(left) An earlier Iteration of the Ayasayuk ice, early '00s. The Grade III+ pillar where Mikey and I epic-ed is at center of photo.
Nome Arts Council held a WRITERS NIGHT last month in January, local authors getting together to read their original works inside the awesome vault of Old St. Joe's Church. Mine came out steaming like a fresh pile of ANAQ, it being the product of a weird eight hour blitz of most-likely abominable writing that occurred just prior to the reading. It was fun writing about Mikey, she is a type of badass of the positive attitude.
Mikey's going to come off. Any moment she's going to explode off the ice and be dangling in space in the wind and darkness. My job will be to hold her on a top rope and try not to go skating off the edge of the frozen waterfall when she goes. The rope will pendulum and saw through banks of overhanging icicles and shattered granitic gneiss.
It was hard, the move. I had done it on lead twenty minutes ago and peed my pants a little. But the really exhausting thing had been dealing with the pitons just below the crux. To bang the pitons in I had to cram my body into this cramped little alcove of stalactites and thrutch around trying to get a good hammer swing; the footing was bad, everything was horrible, the sun was going down, I was there for an hour making grunting noises and dropping things while Mikey sat below patiently holding the rope, her warmth sublimating away despite wearing both our big puffy coats. But the pins had been pump well spent; they had given me the security to commit to the Grade IV ice pillar above.
Then it was Mikey's turn to follow. As had I, she waged a titanic battle trying to get the pins out... Tap... Tap... Tap... Even though I couldn't see her from up top the pillar, I could picture her down there thirty feet below, all puffy coats, helmets, headlamp and bobbles, kicking, kicking, trying to get footing, all the while trying to pound out vise-gripped strips of metal using new modern ice-climbing tools that are so light they are named after sub-atomic minutae. Tap... Tap... Tap... went the Quarks for twenty-five minutes. Like any faithful dirtbag climber, Mikey was not going to leave without recovering the gear, she had been schooled to the point of paranoia, recover the gear, and now she couldn't hear me yelling to forget the gear, I'm freezing, just try to get up, even though it's too hard.
Finally, the tapping stopped. The rope moved a little. I knew Mikey was abandoning the pins and going for the crux. And it was then I knew she was going for a whipper.
(left and below) Mikey on top-rope, Left Flow-First Iteration, sometime in the early '00s. The left flow was always quite a bit easier than the center one. I soloed it on several occasions, which tells you just how easy it must have been, but no one else will ever know for sure because it was blasted into chunks and trucked away to exist as part of the new jetty at the Port of Nome, as well as other seawall structures within road's reach on the Seward Peninsula.
She isn't going to back off, you see. The climbing spirits flow through Mikey and have taken control. Her big mushing mittens are set in the wrist loops of her Quarks. With characteristic determination, she is gripping down on cold icy shafts and setting the tools in the vertical ice above. I know she is totally pumped from fussing with the pins in the alcove, but somehow I also know that nothing is going to stop Mikey from pitching herself at that crux like Don Quixote at the windmills. The quarks are rebounding off the ice. Prepare for impact.
I pat my anchor— a network of three willow branches knitted together with slings to equalize the forces. It should hold. But suddenly my anchor seems absurd. It's the "Help me Mr. Wizard moment." That vertiginuous feeling when your awareness scopes out to a point in space where you can view yourself against the wall, the veils of denial disintegrate, you realize you have done a silly childish thing and imperiled lives unnecessarily. What's Charlie going to think? What of my own spouse, Kristine? The light is gone. Mikey is emitting audible epithets over the breeze, terrible thrashings, ominous cussings, if her students could hear her now they would not recognize her. The rope moves up an inch or two. I'm sitting in a pool of slush trying to stamp out footholds.
The current of fear and sympathetic amygdala response running up and down the rope intensifies. An inhuman sound begins to rise over the wind, a moaning wail, the sound of an animal suffering horribly... catecholamines and fear receptors are triggering and firing, alarm is running up the rope like a current, MIkey has the screaming-barfies sensation in her hands, the wrist loops have cut off her circulation, her legs are starting to sewing-machine. Here it comes. With one hand off the rope, I fumble frantically with an ice screw. Maybe I can push it into something and lash more of myself to the cliff, but I drop the screw, my mitten is out on the runway preparing for take-off but I can't reach it. The sun is reduced to burning embers over the Bering Sea.
A scream. A perfect, Hollywood, girl scream, several seconds duration, with receding Doppler effect. Mikey is off. Sudden pressure. Rope stretch and rope twang.
And now I have been jerked right off my stance and pulled forward like a diving shortstop. I'm gliding smoothly across the frozen pool at the top of the waterfall. Somewhere I hear the crashing sound of ice, and a muffled squawk. I'm heading for the lip. Maybe I can grab those two gravestone-shaped chunks of gneiss there to stop from going over the edge. I don't feel too bad about my own injury or death, but I feel really really terrible about Mikey's...
