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Falling into Place
Posted on: November 26, 2020
George Lowe, during the 1977 first ascent of the Lowe-Kennedy Route on the north face of Mt. Hunter (Begguya, 14,573'), Alaska Range. On an earlier attempt, Jeff Lowe fell and broke his ankle near the sun-shadow line. [Photo] Michael Kennedy
I WOKE UP WITH THE IRON TASTE of blood in my mouth. I was lying on a flat boulder near the bottom of a remote cliff in the high desert wilderness of central Arizona. The shards of a shattered tooth pressed against my swollen tongue. My chest felt as though it had been beaten with a baseball bat. With each breath, broken ribs grated against each other. My left wrist throbbed, and my head ached. Ed Webster leaned over me, an expression of concern in his haunted blue eyes. "You popped off near the end of the traverse and slammed into the corner," he explained. "We lowered you back to our stance and then down to the ground." I'd been unconscious for over an hour.
The sun was warm and comforting on my face. Above me, in the spring light, the fine-grained white granite shone against a deep blue sky. It was March 1977. I was on a visit to Granite Mountain with Ed—a frequent contributor to the magazine I published, Climbing—and Mike Goff, the director of the outdoor program at Prescott College, who'd agreed to give us a tour of the local crags. Before my fall, I'd been about 175 feet up Coatimundi Whiteout. I'd wriggled my last piece of gear, a nut, into a wide corner at the start of a rising traverse nearly twenty feet to my right. I was now just a move or two from reaching a deep, undulating crack. I'd been climbing well all day, and I felt relaxed and in control. Standing on small, sloping holds, I could see a perfect slot in the crack for another nut. I glanced back, briefly envisioning what it would be like to skitter across the steep slab and smash into the corner. A fall here wouldn't be so pretty. It was an observation rather than a premonition.
A cache of first aid supplies and rescue gear was stashed a few yards from where I currently lay. Ed and Mike had bandaged me up as best they could while I remained unconscious. Then Mike ran out to summon the local mountain rescue team. Ed stayed behind to monitor my condition and to prevent me from wandering off if I awoke. Now he fed me sips of water and kept me from dozing as we awaited Mike's return.
Michael Kennedy, after his fall on Granite Mountain ('Wi:kvte:wa), Arizona. "Ed [Webster] waited until I'd regained consciousness before taking this picture," Kennedy recalls. "I remember him asking my permission to do so." [Photo] Ed Webster
My sense of time was distorted by pain and by a dull anxiety. How could I have fallen? I wasn't tired or scared. I drifted back and forth between a sharp awareness of my labored breathing and a detached wonder at my bruised body. Had the fall crushed some vital organ? Was I bleeding inside, my life slowly leaking away? How could I die on such a pleasant afternoon?
Hours passed as the sun dipped toward the horizon, its slanting rays softened by a slight golden haze. When I began to chill, Ed covered me tenderly with an old sleeping bag from the rescue cache. "Would you like a little chocolate?" he asked. "I wish we could make some tea." Eventually, the subdued chatter of Mike and the rescue team floated our way. In a flurry of activity, they took my vitals, checked that I hadn't injured my spine, and stabilized my neck with a cervical collar.They gently placed me in the litter under a sleeping bag, and theycarried me for a few miles to the trailhead, where an ambulance was waiting. Oxygen eased my breathing during the half-hour ride to the hospital in Prescott.
Soon after my arrival, the doctors and nurses gave me a healthy dose of painkillers, and after a few hours of their prodding and poking, I drifted off into a fitful sleep. My broken wrist would be in a cast for several weeks. There was nothing to do about my broken ribs or my concussion except to let them heal. But my doctors were still concerned about the possibility of internal injuries. They monitored me continually for three days and only released me when they were sure I could travel safely. I'd need to see an oral surgeon when I got back to Aspen, Colorado, to repair my shattered tooth.
I had a lot of time to think as I drove home to Aspen. My body would mend itself before too long, but I wasn't sure how quickly I'd recover emotionally. After two years of nearly constant climbing, punctuated by a breakup with a longtime girlfriend and now this close call in Arizona, I found myself questioning what exactly I was doing. Work served only as a means of paying for my climbing trips. I'd sacrificed close connections with family and friends for the sake of another day at the crag, another expedition. I yearned to evolve into a compassionate and generous person, to achieve something beyond the satisfaction of my individual desires. Yet I still felt a strong pull toward the mountains, an affinity for the simplicity of their demands: the way they stripped away the superfluous and forced me to counter fear with action, to commit in the face of doubt, to move with animal instinct in wild landscapes, unfettered by my rational mind. I couldn't quite see how to reconcile the two desires.
