Middle Triple Peak (Kichatna Spires): A Climbing History


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New Zealand
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 13, 2016 - 01:00am PT
Middle Triple Peak: West Face.
Middle Triple Peak: West Face.
Credit: Charlie Porter

1st Ascent: Russ McLean and Charlie Porter (via the West Face) 1976.

Middle Triple Peak
Russell McLean

THE Middle Triple Peak, a piece of rock and ice, was unclimbed. It stands to the west of Mount McKinley within a rugged complex of glacier and granite known as the Cathedral Spires of the Kichatna Mountains. “The Spires are probably North America’s closest equivalent to the towers of Patagonia … heavy glaciation, remoteness, bad weather … vertical walls, pinnacles, and obelisks.” (Roberts and Millikan, A.A.J., 1967.)

“These ‘Triple Peaks’ were a set of beautifully symmetrical summits … smooth granite walls … crests of ice and snow … transplanted from Patagonia.” (DeMaria and Geiser, A.A.J., 1966.)

“We knew June was the wrong month but … Middle Triple, second highest of the Spires and a splendid prize interfered with our judgment. ... In twenty days we never set foot or piton on Middle Triple Peak. The snow conditions were consistently hideous, but probably typical for June.” (Roberts, A.A.J., 1971.)

Well, with a west face higher than El Capitan that is capped with 600 feet of ice and the promise of nifty Alaskan storms in an isolated area, what more could one ask for?

Charlie Porter had just finished his solo of the Cassin Ridge (an accomplishment in American mountaineering which deserves far more attention than this west wall.) when he called me in Salt Lake City demanding that I leave on the next available flight to Anchorage, or he’d kill me. Before I knew it the whole west coast of the U.S. had buzzed by and we threw my gear into the back of the jeep. The next 48 hours were passed going from store to store buying squeezy margarine, disks of pilot bread (highly recommended by a local female who no doubt had her eye on Porter) and Australian beer. Some time thereafter we were in “beautiful downtown Talkeetna” humping loads in a drizzle from the train station to the red hanger that would house us until the weather cleared over the Spires.

I was awfully quiet on the flight in. Pilot Sharp was talking of wing tanks siphoning out on glacier landings, checking compass bearings, altitude, thinking about his machine. Charlie was taking photos and questioning Sharp. Below us wandered endless carvings, olive green ribbons of water, as the plane dropped and rose.

The Spires appeared as phantom shadows in a gray cloud, a softaquatint blurring steely edges. Sharp had never been to the Spires before, and because of the cloud he had to use a topographic map to weave his way over ridges and around peaks; in the end we were on the Tatina Glacier. In thirty days, Sharp was to return. Then we couldn’t see the plane anymore and the snow was heavy and quiet.

The following day we started the move to the Monolith Glacier. As soon as the weather permitted, we fixed five pitches to the prominent second arch, taking two days. It started to storm as we reached the base of the wall.

Listen; the pat of snowflakes on the fly, the wind and the constant thoughts thrown about. A chess board is quickly scored on a paper pad and pieces made of adhesive and duct tape. After three days Charlie has won every game, but the storm has finally passed. The face is left with a beautiful talcum dusting of snow.

We had considered well the possibilities of hypothermia on the wall and designed our diet and equipment accordingly, leaving few problems unsatisfactorily resolved.

Again the stove is refilled to melt more snow for one more water bottle and the avalanches come down the face exposing our ropes. Breakfast of Champions is finished and maybe tomorrow we go up. Hauling loads to the base of the wall, up slush to the bergschrund, postholing, get out of step somehow, twist about, get back into that rhythm, so important, that rhythm; back to the tent, last load.

Mists close in, weather’s going cloudy, gotten colder, starting to snow, not serious, silent snow flowers; the world is a twenty-foot circle interrupted by the rhythm of paying out rope. Watch the haul line bounce as he checks a pin, pay out more rope as he clips in, and wait. A few pitches higher, still snowing, still a twenty-foot periphery. I’m asleep at the wheel, an angry tug from above, sorry to frustrate you, but I was dreaming.

Tension off of nested arrows; push the snow off, tap-dancing is damned difficult in these double boots. Bong crack filled with ice, chop it out in small pieces. Water running down the face, ice in the cracks, leap-frog bongs, getting dusky, maybe sleep after this pitch.

Struggle for an hour to get into the hammock, sleeping bag’s a hassle, everything’s tied in, don’t lose those boots; eat, tiger’s milk bar, and a can of tuna. It’s not really cold, just damp, pull down the fly to welcomed darkness, sleep.

Bladder’s going to burst, gotta get up, look it’s clearing, but sleep some more is the reply, start this afternoon, you bet, you bet. Another tiger’s milk bar, a piece of cheese.… Hey, I’ll trade you a half a Thuringer for all your chocolate-chip breakfast bars!

