Alpinist 50

Unspoken

Posted on: June 8, 2015


Ice crystals bounce off my helmet. They hint at larger pieces that could fall, detaching from the summit slopes high above, ending me, ending this dream. Near-ninety-degree neve, eight inches deep, clings to the granite. It wasn't supposed to be this steep! The crevasses on the Ruth Glacier already seem distant, like penciled-in squiggles, even though I'm only 500 feet up the massive north face of Mt. Johnson. Echoing in the background, avalanches rumble down the south face of Mt. Wake.[Photo] Ryan Jennings

IT'S MAY 1, 2014, and the Alaskan air is warming. The valley between us and Mt. Wake is so narrow that I imagine shards of stone, torn loose by the falling debris, ricocheting to claim us. Above a tipped-out cam, with no more options, I stab a picket at a slight downward angle, holding it with my shoulder, hammering with the same arm.

But this snow is too soft for ice screws and too thin for pickets. I give up on protection. With each pick-stick and kick, I pray the falling crystals remain miniscule. Even a glancing blow from a softball-sized chunk could peel me from the wall. My pack, heavy with four days of gear, pulls on my shoulders. My last piece, a marginal picket, was 180 feet ago. My partner Kevin Cooper—Coop—can't see or hear me. We communicate only through the movement of the rope, and when it comes tight, he'll know that he has to leave the anchor and start climbing. I look up: the white neve highway stretches toward azure Alaskan skies. I hope we'll climb fluidly as one.

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