Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Topkok 2012

     People have always climbed (for eggs) at the Tapqaq seacliffs, but probably not the kind of frozen-mixed-dry-tool climbing done by Andy Sterns (above, left) and I during the latter half of Iditarod last week.  We hung out nights in the Topkok shelter cabin (above, right) and climbed by day in the sunny micro-climates up against the south-facing quartzite cliffs.

    The highlight of the trip came the second day when Andy led Don't Succumb To Finish Line Fever (M-5), a prodigious, multi-hour effort on the 100 ft. wall of relatively decent rock we called Crapiles (above), (pronouced ka-rap-a-leez).  The 1-pitch route follows the indistinct right-facing corner system on the leftish side of the wall, then makes a righthand turn at the top cornice through horrendous bottomless snow.  Andy dug through powder over poised rubble, then sank picks into solid mud.  Named for back-of-the-pack Iditarod finishers out of White Mountain and desperate for Nome at all costs, the route felt like it had three M-5 cruxes, and for me, at least, like impending death by choss at all times, despite the quality of the rock relative to the hanging death elsewhere at Tapqaq.

     I was extremely happy to be cruising in the wake of Andy, who was in the finest form I've seen him.  I had regressed to nOOb yet again after a horrendous winter of injury and non-climbing.  I shamelessly begged off every lead, happy to provide Andy the hours of belay slavery necessary to make technical pitches on choss such as this possible.  Before we founded Finish Line Fever, we made a false start on a different line at Crapiles but got shut down by choss drippings, during which time I snapped this picture of Andy, (above).  
(above) First moves of Don't Succumb To Finish Line Fever.  Bomber torquing.

Andy pulling through a roof (left) and starting the awful rightward snow traverse (below, right) on Finish Line Fever.  I was humbled by Andy's perseverance in these choss fields.
(above) Map of west Topkok cliffs, drawn from the Mind's eye.
A.  How far you can go with snow-machines without going out on the sea ice.
B. Ishigak.  Fun turf scramble / solo.
C. First Weep, WI 2/3, one pitch. I've soloed these ones a few times on previous trips, see here and here. See below.
D.  Crapiles, Don't Succumb To Finish Line Fever, M-5, one pitch, belay in alders.
E.  Second Weep, first pitch WI 2/3. We omitted the second candle pitch due to crushage.
F.  The Big Weep, WI 3.  I climbed it in 2009 and again Iditarod '12.

I've never explored much further down the cliffs than the Big Weep.  Most of the human habitation previous to the flu epidemic in 1918 seems to have been miles to the east at the other end of the cliffs, a mystical place I've never been.  In the picture (below), Andy hikes on the sea ice past the First Weep, on his way to bigger fish further down the cliff to the east.

        There must have been names for various features on the Tapqaq seacliffs.  Maybe they died with the people of this area in the great Rub-out of 1918.  This coast has the feel of a desert ghost town.  Ishigak, the little people from the Old Time, are heard whispering in the copious wind.  Having hung out in various south-facing quartzite hollows far too long over four or five trips, I've developed little pet names for things, such as The Ishigak, (below).
(above) Norton Sound Qaweraq place names, found in a random box at Nome Elementary School.

(below)  Dan Seavey, still in his prime at 74,  outside the Topkok Shelter Cabin, on his way from White Mountain to Nome, March 17, 2012, around 11:30 p.m.
        The Topkok Shelter Cabin was put in by the Nome Kennel Club to save unfortunate wayfarers from "The Blowhole" which roves about like a flailing hose all through this area..  As occupiers of the cabin, Andy and I expected a certain amount of Iditarod 2012 interface, and it came, usually in the middle of the night, on account of the Taylor Lagoon to the west being bare ice.  Several mushers had their teams turn around and come back to the Shelter Cabin, inside which Andy and I sat eating power bars. 
       Coolest of all our visitors was Dan Seavey, old dad of the early Iditarod days, the elder of three generations of Seaveys running the race;  the third generation, Dallas, had won the race entire four days earlier. Now, with the red lantern not far behind, and the relentless north wind chilling things way below zero, here came the first generation pulling up in front of the cabin at Topkok.  Dan's team had him pointed back towards White Mountain, in the wrong direction!  As his headlight approached the cabin door, Andy and I huddled inside nervously;  several of the back-of-the-packers who had passed through already had seemed out of it, like hypoxic climbers on the summit of McKinley.  Would this be more rescue-bait?
          But Dan Seavey was perfectly calm and at home on the trail.  "Sorry fellas, can you tell me which way is Nome?"
          The old musher came in and slumped onto a stump by the fire.  We thought he would fall asleep.  We filled him in on Taylor Lagoon.  Andy had already interfaced with Dan once before at the Old Woman cabin on this very same race, on a ski trip Andy made from Koyuk to Unalakleet with a Fairbanks group prior to coming to Nome.  The GLUE OF TOWN was strong on the man, it came off him like vapor, Nome was singing in his his ears—  we watched as the GLUE OF TOWN, an implacable force, sucked him out of the cabin, and drew him and his team along their way back towards Nome, and the cold, windy night...  

(above)  The Second Weep, the first pitch of which (below) we climbed, (WI 2), on our first day. This was my first time climbing this particular ice;  the first few times I visited Topkok, it must have been covered with snow.  I walked up to it to solo it in the Spring of '09, but the whole thing felt unstable, so I backed away. 
The second pitch (below) was a dessicated pillar glued onto absolute death rubble.  Andy wanted to climb it;  I balked, citing death by crushage, so we rappeled off.

(above) The Big Weep, (WI 3).  I had already climbed this one during the Winter of '09 on an extraordinarily cold day trip with Jeff Collins.  That's probably about a hundred feet of ice in the picture. Andy led it this time, and we set up a top rope, and ran some laps, mostly for my benefit, on account of it was my first ice of the season, and my paranoid old brain needed exposure to the thwacking and dangling, unlike Andy, who had been hitting it hard all season, in New England and in Fairbanks.
(above) Andy on the first pitch of the Big Weep.

(below)  Ian bouldering on good Tapqaq quartzite.
Did I mention it was cold?  Oh Lord, yes it was, ALAPAA!!