Moulin Trip: ice caving
Apocalypse: the story
Two Sheep: mountain climbing
Safe Way: skydiving
Duck Story: kayaking
Christmas: annual form letter
10310: mountain climbing
And this aint no bullshit...
There we were mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. It was in the dead of winter, in the heart of the Alaska Range, and the mountains towered above. The sun drenched the sky and the wind stood still.
There was, however, a solid cover of clouds scruntched up against the south side of the mountains, and we were above the clouds, in an airplane, looking for a hole down through the soup. The flight from Fairbanks, on the north side of the mountains, had been beautifully clear. That changed abruptly as we flew over the top of the Range. Jagged faces of rock and hanging glaciers, piercing above the clouds, watched us pass by, and grinned. I did not see it from the back seat, so when we started spiraling down through the hole in the clouds I was hoping that someone in the front seat could see more than I. Pooof. We came out under the clouds, between the mountains, leveled out and touched down on the glacier. Sometimes it actually works.
We were a little heavy on Cognac, on account of us flying in so we did not have to carry all that crap in our packs. The airplane driver promptly drove away, back up through that hole. We promptly dug the two-room snow cave. That was of course in addition to the stand-up, stretch-your-arms, gentlemen's room constructed a suitable distance downwind.
This moulin exploration thing is wiser than mountain climbing. For mountain climbing, you land at the bottom of the mountain and walk all the way to the top, and back, having to carry a lot of stuff and make a new camp each night. For moulin exploration, you still land at the bottom of the mountain, but stay right there in a luxurious camp, while occasionally strolling around down in nearby holes. It is a gentleman's game. In addition to the Cognac, our larder was appointed with caviar (fish eggs that most Alaskans throw to the gulls). Fine chocolate was in abundance. Ice cream. Spacious accommodations. If we had not run out of Cognac, we could still be in the snow-cave.
We even had a traveling Russian magician show up to show us his swirling light trick.
Those other cavers, questionable lot that they are, crawl and squirm around in the muck and mud and rocks and dirt. In contrast, the more dignified moulin explorers stroll around in pristine ice, clean, glistening with sensuously soft curves crafted from the flow of water. That sounds so damn good perhaps I should not mess up the image with the other half of the picture.
It would be, however, a bit obvious to not mention how a gentleman gets down into these things. Digging a hole in the snow, to find a larger hole in the ice beneath the snow, a hole that does not stop for a hundred or more feet, is always a matter of discussion among said gentleman. Someone gets to dig the hole to find the hole. The decision is much easier when one is solo. Be careful.
The camp was well placed, with the main moulin near at hand. After the entrance was located with the usual trepidation, the working area at one side of it was dug out down to bare glacier ice, for the ice screw rope anchors and all that. I made a seat in the snow near the moulin, to comfortably put on my crampons. Imagine my amusement when I sat down, and went to my armpits. The thing about moulins is that you cannot see the shape of the top of the hole until you get down in it. That could have been very embarrassing. I later looked up at where I sat, then looked down, a long ways. The story, told only by my colleague, could have been very embarrassing.
On the glacier, one stands in the usual cold of zero degrees Fahrenheit or below, and the usual stiff wind. But just under the snow cap covering a moulin, the air is dead calm and 32 degrees F. To drop under the snow, on the rope, is to drop into a warm room. But there is no light switch, and the hole needs one. It gets dark down there. The under side of the snow cap greets you with a carpet of lacy velvet ice crystals.
You have to see them to come up with the adjective, lacy velvet.
The air is 32 degrees. The ice is 32 degrees. And the occasional pools of water are 32 degrees. The difference is in the 80 calories per gram required to change ice to water, that was in natural harmony with the environment until we showed up pouring body heat into the place. These humans cannot not mess up the works upon arrival. If we were not designed to do what we do, where we were designed to do it, just to learn about it all, someone would object to what we humans do. Of course those who routinely object just remain ignorant of their design. A little more time may benefit their learning process.
But farther down the rope, under that cap of lacy velvet, you might be looking straight up at dozens of heavy twenty-foot long spears of ice, pointed at you, patiently waiting for a disturbance in the air, to let go. Try not to disturb the air. The little icicles are cute. The big ones are not. And farther down, the cracks around multi-ton blades and columns of ice perched above you distract your thoughts of the spears. But the whole place presents such an astonishing, beautiful and awesome (add a couple more adjectives) view that you let yourself slide down under even more frightening things, just to see the bottom side. Intelligent people are prohibited from moulin exploration.
Upon arrival, you stop at the first plunge pool, the bottom of the first vertical drop, hopefully frozen. Then you kind of move around to pick the spot that will not be hit by anything that falls, especially while your colleague fumbles his way down the rope the same way you did. Sometimes there is no such spot. Perhaps I did not mention that this particular glacier sits directly on the largest seismic fault line in Alaska. Abandon all hope yea who enter. It is a roll of the dice.
At the bottom of the first vertical plunge, you may find a horizontal hallway, where the summer water flows for a variable distance, before plunging again. The ceiling above you may be a gradually closing gap. There, one can turn off their headlamp, relax their mind, listen to the glacier, and wonder if they should leave immediately. The glacier is moving, always. That is a lot of heavy stuff to be moving all around you. The glacier groans, and squeals, pops, fizzes, and every once in awhile there is an ominous large, clunk, somewhere below you. If you hear a, boom, leave immediately.
We were standing relatively near the surface of the glacier, in what was a river channel in the summer when water was flowing down to the deeper and larger river inside and at the bottom of the glacier. In the winter cold the water was not flowing near the surface, but deeper, a lot of water from glacier contact with the ground, higher on the mountain sides, was still crashing through the ice. Sometimes there is a, clunk, dropping a massive chunk of ice that blocks a channel, and the old channel fills up fast enough to make a fountain-head at the top, making a lake on the surface of the glacier until the pressure causes another, clunk, that flushes everything back down the same hole or connected holes. Not a time to be in the channel. The occasional appearance of those lakes, over known moulins, is discomforting to moulin explorers.
The glacier ice is like bread dough rolling down a long rough trough. Ice acts like soft plastic under slow pressure. The ice is inexorably kneaded between the convoluted mountain walls, with other glaciers pressing into the trough from the sides, while summer meltwater is cutting through the ice. The bands of bubbly ice and clear ice, with a few rocks, originally horizontal, might lay at any vector, or be folded in swirls. Icicles dripping from convolutions in the ice protruding from the wall, might be horizontal, the wall having folded that much in the last few days. There have been large icicles which formed on peeling ice layers that slowly sank to the the floor, the icicles pressed into a curve straight back up. When two thick edges of ice meet, with the glacier still moving, the resulting shape will tell you much about ice. Thin curtains and panes of transparent ice sometimes form from each drip slowly coursing along a barely sloped rib.
The shapes of the ice crystals cover a diverse spectrum. You just gotta see the full spectrum of pictures, and you will not see the full variety of ice crystals and shapes without being bored to tears with the pictures. But the spaghetti crystals are quizzical. Ice crystals like uncooked spaghetti are sometimes formed between flakes of moist ice being pulled apart. Quizzical.
The size of the near photo red formation is large, really large. We might have got a little too far down in the glacier, maybe near the center of the earth, or an old military nuclear waste dump. Not all things down in glaciers are known yet.
The squiggims curve along the hallway walls, water erosion features formed by alternating heavy and low flows. I would go into great scientific detail about squiggims, but that is all anyone knows. Intriguing features, with much to tell. One time I went in on a solo trip and placed instrumentation to measure their location and spacing. Follow-up data collection would explain squiggims and much else. Well, I just did not get back to that moulin, for lack of bucks, while I paid taxes which the government slipped to National Science Foundation chaps with childish titles to be paid well to walk around on the top of glaciers and scratch their heads over what is going on inside the glaciers, much to my ongoing amusement. That they retain sufficient intelligence to not go down into those holes is admirable. That they cannot figure out to hire people who do go into those holes, to get the knowledge the government dolts are paid to get, because they are government dolts and therefore face no competition to offer an honest product or service, describes why government chaps are the best comedy on the rock, although a bit pricey for simpleton vaudeville. What the glaciers are doing is zip compared to what these amusing humans are doing during these government-induced intellectual dark ages. Exploration of the cranial voids among government folks is more intriguing than moulins, a story found at www.Think.ws.
The hallway in the particular moulin of this trip narrowed down to a slot squeezing us into a bit of difficulty, as the floor dropped away before we could get out into the next plunge hole. So we put ice screws along the wall, through the squeeze, and awkwardly rappelled when it opened up. Looking back up that hole while rappelling down was more beautiful than what I am told of drugs. Better even than foul cigars and strong whiskey. And more deadly. That particular plunge hole is among the photos on this page, looking straight up.
The ice is either bubbly, and thus white, and thus reflects light well, or clear and thus absorbs light better than black paper. It is a playground for a camera and a flash. Like a kid with a box of crayons and a white wall, we played with color filters on the flash, and patiently waited to get back to town to develop the film to see what the pictures looked like.
Somewhere down in the deeper part of this moulin we entered another plunge shaft, at the bottom of that shaft, and looked up. Somewhat impressive to look up at a car-sized piece of ice jammed against the walls at two corners. First, one steps back, and then more cautiously looks again, while breathing slowly.
A lot of things are happening under all that pressure down there in seemingly solid stuff, that a person cannot otherwise stand in the middle of to see. Ice being pushed out into a void, can create slowly opening cracks that other ice is attempting to fill.
Oh, the bottom of these things? Well, we know water goes in at the top during the summer, and cuts its way down through the ice. And we know that water runs out of the end of the glacier all year long. So far we can get down a ways at the top, and up a ways from the end. There is a lot of in-between, with a lot of different kinds of holes in these Swiss cheese glaciers. The ends of the holes in from the ends of the glaciers are each similar. But the ends of the holes in from the top of the glaciers are varied and not known that well yet. The deeper you go in a glacier, the greater pressure fills voids more quickly. When winter stops melting the surface snow, and thus the water stops cutting a channel, the ice is quick to squeeze in and fill the void. Do not be there when it does. But just before then, it is intriguing.
