Bridalveil Falls & Keystone Greensteps (Valdez)
By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary Clark, Mark Jonas|Trip Dates: February 25 - 27, 2002
Photo: Gary Clark
Mark planted the seeds for these climbs when he sent me Andy Embick's guidebook "Blue Ice and Black Gold" in the early 90s. I was struck with the statement in the introduction to the guide (now out of print) that Valdez, Alaska was "unsurpassed in North America and probably the world" as an ice climbing destination. While perhaps a bit of a hyperbolic assertion, it was clear from the number of routes and from their descriptions that it would be worth a trip up there as soon as my winter schedule allowed. Each Fall I would once again flip through the book picking out the routes I'd like to try, but never got it together to commit to going until more than a decade had passed. Many of the routes appeared very serious, because the first ascent stories took place during the late 70s and early 80s, when ice climbing was a very different sport than it is now. Stories of climbers of the reputation of Jeff Lowe and Carl Tobin requiring multiple days or even bivouacs to get up the longer climbs were sobering.
By the time a new millennium rolled around, though, the photos and general nature of these climbs began to resemble climbs being done rather casually in the lower 48 states and Canada, even by "weekend warriors" like me. I e-mailed Mark asking if this might be the year for us to meet in Valdez. Living in Anchorage, this was a relatively simple trip for him, and he quickly agreed to set aside a week of vacation from his job as an emergency medical evacuation nurse. In that job, he flies all over the state picking up patients for treatment at an Anchorage hospital. Mark had climbed Bridalveil before on a long road trip north through Canada and Alaska when he was in his early 20s, and was also curious to see how the climb would compare after a couple decades more of ice experience and with modern tools.
I flew to Anchorage on a Saturday, and we spent an enjoyable Sunday driving to Valdez. Although only 50 miles crow-flight distant from his home in Girdwood, and accessible in that fashion by ferry in the summer, we had to drive a long, almost circular 5-hour road from the coast up into the interior, then back down along the oil pipeline to the coast again. The day was spectacular, with unlimited visibility and sunshine, and the high peaks of the Wrangell Range, including Mts. Drum, Wrangell, Sanford and Blackburn shining to the North. Any one of these would have provided a major expedition at that time of year, but the crystal air gave the impression that a day ski tour would take us to the base. The sunshine gave way to clouds as we reached Thompson Pass, at 2600' the high point of the drive. From here it was downhill into Keystone Canyon, the gateway to Valdez. I hadn't realized we were even close until Mark began craning his neck at the canyon walls as we drove. "Is this it?" I asked. "Yeah, Bridalveil is just around the corner."
The moment when I see a major climbing objective is often poignant. After 10 years of looking at the route in a guidebook and trying to figure out how it is situated compared to the other routes, I often find that my preconceived notions are inaccurate. And so it was on this occasion. I was aware of two things; first, that the clothing I had on for riding in the car is seriously inadequate for standing outside the car in the humid penetrating wind that frequents the canyon. Second, that I hadn't quite figured out that this thing is right next to the road - only a frozen river bed separates the base from the guardrail - the approach would not be a problem. Other than that, it looked just like the photo, and it looked very reasonable. I had climbed quite a few pitches in Colorado earlier in the season that were more serious than anything I could see on Bridaveil. We drove on into Valdez with a sense of pleasant anticipation rather than foreboding. When a climb is well within my ability, I look forward to it like I might to a meal at an excellent restaurant or a good movie. When it is on the ragged upper edge, a lack of appetite (even for beer!) and a lack of sleep on the evening before the climb are typical. To use one of Mark's favorite terms, I am a candy-ass climber.
