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New route attempt in Alaska's Revelations ends with a rescue and a near miss

Posted on: September 12, 2017


The unclimbed North Face of Jezebel: about 3,800 feet of rock, ice and mixed climbing. [Photo] Rick VanceThe unclimbed North Face of Jezebel: about 3,800 feet of rock, ice and mixed climbing. [Photo] Rick Vance

[The following is a report by Chris Thomas about an expedition funded in part by a 2017 Mugs Stump Award. The award, a collaborative effort of Alpinist, Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd., Mountain Gear, Patagonia, Inc., and W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc., was created in 1993 in memory of Mugs Stump, one of North America's most visionary climbers. In the 24 years since its inception, the Mugs Stump Award has provided over $400,000 in grants to small teams pursuing climbing objectives that exemplify light, fast and clean alpinism.—Ed.]

Last April, Rick Vance and I once again returned to the Alaska Range to attempt the unclimbed north face of Jezebel in the remote Revelation Mountains. Between the two of us, we've been on 14 expeditions to Alaska. On our last trip to the Revs, we had the fortune of making the first ascent of the Seraph via our route Mandarin Mounty (5.10 WI5+ A2, 2,300').

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The Revelations are easily among the top two wildest places I've ever been (the other would be the Patagonia Ice Cap on the way to the west face of Cerro Torre). Rarely visited because of its remote location, challenging logistics and notoriously bad weather, the Revelations offer a combination that's increasingly hard to find: complete solitude and a world-class arena of major unclimbed alpine objectives.

The first priority was to gather mission-critical supplies in Anchorage: bacon, reindeer sausage, and 50 rounds of 10mm auto. On the last trip, we had to walk out of the range when our pilot didn't return; we frequently crossed fresh grizzly tracks and scat, and felt a little too exposed because we didn't have anything except whippet ski poles to defend ourselves.

We found that Super Cub airplanes are essential equipment for flying to the Revelations. The glaciers are covered in boulders and avalanche debris, requiring the ability to take off and land in extremely short distances. For our team of two, we needed two Super Cubs and two pilots—these tiny planes with fabric-covered wings don't have much cargo capacity. This year, we had two of the best bush pilots in the world—Rob Jones and John Varco.

[Photo] Rick Vance[Photo] Rick Vance

During the flight, several hours from Anchorage, the planes climbed through a narrow mountain pass and steeply dropped into the cirque formed by Jezebel. We spent about an hour swooping high G-force circles and figure-eights beneath the massive walls of Jezebel, looking for somewhere to land, but the flat light and rapidly building clouds kept us from finding a place to touch down between the boulders and avalanche debris. As a passenger, the wingtips seemed to be just a few feet from the wall as Rob and John maneuvered us through the gorge.

As the temperature dropped in the late evening, the clouds built rapidly and we had to retreat. We made a stopover for the night about 30 miles away at a hunting camp. Early the next morning, we landed on a miniscule strip of boulder-free snow and set up base camp, which had a spectacular position below our objective. The real adventure was about to begin.

[Photo] Chris Thomas[Photo] Chris Thomas

[Photo] Chris ThomasBase camp and the north face of Jezebel. [Photo] Chris Thomas

We skied about 3 miles to the base for a reconnaissance. We knew that the line would be threatened by seracs before we even planned the trip, but up close, damn, those things are MONSTERS! Some of them are over a thousand feet tall and look like poorly stacked blocks.

In 15 years of alpine climbing all around the world, I found this was by far the most dangerous route I've ever attempted. We were flanked from all angles by overhanging seracs. When those seracs flush, everything in their path is obliterated. Moving fast to minimize the time spent on the route is of the upmost importance to survival.

We spent a full day observing the face, trying to find any recognizable pattern of serac fall. At a frequent yet unpredictable pace, the massive nordwand was bombed by house-sized blocks of ice, resulting in powder clouds that went wall-to-wall in the cirque. All of the seracs EXCEPT the ones above our proposed route ripped throughout the course of the day.

Did it mean our route avalanched less often? Or did it just mean it would rip even bigger? If it hadn't ripped yet, was it about to—perhaps while we were on the face the next day? Was it more likely to rip when the sun warmed up the ice, or when it went into the shade because of freezing/expansion? Should we strategize to spend the bulk of our time climbing at night or during the day? By simul-soloing the easier terrain, we could move faster, but would the speed be worth the added risk of soloing?

We decided to leave at midnight and started packing immediately. By 1:30 a.m. we had crossed the bergschrund and made progress up to the first steep technical pitch of the route. There wasn't much to see because it was so dark.

What had looked to be solid ice was actually vertical sugar snow. (How loose snow can stick to a feature so steep is still fascinating to me.) After swinging into the sugar, buried to my elbows, my ice tools sheared straight through. I dug deeper trying to find solid ice. Up, down, left, right—I looked for every possible option to get through this steep section. Nothing. The only pro was a marginal picket, also in sugar snow, far, far below. There was no rock gear whatsoever to be found. Not even a prayer of being able place ice screws. After climbing in circles for an hour, I felt the decision was easy to make—time to get out of there. The route simply wasn't in condition; it needed a melt-freeze cycle to build ice. Even if we had found a way through this one short section, there were still thousands of feet of terrain above us, likely also sugar snow, and our pace would slow to a crawl, meaning we'd spend even more time under those snarl-toothed seracs. And a fall on this unprotected sugar could kill us both if the belay anchors ripped.

