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1996: The Wall of Arctic Discipline

Posted on: September 26, 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.]

Jack Tackle on Pitch 11 of A Pair of Jacks/Arctic Discipline, Mt. Kennedy. [Photo] Jack RobertsJack Tackle on Pitch 11 of A Pair of Jacks/Arctic Discipline, Mt. Kennedy. [Photo] Jack Roberts

FRIGID ARCTIC AIR CRACKLED like static electricity. Our solitary world on the glacier was as silent as the north face of Mt. Kennedy that loomed above. For hours, Jack Roberts and I scrutinized the colossal 6,000-foot wall, hoping to connect the strands of this giant arctic spider web of ice. Jack's spotting scope revealed a gossamer thread of dull, grey ice through the initial 3,000-foot granite headwall.

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"It looks pretty damn cold up there," Jack observed.

Neither of us had climbed anything this daunting. Dark recesses lined the immense, ominous face, which was devoid of sun. Ubiquitous seracs and cornices threatened every possible route. Slowly, the wall unveiled itself and began to reveal its hidden passageways. Tomorrow, we would thrust ourselves into the breach.

I FIRST BECAME AWARE of the North Ridge of Mt. Kennedy from a Bradford Washburn photograph taken during his 1935 National Geographic Yukon Expedition. This striking line resembled the spectacular North Ridge of K2. How could you not want to climb this?

David Seidman and Todd Thompson had first completed this perfect continuous line to the summit of Mt. Kennedy in 1968, as part of an expedition that included Joe Faint and Philip Koch. Another team repeated the climb in 1977. Both ascents used fixed lines and fixed camps. In 1978 I ventured there with a group of friends from Oregon. Our goal was to make a continuous alpine-style push with a small bivy tent, sleeping bags, a hanging stove and just four days of food and fuel.

Four of us skied seventy-five miles from the Alcan Highway to our base camp directly below the North Ridge. After 1,500 feet of climbing, we were thwarted by endless storms, hazardous avalanche conditions and ass-deep snow. Subsequently, we managed to get up some minor peaks around the Kennedy Glacier area, but after six weeks we skied out disappointed and disillusioned.

For the next fifteen years, the core of the Alaska Range drew me farther north, but Kennedy remained engrained in my mind. In 1994 I received a call from Jack Roberts asking if I was interested in climbing Mt. Kennedy. He was captivated by the same Washburn photo that I had obsessed about sixteen years earlier. We'd never climbed together before, but we knew about each other's accomplishments in the Alaska Range. Jack suggested we look at the mountain's unattempted north face. There, we envisioned a line that would incorporate the latest tools, techniques, and alpine-ice and mixed-climbing standards into a larger scale than either of us had previously tried.

In May 1995, Jack and I headed north to the Yukon. A climbing grant allowed us to fly in to the range, rather than having to ski in from the Alcan Highway. Lamentably, our lackadaisical pilot landed us on the Lowell Glacier, which was still five miles away from our intended base camp below Mt. Kennedy's north face. Nice! At least, with two days of ferrying loads and dragging gear-laden sleds over the adjacent glacier, we had the opportunity to study the face in detail.

"Do you see any place for the tent in the first 3,000 feet?" I asked.

"Not really," Jack replied. There was nowhere we could chop a ledge large enough to sit, much less pitch a tent.

The North Ridge of Mt. Kennedy as seen from a flight over the St. Elias Range in 1966. [Photo] Bradford Washburn, Bradford Washburn collection, Rasmuson Library, UAFThe North Ridge of Mt. Kennedy as seen from a flight over the St. Elias Range in 1966. [Photo] Bradford Washburn, Bradford Washburn collection, Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks

TWO DAYS LATER, after much angst and debate, we switched our objective to the North Ridge, which still had not been successfully climbed in alpine style. We moved over 2,000 feet of solid neve and alpine ice efficiently in twelve hours. In the distance, though, we could see an impending storm brewing, racing toward us from the west across the Hubbard Glacier. Begrudgingly, we bailed off the route and arrived at base camp as the storm hit. Snow fell for the next three days, ending our trip.

A year afterward, we came back with a new strategy and better equipment for the north face: a portaledge, which we'd haul for the first 3,000 feet, and a lightweight I-Tent for the rest of the route. On May 3, a new pilot landed us directly below the face. Once the plane droned out of sight, all fell silent again. Three days later, Jack and I started up the climb. "Into the breach once again," I muttered aloud, as much to myself as to Jack.

Four pitches up the headwall, "the business" began. Fortunately, more ice had formed in the past year than in '95, so the line appeared continuous. As the headwall steepened, a wide crack presented itself as the only weakness in the otherwise blank, monolithic rock. I traversed left for thirty feet and then groveled my way up the unprotected eight-inch crack for fifty feet with no gear, before I could place a tied-off Spectre and an equalized stubby ice screw. At the belay, Jack commented, "When did your cojones get that big?"

"Necessity is the mother of invention," I responded.

