Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ayasayuk '13: Sixth Iteration

At the risk of citation, here is the full disclosure of Ayasayuk 2013, with sincere apologies for the trespass, and this Kigsblogpost.

(above and below) View from the middle of Qubliaq, an unfinished and transitory drool of ice squirting from the middle of a 50° frozen mudwall festooned with gneiss chunks. Due to weak mind, I chickened and downclimbed at the cusp between mere enmanglement and probable fatality.
         Ice climbing is a changing medium, we know this. Unlike rock, the ice you climb today is not the same ice you climb tomorrow. But what if a piece of rock were as ephemeral?
       Every summer, another slice of the Bluff at Ayasayuk is blasted away by dynamite, trucked 15 miles to the Port of Nome, and distributed to village seawalls around the Seward Peninsula. What's left behind each Fall is a fresh, new, and ever-lengthening cliff overlooking the Norton Sound. Some weird aquifer must be zig-zagging around inside the rock, seeping out the face in random places, creating thin ice flows never two years the same.
       This year's Ayasayuk iteration logs as the second most interesting in fourteen years-- no Grade III pillars like in 2004, but the huge 180 ft. Third Tier from last year is still intact, with frozen trickles squirting out in new and varied places. Despite driving the ice road out to the quarry a total of seven times in November and December, the annual game of climbing from the bottom to the top went unfulfilled; I chickened out in the middle of the Third Tier, at the cusp between mere enmanglement and visualized certain death. The ice started growing in late November, peaked around mid-December, and then got destroyed in the rains of January.
(above) Ayayasuk quarry, December 2013. Can you spot the water ice? It's not easy.

       Who works at this place? What are your special names for each feature, terms known only to yourselves? Is it the job of certain individuals to scramble around on the steep stuff? Are you out there?  I can see the exasperated expression on the contractor's face. I am your biggest fan. I salute your work. The quarry hath becometh an ecosystem, a microcosm unto itself, a little kingdom of frozen mud, ice, and stone. What amounts to a scar is beautiful. I would not dare blog of it, and hath not in the past; however, it seemeth unlikely that great hordes of nano-puff recreationalists will soon be flocking to this particular sketchscape. The very mud itself oozes instability, death attractors, enmanglement clouds. Whoever driveth the Excavator on such a precipice must surely be a badass.

(above)  Bouldering around at Winter Solstice

       The measure of a village was, did it have a kasgi? John R. Bockstoce's The Archaeology of Cape Nome, Alaska says that the village of Ayasayuk lay tucked west of the Bluff, and Setuk and Mupterukshuk tucked to the east. Norton Sound can be thought of as a bathtub ringed with six or seven old beach lines. Present-day Nome sits on the third beach. The second beach is about a hundred feet offshore, where every nice day in summer we see a row of floating gold dredges; the beach miners are fifteen feet below on the sea floor hoovering up the gold, just as they did on the famous third beach in the Bonanza of 1899. Villages followed the beachlines as the millenia went by. You build your next village further inland (or out, as the case may be) in the row of driftwood from the beach line that went before, as the water in the bathtub rises and falls.

(above) Found among a pack-rat elementary school teacher's possessions.

 (above) Pirated from the interesting Bockstoce book.

    One gets an image of an entire northern Norton Sound shoreline populated by whole chains of kasgi as of the early 1800's.  So where did these populations go?  Today, the ghost villages are indiscernible from the driftwood, at least to an unobservant, non-archaeologist climber hurrying along to perform narcissistic deeds on the scar where the headland used to be. One need not look further back than 1918 to see where all the people went. Rubbed out. No wonder this shoreline is, at times, haunted with ishigait.  One of these little beings went flying by the cabin at Topkok on a tiny snow-machine, but when I went outside to inspect the tracks, I found no trace in the freshly fallen snow. 

(above) Third Tier from the mezzanine, looking east.

       Kigsblog has descended into gray depths of middle-aged anxiety, inflexibility, and loss of will. Most climbing trips these days end in chicken-out, each post must rationalize a failure. This year's iteration of Ayasayuk  is no different—  the complete bottom-to-top ascent, which is a little game this climber plays and usually quite achievable, got away from me this year, despite six or seven trips down the Zambonied road to the quarry, 15 miles east of Nome.

