By Dustin Fric
Every year we spend early season running around with heavy packs; winter camping; trying to pluck off classic ice lines in thin conditions. Travis McAlpine and I have been putting life on hold for the month of November for six years, chasing this dream and hunting the unique. From replacing transmissions in the snow to quitting jobs, nothing is out of line when it comes to making November THE month that propels us into the winter.
Along the way we always go from making calculated decisions to throwing all caution to the wind, sometimes resulting in working at random establishments or getting dropped off in canyons with no planned ride out or time frame in mind. All of this in pursuit of thin, fresh, virgin, marginally protectable ice just ahead of the pack.
I ended up rolling my ankle and tearing some ligaments off on the second day of a fifty day trip. In a parking lot of all places. So far so good, things usually have to go so wrong that plans take a drastic change of direction a few times before November is over. It seems we are right on track. I think that long climbing trips help build our character by breaking us down to the point we let go. The whole point is: you’re spending time with the people you choose to, and want to learn more about and become more connected with. Two weeks laid up icing and elevating and we were right back on track.
Typically I find my partners and I share similar characteristics, as well as similar goals; all in it to push our-selves without taking it too far. Knowing and pushing past our limits, while being comfortable in the alpine. Your partners are what make climbing interesting and fun and also the reason soloing gets boring.
Travis McAlpine is the most fired-up future hard man you could ever meet, worthy of a story himself, and surely the topic of many stories yet to unfold. With the motivation of an Iron Horse, most spend their day just trying to keep up. Travis often pushes on with wet boots in a one-piece suit from the eighties, happy as a clam. He is our rope gun, with a handful of screws, an anorexic rock rack, 2 spectres, some KBs and a McAlpine we were bound to get into it.
Zach Clanton, an aspiring alpinist and professional photographer from the land of Honey Boo Boo and confederate flags would prove to be a crucial link in our team. Earlier this year, Zach threw caution to the wind to solidify his career as a photographer by moving to Alaska and living in his Honda Element all winter long. Super motivated at 25 years old, Zach put it all on the line to pursue his passion. This kind of motivation is a rare commodity in today's comfort driven world. Having just returned from an expedition in the Arctic to climb ice, Zach was fired up to go climb anything frozen.
We decided to head out to the Nabesna valley, rock star style, due to Travis’s work obligations. Leaving Girdwood at 9:00 PM we drove through the night only to arrive in camp and have more work ahead of us, pitching camp. Zack's “shoebox” or Honda home was the bottleneck in our operation. With two front seats and a custom bed, one person had to lay in the back for the drive. The bed would end up breaking before the trip was over. We ended up in Nabesna with a slim selection of amenities and by day two we moved into a lavatory. From cooking to hanging out the bathroom turned into our sanctuary overnight when the temps dipped to -17 Fahrenheit. By the end of our trip the voles were so full that we could pick them up to show them the door.
Its funny how during the period of breakdown denial sets in, then you let go and succumb to your situation and persevere. One comment Zack made stands out when I think of this “When we first came in here I didn’t want to touch anything, now we have gloves hanging on the toilet bar and it’s comfortable in here!” Climbing exemplifies the concept of learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I have to admit I have eaten in a bathroom before, but this was another level of dirt-bagging.
There are only two roads leading into the Wrangell- St. Elias, which is hard to believe considering the park is the size of Switzerland. The state is so vast that climbing is most accessible via bicycle, skis, packraft, snowmobile or plane. A logistical nightmare to some ends up being the spark that starts the fire for others.
Climbing in Nabesna is not much of a logistical nightmare, just far, far away from a hospital. It is a large open river valley engulfed by mountains, chock full of Moose, Caribou and Grizzlies. Early season climbing here is unique to say the least. With 165 different species of moss, the frozen turf approaches seem surreal. Early mornings start with a stroll through parting mist and fog, hopping from shaggy blob to blob like a scene from a Dr. Seuss book.
In our four days in the Valley we took a day to do recon and realized the classics must be classics for a reason. We warmed up on The Corridor; a long fun WI 3 with huge smiles, singing songs and soloing. Eight rappels led us back to the frozen turf word.
With that out of the way we focused on Spring Fling, a ridiculously nice thin ice streak that lasts for 1400’. Which climbed much better then it looked, and again it looked amazing. Skinny flows in a narrow slot couloir with an incredible view of the valley floor below. On the seventh pitch I yelled, “oh HELL ya!” in a red neck accent, right after Zach got pounded with spin drift. This left us laughing for a while.
Threads, chock stones and boulders frozen in the creek made the rappel pretty touchy especially in the dark as a three man team, but in the end it went great. We also ended up being more cautious about not running into any Bear or Moose on the walk out. A drive that lasted into the early morning led us back to Girdwood, Satisfied, but ready for more frozen water.