The ice formation that lives far up Bear Creek, known as “Forgiveness”, is somewhat of a legend in the Fairbanks climbing community. In the unlikely year it forms, the line drips its way down from a thicket of alders at the edge of the canyon over steep, chossy rock for a few hundred feet. The top is steep funky ice, the middle consists of lower angle ice which terminates, very rarely, with a thin pillar, sometimes followed by lower angle verglass (extremely thin ice over rock). The ice is of the worst quality. To access this ice from the creek bottom involves a few 5.7 rock moves to gain a snow ramp that served as our belay ledge, condensing the climb to two pitches instead of three. As of 2013, the only known ascentists were the first to climb it: Jeff Benowitz, Ian McRae, and their friend Dave. Jeff led all three pitches; the last he free-soloed with a rope, placing no gear while mulling over his personal angst concerning a non-climbing partner’s infidelity—the source of the name of the formation. He also climbed it wearing two left boots (we did not repeat that aspect of the first ascent).
During early February 2013, Grant, Ryan Sims, and I had done some wandering up Bear Creek to pass the time. According to the guidebook, “Buffalo, Barley, and Ice”, Forgiveness is 1-3 hours up the creek, which I feel is a pretty wide range of time. We enjoyed wandering up the creek as the travel was fast and pleasant, and there was much eye candy for ice climbers as one travels up the creek.
As we came around the S-bends, we spied the notorious pillar of Forgiveness. It had formed up this year, but we lacked the equipment to attempt an ascent. We noted the first pitch was very bare and would involve significant dry-tooling as well as the use of pitons for protection.
Upon later showing a picture of the ice to the first ascentist, Jeff, he told us he had never seen the pillar re-form in the almost 20 years since he climbed it.
The wind had stripped away snow from the area and we noticed a low angle ice flow to the right of Forgiveness. The line looked a nice and mellow jaunt up the cliffside.
We leashed the dogs to an ice screw in the creek and I watched Grant and Sims ascend the ice. As I made my way to the base, I recall thinking how sturdy the creek ice was despite the single-digit temperature. Upon the completion of this thought, my right foot plunged knee-deep through the ice. I jumped free of the water and shook most of the moisture off before it could soak into my clothing. My boots stayed dry. We free-soloed up the ice ramp, which would have been difficult with Nomic-style tools.
Sidebar: At this point in time my friends and I were all climbing with Black Diamond tools and had a bias against Petzl’s Nomics ice tools, the shape of which we believed was an affront to climbing because their radical design make climbing steep ice easy (update: we have since all bought tools similar to Nomics in shape).
Topping out last, I saw Grant smoking his tobacco pipe and Sims drinking from his flask. Breaking out a pipe of my own, we had a grand time overlooking the terrain. The route is by no means difficult (Delta Grade 1), it is not mentioned in the Delta Ice guidebook (“Buffalo, Barley, and Ice”) and we’d never heard of anyone climbing it. Most years it is likely covered in snow. We decided to call it, “Nomics Suck”, because why not? We descended via a gully on the backside and continued our way up the creek. Our mood to climb was waning with the daylight, so we decided to explore and pushed to the end of the creek where it disappointingly petered out in a frozen puddle. What we did find was a whole host of climbing opportunities, Delta Grade 1 to 3, that are not mentioned in the guidebook.
In early April, Galen wandered up the creek and noticed the Forgiveness ice was still (mostly) there.
Even though the pillar was now a hanging stub, we figured it was worth an attempt. We picked up an N.W.A. CD to raise the stoke and drove the necessary 2.5 hours south to Bear Creek. Grant was not particularly motivated to attempt Forgiveness, which Galen and I noted while packing gear the previous night. The route would be crowded with three people on it, anyway. It was snowing when we arrived.
As we roped up at the base of the route, Grant busied himself with tea-duty as we ignored the obvious fact the pillar had melted and collapsed in the sun. The space the pillar had previously bridged started to look a lot larger up close. We figured it wasn’t snowing that hard, so we could still make an attempt. We moved ourselves carefully up the rock and the snow ramp to the belay ledge. Finding no ice in which to place protection, I pounded a short piton into a crack in the friable rock and a second, even shorter piton, into another crack for good measure. Knowing full-well the second piton was worthless (psychological pro was tradition on this climb), Galen put me on belay and I made an attempt to traverse the shitty rock to the right of our belay stance. After making little progress I came upon the bulgy rock roof Jeff mentioned in his book, “Hitchhiking Up Mount McKinley” where he chronicles his ascent. Not really a roof, but the rock transitions from vertical to steeply inclined with very little to cling to. I swung my tools into the rock and pulled off multiple pieces as I tried to feel secure moving upwards. That was a wasted effort, of course; nothing about this route is secure. I did not want to take a very-likely fall on terrible protection, only to take Galen in a tumble with me down a fifty feet snow and rock. Admitting defeat, I made my way slowly back to Galen on the ramp and we switched lead. After getting stuck in the same spot I did, he decided to get innovative and attempt a new direction. Climbing the rock to my left, he made his way up the less-steep face with fairly good progress, though he later claimed the best hold he found was a shrub growing through the rock. He placed one camming device in a flared crack surrounded by shattered rock, but ultimately found no way to reach the stub of the pillar and downclimbed without removing the cam, as the it was only psychological protection, so we thought. The cam was surprisingly solid, and we found ourselves pulling on both sides of the rope attempting to free from the rock the increasingly-solid protection. On our last tug, we both loaded our full body-weights onto the rope and the cam pulled free. Galen, who was not tied into the anchor except through me, suddenly found 20 feet of slack in the rope between us and began tumbling backwards. I managed to regain my footing as my shortest piton ripped from the rock; I grabbed the rope closer to Galen and stopped his descent. It also started to snow more. When we felt the situation could not be any more embarrassing, Grant yelled a warning as snow sluffs started avalanching onto us from higher up the route. My silly dog Kiro tried to join us as we descended the snow ramp, but immediately regretted his decision as he was blasted by falling snow. While not heavy or icy it still blinded us. I let the snow wash over me and made sure it hit my helmet first; I found I was enjoying myself. It was good to be off that ledge.