We stayed at the Aspen Hotel, a very good choice. Winter rates were very reasonable (for Alaska), breakfast was included, and there was free Internet access. Finding a good place for dinner was more problematic, and I have no recommendations. In time-honored fashion the room was soon festooned with ropes, hardware, and clothing as we decided what to bring for the next day. We packed 10 ice screws, 10 quick-draws, 6 regular slings, one double-length, and some extra sling material in case we needed to make V-thread anchors. We could have easily gotten along with 8 screws, 8 draws, 4 slings, and a double. We had a set of 60m x 8.1mm twin ropes, freshly waterproofed. For clothing, I had the following:
We took neither food nor water in order to eliminate any need for a pack, reasoning that the climb should take only a few hours. Everything not on the rack went in our pockets. Extremely useful were a set of Motorola FRS radios. Although the wind was mercifully light on the days we climbed, it can be fierce in this canyon, rendering shouted belay signals completely ineffective.
Now to the climb: It doesn't get light until about 8:00 at this time of year, so we planned to be at the base about 8:30. We were climbing by 9:00. We had decided on leading responsibilities with the flip of a coin, and I had the first pitch. It starts right off the snow with near-vertical ice, but by using a runnel, I was able to stem a bit and keep well in balance. The ice was perfect - thick, green, and plastic. I was using a new set of Charlet-Moser Quark tools, which placed almost always on the first swing. The route had clearly been climbed recently, so I was able to tap or hook over 50% of my axe placements. The climbing was stimulating, but very reasonable, and I was having a good time from the first few moves. After about 40' the pillar ended, and I found myself on a low angle (maybe 60 degree) lumpy ramp. I ran out the rope toward a fixed anchor near the right side of the falls. Someone had recently placed three V-threads there, with a good stance below. I glanced over to see a small cave at the extreme right side, but decided there must have been a good reason for the anchors being where they were. This would turn out to be a mistake.
Mark arrived and began the next lead, another vertical pillar ending in a ramp. We looked up the pitch and agreed that, although I would clearly be in the line of fire at the start, hopefully the pitch would traverse so the inevitable falling ice chunks created by the leader would fall off to the side of my stance. This assessment was incorrect. For the next 30 minutes I stood in a cascade of snow and ice chunks. Even being very careful, he couldn't help but knock loose a couple of large chunks from near the top of his lead, which I heard well before I saw. These would clearly have done considerable damage if they had not narrowly missed me as they buzzed past. I strongly recommend belaying only in caves on the far margins of the falls.
I hadn't read the description carefully in the days prior to the climb, and was rather thinking that the crux pitch, known as "Killer Pillar", was the 4th. Imagine my surprise as I arrived at his belay, a giant cave extending completely behind the falls, to see that the crux was in fact the 3rd pitch, and I was going to get to lead it! Although as a whole I came away thinking that the entire climb was quite moderate, I do admit to experiencing a mild "pucker factor" as I came back out of the cave onto a vertical face and contemplated the pillar. The literature has the vertical section of this at around 75'. Once I got moving past my first screw about 10' above the belay, the rhythm of tool placement, testing, and move feet up set in, and I topped the pillar before I had a chance to think much about it. I started using the new Black Diamond "Android" leashes this season, and I was again thankful for the improvements in gear that have gradually transformed this sport from a desperate battle with dysfunctional equipment into something resembling recreation. I could easily unclip from one axe in order to spin an "Express" screw in with my free hand. In the 'bad old days' we hung with daisy chains attached to the bottom of the axe, or hung an elbow through one sling while banging away on a Snarg or slowly and awkwardly ratcheting in an old Chouinard tubular screw using a third tool, a far cry from the quick efficient modern methods.
Killer Pillar ended abruptly at another 60-degree snow-covered ramp. I climbed up a bit, found a bit of good ice for a final screw, then ran it out until Mark came on the radio announcing that I was nearly out of rope. I was determined to be well away from the fall line for the next belay, and since the fourth pitch headed to the right, I placed the belay at the far left edge. After Mark arrived, I looked up at the big conifer that signaled the end of the climb, and said, "It looks like about 80 feet up there - if we end up rapping the route, maybe we can do the first one with a single rope". He looked up and said "80 feet? It looks longer than that to me." "OK, maybe 100 feet", I said, thinking to myself that he was still relatively new to this sort of thing, with only about 30 years experience.
