“Dude! The rule is: when you’re drunk and mother fucking high, do NOT play with your gun!”
“I know, I know man, but what can I say, I just like carrying my gun around, it feels good on me. And anyway that bear was gunna break into that RV. I had to do summat.”
The hilarity of the conversation was almost too much. It was the last night of our trip to Alaska and it felt like the perfect ending. Our newly befriended locals were not only overwhelmingly kind and welcoming, but also possessed a sense of irony that I’ve often found to be rare in other parts of the states. The fire was warm, the beer tasted good and our new friend Sam repeatedly heated up a strange glass contraption, much to everyone’s enjoyment. I basked in a feeling of contentment at the end of a fulfilling month. In my warm intoxicated state I thought back at what we had done. For some reason I had felt like what we had achieved should have some meaning some purpose, but I was struggling to work out what it was. It seemed like all the effort and risk must be for something, have some meaning to it, but what? Two and a half weeks previously we were a world away from our current situation and such questions about the meaning of our actions seemed wholly unimportant…
On the third turn of the ice screw the crack appeared. As it propagated upwards and straight through the detached 1′ by 5′ organ pipe pillar above, I knew I’d made a wrong move. Ice climbing often feels like a tactical game of chess. Each hack at the constantly changing medium is an irreversible move. Hack the wrong bits off and you could find yourself checkmated with nothing left to climb.
I climbed up to the right of the now cracked pillar and clipped into an axe to consider my options. I tapped the pillar. It made bad noises. To progress up the steep ice above I needed to get round the pillar, but if I smashed it completely away the next section would be even steeper as I wouldn’t have anything for my feet.
I tried not to get too emotionally involved. I tried not to think too much. Wanting the route too much leads to anxiety and rash decisions. In the past I’ve played the mental battle of wanting success so much that the anxiety has made the experience more stressful than it needs to be. So I tried to focus only on the next section. Go though the motions without considering the goal. Keep going upwards until I find a reason to turn around.
Wedged in the back of the roof I devised a sly move to put the ice in check. Placing a good screw high in good ice I tensioned off it out and round the fragile pillar and welded my axes as best I could into the ice above. As kicked into the pillar with my feet I could feel the vibrations in my hands.
Clipped in again I breath and take in the situation.
Is this ok?
Is this the place to be doing such things?
Over 100 miles from civilisation, with no other humans in the Revelation mountains and at least a few days from hospital should something go wrong, we were very much alone. This was not he place to go balls out. But had I found my reason to turn around? It didn’t seem like it. Not yet anyway. Not quite.
I kept plugging away up the steep ice. Trying hard to make logical judgements. Fortunately with each swing the ice got better and I eventually pulled on to the easier angled ground above. I let the bubble burst and gave my emotions free reign.
It felt good. I felt drained.
“Fuck me that felt daft!”
After Ben came up it was still my block so I set off again. The next pitch was more of the same. Steep ice. Fragile features. At a snowy mantle at the top of the pitch I almost found my reason to turn around. But again not quite.
We had agreed to lead in blocks of three but I was very pleased that Ben agreed to lead the next pitch. As Ben started up the steep chimney that was filled with snow I let my mind slip into thinking beyond progressing past each small section.
Maybe we can actually do it. I really want to do it. I don’t want all that effort to be in vain. But there’s so much further to go, so many unknowns.
What Ben was trying to climb looked like it might not be possible. For us anyway. But some how he kept making upwards progress. He would hack away for what seemed like an age and just when I thought he was going to give up he’d make another move. At one point trying to pass the lip of a massive chock stone, locked of on the only good bit of ice available, he couldn’t quite reach the next bit of ice the other side of the chock stone. Then the real tricks came out. Switching into aid mode he clipped a sling into his axe and top stepped off it to make the reach to the next ice. I was impressed at his ingenuity. I couldn’t quite believe it when Ben shouted safe and announced that it looked much steadier above. Maybe it was going to happen after all.
We reach our planned bivi site at around midnight. Proper lying down camping on a prow that stood out from the face. A podium from which to view the immense amphitheatre of ice and granite. We slept well. In the morning Ben made the brave move of leaving the warm cocoon before sunrise to start brewing up. I cowardly stayed in the cocoon and waited for the sun to hit. As the daylight strengthened our next obstacles revealed themselves. Features we had nicknamed the “ice pencil” and the “tower of commitment.” Both looked like they could be troublesome. I tried not to think about whether we could pass them or not.
“Enjoy the process. Don’t get to caught up in the goal.” I kept telling myself.
The “ice pencil” went without too much drama. But as Ben approached the “tower of commitment” the tension began to build. We where unsure whether we would be able to pass this feature, to gain the next couloir behind, without fully committing ourselves. When Ben reached the point where he could see over the other side he shouted down.
“It doesn’t look amazing!”
My heart sank. Was all this effort not going to have the conclusion I felt it deserved. As I reached the belay I asked Ben if he was hopeful. He said he was. Maybe I was being too negative. Looking over the other side of the pillar I could see the easy gully below that lead pretty much to the summit. One rope just reached. The “tower of commitment” had been tamed. The couloir seemed to go forever. Loose sketchy snow took its toll on tired legs and fragile minds. Ben lead most of the way but as we near the top he asked me to take over. I slumped over my axes to try and summon the energy to lead on, but I’d hit some kind of wall.
“Time to break out the secret weapon?”
Ben pulled out a small bottle of liquid that contained mostly caffeine and taurine. The drink by it’s title claims to give you 5 hours of energy and that was more than the time we needed. It was half frozen, but we downed as much as we could. The change was amazing. I grabbed the rack and charged off, teeth grinding.
“I’m like Heckmire in the exit cracks!” I shouted down to Ben.
The summit appeared soon enough. The very highest point was too corniced to consider standing on, so we call it good at a point a few metres lower. No massive celebration. We shook hands, turned round and started down the way we came up. We found a bivi spot a couple of pitches down. Too small to put up the tent we sat down for the night. I could feel the satisfaction of success, but only at arms length. The necessity of the descent had to be overcome before it could be fully embraced.
The next day was long and involved and when we finally reached our skis snow had started to fall and the relief was very well felt. The ski back was amazing. Fast effortless movement after so much slow grind. Back in the tent I concocted some high calorie deep fried sandwiches that warmed our arteries. We indulged ourselves like staving animals. The tension was broken. We could relax knowing that had had done what we came to do and made it back safe.
Over the tent bound days after our climb I had this underlying feeling that it had some kind of meaning. It seemed what we had done had some kind of purpose to it. But the more I thought about it the more it became clear that our actions where entirely purposeless. What we had done was obviously purely selfish and useless beyond the self gratifying fulfilment that it provided us with personally. But as I sat by the fire in my half inebriated stupor on our last night I realised that the route was the culmination of a lot of things, that to me personally mean a lot. And when things come together with something that you put so much into it’s bound to feel like it has some kind of purpose beyond it’s realm. All the years of experience in the mountains really seemed to come together to make it happen. But more importantly I felt like it was the fruition of a strong partnership with Ben over the last couple of years. Cheers mate for another excellent adventure.
To keep in line with the areas biblical chapter theme and with the British tradition of mixed climbing puns, We named the route the “Hoar of Babylon” after the prostitute who rides a serpent with 7 heads and 10 horns in Revelation chapter 17.
Revelation 17: 3
“So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication. And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”
Many thanks to the Alpine Club, BMC, MEF and Austrian Alpine Club (UK) for their generous financial support, which made this trip possible.