A big chunk falls off from somewhere far above, hits once and bursts into spinning, twisting, floating ballerinas, Walt Disney Fantasia,

Fire Bird Suite, Swan Lake. Clouds play in and out changing the light, too good to close my eyes.

I can hear Charlie stirring above. Up in the sky a warm tangerine- ball shines on honey-colored rock like Tuolumne. The dihedral gobbles up nuts, starts to lean and crosses a water course. Boots slip, can’t stand high, the crack deepens, bongs in the back just tipped in sideways; drip, drip, clouds in again out again. Loose flakes, only a few nuts left, all too small, hands look like wrinkled white gloves.

We’d been in cloud dressed in parkas and cagoules when the sun came blazing out; the sudden increase in temperature was oppressive. Charlie had just cleaned the pitch and was at the belay. He’d taken off his helmet and was pulling the cag off, arms struggling in the air. . . . A piece of ice had caught him off guard; it hit him hard on the side of the head, shoulder and hand. “Well it may be broken, it’s only a finger, but it may be broken.” “Listen, do you want me to lead this pitch?” “No, I’d better find out now if I can use it.” It must have been painful, but I could only guess.

Until now the rock had been quite firm, but now it changed to flaky and soft; this coupled with the verglas at night made for some varied climbing, but no matter, we were on the mountain and the weather was holding.

The pattern was now familiar and two more bivouacs brought us to the summit icecap. A cold white medium stood above us as Charlie stepped out of aid slings into crampons. Opaque and fast, the clouds came once again to envelop us in their folds. But the ice was superb and offered more freedom than we’d had in days. Yes, full run-outs up a 70° fluted surface. We swung out into the wind and cloud, a bit of orange and blue, as we approached an alabaster summit.

We had five bivouacs during our ten days on the wall. We rappelled the route in a fantasy-like white-out, reaching the bergschrund on the first of July.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Kichatna Mountains, Southwestern Alaska Range.

First Ascent: Middle Triple Peak, 8835 feet, via the west face, June 21 to July 1, 1976 (Russell McLean; Charles Porter).

American Alpine Journal 1977

Trad climber
Aug 13, 2016 - 01:30am PT
Nice post. Thanks.

Trad climber
No. Tahoe
Aug 13, 2016 - 03:57pm PT
Love your posts, Avery.

New Zealand
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 14, 2016 - 02:12am PT
Middle Triple Peak: West Face


Credit: Ed Cooper
Credit: Ed Cooper

Special Thanks to Ed Cooper

Social climber
Aug 15, 2016 - 09:25pm PT
hey there, say, Avery... wow, love this stuff...

can't always get to finish reading it all...
but i love it!

great pics along with info...

i always try to come back, then!

thanks again, you are appreciated!

New Zealand
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 17, 2016 - 02:04am PT
Second Ascent: Dave Black, Andy Embick, Mike Graber and Alan Long (via North Ridge)

A Trip to the Kichatnas

Alan K. Long

IN the decade since Al DeMaria’s pioneering visit to Alaska’s Cathedral Spires, the range has gained a reputation for towering granite peaks, claustrophobic glaciers, and abominable weather. Until 975, the relatively small number of people who diverted their pilots from the Talkeetna-Kahiltna milk run had concentrated on mountaineering routes in the Spires, choosing the easiest lines up the peaks and even then often having epic struggles with the weather. New developments in equipment, notably in synthetic substitutes for down gear, have opened the way for more ambitious ascents. Last year a significant breakthrough was made in the Kichatnas when two 8000-foot peaks were ascended by difficult big-wall routes.

Amazingly enough, Mike Graber and Dave Black wanted to return to the Spires without even allowing a couple of years to dull the memories of their narrow escape from Sasquatch (South Lriple Peak). Having found the rainy southern Logans relatively tame, Andy Embick and I looked forward to sticking our necks out a little, and the Kichatnas seemed like the logical choice. We were all motivated by a desire to test ourselves in extreme alpine situations. Mike and Dave had a more specific objective in Middle Triple Peak, the second highest (and highest unclimbed) peak in the range. They’d spent a long time the previous year looking for lines on the gigantic west face above the Monolith Glacier and were more attracted by the beautiful east buttress, a classic knife-edge which jumps enticingly from the aerial photos. Our plan was to land on the Shadows Glacier, hike over the Credibility Gap (Pass A on Dave Roberts’ map, Summit, June, 968) onto the Sunshine Glacier, and climb Middle Triple from the east.

The first part of the plan worked fine. Suddenly surrounded by vertical rock walls broken only by steep couloirs and hanging glaciers, we shouldered heavy loads and hiked up the Shadows Glacier on the afternoon of our fly-in. Near the head of the glacier we realized that no amount of prior planning would get us up to the col that day—just looking at a potential route up the icefall seemed to trigger an avalanche down it. Turning around, we decided to kill a couple of days with a climb and settled on “The Citadel” (P 8520). The mountain had been climbed previously, but a single crack up the center of the imposing east buttress promised the type of climbing we sought.

