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1998: The Pugilist at Rest

Posted on: September 27, 2019


[This essay originally appeared in Alpinist 67 as part of a Mountain Profile about Mt. Hubbard, Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy in the St. Elias Range of Alaska and Canada. Alpinist 67 is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

The Pugilist at Rest (5.10 A3 M5) follows the long center rib in the middle of the photo. The Wilford Couloir is the gully just to the left. [Photo] Mark WilfordThe Pugilist at Rest (5.10 A3 M5) follows the long center rib in the middle of the photo. The Wilford Couloir is the gully just to the left. [Photo] Mark Wilford

FLYING INTO THE ST. ELIAS MOUNTAINS is like traveling back to the height of the Ice Age. No trees, no soil. High mountains such as St. Elias, Vancouver, Logan, Kennedy, Hubbard and Alverstone rise like islands from an ocean of ice, and they are all that is visible from horizon to horizon to horizon. No human structures, no green, no life. If I hold a memory of this landscape, it is genetic, prehistoric and as ephemeral as the haze that sits on these summits on the clear middays when the heat comes.

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During my third flight into the St. Elias in seven years, the crevasse-riven Hubbard Glacier resembled sunbaked plaster, several thousand feet below the belly of Kurt Gloyer's plane. The pattern was so uniform and omnipresent that I had to remind myself it wasn't on a scale of square feet, but of square miles. Then we climbed over the Alverstone Glacier, where a satin of neve glowed dully in the post dawn and looked like a fjord reaching into headlands. The southwest face of Mt. Alverstone, the object of our desire, grew over the cowling of the plane. My partner Mark Wilford and I gawked and blabbed and shot pictures. Kurt wheeled the ship around the west ridge of the mountain: twin golden pillars of granite rose from the northeast basin of the Alverstone Glacier; their abrupt blade-like edges seized my attention and my imagination.

"God, Mark, it looks like Chamonix! Like the Grand Capucin."

I could hear Wilford's smile over the headset, as he spoke in his slow Coloradan drawl: "It does look good, doesn't it?"

Kurt lowered his skis and plowed us to a stop directly on the border between Canada and the USA. That position seemed appropriate as I am Canadian and Mark is American. There were no customs, no border controls, and once Kurt took off, no sound. Just absolute quiet.

ON MAY 12 AND 13, 1998, Mark and I made our attempt on the southwest face of Mt. Alverstone. We'd envisioned a route on granite: perfect cracks and golden walls tracing a path to the summit. In my mind, I transposed the Gervasutti Pillar of Mt. Blanc du Tacul onto Alverstone. Instead, we ended up climbing snow that even I could have skied. Like the crests of shallow desert dunes, the rock ridges lacked definition, and it made no sense to be on them; it was far easier to walk up the sand-like drifts in the trough. The face wasn't steep enough. On our second day, a blizzard slammed us like a Saharan sandstorm, and we turned tail at 14,000 feet.

Barry Blanchard climbs in the long ice portion of the Wilford Couloir (5.9 M4 WI5). [Photo] Mark WilfordBarry Blanchard climbs in the long ice portion of the Wilford Couloir (5.9 M4 WI5). [Photo] Mark Wilford

Mark descended first and set most of our rappel anchors. Despite the stinging onslaught of driving snow, I loved watching his competence. One of his anchors was a jammed knot tied in webbing, tapped into an upward-facing constriction in the rock and turned 180 degrees over a lip of granite to create a downward-facing loop through which to thread our ropes.

"There! If it'll hold my fat ass, it'll hold us," Mark said. And then he cracked his broad-jawed Dick Tracy grin, "Best not bounce though...."

Steeper rock ridge protruded from the face to the east. But like so much of the vertical ground I'd seen in the St. Elias, they were negated, for Mark and me, by serac barriers. We weren't willing to climb under, or through, soaring cliffs of glacier ice that were slowly losing their defiance of gravity. Their eventual collapses would be catastrophic, instantaneous and lethal.

"I'VE NEVER SEEN an unclimbed piece of rock like that anywhere in my life," Mark stated. His square-cut jaw relaxed in wonder. His words gave me pause because I could think of few members of our generation who had climbed more rock than Mark had. It was now May 15, and we'd set a track up to the base of the Twin Pillars. They were so beautiful up close: parallel edges of granite that rose vertically from the glacier to link a ladder of corners, walls and couloirs for 2,000 feet until their columns angled back and fell from view and left me looking into the sky.

The next day, we packed and ate and read and slept. At 1:00 a.m., May 17, we skied toward the start of the route, carrying an alpine aid rack, bivy gear and two days' worth of food. The emerging light of the new sun had just brushed the rock from ash to gold. Fifty feet above me, Mark formed an X, the pick of his right axe slotted in a crack and the palm of his left glove pasted to the opposite wall; his legs split wide to set his crampon points onto edges in the granite. His attention was absolute and focused on a small crack in the mountain's skin. Mark was evaluating what size of piton to try.

