Uisdean Hawthorn and Tom Livingstone have successfully climbed the new route, Fun or Fear, on the East face of Mt. Jezebel (2880m), Revelation Mountains, Alaska; roughly graded at M6+, 90 deg. Nevé, Ai6 R. Uisdean shares his experience.
Words by Uisdean Hawthorn
“We will not leave until we ‘ave the chairs!” said the Frenchman; “and the table outside, the black one, is for rent, no?”
I stood in the Talkeetna Air Taxi office, watching with great amusement as the American staff tried to communicate with the French: the table wasn’t really necessary. The comparison between us and the French team was startling. Whilst the thought of witnessing the French team up on the glacier with kilos of bread, garlic, cheese and wine seemed inviting at the time, I’m glad that they were going to a different part of the Revelation Mountains. It meant that we wouldn’t get jealous of their luxuries.
Compared to them, Tom and I had very basic supplies for our base camp set up, a diet consisting primarily of freeze-dried meals and bagels.
A few hours later, we were crammed into a tiny plane with all our gear packed around us. Paul Roderick, our pilot, kept saying, “try not to let your knee hit that lever too much.”
“Ok,” I said, trying to act as relaxed as he did – my attempt more than likely failed when I noticed a label above it that said, THROTTLE.
After an hour of flying time had passed, Paul whipped round the plane with precision to give us a better glimpse at where we were headed.
We both stared intently at the North face of Mt. Jezebel, our main objective of the trip.
“Looks steep, cold and cool,” I thought.
From the plane we could see a line up the center of the face, which was the only one without big seracs above it…
The Original Objective
We had heard about Mt. Jezebel from our friends, Pete Graham and Ben Silvestre, who were the first and only people to climb the East face. When I saw a photo of the North face, we were really inspired by it. We were unsure what it would look like in real life as it’s always hard to tell how big and steep certain features are from a single picture.
Once we were finally there, it felt amazing to see the face in the flesh.
An Unsuccessful Attempt
Ten days later, Tom and I stood on a snow patch a third of the way up the route. We looked up at an overhanging 10m-wide chimney, with a massive snow mushroom blocking it. Below was 40m of vertical sugar snow, with not a drop of ice in sight.
“Bugger! I guess it’s not possible then.” We grudgingly agreed.
We began the horrible process of abseiling down the 8 pitches we had just climbed, most of which were 70m long, with worn gear and worse belays. We eventually made it down to the glacier, skiing back to base camp on the East side of the mountain later that night.
Base Camp Lethargy
Base camp life resumed over the next few days, with excessive amounts of lying down and eating; and small amounts of skiing in-between. The amount of butter being used to toast the bagels meant they were deep fried rather than toasted. I started to feel lethargic. All the lying down just made me want to lie down more.
A New Plan In Place
We skied over to the East face one day and found that there were so many good lines to climb. After looking around and going to the base of a few different ones, we decided on a line that had a steep looking first third, but was quite possibly a bit easier above that.
But it was hard to know from the ground.
I liked this line best because it climbed a really obvious gully system and the bottom steeper third was just one of those features that looked amazing. We were unsure of the descent but when we flew around the mountain we could see the South East couloir looked like an easy descent. But there was a col we would have to climb up and over to get back to our skies. It was hard to see from the plane so we weren’t sure if it would end up being a big mistake to go that way.
The weather looked to be clearing up over the next few days, so we packed our bags and set the alarm for 3 am. The alarm sounded – but when we looked outside and saw it was still snowing hard we said, “well… bugger that,” and went back to sleep. We didn’t bother getting out of the tent until 10 am, and spent the rest of the day killing time as snow continued to lightly fall.
The next day, the alarm sounded at 3 am again. This time the stars were on show. Then came the usual faff and attempts to eat breakfast without feeling ill. By 6 am I was following Tom, stepping over the bergschrund and onto the route.
Fun Or Fear
I tied in, racked up and started climbing up an 85 degree neve for 30 metres. Thankfully it had two runners in the rock at 15m. After 30m it steepened and quickly became vertical sugar snow and quite serious. I inched towards some rock in a corner below a roof. Eventually, after thinking light thoughts and doing lots of digging, I found some good runners.
I climbed the rocks to the right of the roof and shouted, ‘Watch me!” before climbing out left to step around it. As I moved my feet, the snow under the roof collapsed, and I hung off my axes. I quickly pulled up and did a campus but with my body smeared on the ice.
I took a moment to relax once established on the ice. “Well that was a bit of a rude awakening,” I thought as the flash pump slowly disappeared.