“You know, Al, you really do look like Little Orphan Annie in that hard hat.” Help! I’m balancing precariously on Quincy Quarries holds in mountain boots and my belayer is dreaming about comic strips. I get in a pin, tension left to the corner, and sink my hand into a perfect bong crack. One-swing nailing, incredible exposure, alternating shouts of “Lean out a little farther, Gaston” and “Hurry up, Al, you’re wasting time.” Having spent two days gaining only 350 feet, we were understandably anxious about our progress. We’d jümared quickly on the third morning and Andy and I were avoiding a huge, flaky overhang that pushed us out of our original crack system. Early in the evening Andy’s twenty-foot fall gave us an excuse to get rid of the lead, and we spent the night hanging in slings, backs screaming and fingers aching, as Dave swam up an A3 corner and Mike traversed a crumbly headwall. This is the beauty of a four-man party: your involvement with the actual climbing decreases and the often-welcome distraction of pitons and pitches disappears for hours at a time, but a feeling of security emerges and endures through even the most trying situations.

Another day, back in the lead, four pitches of rotten rock behind us now, finally ledges and a bivouac. Hot food, rest for tormented back muscles, light rain in the morning, a flutter of cagoules and bivvy sacs, then sleep again. Swirling mist, a 600-foot snow-and-ice couloir, another band of rotten rock, and eventually the biting wind of the summit ridge. As Mike sings to himself in the cold, I slide out of a crack twice before aiding it, Andy jams his Jümars on a rounded bulge and has to be rescued, and Dave falls out of his étriers and lands on his head on a ledge. At last, a delicate knife-edge of snow and the summit block. Dark, cold, glimpses of other peaks, other glaciers, then the descent. Where do we go? We peer off the edge towards the Shelf Glacier. “It took us 33 pitches to get up here. That couloir can’t be as short as it looks. Must be a thousand-foot rock step in it.” Eight rappels to the glacier, two bergschrunds, and a brief snowstorm—we collapse on a ledge. Two more rappels, bare ice, then a sitting glissade—we collapse on a snow slope. I stagger off and fall chest deep into a crevasse. “Hey, I think I could use a little help here.” Trudging up the glacier, balls of snow in the Supergators, feet falling into steps that eyes can’t focus on. Finally the tent and the sleeping bags after 75 hours of climbing with only nine hours of rest.

The pressure was off. We had a big climb under our belts and could afford to luxuriate in the tent. A five-day rain-and-snow storm gave us no reason to do otherwise. We slowly regained strength, devouring Andy’s well-planned food supplies and rolling with laughter at Mike’s imitations of a certain climber and pilot. When the weather cleared, we moved up to the Credibility Gap between Gurney Peak and Kichatna Spire, then humped huge loads down onto the Sunshine where we made a windy camp between two rock piles on the west fork of the glacier. The toe of the east buttress of Middle Triple towered above us. A two- day wall guarded a horizontal quarter-mile of steep ridge, and the obvious enormity of the climb precipitated a morning of heated discussion. Dave, always bubbling with enthusiasm and optimism and reluctant to make concessions to objective dangers, was all for setting out on the route immediately. Andy, with a budding medical career reinforcing a strong instinct for self-preservation, favored the previously-attempted north ridge. Mike and I struggled with our indecision, wanting to do the climb we had looked forward to for so long but not wanting to throw away a chance at the summit by tackling something too big.

Sanity and Andy’s forceful personality eventually prevailed. The advantage of the north ridge was that we could approach up a hanging glacier and snow couloir to within about 500 vertical feet of the summit. At the top of the couloir a broad, blank face (the “Illusory Ridge”) disappeared into the fog. The only hope of success seemed to be an incipient crack leading to steep mixed climbing below a totally smooth headwall. I caught glimpses of Dave nailing the crack, then jümared up and got lost in the mist trying to find a belay anchor. Dave disappeared down the rope nursing a badly smashed thumb, leaving me to clean a pendulum on rappel. Mike and Andy had constructed a tight bivvy hole—Dave shivered in a puddle all night and I dozed with Andy’s feet in my face. Mike and Andy did seven pitches the next day, each lead featuring ice climbing and aid. Dave and I went light, leaving our axes and crampons at the bivvy site, and were relegated to the hauling team. A brief clearing during the night revealed an enormous black cloud bank moving in from the southeast, setting the stage for a classic race against time. We jettisoned all the bivouac gear at 3:30 A.M. and set off up the corniced ridge crest toward the summit. There were no anchors for the first 300 feet, so we all just tagged along as Mike led up a steep tower and across an ice slope to the base of a rock step. Finally a pitch for the boot boys! Loose rock, hard wet free climbing, and a terrifying move past a suspended block put us on the edge of the summit snowfield.

