Revelation Mountains and Roberts’ Pitons

Roberts’ pitons from Vanishing Pinnacle, recovered by Helander (courtesy Clint Helander 2013)

Unless someone has climbed it in the last year or so, Vanishing Pinnacle in the Revelation Mountains, a remote subrange of the Alaska Range, has only been summited three times. First in 1966, the second in 1985, and most recently in 2012. It’s a 400-foot needle that, as the first ascentionist said, is only detected in profile.

If you read the features in the 2013 American Alpine Journal the last one before the general entries was part of the new Recon section, which covers virtually untapped mountain climbing areas, Clint Helander wrote this one about the Revelations. They are rarely visited and still have peaks that, to the best of our collective knowledge, are unclimbed. The Revs are not giants, most are about 9,000 feet above sea level, but they are ripe for pioneering a new route and taking in big Alaska in solitude.

Helander is the contemporary expert on the region and has more first ascents there than anyone else. I’ve covered his most recent climbs in the Revs here on TSM before.

Helander and Ben Trocki were the third to climb Vanishing Pinnacle. The first ascent was lead by the first explorer in this range, who also happens to be my favorite alpine climbing author, David Roberts. (John Long is the best rock climbing author, for the record.)

Regarding the second ascent, Thomas Walter reported in the 1988 American Alpine Journal that, “On the top we found rusty pins slung together with a nylon belt left two decades earlier.” Walter and his would-be long-time climbing partner Greg Collins left the pins and rated the crux pitch as 5.11, even though Roberts’ team said the overall climb was F6 (i.e. 5.6), A3.

In 2012, Helander and Trocki, after climbing for 18 days on the more serious peaks and running out of food, thought what-the-heck and decided to dash up the Pinnacle. They found the pitons. For whatever reason, Helander loosened two, clipped them into a carabiner and descended with souvenirs. It wasn’t hard to guess who they might belong to.

Helander took the photo above shortly before shipping one back to its original owner. If nothing else, Roberts deserved it for his pioneering in the Revelations. Helander deserved the other for reopening the range to climbing, and even completing some unfinished business, like the second ascent of the Angel and the first ascent of Golgotha.

Roberts named them, Helander made his name through them.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Revs saw little more traffic among explorers of any kind until Helander’s arrival, and few have covered as much ground — vertical and horizontal.

Thanks goes to Clint for his repeated generosity and for sharing this story with me.

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Sources: 1) Clint Helander, 2) Alpinist online, 3) 1968 American Alpine Journal; and 4) 1988 American Alpine Journal.

Two Understated American Giants

Ed Viesturs and David Roberts (taken and shared with permission by Jana Kunicova)

Yes, I am crazy. I must be. I voluntarily sold my ticket — my only ticket — to see Ed Viesturs and David Roberts at National Geographic Live last night. The next two weeks ahead were getting busy at work in the evenings and that was taking away from my family time. So I went to my Peaklessburg support group — DC Mountain Madness — and offered it up.

Viesturs was a hero of mine when I started climbing in the mid-1990s. I bought my red Mountain Hardwear fleece jacket for the reasons baseball fans buy jerseys with their favorite players’ numbers on them. He doesn’t play the same role for me now he did when he was pursuing all 14 eight-thousanders, but he is still a role an hero for his approach to a wild pursuit that he balanced with a commitment to his life at home. His reputation for turning around many times when his gut said “this is bad,” and still being very successful at his goals is inspiring. That makes him appealing to many climbers, particularly amateurs. He is an example of stick-to-it-ive-ness.

Roberts is my favorite climbing writer. He also lead or was part of some legendary expeditions in Alaska, including the Harvard Route up the Denali’s north face and the Angel in the Revelation Mountains, a subrange of the Alaska Range, just to name two. I enjoy his books because they include rich history, great research and he tells all of it in such an insightful way. He makes his readers feel compelled to go on.

