“Glaciers, mountains, rivers, forests, tundra; a landscape rich with places that have never felt the tread of human feet. It thrills me not because I can break first ground, but because first ground remains unbroken.” ~ Kim Heacox
From June 22 to July 16, 2016, James Gustafson, Reese Doyle and I spent 25 days exploring the entirely new alpine climbing arena we call The Serendipity Spires in Southwest AK. This once-in-a-lifetime discovery trip of the “Bugaboos of Alaska” was made entirely possibly by the AAC’s Copp-Dash Inspire Award and the Mazamas Monty Smith Memorial Grant. But our relationship with these mountains is greater than any one trip. The history and meaning of this adventure runs much deeper than simply seeing a mountain on a map and going for it.
As rock climbers who reside in Alaska, we have made it our goal to utilize the thriving bush plane culture and continually search for quality stone on unnamed, unclimbed peaks, separate from areas with previous climbing history. Because of the sheer vastness of the Great State, the potential for classic new routes not only exists in established areas, but also within groups of peaks that still remain off the climbing world’s radar. This simple prospect excites us to no end.
Although our trip was the result of four years of searching, logistical nightmares and chossy misadventures, my first glimpse of the Salmon Shark and the Finite Spur was actually incidental. I snapped my first photo purely by instinct, like a moth to a flame, and from a great distance while flying to an entirely different destination. It wasn’t until months later that I took a closer look at my aerial photos and started the investigation. I had inadvertently taken pictures of these striking rock formations with my long lens but locating them was not as easy. I had to cross reference the photograph time stamps and approximate headings on the aviator’s compass with Google Earth images and inaccurate topo maps. After the coordinates were certain, I still had no idea what the rock would be like, how to walk in or where the nearest landing zone was. I would have to wait another year for the snow to melt and that perfect day to get in the plane once more. As a result, the greatest endeavor was simply figuring out how to approach and arrive at our base camp to begin mapping out the potential of these beautiful spires (not to mention the endless weather, flying, and food/gear packing logistics).
When the day of departure finally came and our bags were packed, a floatplane took us 100 miles from the nearest road and settled into the choppy waters of a blue-green lake. Our feet then took us five days through sixteen brutal miles of thick forests, rushing waters and sprawling tundra to a base camp beneath the collection of granite peaks. Flying, hiking and climbing in a world of eagles, bears and Dall sheep. Gold panning, camping and foraging in a place riddled with minerals, blueberries and mushrooms. Through tremendous effort, we discovered our own version of paradise where peaks remain nameless and even the USGS maps don’t speak the truth.
Much of the reason I go to the effort to do these exploratory trips is not just because I believe the best and most classic rock climbs in Alaska are yet to be found. It seems that most guidebook “classics” are either unattainable by mere mortals or dangerous choss piles. We do this in an effort to search the enormous wilderness so that we can contribute to the climbing community as a whole and open up quality areas that generations of climbers will continue to expand upon safely, free of objective hazard. And I can safely say that my mission has been accomplished. We hit the jackpot this year with the initial discovery of the three cirques and the summiting of one (out of four) of the Serendipity Spires, but we have major unfinished business before we unleash this newfound alpine arena to the world.
Read on for more of the story…
As luck would have it, Reese and I lost the rock paper scissors battle to James for the first beautiful pitch of the climb. But when it came time for the final summit pitch that would place the first person on top of the Salmon Shark, it was Reese’s turn and he took the rack with a big ole smile.
Predatory Waters (pictured above) was our first bit of climbing on day eight of the trip and it started out harmless enough. The weather looked threatening so our plan to walk up and find the start turned into roping up when the clouds began to lift. Then the sun came out and pitch by quality pitch, this ultra classic route revealed itself to be one of the most wild and exposed adventures I have ever known, topping out on the unclimbed coffee table summit of the Salmon Shark. The fine red line has been used to represent many classic climbs but what you don’t ever see is the real context of humans on rock, the hand jams and the high-step mantles. The deep breath and look around the corner to see if that crack system goes is something that is tough to convey through images.