The next two pitches weren’t as hard but had a total of four runners and some worryingly steep sections of neve.
Tom took over the next pitch which had some hard digging up vertical snow chimneys with some interesting moves, but thankfully there were more runners.
Tom’s third pitch looked like a wide ice fall. However, it turned out that although the middle section had two inches of ice, five inches of air separated it from the rock.
Tom tried to mix climb the wall to the right but couldn’t, so he dug deep, and committed to the hollow section.
I belayed below, listening to the horrible noises while the ice creaked and boomed as only rotten ice can.
Thankfully the upper and steepest section had good ice and screws.
From here a 150m snow slope led to a junction of the gully. The right-hand branch looked like a good, direct way up but had more steep snow which would be time consuming. The left looked much easier apart from one pitch, what appeared to be an overhanging chimney.
We decided to try the left and were rewarded. I got into the chimney and found the left wall to be covered in excellent ice that even took screws. It It really made me realise just how hard and serious the lower pitches were.
We nicknamed this pitch “the gift” as it was such a surprise.
A long snow slope led to a gully which then led to the main ridge. After a few hours of alpine style ridge climbing we found a good flat spot just before dark and settled in for the night. By the time we had melted water and eaten food it was after 1am.
Despite only having one custom-made bivi-bag and sleeping bag that was made for two people with only a wind shield as a back board, we were quite warm and slept reasonably well.
We woke with the sun already in the sky and, after quickly stuffing some porridge down, we continued traversing the ridge, dropping onto the left side and doing some ledge shuffling to reach a col. Just above the col we found two wires equalised. These belonged to Pete and Ben who first told us about Mt. Jezabel and who were the first people to climb the East face.
From here we soloed up the easier ridge to the summit. We sat in the sun for a while, enjoying the warmth and the fact there was no wind.
For the descent we down climbed back to the wires, but instead of abseiling down the gully on the East face (which Pete and Ben had originally climbed) of Mt. Jezebel we went down the West side. Three long raps later we were in a broad gully that could be down climbed to reach the massive South East couloir. We managed to walk down it in 40mins.
Not As Hard In Reality
This left us at the base of a col which blocked the way back to our skis and base camp.
It looked quite big, we guessed six pitches. It didn’t have one obvious way up. After a bit of debate and using the last of our gas to melt some water, we decided to try the steep looking gully on the left. I sat there thinking that we had made a big mistake, and that we were about to have to do more run-out steep snow climbing.
In the end the thought of getting started was worse than the actual effort of climbing.
The snow on the way to the ba se of the gully was the worst bit. It had been fully thawed by the heat of the sun and felt like trying to climb up the inside up of a slush puppy machine.
Tag. You’re It!
Once on the steeper sections, the ice was surprisingly good and after 2 pitches Tom arrived at my belay.
Thinking we were about half way up, I turned to Tom saying, “Tag! You’re it!”
Tom set off and tried to make his way up the side of a roof which had a small snow mushroom underneath. After some digging he down climbed and looked around. Spotting a crack on the right wall he aided his way up it. Eventually he reached some slabby ground and quickly found his way back into the gully. A pitch later, and much to our relief, we were at the top of the col.
I took the rack and looking down a gully found an anchor to easily abseil off, but I could also see the top of what appeared to be a massive snow mushroom.
“I really hope we don’t have to touch that,” I thought as I started abseiling.
However, 50m later and to my huge relief, I saw the mushroom was sat on a massive chock stone and we could just abseil straight under it.
The second abseil was very pleasant – for the first 15m, until I came to an overhang.
I looked down to see a huge slot. I started abseiling hoping my ropes reached something at the bottom. After a wild 45m I ropes were about 3 metres short of a ledge system.
I climbed back up, 10 metres or so, to a chock stone as I couldn’t find anything else to abseil off.
I thought, “oh well only one thing for it,” and threw a big loop of tat round the chock stone, bounce tested it and then shouted, “Rope free!”
Tom didn’t seem too concerned when he arrived but also wasn’t too overjoyed to join me and just free hang off the chock stone.
Base Camp Celebrations
However, all went well and we abseiled to the big ledge 20m down. From here it was only 2 more abseils down to the glacier. We trudged back to our skis and were soon celebrating in base camp by eating deep fried wraps with cheese.
We flew out to Talkeetna a few days later, the French team who we had seen on the way in were also there. We all celebrated in the Fairview Inn over beers, talking about our climbs and all the funny things we had seen in Alaska.
Massive thanks to:
The Mount Everest Foundation; the BMC for their support which made this trip possible;
Ben Silvestre and Rob Smith for sending us weather forecasts.