Participants: Artem Babaian and Jeff Taylor, July 21-22, 2016
For the last few weeks I’ve been constantly on the move and my brain flipping between tasks, often all at once. Modern life is a cacophony of stimulation; write the review / set up the analysis script / pick up milk / conference schedules / feed the kat / analysis pinged / fuck… I’m late for my meeting… Piercing the routine of graduate school I get an email from Jeff Taylor, “Let’s go climbing.”
Instantly, the volume on the rest of my life is turned down and my mind lasers in on Alpha. Ever since I read Julien’s epic about Alpha I was tantalized (VOCJ 56). I spend the next 72 hours scrambling to finish too much work, to justify to myself skipping Thursday/ Friday to go climbing instead.
As the date approaches I email Jeff, “I can’t make it, man. I have too much to do and I don’t know if I’m up to it. Maybe we climb the Chief instead?” My stomach is wrought with anxiety, I can’t even imagine how I can fit everything into the little time I have. I reflect on the situation to myself: there’s always work to do, there’s always some deadline that “can’t wait” or other excuse. But, I won’t be reminiscing in 5 years about that time I didn’t go climb Alpha so I say ‘fuck it’ and email Jeff again, “Nevermind, let’s do it!”
Stealing Thursday, we drive through morning Vancouver traffic over Lions Gate and into a crisp summer morning. Destination: Tantalus Park. I anticipate the next two days will be challenging and can’t bring myself to think about it, so I joke with Jeff, “Let’s just make it to the Hut at the Lake and we’ll see what we do from there.” I explain, “When I have to do something long and challenging, I don’t think about the complete picture. Instead, I focus on a smaller immediate task and just focus on getting that done and then re-evaluating.” Jeff laughs at my philosophy and we talk science the ride up to Squamish like we often do.
We park the car at the gate off Squamish Valley Road and start our adventure. To access the South end of Tantalus Provincial Park, one has to cross the Squamish River, there are a handful of ways (some not exactly legal) of doing it. Me and Jeff cross quickly on the VOC stand up paddle boards but at the cable towers we meet two really strange characters, Tom and Jerry, who are committed to accessing Tantalus park by illegally crossing on these cables. Tom, a tall fellow, tries first, he puts on his backpack, attaches himself with a climbing harness and two personal anchors to the top cable and tries to walk along the lower cable. About 15 m down the cable, before the first cone-pylon he realizes that his backpack was throwing him off balance and begins wobbling cartoonishly. He scurries back, slightly shook up from the ordeal.
Jerry tries a slightly different approach by taking off his backpack so that he can walk more balanced across the cable. He attaches himself with two personal anchors to the upper cable and wraps a short length of chain around the lower cable and attaches his backpack to this. He then clips into this lower chain as a tertiary-backup, which in case he fell he would be able to access both cables. Balanced atop the lower cable and using the upper cable as a handline, Jerry manages to cross quite efficiently. At each cone, the top carabiners could be clipped past the safety cones while leaving the other still attached. Crossing the ~150m took about 10 minutes. Tom, realizing this was a much easier method soon followed.
On the far side of the river we started making our way up to Lake Lovelywater. Rumours of bush whacking were quite exaggerated, the trail was in lovely shape and not all that steep. Steadily we progress and it feels great. Four hours fly by as we transition away from city life and find ourselves in a beautiful BC rain forest.
Before I knew it, Jeff and I find ourselves by the aptly named “Lake Lovelywater”, brimming with energy. We strip and dive into the glacier-cold water, my body instantly refreshed in the water. We have plenty of time left in the day so we bathe in the sun and eat on the dock.
The plan is to climb to the base of the East Ridge of Mt. Alpha in a day so that tomorrow we can get an early start and return before dark, so we head up. As the afternoon temperatures cool, the bugs came out in swarms. Combined with the steep and bushy trail, the next few hours were less fun. We fight our way forward to get to the ridge, Jeff is convinced he could outrun the mosquitos so he sets a firm pace. Two more hours and we slog up to the ridge. The bugs didn’t get the memo that they shouldn’t be this high but we’re too hungry to care. We drop our things and devour instant mashed potatoes with butter and gravy.
We each pick out a nice bush of heather to bivouac on and crawl into our bags and fall fast asleep…
I sleep through the alarm and wake up refreshed at 6 AM. Jeff and I faff for breakfast. The guidebook recommends 6-8 hours from here to get back to the hut so we don’t worry too much about it. Our plan is to make it back home to Vancouver tonight. We let our guard down slightly and will pay for this mistake later.
We set out at 7 AM and walk off the ridge and onto a glacier, which we rope up for. We can see open crevasses below us but we progress steadily up the snow slope. The snow is soft and it’s easy to kick steps. There’s something rhythmic about climbing a snowslope, you find a pattern and repeat those steps: kick, step, plunge, kick, step plunge… I lose sense of myself in the process and before I realize it the magnificent East Ridge of Alpha towers in front of us.
We are facing the North face of the ridge and it sweeps out of the glacier. Jeff is excited and I can see him smile, while I’m a bit more anxious. It wasn’t exactly clear where the line was to gain the ridge and the description is a bit more vague then I would like. There is a slight groove and adjacent gully which ultimately looks like the only reasonable way up. We cross the moat easily and scramble up.
