Chapter THREE: Zi steeps
After a few hard days, you only feel normal once you start moving again. And so we moved. We skinned up and out of camp away from Gulo Col. The group split in the morning and I glanced back to see the tents becoming smaller; the other half heading the opposite direction.
Today was to be a bold day.
Above a pocket glacier north of camp, was a beautiful northeasterly face. It dwarfed and loomed high above a rolling glacier below. It was flanked on either side by cascading blue ice. Even from the bottom, this face looked steep. If a line feels steep from the bottom, it’s a sure bet shit will feel steep standing on top. Contrary to other rambles of the trip, this face looked like an Alaskan line you might conjure in your dreams. Our team for the day was small, skilled and delightfully international. The Austrians lead the stoke. Their years in the steep couloirs of the Alps gave them more confidence and their accents gave me a chuckle. It was clear why they had come to Alaska.
We ski zi steeps.
We contoured around to a south westerly couloir and would climb to gain a ridge line. This narrow, shady nook in the rock lead us up. Once on the ridge, we would traverse over and onto the face. We skinned to the base and moved our skis from our boots to our packs. We casually chatted as we affixed crampons. We laughed about the double-edged sword of climbing with significant others. Tyler’s wife has multiple Everest ascents and was the first American woman to summit without supplemental oxygen. An ascent they accomplished together. Tyler fell strongly in the ‘for’ camp, while, at the time, I was pretty firmly in the “I’m not so sure this is a good idea” camp. The steep couloir proved to be splendid climbing and half way up I had almost forgot we were there to ski.
We continued the debate as we climbed. Kick the feet, plunge the ax and stab with the Whippet. Find the rhythm. Kick, kick, plunge, stab. Kick kick. We gained the ridge and started a traverse. Tyler’s demeanor changed as we moved along the ridge. We clicked back into our skis, locked the toes and sidestepped up to our entry point. Tyler prodded the top layers of the snowpack assessing stability before moving out onto the face. He turned and spoke over his shoulder. He was calm but firm.
THERE IS AN ICE CLIFF BELOW US AND YOU VERY WELL COULD DIE
“We’ll traverse onto the face skier's left drop 50–100 vertical feet and then traverse back skier’s right. If you don’t feel comfortable turning do not turn. Keep your Whippet in your uphill hand, ready to arrest a slip. You absolutely can not fall. There is an ice cliff below us and you very well could die. I do not want to call your family and tell them why I brought you here.”
"You absolutely can not fall" echoed in my head.
He moved slowly onto the face plunging his pole grip into the snow. You can glean a lot of information from the snow with your pole grip, if you know what you’re looking for. Sluff moved off the tails of his skis. We saw the small slide start, but couldn’t see where it ran. He stopped and studied it intently. I swallowed the anxiety forming in my throat. Swinging his pack around, Tyler pulled out his probe and began probing for rock as he sidestepped uphill. The Wranglles are notorious for massive cornices, so even in tense situations you need to make sure there is more than air under the snow you're standing on.
Once high enough, he slid back to where we stood and folded up his probe. It was a no-go. The snow was faceted down to the rocks. The top layer of sluff stepped down to gain size and momentum as it billowed over the bergschrund.
In this exposed terrain, the smallest of sluffs can send you over one of the two ice falls on a very unpleasant ride.
We still had steep skiing ahead of us in the form of the crispy couloir we just climbed. After some lunch, we slid back over to the top of the couloir. It was firm. Firm and variable. The guys from the Alps hardly seemed to notice. We skied our climbing line and it graciously spit us out at the base of yet another beautiful sub peak. Skiing is better than not skiing.
We climbed, ripped and rode it’s beautiful snow over rolling glaciers back towards camp.
It was hard to not feel something about the day. As I hung my soggy socks in fading light, I thought back to standing on top of that face. We missed our objective. Is that a failure? Did we miss our tick? The sun set on the beautiful face void of our tracks. But, does that actually mean anything?
After dinner, we passed a fifth of bourbon and celebrated.
As the whiskey burned, we chalked it a victory. A victory for conservative decision making. We raised our bottle in celebration because the next day was another day. Another day we could go skiing.
// Zi Steeps.
Chapter Four: where's Jerome
Learning how to lay a skin track isn't a straightforward science. It’s a poetic art learned through many miles trudging uphill. The goal is simple, 12 degrees. Find the subtle undulations in the terrain to keep the track climbing gently upward at exactly 12 degrees. The sound of skis gliding over the snow can lull you into a trance. If it weren’t for the dull pain of climbing, you cold drift off to sleep.