Words by Tess Ferguson.
Photos by Tess Ferguson and Alan Goldbetter.
The patter of raindrops on taught nylon was so familiar, it was almost comforting. Or perhaps it was comforting because it meant that we weren’t out there, climbing. In two days we had destroyed three of our four ropes, due to dislodged blocks, big falls, and sharp rock. Twenty-two days into our trip I felt exhilarated and unsettled. Did I still want to climb here? Yes. This sort of emotional rollercoaster is what draws me to expedition climbing in the first place. Was I happy to have a weather-mandated mental health break? Certainly. To get here from the nearest city we had spent eight hours on a bus, one hour on a bush plane, and two days on foot. I didn’t know how long it would take to get back if one of us became injured, but I certainly didn’t want to have to find out.
A few weeks prior in the Seattle airport I spotted Alan, easy enough given his bright red knee-high socks and signature “expedition mullet”. I gave him a long hug. We had been planning this trip for over a year, and the excitement of big plans coming to fruition was setting in. We connected with one of my best friends Jessica a few hours later in the quiet baggage claim at Fairbanks. The three of us went to find Anina, an eighteen-year old Argentine crusher, who was staying at one of the hostels in town. Two days later our food was purchased and gear packed, we were ready for three weeks in the backcountry.
We moved five hundred pounds of gear from taxi to bus. It was reorganized and loaded onto a small bush plane, and rattled along to the bank of the Alatna River. On the shore we distributed it into backpacks and begrudgingly it was carried through thick bushes and up endless riverbeds, stumbled over talus fields and across alpine meadow brush. Finally we hucked it to the dirt with great relief, in the location we would call basecamp.
At four in the afternoon, on the eighth day of our expedition, I was relieved to be sitting down. I stared up at the grey peaks that encircled us. They looked proud and difficult. I pulled out my satellite messenger and requested a weather forecast. The device beeped, and my eyes widened. “You have twenty-four hours of good weather left,” it said, “before it starts raining and never stops.”
We laid amongst the scruff alpine grass and blueberries while our brains and legs pulsed.
Moving was the last thing any of us wanted to do.
Being this far north though, we had close to endless daylight.
If we started climbing immediately we would not be limited by the night’s arrival, and I couldn’t help but worry that this was the only good weather we would get for a while, perhaps even the whole trip? It would be shameful not to use it.
We had already walked for seven hours that day, and the average time for our first objective, Shot Tower, was over twenty-four hours. There was little chance we would even finish the climb before the rain set in.
We had to make a decision quickly.
We packed our bags and started walking towards Shot Tower.
Past Arrigetch climbers deemed the West Ridge of Shot as the area’s classic route, ascending 500 meters of ridgeline by means of moderate rock climbing. By dinnertime the four of us were working up the long spine of the mountain. We were climbing in an abyss of time and twilight, lichen covered rock and thin traverses, sleep depravation and worn bodies; it was spectacular. As time went on, mild delirium heightened the serenity of the experience. Across the valley, scree slopes formed paintings with lines and triangles of red, orange, and brown lichen. When we reached the summit, it was six o’clock in the morning and terribly beautiful. Dark clouds painted a fine line on the horizon. Luck had graced us.
The journey back down was long and unpleasant, particularly after damaging one of our ropes on the ascent, but then again when isn’t the descent worse than expected? We stumbled back into camp twenty-two hours after leaving, and thirty-five hours since we had woken up the day prior.
On day ten, we slept soundly with the rain pattering above the tent like a lullaby. On day eleven, it sounded more like a squeaky bicycle chain, and by the third day, it was akin to your neighbor’s construction workers at six o’clock in the morning. Ceaseless, painful, and infuriating.
I soon lost all control of my emotional filter. I was just plain sour, and I indulged in being sour. I hated the rain, I hated the tent. I hated climbing. I missed my fiancée Barry, and eating food plentifully, and music, and playing stupid KenKen games on my phone. Perhaps that is why I love expeditions, they bring out my best as well as my worst. I was used to the feeling of longing, but this was extreme, especially coming off the unusual euphoria I had experienced while climbing Shot Tower.
Alan, who always manages to be a rock of emotional stability, told me I needed to get it together.
On day fourteen, I got it together. The rain was still falling. Time passed on. I played so many games of solitaire that I actually won one. I killed a mosquito that had snuck inside the tent, hoping it would soothe the buzzing hatred of the raindrops above. Alan asked me what it would be like to be simply and decisively crushed out of existence. I told him I didn’t know.
On day eighteen we received the most promising forecast we had seen in days. The next morning my body groaned into action. I teamed up with Anina to attempt an unclimbed line on a feature called “The Battleship”.
We began racking up at the sloping talus strewn amongst the base of the wall. The uncertainty of attempting a new climb is my absolute favorite thing. It requires the most intense level of preparation, and yet I find it immensely simple in practice. There are no expectations, nothing and no one to compare yourself to. There are only dreams of getting to the top, and a necessity of getting back down. You climb up until you no longer can, halted by emotions, physicality, or reaching the summit itself. Then you go down.
We wove our way up the mountain, climbing on its slabs and fissures, snaking in and out of enormous chimneys and eroding corners. The climbing kept getting harder, and the rock kept getting looser. Eventually I told Anina I was happy to follow her, but leading this stuff was becoming well out of my wheelhouse. Anina smiled and took off, though a pitch later it seemed as though she had finally met her match.
“Tess, things are getting a little scary”
“Okay,” I yelled. “Do you have in a good piece of protection?”
“Yes, but I’ll put in another”
A second later I heard the massive crack of the mountain coming undone. I looked up. Giant granite block, heavily flowing downwards, filling my field of vision. Everything moved very slowly. I closed my eyes. Must make body smaller. Thoughts of a mosquito. Shins sticking out too much. Close eyes. Close them tight.
…I opened them.
The smell of freshly pulverized rock burned my nostrils. I looked above to Ani. She was looking down at me. I think we were both quite excited to be looking at each other.
“Are you okay?” I let out. Surprisingly steady.
There was silence, then, “Tess the rope has a massive core shot!”
We were both making ourselves calm. The block that Anina was standing on had broken away from the wall, causing her to fall and exposing a sharp edge, which our two ropes had shredded against. A measly few strands of braided nylon was all that kept our main lead line together. Anina rearranged her tie in point and I lowered her back to me. We grabbed each other and held on for a long time.
“Shall we sit and eat a Snickers bar?” We laughed, genuine and shaky. The mountain had definitively told us that it was time to go down.
Two hours later we were back on the talus, safe and sound. We cracked up and nearly hugged the ground. What a day! What a wondrous, phenomenal, exciting, mysterious, and trying day.
I often tell people that I like climbing, but I don’t love it. What I do love are expeditions, and often times, in the moment, I don’t actually like them. The fear, hunger, fatigue, loneliness, and aching are what open me up and allow for growth. When I think back on the trip, I remember the things I hated with gratefulness and invigoration, something which has been standard throughout all of my prior trips. In the Arrigetch, however, for the first time on any of my expeditions, I can vividly remember being in love, in the moment, completely. Atop Shot Tower, watching dawn settle in amongst the dark grey ribbons of cloud and orange talus, together with three of my closest friends after climbing through the day-lit night. Or on the Battleship, on one of the middle pitches, climbing up a wide chimney nearly forty meters deep inside of the mountain after thinking it was impassable. These were things I did not learn from. I do not reflect on them as points of personal growth, nor do I see them as anything that needs a purpose. They are simply and irrevocably beautiful, wondrous memories.