Andy, Mike, then Dave disappeared above me into the mist. We waited in frozen animation as Andy kicked toward the wispy intersection of cornice and fog, the snow an endless tilted ocean sweeping away below and above. No axe for balance, no horizon for reference, sleep closing the eyes and tipping the slope, outlines of bodies emerging in the increasing light of morning, far-away voices exchanging belay signals, and finally, louder, “I’m on top.” Motion again, muscles and senses thawing, and muted greetings on the summit. Very quiet, no wind, no visibility, and suddenly a snatch of song. “Did you hear it? A bird, up here!” A perfect expression of the loneliness of the moment, a spell cast, a memory to cherish forever. We awoke from our mystical refiec-tions as the snow started and forced us to descend. As if to punish us for our recent communion, the storm lashed us furiously, suspending our motion in an entirely different fashion. Hail slashed at our cagoules, knifing its way into every opening as we hung at the top of the smooth headwall. Andy huddled at the base of the wall, 60 feet below, catching an inch of hail every fifteen seconds on his outstretched hand. We ducked into our hoods, shivering and soaked, begging for respite. A brief lull, then another attack. The precipitation finally tapered off to wet snow. We rappelled on near-vertical slush, slithering desperately to reach Andy’s anchors, then avalanched ourselves down a couloir of mashed potatoes and staggered onto the upper glacier. Feet cold and wet for three days now smashed into boot toes as we front-pointed down the interminable ice slope to camp, dreading the horror of a night in clammy Polarguard. We were fast asleep in minutes.

The rest of the trip was a waiting game. Dave interrupted the pattern briefly with a midnight solo of “Buff Spire” (P 6885), north of our Sunshine Camp. We all felt too lethargic to go along. Waiting after a climb is easy—you don’t want to do anything anyway. Waiting for weather is tougher—the mounting frustration is only slightly mitigated by the inevitability of the situation. Waiting to fly out is the worst—• all sorts of base motives are attributed to the pilot and imprecations fill the air. Our curses turned to cheers when Hudson ignored storms over Talkeetna and flew into our sunny glacier, plucking us out to the other world after a month in the mountains. The Talkeetna grapevine was not too kind to us—Charlie Porter and Russ McLean had evidently climbed Middle Triple earlier in the summer. We had our own memories, though, of a couple of climbs we had done and of the hundreds we could go back for.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cathedral Spires, Kichatna Mountains, Alaska.

Ascents: P 8520 (“The Citadel”), second ascent, first ascent of east buttress; summit reached June 28, 976; NCCS VI, F9, A3 (all personnel).

Middle Triple Peak, 8835 feet, second ascent, first ascent of north ridge (“Illusory Ridge”); summit reached July 0, 976, NCCS V, F8, A3 (all personnel).

P 6885 (“Buff Spire”), first ascent via south face, July 4, 976, NCCS II, F8, A (Black).

Personnel: David Black, Andrew Embick, Michael Graber, Alan Long.

American Alpine Journal 1977

New Zealand
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 27, 2016 - 07:00pm PT
Middle Triple Peak: 1st Ascent East Buttress. Andy Embick, Mike Graber, Al Long and George Schunk. 1977.

A Return to the Kichatnas

Andrew Embick

“I want to do a climb that takes the ultimate—and still succeed.”

—Royal Robbins in Mountain 18.

AFTER last summer’s climbs in the Kichatnas (see American Alpine Journal, 1977 and Climbing Jan..Feb. 1977) Mike Graber went back to the eastern Sierras, Dave Black and I returned to medical school, and A1 Long rejoined his computer. What remained in Alaska and in our minds was a flying buttress of nearly perfect Gothic proportions. A cleanly sculpted pillar of granite rose from an icefall of the Sunshine Glacier at the 5500-foot contour and sharpened to a gendarme-studded ridge leaning against the central rib of the grey mass of the east face of Middle Lriple Peak. An icefield lifted the 8835-foot summit head and shoulders above the flanking bulks of North and South Triple Peaks.

The vision of the unclimbed route was compelling and the decision to return almost automatic. Finding a fourth to take Dave Black’s place was hard; we looked for someone balancing amiability and competence, fanaticism and equanimity, boldness and care. Those qualities are hard to combine but George Schunk had them all and was properly unconcerned about escalating in one step from an easy Grade V in Yosemite to an Alaskan VI.

Logistics were easy; we’d been there before and calculated the rations which would keep us going during a climb and permit rest-day orgies of almost cordon-bleu character. Graber’s recollection of a possible pass between the Tatina and Sunshine Glaciers convinced us to airdrop a Base Camp to a team who’d been given a day’s head start to ski from a landing on the Tatina. Scrutiny of blown-up photographs had revealed a possible crack line up the pillar but no ledges. A descent route might exist off the side of the ridge to the hanging glacier to its north.