When one comes out of the moulin at night, after a long and arduous day of toilsome exploration at the leading edge of exploration, a bit moist from the greater humidity in the moulin, back up into the dark cold wind which instantly freezes the moisture, one prefers to promptly crawl into a cozy snow cave with a candle warming the therefore brightly lit room with crystal white walls. The alternative would keep a person in the moulin, except for us tough guys of course, who learned the value of a good snow cave the hard way, too many times. Start right out taking enough whiskey or Cognac, or both, more than we did on this trip. The chocolate glacier kisses accounted for some of the Cognac evaporation, the culinary construction of which is presented in an earlier story of a similar adventure.
One of the hazards of mountain functions is the decision to fly back out. The decision is hazardous. Wiser to fly in and ski out. One can never rely on the arrival of an airplane in mountain weather, while one's food diminishes. But with all this moulin exploration equipment, extra ropes and empty whiskey bottles, there is too much stuff to carry out. Oh, the plane arrived on schedule this time, then things turned to scat as the pilot was turning the plane around. The down-glacier wind caught the up-glacier wing. That was the same wind which was rapidly bringing in a fresh shipment of clouds. Digging out an airplane with a big ski stuck under the snow is excellent physical exercise recommended by mountain climbers. By the time we got the thing dug out and pointed in what we hoped was the right direction, with what we guessed were only wrinkles in the metal, the pilot, fearing that he could be stuck for the night or a week where he knew the cellar was bereft of Cognac, shouted that he did not have time to take us as he pushed in the throttle and disappeared into the white-out with an angry gust of cloud grabbing for his tail wheel, and towering mountains scraping his wing tips. We each wondered if the other was going to make it. And I'm not sure if we did.
This is the final version, at the moment. The part about the boiling water spilled in the climbing boot at 55 degrees below zero in the tent below Mt. Hesperus that they never got up after spending so much money on the flight, made the final cut.
Fairbanks is at the edge. It attracts people looking to live at the edge. Dick flew in with the military, like some of the rest of us you might want to view a little slaunchwise. He was in the crash rescue game in the airplane branch, quite appropriately. He came here to climb, and the military offered a free ticket, for a trifling portion of his life.
Well, the local climbers back then learned how to sew their own clothing and equipment, to make necessary modifications, or they were not seriously climbing. If you are climbing in Alaska conditions, whatever clothing or equipment you buy in the general lower 48 or international market will usually need some modification. Sorry about that, you other fine manufacturers out there. There is just one or more pieces of the puzzle routinely missing in that stuff when applied to Alaska conditions.
It is that way for all the outdoor equipment used in Alaska. In most summer conditions there are only a few inconvenient problems with that other stuff, but after a few miles through the winter overflow ice and crusted snow, at your first rest stop in the dark of night and the raging storm, when half your dog team is "marking" their spot on the sled bag because the other half did earlier, while the other half is trying to chew through the corner to get the moose suet, while you are fumbling with the broken zipper on your REI parka, you prefer a better quality sled bag, or different dogs. And the answer is not in steel armor, since the dogs complain about pulling heavy stuff. Same with climbing equipment, since climbers often act much like dogs.
Repetitious icing conditions challenge fabric things that get serious use in desperate situations. At 40 below and a 40 knot wind, not uncommon, in the dark of night, with scant time available before you start getting a bit chilly after stopping to camp, you prefer zero hindrances, while wearing mittens, unzipping a pack pocket to get your stove to thaw out the whiskey while you light up a cigar so you can set up the tent.
Some climbing clubs offered books to loan. Their members read about climbing. The Alaskan Alpine Club offered a sewing machine the climbers could use. The financially embarrassed climbers needed the sewing machine to make their equipment usable for the next climb. The proof is undeniable. The Alaska climbers, who have no known love for sitting around sewing machines while the mountains are waiting, had to sit around sewing machines, delaying no few climbs, just to modify equipment so it would work. There were many times the Club sewing machine was still humming while the other climbers were waiting to get into the car. Dick, being a climber, he sewed, of course.
The moment Dick escaped the military, here at the aforementioned edge, the little financial thing came into consideration. He knew how to sew, so he plunged his savings into a commercial sewing machine, one of those gray ones with an odd name, not like our Singer toys.
A sewing shop, in Fairbanks! Are you nuts? Since Dick was a mountain climber, the answer was obvious. The only people too slow to figure out that answer before the question, would be mountain climbers, who, come to think of it, were the people asking him that question.
He smiled, knowing that the climbers did not like to spend time sewing their own stuff that had to be modified. There was a market for what people needed to reliably function in Alaska outdoor conditions. Darn exclusive market, or better stated, knowledgeable but small, maybe enough income for beans.
The aforementioned savings just covered the aforementioned sewing machine. Thread was a different matter. Fabric was even more expensive. When you have to sell the product you sew before you have the money to order the fabric to sew it, way up in Fairbanks, you want to have an adaptable background. Crash rescue is useful.
There was also the factory to consider, the physical place to plug in the sewing machine. Despain Lane is a Fairbanks legend. It is one of those places where a lot of successful people lived, because if they could live there, they had more energy than the norm. Despain Lane is the coldest Fairbanks cold spot, where cold was originally designed. Cold comes from a long ways away just to settle on Despain Lane. The variety of less-than-five-star log and frame rental cabins scattered through the trees there were affordable, a rare and appreciated attribute for Fairbanks, especially if you invested in a sewing machine. Wear a coat. There were some coat improvement designs created at Despain Lane.
Oh, the lane is named for Glenn, another local legend, much to the irritation of the government chaps. With their most heartfelt sincerity, government dolts expend their entire lives dragging the otherwise superlative human diversity, achievements and potential down to the categorical nadir and stagnation of unquestioning government dolts. They are trained to never question the orders of government idiots trained the same way to remain that stupid. Glenn occasionally asks questions that buckle the minds of government boys, much to the amusement of Alaskans.
Oh, another thing about cold wet black spruce permafrost bogs, is that, in the spring the winter snow thaws, and all the water just sits there. Then the frost melts down to your less-than-maintained drain system, and all that water around your cheap rental cabin gushes into your basement. It is one of those Alaska rituals.
I walked into Dick's cabin one spring, down the narrow steps to the basement textiles industry factory. Dick was trying to stuff rags into the floor drain to stop the incoming water. Someone was getting rags for him. The water was rising. I could see that a sewing project was half way though the sewing machine, and that the eventual water level would probably cover the table. Dick looked up, smiled, and said: A little problem here. I'll have it fixed shortly.
If you have any of that early Apocalypse Design stuff, save it another hundred years and it will make the film cut when the Antique Road Show gets to your town.
Business picked up. The place soon turned into a regular sweat shop where no one was allowed to stop sewing until their fingers were bleeding. That was so successful Dick got enough money to hire the first employee. She taught Dick when to stop sewing each day.
The consideration that Apocalypse Design equipment can survive the Apocalypse is not the primary reason for the name. But if you survive the Apocalypse wearing or using Apocalypse Design stuff, and got the pictures, call the shop. There might be a little advertising opportunity available. Apocalypse is a beautiful mountain near Mt. Hesperus, near the other end of the Alaska Range.
First the expedition team herein referenced, which squandered a big gob of smackaroos to fly to Mount Hesperus, got stuck in McGrath. They slept in the hanger a few days over Christmas because the bush pilot refused to fly until it warmed up to 40 below zero. Then they snuck their ice axes and crampons past the pilot's airport security dog and the entire Federal Aviation Administration, as carry-ons to protect themselves from the pilot. Alaskan bush pilots are known to hijack their own airplanes to remote camps of armed radicals (Alaskans). Washington DC dolts, who think the outdoors is in a computer screen, accurately suspect Alaska bush camps as terrorist training sites. The team finally got to the base of the mountain, on a wind-swept river without enough snow to dig a cave. After a leisurely recon of potential routes on Hesperus, and being enticed to climb Apocalypse as well, the ambient temperature thing dropped to 55 below zero, and stayed there, and the pilot was not scheduled to return for a couple weeks. In a snow cave, 55 degrees below zero outside the cave is good story material. In a tent, it is 55 degrees below zero. It stayed that cold. The last virgin forest of weather-gnarled trees eeking out an existence at the base of the mountain was slashed with ice axes, and torched for survival. Well, maybe it was only alder brush abundant everywhere, but it was certainly virgin out at that remote spot. The climb turned into a psychological endurance and survival test among two highly independent minded Alaska mountain climbers trapped in a tent by the extreme cold, waiting for the plane. A few screw-ups contributed to the excuses for not climbing, including some soup spilled into a climbing boot, holes melted into sleeping bags by the campfire sparks, and such stuff that happens when things get chilly. It was stated by members of the team that they were just not having fun at the time. There were, however, some serious new equipment designs being created. So Apocalypse Design relates to an Alaska mountain, not that wussy other concept.
A superlative cost/benefit ratio attracted the then famous Apocalypse Design to a real building on a main street intersection in town. The ratio involved cheap rent for a marginal building. This time the spring weather thawed the snow on the flat leaking roof. Apocalypse Design passes the cost/benefit savings on to you. That lasted for many years, until the building stopped lasting. It was then to an old house on the famous Mini Street. Classic old house, built in the early days. The insulation from the walls had been removed to burn for heat during one of the really cold winters. Perfect place for a company that makes really warm Alaska parkas.
All the climbers who told Dick he could not make it with a sewing shop in Fairbanks Alaska, assisted with a lot of other great ideas. Incessantly told that he would make a fortune off his great label design if he used color embroidery, Dick would quote the rather dramatic price difference for colored labels, and suggest that we use a color marking pen if we wanted a colored label. But it's still a good idea.
Of course some of the locals routinely run off to the North Pole, South Pole, Greenland, Baffin Island, Siberia, Patagonia Chile, and such spots, to work and have more fun than other folks know exists. Apocalypse Design stuff gets varied punishment and abusive treatment by independent minded sorts who expect it to work in nasty conditions regardless of how it is treated. Some of them are barely above "marking" their spot on the stuff, and chewing the corners, and some are not. But some of those radical new ideas which are never discovered by large companies in big cities, actually work very well indeed, much to the surprise of the climbers who think them up. Those innovations extend both the fun and productivity of work and extreme adventure where other chaps with that other stuff marginally survive in misery.