[Photo] Chris ThomasLooking up at the north face of Jezebel. [Photo] Chris Thomas

Everything had come together so perfectly to get us to this point. The right partnership, perfect weather, the pilots being able to land on this side of the mountain. But, as is always the case in hard alpine climbing, you will fail far more often than you succeed. It only takes one small piece of the puzzle to be missing to end an entire season of training and planning.

We were back in camp before sunrise. I fell asleep feeling relieved to not be under those damn seracs anymore.

The next day we contemplated plan B. There are lots of potential first ascents on Jezebel, including a 1,000-foot freestanding pinnacle on the ridge that looked to be of good granite. Rock climbing sounded pretty sweet after wallowing through all that sugar snow the night before.

Shortly after lunch we looked up at the route we had attempted. I couldn't believe my eyes—through binoculars, we could see two tiny little dots, and they were moving! We thought we were the only living humans for a radius of more than 100 miles, certainly the only climbers in the range, and now that was not only false, but we were getting snaked on our dream route after failing on it just hours before.

As we continued to watch, Rick and I could tell that something was very wrong. They were barely moving at all, and surely they understood the grave risk of the seracs as well as we did. What the hell were they doing? Why weren't they moving faster?

A short time later we saw one person start rappelling, swinging from side to side on the face, presumably looking for anchors. The second person down was moving VERY slowly.

I clicked into my skis and started skiing towards the route as fast as I could. Rick followed shortly after.

It took them a while, but they eventually made it over the 'schrund. The first climber down (Matt) started jogging up the glacier in the opposite direction from our camp, and he seemed very surprised to see me when I yelled to him. They, too, thought that they were alone. His partner (Craig) had taken a 50-foot fall when his tools sheared through sugar snow. He hit a ledge and broke his leg—the bone was sticking out of the skin. Matt was headed to their bivy camp to retrieve their satellite phone.

I didn't have any gear with me, but I took Matt's ice tools, gloves and crampons that he had left at the base and started climbing up to the injured climber who was trying to descend from the 'schrund. He was in a lot of pain and bleeding through his double boot, but lucid and able to talk. I fashioned a rap anchor in the snow and got him down to the glacier. Rick arrived a short time later.

The first priority was to get all of us as far away from the wall as possible in case the time-bomb of the seracs overhead ran out of fuse. Carry, drag, crawl, crutch, curse, limp and scream through the pain—we did whatever it took to gain horizontal distance as fast as possible. Every inch of progress away from the wall was closer to safety.

[Photo] Rick VanceCarrying the injured climber. [Photo] Rick Vance

[Photo] Rick VanceCraig crawls onward toward salvation with a broken leg while the others rest their arms and legs from carrying him. [Photo] Rick Vance

The second priority was to figure out how the hell we were going to get this guy to a hospital. Matt and Craig's pilot wouldn't land on this side of the range (they had approached from a landing strip about 7 miles away, which is why we never saw them until they were on the wall), and we were out of fuel range for most helicopters. It would be impossible for Craig to get back to their base camp over the steep mountain passes and crevasse fields.

It made the most sense to take Craig to our camp 3 miles away. We knew if we didn't get him to a hospital soon there'd be real risk of him losing his leg, or worse.

We carried him until our arms and legs wore out, and then he'd crawl while we rested, leaving a crimson streak in the snow as the blood leaked through his boot. Craig outweighed each of us by a good 30 pounds, but we made decent progress under the circumstances.

I tripped on a rock at one point and went down hard, dropping Craig in the process. He cussed and screamed when he landed on his leg, but soldiered on after catching his breath.

Meanwhile, we managed to arrange for our pilot, Rob, to leave Anchorage before dawn and pick up Craig at first light. The plan was coming together. Hopefully the weather would hold. That's always a factor in Alaska, especially the Revelations.

Back at camp, we took turns caring for Craig while melting snow for water and making dinner. We set Craig up in our climbing tent and put him in his sleeping bag. A painkiller seemed to help him a lot.

Rob showed up in the early morning light, right on time. We loaded Craig into the plane minutes after it landed, and then they were in the air, bee-lining for Alaska Regional Hospital, which has a runway that rolls right up to the emergency department.

Moments after the plane left our camp, the seracs we had been so fearful of ripped HUGE, pulverizing our route and bombing the staging area of our rescue.

[Photo] Rick VanceA serac ripped down the route the day after the rescue. [Photo] Rick Vance

If we'd been on the route or anywhere near the base, we would have encountered certain death and dismemberment. Pure luck on that one.

After all that blood and pain and stress, we found all motivation for climbing was gone. The forecast was also predicting storms the following day. It was time to go home.

We'd like to extend a very sincere thanks to the Mugs Stump Award committee. This adventure would not have been possible without their support.

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