mother would probably say that going on a blind date to a foreign country like
Kyrgyzstan is a bad idea. But, the signs all pointed toward the potential for a
productive partnership with a shared desire for adventure and transformational
experiences. Benjamin Erdmann and I corresponded for months prior to
the expedition – We finally met in person on the plane from Seattle to Dubai,
trading backslapping hugs to the surprise of our fellow passengers.
When we got to Bishkek we set to work buying
staples such as rice and beans, noodles, sausage, cheese, nuts, and dried fruit
for our planned 6 weeks in the mountains while we waited for three bags of
missing equipment. Coordinating with ITMC and a local man we knew only by the
name Adilet, we navigated confusion of Bishkek to obtain all necessary supplies
via the bazaars and local supermarkets. On the morning of August 7th we
thankfully received our missing bags and loaded everything in an enormous,
horrifically loud orange and green ancient ex-military tank of a truck and
began the 500km on and off road drive to the toe of the Komorova glacier to
establish basecamp at 3800m.
The mightly GAZ 66 with local yurt. Photo Benjamin Erdmann
Plush meadows at the base of the Komorova Glacier. Photo: Benjamin Erdmann
During my 2012 trip to this area with Ryan Johnson, we attempted one of Kizil Asker's massive couloir lines. I still experience panic when I recall waking up asphyxiating under
spindrifting concrete snow repeatedly while at our tiny ledge bivy next to
Ryan. Rappelling through the night. Huddled as close as possible to the
surface of the ice as avalanche after avalanche threatened to rip us from the face of the mountain. Ryan threw himself on top of me at a belay to
shield me from large hunks of falling ice while we rappelled through the night. We felt lucky to escape with our lives.
Upper South Face, Kizil Asker in 2012.
From BC at Komorova, 9 days of load hauling established us at our advanced basecamp
at 4400m below the cathedral like South face of Kizil
This pass into China is the way to the South Face of Kizil Asker. Center to right photo ridge is the famous 'Ochre Walls.'
Being able to see our objective renewed our enthusiasm for the line we went to the other side of the world for. Our line is prone to deposition and shedding in the form of avalanches both small and large during storms. So, Ben and I tempered our enthusiasm by reading increasingly shitty weather forecasts and talking about our intent to make it home alive. Listening to massive avalanches pour off Kizil and surrounding peaks during storms gave us a lot of motivation to try to find decent window in which to attempt our climb.
this in mind, we constantly monitored the weather reports we received from
friends back home. A couple positive reports came through but every time we packed our bags and started skiing toward the base the weather
window slammed shut and we were enveloped in proper storms. We got really good at packing and unpacking.
On one of these snowy occasions, minds going stir crazy, we
decided to attempt another line we
had seen from a distance on Panfilovski Division’s East peak (ca 5300m). This stunning 2000 foot golden granite spire seemed to have been overlooked in favor of other nearby objectives.
Our line on Panfilovski East. Photo: Benjamin Erdmann
Navigating tentatively through the snowstorm toward the base at
4:30 in the morning, we laughed at ourselves for having the hubris to even
leave the tent. Booting
up the cone, things began to clear up and we finally allowed ourselves to get
excited about the climbing. Ben found an anchor above the bergschrund and racked
up for the first pitch of mixed climbing ice plastered rock with
decent protection. The next few
pitches of moderate styrofoam ice went by quickly as we raced warming
temperatures and falling ice low on the route, establishing ourselves at the
base of the thin mixed system defining its upper half.
Ice runnel leading into upper headwall. Photo: Benjamin Erdmann
Cloud cover returned as
the upper half of the route revealed pitch after pitch of really fun mixed climbing. An insecure and
awkward moderate section led to a thinly plastered corner. Ben
led solidly up this, crampons stemming on small rock features with his
picks in eggshell ice overlying subtle rock features. Swinging into an ice choked offwidth, I moved from chicken wings into awkward palming and decent tool placements and finally a full layback.