Imagine all those folks out there preparing for the Apocalypse, either the game or the mountain. When it happens, probably in the middle of winter when things are inconvenient, here in Fairbanks we can just go down to the shop at the time, and get what will do the job.
What time is it?
No, this aint no story. I shoulda hadta put dates on these things. I hope nobody's been waiting for the next story. I got a cardboard box full of the things. I just gotta find it sometime. Somebody remind me to do that. I think its out in the shed somewhere, and it aint really cold here in Fairbanks yet this winter, usually close to the zero on the non metric thermometer.
I've been on the other web sites lately, mostly www.think.ws. Imagine having to write something that is conceptually flawless by verifiable meaning of each word, and thus of utility beyond the comprehension of the vast majority of people who use words carelessly, including every scientist, think tank expert, government chap, professor, lawyer and the whole gaggle of institution chaps who flatter themselves with their institutional illusions. Well it takes a lot of rereading of every sentence, and asking diverse questions of it, answering the questions and adjusting the words of the sentences, because after saying things which affront every institution you have a name for, with their highly titled and opulently credentialed folks of unshakable belief in their rhetorical illusions, a person would prefer to avoid the embarrassment of one of those chaps catching said person introducing a conceptual contradiction. A bit time-consuming but otherwise not much of a problem, especially when those poor institutional mentality chaps can't recognize a contradiction if you hand them a dictionary, with proof manifest around you. Let me see, who attacked the folks in the New York City for what the RepublicratDemocan swine in Washington DC did, and therefore who bombed Kabul for what some dolts out in a distant cave obviously did not do because the guys who did it didn't survive? Well?
So while discussing one of the upcoming stories, we laughed a lot, concocting it several times. You may recognize how many bottles of wine were emptied in that process.
But first there is the old moffit story. If I ever find that one in the cardboard box somewhere, I'll be amused to see if there are any differences with what I wrote this time.
Two Sheep Climb
There we were, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual, from short final on landing, until we cleared the glacier on take-off a few weeks later.
One of the chaps on this adventure, born and raised in Alaska, had not just endured the United States Army Northern Warfare Training Center (NWTC) Mountaineering Course as I did, he was an instructor, sort of, or would have been, but they found out he was a mountain climber and thus relegated him to the duty of keeping the coffee pot full for the United States Army Mountaineering instructor experts who were not mountain climbers. I understate the case. Over time each of the commanders of that unit were admittedly not mountain climbers, the instructors were not mountain climbers, the civilian advisors were not mountain climbers, and they refused to climb mountains or allow any mountain climbing. Oh, they made a scant few attempts on the lower parts of a few mountains, but with a process that precluded any real climbing. Government cannot function as government if someone in the agency holds the knowledge upon which the agency is rhetorically predicated. The agency exists to defend itself against any knowledge that could facilitate the agency achieving its espoused goal and thus threaten the excuses for its continued budgets. Keep paying your taxes and believing that crap fed to you by the government spokespersons writing copy ready news releases parroted by the news media.
So this chap thereupon quit the Army shortly after I resigned for the same reason. If you are all you can be in the Army, like they tell you you are, you just as well apply for welfare right from the get-go and not frustrate yourself any further. We told old NWTC stories and laughed a lot. It was only fitting that we decided to climb the hill most claimed to be climbed by the NWTC chaps whose stories got more vague as the questions got closer to the summit. The hill is close the NWTC compound at Black Rapids. We got together with a couple other Fairbanks climbers of certain renown, and sold enough stuff to afford an airplane flight to the hill, and back out, of all things.
The real story was that of the pilot, Ron Warbelo, who landed his Super Cub where I will not ride an airplane again. This little spot required every trick, and no room for miscalculation. That spot is the reason one does not land their own expensive airplane where they really want to go, and why pilots for mountain climbers have more stories than financial reserves. Wait until you hear about the take-off at the end of the story. Whew. And we lived, I think.
So four of us found ourselves at a place so spectacular that it must remain a secret. Do not even tell anyone you read this story. It was the later part of summer, on account of winter being too cold for any sane person to climb a mountain in the Alaska Range. It was warm and daylight all night long. We were surrounded by a towering, glacier clad mountain on one side, and on the other side a gleaming white glacier flowing out through the mountains. We were standing in a flat grassy area. Fifty feet away the purest water you have ever seen, gushed out of a steep rock slope at the end of a ridge leading to the summit. Soft green moss formed a small basin we used to fill the water bottles, before the water tumbled down a couple feet then wound across the pebbly and grassy flat to an idyllic pond before continuing in a stream that dumped out of a slot in the moraine, down into a glacier that stretched for miles beyond. The tent spot was where anyone else would have to create with computer graphics to make it look that good. Squeakies, known to mammalogists as Parkison's Ground Squirrels, who had never seen a human, came to our feet and talked to us. They came into our tent and ate peanuts from out hands. Flocks of white dall sheep grazed on the green mountain pastures around and above us. The solitary rams stood watch on the high rock outcrops, looking down on us. Silvery colored Whistling Marmots laid on the rocks, routinely piercing the mountain air with their sharp call. Anyone else would have stayed for the duration, but we were outta there for the summit.
It was a pleasant hike up the slope, walking past the sheep. On top of the ridge we had to do a bit of scraping in the rocks with our ice axes to make a place to set up our tents the first night. Our loads were a bit much, what with all the climbing stuff for a certain nasty rocky gendarmy icy section of the route we chose. The ridge wasn't so bad the next day, until it got bad. At first the two of us in the lead kind of scrambled around some gendarmes, and then encountered a superb standing area just before the nasty part. The other two were a ways back so we roped up and continued up some exposed rotten rock that slowed us down. It was a bit disconcerting to notice that the spots to place pitons for protection were trigger points for rock avalanches. The cracks identified huge slabs of rock patiently waiting to let go and slide away. There was a bit of confusion on our part when we looked back at our other two colleagues having come around the gendarmes, on account of they didn't have their packs. This is not normal. We inquired.
Are you kidding, was the response, with an analytical description of precisely what sort of insanity we were suggesting with the implication of actually pursuing this route now seen close at hand for the first time known to anyone. It was apparent that there were two different perceptions of our pursuit, and one was represented by half the team who had already left their packs back the ridge a ways and had come to inform us of our judgmental inconsistencies with the rational human mind. We didn't quite understand the rational human mind part but there is something about half the team having already left their packs back a ways that demonstrates a conclusive decision. Granted, the ridge ahead was a climber's nightmare of rotten rock gendarmes leading to a vertical headwall beginning a longer horizontal section of absolutely frightening rotten gendarmes just to get to the ice where after a further ways the first possible camp might be found, with multiple shrunds crossing the route above. You have to look a long time for a route that good.
That decision having been made without need for further discourse, we went back down the ridge a good ways, dropped off the other side of the ridge, past more dall sheep wondering what they were watching, crossed the glacier far below, heading toward another ridge of the hill. This was the ridge that had been climbed way back in the 40's by the only chaps who had prior climbed this fine hill. Those chaps gained the ridge by a side glacier joining the ridge at a high spot above the rock. While we were yet out on the glacier, the route looked a bit more straightforward than our previous choice, so we stashed a whole shit-load of climbing gear, much to the appreciation of our skeletal frames. We camped on another idyllic grassy spot at the base of a ridge. There was a bit of a noise that night of such duration that we were able too look out the tent and watch an avalanche come down the nearby face, across the glacier we crossed, with the ice dust cloud sweeping half way up the ridge slope we had come down. We were suitably impressed.
We ambled up past more quizzical dall sheep the next morning. We arrived at a magnificent camp site part way up the ridge, short of the snow, and scratched out another spot to set up the tents where obviously no one had camped before, then walked over to a little knob. There we found a stash of old Army junk which matched several of the traditional Army stories about the high point reached by an Army team that purportedly climbed the mountain, that is until the questions of the stories revealed a progressively lower place they reached, but always so close to the summit that they claimed to have climbed the mountain. We were still a good ways below the snow or any need to even rope up. But the stash was a climber's dream. It had food, old cans of Army K ration dry spam pemican mule meat bone meal, made before C rations were invented. Climbers that we were, traveling light on food, we gorged ourselves, almost too much. But we struck out the next day anyway.
It was the usual old slog onward and upward, eventually roping up for the steep snow, ice and crevasses crossing the sharp ridge. A narrow snow cave hacked out on the ridge put us in good position below the headwall. Next day two of us led the headwall, protected mostly with ice screws, while the other two waited at the cave. By evening we reached the top of the wall where a horizontal section of ridge offered the next entertainment, and the two below started up. There was a bit of a snow slab up there at the crest, and my colleague walked out on it a ways, to check it out. Yeah, right, the whole thing cut loose at his feet and took off. Worse. It cut back farther on the face than we figured there was a slab. Well, we figured the guys below us were goners. Later, they said they were watching the thing coming down, expecting to see our bodies bouncing somewhere in the debris as it passed by them close and went out of sight below. Far below and some time later the avalanche swept out across the glacier. After long question, we saw the other team on the face below us, much to our relief because they were bringing most of the food. We dug a cave for the night, a damn nice one, right out of the pictures in the book. We could walk in the front door, put our packs in the lobby and sleep on a high self, on account of everything was pretty steep right there, and sort of narrow. We decided against a back door otherwise readily available. Our colleagues arrived.
The next section was a bit of a go, a horizontal snow ridge, now cleaned of the slab, with the usual vertical side on one side and overhanging on the other side, a phenomenon verified by many climbing stories. Our colleagues led that section, dropping down under the overhanging cornice and weaving in and out of slots created by rock gendarmes covered by the cornices above. It was a slow go, and tricky, protected with a variety of that climbing stuff. They arrived back at the cave, exhausted, after great effort, but having pushed the route to a spot close to where the ridge turned back upward. They took well deserved respite in the cave as the other two of us set out again to bash the route forward past the next nasty section before the push for the top could be done in one shot.