Viesturs and Roberts are two very different people and climbers. They came to Washington to speak on their latest book The Will to Climb, however they also talked about their other work together on No Shortcuts to the Top (2006) and K2 (2010), I was told. But while they are both articulate, well-educated men, they are very different climbers.

Since following Viesturs Endeavor 8,000 quest, I have learned more about climbing and learned that the kinds of climbs that make it into history books or the American Alpine Journal are special climbs. They are first ascents and original routes. Those were not the kind of climbs Viesturs pursued. At one time that was disappointing to me, but then I realized that I probably would not seek out the steepest, longest routes necessary to make a climb that is deemed significant today. Roberts, on the other hand, had pursued new steep routes in Alaska in the 1960s. As nerdy as Roberts is — and he is — he’s got street cred.

Viesturs sought out a whole other field of climbing. Rather than seeking challenging new routes, he pursued a tick list of the world’s biggest mountains. The route wasn’t critical. Reaching the top — legitimately reaching the top — was essential for quality of the accomplishment.  While American climbers celebrate him for being the first of their own to stand atop all 14 eight-thousanders without supplemental oxygen, it was ultimately a pursuit all his own.

Viesturs and Roberts are two American giants. I don’t feel the need to qualify that statement by adding “…in climbing.” They are accomplished climbers, accomplished writers, and I am glad they came to Washington to share their adventures and their experiences.

Oddly, though I have been a fan of these two men for about 20 years and I have never seen or met them in person, I don’t feel overly regretful that I wasn’t able to attend. I know much about them from their books and their articles elsewhere. Perhaps I also feel that I will get another opportunity. Perhaps its also because I have met so many interesting climbers over the past several years — thanks largely to social media and this blog. I suppose that even as they have moved on from climbing to other ventures, so have I.

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No Shortcuts to the Top: A Review

I’ve got a confession. I was introduced to climbing by the fifth Star Trek movie when Captain Kirk attempted to free soloed El Cap before nearly falling to his death. But growing up in snowy Upstate New York and hiking and climbing the winter wonderland of the Adirondacks gave me a flavor for alpine ascents, not big walls. Being introduced to the American climbing icon Ed Viesturs nudged me further along. I can’t remember when I first learned of Viesturs, but it was before the Imax movie Everest, where he played a leading role, was released.

Viesturs became well known among American climbers for his Endeavor 8,000 project where he became the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen in over an eleven year quest that concluded in 2005. In 2006, Viesturs and David Roberts, author of climbing classic Mountain of My Fear, combined efforts to tell Viesturs life story and his journey to the top of the Himalayas in No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks.

Overall this autobiography tells the reader more about the things that compel Viesturs fans to follow him. He is known for his phrase, “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory,” which is odd to come from a well known climbing celebrity. Often climbers are thought of as risk takers. Instead, Viesturs book shows how he has actually been risk adverse and still been successful in the mountains.

The book was exactly what a fan of “Steady Eddy” like me wanted. It explained how Viesturs climbed at the level he did and addressed the challenge of the mountains from Mount Rainier, to the highest peaks of the Himalayas. First, Viesturs’ physiology is above average and explains the science behind his ability to grab more oxygen from thin air. Viesturs also shares his firm belief in being self reliant in the mountains, including listening to one’s gut: If something doesn’t feel right, listen to it and turn around. It was this second part that both kept him out of danger and delayed success in Endeavor 8,000 by several years.

People are also interested in his family. Despite the risks he takes and the expeditions he goes on for months at a time, he maintains what appears to be a strong family unit. He also talks about that, including intimate details about how he and his wife Paula met and having children.

In his belief of self-sufficient climbing, Viesturs and his partners – for the most part – have embraced the alpine style of climbing. He talks about sharing gear to pack lighter and also what he puts on his rack for various ascents.

Comparing Viesturs to progressive alpinists like Steve House is like comparing an Ice Road Trucker to the Stig from Top Gear. It’s just unfair. Viesturs approach, goals and tolerance for risk is different. But it is that contrast that makes him appealing, especially to the casual or even average mountaineer.

