Grabbing Friendship By The Ankle

Embrace Tiger, return to mountain.

—Tai-chi lesson

Michael Kennedy is a resident of Aspen, Colorado, and the editor of Climbing magazine. By reputation he is a good climber, and I have learned that many good climbers are very intense, ready to burst at the seams. This sort of intensity is difficult for me to handle—I have a tendency to shy away—so when Mike and I met over a cup of coffee in 1976 at my brother's house in Eldorado Springs, I prepared myself for a tense, awkward situation. But my fears turned out to be unfounded.

Mike and 1 talked, among other things, about independent attempts we had each made on the East Face of the Moose's Tooth, a huge Alaskan wall as yet unclimbed. When I asked him the reason for his party's failure, a smile broke through Mike's beard. "At our high point we were hit by an avalanche of ice blocks. One of our anchors was ripped out, and one of our packs was smashed where it sat on a ledge. That was enough for us," he concluded. "Man, we were freaked! We got out of there—fasti"

I understood exactly. Mike was no arrogant, macho climber, but a man who admits being scared and can smile at his own fear. As we continued to talk, I got a strong feeling that the lanky fellow across the table from me would be a good partner in the high mountains.

!n 1977, when I found myself in need of an ice-climbing instructor for the International Alpine School, I thought of Mike. By the end of the course, at our rather boisterous graduation celebration at the Outlaw Bar in Ouray, I knew my first impression of him had been accurate. After accepting my thanks for a job well done, he bought me a Heineken Over the beer I asked if he would be interested in joining my cousin Ceorge and me in Alaska in June to try a couple of new routes on Mounts Hunter and Foraker. "Would I?" Mike responded "Is the Pope Catholic?"

We rendezvoused at the airport in Anchorage, George arriving from California and Mike and I from Colorado. The other two had never met. It was a blind date, a fact we were all acutely aware of. George and Mike were all good humor and politeness. "Ho, ho," George greeted us at the baggage claim, "Glad to see you guys made it. You must be Mike." They shook hands like two businessmen, I found myself nodding along in an inane, but encouraging, way. Yes (nod), that's

GMff» Law« III «id PWk» Mike, with the beard and the high-pitched laugh, and, yes (nod), that fellow with

KmiwIy m lb* TfhMgU Fact of the young face and hearty manner is my cousin George, the physicist-climber Mount Hunter whose top-secret government job matched his (at the time) inscrutable nature, I

{mtoJmitml wai the matchmaker, hoping that Ceorge's serious mien and Mike's low-key approach would complement each other rather than clash This can happen so easily on difficult climbs, destroying team harmony and much of the reason for climbing in the first place.

Two days later we were lying in George's tent at the base of the North Face of Mount Hunter, our first objective framed by the arched tent door The Northwest Spur of Hunter rises more than 7,000 feet from the Southeast Fork to the summit at 14,573 feet. If we were successful on Hunter, we also planned to try a new route on the 10,000-foot-high South Face of 17,400-foot Mount Foraker, across the Kahiltna Glacier from our base camp. But first we had to climb the spur that swept up in front of us. When we landed on the glacier, Mike had exclaimed, "That's a training climb?" Our alpine-style plans did seem a bit flimsy when compared with the obvious strength of the mountain's defenses. It didn't help to know that three good-sized expeditions had already failed on the same route.

But we had made our preparations, caching spare skis at the base of the West

Ridge, our descent route, and loading our packs with enough bivouac gear and food for five days. We planned to climb during the Alaskan night (in June never darker than a Colorado twilight) to avoid the sloppy snow conditions that were certain to exist during the day. The reggae sounds of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley and the Wallers helped Mike and me endure the wait.

