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.

Apocalypse Peak FA and the Piolet d’Or

West Face of Apocalypse Peak (Photo by Clint Helander 2013; made available by permission.)

In between responsibilities (fleeting nanoseconds, really), including coordinating an advocacy campaign at work and still unpacking from the move (yes, we’re still unpacking) I’ve been brooding about this year’s Piolet d’Or. I look forward to learning about the nominees and who they choose to honor every year. But this time, not only did I disagree with their choice, the recipients probably don’t feel as honored. I wouldn’t.

I’ll fill you in more in a moment, but there was some positive news that I’d like to tell you about first, especially if you’re as into the possibilities of climbing mountains in Alaska as I am.

Alaskan First Ascent
Clint Helander — the current expert and first ascentionist in Alaska’s Revelation Mountains — and climbing partner Jason Stuckey climbed the range’s largest unclimbed peak, Apocalypse Peak (9,345 ft./ 2,848 m.). They named their route on its 4,400 ft./ 1,341 m. West Face “A Cold Day in Hell.”

After several false starts from Talkeetna, Talkeetna Air Taxi pilot Paul Roderick found the weather window that would allow them to land in the midst of the Revelation Mountains, a sub-range of the greater Alaska Range, approximately 80 miles west of Talkeetna.

After spending two nights on the mountain, they rated the route up to WI5. The final leg included a signature Alaskan traverse with plenty of knife-edge exposure leading to the summit.

The Revelations have only recently started to be explored. In the 1960s, author and alpinist David Roberts lead the first expedition there. Roberts named most of the mountains himself, including Apocalypse Peak, which he described as “fearsome” in On the Ridge Between Life and Death.

Congratulations to Clint and Jason, and a special thanks to Clint for being generous in allowing me access to his photos.

Jason Stuckey coming up the crux pitch of A Cold Day in Hell (Clint Helander 2013; made available by permission.)

Indecisive 2013 Piolet d’Or Jury
All six nominees, save one, was a major traverse and included an ascent or descent of a previously unclimbed face. The jury, lead by British alpinist Stephan Venables, emphasized this and it’s mentioned in each press release and English-language news story. That indicates to me that the judges identified the commonalities but couldn’t, wouldn’t or refused to find what differentiated any of them. (I found several aspects.)

The jury named all six nominees recipients of the 2013 Piolet d’Or. Not just two plus an honorable mention, but all of them. They included some very impressive routes:

  1. A French ascent of Kamet (7,756 m.) in India.
  2. A British climb of the so-called Prow of Shiva (6,142 m.) in India.
  3. A Russian team that climbed light, except an enormous food-stuffed haul bag to traverse iconic Muztagh Tower (7,284 m.) in the Karakoram.
  4. An American team that tackled the southern features of Baintha Brakk (7,285 m. and a.k.a. The Ogre).
  5. A noble British traverse of the Himalayas’s longest ridge on an 8,000-meter peak — the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat (8,125 m.)
  6. A committing six-day Japanese ascent of the south pillar of Kyashar (6,770 m.) in Nepal.

It’s hard to disagree with the jury in that each climb is worthy of note. In fact, just reading up on the alpinists from these ascents is thoroughly fascinating. But sharing the honor of the title of 2013 Piolet d’Or winner devalues the competition.

I celebrate alpinism and climbing in general on this blog and I do so through my personal perspective; it’s subjective (though I insist it’s more often correct than incorrect). What I choose to feature — like Helander’s new climb — is about as much matter of taste as it is about respect. I select certain climbs and climbers to honor here. Why I choose one over another is up to me, and if people knew my rubric for making these pages I might get criticized. Still, I make decisions and I usually stick by them.

If I were working with Stephen Venables and rest of the 2013  jury, I would have advocated for the Mazeno Ridge traverse to be given the award outright. Of the ascents, it was the largest in scope, in length and elevation. So congratulations Sandy Allan and Rick Allen: You win my Piolet d’Cuivre.

Michael Ybarra

On a side note, I’ve been in touch with the Michael’s sister, Suzanne, about some of his work outside of climbing. People in our circles usually only remember Michael for being a charming, yet badass climber. He was also a gifted researcher and writer. He walked a line of the Suburban Mountaineering life like few contemporaries.