Well, I was standing behind one of the gendarmes, unable to see anything but the godawfully scary view down below half my exposed crampons, belaying my colleague in the lead, for the usual interminable lifetime of boredom, wondering what the good grief was taking so long, when I heard a shout that sounded like I was on belay and could start climbing. I came around the gendarme, and was amused. Having gained the top of the ridge after the last gendarme, or what he made of it, the snow was so deep and so narrow, that he had shoveled six vertical feet of snow off the ridge, down to a foot-wide ramp, still a bit tenuous, and shoveled that path a fair distance over to the next slope where he could start climbing up the vertical wall he made. It was shovel climbing technique. I'd never seen or heard anything like it in the climbing stories. He belayed me over and up to his position up a ways on the next section.
It was 5:PM. It was just past mid summer a few weeks, so it was still relatively daylight all night. We could see an unsettling blanket of dark cloud over by the big hill, that might arrive at our hill by morning. We decided to go for the summit. We shouted over to our colleagues watching us from the cave, inviting them to join us for the evening stroll to the top. They decided they would wait for morning. We pushed on. There were a few more difficulties than we anticipated on the stroll, and the distance was a bit longer than it looked.
But we got to the top sometime past midnight, looked around and fled. The usual sort of summit thing.
We awoke our colleagues at the cave, about the time the aforementioned cloud arrived at the same cave. After an extensive analysis of all the variables, with the usual homdihooming and astute conclusions, the two of us decided to descend forthwith to leave the other two with the most food to be able to sit out the inclement weather and push for the summit in radiant sunshine. We did just that, going down the headwall without hesitation and arriving at the lower snow cave after an invigorating 26 hours of climbing in pristine alpine conditions. After a bit of rest, quite a bit, we descended off the mountain as the storm above us raged in fury. Our colleagues, although up in the mix of it all, were in a superlative, spacious cave with plenty of food and fuel, an enviable position. We trudged across the glacier, picked up the whole shit-load of stashed screws and pickets and pitons and slings and ropes and stuff, clamored around the base of the other ridge, and arrived a Squeaky City, to the delight of the Squeakies who had grown fond of peanuts. We kicked back and waited for our colleagues. It was quite nice down below the clouds swirling around up near the summit.
We and the dall sheep in the area wiled away the warm days. While they ate grass we poked around the glacier and the seracs of a nearby icefall. There is this boulder we found out on the ice, of nice white granite-like stuff dotted with large red garnets. Beautiful. It it hadn't been several feet across I would have put it in my pack and brought it back, at least to camp. It is still there if anyone wants it. A hill across the glacier, up-glacier a ways, enticed us with its satin lace trimmed in hues of blue. It was of substance and had never been trod upon by humans, unless of course they did and just didn't pull the story out from the cardboard box. So we ambled over to it and pretty much kept ambling until we were at the top of it. Along the way we went up through some rocks sose we could say we did some climbing on what was otherwise a slog through that satin lace. The spectacular view down on the next glacier was bordered by clouds barely above us.
Interesting thing there in the summer ponds filling parts of the ogives on the glacier by our camp. Dead ducks. Three of them. The hazards of flying in the mountains are many. Looking around at that spot between high mountains, at the base of an icefall, one could imagine some ducks arriving under a descending storm, caught at ponds on bare ice where their search for food was futile, and no identifiable escape in a days-long storm.
About a week later one evening our two colleagues came leisurely ambling around the end of the ridge and across the grassy flat. They told the stories of a week's worth of hunkering in the cave as the storm raged at the door. I would expound upon those stories, but they are as boring as you immediately recognized. They had stayed to the end of the food then went the only direction they could see, and that was because they could kick the snow and see it fall away a ways. It's a good thing they weren't flying. Upon their arrival the skies cleared, as is the usual case.
It was also opening day of dall sheep hunting season, if you can imagine such a coincidence, and dall sheep meat is acknowledged as the best tasting meat on North America. That story is told and adamantly insisted upon by Alaska dall sheep hunters who work as hard as one has to work to get a dall sheep. Of course the Alaska goat hunters have to work just as hard to get a goat, but nobody tries to suggest that goat meat is anything but goat meat. Mule meat bone meal may be preferable.
Two of us set aside our ice axes, unlimbered the artillery, and set forth again up the slopes. We got the first ram on the ridge above our camp that day, and the next one on the ridge we climbed, the next day. Then we had a day to wait before the airplane was to return.
Well, it was a warm sunny day, or at least sunny. We stripped down bare bottom naked and bathed in the shallow pond infused with the warm summer sun. Damn near froze our kahoonas off but we were tough guys so we talked about the warm summer sun.
Ron arrived. It was scary enough back when we had landed at that spot. Ron had set up on the approach, flown low over the glacier, right through the slot in the moraine where the little creek cut though it right at the corner, with the top of the moraine above the airplane, yanked the plane over on its side for a 90 degree turn, leveled it out just before otherwise crashing, held it off the ground until the wheels crossed the little creek, touched down, cut the power, and hit the brakes before he hit the rocks of the ridge. Whew.
But now the Super Cub was heavily loaded on the take-off, what with one of us each time and the gear and the sheep. Full brakes until the wheels were skidding, release the brakes, jerk the plane off the ground up at the creek, head straight for the moraine with no hope of getting up over the top, lay the plane on its side just about the time you can't see the top of the moraine out the window and the marmots are diving behind the rocks, fall on your side through the slot, level out and pull it up inches over the top of the most gruesome blades of glacier ice you have ever seen where two glaciers join at a creek cutting it from below. Whew. Whew. I dunna wanna do dat again ever. I'll walk next time.
The Safe Way To Get Back Down
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual, categorically undisputable. I was falling through the air, straight down terminal velocity, plunging to certain death until something went right, hopefully. I looked around. I pulled the paper grocery bag out from where I was holding it tight against my chest, under my arms. The bag disappeared. The bed sheet in the bag, that I was holding by knotted corners, exploded out into the wind, jerking me upright. That's when the first thing went wrong. I was suspended in the sky, from my hands hanging onto two knotted ends of a bed sheet, double bed size, percale, brand new. But the thing inflated inside out, twisting my wrists outward, which was decidedly uncomfortable with my whole weight hanging from them. There was a lot of violent flapping of the bed sheet as I came down through the sky over Goldstream Valley. Nice view there for awhile, but my wrists were not appreciative of this little adventure. They were the connection point between me and all that flapping-about.
Then the second thing went wrong. It suddenly got comfortable, and I was no longer upright, and I noticed that I was only hanging onto two strips of tattered rags. The rest of the sheet just disappeared in a white puff. They just don't make parachute quality bed sheets I guess. Well, that one was no good anymore so I threw it away, and noticed how fast the ground was approaching my otherwise very comfortable position, and I pulled the ripcord on my nylon parachute. Something belatedly went right, thankfully. My wrists still worked.
We humans are a still a new experiment, so parachuting with bed sheets is authorized. You might want a nylon one along also. This test was decidedly more successful than the previous one a hundred jumps earlier, using an Army bed sheet. That one exploded into cotton dust the instant it saw the sky, leaving me with only two knots in my hands. It doesn't take much to entertain these skydivers.
There is no such thing as a perfectly good airplane, and jumping out is a safe way to get back to the ground after you foolishly took off up into the sky in a man-made mechanical contraption subject to failure at any moment, if you have a parachute, and maybe a second one in case the first one goes, pooof.
Skydivers in the elite inside circles prefer Fairbanks Alaska. The summer nights do not get dark. The mosquitoes usually can't keep up with the airplane above 7,500 feet, but are waiting there when you fall back down to them. You can try to land on moose usually near the drop zone, rarely successful among known survivors. While waiting to go up on the next load, you can leisurely pick blueberries everywhere around any drop zone, then after the day's jumping everyone goes to the drive-in and asks for vanilla milkshakes, then about the time the milk shake chef starts stirring the thing, ask him to dump in the fresh blueberries. Jumping at the various nearby hot springs is a party time, albeit much like all the other party times. While most skydivers prefer to not land in the trees, around Fairbanks, a lot of the trees are shorter than the parachute lines are tall. In the winter you can get your picture taken in the dense ice fog in front of the time and temperature signs on several buildings, when they read minus 40, then go jump if you can find a pilot willing to fly at that temperature with no door on his airplane. Wear a coat. You just get more for the same effort skydiving in Alaska.
You can still fly past a bunch of the government regulations that would imprison you for even reading these words if the feds could tax you more to put an FAA bureaucrat at every computer terminal in Alaska. On account of there being so few roads for so much land, there are a lot of airplanes, and even FAA bureaucrats who enjoy Alaska routinely violate the law by necessity so they can function as humans. So you can find people with airplanes who will respond to requests by saying, sure, instead of cower in fear of losing their license. In fact, a fair number of them do not bother with no stinking license. It is a skydiver sort of place. Be careful.
So at one air show, a guy with an old recip twin beech 18 was hired by the air show folks to take up a load of skydivers. I asked him if he was sure his airplane could hold all the skydivers who were getting in, including me. He said that he was an Alaska commercial fish pilot, and so his airplane didn't fly right if it wasn't overloaded. I'd heard that before, but got in anyway since the jump was free, paid for by the air show folks. Well we were rolling down the runway for a long time, with all the skydivers crowded forward to keep the center of gravity near the wings. And we were still rolling down the runway when the end of the runway was getting closer than the airplane was getting lighter on the wheels. I was near the open door, watching the asphalt within reaching distance. Along about the time I was figuring on hearing the aluminum skin ripped from the belly by the brush pile at the end of the runway, there was a hard bounce and I saw the brush pile zip by with the top sticks ruffled by the prop wash. The pilot had bounced the airplane to retract the wheels to reduce the drag. We settled back down lower as the grass curled under the prop tips, and we flew a long ways that way, slowly gaining altitude by the inch before we reached the little permafrost black spruce trees that were thankfully little permafrost black spruce or we would still be there. And that was at a formal air show crawling with FAA chaps. We had to let a few of the guys out early so the airplane could get up to 10,000 feet with the rest of us before the show was over.