Fourteen hours later, we'd climbed a thousand feet above the bergschrund. The steep, technical pitches made for protracted belays, and hours of hanging in slings meant suffering for the belayer. Above a vast abyss, Jack led with grace and poise, connecting bare stone to thin ice patches with scant rock protection. When I reached the end of this traverse, I paused to absorb the brief warmth of the sun on my cheeks. It was the only time I'd felt sun on my skin in three days.

That night, the temperature dropped to thirty fucking degrees below zero. As Jack and I took refuge inside the "blue cocoon," it started to snow. We'd made the mistake of erecting the portaledge directly in the midst of a spindrift trough, where we were pummeled by snow all night long. Clearly, an avalanche might sweep us away. In an exercise of vital discipline, we went out into the storm to move the portaledge. Twenty feet away, we found a protected overhang to secure our home. The process took hours, and we both got completely soaked and fully hypothermic. But we were safe.

Forty-eight hours later, the storm finally broke. As we racked up, my feet were hanging over the ledge. I snapped a crampon heel lever, and I reached around to attach my safety strap on my second crampon. It burst off my boot. I hadn't centered the heel lever correctly, and it had exploded under pressure. I watched as the crampon plummeted thousands of feet below me and disappeared from sight. Stunned, I invoked what I've always called "the high altitude" vocabulary: the seven or so words that you couldn't say on television (at least in 1996).

With the nearest replacement crampon at base camp, we had an intense discussion about our options. I told Jack I would deal with the one crampon since it was my fault it was gone. We had enough food and fuel still, and the weather seemed to be improving. I remember saying repeatedly, "We are not going down!" I finally convinced Jack that we should go on; to his credit, he agreed to lead all the pitches.

For the next three pitches, I followed Jack's horizontal ice traverses by improvising a routine that resembled a circus act. After removing the ice screws, I'd cinch the jumars against the next protective anchor, thirty to forty feet to my right, and then I'd simply push off! After an exciting pendulum (Isn't the first rule of ice climbing—don't fall?), I'd then jumar in a straight line up to the next ice screw, remove it and repeat the process. Jack watched, bemused by my predicament, while my strategy once again confirmed what all climbing really is. It's problem solving.

After a crucial night's sleep, we awoke to a clear morning. We abandoned the haul bag and portaledge but left them anchored as a backup in case we needed to retreat. Jack and I shouldered our thirty-pound sacks and headed toward an icefield. It was windy, and the sun still didn't reach this part of the upper face. This day was the coldest I remember on the entire climb.

Midday, I had a flash of insight. "So, what size are your boots, man?" I asked Jack. Lo and behold, we had the same size feet. Now Jack didn't have to endure the unfair burden of leading every pitch. Every time we exchanged a crampon at the belay, we clipped it in with six slings: losing another crampon at this point would be FUBAR.

By the end of the day, we'd intersected with the existing North Ridge route. One thousand five hundred feet below the summit, we chopped a ledge and collapsed into cramped quarters. Once again, in the middle of the night, it started to snow. For two days, spindrift avalanches hammered our tent. Hours passed without either of us speaking. Our sleeping bags became frozen solid clumps of feathers. Jack's knuckles swelled to twice their normal size.

When the second storm abated, we'd been on the face for over nine days. With almost no food or fuel left, we were at a crossroads. The slopes above us were clearly unstable, and we were convinced that continuing up the North Ridge would kill us if we went for the summit. We decided to go down, or initially sideways, to be accurate. Jack went first, and I struggled to follow on one crampon, hopping and half-sliding until Jack could help pull me into the anchor. Slab avalanches frequently knocked us off our feet. Two days and thirty-six rappels later, I finally crossed the bergschrund, collapsed in the sun and watched Jack finish the last rappel. Back at base camp, we enjoyed real food, good Scotch and a Cuban cigar.

H. ADAMS CARTER, an American Alpine Journal editor and a close friend of Bradford Washburn, once told me, "Good judgment is only as a result of having survived bad judgment." Jack and I felt good about our success of climbing the north face by a new route that was both technically challenging and aesthetic. Later, with more time for reflection, we admitted that, ultimately, we had failed. Summits do matter, but it's irresponsible to push for them when the cards are so profoundly stacked against you. We'd each collectively survived decades of making dubious decisions in the mountains. Our decision to descend instead of going for the top was not only the correct call but also the only call.

So, even though we didn't reach the summit, Jack and I agreed it was the best climb either of us never did. Over the next couple of years after Mt. Kennedy, we attempted other major routes with limited success, and we drifted apart. In December 2011, during the Bozeman Ice Festival, we reconnected over Scotch and renewed our friendship. Three weeks later, on January 15, 2012, in Telluride, Colorado, while climbing Bridal Veil Falls, a route he'd done at least a dozen times, Jack took a sixty-foot leader fall on the second pitch. He died at the scene.

Before we left the glacier, I'd chosen the name Arctic Discipline for our eleven days of hardship on the wall. As an example of his sense of humor, Jack later chose the name A Pair of Jacks. I wish Jack were still here so we could swing leads again, banter over Scotch and rib each other about how one route could have two names, and which one is right?

Years later, I still reflect upon the solace, joy and suffering we experienced together. Miles from nowhere, totally dependent on each other, in a cold, wild place of solitude, beauty and peace.

[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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