“Maybe there’s just no truthful ‘big picture’ to be had when you’re still buzzing with the intensity of the details. Maybe the idea of looking at things from a bird’s-eye view and seeing it all isn’t the right way to think about this strange activity of ours. Perhaps it’s more about immersion, about losing oneself willfully in the surroundings and the act.” – Christoph Willumeit
And now for the story of the Finite Spur, the unfinished line that leads directly to the summit of a striking unnamed and unclimbed peak. With potential to be one of the greatest rock climbs in Alaska, it sports back to back 5.10 splitter pitches with an impeccable yet stout 5.11 second pitch that serves as a right of passage to the glorious movement above.
Our first attempt was delayed until day nineteen of the trip because seven days of consecutive rain followed our ascent of The Salmon Shark. Fog and wet conditions then continued to linger. Laden with bivy gear and multiple days worth of food and water, our first try didn’t get but four pitches off the ground due to the technical difficulties we encountered early on. And on day twenty two, with supplies dwindling and a four day walk-out still ahead of us, we made our final attempt as light as possible. The beautiful arête seemed to unfold magically, pitch-by-pitch as we encountered laser cut cracks one after another. It was a dream-come-true and a legendary climb in the making, but unfortunately cut short by time and supplies. As good as the climbing was, we had to think about our survival in this wild country. And as it turns out, we made it back to the lake for pick-up with almost no food and definitely no fishing poles. To this day, the second half of the climb along with it’s descent is still shrouded in mystery. All we can do is stare at the photographs and imagine what it will be like to be up there again.
The following images portray more of the experience from those attempts.
This goes to show that Voile straps really do fix EVERYTHING. Even though this wasn’t a snow trip, I threw them in the pack out of habit and am really glad I did. Our wall hammer snapped in half like a tooth pick in the ill-fated air drop box that landed in the boulders with our shoes, harnesses, nuts, slings, etc. We found that nylon bends upon impact but wood does not. Suddenly, all of the heavy pitons and bolts we carried for 5 brutal days were of no use anymore. James then came up with the brilliant fix idea of tent stakes, duct tape and Voile Straps. We were in business. Those pitons were ringing true in no time!
“This is country that you might confuse for a Romantic fantasy: a rendering of the sublime.” – Maya Prabhu
The lesson was simple. This was far more than just a climbing trip. This was a relationship with our environment. From the moody weather that alternately encouraged and confined our movement to the herds of Dall sheep that used our favorite bad weather hang-out spot as a back-scratching rock, this wild place dictated our every activity.
Our trusty Black Diamond Mega Light aka Mega Dude Sandwich served as base camp. This was our home and singular shelter for every night of the twenty-five day trip. During the five-day approach, we were usually posted up on a sandy beach by the river, but most of the time, we were on the only soft patch of tundra around. A “dry” camp was most enjoyable to all of us after a long winter spent camping on glaciers, walking around barefoot amongst the wildflowers and mushrooms. This is not to say that the camp was not a “wet” one. We definitely had whiskey and it definitely came in handy during the weeklong downpour. At over 5,000 feet, when storms move in, it can seem like you are living in the cotton ball version of Groundhog Day. Short breaks in the clouds like the one pictured above were often the highlights of our day and a great excuse to get out of the tent and drink more whiskey.
“A vision of such beauty was worth a world of striving.” – Eric Shipton
With tools like Google Earth and guidebooks for every climbing destination on the planet, it’s easy for the modern climber to think that pioneering in the old ways no longer exists. Maybe it’s because of our community’s obsession with numbers and stats. Maybe it’s because of climbing’s recent surge in popularity or that everyone thinks all the cherries must have already been picked by Fred Beckey. There’s no real way to put your finger on it.
Although most of today’s ascents seem to be about repeating someone else’s line in a faster time, different style or putting up a new line on a known mountain that is so hard and/or dangerous that it’ll never be repeated, the idea of climbing as a means of discovery is alive and well in Alaska. What we seek is genuine adventure in a landscape free of human history, where the actual climbing is a product of exploration, not an Internet search. The Serendipity Spires is a place and state of mind where the freedom to trace the original line up an untouched peak is still done with one’s own creativity. And this is just the beginning!
As a product and source of media, I feel like the greatest gift we can give to the community that has given us everything is to show people an untamed world that they never knew existed. Images have the power to spark the imagination. And the alpinist’s imagination is the most fundamental tool we possess.
Stay tuned for the full film with more pictures and more info on the rest of the unclimbed Serendipity Spires.