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Rotten Ice, Whisky and Vertical Talus in the Revelations
Posted on: May 13, 2015
Chris Thomas leading Pitch 4, "mostly 5.10 rock with a few snow cornices," says Rick Vance, on their route Mandarin Mounty (5.10 WI5+ A2, 2,300'), Seraph (8,540') in the Revelations Mountains, Alaska. Thomas and Vance climbed their route—completing the first ascent of the peak on April 14—in 17 hours round-trip. [Photo] Rick Vance
In previous NewsWires, we reported on new routes on the Obelisk and Jezebel in Alaska's Revelation Mountains at the west end of the Alaska Range, 140 miles northwest of Anchorage. In this piece, we cover an ascent by the third team to visit the Revelations this season.
On April 14 Americans Rick Vance and Chris Thomas climbed the west face of Seraph (8,540')—first attempted and named by David Roberts and his partners in the late 1960s—in 17 hours round-trip, calling their route Mandarin Mounty (5.10 WI5+ A2, 2,300'). Their climb marks the first ascent of the peak. "Rock quality ran the full spectrum of Sierra-quality granite, to vertical frozen talus, to straight-up kitty litter," wrote Thomas in a message to Alpinist.
After waiting in Anchorage and then at the R and R Hunting Lodge, located 20 miles north of their objective, from April 4 to 10, Thomas and Vance flew into the range on a one-passenger Super Cub plane piloted by Rob Jones Jr. Because of the plane's small size, they required two flights to get themselves and their kit to the Revelation Glacier.
Vance following Thomas's lead on Pitch 4. [Photo] Chris Thomas
Clint Helander, who's been exploring the range every year since 2007, told Alpinist that the Revelations' low-lying glaciers—between 5,000 and 6,000 feet—are littered with rocks, making some pilots unwilling to land there. "Perhaps the best example of this is on the Revelation Glacier, where sadly the highest concentration of inspiring peaks and lines are concentrated," he said. "After an incredibly mild winter, most of the glaciers were void of snow, making landings in many zones almost impossible by traditional fixed-wing aircraft."
One of Thomas and Vance's objectives was the north face of Jezebel (9,560')—the same face the British climbers, Peter Graham and Ben Silvestre, considered climbing, but they were not able to land anywhere close to it. Meanwhile, soon after arriving on the Revelation Glacier, Thomas and Vance discovered that the ice smears they'd planned to climb on Pyramid Peak (8,572'), a formation also eyed by the British climbers, were unformed, and so they switched objectives yet again.
[A French team made the first ascent of Pyramid Peak in April 2014. Read the NewsWire here. Additionally, a Canadian team attempted the peak in April 2014, via a direct line, but retreated because of heavy spindrift. Soon after the Canadians reached the ground, a cornice cut loose from the face, obliterating their line of ascent—Ed.]
Then came another storm. For the next few days, Thomas and Vance passed time in their tent and scouted for a new target. When the sky cleared, they approached Seraph over an icefall and past a hanging glacier below the neighboring peak of Angel (9,265'). The pair made it up a steep, long snow ramp and through a first stretch of technical climbing before turning back in falling snow and heavy spindrift.
Mandarin Mounty ascends the "obvious couloir on the sunlit peak on the right in this photo," says Vance. [Photo] Rick Vance
"We roped up for the steep snow pitches to reach snow-covered rock, maybe 5.8 or 5.9, and spindrift started coming down super fast," Thomas said. "I was getting almost knocked over. We had to get out ASAP. I built a V thread and rapped, not knowing if we would come back."
As the team headed back to camp, the sky cleared and remained "splitter" overnight. The next day, they followed their broken trail back in, making quick work of the approach and steep snow section at the start of the same line they'd tried the previous day.
A few pitches later, they encountered a memorable WI5+ A2 pitch. "It had nailing down low and offwidth climbing up higher," said Thomas. "It looked like straightforward, vertical, rotten ice [from the belay]." Thomas climbed the ice until he could reach a knifeblade crack, which he aided until it widened. Higher, they jammed two and a half pitches of 5.10 cracks of varying widths. "The 15-pitch route was two-thirds ice and one-third rock," said Thomas. "With less rotten ice [and by taking more chances], it would definitely go free."
