After seeing a slideshow put on by the Alaska Alpine Club Wednesday, Grant postulated the idea of doing Silvertip, a 9400′ peak, in a day on Friday. This particular Friday happened to be Springfest (aka Case Day). I was really intent on drinking a case of beer in a day, I’ve never participated in my four years at UAF, but I wanted more to finally summit a Delta peak (third season mountaineering, zero summits). As soon as we told him our plan, Galen was in! The plan was to leave Thursday around 5pm, get there by 8 or 9 and sleep until 2am, start skiing, tag the summit and be back for beers. The only real differences from the last weekend’s plan was we would sleep more in the car and set our sights on a different peak.
And the weather got much worse.
At the last minute Grant bails; his lovely girlfriend Maarit understandably wants to spend time with him before they both leave Fairbanks for the summer, so it’s just Galen and I. We bring a bunch of food but no bivy gear because we planned to be back by Friday night, which is what we told Grant and Kelsey, our Backups. Always have a Backup. Two is better. Experienced mountaineering backups are best.
Grant lets us borrow his (technically, 60%-his) Jetboil, and as I’m packing it the lid pops off and dumps everything inside onto the ground into a puddle. FORESHADOWING.
Awesome. We leave Fairbanks Thursday late afternoon/evening and drive down, sans beer this time. Got a nice view of Mount Hayes on our way out, Grant Brian and I have a trip planned there right after school gets out in a week or two.
We sleep at Michael Creek again and get up at 2, start skiing at 3. This time we had the advantage of not being hungover to get us through the long approach ski. The mountains had gotten hit by a foot or two of snow, which made us a bit nervous, but the ski up wasn’t bad and nothing fell on our heads.
We try brewing up with the Jetboil near the base of the headwall, but it was pretty windy and our hands kept going numb. We try Grant’s trick to put warm water in the lid to pressurize the fuel canister more, but it just put out the flame, so we gave up. The weather was a bit cloudy and was supposed to be “Delta good” until 6, then it is supposed to get stormy. Plenty of time. I think we only consumed 2-2.5 liters of water per person the entire trip.
We make it up the headwall, which has the aforementioned few feet of snow on it (the river only had a few inches, thankfully), and head down the other side. Brian, one of the guys who’s camp we crashed last week, told us to avoid the northern part of the east face of the headwall, so we try downclimbing the steep snow of the face just to the south. Realizing Brian was wrong, we see a nice ramp just to the north, so we clamber on over and climb to the bottom.
We rope up to cross the glacier and make a nice, straightish trail across, all the crevasses (there’s quite a few on the edges we were crossing) were covered, bridged, or filled. Galen used the last of my toilet paper taking a shit at the first cluster of rocks at the base of the mountain.
We ski up the lower slopes of Silvertip and are a bit freaked by the snow at some spots, but we make it up to the top of the rock buttress on the west side with no slides or whoomfing. We got distracted by serac fall across the valley.
We ditched out skis at the first real rock outcropping and headed up on foot.
Snow conditions improved and the snow became relatively hard. Nothing really noteworthy happened until about halfway up the route (the rocky slopes past the flat section, for those of you who have climbed it before) when we took a break. I open my bag to get some much needed Pop-Tarts (Pop-Tarts: send me free food and I’ll send you photos).
As I’m putting the wrapper away, it got caught by the wind and took flight. I instinctively try to catch it, letting go of my bag, and the jetboil pot lid comes off inside my pack. The only thing to drop out is the mostly empty fuel canister, which bounces a few times, picks up tremendous speed…aaaaand it’s gone. I have about 600mL of water left and so does Galen. Always the optimists, we figured that simplified things. Now we wouldn’t have to stop to make water anymore.
We continue upwards and are about half an hour from the summit when we look down and see a valley-consuming storm slowly rolling up the glacier we had just crossed. Quickly using my phone to take a bearing on the headwall, I urge Galen to stop taking pictures and continue upwards. Not my best call.
We summit in a cloud, no views but little wind. A brief respite.
We should have roped up for this too. We took a picture a MOJO Bar for our friend Andy Sterns, who was at the time in a coma from a climbing accident the week before.
We quickly head down the mountain; at this point clouds have been pouring in from the Michael and Trims Creeks for a while, not unnoticed by us.
I was concerned our skis were already blown away (that would add a lot of crevasse danger and an extra 5 hours to our return, if not more) but there they were, right where we left them.
I was ecstatic on the inside, but not for long. We make it down the somewhat unstable slopes to the bottom of the mountain where the Jarvis Glacier awaited us.