One of the upper headwall crux pitches. Photo: Benjamin Erdmann
mind in tune, we pulled on to the top of Panfilovski Division East. We surveyed
Kizil’s titanic steepness, commenting on the mercurial and violent
nature of the weather in the Western Kokshaal Too. Our line on Panfilovski East was 2000 feet long,
climbed in 12 pitches, AI4R M7 without the use of bolts. We named it
Flight of the Zephyr in honor of our Tasmanian friend Kim Zephyr Ladiges, who
was unable to come with us on the expedition. From the top of Panfilovski East we began our rappels through
mixed weather with Ben ensuring placing
bomber anchors the entire way down. We arrived back in basecamp at 6:30 pm, 14
hours after walking out in the morning.
Atmospheric conditions on the top of Panfilovski East, Ben rigging our first rappel.
Though we had made a mutual pledge not to
attempt Kizil until we had a precipitation free weather forecast of at least 3
days in duration, we noticed that we were both losing weight in light of the
cold, continued storms, and lower than desired calorie counts resulting from
self imposed rationing in this remote place. We began to feel pressure from one another and from our
shrinking bodies to make an attempt before we lacked the mass to stay
warm. Our plan was to try to work with diurnal weather cycles; climb whenever we were presented with a clear spell, hide
out whenever we got precipitation. Unfortunately,
there is nowhere to hide. This type of route is there for a reason.
Massive amounts of precipitation funnel through to create the same pitches we
wished to climb. Such is the nature of the world-class
Getting in to the steeps in warming conditions on day 1 during our 7 hour blitz to my 2012 high point on Kizil Asker.
Benjamin Erdmann getting ready to fight for his life on a 'good morning' WI4X pitch.
Encountering beautiful pitches through both dangerous precipitation and delamination, we gave the line our best shot in light of the
horrible conditions we encountered. We made it to my 2012 highpoint in 7 hours. Fighting for
our lives 250m above our 2012 highpoint was an
experience of awakening.
Sometimes all you can do is hide out. Ben at a mid day storm bivi.
After attempting other tricky pitches in miniscule clear patches and getting punished by spindrift, we returned to our respective hideouts. After spending around 50 hours on the face with the latter 36 mostly pinned down by frightening conditions, we decided to bail. Unlike 2012 we didn't get crushed by horrific avalanches on the way down!
A nice morning at the asphyxiation bivi at 5300m on Kizil Asker, 2012. Photo: Ryan Johnson
After tossing extras and arranging transport, we slogged back over to basecamp on the Kyrgyz side of the border. Then we proceeded to get very hungry when a driver became sick and two vehicles broke down delaying our pickup.
Finally, our transport arrived with
four UK climbers inside. It turned out that they had heard about our plight and
brought us an enormous cake in addition to a bag of food provided by ITMC. We orgasmically
jammed our faces with junk food and laughed as the UK climbers played us songs
on their ukulele and regaled us with their excitement at being dropped off to
try and climb a major objective off the Kotur glacier. Soon enough we had
dropped them off and begun our journey back to civilization, were we ate an
honest excess of calories for several days before beginning our respective journeys
Ben and I would like to thank a variety of people and entities for supporting our trip.
Friends and Family - Thanks so much for supporting our crazy endeavors over and over again! And thanks for the weather reports, we would have been lost without them.
Adidas - Thanks so much for chipping in to make our trip more affordable and supporting Ben in his ongoing endeavors!
Bill Belcourt and Black Diamond - Thanks for the replacement hardware, gloves, helmet, harness, and more.
Heather's Choice - Thanks for a variety pack of dehydrated meals!
Ben - Adidas, Cassin & C.A.M.P., Sterling Ropes.
Blue Water Ropes chipped in a couple ropes which helped out greatly.
Ryan Johnson thanks for the loan of the tent mate!
As we await our bags in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan it seems a perfect time to share the expedition video from my last trip here with Ryan Johnson. Please enjoy and hope the best for the arrival of our bags so that we can move on from the city toward the Western Kokshall Too!
All last Summer I collaboratively made long awaited plans with my life partner of three and a half years to move to a more rural location in Alaska. We were torn between Seward and Chickaloon. We researched job options, considered various ideas for our potential living situation, talked about fun things that we could do in each place. Eventually, we decided on Seward for a variety of reasons including access to the ocean, tons of mountains, trails, and canyons, local ice climbing, a local hospital, and proximity to my familial cabin in Moose Pass.