The final stretch to the tree was rolling terrain, with short vertical steps and ramps alternating all the way. It looked deceptively easy as well as deceptively short. As Mark approached the end of the rope (60m, 200'), I sheepishly called him on the radio to see if he would be comfortable with simul-climbing the remainder. He was, so I quickly broke down the anchor and started up as the rope came tight. In only about another 80', he was at the tree. Everything is just bigger in Alaska!
Now for the descent. Mark had told me repeatedly to ignore the guidebook, since he had clear memory of the descent from the last time he climbed it, some time in the 80s. I'll spare the reader the details, but it has something to do with floundering around in knee-deep snow at the top of the cliff, with alder bushes for belay anchors, while he tried to find something that looked familiar. Finally he gave up and said "Let's just rap the route." This decision was rendered easier by the fact that there were about 20 slings and multiple rappel rings already on the tree. We hadn't been paying much attention on the way up, though, so he headed down in exploratory mode, prussiks at the ready. Finally he called "Off rappel", and I slid down to find him at a time-honored but less-than-confidence-inspiring Alaskan anchor. Several slings of ancient vintage, some sporting good crops of moss, together with some new slings, were wrapped in undecipherable fashion around the bases of alder bushes. Apparently an expert can tell a dead alder from a live alder in the winter, as Mark explained a few days later when telling the story of some climbers who did not have this skill and so didn't live to pass on their new-found wisdom. I could not tell the difference. They all looked dead to me, and none of the stalks involved in the anchor seemed much larger in diameter than my thumb (Mark will disagree, he thought they were huge). I suggested that he rap first.
That rap took him naturally down the left side of the falls, so to reach the cave he had to traverse horizontally on the terrace below Killer Pillar. From here, his memory served well. There is an improbable traverse out of the cave to the right (climber's right, descender's left) which goes over a little shoulder, then very steeply down a hillside to a stance at the base of another vertical cliff. None of this is visible from the cave; you just have to know it goes. We set a belay and Mark started off. Within about 10 minutes I got a call on the radio that he was done, and I could proceed on belay. I unclipped from the sling-around-the-icicle we had been using as a belay, and headed up and over the shoulder. I could immediately see that the belay was psychological at best. He had punched a deep groove into the deep, loose snow on the side slope, which seemed to average about 60 degrees. Had either I or the snow slid, the ride would have been on the order of 300 feet into a gully I could not yet see. This is a quicker alternative to rappelling the rest of the route, but I'm not sure I can recommend it, particularly in deep snow. There are but a few alder branches along the way to grab, and no opportunities for anchors for the follower (the leader has an upper belay). Another short rappel brought us to an easy snow cone at the base, and soon we were back at the car. The climb required on the order of 3.5 hours, we messed around at the top for the better part of an hour, and the descent was another 1.5 hours.
During the descent we had a clear view of Keystone Greensteps, almost the next-door neighbor to Bridalveil. It is very rare to find ice features of this size so close together - only the Weeping Wall along the Canadian Icefields Parkway comes immediately to mind. Although we had no firm commitment when we came to Valdez to climb the Greensteps, it was almost unspoken that it would surely be the goal for tomorrow. With a reputation for being considerably more serious than Bridalveil, with a matching appearance, I could feel that old familiar tightening of the stomache as I contemplated it. This was alleviated later in the evening after we tossed the coin for first lead. Mark won (or lost, depending on how you look at it).
The next day dawned as the one before - a slow diffuse light creeping through the gray clouds that almost perpetually cover Valdez. We had spent another night listening to the "beep, beep, beep . . " of front-loaders as they moved snow around, a 24 x 7 operation here in winter. Arriving at the parking area again about 8:30, we strolled over to the base of the falls, fully aware that the first pitch would be the test of whether we would tick this route as easily as Bridalveil. Mark remembered it as 'quite hard', but I reminded him that anything even close to vertical was hard with the tools of the early 80s.
