally catch up to Max, I barely have time to set two nuts in a crack and tie in: he flips me the ropes, and he's gone.

Pretty soon though, I notice he isn't moving as fast as usual. It takes him a good hour to climb the first pitch... one we are climbing for the third time.

Seconding, I realize the conditions have deteriorated badly. The already marginal ice encountered on our first attempt has changed into granulated snow. As I think of the harder pitches and the several overhanging mushrooms above, I start to doubt. By the time I reach the belay, I'm already dead pessimistic about our chances. I want to turn back, but I'm unwilling to admit it while it's my turn to lead.

Wordlessly I switch packs with Max, and he hands me the sorted gear with his usual discipline. He's ready to continue. I try to focus.

A balancey move to the right of a small prow sets me in the business. As I traverse the steep slab, picks in a diagonal crack and frontpoints on small edges, I try not to think about the 200 meters of air beneath me. The exposure tingles like the first crisp bite into a red garden pepper, when you're not yet sure of its heat.

Everything is falling apart in this too-warm weather. Delicately I negotiate the slab moves to reach the precarious belay. After our epic first attempt—we were almost incapable of skiing back to camp after 900 meters of rapping and forty-eight hours on the go—I would never have believed we'd be back at it.

"Whew! Good lead, man!" Max congratulates me when he comes up, his helmet slanting to one side as if it were too big for him. Now it's his lead, up the Jalapeno Headwall, so I tell him my concerns. "We didn't wake up so early to turn back so soon," he says. His simple response reminds me that I tackled this climb with the right partner. He has a point: until we can't continue any farther, there's no reason to stop. A tacit agreement is made to go on.

"Capsaicin (the part of the pepper that produces the burning sensation)... increases the mouth's sensitivity. As a result, food seems more flavorful."

—Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dille,

The Chile Pepper Book

Max: At first, Louis-Philippe Menard, aka "LP," hesitated about my idea for an expedition. We both find it invigorating to cook and eat hot meals, and we like spicy climbs, too, but LP wasn't certain we were ready for the kind of project I proposed. Convincing him wasn't too hard, though: as we scrolled through alpine journals and photos of mountain faces, the pictures of ice-filled couloirs and dark granite refreshed his imagination.

Alaska was the most remote region we could afford, and we kept coming back to one place in particular: the Ruth Gorge. Benchmark routes like The Gift, Arctic Rage and the Elevator Shaft seemed to match our ideal climb, combining the sweetness of mixed climbing with the bitterness of an alpine setting and enough spice to enhance the flavor of it all. The Ruth had to contain more unclimbed lines. The longer we mulled over our selection, the better it seemed.

We eventually came upon a picture of Mt. Bradley's steep north face. The relatively unknown nature of the mountain piqued our taste for new ground. From a small Web photo, we discerned a delicate white line following the weakness in its center. Although a French team had established a route, Welcome To Alaska, on the northeast spur of Bradley in 2002, more alpine journals and phone calls revealed a delectable fact: the north face itself was unclimbed.

"In 1494, Christopher Columbus left on his ship into the unknown, the purpose being to seek a sea route toward India. He did not find a direct passage to the world of gold and spice, but he discovered something else...."

—Henry H. Hart, Sea Road to the Indies

LP: As soon as the plane left us in the Gorge, we began building our camp. In the clear sky above us, the late April sun seemed to boil. "Dude, are you sure we can call this an expedition?" I said to Max. "This feels like car camping!"

I stripped off my heavy layers. Shirtless, we packed snow to build our kitchen.

When we were done, we skied to the base of Bradley's north face to have a look at our prospective line. As opposed to what we had seen (or thought we'd seen) in pictures, we found little ice or snow on the face. Without its confectionary layer, the bare rock appeared smooth and dark. Our white line of weakness had disappeared and our project with it. We decided to have a look at what else this valley had to offer.

Mt. Johnson's frosted pyramid caught our eyes first, but skiing past its east flanks, between reddish-brown rock like scraped cinnamon bark, we found two obvious ice stripes leading to a deep continuous runnel. This line seemed to reach the ridge just below the summit. We didn't have to discuss when to go. Back in camp, we geared up. Planning on a fast, single-push alpine-style ascent, we kept our load to a minimum, bringing only the small alpine rack, a bivy sack for two and a stove.

"In order to 'gee up' a lazy horse, it is the time honored practice of Sussex farmers to apply a pinch of ginger to the animal's backside."

—Encyclopedia of Spices, www.theepicentre.com

Max: 1 a.m. beeped. I peered out of our shelter. "LP, it's a total whiteout outside!" But then I remembered what a friend told us before leaving: "It's easy to do nothing in expeditions. You always have a reason to go back to sleep." Worst case, we'd be back in time to cook lunch: a piquant mountain chili.