My little cabin in historical Gilpatricks, Alaska near Moose Pass
But, just like a movie that has a really happy sounding opening scene, things were not to be as we dreamed. Thankfully it wasn't because someone died or there was a zombie apocalypse but you can already can guess the situation was unpleasant at least for me since I have set the story up this way. We returned from a Fall trip to visit family and spend time on the Maine tree farm that has been part of my mother's side of the family since the beginning of the 1900s and began packing for our long awaited move. We both arrived in Seward without local employment, though I had been in contact with potential employers for several months. Eventually I got a job projected to start in the beginning of January, while my partner didn't get her hoped for employment in the emergency room and continued working intermittent nursing shifts in Anchorage. The strange thing was that in between these three day blocks of shifts she didn't seem too motivated to come to Seward to explore our new landscape or build community for herself. In fact she seemed a lot more interested in staying put in the big city and couchsurfing in between shifts. Confusion began to set in a little bit for both of us I think. We made a couple friends but overall, things felt a little slower and more difficult than we had expected. Eventually my partner came back to town but started looking at plane tickets to exotic locations and making plans to travel even as she paid lip service to building friendships and community for herself in our new home. Overall things felt difficult but I personally felt that we had overcome way more difficult obstacles during the course of our relationship. Unfortunately, at some point my partner stopped talking about how she was doing and turned inward, away from the collaboration and mutual excitedness for a shared life that we had been working on building.
The big surprise came on the day of our long term family friend's funeral, which it turned out was the day before I was to start my new job in my new home. It was a big day for a lot of people, especially for Lars' family. Lars Spurkland was a long time friend, local ski advocate, and his family was already missing him. Despite the sadness of the occasion it felt a lot easier to focus on all the amazing things that Lars had done in his 39 years and I looked forward to bonding with our shared friends and Alaskan extended family at the event. When my partner arrived I was excited to see her and wanted to introduce her to Lars' family.
But it turned out that she showed up at the funeral to let me know that she no longer wished to be together as a couple and requested a ride to Seward to get her things in preparation to exit my life without much of a trace or explanation, which she did the following morning. It just happened to be the morning I was to start my new job. Over the next couple days she came and went in Anchorage without a trace, removing her few remaining belongings from my parents home in Anchorage without speaking to anyone, moving like a shadow into our past. I helped her find a place to live, with her ironically moving back into our old shared home in Anchorage which had now been rented by my good friend Cody. Eventually it came to light that loneliness and depression led to infidelity, with an uncharacteristic six month spell of dishonesty on her part. The joy that life brings is a result of growing through our mistakes rather than pretending they didn't happen. At the time of course, my world fell apart and I felt utterly alone in our (my) new home....torn by feelings of inexplicable guilt and loneliness, unable to sleep. Ironically having my employment starting up gave me just the structure I needed to survive and helped me make some friends during that initial period of huge stress.. I hope that she finds her way and can forgive herself to grow through it. At least when I learned about the infidelity, all the rationalizations and justifications regarding the manner of her leaving made sense.
Within a few weeks things were starting to look a little brighter. Finally things froze up which was a lifesaver because we had a horrible snow year. I began to be able to remember who I was, that I was an OK person, that I deserve love. I joined in 'silly' community activities like the volleyball league and made some new connections. I explored the canyons in all my free time and looked for ice, finding a myriad of amazing routes with new route potential in many places and a lot of cool existing lines. All in all Seward and surrounding areas have given back tenfold with new joys found around every corner as you can see below.
Ice skating to cool ice routes in the backcountry near my cabin. Photo: Rachel Taylor
Pitch one of a potential new line (?) reminiscent of the classic Hollowhead back in Hunter Creek. I n absence of information, I gave it a personal reference of Hollowheart in honor of my struggles (WI4+ 180m). Photo: Rachel Taylor
The view of my backyard from the flats near Nash Road.
