To Alder Hell and Back Again: Alderfest 2013

Summer has (kind of) arrived in Alaska, and not a moment too soon. Temperatures soared above 80 degrees last week, and while that may not exactly sound like a heat wave to people who live in areas with normal weather patterns, I’ll remind you that we experienced forty degrees below zero this winter. My friend Hannah’s doctor fiancé told me yesterday that he diagnosed several cases of heat rash this week, which I’m taking as proof that Alaskans have devolved into cold-bloodedness and are not meant to be warmed above about 60 degrees. Still, my friends are loving it: we are jogging on the formerly-Nordic trails, canoeing around the lake rather than skiing across it, and climbing rock instead of ice.

See the lovely view? No, you don't, because there are stupid alders in the way.
See the lovely view? No, you don’t, because there are stupid alders in the way. (Photo: Amanda Hull)

Actually, we may have jumped the gun on that last one. Alaskan rock is notoriously not-that-great for climbing, although lots of climbers up here insist it’s not so bad if you know where to go (I don’t). Fortunately, my friends are way cooler than I am and, for reasons I cannot explain, seem willing to let me tag along.

Last weekend, after several days of sweltering heat (okay, 70s), we assured ourselves the rock would be dry and the approach fairly clear. Itching to get our hands on some rocks, we piled into Gil’s tin can Prius and headed for Hatcher Pass, where the Alaska Rock Climbing Guide estimated a 45-minute approach to the Alpha and Beta Walls.

We’d brought snowshoes “just in case,” and I, in the trail running shoes I’d been positive would be “just fine,” was sorely disappointed to have to use them. We snowshoed a mile down Archangel Road, where we often cross-country ski during the winter (and when the snow isn’t the consistency of a Slushee) until we could see the wall and its counterpart, Jurassic Boulder, up the hill.

By the time we left the still-snowy Archangel Road and started uphill, I had already begun to deeply regret my choice in footwear—I had actually started looking forward to putting on my rock shoes, which any climber will tell you is a bad sign, as they are meant to fit snugly and are usually decidedly uncomfortable—but as we began the steep slog up to the wall, I had no choice but to grin and bear it. Our snowshoes slipped in the slushy snow, and I grumbled a quiet blue streak to myself every time I lost traction. We took a quick break at Jurassic Boulder, then marched onward toward Alpha and Beta.

Now, I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I absolutely despise alders. Quick recap: they are the worst, snagging on all your shit, generally nightmarish, etc. It might surprise readers, then, that I actually missed alders on this approach-from-hell.

The snow ended somewhat abruptly at the base of a giant patch of alders, and we kicked off our snowshoes, glad to be done with the slip-n-slide for the time being. Soon enough, the alders thinned, and I looked up to realize the rest of our approach to the climb would be nearly vertical itself. This wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t covered in slick mud, and if the only things to grab onto weren’t spiky stalks of devil’s club. As I repeatedly lost footing, always finding myself farther downhill than I’d started, I felt like I’d inadvertently agreed to star in “Sisyphus Goes to the Crag,” and by the time I joined my (apparently much more agile) friends at the base of the climb, the alders had reappeared and I was covered in mud and bloody scrapes.

I could have used a snagging alder branch on that approach, and while I certainly wished I had access to one at the time, I arrived at the climb hating them even more: where’s an alder when you need one? Totally unreliable. Perhaps the miserable approach should have clued us in: rock season has not quite reached the Talkeetnas.

Clif, sandbagger extraordinaire. "I don't think this is a 5.8..."
Clif, sandbagger extraordinaire. “I don’t think this is a 5.8…” (Photo: Amanda Hull)

Quick rundown: climbs are rated based on their difficulty. I won’t go into too much detail, because there’s a lot that goes into how and why routes are rated as they are, and as you can probably imagine, it’s somewhat subjective. There’s this thing called the Yosemite Decimal System, and it rates hikes and climbs based on their exposure to terrain on which you might take a fall, and how dire the consequences of that potential fall might be. Class 1 would be walking along on something flat-ish, with little exposure to falls and thus little risk of injury unless you’re a major klutz. Classes 2 and 3 are simple scrambling, with increased exposure in Class 3 (for example, if you’ve hiked a 14er in Colorado, you’ve probably done some Class 2 or 3 scrambling).  A fall in either of these categories might result in injury, depending on how much exposure there is, though risk of a fall is probably pretty low. People frequently rope up for Class 4 terrain, because although it’s often possible to find natural hand and footholds in the rock, a fall would likely result in injury or death because it’s pretty exposed. Anything Class 5 is vertical, meaning an unroped fall would likely result in injury or death.