Once I started to feel better in the hospital in Arizona, Ed, Mike and I reconstructed the fall and tried to figure out exactly what had happened. Although I adhered firmly to the practice of always keeping three points of contact with the rock, there is often a brief moment of imbalance as you make a move. A nanosecond of hesitation or a momentary lapse in concentration could quickly result in losing control. Perhaps my foot had slipped or a hold had broken as I reached for the crack at the end of the traverse.
Back then, instead of the sophisticated harnesses now in common use, we'd wrap several feet of two-inch nylon webbing around our waists, forming a wide belt to which we'd secure the rope. Any force generated in a fall would be concentrated on the abdomen and ribs.
Helmets were bulky, heavy and uncomfortable. Although I usually wore one ice climbing and in the mountains, I never did while rock climbing. The gear used to protect rock climbs—nuts and pitons—was relatively primitive and difficult to place. Climbers only rarely used bolts to secure blank faces. Long runouts were common. Many of us still considered a fall as evidence that the climber was either unfit or lacked the requisite self-discipline to remain focused and in control.
No matter how Ed, Mike and I wanted to parse the incident, it was clear that luck was the only reason I'd escaped more serious injury or death. And I knew that continuing to roll the dice wasn't a good way forward. Lou Dawson and I had made tentative plans to return to The Mooses Tooth in June; we had tried the peak in 1975 with Tom Merrill and Bob Sullivan. The same week as my fall, however, he'd been skiing an out-of-bounds run late in the day on Aspen Mountain when he tangled with some brush and fractured his tibia.
Not long after I got home, I swung by his place for a visit. He'd had already undergone one surgery to place metal plates and screws in his leg. He'd be on crutches for about nine months. Lou worked sporadically as a climbing instructor and carpenter between climbing trips to Yosemite, the Wind Rivers and Alaska. Now unable to climb or work, he, too, was a bit of a lost soul.
From left to right: George Lowe, Michael Kennedy and Jeff Lowe at the Talkeetna airstrip, on the way to Mt. Hunter (Begguya) and Mt. Foraker (Sultana). [Photo] Michael Kennedy collection
TWO WEEKS OUT FROM MY FALL, I was pushing hard on my circuit of steep uphill hikes, ignoring the pain in my chest. I knew the ribs would heal, and I wanted to keep my legs strong. My doubts had faded. I'd begun to dream again of granite streaked with ice, ridges winding up toward sharp summits, and the sublime joy of being two days from the bottom and three days from the top, above uninhabited valleys stretching as far as I can see. I looked forward to getting the cast off my wrist so I could go climbing again.
The Mooses Tooth was still on my mind, but none of my regular partners was interested. I toyed with the idea of asking Jeff Lowe if he was free. Not quite two years my senior, Jeff was one of the most visionary climbers of the era, having done hard new routes all over the western US and Canada. We'd met by chance in early September 1976 when we'd both gotten rained out of Eldorado Canyon, and he'd welcomed me to a small stone house near the iconic cliffs. His eyes were curious and lively behind wire-rimmed glasses; a mop of dirty-blond hair appeared under his stylish brimmed white cap. Like me in those days, he had a full beard, although Jeff's was less unkempt. Compact and not overly lean, he exuded a calm physical comfort, a sense that he knew what he was capable of, that he felt at home in the world and at ease with himself. We spent a couple of hours trading climbing stories, including our respective attempts on the East Face of The Mooses Tooth in Alaska.
That February, he'd invited me to help teach an ice-climbing class in Ouray after his assistant bailed. I learned a lot just from watching Jeff. He was very efficient with his tools, swinging them into the ice with precision and power. His crampons seldom skittered when he weighted them, and he moved with a relaxed, almost effortless grace on even the steepest pillars. By contrast, my technique was too dependent on forearm strength, less balanced. He gave me a few good tips: keep your heels low, stand on your feet as much as possible, climb quickly between stances, run it out rather than place a screw on steep ice (a tedious, often two-handed process with the ice screws available in those days). More than anything, Jeff climbed with a refreshing air of lightness and humor, a charming buoyancy of spirit.