It was a fish pilot with the same story about his airplane, who flew a few of us for a water jump at a lakeside party south a ways from Fairbanks, or started to. Three of us in the Cessna 185 were pilots, one without a parachute, behind the yoke, as well as the other jumpers. We had five jumpers on board, kneeling on the floor without any seats or seat belts. Bad enough that the engine was noticeably running rough, worse to continue the take-off along the lake beach, then actually up into the air, worse to not set right back down on the lake beach, worse to turn out over the trees, worse to pick a patch of the tallest white spruce in interior Alaska before deciding that all was not going well. When the tops of the trees started getting closer I was already shaking my head over the aforementioned. I was in the back. As mentioned in the previous Callebaut story, when we came to a stop, sans wings, I was in front of the open door while the folks in front of me were under the dash. Gasoline fumes filled the air and I went out the door. I was hitting tree branches while I was realizing that the plane was still up in the trees. I was amused. We all got out, in adequate order, but we were in shorts and no shirts, prepared for the water jump. We were not prepared for the mosquitoes on the walk back through the woods to the lake. We barely survived, but then partied hard. The airplane insurance was paid, and the pilot never went back to his plane.
Then there was the time when the malicious feds in jack boots came storming over Alaska, yet again, under that idiot thug Jimmy Carter, saving the environment like Bush is destroying terrorism by bombing cities and towns. Some of we skydivers replaced the north star on an Alaska flag, with a large peanut shape, and filmed a jump with two skydivers holding the flag between them during freefall. For some reason the federally influenced news media didn't mention our little gig, if you can imagine such neglect by the news media conspiring to repress the common people trying to be heard in the wilderness. We never did find that flag afterward. It landed near the University of Alaska somewhere in the trees. The snow was too deep to go look for it.
There was the time that I did not get on the airplane, even though I was expected to, and I had my rig, and they waited for me, and then they took off in a Cherokee 6, uphill on the runway, because a lot of people crowded the downhill end because it was Great Denali Trespass, protesting the poor sad mental midget victims of themselves in the National Park Service. The airplane cut a beautifully manicured path through the tops of the small black spruce off the end of the runway. If one more jumper would have been on board, the stronger lower portions of the spruce would have made the fuselage more streamlined without those cumbersome wings.
Similar to climbers, skydivers contain, of course, a mix of extreme caution within reckless abandon, at times more reckless abandon. Back when two-string fighting kites were home-made things on the American scene, unlike these outrageously hot numbers you can get from the catalogs, we cobbled them together from bamboo garden stakes, scrap parachute fabric and duct tape. When the wind got too strong for skydiving, and even too strong for hacky sack, the kites came out on the drop zone. Consider one of our colleagues laying on the well-groomed lawn by the Manley Hot Springs runway during one sunny fourth of July function out at that end of the road. He was sleepily watching the fighting kites zipping back and forth across the sky above him, sometimes barely above him, at impressive speeds, while we at the controls jerked those strings back and forth with the aforementioned reckless abandon. On occasion of course a kite would fly full speed straight into the ground, with a loud, WHAP, for lack of enough turning radius on a low turn. You shoulda seen that guy's eyes when that happened right between his knees.
But the real story about skydiving in Alaska has not yet been made, unless I be in error. We've got some highly photogenic mountains, with somewhat steep sides, with a lot of elevation between the tops and the bottoms, available for some spectacular filming of freefall skydivers falling a long ways with a mountain right close behind them the whole way down, below the summit. The logistics are primo, with the takeoff and landing on glaciers. Let me know if anyone wants to do that, or if anyone has already done it at such a spectacular place. Having been the local skydiving Cameraman Man, with too few skydivers willing to do a mountain thing, I am patiently waiting for someone to attend to that zenith of opportunity, so I can watch the film. As much as I advocate and enjoy the superlative productions of Hollywood, not nearly outrageous enough, the real thing on this one will be noticeable.
So along about in December 2002 when I went back to these old skydiving stories and added the following, it was because we were at the Every Thursday Night Barbecue At Carol And The Guy With Her's Place, and who got mentioned in what context to find out who just met whom where, who was one of the more outrageous local jumpers who disappeared and has now showed up in of all places, Homer. Homerites. Another end of the road. Somebody tell one of those Homerites to get HomerStories.com and load those classic Homer stories, and then tell me. And he has a boat, and a place also. Party time in Homer, albeit as usual.
Holly is not only with Rex, but we find out that she is related to the owner of a local horse ranch where we launched Rex's hot air balloon back then to jump out of it, and party a lot. Hey, I know that brings up the time at that ranch when I was the 10 percent who did not get the word in the noisy airplane going to altitude, to not land inside the horse arena when they were having the horse show for which we were a scheduled side show for the audience. I thought we were supposed to land in front of the audience, for the show, there in the arena. Just about the time it was too late to turn away and still miss the fence, I could tell from the three people suddenly trying to calm the horse that maybe the horse had not been told that a huge parachute would suddenly appear above it and land right beside it. Well, what can you expect of the thinking ability of anyone who would jump out of an airplane before anything even went wrong with it?
So I was the cameraman man, and we went up in Rex's hot air balloon, to jump out, on account as he was the only hot air balloon owner around with more sense of adventure than concern for his painfully expensive balloon. I had heard the stories about the difference between jumping out of a moving airplane and jumping from a still balloon. So we planned it well. The other guy and I would jump off each side of the basket, in the correct position, so I could film him as we cleared the bottom of the basket.
Well, there sure is a lot of difference between jumping out of a moving airplane, and jumping from a still balloon. The movie footage subsequently showed, balloon, sky, ground, sky, balloon, sky, ground, sky, balloon, sky, ground, and then the other guy out there somewhere trying to regain his composure. Rex later said he looked down and saw face, ass, face, ass, face, ass. Well there was nothing to steady myself against until I got up some airspeed.
That was just the start. Those hot air balloons go with the wind, and these adventure sorts are not as conservative as they later become due to what they survived if they did. We were already blown so far away from anything while trying to get up to ten thousand feet that when we landed we had to walk through the Alaska wilderness, where there are bears, carrying our parachutes, for miles before we got to a road to walk to another road to hitchhike back. And before we found the balloon beyond the soggy end of the last road leading into the swamp before no more roads existed to the East for the entire distance to Finland, it was nearly time to go to church Sunday morning, but we partied anyway.
So next it is party night in Homer. Holly, get Rex to kick the empties out of the way. We will tell the parts of the story I wisely omitted, and we will tell the hotel guy to leave the light on for any of you folks showing up late.
Enough of this skydiving rhetoric. A smart person is in freefall right now. Come to think of it, you cannot be sure that I am not, at least in freefall.
OK, so here's the scoop, how to do it and the details. If they find out I'm giving away these secrets, they won't let me out of the hills and into the water with my kayak again. Tell no one.
Land at the Juneau airport. Hope you are landing straight in from the south on the one clear day they have each year. Otherwise, close the shade on your window because you don't want to see what might suddenly loom out of the clouds at the wingtip half way around a sharp turn low to the ground, or what zips by right under the wing way too close too far from the runway. Drag your Klepper kayak out the front door of the airport terminal, hand half your money to a taxi driver and say, Auke Bay. You could instead drag your Klepper across the flat to the water close at hand, but if you missed the launch at high tide, you would be sitting in the mud a few hours until it came back. If that happened so close to the airport, the feds would go ballistic with a squadron of Air Force F-16's and splatter you into the mud with 20 mm cannon fire, and say you were collateral damage in the war on terrorism.
Arriving at the Auke Bay harbor just around the hill you barely missed landing from the north, notice the liquor store at the top of the warf, take your stuff down to the dock, set up your kayak, return to the liquor store, give the guy the other half of our money, and stuff all the bottles of wine into your kayak. If you prefer better wine, bring it from your village because the fishermen at Auke Bay choose their wine by basic color rather than any label art, vineyard location, name or date. When people walk by on the dock, stopping to watch you set up your kayak, and ask questions about where you are going and where you are from, remember that many of them are tourists. Tell them whatever outrageous stories you wish, with a straight face, just to start practicing for the stories you are going to cobble together from what happens where you are going to paddle, if you survive. The tourists will enjoy the stories, and the Alaskans will recognize some of the stories they told.
Paddle on out of there into the teeth of adventure. The teeth look small for the first couple hours because the place looks civilized thereabouts, looking over your shoulder. The teeth get larger around a corner or two. I could tell you where the good campsites are, but you would rather guess from the topo map, least there would be no adventure, and almost any place will do for a camp, if you get desperate enough to therefore derive the stories you are looking for anyway.
The whole idea of a small slow boat is to poke into and onto places those motor types don't risk their boat. You can poke into a dozen places in ten miles or a hundred miles, and your stories will come from the dozen places you poke into. Always go for the short cuts through the places that the map shows might or might not have enough water, at high tide, because they sometimes don't, so you will be where the locals therefore don't go. You may just barely make it in time to pull your kayak across wet rocks and sea weed. Oh, put a full second layer of hypolon strips on your hull, or a few rolls of duct tape so you can feel good about going right onto rocks that rip holes in super tankers.
If you do run aground and gash open your hull, do not report any wine spill. Just skim it from the surface before the feds see it from their satellites.
Do not scoff at the potential of running aground. There was the time I was cruising down the middle of a narrow inside strait, under sail in light winds and smooth water, the same strait the ferry boat cruises through. My colleagues on that particular trip were back a good ways and off to one side in their baidarka. I noticed that there were some buoy markers in that strait, but these things don't mean much to those of us with extra duct tape on our kayak hulls. You might imagine the quizzical look on my face when my kayak came to a sudden crunching stop right out there in the middle of the strait. It was new to me. I looked around, and then looked a little closer into the water. Sure enough, there a couple inches below the surface was the top of a major pinnacle of rock. And I was solidly aground on it. Fortunately it had been a few days since I was in a port where there were wine merchants, so the kayak cellar was light on bottles, least I might have hit the rocks harder and created a hazardous alcohol spill.
