Here we go. Every time I get back from an expedition or big trip it takes a while to process just what the whole thing meant and why I did it in the first place. I wrote a blog before I left capturing some of insights and my intention with this is, well, to share some more insights! HA Genius, I know. Let’s have some FUN, shall we?
Well, let’s start by putting this into perspective. The objective that Gary Falk and I set out to achieve was, as you know by now, to climb a mountain called the Mooses Tooth. And yes, I realize there is no apostrophe in Mooses, but apparently that’s just the way you write it :o) The Mooses Tooth is a classic Alaska “test piece” for those interested in getting a real taste of what it is like to climb in Alaska. And in particular, there is one way up the mountain, the route, called Ham and Eggs. John Krakauer, the guy who wrote Into Thin Air, was actually the first person to climb it. He wrote about his adventure in a book called Eiger Dreams (Highly Recommended) and I read that many years ago and began to dream about some day being on an adventure like that. I wonder what your dream might be? You know, that thing you read or saw or hear about a long time ago that fell into the category of “some day?” We all have them. This was one of mine.
So back to what makes the objective such a good one. Well, the location for starters. It’s in Alaska Range, the land of ice and snow where climbing most anything just seems improbable to begin with. And the mountain is very close to Denali relatively speaking. We could see Denali from Base camp quite clearly although it was about 15 miles away or so. And let’s be clear from the beginning, I have always been terrified to climb in Alaska because I associated much of the ice climbing with being stuck on a mountain side losing the feeling in my fingers and toes and then having to chop them off because of frostbite. Let’s just say I didn’t skimp on the footwear for the trip.
The climb is located in the middle of an incredible cirque of Mountains called, you guessed it, the Teeth. The Mooses Tooth is right next to his friend the Bear Tooth, and so on. You have to fly in on a single prop glacier plane, which only one guy, Paul, can really do safely apparently. So you need to get on Paul’s list on Talkeetna Air Taxi and just the flight in is enough to make most people begin to hyperventilate. Banking through the mountains and landing on snow that may or may not be covering huge crevasses is a great way to start the excitement of it all. Once you get there the plane leaves and won’t be coming back for ten days. The satellite phone we had worked when we needed it, but before we went I had no idea how that was all going to work. All I knew was that the plane would show up 10 days later. That’s kind of cool – and kind of freaky. The nice thing is that because of Paul’s ability to land where no other human would dare, you pretty much can bring all sorts of gear to make the winter camping experience a sweet one. Yes, we brought a case of beer and it took all day with a cold beer inmy armpit just to drink one. Note to self on that one.
Here is a shot of our base camp. Sweet! Right smack dab in the middle of somewhere.
And then there’s the climb! To get to the top is no small feat.
It takes most parties an average of 24 hours up and down, assuming you do it in one continuous push (not sleeping). It takes so long because the climb is 3000 feet tall! That’s well over TWICE the size of the Empire State Building and THREE times the height of the Eiffel Tower. Yikes. Check out the route – it goes up the center of the mountain.
As you climb up the route, you need to employ a multitude of climbing techniques using crampons, double ice axes, climbing in the dark, using all sorts of gear including ice screws, pitons, camelots, nuts, snow pickets – you name it and you probably need to bring it along to ensure that you can protect your progress up the mountain. And when you get close to the top, here’s the clincher, the summit is guarded by a “wild ridge line” where on one side you have massive cornices (mega chunks of snow and ice that could crack off and fall – taking you with it) and the other you have a sheet drop off and there really is very little way to protect a significant fall, should there be one. I am reminded of a quote that was on my brother’s wall for years, “Beauty walks a razors edge. Someday I’ll make it mine.” Todd, YOU are an inspiration to me and the reason I started climbing in the first place.
Okay then – so how about that for the long-winded intro! So why did I want to go do something like that? Well, we all have natural progressions that lead us to the next best thing. This was mine. And it was the next best thing that was scary as hell. And one that I knew would push me father than I have ever gone before in the realm of my climbing. And besides, I can blame it on Gary, because he brought it up! And as soon as he did, I knew it was going to happen. It just took me a solid month to feel the fear and realize that I DID have what it takes to PREPARE for what it would take. Which, really, is more than half the battle. And the first step is to commit to the climb. To commit to the dream of success beyond your wildest dreams.