We locked the GPS to the Johnson East Face Base waypoint and let our skis carry us down the valley. At the base, we simply started climbing.

Dense fog gripped us, and the world turned cold and gray. I could only hear the panting of my breath and the squeaking of my tools. Then it cleared up and we found ourselves in a magnificent bath of light and colors: the sun sparkled over the ice like crystallized ginger. Perhaps we wouldn't be back for lunch after all.

At around 4 p.m. we reached the ridge, and an hour later we were on the mountain's slender tip. Three days after we landed on the glacier, all the surrounding summits looked so close I could almost imagine myself hopping from one to another. But for now, daydreaming was out of the question: the descent looked unsavory at best.

"Peppers are the only foodstuff that can provoke both intense pleasure and pain. Moreover, they can be addictive...."

—The Chile Pepper Book

LP: Proud of our first two climbs in the Ruth—we also managed the second ascent of London Bridge's On the Frozen Roads of Our Incertitude—we took a closer glimpse at Bradley's north face. Through our binoculars appeared an improbable but maybe just possible weakness, an S path, and we became immersed in its elegance and purity. Several blank sections convinced us to sample the first few pitches. We could not ask for a better appetizer: the mixed climbing—a thin runnel of ice in a saffron-orange dihedral—was cinnamon sweet! The second pitch's tricky traverse cut the candied taste with a hint of bitterness, foreboding what might lie ahead. Nonetheless, a huge, slanting, snow-filled chimney presented itself afterward, so we wrapped it up to save our energy for an alpine-style ascent the next day.

At 2 a.m., after a few hours of anxiety-troubled sleep, we were on our skis heading to this steep, shadowed face. As the light grew in the Ruth Gorge, we quickly reclimbed the first two pitches and arrived at the headwall. This almost blank section had appeared to be the most challenging one from the ground; only sparse, miniature features gave the light somewhere to cast shadows, dark grayish flecks, like finely ground black pepper. I swallowed, bile rising in my throat.

But I knew I was with a great partner. Difficulty, pressure and fatigue had been measured out in equal quantities between us. Each time we swapped leads, we switched packs. The leader carried only a small twenty-liter pack, while the follower paid his due, lugging the forty-five-liter alpine pig.

As Max arrived at my belay, I looked forward to giving him the small load. I was at once secretly relieved for myself and anxious for him: I wasn't certain we could manage this pitch, one we would name the "Jalapeno Headwall."

Max skillfully torqued his ice axes in an irregular crack system. As soon as his blood rushed to his extremities—the runout helping—he traded picks for fingers. Now he was crimping the only featured edges around. It was hard to believe I was belaying the same guy I met three years earlier when he was just starting to lead ice. My jaw ached as Max grabbed his one remaining axe—the other one fell right next to me when he let it go in the first few meters, assuming he was still leashed—and continued into a newfound, discontinuous crack. Unfortunately, this line led to a dead end, necessitating a pendulum—but the headwall was ours.

"There are several remedies for the effects of eating a pepper that is too hot for you, something that is usually discovered when it is too late.... My own favorite retaliation is to simply eat another. And if that doesn't work, eat another one!"

—R. Berkley, Peppers: A Cookbook

Max: Suddenly I couldn't go any farther. "I'm at the end of the rope!" I called. Shivering and sweating as if I'd just thrown up, I finally found a decent belay among all the surrounding loose blocks, and I realized just how far I'd pushed my limits.

Above, I saw what we would later dub the "Hot and Spicy Ramp, a slightly overhanging dihedral clogged by large snow mushrooms ready to collapse at any moment. I couldn't look away until the whole rope was stacked over my feet and LP was unshouldering the heavy pack by my side. I couldn't figure out how he managed that crimp section with the pack on.

I suggested we start leading in blocks so he could take a rest. With an exhausted look, his eyes wide open, he retorted, "No way: if I don't go now, I'll break." A sip of water, a gel, and he was gone.

A pattern set in between us: after seconding a hard pitch, each of us considered it his turn to commit, in tribute to his partner's boldness. The Ramp did not turn out to be quite the handrail we predicted from below, and LP's lead brought us under the first big snow mushroom. This unstable feature obstructed the whole dihedral, making the steep slab to its left the only option. Without any possibilities for gear, I carefully worked my way up.

Scrickk! The dull tip of my blade just ripped from its catch, my hammer hit me right on the lip, and I was off.... "That's it!" I thought. "This is the end! The psychological belay won't hold this fall. We'll both end up down the bergschrund."

But the free fall slowed, the small blue strand got tight, and my body slammed against the wall, soundly reminding me I was still alive. For once, LP cursed at me: "Tabarnak, Max!"

