Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dorothy Falls

       Analogy for Interior Alaskan ice climbers:
Fairbanks, Alaska is to Dragonfly Falls
Nome, Alaska is to Dorothy Falls. 

       The analogy holds, though Dorothy be not half Dragonfly.  Dorothy is where climbers are generally referred when the question is asked: "Is there any ice climbing round Nome?," though what the climber finds after hiking up the wonderful Dorothy Creek is only a paltry, rounded, 20 ft. blob of blue ice, WI 2 at best.
         I had climbed there many a time in the past, but not since the inception of Kigsblog in 2009, when Nate Skains and I spontaneously decided to motor out to mile 24 Kougarak Road on Saturday a week ago.  Since Kigsblog has never posted on the topic of Dorothy Creek, here arises the opportunity to "poo poo" this "popular" ice climbing area, just as a Fairbanks hardman might poo-poo Dragonfly for being the popular destination of weekend noobs, with a parking lot full of cars and young people in shiny new Gore-Tex, when the real climbing lies hidden deeper inside the canyons labyrinths, or up in the highest mountains.

       Nate and I developed exoskeleton as we ran laps up and down.  Dorothy Falls drip-streamed blue and wet, with the temperature well below zero;  water drip-dropped copiously from the surface of the ice as we climbed, then flash-froze onto our creaking Gore-Tex suits.  Our soft, warm bodies became encased inside a hardened, jointed, translucent shell, the memory of our warm-blooded, mammalian selves sealed over by cold, insectile sensibility— with the need for stealth and constant movement to keep from freezing immobile.  I was destined to ride home in Nate's Jeep still wearing my crampons frozen onto my  feet by the exoskeleton. 

       Cleaning out cobwebs in the brain pathways that light up with ice climbing... cobwebs accumulate rapidly while you were away on the rock... Had to rediscover that weight-shift, "monkey hang" thing in the hips where you stick your tushy out into space behind you even though your brain does not wish to stick your tushy out, only then does the absurd little system of opposed spikes on your toes and hands dig in to the ice correctly...   Death-knuckling of the shafts (due to the primordial fear of being surrounded by a steep walls with no purchase or friction whatsoever) gradually began to subside, and it was relearned that you barely have to hold on to the shafts at all.  Soon, I was bored at Dorothy Falls, a good sign...  We soloed many laps, trying to get the feeling back of movement over ice, enjoying the bonus adrenalin rush that comes each time you make the Zone 2 pullover at the top.

       The real fun comes on the mixed highballing problems to the right or left of the icefall that climb over the 20 ft., circular, marble wall that forms the Falls amphitheater:  steep little ramps and corners tufted with frozen dabs of turf necessitating stemming and pull-overs that are not without mental stimulation owing to the consequences of a mistake.  One M-5 move from last Saturday stands in my memory:  frontpoints precisely stemmed out on crystals in a nicely formed corner, you lean out and sink a big fatty in an overhanging, overflowing, overgrowing blob of turf, and without hesitation at 16 ft. you lean  your full weight back on the rig and yard up. 

       Johnson was hungry that Fall.  A man just gets tired of ptarmigan, that's all.  He was stuck out at Dorothy with everything iced up, no early season snow, the days short and dark, Nome looking very far away, and no company at the cabins except for Mr. Wiggins, and wasn't he a barrel of fun?
         One good thing:  the Company had set him up with some fine gear to use that season.  He particularly enjoyed the custom creeper / snowshoe rig he had engineered from all the truck:  right now, in this cold drought of a December, he was only using the creepers.
         After breakfast one morning around Christmas, Johnson went for his walk up the Creek, walking right out on the creek ice which was blue and bulging with suppressed flow.  As usual, he continued all the way up the drainage (which, Johnson had to admit, was not seeing the kind of color they had come to expect from it in years past) until he reached the waterfall, a charmed little spot that just made a hell of a swimming hole on a hot summer day.
       Now, Johnson, as you know a student of Eckenstein, Fehrmann, and Perry-Smith from his time at the Technicum in Saxony, as you might predict had on prior occasions executed a few moves of technical rock-climbing on the limestone walls at the swimming hole.   This Fall he had fashioned sharp and wicked hooks for his hands with a clever harness system, and with the excellent creepers on his feet intended to climb the ice of Dorothy Falls itself.
      But his efforts were over in a few seconds.  Johnson found his hooks and creepers bit the soft, pliable ice almost effortlessly.  A few kicks, and he had surmounted the steep bit in the creek.  Dorothy Falls had not been worth, as they used to say, "leaving the whiskey bar."  Johnson felt a bit embarrassed about his little divertimento--  it had taken him the better part of a day to fashion the gear.  No need to tell anybody about this one....  