A picture of Walter Bonatti came to me from the past, and I imagined going back in time forty-seven years to the first ascent of the east face of the Grand Capucin. I pictured myself as Ghigo watching Bonatti, whose hands and feet traced the same X, climbing toward bulging slate-pale granite delineated by cold, blue sky. A quotation from Fosco Maraini came to me:

To watch Bonatti climbing was to see a small red silhouette advancing—for all the paradox of it—effortlessly: advancing with a decision, a lightness of touch that made him unique.... There are certain talents so outstanding as to be beyond all dispute, certain gifts which must come straight from the gods.

We'd climbed a breathtaking 400-foot granite corner, shaped like an open book, with a patina of ice and crusty snow in its spine. When the corner steepened to overhanging, and sheaves of granite blocks seemed poised to fall on us, Mark made a tension traverse to gain the apex of the pillar; he looked so incredibly bold out there with a forty-foot belly of rope between us and an Ice Age lying behind. We alternated left and right of the pillar's spine, free climbing as hard as we could in our mountain boots and, inevitably, weighting shallowly driven pitons when there was no other choice.

"Man, you must have shit when that pin shifted," I said.

"Ya," Mark chuckled, "that was pretty darn exciting. It's not all bad though. It keeps you on your toes."

Late in the day, Mark climbed a perfect lead: he left one crack, and with the slow precision of a tai chi master, he traversed to a second to continue up a sweeping, planar wall of tawny granite, the hardest free climbing on the route. It was amazing to see him put the pitch together—his figure set against the backdrop of jagged peaks that thrust from the flat, white expanse of what could have been a continental ice sheet. Mark and I were the only humans visible, and that solitude felt unique, singular, polar.... The St. Elias is still in the grips of the Pleistocene, and yet I felt wisps of connection: some stirred my soul, like the sight of Mark climbing above me with his bare hands; others seemed to evoke menacing echoes, like the feeling when dusk came and the temperature plummeted and sweat cracked to ice within my clothing and I feared hypothermia and frostbite. All that awe and distress was hardwired to my primal sense of heat, or the lack of it.

We climbed eleven pitches that day. Nightfall, and the cold, came, and Mark and I dug a long, narrow ledge in the snow. Later, the sky blackened to velvet. Solely, the black edge of rock overhanging us—and that edge black entirely and absent of stars—defined earth as different from space. The air froze until it was calm and cold, and Mark and I were the only heat, the only blood. I lay raw and exhausted, shouldered to the mountain and anchored to it. I kept my legs ramrod straight, knowing that if I folded them, my hamstrings would contract into cramps, the power of which scared me. Our ledge was two feet at its widest and nine feet long. Strangely, I felt secure, as if I belonged there, as if I'd been in land like this at some time in the past. My people, the Metis, are the mixed blood of Canada, born largely of Indigenous women and French and Scottish fur traders. Two hundred years ago, we made our living hunting buffalo on horseback. Had any of my Indigenous ancestors passed through here, more than 10,000 years prior, on their way farther south? Had Tlingit people seen the golden pillars where Mark and I lay now?

THE NEXT DAY, A STORM ROSE from the Pacific and swirled up the Hubbard and Alverstone glaciers like grey floodwater. After fourteen hours of climbing, we'd gotten up a dozen more pitches stitched together with two diagonal rappels. The wind compressed to gale force, and when I kicked to the ridgeline, I had to lay my chest on the course, compact snow, so I could see over the other side. It was hard to stand, and the temperature was falling again. We'd forgo the summit in favor of getting off of the mountain.

"I'm getting tired," Mark said, and he blew out like a horse and lowered his head against the force of the wind. "I don't want to make any mistakes."

We sat on our packs with our backs to the wind and rested, and then we struggled our way west along the ridge for two-thirds of a mile to gain a forty-degree gully to down climb. By midnight, the blizzard had engulfed the glacier, and we dragged our skis from where we'd stashed them forty-five hours earlier—to where we thought we'd be clear of any avalanches. We lay down in the snow in our bivy sacks and sleeping bags and on top of our insulation pads. And then, like huskies, we let the snow drift over us. I wasn't warm enough until I added my big parka inside my sleeping bag. If I could have put my nose in my butt and my tail over my eyes, I would have.

WE DECIDED TO NAME OUR ROUTE "The Pugilist at Rest"—I'd brought the book along and read it, cover to cover, twice; when I'd handed it to Mark, he'd done the same.

"It was one hell of a fight to get off of that thing," I said.

"Yes, it was a scrap, but it was one hell of a route."

"Yes it was, buddy. Yes it was."

[This essay originally appeared in Alpinist 67 as part of a Mountain Profile about Mt. Hubbard, Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy in the St. Elias Range of Alaska and Canada. Alpinist 67 is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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