I caught my breath and prepared again for the slab. For several minutes I balanced my weight on precarious placements, hoping each would hold long enough for me to reach the next shallow seam. Way past my falling point, I still hadn't found any gear. "Put in some pro, dude," cried LP from the belay. "Some pro!"

At last, a salvation crack appeared around the corner.

The gear resolved, the bitter taste was still far from dissipating: the hundred remaining meters of the Ramp grew more crumbly as we slowly progressed. Luckily, twenty hours after we started, the angle eased a tad, and a few ropelengths later we discovered a natural snow cave. When we finished excavating it a little more, we found ourselves sitting. Finally we could relax a bit. Emboldened by our progress, we agreed to take a power nap in our one bivy sack and then keep going as early as possible.

"The dry chili, lanka, is the most potent of spices. In its blister-red skin, the most beautiful. Its other name is danger."

—Chitra Banerjee, The Mistress of Spices

LP: An hour of quivering sleep later, I woke up. I thought back as far as I could, but I couldn't recall anything harsher than that moment. Wet, sore and psychologically trashed, I wanted home. Our two-man bivy kit worked well in the comforts of our living room, but now, as we squeezed onto the three-quarter-length Z-lite, the damp and cold chilled us.

We started to climb in semidarkness; it took me some time to feel alert, but the weather was clear of any threatening clouds and the wind was at a minimum. Farther up, I dug for a potential placement, sweeping the snow off a television-sized flake. Then the whole thing gave way. I managed to stop it from falling on Max, directly below, and to sling it steady over a knob.

Max began seconding. When he triggered the flake, it fell right on his belay site. The crushed stone gave off a burning smell that made my tongue taste acrid caper. We felt like pepper seeds: we had barely escaped the Pepper Grinder pitch.

After another hard-won pitch—a rock groove that forced us to pull on gear—we continued on to more forgiving, lower-angled terrain.

"This must be it," Max held up the digital camera screen, which showed a photo of the face we took from the ground. "Look, we're right here!" According to him, we should head right. Our height exhilarated us—we must have climbed almost 1000 meters—but the terrain ahead was enigmatic and bleak. Left was more appealing to me. Spindrift fell like sifted flour; there had to be a passage. But the pixels persuaded us to head right through another, even steeper-looking, headwall.

While I belayed Max, I hid under my hood to avoid the spindrift; it was hard to stay awake. I was starting to think the one-hour nap wasn't enough.

"Keeping a nutmeg in your pocket is believed to prevent fracture in case of a fall."

—Blandine Vie, The Spice Box

Max: Along the base of the steep groove, the climbing quickly turned awkward, forcing me to clip the pack to a piece of gear. Soon after, I resorted to aid. I was transferring my weight onto a hook placement when I lost my balance. My foot got stuck in my aider, and I flipped upside down. The block on which I was hooking fell right onto the pack. Both the pack and the block then bounced off into air.

LP was completely dumbfounded. We'd lost a pack, yet we were both unharmed and the ropes were undamaged. Both of us felt shaky, and we decided not to push our luck. We began our descent wondering whether our small rack would be enough to rappel the face.

Forty-eight hours later we savored our camp, the bitterness easing away in the sweet-clove warmth of food and shelter.

"Take some nutmeg and an equal weight of cinnamon and a bit of cloves and pulverize them. Then make small cakes with this and fine whole-wheat flour and water. Eat them often. It will calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind cheerful."

—Hildegard von Bingen, Physica: Liber Simplicis Medicine

LP: It dumped for almost five consecutive days. In between storms, we spotted our high point on the face with binoculars and realized we'd gotten completely off route. When the weather improved, we needed a dose of something to bring back our good spirits—perhaps The Mooses Tooth; we couldn't go back home without having climbed that.

We left camp at 4:30 p.m. with the intention of doing Ham and Eggs at night to get the best conditions. In the narrowness of the Root Canal pass, surrounded by high rock faces, our seclusion once more moved me. We simulclimbed the entire route, clipping belay stations as we saw them. It was just what we needed to restore our psyches and our appetites.

Back at camp, we couldn't take our eyes off Mt. Bradley. That little dot, there on the north face where our high point was, stung us, like a green lump of wasabi placed under the tongue. The route was always just in front of us, a mouth-watering meal passing right under our noses while our stomach cried with a hunger that none of the other climbs we'd done could satisfy.

But everything now had a pleasant whitish look. We examined and reviewed each section of our route with binoculars, assuring ourselves the recent snow might have improved conditions. Since it was the reason for our trip to Alaska, we both agreed that we had to give the north face another try.