          I succumbed to Technical Chicken-Out.  On the Third Tier, I was unwilling to commit to soloing the second 45° mud pitch, a section of remaining wall that did go the previous year. The grade had grown subtly steeper following another summer of excavation above, and the saturation / penetrability factor conspired to make the mud-climbing feel more sketchy. I employed whole complexes of further excuses to get out of actually climbing the thing, including the whole notion that climbing such sloping choss was really just a farce, but had entirely too much fun clambering around anyway with my poor beat-up Cobras and dull Charlet-Mosers by the sea, the shining sea.
 (above) Third Tier ice flow at its peak, mid-December, 2014        

      So I hatched a plan for a type of long hanging top-rope wherein I would take the road to the top of the Third Tier and rappel down. Chickened that one, too... the Ayasayuk quarry face is just too damn sketchoid a place. I visualized the rope pulling volkswagons of gneiss and crushing both me and Sim, a mysterious character who began coming along on these December adventures. Winter Solstice was upon us, and none of these trips were an exception to the rule that the ice climber must run out of light when climbing out on the Council Road. Had a lot of fun highballing around on the Third Tier this year, but never did link it up with the Fourth.   
(above) Fourth Tier ice looking west

A MAJOR ICE CLIMBING DISCOVERY came when Sim and I boot-skated our way up the icy access roads to the Fourth Tier on top. What we found there was the Beginner's Ice-climbing wall, which was appropriate for Sim because it was. This was where we spent our cold days through the late Fall, teetering on short points, trying to allow the experience of climbing ice to become relaxing so that we would not tax our poor, feeble arm muscles by holding on much too hard. The nice thing about the Fourth Tier, it was just a darn nice balcony at which to hang, views of Setuk and Mupterukshuk to the east, and the possibility of Pinnipeds and Cetacians in the gathering sea ice below.
(above) Sim at the 30-foot Beginner Wall.

      Hollow sound, familiar sound, booming sound, propagating doppler dominoes remembrance-of-epics-past sound—  THE BEGINNER WALL IS COMING  DOWN!  Oh, and here's the horrible thing:  I, I, I, am belaying, well off to the side, safely sequestered from the multi-ton fall of Pompeii which is about to thunder down— it is not I who will be crushed but Sim, who has been flailing around on top-rope and whose bodyweight is probably causing the collapse, who will be located directly under the impact. Another partner done gone! As if the fate of the escapade were predestined to converge upon my worst fear! At least Andy Sterns had already signed his contract with the devil at the time of our accident;  Sim, he is innocent, a Zen dude from the Rec. Center wall who thought he might try ice climbing.
        It is over. Sim is fine. The small frozen pond at the base of our wall settled as Sim rained down chunks of ice upon it. Sim's name is Simon.   
(above) From Ayasayuk looking east, Lucy, and Sim. Did I mention it was cold? Uh, yes, yes it was cold.

         The spell of the quarry had begun to come over Sim, I could tell. On our January trip, the one where we discovered the ice gone, dessicated by rain, the quarry face in ruins, the walls dripping rocks so badly you couldn't stand anywhere near the base, we encountered a lone, rather diminutive Oomingmak hanging out at the rim of the Fourth Tier. We walked right past the little guy, and he kept popping up at odd angles amongst the Minecraft maze of the quarry. Was he injured, or was he hanging out in shame after some lost butt? Later that day, at the base of the Second Tier, looking in vain for a climbing line through the dripping rocks, Sim suddenly said, "Woah, heads up!" Perceptually speaking, the micro-second with which I accelerated to a run caused the incident to be registered in my memory of it as having begun to run before Sim said anything. The "Polar Vortex" held the midwestern U.S. in its grip in January, 2014, but up in Nome, Alaska, the frozen mud was melting and the quarry was a daft place to be. 
(above) Looking down the Third Tier, December 2012.  A godawful dripping choss ramp of stone and mud, a frightful place to hang, but an interesting world unto itself that grows on you after a while.

       The machines, frozen Excavators and Loaders, lonely sentinels gazing out to sea from their regal platforms on Ayasayuk.   Non-entropic pattern in an exploded waste of choss. Each one with a personality. Each haunted by an operator who is probably in Hawaii, or maybe reading this blogpost. "My name is Caterpillar, King of Kings:  Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

       The lone and level Norton Sound stretches far away...