Simple enough. I got out of the kayak, careful where I stood of course, jostled the kayak to the edge of the rock, got back in and kept on going. All in the course of events. Later, on a beach, I was afforded the description of what my colleagues in the baidarka perceived from their view, much to their profound amazement.
Out in deep water on the long crossings between the mainland and islands, you'll be more exposed, apprehensive and vulnerable. I recommend it. That's where you'll more often come across the big whales too. They enjoy startling kayakers. Just don't go there in bad weather or when you are already tired from a long day on the water. Figure out all the details, like changing tides, direction of wind, etcetera. If the tide changes against the wind, the waves will become decidedly unpleasant. If the wind changes, a half day crossing can be a full day crossing, or longer. Attend to every detail before you launch. A long crossing in even good conditions will then make traveling close to shore very comfortable.
It was close to shore, in a convoluted gaggle of small islands that I came across a duck, of all things, paddling along in the water in front of me. I slowed down to match his speed. The duck was watching me. The bald eagle, high in a tree along the rocky shore, noticed that the duck was distracted by me, and launched in a long low dive toward the duck. Anyone else would have had to pay for a ticket to see this show from the best seat on the ocean. The eagle came down on the duck from its rear quarter and extended razor sharp talons for a easy snatch. If we were metric that duck would have casually done a forward roll into the water when those talons were eight centimeters behind its head, coming as fast as the duck did the roll and popped right back up damn near bumping its bill into the back end of the talons as the bewildered eagle desperately flapped its wings to stay above the water, empty taloned, and lumbered across the bay, coming back and rising up to another tall tree on the same shore ahead a ways. Who taught that duck that trick with that precision, was not listed in the program.
I was so impressed with that duck that I just kept leisurely paddling behind it, until, I swear by the truth of the aforementioned story where I was walking on water in the middle of a strait, we passed that eagle again and I could quote the sequence in the foregoing paragraph. If that duck were in this conversation he'd most likely tell you that the local ducks played the eagle game all the time but didn't get to play the lead-the-kayaker game too often.
If you start at Juneau, and keep paddling, you have a one in three chance of bumping into Glacier Bay National Park. The routes go north, south and out. Glacier Bay is on one side of, out. Same gig as with Denali National Park. It is the perfect place for people who trained their mind to need a Park and an adult or teenage ranger to tell them what to do and what not to do, just like this story only you don't have to believe this stuff and I can't arrest you for ignoring me. Paddle to the Park headquarters and do what they say. In fact, fly to Gustavus, launch your kayak in the park, and fear the real world outside the safety of the idiot summer park rangers. If, in contrast, you don't need an adult to hold your hand, paddle right past the park headquarters, much to the rage that these words inflict in the minds of the poor sad ignorant Park Service dolts, and have as much fun as you have outside the Park Service Gulag.
Of course, knowledge is everything, and knowledge of the Sheriff's thugs is wise when in the sheriff's fiefdom. Either enjoy being a victim of the malicious Park Rangers who secure their salaries with taxation by fraudulent citation, or learn how to not be their victim. The knowledge is elsewhere because if you don't bump into Glacier Bay National Park, right now you might need to know what to do next.
Camp immediately. You are going to pass enough places where you would not want to have to camp, so if you find a magnificent camp spot, camp. You may remember those horrible tent sites longer, but you won't want to. Take the time to set up an artsy-fartsy drift wood table, with a board or plywood scrap conveniently available at the high tide line, or the spot is not ideal. Set out two crystal brandy snifters or wine glasses, and shoot the top off a bottle of fine wine or single malt Islay Scotch. If you are in a picture post card perfect lagoon where even the breeze whispers in reverence of the silence, so you don't want to disturb said sanctity with a shot from your .44, either put in earplugs or just smash the bottle top off with a rock. Or you can unscrew the thing I guess. Pour one glass for yourself. Leave the other empty. Pull out an expensive-looking cut crystal flower bud vase. Stick in a flower, fern leaf, or a tuft of tall grass, from the area. Perhaps lay out a couple cigars, a bar of yuppie chocolate, and a couple napkins. Then go about setting up the tent and checking out the area.
If you are where you should be, nobody is going to show up. But if somebody does, you want them to be more impressed with you than you are with them. You want to suggest that you were expecting them, and pour them a glass of wine. If I showed up at somebody's kayaking beach camp, and I saw the above described array, I would sure as hell be impressed. If enough people read this story, and actually do the aforementioned, I may some day show up at such a camp, and tell the story. I prefer Lagavulin 16 Year Scotch and maduro cigars.
I dunno how many times you've heard this story, but here goes again, or you'll later wish you heard it more than once. The best tent spots are where the high tide only reaches on rare occasion. Anyone can recognize the best flat sandy or pebble spots at the edge of the vegetation, where the high tide only washes over on rare occasion. That is where you will put your tent. But look at the correct page on your tide chart, for the correct half of the day, and look at the previous high tide line. If the next high tide is going to be higher than the last one, look real hard at that tent spot to make sure the high tide will not reach it, and even then look for an alternate site in case a storm surge embarrasses your calculations late at night. If you are smart enough to turn your computer off and go sea kayaking, and do it enough times, you will cut the line too close more than once and be dragging your wet sleeping bag and tent back up into the trees late at night, if you have that option.
There were two of us the time we returned to our magnificent camp late one night in the dark, through the forest. How the water came from that far away to reach our tent was a scientific marvel revealed in the tide tables we failed to check. Unfortunately the tent spot was backed by impenetrable brush. After we waded through the water at night to get to the tent, we hastily loaded all the wet stuff in the kayak, sat on top of it, and precariously paddled out of the cove to a rather less than adequate tent spot among nearby boulders. It got worse. When we awoke, the tide was so far away across a long boulder flat, that you want to remember to not do that. But there was a sparkling moment in it all. To reach the tent in the water at the head of what was then a lagoon, from where the trail came around the far end of the aforementioned brush, we had to wade through very cold water over knee deep. It was night time. Each time my knees came out of the water, a wave of phosphorescent algae balls skittered across the water. Wow.
Next of course you must know the fishing tricks sose when you drink that fine wine from cut crystal stemware, it will be with succulently fresh butter steamed ling cod, the finest fish to ever scavenge old dead stuff off the feces-carpeted ocean muck. The other superlative choices are salmon, halibut, dolly varden, a colorful array of rock bass and whatever else is fooled by fishermen. So about supper time you set up your fishing gear. Put a small kitchen spoon on the line, with a rusty hook duct taped to it. Put the pole on top of the kayak, with your spoon lure in sight. Then after one of the local fishing boats come into the bay for the evening, near your camp spot, paddle out to the boat, like you were going to paddle past it. Make sure the fisherman sees you. He will engage in conversation, sharing stories. You will tell him you are going out to fish for supper, and that you hadn't caught much the last few days. He will offer you your choice of an array of fresh caught fish, more than one. You will accept, and thank him profusely. That is the kayaker's primary fishing trick. Even the fishermen know it. It works, unlike duck snatching by eagles.
Then there is the ancient art and practice of crabbing. Shoot the top off another bottle of wine. The hunt for the wily crab has captivated the minds of many kayakers. I recommend the grocery store. But if you are caught out on the remote coast surrounded by crab just out of reach, you will wish you had brought a collapsible crab pot. Lacking that, wade through the still cove water, or slowly float in your kayak over a shallow area. Look for two tiny little black dots a couple inches or so apart. They be the eyes of the crab otherwise buried in the aforementioned muck. Grab it or spear it. Areas mottled with seaweed are often good. There are a lot of variations in the pursuit. Listen to the other stories, and try what works for the area.
One variation of crab nabbing will find you sitting in your kayak, next to someone else's crab pot marker. Down below the marker is a crab pot with the crab you really want, but so does the pot's owner. First off, the crab pot may be too heavy to lift from a kayak. One time I worked way hard a long time almost tipping over my kayak, just to get the heavy pot full of crab up to the kayak, but unable to hold it with one hand while I reached it to get a crab. Nice try. So first you look around to make sure you think nobody is watching, and then you put a bottle of wine in plain sight on the deck of your kayak. Then you pull up the crab pot if you can. Take one crab. Put the bottle of wine in the crab pot. Hope you are not seen, and hope that the crab pot owner has a sense of humor and likes wine. Do not do that if you are in a group and you want a lot of crab. If you hear rifle shots, drop the pot, paddle away, and savor the flavor of the wine if you survive.
As to the matter of surviving, there are enough kayakers with the story about standing on the beach watching their kayak float out to sea, that you want to learn that lesson from these words and not your own. The sanctity of flawlessly securing your boat every time you beach is above all other temptations. Drag it further away from the water, and tie it to a bigger tree.
If you were so foolish as to paddle so far from Juneau that you end up looking straight out to the ocean, with land only at your stern, turn around. Now you are on the outside coast, with no protection between the open ocean storm swells and your frail kayak. You don't want to be there, unless of course you properly set up your camp in the aforementioned fashion, perchance I might also be so foolish and low on wine. You meet the nicest kayakers on the outside coast where death cruises the water looking for foolish kayakers, and crabs follow close behind.
If you were there for hot surf kayaking with the right kayak in warm water, you would be looking at another website. You are at this particular website because you appreciate a gentleman's or gentlewoman's well appointed, more elegant tour of pristine coastline wilderness pleasures accented by only the most occasional stark terror brushing the teeth of death. So you prefer to avoid even the small, innocent looking waves when you beach your kayak. Paddle farther to reach the place behind a rock, around a corner, back in a cove, or at a gentle river. It does not matter much what the water is doing, as long as there is no white bubbly stuff at the crest.
There is the outside coast and there is the outside coast, and it behooves one to know the difference. The outside coast you let people imagine is that of the monster waves crashing against the beach and rocks. The outside coast along which you paddle your kayak has enough of those little dots for islands or rocks to protect enough places for you to beach your kayak on calm or the most gently rolling water. Look at the map closely. Don't believe those stories of other kayakers. Look at the map closely. Those innocent looking little white waves rolling toward the beach will put a lot of water in your kayak and turn it sideways before you reach the beach or get back out to relatively flat water. Don't assume that a river coming into the sea offers a beaching spot. Some of them just make the breakers more irritated. Look for the protected spots ahead on the map, and don't count on all of them.
