Winter is gone and it’s spring in Alaska. The mountain landscape takes on a different look as each season passes. In February, when I had last driven down the Glenn highway to Valdez, a thick white blanket of snow, which smudged the contours of the landscape into soft curves and turned tall spruce spires into cottony columns of white, covered the land. Now in May, the snow had melted into strips across the slopes; every rim and edge, every color on the mountains shimmered in the sunlight. On that Friday, I arrived at the appointed gathering place at Thompson Pass during the lavender dusk which lasts the entire evening in the Alaskan spring. I set up my tent on a soft, lichen-covered patch of ground by a boulder before joining the other climbers around the wood fire.
Some guys were walking a slack-line, which is a tight, flat piece of webbing attached to two bolts anchored to opposite rocks. The goal is to balance and walk across the farthest before falling off. Most people didn’t get half-way before toppling. Four young women, engineers from the north slope, had gathered around the fire, and I struck up a conversation with them. One of them was the only metallurgist in Alaska, just three years out of college and only working half the year up in Prudhoe Bay, two weeks on, two weeks off. She spends the rest of her time traveling. There was a parachute rigger named Adam walking around with a long lens, taking shots. I knew a few other people from the ice climbing festival I attended in February, but most of the people were new to me. It was a relief to be out of the classroom, to be at a non-work-related event in which we could interact naturally and there was no one who was going to make us take part in team-building activities or artificial ice-breakers. It felt so good just to be there and breathe in the sense of the place, with white mountains at 360 degrees, and a small cluster of kindred spirits around the fire, and the lingering twilight with a crescent moon visible through the door of my tent, the scent of woodsmoke, soft laughter and the friendly sounds of people talking late into the night.
On Saturday morning, I woke early and rummaged around in my tent, trying to find a cozy position so I could ignore the light and try to sleep. At six, I could feel the warmth of the sun drying off the dew from my tent, so I decided to get out and walk around. The cool air had a pungent scent. I contemplated the alpine surroundings of granite peak and snowy crag, and noticed another woman further down the slope, bending down. She’s probably enjoying this spectacular view, I thought to myself. It’s incredible.
“Hey!” The women motioned to me to get my attention. “Do you mind? Uh, I’m just gonna pee right here, ok?” She proceeded to squat down, and I sheepishly turned away to seek inspiration elsewhere.
It took a couple of hours before the other climbers woke up, a few at a time, made coffee, breakfasted, soaked up the sunshine, and then ventured into slow conversations while laying on the soft ground between boulders. Restless, I packed up, talked with a few people, then drove my Jeep down to the road to wait for the caravan to start out for the first climbing area. I didn’t know where to go, and most of the logistical information was being passed by word of mouth. One of my friends, Billy J, drove out first and we talked about going to get coffee together, but I decided to stay and wait for the others while he went on into Valdez. In a few minutes, a couple of other vehicles appeared at the top of the track, and I followed them down the highway, winding back the way we had come yesterday, towards Worthington Glacier. The glacier, like many Alaskan glaciers, has been receding, and as the rock has become more and more exposed, local rock climbers have been developing the granite face with routes. We parked in a small lot off the side of the highway, gathered into a small group with all our gear and followed Nick along a snow-encrusted rocky stream which extended out from the blue-white tongue of the glacier and spread along grassy flats toward the highway.
The approach to the wall followed the snowy stream back into the mountains, and up around a curve to a high, exposed pale-gray granite face speckled with bolts. There were eight or nine routes, and Nick immediately started to lead-climb up one of the routes in order to get a top-rope set up for the others, securing his rope into the carabiners at each bolt as he climbed. A few other climbers started to do the same, and during the first hour, Nick trekked back to the parking lot a few times to try and catch any stragglers. Eventually Billy J arrived, carrying the cup of coffee he had bought for me. He was grinning. “Bet this is the best lukewarm coffee you’ve every tasted!” he laughed. “I can’t believe you brought it all the way up through the snow and the creek!” I exclaimed. “You’re fantastic. I should have called you. I just figured you wouldn’t have brought it.” He just kept smiling. I drank every drop.