So here’s the story…
The Preparation (Recapped – with things I didn’t share before in the other blog post about preparing)
Training and Planning
In summary my training was a 10 week training sequence that combined rock climbing at the climbing gym, strength training at mountain athlete, moderate ski touring (two to three thousand vertical feet), ski mountaineering in the Tetons involving skiing up and climbing mountain peaks (3000 to 5ooo vertical) then skiing down them, cross training combined with swimming, yoga, mountain biking and road biking. All of these activities designed to increase the aerobic volume and capacity for greater endurance combined with strength. I focused on hydration and alkalizing my body through nutrition. I used Alkablast supplements to improve my recovery(Thanks Stu Mittleman!!!) I brushed up on my rescue techniques with Christian Santelices (You rock Christian!) I established a mid-point benchmark ice-climbing trip for a trial series of ice climbs over several days. This benchmark was a key milestone. WHY? Prior to committing to this trip I had never led a pitch of vertical ice! SHHHHH Secret! Deep down inside I knew I had the capacity, but had yet to have a specific reason to test my limits in this discipline. So that was a bit unnerving and largely why I planned ONE ice climbing trip prior to the climb. And I knew I had to be STRONG. Oh and another thing, I got full committment from those most important to me in family and business. I loved Will Leggett’s response – Go for it! That’s why we do what we do anyway. I’m here to step up so I am in full support. Now that’s the kind of business partner we want! The same went for the rest of those folks close to me – full support. And that was critical for my own psychology of comittment and when things got challenging later.
Experts, Gear and Budget
I called upon experts in the realm of Alaskan Alpine Climbing including Stephen Koch, Jack Tackle, Brian Prax and Christian Santelices for advice and strategy. Gary started and I analyzed and checked off a detailed spreadsheet with all the gear needed and explored all the ways to make this trip low budget! I borrowed tons of gear (thanks Koch, Prax and Gary!), used skymiles for my trip flights and used my pro-purchase programs through Black Diamond for new Cobra Ice Tools, La Sportiva for the Spantik Boots, and Patagonia for some clutch layers. If anyone is interested in the gear list, feel free to email me. It’s quite extensive. I can’t say enough about Koch and his support. It was his response to my very first question of “Hey Koch, I am thinking about climbing the Mooses Tooth in Alaska. Do YOU think I can do it?” “Hell, Yes Timmy Tim Tim! I am so psyched for you.” And I know that he knows what I can do. We’ve climbed several ice routes, the North Ridge of the Grand, etc, together. Anyway – the point? The Prax Factor! SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT YOUR GOALS AND CHALLENGE YOU TO ACHIEVE NEW HEIGHTS. And yes, the great Brian Prax did the same thing for me! You guys rock.
WHAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW is that just three weeks prior to my trip I had a MAJOR SETBACK. I was training in Tahoe and the intensity of my workouts hit a peak and I went a bit too far. The result was some MAJOR back pain. So much that I had doubts of being able to do anything, and certainly not climbing. It sucked. But I countered the internal blocking with continuous reaffirmation that it was going to be okay. And Holly kept telling me that it would all work out and be fine. SHE believed in me even when I started not to. Now THAT is awesome and THAT is the kind of person you want on your team. THANKS HOLLY! Amidst all of it, it got to the point where I had to cease all training for about 10 days. I arrived back in Jackson for my final week and I went to Kevin Meehan for some acupuncture. As always, he jabbed a bunch of needles in my back and worked his magic. And I dare say it was magic. THANKS KEVIN!!!!! The days leading up to the departure I took it fairly easy, relatively speaking, to keep my body recovering while maintaining my fitness. This scared the hell out of me and I mostly kept it to myself. I just focused on taking one day at a time, and it worked.
Anchorage and Seeking True North
We met up in Salt Lake and Gary and I’s first interaction was with a bartender in the crown room in Salt Lake. He was making a martini and the entire thing exploded ALL over himself. Hilarious. He laughed at himself, which reminds me of a quote Gary and I would later see in a random Alaska diner, “Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they will never cease to be amused.” How true.
We arrived in Anchorage and were lucky to stay with my good friend Lisa Vandergriff. She is a big fan of Seeking True North and Grand Dynamics programs and it was such a treat to have her open her home to Gary and me. (Weeks later I would find myself following her around in the freezing 37 degree ocean, 40 feet down, in a dry suit scuba diving with 2 feet of visability – another story:o) When I travel I always seek out a way to interact and serve the local community in some fashion. CONTRIBUTION is one of the highest human needs. This trip it was a Seeking True North seminar. Perfectly appropriate as in my very own way I was seeking my own True North and wanting to help others do the same. The majority of the day focused on THE EQUATION: Values plus Beliefs Plus ACTIONS equals a state of mind or being. It was a powerful day considering all the rules and beliefs that create our emotional state and a perfect way to start the trip. What is most important to you? What are your rules that dictate when you are able to experience that particular thing? Think about that one for a minute. Thoughts of the great Erick Erickson were present as Rick and I had nearly came to Alaska twice to launch our original STN seminar. YOU ARE INCREDIBLE MASTER RICK!
We got one ski day in to loosen things up and climb a peak and on the way down, we saw a lynx! Wild, big cat with a square head and stub tail that jumped like 7 feet when it moved across the snow. So cool.
