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Chasing Mythical Beasts in Alaska
Posted on: May 26, 2016
Day 2: Graham Zimmerman traversing away from the bivy and toward the route's crux. [Photo] Chris Wright
[The harpies] have broad wings, a human neck and face,
Clawed feet and swollen, feathered bellies; they caw
Their lamentations in the eerie trees.
"What about the Wrangell-St. Elias?" I asked as I thumbed through photo books full of mountains.
Chris Wright looked up from his computer, "I would love to check out those mountains."
We were sitting across the table from each other in our home in Bend. The warm central Oregon light flowed through the windows. Steam rose from our espressos. As we spun through maps of the glaciers and peaks of the Alaska Range, we quickly realized we'd spent significant time on many of them: chasing first ascents in the Yentna and Lacuna, sitting out weather in the Revelations, hauling sleds around the Kahiltna, surviving storms in the Kichatnas, and of course attempting—with occasional success—routes on the classic mountains of the Ruth, Buckskin and Tokositna. Both of us were ready for something new. The Wrangell-St. Elias, far to the east of the Alaska Range and shrouded in secrets, presented just the potential for adventure that we sought.
Day 1: Chris Wright climbs over 70-degree snow and ice on the lower 2,000 feet of Celeno Peak (13,395'). [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
A detailed scan of the maps drew us to a peak that we'd never heard mentioned, Celeno, part of the Twaharpies group of the St. Elias. A jagged and severe mountain, Celeno is named after one of the three harpies of Greek mythology: fearsome beings sometimes described as creatures with the bodies of birds and the heads of women; other times as strong and sudden winds. They were called Aello ("storm swift"), Ocypete ("the swift-wing") and Celeno ("the dark").
Eight months later, on May 12, Chris and I skied toward Celeno in the near darkness of the Alaskan night. The 6,000-foot face loomed above us at the head of the Canyon Creek Glacier, its streaks of dark blue and grey rising to block out the starry sky. Our aim—a subtle spur on the west face—began just above the base and continued nearly to the summit, pointing directly at its apex.
We climbed the first 2,000 feet of snow and ice (up to 70 degrees) unroped. A serac lurked high above us on the face, and for a few hundred feet, we had to duck under its hazard. We moved as fast as we could, crossing the area of its potential fall line in fewer than fifteen minutes. By 7:30 a.m. we were roped up and moving into more challenging terrain.
I took on the day's first set of pitches, which wove through blocky rockbands interspersed with winding veins of thin ice (sustained at M4 to M5 with a stout M6 crux). As I made the final moves out of a steep chimney, I glanced up: a snow slope led to the rockband that we'd imagined as the crux of the route. From this close proximity, I could now see it was very steep and blank.
Day 2: Wright on The West Face Direct's steep and loose crux (5.10X A2+). [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
That night, we slept on a small ledge chopped into a thin snow ridge. And in the morning light, Chris led off. One hundred feet higher, the granite of the lower half of the route met the metamorphic rock of the upper half. A dark and severely overhanging headwall shadowed the way ahead.
Wright led two moderate traverses toward what appeared to be a weakness in the rockband. For the next three-plus hours, he tiptoed over loose rock toward a black roof. Rocks showered down as he inched upward. With ten feet of climbing remaining, he dislodged a barrage of stones that badly damaged one of the ropes and broke a carabiner. I watched in amazement as he pulled himself together and finished the pitch.
I followed, free climbing and jugging, until I found Chris shaken, but in one piece, standing on a small shelf above the overhang. I pulled him into a deep embrace.
Since we needed to locate a safe place to bivy for the heat of the afternoon, I continued for two more pitches of easier rock climbing to reach what turned out to be our best option—a ledge no larger than two duffel bags set next to each other. We happily slumped onto it and melted water. My mind relaxed slightly as I gazed up at the spur, now icy and less than vertical. But the summit was still 2,500 feet above.
We left the ledge at 2 a.m., and I led through a final two pitches of positive dry tooling, before the route changed from rock and mixed climbing to steep snow and ice. We simulclimbed to the top of the spur, and then we cut a hard right to reach an iced gully that led toward the apex of the peak.
Day 3: Wright, above the Canyon Creek Glacier, climbs through flutings. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
At this point, we once again had to duck under the serac that hung over the face. Now it was only a few hundred feet above us. Its ice seemed to glisten menacingly, surrounded by steep rime towers. As we sprinted upward, the angle never relented—a steady 70 degrees with short sections breaching into overhanging ice and snow. A light fog began to form, and soon we couldn't see more than 100 feet. All around us towers of rime blocked our way as we continued to simulclimb, following our instincts, toward what we hoped would be an easy exit onto the summit snow slopes.
When I looked up again, feeling the warmth of the early afternoon creeping into the foggy air, I cursed: a clearing revealed that we'd been climbing into an amphitheater ringed on all sides by overhanging rime. But as the gap in the mist shifted, I could perceive a ramp to our left. I traversed to it and rejoiced as the terrain slowly started to roll over into low-angle snow. Two hundred feet later, I was standing on a nearly flat ledge. Through the moisture-laden air, I could see the outline of the summit just above me. I belayed Chris up, and he sat down in the snow next to me. Finally, we could relax. With most of the mountain below us, we were, at least for a moment, safe.
Because of our fatigue and the lack of visibility, we bivied on this ledge for the rest of the day and evening. On May 15, we climbed the final few hundred feet to the summit in the pre-dawn twilight. A sea of mountains spread before us, and we giggled at our luck.
Twenty-two hours later, we stumbled into base camp. By then, we'd traversed more than three miles from the summit to the top of the couloir that Kevin Ditzler and Jay Claus climbed in 2012 on their first ascent of the peak. The dark form of Celeno loomed above us once more. The streaks of ice and rock were now familiar to our tired bodies and dull picks, but the structure and relief remained terrifying.
Now that we're back in the Oregon sunshine, the details are already fading into memory. Nonetheless, I have a feeling that our encounter with Celeno will always be one of my wildest adventures. I will never lightly tell someone that visiting the Wrangell-St. Elias is a good idea. But for those looking for adventure, other mythic beasts certainly lie within.
Author's Note: Huge thanks to Jay Claus of Ultima Thule for getting us into the range and for pioneering the FA of the peak. It was his beta on this route that allowed us to get down as efficiently as we did. Additionally huge thanks to all those who help us with our endeavors, most importantly our friends and families who put up with us running off to chase mythical beasts.
Celeno Peak showing The West Face Direct. X's mark the bivies. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
From May 12th to 15th Graham Zimmerman and Chris Wright made the second ascent of Celeno Peak (13,395') via a new route, The West Face Direct (M6 5.10X A2+ 95 degrees, 6,000').
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