The book Viesturs produced with Roberts is worth the purchase and read. In fact, I have two copies. One for myself with some penciled notes and another to lend out to friends.

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Two Mountaineering Classics by David Roberts

When I visited Alaska, I did two things everyone else does when they go: I hiked up Flattop Mountain outside of Anchorage and took in Denali. I did a lot more than that, but it was taking in the view of a lesser peak southwest of Big Mac that I really wanted to see! Through my binoculars I saw Mount Huntington (12,240 ft / 3,731 m). To me, it’s almost mythical.

Mount Huntington was first climbed in 1964 by French alpinist Lionel Terray of the Annapurna first ascent team. It’s also one of the most beautifully formed peaks in the Alaska Range. But what puts it on the map of mountaineering lore are the events that mountaineer and author David Roberts captures in his first book, The Mountain of My Fear, originally published in 1968.

The story tells of the second ascent of the mountain including the planning and the relationships with his teammates. The story focuses on the eerie event on the descent when the team of four split up. Roberts and partner Ed Bernd rapped down but in a flash, Bernd vanished with only a spark in the night, undoubtedly falling to the Tokositna Glacier. Due to the separation and the incoming storms Roberts endured five days alone in a lower camp. It sounds simple, but Roberts has a way of articulately saying what was in his mind and connecting the hearts of other climbers, which is what makes it such a great read!

Roberts explains in his autobiographical book, On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined (2005), that Roberts wrote the manuscript for The Mountain of My Fear in one fantastic push. It was mainly an exercise in therapy. The apropos title comes from the poem “The Climbers” by W.H. Auden.

The experience on Mount Huntington was actually the second of two epic adventures in Alaska that Roberts was among the primary architects. The other was when he and Don Jensen planned to make the first ascent of Mount Deborah (12,339 ft/3,761 m). The peak has an enormous prominence among the other features surrounding it and it is remote. Sometime after writing his first book, Roberts wrote Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative (1970). While Roberts thinks it is the literary of the two, most readers feel it is far dryer. I disagree.

Deborah is not as profound and moving as The Mountain of My Fear, it is like many other climbing stories about flying into the mountains, climbing, struggling in alpine style, and trudging out of the backcountry. It’s actually a worthy model for a lot of those of us planning a grand ascent. The drama of the story, and what makes it somewhat a downer, is that even before Roberts departed for Alaska, he knew his heart was not in this expedition and certainly not committed to Jensen as he ought to be.

The Mountaineers Books published both of these works in one volume in 1991. I bought my copy in the Denali National Park gift shop; I hadn’t even seen it on my local bookstore shelves back home. I’ve read both twice and return to them periodically. I recommend reading both in gulps rather than sips. Their worth the purchase and certainly the time.

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The Common Core of the Outdoor Experience

What we're seeking is out there. Can we be satisfied?

We often get asked — and sometimes we ask ourselves — why do we hike? Why do we climb? “Because it is there” is not deep enough any more.

The essence of it is the same for John Muir, Reinhold Messner and Andrew Skurka. I believe the common thread between them was what they were seeking. In fact, they all talked about it. The great thing is, it can be experienced in different levels. But you cannot know about it until you’ve been there and felt it. Figuring it out for myself took me years.

Mountaineer and author David Roberts worked for years trying to determine what drove him to the mountains. In his book, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, he references how notable climbers all talk about challenging themselves and learning things about themselves they would never have learned without their pursuit. However, as Roberts points out, the climbers have never said what it was they learned. I now know, and Roberts probably does too, that it was not something they could teach.

When I go into the backcountry, I go to get away from society’s structure and its related pressures, temporarily deprive myself of comforts, and emphasize my simplest needs, such as food, water, shelter and sleep. I also enjoy the self challenge of going to the outdoors, particularly when I set a trivial challenge like hike and climb to that peak. Nobody really cares if I’m successful but me, so long as I return unhurt and alive. High stakes are part of the sport, though.