Surely Jeff's already committed, I thought. And why would he want to go with a relative newcomer to hard alpine climbing? I've done a few good routes while he's climbed dozens. I dismissed the idea. We'd never even roped up before. When I finally called him, Jeff was sympathetic to my plight. By sheer coincidence, he'd just gotten word that one of his partners had backed out of a summer Alaska trip because of work commitments. Jeff and his cousin George still wanted to go as a team of three, and they were casting about for a replacement. They were considering new routes on Mt. Foraker (Sultana) and Mt. Hunter (Begguya). These are the second- and third- highest peaks in the Alaska Range after Denali; they offer far more difficult climbs by their normal routes and consequently get a fraction of the traffic of their more famous neighbor. If I was interested in something like that, he said, he'd discuss the matter with George.
I hung up in a daze, stunned at the possibility that in a few weeks I might be climbing with two of my heroes. I'd never met George, but I was in awe of his reputation. Six years older than Jeff, he'd made the first ascents of the North Face of Mt. Alberta and the North Face of North Twin Peak, two steep, technically difficult routes on huge, remote icy walls in the Canadian Rockies, both on par with the most challenging climbs in the world during the mid-1970s. George had completed these ascents around the same time that he finished his PhD in physics at the University of Utah. Unlike Jeff and me, he now had a real job, as a systems analyst for a company in California.
That evening, the phone rang. George introduced himself, his voice high-pitched and a little squeaky. "Jeff tells me you're interested in Alaska," he said. "He says you'd be a good addition to our team." I prepared myself for the letdown, thinking he was going to tell me they'd enlisted a more experienced friend. "Would you like to come along?"
We dove right into the details. Conditions permitting, we'd warm up on the north face of Mt. Hunter, which rises 7,000 feet to its 14,573-foot summit in full view of the landing strip. Having dispatched a snow-and-ice route there—which at least one strong party had attempted unsuccessfully in recent years—we'd head over to our primary objective: the central spur on the remote and forbidding south face of Mt. Foraker.
George referred me to the 1968 American Alpine Journal, in which the legendary Alaskan climber and photographer Bradford Washburn had published eight photos of prominent unclimbed faces entitled "Challenges in Alaska and the Yukon." Plate 58, the last of the series, was an aerial view of Foraker's southern aspect. In the years since the story, various climbers had surmounted the ridges flanking this complex escarpment. They had attempted, or at least looked at, the central spur a couple of times: cleaving the face like the edge of a knife, it led straight for 9,000 feet to Foraker's 17,400-foot summit. It was the most beautiful climb I'd ever seen or imagined I could try.
MY CAST CAME OFF in the third week of May. My wrist was stiff and my arms were weak when I climbed familiar classics on Independence Pass, but I figured that sturdy legs would be more important in Alaska than upper-body strength. Jeff and I drove nonstop to Seattle and hopped on the flight to Anchorage. George and I had talked on the phone a few times since our first call, fine-tuning food and gear, and while I appreciated his attention to detail, I was mildly intimidated by his no-nonsense demeanor. When he met us at the airport, I wondered how this clean-shaven and well-groomed character would get along with two scruffy quasi-hippies. My doubts soon vanished. "This is an awkward first date," George declared, and we continued to poke fun at each other throughout the evening. He can be intense when he needs to be, but I still think of George as one of the warmest, kindest and most thoughtful people I know.
A few days later, at 10:30 p.m. in the dim dusk light of the Arctic summer, we skied from the Kahiltna Glacier airstrip to the bottom of the north face of Mt. Hunter. By midnight, we were climbing simultaneously up the lower snow slopes, roped together in case one of us fell into a crevasse. At 6 a.m. we took a short break, and then we started up a face that we'd named the Triangle for the way it tapered from a broad base to a sharp ridge. As we belayed each other on the steep ice, the glacier receded far below into an abstract tapestry of light and shadow. At the apex of the Triangle, we carved a ledge out of the softening afternoon snow. The air was still and warm. We rested there, waiting for colder temperatures and better snow conditions while the sun dropped below the horizon.