Our plans worked. We did not have to wait for weather in Talkeetna, and the pass was skiable in its entirety. Though Doug Geeting’s bombing runs were made at 700 feet and 70 miles per hour in the tight cirque, only a few bags of rice were broken in the airdrop. There was a crack line to follow after Mike imaginatively linked skyhook and rurp moves to pass a thinly-split overhang 40 feet above our start at the toe of the pillar. We spent the second day in brilliant sunshine, encircled by great grey rock walls and hanging ice which at intervals rumbled earthwards. We were touching the warm, nubbly skin of the grandest mass of rock I’d ever known, immersed in air and half dancing, half flying upwards, shirtless on belays. Wearing EB’s I entered a nearly vertical dihedral and emerged 160 feet higher breathing deeply the essence of rock climbing.

On the third day we jümared ropes already disturbingly abraded, simultaneously losing touch with the ground and watching a storm begin. The sky turned grey and snow began to fall. A1 and Mike swung leads for 28 hours on slush-covered rock as George and I shivered and withdrew into ourselves, hanging in slings between welcome bursts of effort jümaring and hauling. The axes we were saving for the summit snowfield came unhooked in the night and were gone. When George and I took over, it was to add two more pitches. The last, led by George, was a huge roof I struggled to clean, which extended the nonstop push to 34 hours and a bivouac at the top of the pillar.

The fifth day was alpine: gusty winds and fog, glimpses of distant glinting sunlit peaks, rock and snow and ice-filled cracks, and unlikely à cheval moves on a knife-edge. George found another semi-sheltered patch of snow to excavate for a bivouac and we continued, fixing two pitches to the base of the final rib. I was shattered by the first lead, the hardest of my life. With voice contact almost nil in the howling wind, unable to anchor and with rope-drag I knew would not permit the climbing I had to do, I was lowered to a ramp below the ridge crest. I pulled in 50 feet of rope and began nerve-wrackingly hard hand-jams and knee-locks in an ice-filled crack. Numb toes tried to feel through boots and supergaitors for nubbins from which I’d chipped the verglas. I used my teeth to hold gloves as I left behind protection I’d been afraid to pull on. The two pitons I’d saved fitted the crack that I reached as the rope ran out.

The bivouac gave us views of nothing. Fog obscured nearby peaks and rime collected even under overhangs. Snowflakes blew upwards and in the morning we looked like dead, spindrift-covered bodies in the winter trenches of a nameless war.

Leaving behind our bivouac gear, we set off for the summit, guided more by recollection of route photographs than by what we could see. We usually aided anything harder than F7 though George showed his usual disregard for conditions and when A1 was leading, the rope went out as if he was climbing a ladder. Stark, chilling, and awesome, the rime-encrusted final rib reared up to the vertical, split cleanly by a seven-inch crack we luckily were able to avoid. Our world had no clearly defined limits. We were intermittently enveloped in cloud and the wind came from every direction. Withdrawing inside a parka hood and feeling the warmth of breath on my face instead of stinging pellets or freezing vapor was happiness, comfort, and security. Jümar teeth and everything else became coated with ice. It was dismal.

Success and security are conflicting goals on any climb and uncertainty about their relative priority is at the core of the mountaineering experience. Such uncertainty intensifies on a big wall in Alaska. As I huddled, though, the fears both real and imagined which had plagued me for months began to evaporate. The weather was the worst any of us had seen in the Spires, but we were continuing the climb and it wasn’t going to kill us. That realization came to me and freed my limbs, warmed my body, and opened my mind to the beauty around us. It ended the conflict I’d been feeling between self-preservation and teamwork. We spent little time on the summit and saw as little as we’d seen last time: nothing. But it was good.

Only the descent remained. If we could keep our concentration in the face of fatigue and avoid mistakes we’d get down. Strung with a mass of expendable hardware, I led rappels past mushrooms of rime, dangling and happily bashing in anchors and dropping from stance to stance. We spent another night at the bivouac we’d left almost 40 hours before and on the eighth day continued rappelling, using our only uncut rope, a single-strand, squashed-flat 9mm.

Then we were down. No climax is unending though ours had been long. In sunshine, resting later, the intensity of the climb faded and memories became more selective. I had the recurring thought that in good weather, wearing EB’s, the whole route, all 28 pitches, would go free. An Alaskan peer of Yosemite’s Salathé Wall? Perhaps.

Credit: Andrew Embick
Credit: Alan Long
Credit: Michael Graber
Credit: Andrew Embick
Credit: Andrew Embick
Credit: Michael Graber

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cathedral Spires, Kichatna Mountains, Alaska.