As I watched the other climbers, the realization slowly dawned on me that the way to maximize the fun at a rock festival is to have a good climbing partner with you. I didn’t. So while the others traded off belaying and climbing, I had to try and find another loose wheel to match up with. I started to climb a little with Chris, who also didn’t have partner because he had hitchhiked to the festival after his car had broken down twenty miles from home (His ride says they only picked him up because he was carrying a climbing rope). He turned out to be a focused belay partner, but the first time I climbed with him, I was nervous, and didn’t make it all the way to the anchor at the top. I belayed for Chris, and then spent an hour or so watching the other climbers, until Nick gathered some people to join him on the other side of the rock for the competitive portion of the festival. On that side of the mountain, routes extended almost twice as high, and were much more difficult, 5.11s and 5.12s, with crimpy holds, slopey holds, roofs, bowls and dihedral sections. Nick, Dane, Alon, Dan, John, Neal and Dave were working up different sections or belaying, and the rest of us scattered over the sunny parts of the rock, laid back and watched the action. It wasn’t really clear how climbers garnered their points, except that you lost points if you weren’t able to send the route (finish the climb without taking up slack mid-way to rest).
The first major injury of the festival happened to a belayer, not a climber. A guy named Caleb had injured himself while stepping into a deep layer of snow by gouging his ankle near his Achilles tendon on a hidden rock. This had happened prior to my arrival on the scene, and after we took a second look at it with a medic, he was advised to go to the ER in town. His climbing partner looked seriously disappointed at the prospect of leaving the Republic of Boulder (as this section is officially named in the Alaska Rock Climbing Guide), so I offered to take Caleb in. While the doctor put 26 stitches into Caleb and saved his tendon, I took a nap in the Jeep, my head thumping from caffeine withdrawal and my stomach whining for something more substantial and balanced than Cliff bars.
That night at the Valdez visitor’s center the festival held a meet-and-greet with free drinks and snacks so people could gather and socialize. There weren’t as many people gathered together as there had been at the ice fest in February, and there was no disco ball, so naturally there was also no dancing. I was a little disappointed about that. Different crowd, different vibe. Some guys had designed a silk-screen image for the festival and were putting together shirts in the back at a table, so I went over and had one done. That night a lot of people went out and camped at Nick’s mom’s house, where there was a big lawn which had been made available for the festival participants. It’s a family gathering place, and I’m starting to collect some very special memories here. It’s where I met Travis and Stephen and Billy J, and so many people I like so much. Next year will be even better.
On Sunday morning, we all woke up to the sound of rain pattering softly on the walls of our tents, dove-gray skies overhead and a fine mist on the breeze. 4:30 came and I was wide awake. After spending two hours snuggling into my sleeping bag and trying to doze, I finally got up and wandered into the garage, where a couple of guys were moving grills and cooking things around. “Hey, you need help with anything?” I asked Dan. “Uh, sure. Here. You can chop these onions and quarter these brussels sprouts.” Somebody else diced yams and separated a garlic clove. Watching Dan cook up his scramble was the best part of the morning. A couple other people helped play prep cook, and then Dan worked his magic over a big black cast iron skillet. And added bacon. And eight eggs, which he had me scramble. Dan got out fresh spinach, put the sautéed onions, brussels sprouts, eggs and yams on top, then garnished with diced fresh tomatoes, fresh sweet peppers and avocado, and topped with rosemary and chipotle-infused coarse salt. Only the people who had gotten up early and come to help got to have some, and then it was gone and all that was left was some cold pancakes that nobody really wanted when they could still smell the remains of the legendary scramble wafting through the air. This loss, combined with the rain, was enough to knock down the mood of most of the late-risers, and talk of leaving started making the rounds. Only a core group of ten or eleven wanted to climb in the rain after the glorious conditions out at the Worthington glacier we had enjoyed the day before.
Nick hung up a sheet, set up a digital projector and a laptop, and showed a climbing video while we waited for the weather to make up its mind. Some people thought it would rain all day and the next, which would ruin the rest of the festival. After the film, about half the people left for Anchorage or other sunny places. The remainder of us drove out to the airport campground to a section of rock which Nick had been working on for several years. He had cleared away the wild vegetation, dirt and loose rock in order to make the rock ready for route-setting. The weather was drizzly and some parts of the rock were moist and slippery, but we set our gear under tarps and overhanging rock, and began climbing anyways. It wasn’t ideal, but it was what we came for; besides, it was good to be together as a climbing community, even in the rain.
To be continued…