From there, the YDS ratings for climbs are 5.0 to 5.14d (there is, of course, some debate about the most difficult climbs and whether they’re really 5.15, but again, I won’t get into that here). There are also lots of different systems for rating climbs, and a 5.7 one place might be rated something completely different somewhere else. (Note: In Alaska we actually have our own grading system for glaciated climbing. Alaska is kind of its own planet.) Because the numbers between 0 and 14 were apparently not enough to account for the vast and complex array of routes out there, the letters a through d can be assigned to a given rating to indicate that it’s an easier 5.10 or a harder 5.10 or whatever. Anyway, these ratings are based on how technically difficult the moves on the route are, how long the pitch is, and, if you’re placing gear, how solid the opportunities to place protection are. These things also vary based on what kind of climbing you’re doing: trad, or traditional climbing, means you’re leading up the wall and placing protection as you go, then clipping the rope into the pro you’ve just placed. If you’re climbing somewhere with bolts in the wall, you don’t need to bring your own gear, because protection has been placed for you; you just clip a quickdraw into the bolts and clip your rope to that—sport climbing. If you are not already completely bored by this, Alpinist magazine has a very helpful explanation of different grading systems.

Amanda does her best to muster a smile as she rappels through Alder Hell. Inset: A much more pleasant rappel through an Alder-Free Zone. (Photos: Gil Carr.)
Amanda does her best to muster a smile as she rappels through Alder Hell. Inset: A much more pleasant rappel through an Alder-Free Zone. (Photos: Gil Carr)

Okay, after that confusing and probably not very helpful narrative, I think we’re ready to move on. We’d intended for one of the stronger climbers in our party (i.e. not me) to lead an easy 5.8 route, “Blueberries,” clip into the chains at the top for an anchor, and have everyone else climb it on top rope (so, with someone else belaying them should they fall) before trying something a little trickier. A few moves into the climb, Clif realized that either a) we had been been terribly sandbagged, meaning the climb had been rated as way less difficult than it actually was, or b) he was on the wrong route. After some debate, a little recon, and a quick consultation of the guidebook, we determined that Blueberries might be around the corner, but that if so, it was wet, and thus much-more-difficult-if-not-impossible to climb.

Fortunately, though he had just been sandbagged, Clif is something of a sandbagging son-of-a-b himself, and it wasn’t long before what turned out to be a 5.11a was ready to top rope. My friend Amanda, also a sandbagger, insisted it would be too hard for her and then gracefully made her way up, laughing good-naturedly whenever she reached a part of the route where I would have cursed loudly. I am also a sandbagger, but I was not sandbagging when I said a 5.11a was decidedly outside my ability level. (This was made even worse because by a handsy alder in the way a few moves in, which most climbers would consider cheating to use as a handhold and which Gil refers to as a “veggie belay.”) Still, it was fun to give it a shot.

The world's cutest Labrador can't understand why we don't want to stay on the ground with him.
The world’s cutest Labrador can’t understand why we don’t want to stay on the ground with him.

As with most springtime excursions in Alaska, this one ended in pouring rain, and as we got ready to retrace our steps, it occurred to us that it would probably be safest to rappel back down the nearly-vertical approach. This was decidedly more fun (I like to pretend I’m with the S.W.A.T. team whenever I rappel) than sliding down through devil’s club and mud, and, one slushy slope of slippery snowshoeing later, we had arrived at Archangel Road, some of us bloodier than others.

Lessons learned: Wait until the snow melts to climb rock in the Talkeetnas. We climbed off the Seward Highway this week and I was treated to a dry, alder-free approach leading to dry, alder-free rock. It was delightful and, more importantly, Labrador-approved.

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