A spectacular new line I completed with Aaron Thrasher and Elliot Gaddy that we called 'Rhinestone Wizard' (WI5 350m) in reference to a cool jewel shaped rockwall nearby.
Pitch 4 of Rhinestone Wizard - Photo Elliot Gaddy/Aaron Thrasher
Aaron Thrasher soloing easy ice on a line we took to calling 'The Big Easy' (WI3 200m) - Photo Ben Chriswell
Aaron Thrasher and Ben Chriswell walking home from 'The Big Easy' which can be seen in the background.
A bunch of amazing boulders in an 'undisclosed' location near Seward.
One of another group of nice boulders in a different 'undisclosed' location near Seward.
More of the same. Overall, my approach to the many cool things I have found around here is 'show, don't tell.' So, if you want to take a look at some of the things I have been finding or doing, please hit me up and come on down to take a look. I promise you it will be worth it.
I've also gotten really excited about exploring new frontiers on my bikes, both around Seward and my cabin in Gilpatricks. Once I get my GoPro bike situation dialed in, I will look forward to sharing some footage with you all.
The motorcycling around here isn't too shabby either.
Finally, I had a lot of reservations about heading back overseas to Kizil Asker in Kyrgyzstan due to trying to build my new life and practice here in Seward, a little PTSD from my burials on my last attempt there with my brother from another mother Ryan Johnson. Black Diamond via Bill Belcourt threw down to help make it easier to decide to go with my new partners Benjamin Erdmann and Kim Ladiges. Just committed and got my plane tickets on Monday!
The Western Kokshall Too. Looking forward to heading back for another stab at hopefully multiple lines with Ben and Kim. Here's hoping for new love and continued explorations and route development here at home in Seward and Moose Pass as well! Yet again, climbing, you have saved my life. I owe you a debt of gratitude. And thanks for giving me the confidence to chase my dreams even when I am feeling a little bit broken down by life. My friends, thanks for being patient with me, it took a while until I felt competent to even share what has happened in my life with any depth. My coworkers, thanks for your flexibility in considering how to work out on call shifts while I am overseas! Now to get in killer shape to send in Kyrg!
One of my most memorable times in the mountains was early on in my climbing career with Lars. And in some ways, it is a miracle that either of us survived it.
Late April 2003. Unseasonably warm temps (90 degrees in Talkeetna) and a winter snowpack combined to result in very unstable cornices. Lars and I, pretty inexperienced at the time, were attempting an alpine style ascent of Foraker's SE ridge via the SW toe.
The snow was unconsolidated, the cornices were large, and there was no opportunity for any decent pro in this particular spot. 'The big guy' Lars was following in my tracks. An estimated 60 foot long hunk of cornice 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep broke out from beneath his feet. I suppose not surprising that he triggered it while I had not while using the same steps as Lars has always outweighed me. I heard a yell and the air around me depressurized as the falling snow left a vacuum behind it.
It was one of those special moments when everything is on the line and there is only opportunity for one decision, one action before choice is taken away by the continuing flow of events.
The rope ripped through the unconsolidated snow, cutting further into the remaining cornice as I threw myself into self arrest just barely on the opposing slope of this very narrow & corniced ridge. I knew, just knew, that we were both going to die and I imagine Lars did too. But somehow I was able to hold Lars as he fell, buffeted by masses of falling snow. It shouldn't have worked. I think at the time that Lars weighed about 215, and each of our packs weighed about 60. I think he fell about 40 feet. If it wasn't for the rope cutting into the cornice, thereby decreasing the force of his fall it would be a physical impossibility.
10 minutes went by with me digging deep with everything I had just to maintain my self arrest position with no opportunity to build an anchor. 10 minutes of absolute early morning Alaska Range silence, with no backup and no anchor.
But then the impossible happened and Lars' weight began to lift. Eventually I gained enough confidence in his ability to move, still with no communication, that I flipped into a snowseat belay and belayed him up as he climbed. Finally he pulled on to the ridge crest, unharmed but badly shaken. He had taken a large inverted fall above 2000 feet of air.