       Beta:  find Dorothy Creek on the map, somewhere around Mile 20 something Kougarak Road.   Cross Nome River which is braided in this area, crossing can be problematic but usually not.  Head west up Dorothy Creek drainage at a red cabin visible from road.  Falls is a mile or two up the drainage.  If summertime and bearanoid, walk up on hillside above the drainage to the left (south) and easily drop back down into drainage at Dorothy Falls amphitheatre.  If not bearanoid, enjoy walk up the creek, about anybody can do it.  If creek is frozen, definitely wear crampons, the hike is almost always interesting and really fun and never deep enough to truly drown.  When Nate and I hiked it last Saturday there sure was a ton of overflow building the creek up.  A great place for beginning ice climbers, never hurts to bring a rope and some screws.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


(above) Ayasayuk quarry face, 2012.  Scarp rendered transitory as ice, never the same year after year, never before climbed, never to be repeated in exactly this same condition.  I feel very embarrassed to have gone to such lengths blogging about what essentially amounts to a piled slag heap, but perhaps its charm lies in this very ephemerality.  No egos have been chiseled into anything that will stand the test of time, it all gets dynamited to bits tomorrow.   

           Imagination is needed to climb in Nome. Once climbing becomes the metaphor that defines existence, logic follows that any medium whatsoever becomes climbing:  the two-inch jam between the bed and cab, the main-mast ladder on the six-story Dredge #5, a steep mound of frozen tailings, or the chair upon which you sit.
         Or, a ghastly 45 degree debris-flume of frozen sand and glued-in granite chunks--  I am speaking of the Ayasayuk quarry, 15 miles east of Nome.  Yes, the cat is out of the bag, there is no adequate way for Kigsblog to obfuscate around the location any longer.  It was I trespassing upon the Cape, along with Mr. Collins, last Saturday, in the kundali-intensive freezing cold of thirty-below chill factor. 
      Can this quarry even be called a cliff?  Does this 450 ft. tall scar count as a climbing area, a place where you don't go near the steep areas of rock for fear they will fulfill their destiny prematurely by rolling down the cliff over you on their way to the seawalls of Nome, Kotzebue, and other villages?       
           Imagination is needed to climb here.  But once you have made the decision to apply your imagination to this festering junk show, a run up the Cape provides a great climbing workout in a majestic setting, so closely approximating the motions, decisions, and risks of real climbing that it can only be counted as such.

 (above) Lower tier. Forty-five degree, chalk-hard frozen mud. Is this intended as another Monty Python simulated climbing shot?  Not at all, it turns out:  you cannot tell from this photo, but if Mr. Collins were to open his hands, his feet would begin to skid downward with surprising velocity. 

           I went back with Mr. Collins to get good pictures, something lacking in the Thanksgiving Ayasayuk Post due to dead batteries that day in the now-legendary Canon ProShot, the camera that spent the entire summer lying in the tundra in Tyler's driveway but still functions;  picture-taking in these photos was hampered by extreme allapa.  Did I mention it was cold?  Great streaks of gangrene it was cold!  
       The other reason for going back for another climb of the Ayasayuk was to straighten out the original Thanksgiving line, which zig-zags a great deal due to confrontations with death beetles of  trigger-happy batholithic bullshit, combined with horizontal access roads wide enough to drive  large excavators across the face of the cliff.  Mr. Collins and I should have bypassed Cape Nome altogether that day and driven 60 miles down the Norton Sound to the cliffs and ice-flows of Topkok, a journey possible in the comfort of our heated town trucks because of unusual freeze-up conditions.  But the TOWN GLUE was thick, we were losers, and we didn't go.  We settled for a repeat of the fun route on the Cape.

(above) Lower Ice Dribble, Middle Tier.

     Tried to put in screws, but the ice was cold, and they were the dirt screws— not the sharpest screws in the shed.  The first move onto the ice solicited an inelegant mantle onto a tool that, according to the Law of the Hardest Move, might give the pitch an overall rating of WI3 though it really be WI1. In truth, the whole climb felt rather like a Class 4 scramble, except that the entire medium is so weird and shattered and improbable that the only rating one could ascribe to this climb would be to invent a Cape Nome Dirt Scale specific to 2012 and use the climb itself as the one benchmark to measure itself relative to its own group of one. 

(above and above) Upper Ice Dribble. 

      Though not strictly necessary, we wore the rope between us the whole way, feeling vaguely as if we were enrolled in some groovy, therapeutical, human bonding class.  We set up anchors and went over sequences and pretended it was real climbing, even though it was.

(above) Upper dirt pitches.

    The upper dirt pitches is where I had dreamed Jeff and I could make a big splash and push the very frontiers of low-angle dirt climbing.  But the day was simply too cold for any dicking around.  I straightened out the line a bit by stair-casing it up a little rock ramp above where the ice comes oozing out, but it warn't nothing we didn't simul-climb.  There is something pleasurable about the continuous movement of crab-walking over steep mud in ice climbing gear.  Soon we were at the rim feeling like we had climbed something, though we weren't sure what.

       What has not been mentioned is the constant, pulsating force of the natural beauty exuding from our surroundings, the white desert ocean stretching to the horizon at the ice edge, the abrupt angles created by the quarry face, the buzz of SINH TALA exuding from the exploded pores of the Earth...  I apologize for not doing more research on the industry of this fascinating site.  I have so many questions.  How do they plan the excavation?  Just what causes these frozen waterfalls?  Has the quality of gneiss changed over the years.  Who works here?  What are their terms for each little thing?  Who draws the hieroglyphics on the boulders?  And will we be arrested for climbing there, and Kigsblog used against us as evidence?  Leave comments....