Tough plants, those willows. No first person narrative from crumpled bodies. There's no way to dramatize what amounts in the end to a routine top-rope fall, but then again, this story was not about the fall. I came to a stop with my head looking down over the edge, the rope locked off twangy tight in the belay device. Now that I could see her, turns out Mikey really was dangling in space, like Kurz, Arachne, Jonathan Hemlock, her headlamp revealing tiny flakes of snow drifting down. We could actually hear each other now...
"I think I'm starting to get the hang of it!" yells Mikey.
(above) Mikey emerging from Osborn's Northeast Cirque (home to the largest little living glacier in the Kigluaik) and starting up the East Ridge. First we slogged up the broad couloir at the left end of Osborn's huge marble north face. Near the top, we took a side trip up a three-pitch, M4 variation, the top of which you can see behind Mikey.
Have I sucked Mikey in over her hat again? Nobody else breaks into a grin when you ask them if they want to go suffer in the Kigluaik Range just to climb a mountain. What does Charlie think? I think Charlie is worried about his snow machine.
Mikey hates the snow machine. I hate the snow machine. But the snow machine is necessary to get to the high Kigs. We will have to suffer the snow machine, but we are both slightly in fear of the things, like dudes at a horse ranch. The proposal is to motor in to the north fork of Grand Central valley to the fabled north wall of Mt. Osborne and make an alpine ascent of the northeast ridge, then start the dreaded machines and motor back to Nome, all in one day.
In the morning I can't find my hat, which turns out to be on my head. The glue of town binding me to my life is so thick that I have to hack at it with the machete, damaging women and children on the way out the door, my awful Hog already roaring and fuming in the driveway. Mikey has been ready to go for hours. We arrive at Osborn by two in the afternoon. A yawning, brooding gloom comes over the sun as our machines enter the shadow of the north face of Osborn, a dark, enormous, marble amphitheatre located at the very swirl point of the cusp between weather basins, the mighty Imruk Basin to the north, the wise and omnipotent Pacific Ocean to the south. Osborn's wall is 2,500 ft. and draped with ice. Mikey and I take up the long axes and head up a low angle snow gully at the wall's left extremity. The snow is deep, and we have to plod using the insectile "upward posthole" trick.
(above) Has this couloir been skied? North Cirque Osborn, '06 or so. Once again, the naming problem: North Couloir?
(below) Mikey in the marble halls.
Hours pass. Mikey and I are having an utter blast. We are in the mountains, the sacred meta-sedimentary chunk of Osborn itself, and walls are all around. We are feeling so good we decide to bust out the rope and make a three-pitch variation up a rock band, mixed climbing up to M3. I place cams and Mikey takes them out. Our crampons bite ice and our tools hook limestone. We top out on the crest of the northeast ridge. It's not steep, but it's bullet hard, so we leave the rope on. All Alaska is at our feet now, you can make out Distin and White Alice thirty-five miles south. The summit of Osborn, a certain little rimed-up hump on the summit ridge above us, begins to look tantalizingly close. The snow has gone peach, but neither of us notices.
(left) Mikey at the belay on our mixed variation to the North Couloir. There was some real climbing, though the real climbing was still just practice for the real thing.
Again, the sudden moment of awareness, the snapping out of the aerobic trance. What the hell are we doing? I suddenly think. The sun is going down. The middle-of-nowhere quotient is fantastically high. And here's Mikey and me like the dazed children we already were questing upward for the top of the mountain. Epic. Why was it hidden to our perception until the last minute, why didn't I see the epic coming? We were having fun, I guess.
As often happens at sunset, the breeze has changed direction. We stop for a conference.
"That's what I was thinking."
"You got any water?"
"Almost nothing. Whaddya you got?"
(above) Mikey near our high point on the East Ridge of Osborn, right about the time we snapped out of our climbing trance and realized we had continued too long. I returned the following year and soloed the ridge; it's the kind of thing where nothing is the least bit hard, but you wouldn't want to slip or you'd go for a high-speed pinball.
We have to make five rappels. Mikey is bonking. She is stumbling like a zomby, but it's OK because we're off the part of the mountain where a fall was going to result in a rapid sliding fall of up to 800 feet. In the gully, I start bonking too. It's a dehydration bonk, a severe one. We're both zombies, just the worst kind, speechless, listless, joyless, hollow shells. We have to rest for twenty minutes simply to gather enough energy to walk for five. Hallucinations set in, flashes and movements in the corner of the vision. It's the middle of the night now, and I have Mikey's headlamp, which doesn't seem fair, so I turn to give it back to her, but she is far, far up the mountain still— I have left her behind. Not necessarily for dead, but it makes me wonder. And now I am wracked with guilt, because I'm not going to wait for her. Because there is only thing in the world. There is only the thermos full of liquid H2O waiting for me at the machines.
We will arrive back in town at six-thirty in the morning, just as the concern calls are beginning. In the time it takes to get off the mountain and drive the machines forty-five miles back home in the icy cold, we will live several lifetimes, lifetimes full of suffering, nauseau, and pain. But now Mikey has arrived at the machines at last. And now we are all packed up, and the dreaded moment has arrived: it's time to pull the cord on the machine.