Mt. Fairweather, SE (Carpé) Ridge

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary Clark, Kim Grandfield, Dave Lunn |Trip Dates: Mid-May, 1981

Photo: Gary Clark

® The author(s) and | Back to climb page NAC Home page

Le Bivouac

The French guide celebre Gaston Rebuffat writes in his book Between Heaven and Earth:

"Personally, I love bivouacs. Only by this means does one penetrate a little the mystery of altitude".

Personally, I've always hated even the thought of a bivouac - huddled with a companion, perhaps, on a tiny ledge or stance, shivering with cold and the fear that some of my favorite body parts might not make it through the night unscathed, and pleading with the clock to move faster… A prime goal in my climbing has always been to avoid bivouacs, believing them symptomatic of inept conditioning, planning, and execution. Still, I had experienced a few. Now, as I wiggle my toes again and take a roll call of those still reporting, my thoughts return to another long night, this one in Rebuffat's own beloved French Alps, where my awkward shelf had turned into a freeway just after finally falling asleep. Tens of guided parties clambered around and over the top of my semi-suspended nylon and goose down cocoon, using my anchors as hand- and footholds in the time-honored European fashion. We had been trop lente in execution of the classic Auguille de Grepon East Face, and gave in to fatigue and darkness on the descent. Still, that wasn't a real bivouac - we had sleeping bags, and were warm and reasonably comfortable until the headlamp parade began.

What do I mean by real bivouac? The word originated in the French military, where it meant "a night guard to avoid surprise attack" (Webster's). It came to be applied to "any temporary encampment (usually of soldiers) with or without shelter." It seems to me we have plenty of English terms to describe temporary encampments with shelter: "backpacking", "Tenting"; or "Winnebago" come to mind. To merit a French word, we should be talking about something considerably more serious, just as rappel doesn't denote strolling down a hillside, and piolet is something more than a walking stick. Perhaps the "without shelter" part of the definition qualifies as real "bivouacking" (surely a gerund that neither language could embrace), if by "shelter" we include a sleeping bag. In the context of the sport of climbing, then, I propose that bivouac, the verb, should imply doing a thing not included in the planned itinerary. "Bivouac", the noun, could be found in a good thesaurus with synonyms of "blunder", "mistake", "screwup", and the like.

A time-honored maxim in climbing is "Preparing for a possible bivouac ensures you will have one." The implication is that the slowdown caused by carrying adequate equipment for a planned bivouac will cause nightfall to arrive before the end of the route. Certainly the Grepon climb lent credibility to the principle. My partner and I had watched in amazement in the early hours of the day as the locals with whom we'd shared the hut had accelerated away up the route. There's not much hope of catching a running back when you're a 300 pound lineman. Which is about how we felt as we drug our Albatross-like packs up the countless chimneys of this 1000m route.

But that was years ago. I awake from my reveries now and adjust my seating on the few coils of rope serving as insulation between me and solid ice, while trying not to disturb by dozing companions. As the night began, we had unanimously and wordlessly decided this was not an occasion for diffidence, and arranged ourselves the most compact heat conserving posture possible - Dave and I facing each other with his feet against my stomach, and Kim, who was suffering from shock and the initial stage of hypothermia, perpendicular to and underneath our legs. I thought of arctic animals gathering themselves into nearly spherical shapes for the same reason, and then thought back to the coldest experience of my climbing career, in the most improbable of locations.

Hypothermia in California's Death Valley? The valley floor has recorded some the hottest temperatures on earth, and serves as wintering grounds for huge herds of migratory Winnebagos each year trying to escape colder climes. But this wasn't the floor of the valley, rather the final ridge leading to the summit of Telescope Peak, the 11,049ft high point on the ridge forming the west rim of the Valley. We had made a mistake that often leads to a bivouac, that of underestimating the objective. Unable to continue climbing into a bitter wind, we huddled under a sagebrush on the lee side of the ridge, using every tactic to gain protection from the penetrating cold. Strips of burlap bag that to this point had served to protect our packs from the sharp points of our crampons were now pressed into service as insulation for our ears as we watched and waited for a harbinger of sunrise on the opposite horizon. January Canadian North Faces and Himalayan summits included, I've never felt colder. Still, that wasn't a real bivouac, either - the climb had begun at midnight, and we had but an hour to endure before the sun came spectacularly to the rescue.