We arrived in Talkeetna where we finally met the infamous Paul – owner and operator of Talkeetna Air Taxi.
Paul is “The Man” when it comes to flying and is one of very few that executes the technical glacier landing in the mountains of Alaska. We weighed everything in and had around 600 pounds of gear for four of us! That included the case of beer :o) Paul gave us the updated weather report which indicated two days of good weather. As soon as we heard that Gary and I knew that we were going to go for it immediately. The windows for good Alaska weather can be very small.
The flight in was amazing and I got lucky to ride shotgun on the way in! Well maybe it wasn’t luck – I pretty much jumped into the front, but everyone else was kind of standing there. Carpe Momento!
Entering into the range was quite the experience and I sat there eyes wide and jaw open as I realized that I was actually going to be climbing in those mountains! Paul asked me, “How long has it been?” I replied, “First Time!” He replied with a laugh, “What took you so long?” All could do was laugh, kind of one of those nervous laughs, “Good question, Paul, good question.” What I was thinking was well maybe the fact that I like my fingers and toes and have always had a fear of losing them on a mountain somewhere. I let that thought pass quickly and refocused on the beauty of the approaching mountains.
We carved through the mountain passes, cruises right past the Mooses Tooth and at the last moment banked hard to align for a perfect landing right on the pristine glacier. Incredible. It was sunny and about 25 degrees at about 4:00. I was in emotional heaven. Total bliss! The other two guys didn’t seem as psyched as Gary and I, but I tell you we had some good momentum flowing!
We quickly established base camp with all the nuances of winter camping – the cook tent, latrine area where our buckets went, etc… There was some grumbling about which party was going to climb what. At some point, the other climber in the party asked Gary what his intention was for the next day (as if he didn’t know) and Gary replied strongly, “We’re climbing Ham and Eggs tomorrow.” Period. Done like that. Read about it later. Taking the window of opportunity. Kind of like the front seat of the plane. Yes, it is true that the other two guys certainly wanted to climb the same route. Gary and I were so confident that we were going up that next morning that they realized we were going either way. Our confidence overcame their doubt!
We pre-packed and after our first meal, we laid down to rest before the 3 AM wake up.
We awoke feeling giddy and excited and ready to launch. It was about Negative 15 degrees or so at 4 AM as we completed our final preparations for heading out. Yes, that’s cold. The first twenty minutes was spent fidgeting with the toe warmers in the boot liners (Gary ended up taking his out after activating them, putting them all the way on, etc…) Out of the base camp and ten minutes in we realized we forgot to bring the pickets for protecting the steep snow. Oopsy. A few minutes later I tripped on my pant leg with my crampon and fell on my face! HA! A bit of a spook about falling into a crevasse! Comical actually. That one really “broke the ice” for the climb. HA HA I led us to the base of the route up steepening terrain. I was so excited I nearly scrambled up the first pitch of mixed rock! Gary used good judgment, “We don’t want to get ourselves into one of those “looks easy – really hard” moments to start out the climb. Agreed.
Gary began his first block lead. A “block” refers to the series of pitches or rope-lengths a climber leads in the mountain climbing sequence. A pitch is one rope length, about 200 feet. Climbing on rock with campons and ice tools was awesome. Sparks were flying in the middle of the morning light! The climbing was steep and “in your face” right off the bat. Wake up call! We sent it! The sky filled the morning light with a red hue as the sunrise began to hint at its arrival.
The climb continued up vertical ice steps and up steep couloirs.
We simul-climbed and linked several pitches, which was about 500 feet or so for three pitches rolled into one.
Gary led all the way through the crux pitch, which was a bit rotten and thin (great combination!)
Finally it was here! What an incredible feeling to be stepping up on lead onto an incredible ice pitch in the Alaska Range. I felt great and styled the lead and even had a little mixed stemming (one foot on the rock face and another on the ice) toward the crux of the pitch. The corner was so tight that I could only flick my wrist to get purchase with my ice tools. The lead continued up a series of steep snow steps and vertical ice flows which made for incredible climbing. The gear was mostly ice screws and cams into the rock. I even banged a pin (piton) for one of my anchors. That was an awesome moment – banging a piton into a rock while snow “spin drifted” all over me. Imagine hammering a metal spike into the rock as you are in the midst someone dumping a pile of snow on you and adding in 20 mile per hour gusts of wind. Sweet. The end of my first block I had a long run out up a steep couloir and the pickets would not take. I got a little sketched as I made my way to the anchor. I reached to clip the rope very cautiously as I did not want to go for a 200 foot ride! Gary and I had the only “spat” of the climb at that moment as I told him to go screw himself because I was working through a “moment.” These things happen and Gary and I have climbed with each other and are such good friends that moments like that are expected every now and again. And part of climbing is pushing each other through “moments” and that takes different forms at different times. So be it. We climbed on!