At 10:30 P.M., as the two of us were engrossed in the rhythm and lyrics of 'The harder they come, the harder they fall ..." George punched the stop button on the tape player. The sun was off the face. Our wait was over. We donned our skis and roped up for the short approach to the base of the spur. The silence was almost as heavy as our packs as we skied up the nearly flat glacier, but none of us really wanted to talk anyway. It was enough just to be starting a big climb, the snow-covered peaks all around us, huge and impressive in the subdued light.

Ml» Kennedy and Gvorg* Law« III in the bivouac at tin top of the Triangle fate

(Photo: left Lowe)

We traded skis for crampons to cross an easy snow bridge over the bergschrund that put us at the base of the route. Mushy snow covered the ice to start, and we climbed simultaneously most of the way up the lower spur, A quick ftontpoint led around the end of a rock band that was threatened by a drooping serac, then hard-breathing effort took us up steep, unstable snow. The crest of the spur dropped away on both sides, curving up to taper into an ice bulge that barred the way, But the bluish-white ice looked good, A core of ice extruded as a screw went in. A carabiner clicked. Base camp, 1,500 feet below, already looked small and far away. The winged orange tent seemed like a tiny butterfly lost in a sea of snow and crevasses.

George's crampon points loomed above us as Mike and I belayed him up the steep ice bulge, Mike moved quickly up a corridor of snow between ice towers where the crest became broader. The white profile of the slope above us was sharply etched against a sky of opaque blue as the sun rose from its shallow dip below the horizon. It was 6:00 A.M. We rested and had a bite of cheese and zucchini bread, weighty food perhaps, but more sustaining than "freeze-dried" We had done more than one-third of the climb.

It was nice to sit on the packs, eating and gazing around at the ocean of peaks lapping at the sky. i looked over at Denali, which rose above a row of intervening mountains, and wondered if there were people over there at that very moment staring back, taking a break from the effort of climbing that massive hill. My reverie was soon brought to a halt. "We've made good time up to here," George cautioned, "but the real climbing is just beginning."

I followed the sweep of his hand up the 1,500-foot ice wall to the sharp summit and knew he was right. A pointed ice face we had dubbed the Triangle Face looked straightforward enough, but something we could not see from where we sat had us all a bit worried. From the apex a narrow, corniced ridge led horizontally back from the summit of our spur, connecting it with the main mass of the mountain. From the airplane on the way in, the ridge had resembled a ripsaw blade, its vertical teeth coated with marshmallow syrup. "Let's get started, then," Mike exhorted, reshouldering his pack.

On the face the climbing alternated between good snow and hard ice. The leader trailed both ropes, anchoring each one to two ice screws when it ran out. The others then climbed simultaneously, one belayed by the leader, the other belaying himself with a Gibb's Ascender. The angle varied from about 45° to perhaps 60s as we headed for the right-hand containing ridge, which looked as if it would offer easy going for the last few hundred feet to the top of the face. At belay stances we chortled at our good luck with the weather and joked about making the summit in a few hours.

Our "easy" ridge turned out to be a nightmare. George struggled up through mushrooms and cornices that had the consistency of porridge, but not the cohesion. The snow was rotting in the sun, drooping everywhere, threatening to fall into the space around us, perhaps taking us with it as well. George took hours on his lead, attempting to compact the snow so that it would hold his weight. It was like trying to swim up a 60° knife-edge of sand. Finally he yelled down that he had a belay. "But don't fall. I don't think it'll hold."

Several pitches and much time, sweat, and worry later, the three of us were ensconced on a small ledge we had shoveled out of the snow just under the very top of the face. Almost comically, our rope was draped around the nearest mushroom, like a lasso around a pile of Cream of Wheat. We were not very much cheered by the "security" this provided, but it was all that was available. We had climbed for nineteen hours to get to this place. Mist and light snow moved in, A horizontal ridge that led back from our bivouac site was only 300 feet long, and after that it looked like a stroll to the summit. But those 300 feet were the worst bit of climbing terrain any of us had ever seen. Up close, the drooping ripsaw edge

I had seen earlier from the air took on an even more comically ominous look. Bus-sized mushrooms perched astride the ridge on ridiculously narrow stalks,- marsh-mallow sharks' teeth ripped the air.

