Saturday, September 24, 2016

5. The South Ridge of Serra 2

I woke up feeling way too tired, but resigned to get on with it anyway. We ate a quick breakfast and put the last few things in our packs. Last minute we decided to make "wraps" to bring for lunch that day. We were limited on ingredients for such short notice and ended up going with large spoonfuls of Skippy peanut butter (crunchy of course), mixed with chunks of pure butter. As it turned out, the peanut butter and butter tortillas were the perfect snack: too rich to eat in one sitting with enough fat to keep us running all day.

The route starts with some steep hiking up benches above camp to access a snow field and the first rock buttress on the route. About 20 minutes out of camp we ran into two members of the other party that was camped at Sunny Knob, Steve and Alex. I was confused because I knew there was supposed to be a third member, a woman named Laurel, who I had met the year before at Index and who I had emailed back and forth with when we both found out we were planning to go to the Wadd that summer.

Steve said that there had been an accident and that Laurel was "gone." He had to repeat it before it registered. I felt numb and withdrawn almost immediately. They explained the accident a bit more, which I don't really remember. Unroped, 3rd class, summit ridge, loose block, gone, lost gear in her pack, unplanned descent. No doubt there was much more of a story, but it was not the time for details. We asked if we could help, but, no. They just needed to hike the last bit down to camp where they could radio the outside world with the sad news. Nick and I continued to hike upwards, on auto-pilot. We talked about if we should continue. I was withdrawn and scared by the news but I also knew that I wanted to continue. I let Nick talk through it and he said that he felt the consequences had not changed, we had always known what they were and decided to go anyway, this accident changed nothing. We agreed to continue with the caveat that we would be cautious, and remain roped on the summit ridge if at all possible.

The next few hours were a blur, partly because we covered so much ground and partly because I was focused inwards on the potential consequences of our chosen practice. We simul-soloed, simul-climbed, and belayed. The snow on the ridge was in terrible condition: warm, isothermic slop. Wet slide avalanches and ice fall were constant on the south facing glaciers and gullies of the Serras. Several times we opted to avoid easy snow gullies for harder rock climbing on adjacent features because we were afraid the gully would avalanche if we tried to climb it. Unfortunately, we were also discovering that the ridge was composed of lots of loose rock. Nick dubbed it the "Jenga Blocks of Death."

Nick soloing some typical low 5th Jenga Death Blocks
At least some of the rock was quite good. Nick is up there on lead.

Nick organizing gear after a block of climbing.

There were some nice views down the Tiedemann.

Some more climbing, a mix of good and bad.

Nick avoiding a crappy snow gully with some jengis rock climbing.
Yours truly soloing some quality rock... for once. Photo by Nick Mestre
The inner processing combined with the bad conditions and the exposure, no doubt led to me being pretty negative. I was trying to put a good face on it but I was pretty scared and definitely not enjoying the experience. Looking back, I probably needed to stop and take time to process Laurel's death and my own choices, but the task at hand didn't give us a choice in that matter. Instead of putting it behind me and letting myself focus on the climbing I began to get frustrated at all the little things. Nick, seemed to handle it all much better than me and took the lead on route finding. He gave me the shit I deserved for my bad attitude; after all, this whole thing was my idea.

I had several memorable quotes on the route that Nick will probably never let me forget. "I'm having a type two religious experience," was one. I think I meant that the current contemplation of my own mortality was not enjoyable. "I just want to go home and make love to my wife,"  which was self explanatory. There were also several iterations of "fuck this shit." I was saying all of these with black humor delivery, but Nick could tell that I was more than half-serious. He (also less than half-jokingly) began to call it my split personality disorder, in contrast to the excited enthusiasm with which I had discussed this trip for months.

Luckily, the shittiest climbing of that day came at the very end, when we were within view of Josh and Chris. We traversed around a large rock spire on the ridge (named Phantom Tower) and had to rappel into a notch. They were at the far side of the notch beneath a hanging snow gully, brewing up melted snow and waiting for the gully to go into the shade. I began to traverse some of the worst Jenga death blocks that we had seen that day, protruding from loose, vertical sand. Chris yelled across at us and after some back and forth yelling he managed to direct us up higher to more solid rock where I was able to traverse to an old tat anchor. We were then able to rappel from this, down more death blocks in more vertical sand, to reach easier ground in the notch.

Looking back up the vertical mud chimney full of death blocks.
Nick's picture of my type-2-religious-experience face after we reached the notch.
We found a great tent platform perched in the notch with thousands of feet dropping into ice falls on either side. Chris and Josh had just finished brewing up and we debated whether we should climb the snow gully above us that evening or early the following morning. The wet slides were continuing to crash down the faces around us in the warm afternoon sun, and the gully in question had runnels from several slides that had almost certainly swept down it that day.

