My stomach ached, a combination of hunger and anxiety. The clouds were creeping lower down the monoliths, the wind gust were increasing in velocity. After four days of relentless weather, a window had opened, an escape from the clutches of the mountain gods was revealed, but our chances were dwindling. We had packed our bags, waiting for that unmistakable sound, the roar of an approaching plane.
After thirty Alaska fly in expeditions under my belt, I was highly aware of the plane waiting game and my mind was so familiar with that sound, that it had began to recreate it, knowing how desperately I wanted to hear it.
“I think I hear something.” I projected loudly to Sy. But there was nothing. Defeated, I began to unpack and prepare for another night of being shaken and stirred in our tiny tent. But then, the lion roared.
The Kichatna Mountains are legends. I had heard of them long before moving to Alaska. I listened to stories and dreams told over fire and beers. My big wall climbing friends were always planning a trip, but never committing, the Kichatnas were to be celebrated and feared. When I moved to Alaska, I met very few people who had ever set foot on their glaciers. A few years ago I flew around them and was blown away by their steepness. It is said that the Kichatna Mountains have the highest concentration of granite spires in Alaska, and I have no doubt about that. The spires of the Kichatna Mountains are so densely concentrated that flying around them didn’t do them justice. I don’t like aerial photography from above the mountains. I like to be eye level, mid mountain, which isn’t possible in the Kichatnas, the valleys are too narrow. So the only way to really experience the majesty and boldness of the peaks and to capture their true nature was to be in mountains.
I had hesitated for many years on going to the Kichatnas. They are very remote and a flight there is expensive. But the main reason I resisted their power was their unfriendliness towards visitors. The Kichatna Mountains are the prow of the mighty, central Alaska Range ship and take the brunt of all the weather coming from both the south and the west. The winds in the mountains are said to rival the notorious winds of Patagonia. Extended tent time is common for all expeditions. Alaska: A Climbing Guide reads: “Prepare for only three pleasant days in thirty of horizontal rain, sleet and snow. The Kichantas are a ornery bunch.”
We landed on the Tatina Glacier on a perfect day. We knew it was special weather because Paul, our pilot, was enjoying the scenery and taking pictures. We could tell he would have preferred to join us that day and we could feel his unhappiness about leaving the mountains.
We made camp in the amphitheater at the head of the Tatina Glacier. Granite exploded out of the glaciers in every direction, with the mighty North and Middle Triple Peaks dominating all the others. That afternoon we explored the valley and icefall below the north face of Flat Top Spire. The next day was a little hazy but still calm and clear. We skied up over Monolith Pass, the most impressive pass I have ever been over. Imagine three El Capitan’s towering above you, so close together you feel like you could throw a rock between them. The peaks of the pass are Mount Nevermore, North and Middle Triple Peaks.
On the third day we descended Tatina Glacier. Our plan was to go down and around to the Cul-De Sac Glacier, spend a day or two there and then to the Shadows Glacier to get picked up. The descent was long, but enjoyable with great skiing. My new, rigid sled system worked great but Sy had a lot of trouble with his set up. At the bottom of the glacier was a large frozen lake. We decided to camp there. My leg was hurting after the long descent (this chronic condition is still bothering me!). The scenery was nice and it was obvious there were lots of animals that used the area and I was hopeful that we might get to photograph some wildlife, but we had no visitors.
The next day we crossed over to the Cul-De Sac Glacier and gradually made our we to the base of the mighty Kichatna Spire. The Kichatna Spire was hidden under a cap of grey, swirling clouds. It would remain that way for the rest of the trip, I never got a chance to see it in its entirely.
We set camp up under worsening conditions. The wind came in rushes. You could hear it coming right before it slammed you down. The next four days were a lesson in patience as the wind continued without a break. We kept in contact with our pilot who continued to ask how much snow we were getting? Denali, 50 miles to the north was getting hammered, with over three feet of new snow at base camp. But we were only getting wind, relentless wind.
Saturday, our pick up day arrived. A huge “sucker” hole lingered above, triggering a sense of hope that we might get picked up, but the wind refused to submit, it was determined to keep us hostage. We spent the day repairing walls, napping and watching the red, low battery signal on our ipods, trying to guess which song would be our last.
We emptied our thinning food bags and began the process of rationing food. We had passed the option of skiing out, we definitely had to rely on the mechanical bird for rescue, the question was, how long could we stretch our food? Actually, the more concerning part was whether we had enough fuel to melt water?
We experimented with using black bags and sleds to melt water, which worked with limited success. The next day was much of the same. My nerves were on edge. Unable to travel or photograph in the conditions, stuck waiting for pick up, with limited supplies, was wearing me down. Sy continued, as always, to be up beat and unphased our predicament, laughing at my dwindling patience and pessimistic outburst. We could see the summits of most peaks and the valley was clear. However, our pilot said it was raining in Talkeetna and when he looked towards the Kichatnas, all he could see was low, black clouds. We could sense that he was not believing that we were having favorable weather. I am sure they have been tricked by many, desperate climbers.
We spoke with the flight service in the afternoon and they said they would give it a try. We prepared the runway and packed up all but the tent. Sy skied around and I sat with my camera, making poor, uninspired images of the amazing peaks. Hours passed as we watched the clouds lower and felt the gusts of wind increase, building more strength as if fueled by our desire to leave.
As soon as I began unpacking I heard a noise. The wind I figured. Then again. Loud then soft. And then the unmistakable, beautiful whine of a plane engine bounced off the granite walls. We both went into the “plane is coming” frenzy, I rushed to take down the tent, Sy rushed down runway to pick up the sleds and bags after the plane landed.
At times the trip seemed like an eternity. I was disappointed with my attitude, the mountains had worn me down, my leg was still hurting, my project was nearing its end and i felt helpless, unable to control my life.
The flight away from the mountains is often a time of reflection. There is a great, overwhelming release, followed by sadness. I have yet to understand why the mountains play the tricks they do with my mind, why they can sometimes repulse me with their weather and yet fully engulf me with their beauty.
No matter how terrible or amazing my trips are in the mountains, as soon as I am leaving, as soon has I am above them, heading back to civilization, I am plotting my return.