"Eating hot peppers triggers a dramatic response in most people—tearing, sweating, and other signs of distress—yet millions of people choose to repeat the experience daily.... "

—The Chile Pepper Book

Max: My heart rate's sprinting while I sort the pro on my harness. I had wanted to lead the Jalapeno Headwall pitch again; in the comforts of camp, climbing it free had sounded good, but now that I'm here I don't care whether I free it or not. I slot my tool into a small seam and trade the security of the neve ledge for the first small edges. "Allez, Max," LP yells from the belay. "Focus!"

Hold by hold, I link the crimp sequence, flashbacks from the first time searing my mind. Soon I'm at the pendulum section, hesitating. "Come on, Max! There's plenty of rope out! I'm with you!" Tool in hand, I fully stretch my body and swing for a shallow dimple. As soon as my tool hooks, my feet rip. I can't down climb now. Every muscle tightens and I throw for the good crack. All of a sudden, I'm above the crux.

Regardless of our surroundings, we're in sync: stretching the rope, saying little, exchanging packs. We pass the bivy site sooner than expected, but still stop at the chimney just above, our last opportunity to rest at a decent stance. Since we brought a sleeping bag and extra instant oatmeal packets along this time, this bivy proves restorative.

Just before sunrise, LP stands at the cave entrance below the roof. Hood on, bouncing back and forth, his headlamp moving in circles and his tools leashed to his wrists, he looks like an alien emerging from my dream. We have agreed to switch leads so he can tackle the harder pitches on this attempt. I'm hoping he'll be able to free the aid sections—the first of which is served for breakfast!

We scratch our way up, crampons flat on the rock, hands palming, bodies leaning back against the opposite wall; I can't imagine we're supposed to be ice climbing. But higher up we find more palatable ice, and LP frees the improbable roof.

"Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish,

Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind fish,

Are fit to make a curry. 'Tis, when done,

A dish for Emperors to feed upon."

—William Makepeace Thackeray, "Poem to Curry"

LP: As I free the Curry Overhang, I scream with relief and joy. Huge portions of loose, razor-sharp rock had fallen on me while I struggled up the roof-capped rock groove, a huge, inexplicably suspended snow mushroom poised overhead. Our momentum picks up around 10 a.m., and I second past our previous high point. Now climbing on new ground, we can expect anything.

A thin ice pitch brings us to the base of the chimney we've been seeking. "Max! This is like Ham and Eggs, dude!" A narrow chimney-like gully patched with thin ice will lead us to the summit ridge.

Moving through a world of seracs, absorbed by their consistency, we don't even notice the big clouds building up around us. Moments later, we're in a total whiteout. Without any place to stop, we follow an instinctive path through chaotic, saltlike blocks. Four hundred meters later, we're soaked, with no clue where to go. Out of breath, we chop a ledge that allows us to sit and cover our legs with the now completely wet sleeping bag and bivy sack.

"The very smell of mint reanimates the spirit."

—Pliny, Natural History

Max: While I'm taking my second gulp of the only Chicken Noodle Cup-A-Soup we have left, LP knocks me with his knee. At first, I think he wants to tell me I've forgotten to divide the food in half; then I realize he's shivering. It clears up just enough to see the mountaintops. I give him a shake: "Let's get out of here!"

For two pitches we head to what seems to be the only breach in the corniced crest. Passing through it first, I search for the next obstacle and for a possible view of the summit, but there's nothing else—we are on the summit!

The euphoria lasts for a few minutes, our minds and senses tingling, revived in the half-light that lends a supernatural pink to the glacial amphitheater below. The remaining low clouds emphasize the steepness of the surroundings faces. It's 11 p.m. and the unstable weather pushes us to start our descent to the Bradley/Wake Col before total darkness. Eight hours later, we crumble down in camp after fifty-five hours on the go, not fully realizing that we have just done the biggest route of our lives.

"Spice: an aromatic or pungent substance used to flavor things up. Flavor: a distinctive, characteristic taste. Taste: the faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent."

—The canadian oxford dictionary

LP and Max: We make a last ski trip up the Gorge, around Barille, to the Mountain Hut, where our flight awaits. Soon we'll see colors other than those of winter, and in the deep shadows of the ice, a foreshadowing of green appears. Our faces flush with the memory of heat; images of fear and joy alternate within us, until there's no distinction between the recollection of pain and pleasure. One feeling evokes the other. Perhaps all climbers are like spice eaters: our brains sending out endorphins in response to the possibility of suffering, the burning sensation of frostnipped hands like the capsaicin blistering an unwary cook's fingertips.

For the past few weeks, we've been living a nonstop, pure alpine-style diet, untempered by the use of bolts. Maybe it's time for other neglected and more soothing tastes... if only to cool our palates for the next spicy m

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