Adding excitement to their climb, "Fighter jets tore through the gorge below us while we were climbing," Thomas stated. "I couldn't believe my eyes—F-22s or something. They would break the sound barrier."
As they finished the summit ridge, a storm blew in, whirling spindrift around them. The men descended along a ridge protected from the gale, which hammered the opposite side of the formation. The storm carried on for two-thirds of their descent. "Once we were close to the glacier, things started to calm down, said Vance. "I was amazed how fast the weather changes in that range."
During their day of reprieve at base camp they gorged on fried meat—they'd brought in eight pounds of bacon—and washed it down with Tang and whisky in a cocktail they call Mandarin Mounty.
The following afternoon, another storm rolled in. This time it included gale-force winds, pinning down the team and putting them into survival mode. "The worst was at night. We'd stay awake so we could brace the tent," said Vance.
Both Thomas and Vance were thrown over by the wind. "The only other time I felt wind like that was in Patagonia," said Thomas. "We had to lean into the tent to where the wind was coming from. We were worried the wind would break a pole and shred the tent."
Vance "leading a mixed pitch a couple hundred feet below the summit ridge," says Thomas. [Photo] Chris Thomas
The two climbers put on all their layers, kept their satellite phone accessible and waited in place while gripping the tent's support poles. For forty long hours, howling winds lashed at their tent's seams, blowing away the wind walls they had built for cover. The climbers took shifts holding the tent up, with their arms in a crucifix position. "There was a constant stream of wind and these intense gusts for ten seconds to two minutes," said Thomas. "Then it would die down, you'd drink some Mandarin Mounty and then the next one would hit." During the maelstrom, their abandoned cook tent was destroyed.
With the storm behind them and the cook tent now gone, they were unable to reach Jones on their satellite phone. The two men left most of their gear and hiked and skied out of the range, carrying bear spray. "[Turns out Jones] was helping a friend recover a plane," said Thomas. Jones was further delayed when a storm forced him to land and he got stuck in a sandbar and was unable to take off. "He came five days later than we were counting on."
The team left base camp at 9 a.m. on April 19, hiking and skiing for a total of twelve hours, which included out the glacier, to the moraine, then skiing down a semi-frozen river.
"Starting in the lifeless and black, white and grey alpine, you slowly emerge into the colors, plants and smells of the Alaskan tundra. Spectacular scenery," described Thomas.
Once at the R and R Hunting Lodge, they raided Jones' handles of whisky and his king-size Tang stash...and waited five days for Jones to return. On the sixth day, after another weather delay, Jones flew in and retrieved their gear, picked Thomas and Vance up from the lodge and took them back to Anchorage.
The Revelations, Thomas concluded, are "not an easy place to go climbing, and it's... expensive, but if you want adventuring at it's finest, this is the place."
Vance drinking a Mandarin Mounty—Tang and whisky—in the team's Megamid cook tent. Their tent was later destroyed by high winds. [Photo] Chris Thomas
"This trip was action packed," stated Vance. "We were flying around in these tiny Super Cubs and hanging out at this plush lodge in the middle of nowhere. The climbing part was super exciting. It was a full value adventure start to finish."
"I congratulate the other teams," added Helander, known as the Godfather of the Revelations. "It's great to see people taking an interest and flying in from around the world to climb in such a unique area. By my records, there are no significant unclimbed 9,000-foot peaks left [there], but there are many untried 8,000-foot peaks and seemingly infinite unclimbed faces."
[This trip was made possible in part by funding from the Mugs Stump Award climbing grant, sponsored by Alpinist Magazine, Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd., Mountain Gear, Patagonia, Inc., and W.L. Gore & Associates. Thomas and Vance also also received support from pilot Rob Jones Jr., operator of Hesperus Air Service.—Ed.]
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