We also had to inform Chris and Josh that Laurel was gone. They seemed to take it in stride but both of them knew her quite well from the Seattle climbing community. Both of them recalled some good memories they had of her while we waited for the sun.

In the end Josh and Chris decided to climb the snow gully that evening, and start up the crux rock buttress above it, while Nick and I opted to stay at the tent platform in the notch. The notch sloped off down rock slabs and snow slopes to the east before dropping over a cliff into the Stiletto Ice Fall. The other side of the notch dropped down a vertical to overhanging cliff into the top of a very steep snow couloir that disappeared from view through steep cliff bands with an ice fall on the upper Serra Glacier below. Fortunately, the west side of the tent platform had a counter-sized rock bench separating our sleeping pads in the tent from this overhanging drop.

Nick, fully to terms with our situation and determined to enjoy our precarious perch, chose to cook dinner with his legs dangling over this overhang. I was too freaked out to join him and was constantly worrying that the stove would fall into the abyss. Rattling my nerves further, Nick started to toss small rocks off the overhang into the snow gully below for entertainment. Each time the drop would be followed by an interminable silence as the rock hung in space. Then it would silently hit the snow, releasing only the smallest of amount of snow, moving silently down the couloir. Then the slightest hiss of this snow moving would reach our ears. The hiss would not stop, but slowly grow, second by second, as that snow slide would widen down the gully until it was a deafening roar from several tons of wet snow ripping through the sides of the narrow rock gully and over cliffs onto the ice fall below. This happened every time Nick dropped a rock, and he dropped several. Once we even saw the resulting snow debris pour into a crevasse on the Serra Glacier, thousands of feet below, catching just a glimpse of the final destruction through a notch in the rock spires.

With each avalanche I told myself that I was safe where I was, which was true, and slowly I began to enjoy the amazing position where we were. When I relaxed enough to take a big poop I found a nice flat rock and laid a coiler. I then walked to the edge where Nick sat and sacrificed my "fecal sacrament" to the mountain gods, causing yet another earth shaking avalanche. We laughed pretty hard at that one and the laughter felt good.

Nick enjoying the cooking spot above some prime avalanche chutes. Mt. Waddington wreathed in clouds.

Our Firstlight in the notch with Phantom Tower behind.
We ate a good dinner and went to bed early. In the early morning the snow gully above the notch was frozen hard and Chris and Josh's boot pack made for an easy stair case of steps. A couple pitches up the rock buttress above we ran into them. They had not made it far and slept on a small ledge, making us feel pretty good about our choice of campsite.

Overall the buttress went fairly smoothly. Despite being the rock climbing crux (six pitches up to 5.9) it was one of the easiest segments of the whole climb. At the top we reached the "summit ridge," which is 3rd to low 5th class, but had some of the worst Jenga death blocks on the route. The previous afternoon there had been a helicopter or two flying around the ridge we were on, presumably as part of a body recovery effort. That day they were flying very close to the ridge itself, one came and hovered quite near me for an extended period of time while I was trying to downclimb some rather loose and exposed blocks. Since Nick and I were simul-climbing, he was tugging on the rope a hundred feet away wanting to move. I did not want to move until the chopper had moved away but I couldn't communicate this with Nick over the din of the blades. This got me pretty frustrated again and I was not super stoked when I caught up with Nick.

On top of the helicopters, the Canadian Air Force was doing fighter jet practice that day as well. We watched several jets blast along the Tiedemann Glacier below us and then circle around to do barrel roles above the spires of the Serras. To try and lighten the mood we started joking about the sheer ridiculousness of climbing a super remote alpine rock route with multiple helicopters and jet fighters flying all around us. So much for peace and quiet, this was like a bad action movie with too many stunts. Pretty soon guys would be parachuting out of planes and fighting each other with knives and sub machine guns on the knife edge ridges around us. The whole sensory situation was so absurd that I was unable to really wrap my head around the fact that those helicopters were searching for a body, or maybe that was my way of dealing with the noise and not thinking about my own body falling off that ridge.

Nick leading some fun, moderate cracks low on the crux buttress.
A quality girth hitch anchor with the Jenga Death-block ridge in the background.
Choppers getting frustratingly close while we are on the sketchy ridge choss. Photo by Nick Mestre.
Looking back down on the start of the Jenga Death-block ridge with the crux buttress to the left. Photo by Nick Mestre.
Some quality rock on the summit ridge and surrounding peaks.
Eventually we reached a notch at the end of the ridge. The true summit was just beyond and Chris was already leading across a slab to reach it. The notch was the start of the rappel route as well. We climbed out an amazingly exposed but actually solid knife edge ridge and up the summit block in one long pitch. We didn't stay on the summit long, there was not much relief associated with being in a place that is that hard to leave. A short rappel and another traversing pitch got us back to the notch, but somehow in that process we badly core-shot one of our ropes. Nick used some medical tape to patch the total break in the sheath. We put stap-on crampons on our approach shoes and we began rappelling down the ice gully on the north side of the peak after Chris and Josh. Some of the anchors looked pretty sun bleached and precarious, but we were comforted by the knowledge that Chris and Josh had gone first.