He found a groove right away that allowed a little stemming, but there was no avoiding the fact that this was a long stretch of very steep ice with no rests for the arms or calves. He led it without whimper or pause, and soon it was my turn. I always enjoy climbing ice on top rope, because I can move on axe and crampon placements I would never trust on lead, and thus have a lot more feeling of actually climbing the ice rather than engineering my way up it. The pitch was made of the stuff I flew thousands of miles to find, and very quickly I was peering over the top of the pillar at a short ramp leading to Mark's belay. The main difference between Greensteps and Bridalveil is the relative length of the pillars and ramps. While Bridalveil had perhaps 50% of each, Greensteps was closer to 80% pillar, 20% ramp. Rather enigmatically, they are both graded as WI5 in the book, but clearly Greensteps is the more serious climb. If these were rock climbs, Bridalveil might be a 5.8, with Greensteps a 5.10-. Of course, ice climbs are deliberately rated vaguely due to the degree of variation from year to year; they are often not the same even on successive days, much less over a span of years. Still, the rating system does not in this case reflect the fact that Greensteps will always be harder.
The remaining pitches were cookbook, except the last. I knew that most people exited the main ice pillar to the left as they neared the top, in order to reach a large tree. When I got level with the tree, it not only looked rather like a very awkward traverse to get there, but there was still a good 50' of quality steep ice leading to the rim that I'd have missed by going there. So, I continued, not knowing what the rim would bring, but in the mood for a gamble. As I topped out on the ice, I found near vertical snow leading through a thicket of alders. OK, so this wasn't the kind of climbing I had come for, but it was fun in a perverse way, knowing that I had good screws down below in case the whole slope ripped. Arriving finally on low angle slopes after a good long thrash, I tied off several of the larger alders and radioed Mark to come on up. Now we'd get to figure out an alternate descent.
My long perusal of the guidebook now came in handy, as I remembered that one didn't need to rappel from any of the routes - there was a service road up above the rim for the pipeline and a power line. We had only to wallow up to it, follow it along the rim for a while, then descend a non-technical gully back to the bottom of the canyon. Easier said than done - the vertical gained in knee-deep snow seemed to be about the same as the climb, and the gully looked likely to avalanche. Knowing that Mark was in training for a 50km cross-country ski race, I graciously allowed him to lead all of this for the sure aerobic conditioning that would result. I'm not sure he fully appreciated this gesture, but he'd have probably gone hypothermic following in my tracks at the pace I could manage.
We belayed the first 200 ft of the gully, then decided it was safe enough to unrope, even managing a glissade for the bottom portion. We were back in town in time for a hot bath before dinner, agreeing as we did a post-mortem of the day over beers that Greensteps was the better of the two climbs, simply because of its continuity. I read in a climb description once a long time ago that a particular route was classic because it "had no offending easy sections". This phrase has stuck with me over the years, and I bring it out whenever appropriate, for example when a desperate climb offers a few reasonable moves to allow me to get my courage back together. "Oh, man, not another offending easy section! I hope to Hell there aren't any more of those!"
I had come to Valdez hoping to climb and document one more ice climb for the North American Classics collection. I had presumed it would be Bridalveil. We chatted for a while about which route better deserved to be in the collection, going to bed without a clear decision. Greensteps was a better climb, but Bridalveil had some excellent passages, and the cave behind Killer Pillar was a unique and beautiful feature that was almost worth the climb to see. I woke in the middle of the night with the obvious answer - both should be in the collection. Just as there are adjacent classic routes in Yosemite Valley, and the Grand Teton alone adds three routes to the collection, Valdez was easily an important enough ice climbing area to warrant two routes, even if they were only a few rope lengths apart.
Two days later, after an aborted attempt to reach a climb in "Hole in the Wall Canyon", we found ourselves with a free afternoon. We came back to climb the first two pitches of Bridalveil again, switching the lead order, so we could take more pictures. The falls is so wide that it was easy to choose an alternate line to make it almost a totally new climb. I chose a very direct pillar for the second pitch, which was equal to Killer Pillar in difficulty and length, to up the adventure factor a little. The descent still sucked.