Ahead lay the crux of the route: a narrow horizontal ridge, very steep on either side and adorned with bizarre cornices that drooped from its edge like the clocks in a Salvador Dali painting. It looked impossible. The dull rumble of falling ice punctuated our fitful sleep. We'd contorted ourselves to fit all three of us on the ledge. Each time someone needed to move, the others would briefly awaken and rearrange themselves before settling back into unconsciousness.
At 2 a.m. Jeff took the lead, weaving among the surreal waves of unstable snow. Unable to find good anchors, he kept climbing, and when the rope came tight, I started out. George now belayed the two of us. After going twenty feet, I paused, awaiting the gentle tug that was my cue to take another step. In a flash, the rope came tight and jerked me into the air and along the ridge. Blue and grey snow and ice flashed by. I came to a sudden halt, my body bent over and my legs straddling the ridge with 4,000 feet of space on either side. A cornice had broken, and Jeff had fallen sixty feet. The front points of his crampons snagged in the ice on the way down, wrenching his left ankle. Since he couldn't weight his foot, we had to descend.
Jeff Lowe (left) and George Lowe during the team's first attempt on the north face of Mt. Hunter (Begguya), after Jeff broke his ankle. As they retreated from 4,000 feet up the mountain, Jeff hopped and crawled. "Eventually we reached our cached skis," Kennedy recalls, "and Jeff swooped one-legged those last ten minutes to base camp." [Photo] Michael Kennedy
Jeff's injured leg dangled uselessly as he clawed his way back up to the ridge. George and I couldn't do much to help aside from pulling in the rope and keeping it tight. I thought about how Ed and Mike must have felt after I fell on Granite Mountain: spectators to a friend's desperate struggles. By the time Jeff got to the ledge, clouds had rolled in. It began to snow. We seemed to be in a pretty precarious position, but George and Jeff merely joked about how Jeff should have just said something about wanting to go down. Things like this must happen all the time on alpine routes, I thought.
Snow continued to fall lightly, but steadily. We spent the night a little below the Triangle, and we were back at base camp early the next afternoon. Jeff flew out to Anchorage during a break in the weather. Now that we were off the mountain, George confessed that he'd been "a little worried" when he saw me yanked twenty feet horizontally along the ridge. The accident had shaken us both, but it also gave us a certain confidence. The intensity of the past few days left no room for posturing, and we'd developed the sort of wordless trust in each other that usually comes only with time.
THE STORM WORSENED until thick clouds laden with snow draped the face. Days later, when the skies cleared, George and I made another midnight start and reached the top of the Triangle in good time. After another fitful evening of dreading what lay ahead, I left the ledge at 2 a.m. As I followed traces of Jeff's passage, I felt as if I were venturing into an alien world: each step took me farther and farther from an existence of safety and comfort. When I got close to Jeff's high point, George started out, and we climbed together silently, separated and bonded by the rope between us.
I reached a small perch and found good ice in which to place a screw. Ahead lay the most absurd cornice yet, a mushroom of insubstantial, overhanging snow that was impossible to climb over or around. The only solution was to rappel on one of our ropes, doubled and clipped to the ice screw. George belayed me with our other rope while I slid down fifty feet and then traversed across dense, grey ice polished by years of spindrift avalanches. I was close to the end of the rope when the near-vertical ice gradually gave way to solid and more reasonably angled snow. In a few more steps, I was on flat ground.
Anxious to settle in for the night before it started snowing, we plodded up a rolling glacier into the lowering clouds, and we found a sheltered spot at 13,500 feet for our little tent. All was white when we woke the next morning. It had only snowed an inch or two, but we couldn't see enough to decipher a way to the summit 1,000 feet above. At last, the clouds lifted, revealing a patchy blue sky, and we raced to the top in an hour. "That was a big route," George said, his eyes tired and a hint of concern in his voice. Was my hero human after all? I thought. "I hope the descent is a little easier," he said.
Back at the tent, we packed up and started down. The clouds closed in again, and we had to navigate the broad upper plateau by compass to find our descent route on the West Ridge. For the next twenty-four hours, we were immersed in a kaleidoscope of fathomless whiteout and infinite views of distant peaks as the clouds boiled up from the glacier below and swirled thickly around the twisting ridge crest. The sky cleared briefly in the evening, illuminating phantasmagoric ice forms with the subtle velvet blues, greys and whites of the Arctic summer twilight. We climbed through the night and all the next day, stopping above a sloppy, avalanche-prone slope at the bottom of the ridge. The next morning dawned perfectly clear, cold and windy, and we raced down the concrete-hard snow onto the glacier and back to base camp in a few hours.