The first few rappels we did on the one still-whole strand of our double ropes until the gully opened up and we weren't worried about stuck ropes. Then we did a double rope rappel and my belay device got stuck on the tape wrapped around the core shot. In desperation I dug my front points into the ice face and stood up as best I could in my flimsy approach shoes. I was barely able to pull myself up the rope to get the tape out of the belay device. I was then able to unweight the rope in my precarious position just long enough to slip the tape through my belay device. Nick's belay device passed the tape without incident.

On the rap we thought would be the last, I decided to rap first on the single good line. Nick could then unhitch this line and rap on both ropes so that we could pull the ropes from the glacier below. Unfortunately, there was another rap station that I missed and the bergschrund was deceptively big from above. I found myself committing to rapping off the end of the rope on the thin snow bridge partially covering the crevasse. I then had to downclimb some steep snow to get down to the glacier proper.

Unsure what to do about this situation and tired, not sure if Nick could even hear me I waited to tell him about it. Meanwhile he was yelling at me trying to find out what was happening and imagining that I had rapped off the roped into a gaping 'schrund and was unconscious or dead. Some mix of snow and angles made it so that I couldn't hear him at all. When he finally rappelled into view I yelled to him to do one more rappel off the last rap anchor that I had missed. Luckily he was still above the bergschrund's lip and was able to prusik up the rope and do a final rappel that got him to flat ground. He was pretty pissed off at me for not yelling "off rappel" or anything to try let him know I was okay, though he was little more understanding when he figured out I hadn't been able to hear him at all.

The important thing was that the most difficult stuff was all behind us and now all we had to do was walk across the Upper Tellot Glacier and back down the snow slopes to the Tiedemann Glacier and across that crevasse field to Sunny Knob. We were lucky to again have a boot track from Chris and Josh to follow, because as it turned out the evening shade had put a thin ice crust on the soft, wet snow covering the glacier. It was painful enough with the tracks already in, getting our shins wracked by the ice crust with every step. Breaking trail must have really sucked for them.

Chris (center on slab) and Josh (blue jacket on left) traversing slabs towards the summit of Serra 2 (top right).
Chris (in black on the left) nearing the summit. Photo by Nick Mestre.
Chris leads back along the knife edge ridge to the notch and descent gully. Photo by Nick Mestre.
Nick pulling onto the summit of Serra 2.
The view across to Serra 3 with the bergschrund and the Upper Tellot Glacier on the right.
Skyline peaks from the summit L-R: Waddington, Asperity, Tiedemann. Photo by Nick Mestre.
One of the better looking rap stations on the descent.
Nick on the first rappel down the gully.
Nick rapping over the schrund onto the Upper Tellot Glacier.

We took our time taking pictures in the evening light as we followed our painful path around the crevasses. We reached the Plummer Hut as the last rays of sun disappeared. Chris and Josh had obviously hoofed it down to camp ahead of us. We knew we had some extra food and so decided to spend the night at the hut instead of walking back to camp by headlamp. We found some folding camp chairs and a half full bottle of Makers Mark in the hut. Propped up mentally by swigs of whisky and physically by chairs on the little front stoop, we watched the last light fade and the stars come out while we melted snow and made the last of our instant potatoes.

In my mind, before starting up the South Ridge of Serra Two, I had thought that maybe we could still get on the Southeast Ridge of Mount Asperity. Nick had been totally against it from the start, laughing at the thought of us two even attempting an ED2+, but I thought maybe after cruising the South Ridge of Serra Two (after all, its been climbed camp-to-camp in a short day) he would change his mind. Instead, the experience made me realize that I had no desire to get on the Southeast Ridge of Asperity. The loose rock and awful snow on Serra Two, with the exposure of ridge climbing and Laurel's death left me completely satisfied. Looking over at Asperity from Serra Two, that ridge looked much more difficult, but also, even more loose. The South Ridge of Asperity was the longest rock route I'd done in my life and distinctly more alpine too. I decided that if we left the range the next day I would be happy and would not complain. However, satisfaction rarely lasts and its hard to stay still when you are in such a beautiful landscape.

Video: Nick celebrating after making it to the Upper Tellot with Serra's 2 and 3 behind.

Chris and Josh are already specks hiking down the Upper Tellot.
Nick admires the Serras (L-R 1-3) from the Upper Tellot.
Alpen-glow above some Andean ice flutes across the Tiedemann.
Waddington in alpen-glow as we approach the Plummer Hut on the Upper Tellot Glacier.