We brewed soup on our little ledge and tried to talk ourselves into believing the situation was not quite so glum as it appeared, but I had a terrible feeling in my stomach, as if at any moment the whole mountain would collapse. "It's impossible," I said, and believed it. There was no strong opposition to that viewpoint, but we agreed to rest where we were until early morning hours, to give the evening chill a chance to solidify the snow as much as possible. Then we would give it a go. We tried to sleep.

At one o'clock in the morning ! started out on the traverse of the ridge, (Somehow I had grabbed the lead. The suspense of waiting behind seemed less palatable than whatever difficulties the climbing could pose.) I used the shovel in place of my axe because a great deal of snow would have to be removed to get to something more substantial that would support body weight. Losing myself in the task, ! shoveled like a wild man trying to tunnel his way back to sanity.

The narrow, incredibly steep ridge was overhung on both sides with cornices, so the trick was to make a trail through them without causing them to fall. Things went well at first, and after a short while the rope back to Mike was stretched taut. Since there was no place for me to establish a belay, he began to follow. I started to enjoy the tunneling and crawling and balancing; thoughts of success crept into my mind as I approached the halfway point along the ridge. I was happy, too, in a way, as I started to carve on a particularly undercut and nasty haystack of snow.

With a sickening "WHOOMP" it suddenly felt as though the earth had begun to rush inward on itself—but the implosion was only in my head. The cornice had collapsed, and me with it. I did not feel too much fear (Will Mike and George hold me, or will they go, too?), but 1 did flail a lot in a futile attempt to stop tumbling. All in a flash, I felt my left crampon points snag the ice; my ankle made a snapping sound, and ! felt tendons rip. Then, just as suddenly, my fall stopped. 1 was dangling on the rope, sixty feet below the the ridge crest. George called to see if I was all right/'Yeah," 1 replied, "but I think my ankle's broken."

After a prolonged struggle to regain the ridge, during which the only assistance my partners could offer was a tight rope, I crawled back along the path I had so recently chiseled and greeted Mike at the place where he was straddling the ridge au cbeval. It was the only relatively solid and narrow enough place around— and he had landed there after being jerked off his feet by the force of my fall! The clouds descended around us, and it began to snow again. "Well," shrugged Mike, "I guess we get to go down now, huh?"

The descent of the ice face seemed interminable. First George would rappel down and set up an anchor, then it would be my turn to hop one-legged down to him. Finally Mike would slide down. The storm got heavier, and spindrift began to flow off the face in a continuous sheet. Strangely, our humor was good. We told jokes at the stances, George and Mike accused me of creating an excusc to get back to see a lady I had met in Talkeetna.

On the next-to-last rappel before we reached the flat area below the face, I was alone with George at the anchor. "You know," he remarked, "I'm glad Mike was along on this one. He's solid as hell." When Mike arrived and George slid off again, I had to chuckle to myself as Mike said, "Man, it's great to be with a guy like George in a situation like this. Hey, what're you laughing about? You finally flipped out on us or what?"

We bivouacked at the base of the face, then spent another day getting off the climb, but we finally reached our skis, which stuck out of the snow like outstretched arms. That same day a pilot from Talkeetna just happened to land on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna to drop off another party of climbers, so he transported me straight to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where I found out I had suffered a severe sprain and two bone chips.

Mike and Ceorge returned to Hunter and completed the route a few days later. Afterwards they went around to the south side of Foraker and made a ten-day first ascent of the Infinite Spur, which, in the ensuing years, has gained a legendary reputation as one of Alaska's greatest climbs, Their achievements were all the more satisfying because of the new bonds of friendship they had formed. Mike was later to write: "I felt completely comfortable climbing with George. There were no ego games between us, no competition—and the experiences had brought us very close." V

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