We rope up and decide to pitch this section out. Jeff takes the first lead and takes a slightly indirect line which ends up putting him into an awful position. He climbs up onto a ledge and can’t find any protection on it. There is a snow patch on the ledge blocking the way and melting water across a thin crack/slab. I hear Jeff cursing above me and patiently wait as he leads this slab in his mountaineering boots. I follow up and swing the lead. The next pitch follows the groove up to a small spire. Touching the rock with my hands, I’m ecstatic. There are few things in life as pleasurable and tranquil as climbing. I’m filled with a deep sense of happiness to share this remote experience with Jeff and before I know it my pitch is over. The physical cruxes of the climb were now behind us, but we didn’t know that.
Jeff follows and we spend far too long trying to figure out where to go next. I thought the route went upwards and Jeff thought we could traverse to the ridge, or we were totally off route. Jeff goes out for the traverse and after half an hour and a lot of rope drag he returns, there’s no way to the left. He reluctantly goes upwards to where I suggested but 15 meters up he too runs into a dead end. I hear him start cursing again as I become more and more uncertain about our route choice and anxious that it’s getting late, it’s past noon. I try and reason with myself, the rest of the climb will take some time, if we aren’t on the ridge by 2 pm there’s no way we’ll make it down to the car before dark.
“Hey Jeff, maybe we should bail.” I yell up to him.
“What?! We’re almost there.” I hear him reply.
I can see that he doesn’t want to bail, but I start getting a bit more anxious too thinking about the time. He downclimbs the pitch. I’ve got the logistics of the bail rappelling figured out, “Go sling that spire and we can rap off of that to get back down. We can put some pins in for an anchor to cross the moat.”
“Just give me 10 more minutes, let me go out left again”, Jeff pleads.
I’m getting hungry and less optimistic but I reluctantly agree.
Jeff runs it out this time to avoid rope-drag while I eye the bail-spire. “Artem, I’m safe, take me off off-belay.” echoes from around the corner. I follow about 35 meters around the corner to a little ledge. I see Jeff grinning from ear to ear in front of a wide crack and the first sign of other people: a rat’s nest of rap-tat around a horn. “This is it!”, Jeff assures me.
“I don’t know, this doesn’t look all that much better, we should still bail man.” My mind set in its decision.
“Okay, okay. Let me just make it up this crack here and if it’s not good we’ll bail.” Jeff was using my own philosophy of small-steps against me, although I didn’t realize this at the time and agree. We take the ‘long-bail’ option, going over the summit and down how we planned.
Jeff man-handles the jugs and wide crack up 3 meters and I hear him excited above me. I follow and notice how good the rock feels here. It isn’t loose like the gulley before and feels solid.
We reach an even bigger ledge and in front of us is sweeping, rambley ridge disappearing into the mist. It looks third/fourth class over huge, solid granite blocks. I’m incredibly excited now to ramble over this terrain, it looks gorgeous. We stop for a quick lunch.
“I have a habit of bailing after the crux of a climb.” I reflect aloud.
“Sometimes you just have to stick though it. I felt a bit bad pushing forward but I felt we were so close.” Jeff responds.
Climbing is about partnership, having someone to complement your skills and to push each others comfort zones. I trust Jeff and wouldn’t want to share this adventure with anyone else. I smile and get my things ready for the summit push.
We scramble the remaining 175m to the summit, roping up for a few short sections. The views are dramatic around us as we follow the ridge upwards. In the movement, it feels never-ending. Every gendarme appears to be the summit from below and on top we are delighted to see even more ridge sprawl in front of us. It’s spectacular.
At 14:20 we find our way to the summit and momentary bliss.
We’re only half way there, we still have ~2300m and a river crossing ahead of us.
We drop down the scramblely West Ridge, towards the Serratus-Alpha col. We find cairns which lead us down a saddle and to a 30m rappel down a wet gully. We downclimb the rest of the way to the snow slope, and glissade down.
We lose altitude and steer towards the Russian Army camp to avoid bushy cliffs. As more of the day goes by we accelerate the pace. The hope is to avoid doing the steep parts of the trail to Lake Lovelywater in the dark.
By 19:10 we make it to the hut and rest briefly. We only have a couple hours of light left and a lot of trail to cover. We sit on the dock and the bliss associated with a long day outdoors begins to settle in, but I have to remind myself that we’re not out of the woods yet.
Jeff and I practically fly down the rest of the trail. Every minute we move now counts for double the time it would take us in the dark, so we make every minute count. Again, I fall into a rhythm and my thoughts dim to the step in front of me. I’m careful with my tired body, now is the time most likely one of us can get hurt so I must remain focused.
As the light fades away, so does my energy reserve. With the light gone I ask for a break and we lie down in the perfect, quiet dark.
There’s no reason to rush now, we pull out our headlamps and continue slowly the rest of the way, resting our aching bodies often.
At 23:30 we reach the cable towers and have one last crux to surmount. We set-up and cross in the river as before. It was scarier in the dark. By headlamp you are in a small light bubble on the river, everything seems swallowed in dark around you.
Tired, hurting and with huge smiles on our face we return to the car. This was definitely more memorable then another couple days at work.
Points of interest
- Approx. start of climb: 10N 480400 5515870
- ‘On-route’: 10N 480392 5515788
- Descent Gully: 10N 479946 5515750
- Rappel Boulder (possible with 60m rope + downclimbing): 10N 479910 5515633