Hunter had been a big route, especially for me. Our descent via the West Ridge, first climbed in 1954 by Fred Beckey and Heinrich Harrer, was technically easy, yet it seemed as taxing overall as our route on the north face. Still, the experience hadn't felt outlandish in terms of difficulty or commitment. In retrospect I think I was too naive to realize how far out there we really had been.
The southeast face of Mt. Foraker (Sultana). The middle and upper part of the Infinite Spur (Alaska Grade 6: 5.9 M5 AI4, 9,400', Kennedy-Lowe, 1977) rises out of the basin on the left. The Southeast Ridge, where Kennedy and George Lowe descended, is on the right. The Infinite Spur remains one of the most legendary alpine routes. [Photo] Bradford Washburn, Bradford Washburn collection, Museum of Science
AFTER HUNTER, George and I both felt strong and tuned in to the rhythm of the mountains, and Foraker loomed in our consciousness with an unmistakable allure, a fantasy of rock and ice, mist and wind. We had plenty of time. We knew that two would move more quickly than three, but without Jeff, we felt we'd be weaker as a team. The central spur on Foraker would be longer and far more difficult than the route we'd just done on Hunter. We'd cross two passes just to get to the face, and soon after we started climbing, the only safe escape would be up and over the top. The commitment would be enormous. The memory of Jeff's accident weighed us down. What would happen if one of us got hurt? With no possibility of summoning outside help (we didn't have a radio, and cell and satellite phones were then years away), even a minor rescue low on the mountain would be a monumental task for one person.
After much discussion, the risks and uncertainty seemed too much to bear. We decided to try the Cassin Ridge, the classic hard route on Denali, instead, and we spent the afternoon packing for another midnight departure. Two hours before we were to leave for Denali, I suggested to George that we go to Foraker after all. I thought we'd always question ourselves if we didn't take this step into the unknown. He glanced down the glacier—to the right was the well-trodden path toward Denali, to the left an untracked expanse of white below Foraker—and he went silent for a few moments before he agreed. "OK, let's go." We added some food and gear to our already heavy packs. George retired to the tent to compose a note to his children. I puttered about, anxious and relieved. Perhaps we'll fail honorably and burn up enough time to justify a quick consolation romp up the West Buttress
We made the long approach that night, crossing over the first pass and through an icefall, past a strange stagnant glacier of dripping seracs that led to the second pass. At 10 a.m. we reached a broad snow shoulder and caught our first glimpse of the route, immense and beautiful in the crystalline morning air. We spent the day observing the face, guessing at where we'd go, how far we'd get each day, where we might encounter problems. This close, features opened up: cracks and corners interspersed with snowy ledges, a very long ice slope, and a buttress of darker rock with no obvious weakness through it; a sharp ridge snaked into a band of seracs below the snow slopes that led toward the summit.
We left the shoulder at 3 a.m., quickly crossing a small glacier littered with blocks of ice that had tumbled from the seracs on either side of the central spur. Fallen rocks peppered the gentle slopes of snow leading up to the first of several bands of rough, solid rock, well protected and a delight to climb. Mist rose from the glacier as the day warmed, enveloping us in a soft grey shroud.
After twenty hours on the move, we shoveled snow from a ledge and pitched our tent.
The night was clear and cold, but the mist returned the next morning as we continued up smooth slabs and icy cracks to a prominent rib of ice. A light snow now whispered down from the thin clouds. We chopped a ledge out of the brittle ice and settled in for an uncomfortable night. Now we were committed. We had to reach the summit and the descent route as quickly as possible, but the idea of getting injured in another fall was unthinkable. We didn't have enough gear to rappel the ground we'd already covered, and hauling an injured partner another 4,000 feet to the summit and off the mountain would be impossible.
