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Emotional Atrophy in the Revelation Range
Posted on: April 7, 2015
Clint Helander leading Emotional Atrophy's (Grade 4 M6 WI5 A0, 3,280') first crux. Tad McCrea took this photo during the first attempt on the peak, on March 20. The successful ascent was completed with John Giraldo on March 22. [Photo] Tad McCrea
In late March, Alaskan climber Clint Helander returned for the eighth straight year to Alaska's Revelation Range with the goal of climbing Peak 9304, aka the Obelisk, the final unclimbed 9,000-foot peak in the range. Upon arrival, he and his teammate were beaten down by strong winds, which destroyed their cook tent on the first night, and left them cowering for much of the trip.
David Roberts first noticed the Revelations while visiting the Kitchatna Spires in 1966. In 1967 he returned with members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club to climb, and in the process named the mountains from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Roberts wrote about The Revelations in his memoir On the Ridge Between Life and Death, daring future visitors to experience "Difficult first ascents [and].... weeks of prowling across terrain that no human had ever explored." Forty-one years later, Helander began visiting the area, inspired by Roberts's words. Over the past seven years, Helander, with a variety of partners, has made the rugged and remote subrange on the far western end of the bow-shaped Alaska Range his private reserve, climbing eight major new routes, including the first ascents of six unclimbed peaks. This was his eighth visit to the area.
Several big mountains stud the Revelations, located 140 miles northwest of Anchorage, with thirteen peaks topping 9,000 feet. These mountains contain huge granite walls and steep ice-choked gullies. They are plagued by notoriously poor weather, with severe storms drifting inland from the Gulf of Alaska and raking the range with high winds and heavy snow.
Helander had his sights on three peaks during a visit to the area the previous year with Graham Zimmerman. "We only got one, but we came out with good ideas for the future," Helander says. One of those ideas was the Obelisk. "I've always walked by it. It's separated from every other peak out there," he says.
Helander recruited Tad McCrea while McCrea was in Patagonia. "I jumped on it," McCrea says. "I got back from Chalten for five days, did the duffel shuffle, and flew right up in a big storm that dumped a foot-and-a-half of snow, then -55 degree cold came in. The weather was heinous—it was a lot worse than we expected."
The team spent fourteen of sixteen days cowering in their tents and in a snow cave, wearing down emotionally from the strong winds.
(Top) Helander (orange jacket) and McCrea (purple jacket, eyeing the bacon) cooking bacon, eggs and hash-brown potatoes in their snow cave while freight-train winds blow outside. The team spent fourteen out of sixteen days cowering in their tent because of the wind. [Photo] Clint Helander (Bottom) Helander taking a swig off the bottle in the team's "Taj Mahal of cooking caves," while a storm rages outside. The team was often on the verge of losing their tent because of the winds. [Photo] Tad McCrea
McCrea and Helander hunkered down in the tent during the worst of it, and prepared to escape into a snow shelter if the tent was shredded in the gusts. "I woke up, and Clint was getting his boots ready," says McCrea, of one of the wilder nights. "You could hear gusts of wind coming over the pass like a freight train."
Helander leading the route's crux, an 80-foot section of WI5. "[The] gear [is] marginal at best," says McCrea. [Photo] Tad McCrea
Finally, the winds subsided enough to attempt the peak on March 20, the day before McCrea was to fly out. The pair listened to the persistent wind rattling the tent in the night and morning before it died down at 1 p.m. They left camp at 2 p.m., skied to the base of Peak 9304 and started climbing. McCrea says, "We climbed up over the bergschrund for several hundred feet, and then Clint led a M6 pitch." They continued up a snowfield but, says McCrea, "we didn't want to be navigating the technical stuff in the dark so we bailed there. The rock is friable, gritty compact rock with questionable pro." They were a third of the way up the route.
Clint Helander leading the route's WI5 pitch during the successful ascent of Peak 9304 (aka the Obelisk) on March 22, 2015. The team completed the round-trip ascent of the previously unclimbed peak—the last unclimbed 9,000-foot peak in the Revelations—in twelve hours and fifteen minutes. [Photo] John Giraldo
The plane picked up McCrea the next day. "I can deal with bad weather," McCrea says, "but it was hard for me to know that John [Giraldo] and Clint were going to climb it. I was psyched that they had good conditions, but I was a bit jealous. I'm not gonna lie. But it will still be there. It's a beautiful peak."
Giraldo arrived on March 21. "This was my first trip to the Revelations," says the 25-year-old Giraldo, "which was pretty good since Clint is the modern godfather of that range. It was cool having him showing me around."
Giraldo raises his arms as he and Helander near the summit of the Obelisk before completing the peak's first ascent. [Photo] Clint Helander
With the good weather and low winds, the pair got after the peak on March 22, making quick time by using postholes and a rappel line Helander had left on the previous try. The team simulclimbed the entire route except two pitches. The first crux, led by Giraldo, featured M6 climbing over the bergschrund. Giraldo described it as "ice and rock, steep, and had a chimney down low that was slightly overhanging in the back but you could stick your shoulder into it and work your feet up and wedge yourself. I found it pretty scrappy."
Giraldo leading one of the route's many steep snow pitches. During both attempts, including the successful ascent, the teams simulclimbed the majority of the terrain. [Photo] Clint Helander
Above, they cruised the snowfield to the next crux near where McCrea and Helander had previously retreated. "It was a 70-foot, WI5, thin smear with M6 mixed climbing that didn't let up until the end," says Helander. "It was one of the more difficult pitches I have led in the mountains." Climbing inch-thick ice over a slab, Helander cleared the ice away to place a cam. " I freed the whole pitch but hung on gear to clean the ice out of the crack," he says. "That was the only protection. The ice was too thin for screws. I almost backed down, but once I broke through the ice and hit the slab to find the crack, it ended up being the salvation of the whole route."
They continued simulclimbing moderate terrain. "We usually had 60 meters of rope out, following the line of least resistance," says Helander. Eight hours out from base camp, the pair emerged on the untrodden summit. "It was a really smooth, quick day," Giraldo says. "We started pretty much at daybreak and made it back to our tent with daylight. No epics or anything too majorly exciting."
They named the peak the Obelisk, with the route up the southwest face called Emotional Atrophy (Grade 4 M6 WI5 A0, 3,280 feet). After being tent-bound for days on end, Clint joked that the theme of the trip was "emotional atrophy."
"The high point of the trip," Helander says, "was ticking off a peak that I've wanted to climb since 2008. The low point was pretty much every other part of the trip. We were spending 20 hours in our tent in a form of solitary confinement. The other four hours was digging out the snow cave. Most of the time the wind was so strong that it wasn't even possible to go out and take a piss."
After completing the main objective, the pair still had seven days before the plane returned. Helander says, "After a day of recovery, we packed four days of food and traversed to the northwest face of Jezebel." After schlepping huge loads up over the pass, they realized it was yet again too windy to climb. "We tried anyway, but spindrift was flying up the route," says Helander. "We hiked back to base camp and cowered there for another five days until we finally got picked up."
(Top) Giraldo (orange helmet) and Helander (white helmet) on the summit of Peak 9304, aka the Obelisk, on March 22. [Photo] John Giraldo (Bottom) The Obelisk showing Emotional Atrophy. [Photo] Clint Helander
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