Since the day was still young and it wasn’t snowing that hard yet, we continued up the creek climbing low angle ice lines, mostly solo. I found a cool cracked pillar to clamber up.
This trip Grant was a bit injured and vowed not to lead anything, but apparently soloing was a workable loophole. I got a nice lead in on a gem further up the creek, Grant smashed his face with ice following me. It started snowing heavily as we descended the creek and we all ended up floundering in the snow at some point.
The following November, Grant, Sims, and I once again went ice scouting up Bear Creek, and this time we were rewarded with Forgiveness: thick, blue ice overflowing from the rim of the canyon all the way to the valley floor. The pillar had formed up at least three times the size anyone had ever seen, and numerous icicles dripped beside it. There was verglass that extended from the pillar base and down the rock to the creek, allowing an easier approach to the snow ramp.
We immediately swore oaths of secrecy and the only soul we promised to tell was our Anchorage buddy Rick Roth, a.k.a. “Gear Jesus”. Rick and I have had numerous climbing adventures together and is a well-known rope-gun in our climbing circle. We made the call to him that evening to see if he could take the next weekend off from work. He was a bit skeptical due to the short notice, until we sent him pictures of the pillar. His boss, owner of Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking, is also a climber and was sympathetic to Rick’s desire to gnab a coveted 2nd ascent of a rarely-formed climb. He gave him the whole weekend off and also lent us 4 pairs of snowshoes, courtesy of AMH. Rick made haste driving to meet us for our planned ascent on Friday. The original plan was for Rick and I to team up, and Grant and Sims to follow our lead.
Those snowshoes were invaluable, as the weather on our climb day was fitting for the feat we were to attempt. When we left Fairbanks Friday the 22nd, the weather was calm and hovered around 0 degrees. Arriving at the IGA in Delta Junction, we parked on a foot-high snowdrift in front of the building and hurried inside through the wind at -15F, hoping the mountains would buffet the cold a bit. We were pleased to find positive temperatures in the single digits with light, fluffy snow falling as we pulled into the small parking lot at Bear Creek.
We donned our packs and snowshoes before Grant and Ryan, the guys with the longest legs, broke trail up the creek.
As we rounded a bend we all noticed condensation everywhere. One of the weirdest phenomena about Bear Creek is the strange and unexplainable temperature inversions that occur randomly.
The snow turned to rain as we made our way up the creek, blindly determined to climb. We noticed multiple slides on the same aspect of the canyon our ice was on, but pushed these thoughts to the back of our minds. Our party triggered a small slide beneath our feet as we sidehilled up the canyon, and continued the practice of pushing it to the back of our minds.
When we reached the base of Forgiveness, the rain had abated to a fine spray of mist. Grant was feeling weird about the avalanche conditions so he and Ryan decided to let us have all the glory; four would be quite the crowd on this ice. Rick and I racked up, puffy-ed up, and made our way to the base of the route. My piton from the previous season was now frozen into the rock and offered, again, our only piece of protection for the first pitch belay. I clipped this as my first piece of the lead. I started from the same position as my last attempt, making slightly more progress but getting weirded out by the verglass, which I have never climbed. It only felt slightly more secure than dry-tooling. Wasting little time, I bailed, clipped into the anchor, and switched the lead to Rick, who started farther down the route but with thicker ice. Smart idea. He also somehow managed to get a tiny 10cm ice screw into the verglass. The Gear Jesus can work miracles.
He slowly made his way up the thin ice, avoiding the awkward section that had given me so much trouble. He worked his way to the base of the pillar, around which he girth hitched with a large sling and attached it to the rope with a carabineer. With a body’s-width of ice now added to the protection system, we both felt far more comfortable. Rick swung his Nomics (which I no longer detested) into the ice and began to ascend the pillar. Once he cleared the bulge on top I lost sight of him. I communicated with Grant and Sims from across the valley, who had eyes on him. Nothing of note happened for about half an hour as Rick made his way up the ice, until Grant yelled at me and I looked up at the pillar. What appeared to be white, frothy foam congealed at the top of the ice, proceeded by a rushing torrent of snow loud as a freight train that roared past me a moment later. I instinctively ducked and tucked myself close to the rock as I watched snow scream by a few feet away, razing all snow off the exact spot from where Rick had been belaying me initially.