Ascents: Middle Triple Peak, 8835 feet, third ascent, first ascent of east buttress; June 2 to June 9, 1977 (whole party).

Personnel: Andrew Embick, Michael Graber, Alan Long, George Schunk.

American Alpine Journal 1978

smith curry

Aug 28, 2016 - 05:40pm PT
Bump for more on this!

New Zealand
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 29, 2016 - 03:46pm PT
Middle Triple Peak, West face: "Ride the Lightening". Kitty Calhoun, Steve Gerberding, Dan Osman and Jay Smith. 1997.

Wet and Wild in Kichatnas

Four thousand feet of rainy big wall on Middle Triple Peak by Kitty Calhoun

Kitty, something is bothering me,” Jay Smith said with apprehension.


“I’ve gotta go back and do that route on Middle Triple that Steve Gerberding and I tried a couple of years ago. Other climbers have been asking me about it lately. I keep telling them that the rock is choss, but they know I’m lying.”

Jay clearly was uptight. He pulled some slides out of his pocket and held them up to the light.

“See that pillar? Charlie Porter did a route on it back in 1976 and that’s the only time anyone has ever touched this face. Our route follows the discontinuous cracks straight up to the right of the pillar—4,000 feet of solid granite.”

“Yeah…" I interrupted. “But ya’ll nearly died trying that route before, right?”

“Well,” said Jay, pulling out stacks of slide pages from the drawer. “We were climbing alpine-style and it started to rain hard. We were six pitches up and had fixed our only two ropes above. Somehow the rain worked its way into our portaledge and got us wet as dogs. Our down sleeping bags were drenched and scraps of food and pieces of clothing floated on the floor of our ledge in a puddle.

“That night, the rain stopped and the temperature plummeted. Everything, including our two ropes fixed above, became frozen in place in a thick sheet of ice. We were shivering violently but couldn’t rap down until the sun came out and melted the ice off our ropes. When that finally happened, large sheets of ice came crashing down the face above.”

I watched Jay re-enacting the scene, then took another look at the slides. “I’ll have to think about this,” I said. “I can’t say I’m too psyched about the idea at the moment.”

“Yeah, but we’d do it differently this time. I’d fix the bottom part of the route and always keep two free ropes with us. If we climb as two teams of two and trade leading and hauling, it may go faster. This time, I’d bring a synthetic bag.”

“What’s the climbing like?”

“Mostly hard aid. Pretty sustained too,” he said. He didn’t seem to notice that I was becoming quite sullen.

I did not have much aid-climbing experience, and I was not excited about climbing in the rain. I remembered my first aid climb in Yosemite in 1987.1 sat up all night before the climb memorizing the information in Royal Robbins’ Advanced Rock Climbing. I got stuck in lots of predicaments, but with a little creativity, I managed to get up the wall. What the hell, I thought—I’ll try it and see if I like it. If I did, I knew of many other rainy big walls waiting to be climbed.

On June 27, we flew onto the Kichatna Glacier under a clear blue sky that would last for the next nine days. After moving camp over a pass and down the next valley, we settled into a routine: an hour wandering through the icefall with gear-laden packs to the base of the wall, jumaring fixed ropes, four to seven hours per 200-foot lead, then rap down and stumble back to camp. This, on average, took 19 hours round-trip, and the next day was a rest day while a fresh crew went to work.
Credit: Jay Smith
On day 11, the storm arrived. First the clouds lowered, engulfing us in a white-out. Then a steady rain settled in. We had all been happy when we were climbing, but now each of us faced a long, personal battle with boredom.

Steve lay in his tent and told stories the whole time he was awake. He reminded me of the old people in the South, continuing the mostly forgotten tradition of storytelling. Like an old man on his rocking chair on the front porch, Steve would settle in with a cup of coffee and the tales would begin. One story ran into the other, and each was told with unending humor and enthusiasm.

Dan is a master craftsman. Every item still in his tent needed to be repaired or modified. When heavy-metal music was not blaring through his loudspeakers, I could hear him hammering, filing, or rustling through his possessions in search of another project.

Jay was the weatherman. His barometer provided little encouragement, so every hour on the hour, he would surf the radio stations, futilely searching for a long-range weather report.

I finished the books I brought and started to brood on the fact that I had only led one pitch so far. With four people sharing leads, nobody gets enough. I was proud of my pitch—modern A3 with lots of beaks and hooks. Still, I had a suspicion that I would not get any more hard pitches. It had taken me seven hours just to lead 200 feet.

“You want this pitch?” Jay had asked as I bumbled over the lip of a roof and tried to untangle myself from a web of slings and hardware.

“You think I can do it? What if I take too long? Is everybody gonna hate me?”

“You’ll do just fine.”