It was one of those experiences that that can have a strong effect on a friendship or climbing partnership. Lars and I had skiied together many times but had never climbed together prior to this. His brother Jan, whom I had climbed Denali with several years earlier, had been planning to be the third on the trip but was unable to come (I think due to knee injury).
It could have been a cool replay of our childhood ski and sled adventures, playing with lincoln logs in the evenings in some kind of adult modality. I think we would have chosen a different line, something we could ski (perhaps the Sultana ridge), and things would have been safer in those strange conditions. As it was I think the experience acted as a bit of a wedge for Lars and I, and we didn't recreate much together again until I got lucky enough to get a ski day in on Captain's Chair with Lars and Corky Still last Spring. They were really fit from their season of coaching high school nordic and I struggled to keep up on the long skin with my massive skis.
Nonetheless, we made great time, and each chose our own steep line on the first half of the descent. Corky and Lars took steep lines through the rocks while I skied the also steep chute we had bootpacked, coming in from the side.
I don't know why Lars and I were allowed to survive on that day in April 2003 but I know that our lives and the lives of all those we love would be less rich due to our passage. I am glad that Lars was OK, and impressed with who he grew up to be. And damn, could that dude tele ski. It almost made me guilty to have my heels locked down seeing him ski those steeps freeheel like it was nothing. Thanks Lars for changing my life. I'm glad you got another 11 years.
In the beginning of November we moved from Anchorage to Seward - A town of around 3,000 at the head of Resurrection Bay in the mighty Gulf of Alaska.
Panorama taken while running Crown Point Mine road, a Kenai Peninsula classic.
Mount Alice and friends. Seward and its environs so far seems to present innumerable options for backcountry recreation including a lot of steep ski terrain.
Cool terrain hiding in the backcountry.
The Godwin glacier.
I returned to Anchorage for a visit at Thanksgiving. Took this panorama on the 9 mile approach back to Triangle Peak, where I put in a quiet solo attempt on 'The Prism' (5.7 WI4). I bailed when my first day of the season chops had me moving without my full confidence, and felt like I made the right decision.
Triangle Peak. 'The Prism' starts behind the central, low rock buttress and trends up and right to the summit. Two easier routes exist to the left.
The main body of 'The Prism.'
View toward Symphony and Eagle lakes.
View down the first pitch smear.
View from top of second pitch.
Final pitches. I decided to rappel from here as I wasn't moving with the confidence needed to free solo the upper crux, and didn't wish to self belay for time concerns.
Second rappel anchor which got me to the ground.
On another note, I may have an opportunity to return to the Western Kokshall Too with Jess Roskelly, Ben Erdmann, and Kim Ladigas, though planning is only preliminary at this point. This photo is one I took of the 'small side' of the Western Kokshall Too. I hope this December finds you well!
I finally took some time off of work to ski and run, allow some catch up on sleep. Spring is finally here and though I am working for the next few months it will be much easier to get out. Ryan and I are hoping to head back to Kyrgyzstan in the Fall. I need to train. I have 12 weeks until I graduate from doctoral internship with Alaska Psychology Internship Consortium (AK-PIC). Then all that stands between me and graduating is my dissertation. I am proud to report that I am feeling more motivated lately and have been putting some work into it.
A few highlights from the week:
Corky, Lars and I deciding on our lines on Captain's Chair - Photo Corky Still
Our lines on Captain's Chair
Quick stop before second half of Captain's Chair back to the road
Here are some updates on what the cabin looks like these days -
Sleep loft/storage with guard rail to prevent visitors from falling down
Main living area
A typical Spring morning at the cabin
You can see here that we have been cleaning the bark off the logs and sanding them to prepare to re-chink the cabin's interior for a cleaner look, less dust, and better heat containment.
Dining area + front window
Linen closet above bed & tall bedroom window
Tool storage, bookshelves, & view into the living room - You can see here that these logs are only partially cleaned and not yet sanded at all.
The new bed - a queen, and its off the floor for more storage space underneath!
On another note, Ryan Johnson and I are talking about heading back to Kyrgyzstan for another battle with some of the Kyzyl Asker area's fine unclimbed ice and mixed routes. I'll update as I know more.