Rick told me what happened afterward: after he ascended the pillar the ice slacked back to a comfortable angle. After that, hell, it was a walking angle! He couldn’t even see the ice, it was all covered in snow. He dug through the snow and placed a spectre in the thick ice surrounding a fallen tree. The ice steepened a ways after the tree. “HALFWAY” I yelled, indicating he had used half of the ropelength. Continuing, he climbed a few bulgy sections where he placed two screws and the ice steepened again, covered by wet snow. Above him, Rick could see the blue ice of the final pitch. “THIRTY FEET”, he heard me yell.
Almost there, goddammit, thought Rick, as he looked up at the sweet blue ice he was about to sink the solid protection of ice screws into. As he climbed upward through the deepening snow, he noticed he didn’t seem to be making any progress. In fact, it was almost as if he were moving backwards.
“FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK” Rick yelled as he scrambled his way up the avalanche. He kicked his feet, he swung his tools, but nothing hit ice. Finally, as his arm arched towards the ice, he felt a solid THUNK as his Nomic struck and stuck. He managed to kick his crampon points into the ice just as the heavy, wet snow gained speed and slid past him, and past me.
My mind noted there was no weight on the other end of the rope.
Rick noticed the same thing.
“I fucking told you guys! I fucking told you!”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP GRANT. IS RICK OKAY?”
“Yeah he’s fine! He’s climbing!”
Oh thank God. It’s amazing how sharp senses become after a near-death experience, and how that experience sapped the joy out of what we thought would be a glorious ascent. I recall thinking…technically, logically…the route was now safe to climb. It wasn’t going to avalanche again. My initial fiery desire was all but gone, replaced by a cold determination of necessity. We couldn’t not climb it now.
Finally, I hear the words: “OOOOOON BEEELAAAAAAAAY!”
I remove my leashed tool, which I had hooked into the ice for another piece of protection, unclip from the anchor and start climbing. I remove Rick’s ice screw below the pillar and finally get my gloved hands on the damned thing. Taking no joy in the occasion, my mind honed to a point, I remove the sling and swing my tools into the pillar. It did not reverberate, as I thought it would, but silently accepted my ice picks. I found Rick’s spectre and had to use my ice tool for leverage to remove it, which was confidence-inspiring. I removed the remaining screws as I climbed the enjoyably-bare, soft ice and met Rick at the base of the final pitch. We both expressed gratitude at seeing each other alive and I volunteered to try the final pitch, inspired by the great quality of ice presented. The sun had set during my ascent, so we ignited our headlamps to finish the route. Grant and Ryan, who had been napping, yelled at us to ask if we were going to keep climbing. I do believe our reply was “HELL YEAH”; I made my way up the ice as the sky darkened further.
It was interesting climbing a few hundred feet in the air ensconced by darkness; our headlights could neither reach the bottom of the canyon, nor quite the top of the ice. Only the rock and alders on either side of us gave us perspective. The ice was indeed, as described by the guidebook, “funky”; it turned from hero ice, to honeycombed ice, then wet and decomposing ice covered with snow; it freaked me the hell out. After a few bulgy sections and placing two screws, my nerve broke and I asked Rick to finish it. Cursing, I was lowered down and quickly switched the lead to Rick, who climbed up the ice so fast he dropped a screw. Luckily it did not fall far and I was able to retrieve it afterward. The top of the ice offered no reward but the moment itself; as we basked in glory of darkness, neither of us wanted to light the victory joint until we were safely at ground level. A brief consideration was given to the idea of walking down the descent gully on the backside of the ice, but it was likely snow-filled and we had enough of avalanches.
We rappelled to the start of the last pitch, where we already had a V-thread set up. From there we rapped to the initial belay ledge, the rope stretch giving us a few extra feet. We jumped into the deep snow next to the solidifying avalanche debris.
Packing all our gear, we share a stupendous smoke, feeling the tension from the day melt away. The hazy walk out was expedited by the fantastic trail we had packed, which was now rock solid. Rick and I crashed hard in the back seat on the drive home and I also missed the midnight deadline for submitting my art homework. Later that week I told our story to Jeff and he congratulated us on our adventure.
“Definitely a Delta classic”, he remarked.
I first read about Forgiveness in Jeff’s book during my first season of ice climbing, in the fall of 2010. I never thought the climb would form up again, let alone I would have the honor of climbing it. All glory goes to Rick for the lead, I merely provided a constant prodding to get after it and was happy to follow and tell the story. As far as we know, we were the fourth and fifth people to climb the route from the bottom. Since our ascent, it has been repeated by Jason Stuckey and Chad Diesinger, though the pillar did not form up for them so they climbed Galen’s attempted route to bypass that section.