Of course the reason you go to places like this is to be pleasantly bored to tears as respite for what almost killed you because you did not follow the sound advice you are reading, or maybe because you did follow it. And because there are so few decisions to make during a day of just floating on water and camping, you will end up wringing stories out of the most mundane human activity. That is often the story about your camp sites. You are either camping on nice sand or pebbles, being threatened by the next high tide, or on wet, bumpy moss in the trees, or worse. And of course you will camp near a stream for drinking and cooking water. But the streams are sometimes not well positioned, so take a gallon of water with you for those ideal camp spots not near fresh water.
There was the time I met a kayaker camped at an unlikely camp spot. A leisurely chit-chat extended late enough into the evening that I decided to camp there. It was adequate despite being on a steeply sloped beach and far from fresh water. I later asked why he camped there. He said that he was told by his colleagues in the big city down south that if he camped out on the tips of small peninsulas far from streams, he would not encounter any bears because they hunted along the streams. I hadn't heard that story yet. The chap did not know about the invention of guns for bear protection. Figuring that truth was more useful to him, than was ignorance, I pointed to the well worn path at the tree line right behind his tent, coming from the deep forest and leading right to the point of land a few dozen yards away. I mentioned that something had to make that well used path, and we were likely the first humans to be so bored as to have visited this spot. The many deer casually browse along the beach line, and when they are out on the tips of peninsulas, they are more easily trapped by the bears who have therefore learned that the tips of peninsulas are the dinner table.
Next day I kept going south with my gun, and he kept going north without one, or a plan.
That's enough Duck Story secrets for the moment. Don't tell nobody else these secrets, and don't tell nobody I told you them. I might tell a few more later, for those people who are so lazy they spend as much time at the computer as I am right now, instead of grabbing their kayak bow line and fighting their way toward the smell of salt water.
The year 2001 Merry Christmas thing, and the new year thing too
What do you mean it is after Christmas? The web hosting company serving this website is an internet company, and is therefore comprised of computer geeks who are clueless of the world outside their mind's computer nightmares. They changed systems before Christmas, inherently screwing everything up again, creating huge gaps in the data exchange process, which is why you talk about computer programmers the same way you reference government people. If you are reading this, it is after many, many frustrating hours of dealing with this web hosting company's dysfunctional computer techs who, among other proofs of their intellectual void, stated: "There is no flaw in our system, neither is it limited.", quite like government people who insist they are here to help you, and actually believe their words, much to the grand entertainment of thinking humans. One of the earlier presidents of IBM once stated that there would never be a use for computers in the home. The above quote is more universally quotable.
If you are among the very few who escaped one or more family or friend annual form-letter - What I Did This Year, Christmas letters, you screwed-up ending up here, and may wish to flee forthwith.
There is not enough space to describe a whole year sitting at a computer, but enough for one night at a party, the most recent one of course. And if my family and friends don't click on this story, they will escape my end of the year form letter from the far frozen north land.
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. It was in the dark of night because it was in the winter. It was in the ice fog of Fairbanks Alaska, and exposed flesh would certainly freeze in seconds. It was somewhere around 30 to 45 below zero depending upon which thermometer was hanging where or what story you heard from whom. Below 20 below there is a bit of a snap in the air, so the number does not matter. Every year we get fewer and shorter cold snaps. Our Alaska cold winter stories are being seriously jeopardized by the heat from the global warming controversy.
The annual sometime-around-Christmas outrageous Apocalypse party was shortly to start, and I was the grillmeister. There are grillmeisters and there are grillmeisters, and it behooves one to know betwixt the two. My superlative grillmeister services are in high demand, on account of nobody else wants to stand around the smoky grill while there is a party going on. Many grillmeisters became grillmeisters because someone handed them a spatula, asked them to watch the grill a moment, and never returned from the vicinity of the keg or inside the house where the crowd was.
First, the real grillmeister will have constructed the barbecue grill he uses. In this case it was the one I welded-up way back when I was being paid big bucks down at Valdez to supposedly be welding stuff on barges going out to clean up the oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez. Praise Saint Joseph Hazlewood, who did what history proves is the most historic act a ship captain can perform, get drunk and run his ship into a rock. Well, from where does the best history of ancient ships come? So, he did not get the thing all the way sunk. Close enough.
Just give us one more oil spill. I promise I won't urinate-away the money this time.
The barbecue grill construction project was a leisurely sort of thing. The grill was cut from plate steel that was supposed to cover some hole on a barge. I was cutting and welding the thing in between doing stuff on the barges. But it was a bit too leisurely. One morning the foreman announced that we should finish our personal projects because everyone was being laid off at noon. Construction projects are not known for job security. Despite the best efforts of the workers, the job usually gets done, because of the boss, unlike the government system wherein the job of the boss is to insure that nothing gets done so the agency can perpetuate its thus useless existence. The barges were moving out to the oil clean-up sites. The grill suddenly became an adequate fire box on legs, party size.
My next job on the oil spill was out on one of the barges, fortunately not one I had worked on, in a cove at Knight Island, where I was required to accept big bucks to spend long hours at night watching the astonishing array of sea-life under the flood light which I turned out toward the water, away from where I was supposed to be watching things on the barge, for lack of anything of interest to watch on the barge. Well, Bligh Reef was a long ways away, and we were already anchored. When a school of silver salmon encounters a school of herring feeding on smaller things attracted to a flood light at night, anyone else would have to pay good money for a show that spectacular, and that was only one act. The legions of wispy white jelly fish streaming past the barge, on their current-driven pilgrimages, not deterred by the colorful eels always slithering through them in the opposite direction, must have certainly inspired high tech computer animation geeks who crank out images just like that for videos these days. The approaching winter decreed that the oil spill clean-up idiot-drill was successfully completed, so I returned to Fairbanks. I got around to making the barbecue grill lid ten years later.
Next, a real grillmeister trains under arduous conditions, such as getting the firewood from the woods, grilling in Alaska in the winter, killing what one grills, and practicing grillmeister stories, the latter being the controlling concept. Two real grillmeisters at the grill can offer an audience some pretty good rhetorical artistry suggesting some actual cooking skill beyond the words.
Cooking skills are not a priority, and usually not to be found among real grillmeisters, on account of them spending their training-time with the rhetorical artistry. Grilling food was what stoves, pots and cooks were invented to replace, on account of what grilled food was for so many centuries, and still is. A reasonable proximity of dead stuff and fire qualifies for grilled food. A grate between them helps. A lot of scrap expanded steel from construction sites has ended up on barbecue grills. Construction industry folks are among the real grillmeisters.
At 40 below zero, the first pile of spruce and birch wood in the grill is burned just to heat up the steel, and warm the global atmosphere. Then one adds more to get a big-enough pile of coals to prevail for awhile against the constant attack of cold. One is supposed to finish the fire with a layer of alder wood for the fine flavor it adds to meat, but at 40 below in the dark, nobody else notices when the fine points are neglected. Maybe I got a little carried away this time with the second stack of wood I put in the grill, sending sparks up through the adjacent spruce tree brows laden with snow, because the wooden vent handle on the grill went up in smoke too. I came back out of the house to check the fire just as the last ember of the handle fell off the screw. Good thing I made the grill. You certainly did not expect me to stand around the grill in the dark at 40 below while there was a party going on inside. But the handle was alder, so the coals would flavor the meat to perfection.
It is a timing sort of thing. You cannot lift the lid too often to check on things or the top of the food will freeze, while the bottom is being scorched by the big pile of coals needed to keep the steel hot. A good winter grillmeister also sets the grill in a dark place at the edge of the trees where the people in the house can look out a window to see that the grill is in a dark place, so when some of the meat comes in occasionally scorched, the story about it being too dark to see the meat is credible. A big grill helps, so they think it is too much trouble to move it under the porch light. A good winter grillmeister also clandestinely microwaves the food first, of course.
Dogs love the grillmeister. Fellow carnivores share primal urges. So there I was out there attending to the weighty responsibilities of grilling the meat, while inside responsibility was not to be found among the revelry. Adjacent to the grill were the typical Alaska sled dogs, chained to their posts, lean, barely surviving the cold, nothing but some dog hair between them and the harsh elements, neglected at the moment, their water dishes frozen solid, their desperate eyes riveted to the source of fresh grilled meat scent. Tango the lead dog was closest. Tango and I were having the usual grillmeister discussion about truly great grillmeistering, wherein each piece of meat on the platter was perfectly grilled because all the less perfect pieces had been fed to the dogs who were polite enough to stay outside with the grillmeister discussing great grillmeistering. Tango will tell you that you want the doghouse nearest the grill.
Tango the lead dog is one of the more well known lead dogs in Alaska. I don't know if he has ever been hooked up to a dog sled, but he has pulled a few skiers for ski-joring. The dogs never dispute the famous lead dog stories about them, and the tourists don't visit Alaska in the winter to check on all the famous lead dog stories. The many famous lead dog stories are like the many half wolf, half dog stories, only lead dogs don't have to look as much like huskies as those so called half wolves. Most of the half wolf, half dogs in Alaska actually full wolves that ate someone's pet dog off its chain in the back yard during the night. And there are a lot of those. That is always embarrassing when Foo-foo's chain leads only to a few tufts of hair. When you hear the story about someone's dog running away with a pack of wolves, it is technically accurate. Tango is the lead dog because he leads the other dogs into the kitchen, following me closely, even though his owner is trying to teach him to not beg in the kitchen, because Tango knows his owner has not yet adequately trained me.
Those are the finer and darn near only points of winter grillmeistering as it actually occurs, the highlight of the week and good enough for the annual Christmas form letter. Next year maybe I'll write another dissertation on whatever happens about the time the annual Christmas form letter is due. Between now and then I gotta find that cardboard box of old adventure stories or I might have to go make some more.
There we were mind you, and it was every bit as desperate as the start of this story proves in its below mentioned, aforementioned start, or something like that. Exposed flesh freezes in seconds, you know.