For those of you that work day-to-day and live an alter-ego life on expedition vacations or weekends at a crag, this might be insightful. More to come…

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Clint Helander and Alaska’s Revelation Mountains

I received my 2012 American Alpine Journal in the mail shortly before I left for vacation with my family. It barely made it. I’d been planning on dropping whatever I was working through and taking the journal with me as my sole reading material. It was delivered just days before we drove north and I was thrilled to find several features that I had already been seriously daydreaming about (obsessing might be more appropriate.)

One of those topics was the first ascent of Mount Mausolus (9,170 ft. / 2,795 m.) in the Revelation Mountains, a southern section of the Alaska Range. It’s relatively little known and remote, though I suspect more ambitious alpinists seeking first ascents — the kind on virgin peaks, not virgin lines — are becoming tuned in to the history and opportunities of the region.

There have only been two key figures for the “Revs,” including author and climber David Roberts, who was the first to explore the region, and the current and active expert, Clint Helander. Helander wrote a featured article on his FA on Mausolus and I caught up with him earlier in the season over email after another FA in the Revs — Golgotha (7,930 ft. / 2,417 m.), which David Roberts essentially called his secret climb. Helander has had some significant first ascents in the Revs, in addition to Mount Mausolus including the Ice Pyramid (9,250 ft, / 2,902 m.) and Exodus (8,385 ft / 2,556 m.), Golgotha, a notable second ascent on the Angel, as well as several new ice and mixed routes in the Chugach Range.

I wanted to know a little bit more about what made him who he is and how he has become a leader in this range so I reached out to him and he consented to answer a few questions. You can learned more about his climbing accomplishments on Alpinist.com and in the American Alpine Journal, but here are some answers that give us insight into the influences that lead him to be a first ascentionist. Here’s our brief conversation:

TSM: Your climbs could be characterized as aggressive. Did you have mentors lead the way?

CH: I have always had an IMMENSE amount of respect for Mark Westman and Joe Puryear. It brings me endless amounts of pride to have been able to call Joe and Mark friends. They just accomplished so much in Alaska, no one else can really even compete with the overall volume of climbs they have completed. They learned together, climbed the hardest routes of their lives together and always remained humble and clear to their morals. They didn’t seek fame or self-promotion. They both climb(ed) for the pure love of the endeavor itself.

TSM: You have a core group of friends. Were they influential?

CH: My group of friends in Alaska is so unique. I met them in college as part of the Outdoor Club. I was 18 years old and didn’t know two shits about anything when it came to the outdoors. They took me out rafting, sea kayaking, ice climbing, mountaineering, rock climbing, hiking, etc. They had climbed Denali, traveled around the world. They were all so accomplished in my eyes. Now in many ways I have surpassed many of them in technical pursuits, but it is purely because of them that I am who I am today.

TSM: Who are your heroes?

CH: My friends are my heroes. From those who shaped me from a know nothing 18 year old punk to the Mark Westmans of the world. It makes me beam with excitement to be in so much awe of my friends. I love sharing laughs with Westman and then looking down and thinking to myself “why is this guy climbing with me? Am I worthy???”

TSM: What does alpine climbing mean to you?

CH: I feel like alpine climbing has given me a different perspective on every day life. My heart sings when I am in the mountains. My body pulses with a feeling of complete happiness. I love the bite of the cold air, the ice, the extreme vertical relief, the risk, and the reward. I love going into the unknown and pushing myself in the mountains. I love confronting my fears and doubts. I hate the failure in the moment, but I love the desire it gives me to better myself for the future. I love succeeding at a long awaited goal. It is the most meaningful form of personal expression that I have.

TSM: Will you climb forever?

CH: At this point, I honestly cannot see outgrowing climbing. I have no intentions of slowing down. I want to find a way to work seasonally or on my own time and still make a decent living, while still being able to devote a significant amount of time to climbing in Alaska and beyond.

TSM: What is your next big challenge?