I also go because it is on my terms — or at least the allusion of my terms. It’s an allusion because even when we go into the wild today it’s wilderness only because it is designated so by regulation. Of course, it’s also on my terms in regards to my tolerance for risk. What is tame and acceptable for me might be overwhelmingly frightening for someone else. I can choose my own fate that way.

In addition, according to alpinist Steve House in his book Beyond the Mountain, sharing our deprivation, basic needs and goals with a partner or a team can make the experience be nothing short of, well, magical. That is because it creates the rare opportunity for someone else to know exactly what you’re going through. However, chemistry between you and your partners is a necessary factor.

These can only be done and felt in the wilderness. Muir made a religion out of its value. Messner promotes the idea of connecting with our wild side. Skurka discovered it for himself on his long hikes, particularly on his 2010 Alaska-Yukon Expedition. Wilderness is an experience. It’s why we go and what we seek. But you have to go to know.

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Fritz Wiessner and Dudley Wolfe on K2


K2 on Fire. (All rights reserved)

I just finished reading The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 by Jennifer Jordan (2010).  Jordan will be at National Geographic tonight presenting on this book.  I was planning on going to see her, ask some questions and report to you tomorrow, but unfortunately, I have a conflict that is unavoidable.  In any case, here is my review of her take…

Jordan tells the story of Dudley Wolfe, the wealthy American on the 1939 K2 expedition lead by Fritz Wiessner.  However, the story of Wolfe on K2 is the story of that tragic expedition and its leader.

Wiessner was a German-immigrant and was the finest mountaineer in America at the time.  Until later in life, he always struggled with debt and having sufficient income.  He deferred the leadership of the 1938 K2 expedition to rival Charlie Houston because of his business obligations at the time.  The team in 1938 was experienced stars, but for a variety of reasons, personal and economic, Fritz could only put together a second-rate team – most of whom, except Wolfe, never went higher than Camp IV.

I have read a couple of different takes on the 1939 attempt and Jordan’s book follows the pattern of most others, but brings the available research together more thoroughly.  The questions Jordan tries to answer, or at least provide the best information about, was whether Dudley Wolfe belonged on the expedition, was he qualified to reach the high camps and remain there for an extended period of time even though his outlook on summiting was dim, and lastly, was he stranded out of negligence or the occupational hazard innate in mountaineering?

Wolfe reached Camp VIII only with Wiessner’s assistance.  Eventually, Wiessner had to descend for supplies – or possibly help to get Wolfe to the top.  There is a lot of speculation here on why this really happened.  Wolfe managed to descend to Camp VII and he never climbed any lower.  He would spend nearly two months in those high camps withering away and likely suffering from cerebral edema.

Wolfe was the first casualty of climbing K2, and for a variety of reasons (both justified and muddy) he was left stranded and helpless in Camp VII.  Jordan discovered his body at the base of the peak while visiting the K2 base camp in 2002 while writing her first book Savage Summit.

This book paints Dudley Wolfe in a more favorable portrait.  Ed Viesturs and David Roberts in K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain make Wolfe seem more incompetent – but to say he was unqualified (which Viesturs and Roberts do not) to be high on the mountain is wrong too.  It is worth the read to see the relationship between Fritz and Dudley.  Wiessner wanted to the summit desperately for glory and notoriety.  Wolfe was an adventure junkie and needed Wiessner to get him as close to the top, if not the top itself, as reasonable.  This arrangement, and the affects of altitude, which were not fully understood, was their collective undoing.

As a mountain junkie, I don’t recommend this book unless you are either interested in the mysteries of the 1939 expedition or want to know everything about K2 specifically.  There are other more informative K2 books, like Viesturs’ and Roberts’ story, and better climbing stories in general.  On the other hand, Jordan’s story might also appeal to readers that enjoy the age of romance in mountain exploration as it tugs at that string.

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