Easy for him to say, I thought, as I proceeded to rack up. What if these little beaks didn’t hold and I took a 200-foot whipper? I started up the only seam in an ocean of flawless granite. One beak after another went in; I was starting to relax and enjoy the routine. Then the seam disappeared.

“What do I do now?” I yelled down to Jay, who was fading into dreamland.

“I guess you’ll have to use hooks to get over to that little crack on your right.”

I placed my first hook. I was scared.

“Do you think it will hold me?” I yelled down nervously.

“There’s only one way to find out!” he yelled back, oblivious to the desperation in my voice, my sewing-machine legs, my racing heart.

“Oh God please, please, please…."

I gently transferred my weight. The hook held.

Several more hook placements in a row brought me to the crack and the security of more beaks, followed by tied-off and stacked pitons. One hundred sixty-five feet into it I reached some solid placements.

“How about I put the belay here?” I yelled down.

“Is there a fixed anchor there?”


“You need to keep going until you get to our old belay,” Jay yelled back.

Two hundred feet out. No old belay anchors. No solid placements, either.

“Now what, Jay?” I yelled, mentally drained after the longest lead of my life.

“Our old anchors should be there.”

“Well, they aren’t, so I guess I’ll have to down-aid to where I can get an anchor in,” I yelled, exasperated.
Credit: Jay Smith
On day 23, despite high clouds and a falling barometer, the rain ceased. While it wasn’t exactly promising weather, we had only 16 days left until the plane was due to pick us up. Since the snowline usually recedes too far up the glacier for a plane to land in early August, we had agreed to meet the pilot at a makeshift site on the Kichatna River—which meant ferrying our loads of tents, portaledges, food, fuel, ropes, big-wall racks, clothes and sleeping bags over 30 miles of unknown terrain to the designated landing site. We figured it would take us at least seven days to do it. That left only nine days to complete the route. If it took only one day to get our haulbags to the end of the ropes 2,000 feet up the route, three days to finish, and one day to descend, we would have four days to spare.

Let’s go!” Jay yelled, as he guzzled down a last cup of coffee. It was 7:30 a.m. by the time we left camp. Jay and I were to jug 1,600 feet and lead two more pitches while Steve and Dan hauled the six haulbags. Every inch that I now jumared up had been gained by countless hours of work. Pitch two had been my lead. Pitch three was a great roof that Dan led. He had done a good deal of back-cleaning on lead and Steve had not enjoyed cleaning the pitch. Pitch six was the crux, and it had taken Jay nine hours to aid up expanding flakes. Steve and Dan had led pitches seven and eight, which were reportedly easier. By the time we got up the fixed lines and got the rack sorted, it was early afternoon and had started to drizzle again. Jay started out up a dihedral/ledge system that in 400 feet was supposed to take us to the top of a small pillar, where we would set up the portaledges. Jay and I arrived at dinner time, but Steve, the haulbags and dinner were far below. Shortly, Dan appeared around the comer. He lit a cigarette.

“What’s taking so long?” I looked down and could barely make out Steve huddled against the bags, shivering. The sun had slipped past the horizon.

“These bags are heavy—they’re saturated from the rain and we can only haul two at a time.”

We decided it would be faster for two people to body haul three bags at a time while one person jumared beside them to keep them from getting hung up. I was under the last set of bags when Steve jerked on the tag line to free them.

“Aaagh!” I yelled. A bag had dislodged a rock, which broke on my knee upon impact. I wasn’t hurt, but I was angry and tired. At 4 a.m., 21 hours after we started, we collapsed in our portaledge.

Rise and shine, sleepyheads. It’s noon already, the sun is out, and it’s your turn to lead,” I announced to Steve and Dan the next morning. Motivated by good weather and the realization that it was his turn at the sharp end, Steve fired up the stove to make some coffee. After a cup, a cigarette, and the sorting of the racks, Steve tied into the lead line—but Dan was still asleep.

“I hope you’re ready by the next pitch, or I’ll get that one, too,” Steve told him.

“What?” Dan rolled over.

“I’ll belay while you get ready, Dan,” Jay offered.

“What’s up, Dan-O?” I asked.

He was awake, trying to find his other sock.

“Well, I had to waterproof my boots again last night and then I had to work on the video recorder…."

I didn’t listen to the rest. Dan was just being Dan.

By now, the aid-climbing was getting easier, and within two days we fixed another five pitches. Late on the second day, it started to snow. Time was getting away and we had to do something.
Credit: Jay Smith
Our ledges were only halfway up the route; hauling those six wet, monstrous bags up to there had been absurd, and we hadn’t wanted to fix even this much of the route. It appeared that a gully above our high point might go free and lead up to the snow ridge to the summit. We agreed that as soon as the weather cleared, we would try to make it to the summit and back from our ledges in a single push.
Credit: Jay Smith
By morning, it was raining heavily. Water had somehow seeped into the space between Dan and Steve’s ledge and fly and formed a large pool. Dan bailed frantically as Steve collected their cigarettes and other items they hoped to keep dry and cradled them in his arms.