CH: After my Revelations trip, I attempted the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter. We climbed very well, but a broken crampon and core-shot rope forced a retreat from 15 pitches up. I plan on returning next year stronger, faster, and with more time to succeed on the Moonflower. There is another route in the Alaska Range that terrifies me, but I think that with a year of training, I will be ready to give it a shot if I maintain my focus on training.  I also will return to the Revelations and attempt what I imagine will be my most difficult route yet. I plan to go to Yosemite in the fall. In the winter I will enter some endurance ski races and perhaps the Winter Alaska Wilderness Classic.

TSM: Thanks for indulging my curiosities, Clint. Keep up the great work, and stay safe out there.

Thank you for dropping by yet again. If you got something out of this post, you might want to consider following me on Facebook or Twitter because I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

No Rush for News from the Revelations

I like to keep this anecdote in mind whenever I think about how most news about alpine climbing accomplishments and attempts arrive weeks or even months afterwards: When the Erie Canal was built in New York State the rate news moved across the state accelerated the pace of life. Reports of a crop failure or family events like death or childbirth often proceeded the usual message delivers, like the newspaper or family members.

Supposedly, this was the first Information Superhighway. It was even said to have created anxiety about how to process the new information at its new pace. I heard this story a couple of times from representatives of the Erie Canal National Heritage Area when I was working as a Congressional aide helping to support the region. It made me think about several things, including how news from areas without a lot of information and media infrastructure travels, especially from the remote mountain ranges.

Of course, things aren’t what they were a couple of decades ago. Hayden Kennedy wrote in Alpinist 39 what his legendary father, Michael, said to him once after a climb during the hike out: “Dad told me stories of the old days, when going on expeditions was like launching into space — no SAT phones, no video dispatches, no blogs — just the mountains and your partners.”

Today, this is rare. Even if your team left the electronics at home, another team on the same glacier or mountain may still be tweeting about your activities, let alone their own.

So I get a kick out of getting news — “freshly” reported — of climbing accomplishments from a few weeks or months ago. It means the activity evaded the information stream or the network had gaps. The thought of that is somewhat liberating! News is news to the recipient, not because it was delivered through the immediacy of 24-hour news.

A language barrier was one factor delaying reporting in this case; in April, Anze Cokl led a Slovenian expedition to the Revelation Mountains in Alaska and climbed 11 new routes, which including first ascents.

The less traveled ranges, as in the Revs or perhaps Sikkim, can still be good for this. The Revelation Mountains are part of the Alaska Range — which, contrary to common belief, are much greater and longer than what resides in Denali National Park and Preserve. It’s southwest of Denali and Northwest or Anchorage for reference. Still, many expeditions or alpine teams launch from Talkeetna, and the additional cost to get there dissuades many climbers, except the truly resourceful and committed, from exploring there.

The Revs were pioneered by David Roberts in the 1960s and more recently by Clint Helander. The little information that is available is limited to a mere few pages in David Roberts’ narrative On the Ridge Between Life and Death and a few more pages in the American Alpine Journal, most of which are by Roberts and Helander. Anze Cokl paid a visit to consult Helander before his team’s expedition in April.

The news and rumors of the Slovenian ascents may have also been delayed because of their dominant language and that they were filming a documentary of their exploration, which was not immediately produced. Even those they met in Alaska apparantly treated what they heard about their ascents with little fanfare; they went to the mountains and climbed. That may have been news enough.

Thanks for dropping by again, as always. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Sources: 1) PlanetMountain.com; 2) Anze Cokl’s website; and 3) Clint Helander.

New Challenges in the Alaska Range

I woke extra early this morning unwillingly. It is, after all, Friday the 13th. My back spasms woke me and I went downstairs so I didn’t bother Edelweiss with any more tossing and turning. Sitting at my laptop (or rather not lying down) usually helps the pain go away.

That’s when I came across a delightful comment from Leland Anderson. This was his announcement: “Clint Helander et al have Crucified Golgotha.”

If it was true, it had to be verified somehow. It was at least believable.

The Easter Story talks of Jesus going to Golgotha — which means place of the skull — to be crucified before rising from the dead. Golgotha  (8,940 ft./2,725 m.) is  also what alpinist David Roberts named one of the most significant challenges in the Revelation Mountains in the Alaska Range, which all the peak names relate to the Bible. In Climbing magazine issue 299, Roberts wrote about his 1967 pioneering expedition to the sub-mountain range of the Alaska Range. There he confessed that he had been keeping the opportunity of Golgotha a secret ever since.