The temperatures began to break out of the freezing zone and into about plus 10 or so as we made our way up the mountain. Gary took back over and we continued on up the mountain simul climbing. For food, we would have had some ham, we would have had some ham and eggs, if we had eggs, but we didn’t have either. So we nourished ourselves with nuts, water, peanut butter and honey sandwiches and GU throughout the day. This was key to keeping the balance we needed for a strong summit push, which soon came. The final headwall was a steep sheet of windpacked snow. The kind of terrain where it was hard to get a purchase with the ice tools as the picks would just slide right through. The movement was like stepping up two feet and sliding down one. A bit unnerving! High up on the face the upward progress slowed a bit but Gary was able to dig deep into the steep snow to get an ice screw in as protection between us. THANK-YOU for that!
On to the Summit
Just before I took over the lead up and onto the summit ridge Gary and I sat and ate and marveled at our surroundings. Denali was off in the distance, the mountain peaks surrounding us were just perfectly awe-inspiring. There was a distinct lack of wind along the summit ridgeline. Sunny and windless summit – that “never happens” apparently. I remember saying to Gary “If this is what climbing in Alaska is all about, sign me up!” We got incredibly lucky with the sun and lack of wind.
The ridge line walk came and one the left side was a massive, house sized cornice and on the right was a sheer drop off. It was extremely difficult to have a belay of any sort and the strategy was for the second climber to jump off the other direction if the leader were to fall. Spooky! We made our way up and along the ridge and I came to a section where I literally had to hack my way through a cornice and axe plunge the other side to climb up the vertical section. Breakthrough – literally!
The final corniced ridge was quite impressive. You can see the picture. Wow.
At the summit a total feeling of elation came over us.
I had always thought about how I would feel to complete a climb like this.
The dream had become a reality!!!!
Of course there’s more to the story, but I’ll tighten it up. We made it down through a series of “dead man” rappels, one ice screw, about 6 pitons and extra back up webbing anchors. We made steady progress and only started getting mildly cranky when the anchors kept running out at the bottom off the route! Gary did a great job going first practicing his craft of building rap anchors for guiding. We worked as a team and made efficient progress. By the time we made it back down, we both actually felt pretty great. “Adventure Fuerte” and tomorrow… we celebrate!
What I learned
Choose the mountain: Climbing any mountain first begins by choosing a mountain! I choose a big goal to challenge and inspire me. It challenged me and took my life to new heights. i accomplished things I didn’t know that I could.
Commit to the climb: Once I decided, I stepped into the climb with confidence and moved forward and trained with an expectation that I would be successful. This gave me confidence and competence on my climb up mastery mountain.
Training: The process of the preparation was 80 percent of the battle. I planned it and did it by associating lots of pain (ie: Falling off a Cliffside, letting down Gary, not having the capacity to do the climb) to not working out and being prepared. I created a vision of success and that got me up to train those extra hours!
Find the Cairns: I created benchmarks for myself as I navigated the big goal. This gave me an intermediary objective and reinforced that what i was doing was on track.
Teamwork: I had the right partner for the climb. Gary certainly had the technical skill sets necessary to support me on the climb and he committed to train and be prepared as much as I did. He had patience with me and helped me to focus on efficiency. His attitude was great and aligned with mine. The right partner actually made the process fun!
The law of positive intent: I was reminded to always keep in mind that Gary is always doing the best he can while leading and climbing. And of course that goes to say that each partner must give their all. And “reminders” were always taken in good faith.
Use the right gear: When it comes to personal well being, in any pursuit, I don’t skimp on cheap gear. Period. As Yvonne Chouinard said, “The poor can’t afford cheap gear.” Agree. This kept my feet warm and I was prepared for the climb.
Go light: I kept the pack to a minimum as every once counts! But don’t forget extra gloves!
I maintained a positive mental attitude to “Go for It” and a belief system that said even though I haven’t done this before, I CAN do it!
Use the tools of teamwork to communicate effectively. The tools are only good if they are used. Magic Statement. Managing Expectations Quadrant. All of the Seeking True North concepts. Use them! Gary and I did much of this, however, I could have been better with communication with the rest of the group who were on our expedition together. It turns out that the other two guys had a different idea about hat kind of a trip they wanted and their expectations. Althought I did remember that no matter how negative someone else’s attitude is, I am always in control of how i respond to any given situation.
Thanks again to all who have and continue to support the journey. There are lots of details about the rest of the trip, but I’ll save those details for later. When you’re ready to join Grand Dynamics for some action and adventure, send me an email. Our experiential programs are awesome. I’ll be climbing the Grand with Gary this summer and you’re all invited to join our Grand Adventure!
I hope you have enjoyed my story and I wish you strength and courage as you enjoy seeking your own True North. Let me know what you think.
And as always… LIVE YOUR ADVENTURE! TIM WALTHER