Monday, June 09, 2014

Les Miserables

Alpine climbers, much like the characters in Les Miserables, are mainly concerned with avoiding the chop.  For Jean Valjean it was fear of the guillotine, for alpine climbers it is a vast multitude of fears:  seracs, avalanches, cornices, rockfall, falling, phantom, etc...

On Mount Hunter's North Buttress this past May, the fear was palpable.  The North Buttress has been the scene of fatalities, perhaps most notably, Steve Mascioli.  The face is littered by  car-sized (and larger) snow mushrooms, pasted improbably to steep walls and roofs.  One of these snow mushrooms collapsed in warm conditions, killing him instantly.  Given the record high May temperatures at the Kahiltna Base Camp, this thought was ever-conscious as we ascended the face and passed many gargantuan snow mushrooms.

The conditions we encountered were far from the sticky blue ice seen in pictures from teams running up the face in a day or two.  In fact, the conditions were quite bony.  We climbed through several pitches nearly devoid of protection.  We found ourselves at the belays, questioning whether we ought to have just climbed the pitch.  Regardless, the climbing was never hard enough to shut us down but the sum of all fears was sufficient to stop our ascent.

I know more risk adverse climbers would have continued.  The climbing was not impossible.  However, if a snow mushroom had collapsed and killed us, other climbers would have looked at the temperatures and said "What did they expect?  It was record high temperatures."

Climbers always justify the risk, insisting that they would not make the same mistakes as parties who made poor choices and paid dearly.  In reality, most climbers justify the risks and then make the same decisions as those who perished before them.

Some get away with it, some don't.

If you believe you make better decisions than those that passed before you, then you actually need to make those difficult decisions.  If you do not make the difficult choices, then you have deluded yourself.  A successful ascent does not necessarily mean you made better decisions.  You were just luckier.

Mt. Hunter's North Buttress

Marcus low on the North Buttress.  This ice sections would be melted
out two days later and not frozen overnight.

Myself somewhere on the North Butress...

Aiding the bergschrund on pickets and screws...

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