Utilizing the bush plane culture in Alaska to continually search for unnamed, untouched quality stone
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From June 22 to July 16, James Gustafson, Reese Doyle and I (Zach Clanton) spent 25 days exploring an entirely new alpine climbing arena called The Serendipity Spires in Southwest Alaska. As rock climbers who reside in AK, we have made it our goal to utilize the bush plane culture here 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 on 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 accidental glimpse of the Salmon Shark and the Beaver's Tooth was from a great distance while en route to a different destination. It wasn't until months later that I took a closer look at my aerial photos and started the investigation. As a result, the greatest endeavor was figuring out how to approach and simply arrive at base camp to begin mapping out the potential of these beautiful spires.
We've just returned after 25 days in the Alaskan bush! A float plane took us 100 miles from the nearest road to a blue-green lake then our feet took us through 15 miles of thick forests, rushing waters and sprawling tundra to a base camp beneath a collection of virgin 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 (except for the ones we made up) and even the USGS maps don't speak the truth.
"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
Whatever happened to the idea of climbers as explorers? In a community so obsessed with numbers and stats, whatever happened to the pioneering and adventurous spirit of people like Brad Washburn who constantly sought after unique experiences on the ground and in the air to expand the knowledge of climbers worldwide? Although the majority 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, this idea of climbing as a means of exploring is alive and well in Alaska. It is our generation who has it the hardest because we cannot simply discover untouched gems only steps away from the road system. Today's explorers must search far and wide using unconventional forms of transportation and research. If you are simply looking for an unclimbed mountain, they are countless. But the fact remains that climbers are in pursuit of aesthetics and quality in their chosen line. Therein lies the challenge of cherry picking.
"This is country that you might confuse for a Romantic fantasy: a rendering of the sublime." - Maya Prabhu
It is not often that I get to linger in high places like this. Usually, I am lucky enough to snap a quick photo in passing while being distracted by some activity. For the first time, I was able to appreciate the ebbs and flows of a particular high gaze for a long time. This was the view we had from base camp of what we called Time Lapse peak during our hard won 16-day stay. 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. It also provided A-grade Hippy TV.
When the pitch that looked pretty chill from below turned out to be not that chill at all. Ever since my first day of rock climbing, I found myself becoming highly influenced by grades, names, topos and histories of routes before even laying eyes on them myself. These preconceptions often times limited my ability to climb something that I was actually capable of doing. I was just intimidated. Lately, I have been trying to approach climbing more like big mountain snowboarding where the mental freedom to paint the proverbial blank canvas is as much of the game as the actual physical effort. A game where every move is first a vision then brought to reality through careful execution. Instead of keeping my head down in a guidebook when deciding where to go next, I have found that the biggest steps of progression happen when I keep my head up and use my own creativity to find that dream line. You just look up and ask yourself... Can I climb that? Sometimes you end up sandbagging yourself but most of the time, you surprise yourself with your own potential.
"Predatory Waters "(5.8 1,200'), our first bit of climbing on day 8 of the trip 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 dont ever see is the real context of humans on rock, the handjams 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
Simply getting to the point in which we could lay our hands on the rock was quite the process. Finding this place in the Super Cub last year felt like pointing out a quartz crystal in a sea of gravel from 10 miles away with binoculars. It looked shiny and attractive but there was no telling if the place was of any real quality. Another year went by before I could get back in the plane for a closer inspection of the stone and my first look at the overland approach. Everything seemed promising but there was was still so many intimidating unknowns. It was only after these recon flights, countless hours of logistical figuring, days upon days of claustrophobic bushwhacking with a heavy pack, close encounters with bears, gripping water crossings and a great deal of unnecessary suffering that I was finally able to confirm that The Beaver's Tooth was not just a delusional vision in my mind. It was real, tangible and even better than I thought.
"A vision of such beauty was worth a world of striving." - Eric Shipton
This is the only photo of myself caught on my camera from the trip. I'm pretty stoked on it considering I have never seen a camera in Reese's hands before. It was one of those "hold my beer and watch this" moments and he nailed it. This image embodies a feeling and an ambition that I have been seeking for quite some time. After 3 pitches of really hard but straightforward splitter climbing on the Beaver's Tooth, this easier 5.9 pitch demanded some serious commitment to the unknown. What you can't see is a huge rock mushroom blocking the way of the arete proper and there was only one way around it. Some heady slab moves off the belay led to a finger crack that traversed horizontally into who knows where. With just enough room for the tips of 8 fingers, smearing feet and a whole lotta air under my ass, I plugged in a bomber cam and went for it. The farther I got away from that cam, the more I had to remember to breathe. The end soon came into view but I was looking at a nasty swing if I blew it on the upcoming mantle. One big high step to match my hands and I was resting on a big ledge. Now I was really in it. There was no going back and that finger crack soared vertically into the sky to another uncertain horizon. Seventy meters later, I found a great belay and that euphoric feeling that only a climber can know washed over me. My buddies soon appeared with wide eyes and congratulations. There is nothing quite like that feeling... I believe I'll keep searching for it.
"A unique kind of intuition had been at work here, piecing together the intricate puzzle of this alpine face." - Christoph Willumeit
Our trusty Black Diamond Mega Light aka Mega Dude Sandwich at base camp. This was our home and singular shelter for every night of the 25 day trip. During the 5 day approach, we were usually posted up on a sandy beach by the river but most of the time, we were right here 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 rained for 7 days straight at one point. At over 5,000 ft, 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 this one were often the highlights of our day and a great excuse to get out of the tent and drink more whiskey.
"So why do I keep taking photos? Maybe it's for one selfish reason: to preserve part of my childhood mind. For the joy of feeding curiosity with new findings. Approaching without preconceptions. Playing with the camera... feeling free. Photography helps me to illuminate the context, to immerse myself in the textures and colors of life. It is not easy to be yourself, I know. The process of projecting/reflecting a bit of who you are on images is fun. Simple (alpine style) photography and climbing are fun. So, have fun, as you like to say, and relax a little. My images reflect my life and my mind. It's only an interpretation. Of an interpretation? Who cares. Perfect? The more I enjoy, the closer to perfect I am." - Marko Prezelj
James and Reese at the last belay of Predatory Waters on the Salmon Shark. Photo taken from the actual summit. The top was so small that it could only fit one person at a time. 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. Today, the majority of new routes tend to be on mountains that have already been climbed, meaning that most of the puzzle has already been figured out and what’s left is the climbing itself. 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. It’s a place and state of mind where the freedom to trace the original line up an untouched peak is done with one’s own creativity.
Words and Photos: Zach Clanton