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Obsession and Ingenuity, Part II: The Old Man and the Ice Tower


Climbers working up "Pitch 2" of the leaning Ghost Raven Ice Tower. Created in 2005, this is the tallest Fox sculpture to date (152 feet). [Photo] Jeff Apple Benowitz

"It worked last time," Doug said. His scowl warned against any attempt at ridicule. He explained that he'd picked up the crossbow at the local dump, rigged it with a spool of thread and was intending to launch an arrow over the top of the tower, then pull up a static line for jugging. The last time he'd achieved this feat, the tower had been less than its current lofty height. Now, as shot after shot led only to a tangle of filaments, I began to flake out my lead lines.

Finally Doug said, "You sure you want to lead this thing with a broken leg?" With some of that youthful arrogance still present, I said, "Sure, looks easy." No one else had a rope out, and after a brief hesitation, and some conflicted glances at the bottle of whiskey by his feet, Doug mumbled his assent.

After weeks of unusually warm weather, the tower was now severely overhanging. Dragging my broken leg, I proceeded to ascend a series of vertical steps up one side by swinging my tools, pulling up, locking off and then moving up my good leg. The jerkiness of my movement resembled that of a Swiss rope-climbing toy, without the mechanical precision. Partway up, I broke off an icicle and sucked moisture from it, till the tell-tale taste of sewage stopped me.


"Hey Doug," I shouted down, "Is this water potable?"

"Oh yeah, sure, good as any," he said.

I took his word for it and quickly dropped what was left of the poo-sicle. Doug continued to cheer on my ascent with hearty laughter. When I crawled into a cave to find better ice for a screw, he could barely hold the belay between guffaws. When I got stuck in the cave, however, he stopped laughing.

As I wiggled my way back out, Doug said, "Jeff I take everything I've said about you back. Well, except the 'You're crazy!' part."

About fifty feet from the top, muscle fatigue and my youthful arrogance caught up with me, so I found a belay stance. Doug quickly followed my pitch, said he was glad I led the rotten stuff down low and then busted a few overhanging moves (that had me wondering if he really were over sixty) to gain the tower's summit ridge.

After Doug belayed me to the top, he was uncharacteristically laconic. "Nice go for a one-legged fellow, but we need to get off this thing. It's gonna fall over. I heard it creaking while I brought you up."

The break that inspired Benowitz to go for the lead. [Photo] Jeff Apple Benowitz

The south tower, with the north tower on the left, December 24, 2005. Locals considering the routes. [Photo] Courtesty of Alaskan Alpine Club

"You're kidding. There is no way this thing is gonna topple. Water has incredible cohesive strength. Besides, did you bring up the whiskey?"

"Damn, forgot it again."

Looking around, Doug pointed out how pleasant it was that, "There ain't a Mountain Ranger in sight."

Finally seeing eye to eye, I kept my mouth shut and didn't point out the fact that, "There wasn't a mountain in sight either."

Back on the ground I dug out a flask of Ouzo, and Doug between slugs took photos of my carbide-tipped-crutches leaning against the tower and thus let me know I had earned his respect. He also told me that and $4.99 "would get ya a cup of coffee if they were willing to serve ya."

My judgment, on the other hand, is still up for review, for on the very next day the Ice Tower fell over, narrowly missing the pipeline.

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