Oh, that 10310 is, ten three ten, for you folks what don't got the mountain climbing jargon down. Some mountains have names, but some of the bumps on ridges have not yet been goobered up on the map with names. They need a reference so climbers can brag about having climbed or attempted to climb them. The unnamed hills are referred to by their elevation. Ten three ten is 10,310 feet high, lost somewhere in the far frozen north.
10310 is a bump on a ridge between higher mountains, but from the south side it is an impressive hill, with a nice ridge route winding part of the way up to the top. It ain't no schmuck. Several people tried to climb it, and failed. There was even a grant-funded expedition that attempted it, and failed. I think both of the aforementioned attempts were the same trip, but because climbing mountains is so simple, climbers often milk every separate description to create the illusion of their great conquests of great mountains.
This particular expedition of renown scientifical proportions in the far frozen north began with the Callebaut story on the Stories 2 page. The pilot was unable to be rescued immediately after the crash, due to the weather conditions that contributed to the crash, and therefore endured a couple days in our luxurious snow cave, with too much cognac and chocolate, before our second expedition supply airplane picked him up while bringing in more cognac. The luxurious nature of our glacier snow cave was illuminated by its appointment with cushioned airplane seats which pilots normally do not leave behind for climbers, but the pilot left his whole airplane behind, in a crumple, so the seats were expropriated for the scientific research team.
The goal of the renowned expedition was to explore and place scientific instrumentation down in certain moulins. Unfortunately, after no small expenditure of calories digging holes in the snow, looking for holes in the ice, we discovered that said certain moulins only descended eighty feet or so, and then terminated due to ice pressure. That's the thing about those constantly moving glaciers, they do as they jolly well please. The scientific portion of the expedition was thereupon declared to be a failure, and another bottle of cognac was dedicated to the escape from that boring work.
What next could happen out on an obscure Alaska Range glacier in the middle of winter? Another airplane landed. Now what?
Well, it was at another time back in the summer when the forest not far from there, along the Alaska Highway, was being consumed by a raging fire, swept by 30 knot winds heading straight for the Cherokee Lodge, which serves alcoholic beverages. The emergency was clear and evident. The dense smoke screaming across the highway just overhead was ablaze with burning embers whipped along in the wind. Anyone else would have to pay good money for a show like that. My colleague and I drove right past the frantically waving State Trooper, slowing only enough to shout, We live there. There, being in Alaska, was close enough. Down the road we rolled into the Cherokee and helped douse the lodge with water as the fire bore down on the area. The Troopers had earlier told the bar owner to evacuate the area, so she told the Troopers to evacuate the area. They quite sensibly acted on her sound advice of theirs. Kathy and her friends stayed to save the alcohol, which required saving the bar. The incentive created the success.
It was during a subsequent conversation that we invited her to stop by any time we were up on the glacier, since she was a friend of Harvey Weiler the local glacier pilot. So when she noticed the newspaper article about the airplane crash, and noticed that we were on the glacier, she called Harvey. Imagine sitting in a snow cave on an obscure glacier, in the middle of winter, and hearing an unexpected airplane land at the doorstep, and crawling out of the cave to see a beautiful lady get out of the airplane and ask if she could visit for a cup of tea. A cup of fresh brewed tea was had, with a gurgle or two of cognac in it, amid delightful conversation. You encounter the nicest people in the mountains.
Beset with ample supplies, and no moulins, my colleague and I struck-out for nearby 10310, the formidable mountain that had repulsed all previous efforts to ascend her therefore yet virgin white flanks. Easy enough skiing to the base, through a beautiful ice tunnel where the tributary glacier met the main glacier. Then the reasons the other chaps had a bit of a go became evident. The start of the ridge was accessed through some nasty crevasses at the bottom of a steep glacier being sheared by the glacier it met. After punching a crevasse amid a maze of them, albeit with only one leg, then wading through deep snow only a short way up the slope to the ridge, we camped immediately, to reconsider our foolishness, in another snow cave.
Desperate, and in a confused state of mind in the morning we started in the wrong direction, upward, and failed to recognize our error until we had waded through so much deep snow on such a steep slope that we dared not turn back. Many good climbs begin as a mistake, if not all of them. We reached the hard snow of the ridge crest, and belayed our way forward over treacherous illusions. By evening we were exhausted where there was no reasonable place to camp, of course. We hacked out a ledge large enough for most of us, and discussed the wisdom of attempting to cover a portion of the ledge with snow blocks. I won the discussion, and thus the duty to cut blocks from such thin, brittle snow that we barely had a windbreak for cooking. But I was thereafter mostly under the windbreak, while the wind picked up for the night, and my colleague was mostly out in it. Morning was little better.
Doing all the camping things while sub-zero spin drift snow is constantly filling every lee in the wind, including the glop pot when you lift the lid, and the lee of your shorts when you attend to those things, is what makes climbing so enjoyable and keeps away those annoying intelligent people. It is disappointing to fill one's water bottle in the morning, with hot water that took awhile to melt from ice, and while crouching precariously on a narrow ridge, put the bottle under your parka, only to feel it slide down out from under your parka, then see it zip across the short slope, hit a rock at the edge, and lob itself outward in a magnificent arc through the air, knowing that it would not hit anything until it impacted a couple thousand feet below. It was to be a dry day in the bitter cold. Onward and upward.
The ridge soon abutted another section of steep slope sheltered from the wind, with disconcertingly deep snow. Struggling through the chest-deep snow, we reached the bergshrund, a rather large one. The only bridge across it was further out on the steeper part of the slope, closer to the lip of the hanging glacier atop which we were playing. The bridge was long, only a few feet wide, and of the same fluff in which we were swimming. We could see under it and out the other side. It was not the normal preference for crevasse bridges, but it was the only one. We planned the usual gambit. I led the bridge. My colleague stood at the edge of the deep shrund, at his end of the rope. If the bridge broke, he would throw himself down slope to stop my fall into the crevasse. If the snow slab on the slope broke loose, he would throw himself into the shrund to stop my fall down the slope. The edge of the hanging glacier was not far below us.
I was mostly across the bridge when the slope slab broke loose above me and I started heading down with the thick slab. My colleague later said he picked the spot to which he was about to jump then glanced up to see the slab break again at my body, leaving me holding everything above me, while the world below me slid over the edge into the abyss below, later sweeping out into view on the glacier below. But what was left of the now thin bridge, held, and thus we charged upward, albeit with careful trepidation over the bridge, with no damage to our abject void of good sense.
We were soon on mixed hard ice, with the wind plunging down on us, at somewhere below zero Fahrenheit. Wind-driven slough-off snow was pouring down the ice, like water, often curling into our faces. We reached and traversed along an interesting little ledge at the base of a high wall of overhanging ice that pushed us off balance if we tried to stand up. Worse. The sun was becoming impatient with our lolly-gagging around. We reached the end of the wall, put in another screw for protection, and went straight up for the summit at hand. We were noticed. The wind attacked from the summit, in a rage, straight down at us. My colleague disappeared in the blowing snow as he led the short summit stretch. As we went up, the summit's suddenly deepening snow cap mounted the threat of its own attack, poorly held at bay by only friction on the steep ice we just left. We were cold, miserable, frightened, without cigars and within the allowable snowball's throw of the summit just through a bit more deep snow. Against the wind's roaring disapproval of our presence, we engaged in an analytical discussion on the full situation, shouting a scant few words before suddenly realizing that we were losing body and finger heat as fast as the sun had already departed. We couldn't stand, sit, squat, turn, see or think without panic being driven through our parkas by what was now a gale the likes of which we hadn't encountered since the last time I cobbled together those words. We couldn't even get out the headlamps as we decreed success in the dark and fled with our freezing hands under our armpits, ice axes dangling on their straps, and stumbling to get below the ice wall and out of the wind.
There are certain moments in the cold, the dark, the wind and on precarious ground, that one realizes they may have made a decision a few minutes too late. So miserable where things while we fled downward in the dark, fingers and minds not well functioning, that all the difficulties of the route were blurred into a single illusion of fear. Each step, however tenuous, was less noticed than the cold. There was not even concern with the shrund bridge as we slid over it hastily belayed from another ice screw we left behind. Same old stuff, all in an evening stroll on a just another pretty hill. We reached the ridge ledge at midnight, a delightfully miserable spot, and were promptly asleep after another two and a half hours of fumbling around in the wind to get some water melted from the ice.
By the following night, after the usual descriptions of more dangers belayed along the ridge, and all that, we were back at our skis. We stopped in our cave along the way to brew a spot of tea. Some of the crevasses we earlier crossed on the fast-moving steep glacier had been awaken by our passing, and were wider agape, hungry for what might return with less caution. The sky was clear and the moon was full. The rolling shapes on the glacier made soft moonlit pillows with snowflakes sparkling as we skied past in silence. The air was crisp. The glacier snow surrounding us below and above was light blue in the moonlight. The stars glittered in reds and greens and yellows.
Reaching the main glacier, we had a long ways to ski up and across the glacier, in the general direction of the camp. Each of us, seasoned mountaineers that we were, thinking we knew the precise direction back to camp, and no longer on a crevassed portion of the glacier, were soon far apart. Each to the other was a distant speck of movement in a spectacular arena of moonlit mountains. In time, the discernible image of an upside down, broken airplane redirected our errant routes, toward camp. There was a cave party to be had, in grand style.
Upon the morrow it was back to the road. Along the ski down glacier we were invited into some ice caves of esthetically rewarding nature. Of the many types of ice caves, you might wish to venture into hard ice caves that twist through varied depths of ice, with the sun creating every hue of blue from white to black. But be careful about what might happen in the black parts. Northern Fur Mountain Trolls (Trolis montagne nord) are the least of your worries, but among them. Even the last night while approaching the highway across the boring stretch below the glacier, presented a show, albeit night and miserably cold as usual because we spent too much time in those ice caves. An eerie mist of clouds made the mountain ridge between us and the moon, invisible. But when the moon rose behind ridge, the jagged mountain summits not only hacked away the view of the bottom edge of the moon, with an unsettling image, but made an equally bizarre shadow through the clouds. There are things in the mountains that create the stories that you fear could come true.