Roberts’ article became a challenge to Clint Helander, Scotty Vincik and Mark Westman. They applied for and won a Mugs Stump Grant Award to help them in their desire to attempt the unclimbed east face.

The claim was verified: According to Clint Helander’s Facebook post on April 12, 2012, he and his two partners attempted the east face but were turned back twice due to spindrift. The weather conditions were reported as being “horrible.” and were estimated to reach 70 miles per hour. The team did much simul-climbing over mixed terrain on an alternate route — not the east face in clear profile, unfortunately, rather “around the southeast face.” I am looking forward to hearing more details about this soon. Perhaps we might get it on Helander’s blog, Higher Dreams.

I share this mainly because I suspect that Golgotha may be a popular new calling for progressive alpinists climbing in Alaska. I think this may be the case in part because of the legend Roberts help create, the affirming information that seems to be coming from Helander and because the east face has yet to be climbed. That could be the second ascent. Could it happen this season? Hard to tell since it is my understanding that getting to the Revelations is especially difficult even by bush plane.

While the Gogotha first ascent is the most significant news to me, I also shared exciting news on the Facebook page news of John Frieh and Doug Shepherd made a new route up the unclimbed northeast face of Mount Dickey (9,545 ft./2,909 m.), also in the Alaska Range, along the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier. The line they climbed is a 5,000-foot route they named No Such Things as a Bargain Promise (VI A0 WI5R M6). Check out the route here at Alpinist.

The season in Alaska is certainly underway, and it’s only the middle of April.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook orTwitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ‘em!

Sources: 1) Clint Helander’s Facebook Page, post dated April 12, 2012; 2) 2) Roberts, David, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, Simon and Schuster, 2005; 3) Alpinist Newswire on Mugs Stump Award; and 4) Alpinist Newswire on Mount Dickey route.

Golgotha, Middle Peak and Wild Alaska

Earlier this week, I saw that the Mugs Stump Grant recipients for 2012 were announced. News like this is more than a headline; it’s a chance for us to live vicariously through some current, bold alpinists. Seven projects were awarded but the Alaskan expeditions drew my attention.

One recipient is a team focused on Golgotha in the Revelation Mountains.  Clint Helander, Scotty Vincik, and Mark Westman will tackle its east face. The other recipient is a team heading to the Saint Elias Range to climb the west face of Middle Peak. That team is composed of Dave Burdick, John Frieh and Zac West. Their objective doesn’t have as dramatic a name as Golgotha, but that really doesn’t matter either; it’s challenge more than makes up for its utilitarian name.

Mountaineering is an amazing sport (yes, it is a sport,) and as the long list of 2012 grant recipients shows, the scope is literally global. North America is my home and Alaska (and to some extent British Colombia and Alberta) are my favorite, mountain-wise. Living in an urban area where everyone craves the beaches of southern Florida, Alaska is plenty exotic. I love the history of the Alaska Range, the rugged, remote allure of the Revelations and the wilderness of the Saint Elias Range.

The Revelations were first visited by one of the Harvard Mountaineering Club veterans and writer, David Roberts. He and his team chose biblical end-of-times inspired names for the mountains they saw, such as The Angel and, of course, the unclimbed Golgotha. Roberts recently said in a recent issue of Climbing that he had been saving it on his personal tick list, and only recently did he feel comfortable telling everyone else about it. I wonder if this inspired this expedition? It made me contemplate grabbing my crampons and buying a plane ticket.

The Saint Elias Range was a blank on the Alaskan/Canadian map until National Geographic sent Bradford Washburn and a team of climbers to draw one up the old fashioned way — getting down on the ground, walking the glaciers and finding what lay between the peaks. Despite it being mapped — like everywhere else these days (sigh) — it’s the experience of the hike, the climb, the conditions our responses and our mental state that really create the explorer’s world today.

I wish the teams very good luck!

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Sources: 1) Alpinist Newswire; 2) Roberts, David, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, Simon and Schuster, 2005; 3) Roberts, David, The Last of His Kind, HarperCollins, 2009.