Morning brought more clouds, heavy with menace. We couldn't see each other at the end of the rope. The temperature dropped. Snow fell more thickly and built up on the slopes above, inundating us with spindrift avalanches. Dark rocks appeared to our left. The ice rib narrowed. We had to find a way through this rotten cliff band and onto a ridge that led back to a hanging glacier and the summit slopes. I started up a weakness in the rock, hoping to discover a ledge to sleep on, but I gave up after fifty feet. As I climbed back down, I slipped and fell a terrifying twenty feet, slithering down the ice until an ice screw and George's able belay stopped me.
Soon the rocks had squeezed the ice rib to nothing against a misty void. I anchored myself and brought George up. We'd been on the go for eighteen hours. "I'm very, very tired," George said through cracked lips smeared with zinc oxide against the high-altitude sun. "I don't think I can lead this next part safely." Ahead of us was an awkward traverse along a narrow, crumbling ledge perched above a sickening drop, then a steep gully pouring with spindrift. Embedded in the dull grey ice were shards of rotten rock, a few the size of a refrigerator. The gully looked desperate, but we couldn't see any other way through the shattered black cliffs.
George thought we should bivouac,yet it was all we could do to carve out a tiny ledge to sit on, side by side, our legs dangling over the abyss. Holding the stove in my lap, I melted snow and made us each a cup of soup. We were both on the edge of exhaustion. I couldn't imagine sitting here for hours shivering, our muscles cramping and stiffening, then having to tackle what might be the most difficult pitches of the route. Somewhat revived after a brief rest, I had a second (or third or fourth) wind and declared that I was ready to go. I'd leave my pack and haul it up with our second rope. "I can follow on jumars if you find a good anchor," George said. His eyes brightened at the thought of escaping our uncomfortable perch.
I recall very little of the actual climbing, the technical details of the moves and the terrain. What I do remember is looking up and visualizing myself climbing this section—the hardest mixed climbing I'd ever done—and some time later, looking back down at George as he came up, helmet askew, stopping frequently to rest, bent over the rope and gasping into the crook of his down-clad arm. I vaguely recall pulling up on one axe, its pick twisted into a thin crack, then reaching past the rock and feeling the solid thunk of my other axe in a soft patch of ice above. The front points of my right crampon, dulled from over 6,000 feet of climbing, snagged tenuously on a quarter-inch rock edge; a minute later, they stuck into the ice they were designed for. It was one of the few times I've gone beyond my own consciousness, beyond what I thought I could do.
George Lowe on the Infinite Spur. "Above lay a similar pitch," Kennedy recalls, "after which we emerged into the warm sun and a welcome bivy ledge carved from the ice. Seeing this picture now, the climbing doesn't look all that difficult. At the time it seemed close to what I was capable of." [Photo] Michael Kennedy
Fifty feet of low-angle snow now separated us from the ridge. The sun broke through the clouds, and a slight breeze stirred the air. The tension of the last few hours ebbed away as snow crystals danced in the new light before my eyes. With warmth came a need for rest. We hacked a ledge out of the ice and lay down in the blessed sun, stirring periodically to eat and drink. When the face went into shadow, we crawled into our damp sleeping bags for a dreamless few hours.
We spent the next day making an endless traverse beneath the corniced ridge to the hanging glacier. Here we found a cozy shelf for our tent. It was a relief to be able to take off the rope and lie down without the constant worry of dropping a boot or the stove. We were now at 15,000 feet, and I felt the altitude as well as the strain of eighty pitches of climbing. George seemed equally haggard. He hadn't shaved since we left Anchorage, and his hair stuck out willy-nilly beneath his helmet. He was looking more and more like a scruffy hippie himself. We awoke to a brisk wind and more snow. Another storm had set in. Is this the beginning of one of those legendary ten-day blizzards the Alaska Range is famous for? We lay listless in the tent, speaking little, rationing our dwindling supply of food and fuel, shaking snow from its walls through the afternoon and night.
The temperature had dropped by morning, ushering in a clearing sky and blustery winds. After a slow start, we plodded up the last 2,000 feet to the summit, arriving at 4 p.m. in minus-twenty-degree temperatures. We spent a few minutes taking the obligatory victory photos before racing down snow slopes toward the Southeast Ridge. In a few hours, we lost 2,000 feet of elevation. Leery of the cornices hanging off the narrowing ridge, we roped up and gave them wide berth. Or so we thought. George probed what he thought was a small crevasse and stepped across. With a dull crack, a 100-foot section of the cornice dropped, taking him with it. The rope came tight and jerked me off my feet. I flew down one side of the ridge as George plunged down the other amid tons of ice. The rope pulled relentlessly on my harness, arcing toward the crest of the ridge. I imagined myself shooting over the edge, and the two of us tumbling helplessly to the chaotic glacier several thousand feet below.