But, Telescope Peak had been decades ago. Now, finally, I am in a real, bona fide unplanned bivouac, no question about it. Conditioning, planning, and execution had been given their due, but all acquiesced to ambition and the accident. We had worked hard preparing our pathetic little perch, rendering it as homey as possible considering that none of us have homes in crevasses. On the wall of a crevasse, to be precise, with a small snow bridge of questionable stability forming our floor, and bizarre, beautiful ice chandeliers the ceiling. The crevasse walls I had seen on other mountains were composed of ice created from accumulations of decades of snow, but this one was of an unidentifiable high-tech structural material. I have a motorcycle helmet made of the same stuff. We had flailed pitifully for hours at the wall with our axes to form the platform, accomplishing less in the way of excavation than in simply keeping warm a while longer with the exertion. Finally we can stall no more, and settle onto a perch that barely offers sitting room and some psychological detachment from the unplumbed depths below. We are under the summit of Mt. Fairweather, the defining boundary peak for the narrowest point on Alaska's southeast "panhandle". Not on the summit, but directly under it. Kim had found the entrance to the crevasse immediately after the accident, and we had been fascinated to find it extended back into the slope to a point where the summit had to be nearly straight overhead. Our attempt to find temporary refuge from the storm turned inexorably into the realization that we were not going back out there. The May Alaska night would be short, but the storm that had put us here might well not.

We had this "classic" in the bag, though, Roper and Steck's book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America having inspired yet another great adventure. This classic had little in common with the Durrance Crack on Wyoming's Devil's Tower nor the Royal Arches route in California's Yosemite Valley, both of which required but a casual stroll from the car to the beginning of the festivities. Mt. Fairweather is a boundary peak both for the border between the U.S. and Canada, as well as for Glacier Bay National Park. The logical approach to the Southeast Ridge, also known as the Carpé Ridge after its first ascensionist, lies entirely within the Park, and air drops or landings were at that time forbidden. We had arranged a beach landing slightly north of the Park boundary, then began multiple carries of equipment and supplies through some of the wildest and most difficult terrain on the planet. The grizzly and eagle are at home here, but we felt quite out of place as we struggled from beach through rain forest to moraine and finally onto the huge valley glaciers that drain the cirque south of this mighty mountain. On the fourth day Fairweather appeared out of the clouds for the first time, but offered a surprising perspective. A little compass work determined that we were nowhere near where we thought! We slowly reached the conclusion that we had been deposited on the wrong stretch of beach by our bush pilot, whose knowledge of the area was apparently less than advertised. The resulting midcourse correction added four days to our itinerary, so it was not until the 12th day that we finally reached the base of the Carpé Ridge. We began climbing immediately after caching a small reserve of supplies and equipment. We had gained 4500 ft of elevation in 38 miles of hiking, and now had but four horizontal and two vertical miles between us and the 15,300 ft summit. With no means of communication to the rest of the world, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

The climb that ensued had been a bona-fide classic, with interesting and challenging technical work on rock as well as snow and ice, and scenery beyond description. We were a happy and enthusiastic team leaving our highest camp that morning headed upward for what he hoped would be the last time. Our thoughts were not entirely focused on the quality and beauty of the climb, though, as we noticed lenticular clouds beginning to form over nearby summits, finally blotting out the upper slopes of Fairweather itself. Dave's feet were also a concern. He had brought his old comfortable leather boots rather than upgrade to the new but expensive double plastic boots, and his toes were now paying the price. The essential ingredients for cooking up an unplanned bivouac were falling inexorably into place; we'd come too far and worked too hard to fail this close to the summit; we'd spent too much money and all our vacation on this single objective; we might never get such a closely matched team together again; we might acquire kids and lawns and mortgages and never get another chance . . .

So, we persevered beyond the normal cautions, still optimistic that we could reach the summit and follow our wands back to camp, if only by headlamp. The wands ran out, and we made substitutions - ice screws, extra ice tools, anything that might stick in the snow and mark the way through the now extraordinarily opaque blizzard. At long last we crawled onto the summit, unable to stand against the wind and unable to enjoy what we knew must be the spectacular view presented on the few days the mountain lives up to its seemingly cynically chosen name. After a few fumbling efforts to record the moment on film, we turned to begin the retreat.

