Tyler Rhodes took this aerial photo (below) a few weeks ago during Iditarod (March 2010). It's a section of sea cliffs on the Norton Sound coast about 60 miles east of Nome down the Iditarod Trail, called Topkok. The mass of ice in the photo I call the "Second Weep." I was supposed to go there last Sunday but woke up too hungover and sleep-deprived to make the journey. So what follows is a summation of 3 climbing trips to this spiritually-charged region that occurred the previous winter (2009), during which I managed to climb the WI 3 mass of ice in the photo. These trips were not without adventure. I don't know whether this was a first ascent or not; if you have climbed the ice in this photo, could you please leave a comment?
There is a huge need to be vague here. These are sacred lands. I am just an obnoxious climber/blogger driven by my own post-European ego to report about the climbing I did there. I don't pretend to be blogging about Topkok for any other reason than to prop up my own faltering sense of self worth and insecurity-driven need for recognition. The roots of this place go deep into the Earth, and it is an obvious ethical transgression to be speaking of it, much less posting pictures of it on the Internet. I am sorry to be succumbing to this ridiculous need to TALK about climbing Topkok. One should just climb Topkok and shut up about it.....
Allapa on the Second Weep (above and below). We're looking at one pitch of WI 3 here, fat and casual, except that the ice was exceptionally dinner-platey due to the fabulously cold temperatures. This ice lies about 4 miles from the Topkok Shelter Cabin. We walked, though if the sea ice is solidly accreted, one could drive. Along the way we soloed a lesser falls, the "First Weep," which lies about two miles from the cabin.
Did I mention it was cold? Yes, I'm sure I did already, butOMG, you have no idea, really. Look at the puffiness of my coat in these photos. Below zero. Way, way below zero. It is fatally, horrendously, unimaginably cold in this photo, Antarctica, zero Kelvin, deep space nine, allapa, allapa, move or freeze, lordy, sure is cold, what more is there to say?
Trip number one was in January. Collins and I made an initial reconnaissance of the cliffs and soloed the First Weep (of which I have no pictures; it ain't much, WI 1), and walked far enough east down the beach to discover the Second Weep, for which we had no time. One interesting thing was this amazing coating of verglas on the beach boulders: about 8 inches of wonderful marine ice that made for really fun bouldering (below). When we got back to the machines, Collins' Ski-Doo wouldn't start and we had a total and complete epic; as he pulled his cord hundreds of times, I watched Jeff's spirit gradually get sucked away into his machine like a drunk's spirit getting sucked into any emptying whiskey bottle. If the Topkok cabin had not been there, we might not have made it, that's how cold it was. Yessir, sure was cold, yep....
The second trip (February?) we climbed the main business, the Second Weep. This was absolutely the coldest of the 3 trips, the kind of cold that can kill you fast, 25 below at least with a stiff breeze. Collins belayed in his puffy coat and had to eskimo dance vigorously to keep from dying. I put in screw anchors at the top and yo-yoed back down on my 120 meter Sterling Duetto so Jeff could follow the pitch. On this, his first real ice climb, he was clinging to the last steep part and overgripping his tools, when I heard:
"I'm going to pass out now..."
"NO! You can't pass out now! Get your weight onto this rope NOW!"
You see, if he passed out before weighting the rope, I wasn't going to be able to lower him due to friction in the system, and if he was going to pass out up at the top of the pitch, I wasn't going to be able to get up there and rescue him before we were both become popsicles. It was cold, you see, allapa, deadly cold, I'm not kidding. We managed to get Jeff lowered off the climb and pull the ropes and get out of there, leaving the two screws at the top. All in all, Jeff hung super tough for this baptism by fire and ice; there are kinder ways to be introduced to ice climbing than a 14 hour Topkok trip.
The third trip I did to Topkok was solo. I spent the day bouldering around. I saw numerous turf climbing lines waiting to be ascended. If Topkok were the Seward Highway instead of the Seward Peninsula it would have lots of killer turf lines, but it's not, thankfully. The rock presents a real hodgepodge of geologies, quartzite seeming to be the predominant blend, mega-choss, of course, like every other piece of rock on the Peninsula. Miles upon miles of sea cliffs stretch away down the coast, haunted by Ishigaitch, the little people, though I have never seen one. Topkok is just a spooky place. The shelter cabin is another of those terrestrial acupuncture nodes, a surreal portal into other dimensions like the wardrobe in the Narnia books.
Before making the ride to Topkok from Nome, you have to learn about the "Blow Hole," which is this crazy wind funnel between Topkok Head and Solomon. The Blow Hole is why the shelter cabin is there in the first place. If the weather report says "high winds between Nome and Golovin," you have good reason to fear.