I stopped twenty feet from the edge, certain that George was either dead or seriously injured. My anxious shouts brought no response. The rope remained taut for a few minutes, and then slackened. I pulled up a few feet, then a few feet more. Ten minutes later George flopped into sight. He was bruised and shaken but otherwise OK. "Let's brew up some tea and have something to eat," he said. He looked relieved to see that I too was unscathed. "We're starting to run on empty." The wind had died, and the late afternoon sun felt comforting, even benign on our blistered faces. Mist enveloped us later while we worked our way through the night to 11,000 feet and found a flat bench below a serac. We'd been on the go for twenty-four hours.
We slept for a while and awoke to a whiteout. With just a few scraps of food and half a canister of gas for the stove, we needed to be done, but we couldn't see the way ahead. The day ticked slowly by, fading into dusk. Snow fell on and off through the night. We talked about the possibility that we might climb ourselves into a fatal and irreversible trap in the complex maze of seracs, crevasses and ridges below. But whatever lay ahead, we'd face it together. Our trust seemed to linger in the air, silent as the falling snow.
A brief clearing at 11 a.m. the next morning revealed a glimpse of the way down, a clear enough view of the path we might follow that we felt confident in starting again. The clouds closed back in, and the wind picked up. Hours later, we escaped the maelstrom of blowing snow and stumbled down a muddy hill at the base of the ridge to our cached skis on the glacier. Mist crept back in as night fell, forcing us to navigate by compass. Soft, wet snow sucked at our skis. We dragged into base camp at 3 a.m. and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
George Lowe on the "Knife-Edge Ridge" of the Infinite Spur. "We were so far beyond the point of no return that it made no sense to even consider retreat," Kennedy remembers. "The Lacuna Glacier stretched south toward the foothills of the Alaska Range, encompassing a vast wilderness of ice and tundra as distant now as the moon." While descending from the first solo ascent of the route in 2016, Colin Haley had to struggle to survive a storm that arrived a day earlier than forecasted. [Photo] Michael Kennedy
Morning dawned clear and warm. We aired our filthy bodies, ate everything in sight, and traded tales with other climbers at the landing strip. We flew out to Talkeetna that afternoon, emerging from a netherworld of blue and grey and white, of animal dangers and joys both sensed and unknown, and we suddenly found ourselves in a bewildering land of comfort and plenty. George checked in with his family and work. We called Jeff; his ankle was healing well, and he was thrilled that we'd completed both routes. I felt as if I'd passed an important test, endured a rite of passage, and was content to simply sit in wonder at what the three of us had experienced.
My eyes were now wide open to possibilities I'd only dreamed of just a few months before. I returned to Colorado energized and exhausted, exuberant and let down, confident and questioning. More than anything, I was cracked open, ready for a change although I didn't know in which direction I'd head. Adrift in one way, focused in another, I sensed a subtle shift in consciousness, a heightened awareness of my own ego and ambition and the traps contained therein, as the intensity of the climb on Foraker, and of all of our time in Alaska, began to fade into uncertain memory. I knew we'd been lucky, too. It seemed to me that only a thin line separated the mundane from the disastrous. As in Arizona in the spring, any one of our falls in Alaska could have been fatal. And what of the falls that didn't happen, those possibilities we weren't even aware of? Those moments of imbalance that afterward seem perfectly suspended and poised between survival and disaster, at once brief and eternal. How often do we remember them?
We named our route the Infinite Spur, a reflection of its length and the eleven-day round trip of our ascent. Much later it seemed to me that this name expressed far more than the physical dimensions of the climb. It suggested a journey into a place beyond time and space and into the mysteries of consciousness, intention and action. A place we rarely find, and when we do, we can only take as a gift. In the months after we returned from Alaska, even as the recognition I'd long sought came my way, I began to let go of the need to be someone, to have my worth acknowledged by others. I felt a growing desire for more balance in my life, a dampening of this feverish pursuit of routes and summits. Yet the fire still burned.
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