The contest had just been tipped in favor of the elements. The blizzard was intense, but we had been able to cope with it at our backs on the climb. Now the thick fog condensed and froze instantly on goggles and beards as it blew directly into our faces. We huddled for a strategy session, and decided that whomever felt he could see best should lead. The ever optimistic Kim reported that he could see just fine, and disappeared down into the soup. Moments later I noticed with curiosity that Dave, tied second on the rope, was not connected to the ground in any fashion. Rather, he was soaring just above the snow, arms and legs extended in a position favored by skydivers, but quite rare in the sport of climbing. Rare enough that I instinctively assumed the mountaineer's self-arrest position face down on the snow with the point of my axe driven deep and enforced with my full body weight. Dave did the same as he came in for a landing and was spun around by the ropes stretched in both directions from his waist. We were back in control, but not completely out of trouble. We discovered that Kim had quickly found facing the wind impossible, and experimented with walking backwards. He backed directly off the edge of the vertical cliff delimiting the Southeast Ridge from the South Face. The sensation of falling without visual cues, he reported later, was simply of a temporary weightlessness, terminated gently by the rope and a cone of the softest spindrift snow - not unlike a stop in a well engineered elevator. Completely unhurt but shaken, he was intrigued by the entrance to the tunnel-like crevasse where we were now tenants.

So here we are, "penetrating a little the mystery of altitude" in Rebuffat style. Also the mystery of cold. The mystery of fear that this storm might well continue for days or even weeks. And the mystery of Dave's toes, beginning finally to communicate with his brain as they warm against my stomach, but turning white all the same. I think of Rebuffat. I think of Wickwire on K2, Unsoeld and Hornbein on Everest. I think of the sleeping pads and goose down sleeping bags and stoves and food down at the tent. There is plenty of time to think.

Surprisingly, this first real bivouac isn't as bad as I had imagined all these years. I have a down sweater, and we have our rope and packs and a single bivouac bag we've cut open to serve as cover for three. I search in vain for a missing glove, finding instead the expedition mascot, a sheep puppet my wife had secreted in my duffel. It had gone to the summit, and would now keep my fingers from the same fate as Dave's toes. Around midnight Kim stops shivering. I wonder whether this is an improvement or transition to the next stage of hypothermia. The eventual arrival of daylight is taken for granted. Not so the abatement of the storm, the southeast coast of Alaska being notorious for their length and ferocity. Simply put, we cannot go down if the storm continues, and cannot long survive if we stay. The essence of adventure if we are lucky, and disaster if not. The decision will be made by the chaotic and uncaring balance of physics in the atmosphere - pressure, temperature, humidity, fronts and jet streams. We have as much control over these factors as a floating leaf has over the speed and direction of the stream that carries it. I doze off sometime after midnight in spite of the discomfort, and dream almost continuously of sunlight streaming in the cave entrance to herald our deliverance.

Having grown up far inland, I've never fallen prey to the spell the ocean seems to cast on those who live next to it or travel on it. The Pacific beach below the Fairweather Glacier, though, holds a special place in my memory. Nearly a week has passed since our night in Fairweather's Penthouse Suite; days full of tension and concern as we helped Dave back through the long and difficult miles of icefalls, moraines, and glacial rubble, his boots cut open to allow room for his now blackened and hideously swollen toes. At a particularly difficult stretch in the middle of a day that saw our best efforts gain a miserable two miles of progress, Kim remarked "You know, there is no way to describe to anyone back home just how hard this is." Neither Dave nor I disagreed. Now, as I dip a boot in the surf to ceremoniously complete the cycle of experience, the tension washes away, leaving only the warmth of sun and success. The storm on the mountain had not lasted beyond the night, and we had enjoyed nearly perfect conditions for the retreat from the icy heights to the luxuriant coastline. Within hours a Cessna appears overhead, and shortly Dave is lifting off the beach headed for a Juneau hospital. Kim and I enjoy another night with the crashing surf, the bears, the otters, the eagles, the lingering Alaskan sunset, and new insight into "the mystery of altitude."

Gaston, vous avez raison!