Through the mist below, I was able to spot our three tents on the glacier. The wind was gusting so hard that each of them tumbled crazily about, held down by the one or two stubborn anchors that had not yet melted out of the snow.

“Well, if the tents blow away, it’ll be that much less weight that we’ll have to carry out,” Jay said in a half-hearted attempt to raise moral.

After two days, the wind was still gusting, and clouds raced across the sky, but the rain had stopped. At 5:30 a.m., we left the ledges for our summit push. Three of us huddled in the gully as Dan meandered up boulder-choked chimneys and across snow-covered slabs. Next, Steve led a classic mixed pitch that brought us out of the gully, finding an old piton left by his hero, Charlie Porter, along the way.

After another lead up an ice slope by Dan, I got the last two leads up to and across the summit ridge. Eight inches of wet snow barely clung to the rotten ice underneath and the entire muck threatened to avalanche. Below the summit cornice, I dug a U-shaped trough for my legs and butt, braced, and put my partners on belay.

Dan popped up through the clouds. “I’ve never done any climbing like those last two pitches!” he exclaimed. “This is just like in National Geographic!" My easy but scary lead had impressed this hard man. I smiled.

Summit day took 17 hours. On top, I shared Girl Scout cookies my sister had given me. I waited, hoping the clouds would spare us some views—when, to my horror, I noticed Dan side-stepping the 50 feet to the summit cornice.

“What are you doing?” I gasped. Every foot set off a tiny wet slide. “We’re roped together with no anchors. The entire face is going to let loose if you don’t be careful.”

“But we have to touch the summit,” Dan replied. Once he tagged it, we started down. On the descent, we left the fixed ropes in place, rappelling as quickly as we could while the afternoon sun melted the muck and large stones bounced down the gully.

As Jay and I started back up the fixed lines to retrieve the ropes the next morning, I kept reminding myself that at least our expedition had been a success. Now we struggled to clean all the fixed ropes and get our six haulbags off the wall. It was a strenuous and logistical nightmare, and we arrived back at our flopping tents on the glacier at 8 a.m. the following morning.

After a rest day, we went back to the base of the wall to retrieve the last of our gear, then packed up camp and attempted to carry and drag all of our possessions up over the pass and back down to our original landing site on the glacier. The snow had melted and was covered with deep sun cups. By the time we got to the old runway, it was 3 a.m. and raining again. Exhausted and frustrated by an endless battle to stay dry, Jay threw his sleeping bag in a water-filled sun cup and crawled inside.

We had exactly seven days left until pick-up on the Kichatna River, 30 miles away. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but all we needed was 400 yards of firm, packed snow for the plane to land here on the glacier. Deciding we had enough snow, the four of us spent a total of 224 hours over the next week, ski-packing the mushy sun cups.

On August 4, the plane landed and took off on our runway with us in the plane. One more skeleton in the closet was gone.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Kichatna Spires, Alaska

NEW ROUTE: Ride the Lightning (VI 5.10 A4 WI3,4,000') on Middle Triple Peak (8,835'), June 27-August 4, 1997, Kitty Calhoun, Steve Gerberding, Dan Osman, Jay Smith

American Alpine Journal 1998


New Zealand
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 30, 2016 - 08:08pm PT
Middle Triple Peak, West face: "Ride the Lightening". Kitty Calhoun, Steve Gerberding, Dan Osman and Jay Smith. 1997.

Credit: Jay Smith
Credit: Jay Smith
Credit: Jay Smith
Credit: Jay Smith

Special Thanks to Kitty Calhoun

Mountain climber
Boulder, CO
Oct 20, 2016 - 12:47pm PT
In early 1970s, I think it may have been 1971, Al DeMaria, Dave Loeks and I were flown into the Tatina Glacier from Talkeena to make what we believe was the initial attempt to climb Middle Triple Peak. On this trip, we made an attempt from the col between MTP and its ridge leading south. This is the same col that Andy Embick and team reached from the west side. We climbed a few pitches up the granite and mixed terrane until we hit a large crackles slab. At that point, due to inexperience, or intimidation, but not for the weather, we were forced to turn back. We then climbed a couple of small spires in the area, making their probable first ascents. Just entering this into this forum to set the record straight and get this early attempt on the record.

New Zealand
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 17, 2017 - 03:42am PT
Bump for great climbs

4 Corners Area
Feb 17, 2017 - 11:21am PT
That place still don't see too much traffic . . .

New Zealand
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 21, 2017 - 05:20pm PT
Middle Triple Peak: 1st Ascent East Buttress. Andy Embick, Mike Graber, Al Long and George Schunk. 1977.

Thanks to George Schunk
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