Galen and I rationalized as long as we stay on our old trail we shouldn’t need to rope up. Another bad call, but in our haste to get across the glacier it made sense not to take the time to rope up. It’s 9:30 Friday night…not dark yet but it will be in 45 minutes.
We skied onto the glacier, into the clouds, and immediately lose our trail. We have entered a giant ping pong ball and are losing our precious daylight, fast! Every now and then we see pole marks and followed those, but they disappear quickly. Refusing to rope up out of stubbornness, we double pole and shuffled blindly, wandering across the glacier along our bearing. After a while skiing towards what we later found out to be a bunch of crevasses (they looked like rocks at first), I had a sudden realization and started freaking out.
“Galen, GALEN! We can’t be wandering aimlessly, unroped, on a glacier, in a storm, at NIGHT!” We use the full length of the rope borrowed from Mr. Jeff Benowitz to tie ourselves together, but when it came to setting up our prussic rigs for crevasse rescue we decided the most time-efficient decision was “fuck it”. Galen hypothesized the full length of the rope would create sufficient rope drag and since we were on our skis our weight would be distributed making it unlikely we would fall into a crevasse and the snow seemed really solid anyway…..you know what, we REALLY needed to move because I can’t see my shadow anymore. All those lies you tell yourself to feel less terrified.
We continue to make our way across the glacier, weaving and trying to find a path that makes sense. Our progress isn’t very fast because we took off our skins earlier to expedite travel. Another bad call. It doesn’t help to move fast if you aren’t going in the right direction. It was a straight shot across the first time, why the hell was it so hard now?
Galen is in front, I’m in the rear yelling “GO LEFT” or “GO RIGHT” to him, trying to follow my bearing. I think it was 212. Eventually I see something, maybe a thousand feet up, through the clouds. It’s very close to our bearing, so I yell at Galen to “follow that rock in the sky!” The rock sent from God leads us to the base of the headwall around 10:15pm and it’s my turn to lead. Happy to be on somewhat familiar territory and off the damn glacier, I start up the slope, skis in hand. The task became increasingly difficult as the angle steepened and the snow hardened. As it continues to steepen I tell Galen we gotta crampon up, so we do, and at this point it is officially pitch black dark. We have a short discussion about the merits of spot beacons, and ponder if others would give up at this point and press the MAGIC BUTTON and wait for rescue.
We found courage in the knowledge that we were past the hard part. At this point we were mainly worried about our friends in town, rightfully freaking out. Our friend Ibi had flown into Fairbanks specifically to see us, it would be rather rude of us to die in the Alaska Range while she waited. I continue climbing upwards with my dying 30 lumen headlamp, eventually topping out after some amount of time that I didn’t care to meaure. It was 11:30pm when we topped out on the ridge and I realized I had no idea where we were.
I hiked south along the ridge and found we had overshot our descent point by a few hundred feet; I discovered our meager trail heading down the headwall that awaited us, right where we left it. Galen led ahead with his amazingly bright headlamp and we got to the area where we could ski and began the extra-slow ski out. I couldn’t see very much with my little deathly headlamp so I relied on Galen’s, watching where his light was rather than where I was. Snow conditions had deteriorated and there was fresh powder that had been blowing around, so we were just crawling along. Time became irrelevant until we got to the car, at which point I heard the alarm I set the previous day go off, meaning we’ve been climbing for 23 hours in total, awake for 24. I hastily text Grant and Kelsey that we were back safely. Turns out Grant, Maarit, Ibi, Nadia, and Claire were all still waiting up for us and had called the Troopers, though they require folks be missing for 48 hours before they do anything. Kelsey figured we were going to be back late and had gone to sleep. Getting back late is a common occurrence in our trips to the Deltas, though so far never this late (writing this report years later, we have since beaten this record into the ground).
I started driving back but had to hand it off to Galen, as I was hallucinating and falling asleep. As I was sleeping in the passenger seat, I would occasionally wake up and freak out because I forgot I wasn’t driving anymore and thought I had fallen asleep at the wheel. We got into Delta Junction and buy some much needed food from the blessed 24-hour gas station, where all good trips to the Deltas end! We park at the IGA and sleep for a couple of hours. We get back into town around 10am or so and I go to bed, Galen goes to the rock gym for the climbing competition (and sleeps).
We each slept for a few hours, shower, then head to the beer tasting!
Grant told me later he would have rather been out there with us than at home worrying. Had he been with us, we probably would have made better decisions. We were pretty lucky the entire trip.
Always rope up on a glacier and don’t let summit fever take over.
Unless it works out, I suppose.