On September 14th, 2013, Petzl regional ambassador Jason Nelson and partners Gabe Hayden and Ryan Johnson made the first ascent of the south face of the West Mendenhall Tower in Alaska. They named the route Balancing Act (5.11c, 1,400’). Following is Jason’s trip report.
Gabe Hayden counting calories as camp.
We hover over our bags, faces down to the wind. It's early fall, so not much snow kicks up. The glacier is mostly ice. With an ever increasing roar, the helicopter's engines rev and the bird lifts off. The wind stops almost immediately after the helicopter begins to fly away. Within a few moments it's gone and there is no sound. We stand up and begin to move our bags away from the landing zone and to our camp site. This year, a sizable rockfall has occurred and so there are a pile of boulders for us to make camp at.
"This is great!" I exclaim.
"This boulder will work like a picnic table".
"Yeah, we won't have to spend all of our time on ice." Says Gabe.
"Say, um… you think any more rocks will be coming down? I could use a chair boulder to go along with the picnic table boulder.”
"I think we're good" says Ryan. "It doesn't look like anything has come down for awhile" pointing at the crater the rocks have melted into the glacier.
"Yeah, that would be a drag if we got flattened in our sleep."
"Hey guess what, Jay?"
When Ryan says something like that I never know what to expect. Ryan can be capable of some wild antics.
"Umm, What Ryan?" bracing for what he might say next.
"I remembered the tent poles this time!"
"That's good because we don't have a shovel this time. Digging a cave in the ice for three with ice axes is not likely to happen.”
Now this is one of those moments where you need to know the history. The last time a helicopter dropped me off at the base of the Mendenhall Towers was with Ryan in the middle of winter. The first task is normally to set up camp and it was only moments before we realized we had left the tent poles at the house. With the helicopter gone, there would be no tent for us that night. We set about taking turns digging into the glacier with our one shovel. Halfway through a the project, our luck turned for the worse again when the shovel broke. We reassembled the shovel with the unbroken parts and finished a snow cave some four hours later.
Ryan Johnson and Gabe scope out the proposed route
"I'm so ready for a beer!" Gabe explains.
"You brought beer?" I said, my face lighting up.
"Hell yeah, after the week I've had."
"Which bag are they in."
"I don't know.”
For the next several minutes the three of us tore through our bags, but no beer appeared.
"Ahhh, did we forget the beer? No, don't let it be true!"
"Hey guys, we don't have any food either…"
"Ooooh, this is worse than forgetting tent poles!"
"OK, here are a few bars, some yogurt."
"We've got Mac n Cheese!"
A small pile of food appeared on the picnic table boulder.
"OK Gabe, you're the engineer, how fucked are we?"
"Hmmm… 100 times 10 plus 300 plus" some mumbling and other numbers followed.
"We've got about 1,000 calories per person per day for three days."
"How many calories does a person need a day? All I know is that I generally eat a lot of food."
"We're gonna die!" says Gabe, whose metabolism also burns through food like a HumV burns though gas.
"So no dinner tonight."
The evenings celebrations more or less died down after that and we all went to bed early.
Our morning's breakfast ration of yogurt was short lived. Without any coffee it's miraculous we even got out of bed.
The 'shrund was easy to cross and we danced up gorgeous granite cracks. The cracks and rock texture was so good that Ryan began singing "Friction is just another word for, nothing left to loose…" as he climbed alongside me.
"Dang, if only that phrase was a little shorter. It would make for such a good route name."
By early afternoon Gabe and I stood on the summit. Ryan's friction gave out and he had fallen to his death a couple pitches back. Ah, just kidding. So the three of us stood on the summit taking in one of the best summit views ever.
The Juneau ice field extends for 100 miles and is full of rock spires. Glaciers pour out of valleys and off of summits. Far below we can trace the contours of the Mendenhall Glacier all the way to Juneau. Beyond that, the channels of the inside passage and mountainous islands stretch across the horizon.
Ryan on the summit ridge.
"Hey Gabe, so there are about 10,000 crevasses we'll need to negotiate between here and our walk back to town."
"Yeah, your point?" he replies.
"How many calories per crevasse will that be?"
I see Gabe start to process the equation and interrupt him before he can come up with an answer.
"Never mind that, let's just down from the tower for now."
The three of us turn around and begin our descent.
And that folks, was one story in the making of our new route, Balancing Act (5.11c, 1,400’), the first ascent of the south face of the West Mendenhall Tower. We named the route in honor of having to balance work, women, and finances in order to have these great experiences. Not to mention, balance our depleting lack of calories.
Balancing Act – 5.11c, 1,400' South Face of the West Mendenhall Tower
FA: September 14th, 2013, Ryan Johnson, Jason Nelson, Gabe Hayden
Gear: Cams from #00 to #5, doubles tight fingers to #3, stoppers, runners (some double-length).
Route overview for Balancing Act.
After waiting a week and a half for a weather window the three of us flew up to the towers. We chose to climb the line up the South Face of the West Mendenhall Tower because it was one of the biggest, cleanest and steepest sections of unclimbed rock on the South Side of the Mendenhall. We had a narrow weather window to work with in between storm systems and this route was done late in the year. We climbed the route in a day and were back at camp just before nightfall.
P1 - Cross the 'shrund to begin in the primary weakness in the center of the south face. Climb up into the groove and escape right via a 6" crack (#5 Camalot works). Climb the wide crack for 30' to a ledge. Escape right into the next crack system. Watch rope drag. Continue up to a ledge. 180', 5.10.
P2 - Climb final steep crack to reach the ramp system above. Belay on ramp system. 120' 5.9.
P3 - Climb the weakness up the ramp. Easy 5th class, 200'.
P4 - Climb up dirt-covered ledges to the base of the wall, just right of the gully and right of a snow patch. 4th class, 200'.
P5 - Climb cracks and corners aiming for a triple, right-facing flake system. Belay on ledge below this system. 5.8, 120'.
P6 - Climb the left of the three flakes, a clean finger crack layback. 5.10, 120'.
P7 - Step left, big reach, into overhanging right-facing tips corner. Above this, the crack gets wide. Negotiate a offwidth section to chimneying behind a large flake. Traverse the top of the flake and up a golden right-facing corner with thin gear, then traverse right under the roof on some wet holds to a hanging belay. 5.11, 120'. (Variation: It might be better to belay at the top of the flake if you can find an adequate belay. It might also be possible to continue out the roof instead of traversing right.)
P8 - Step right from the belay and make difficult moves up the ramp into the prominent right-facing golden dihedral and ledge above the belay. Place some gear and make hard moves left around the arête. Continue up the thin crack on the arete and belay on the ledge above. 5.11, 110'
P9 - Climb overhanging corner to ledge, then up past some blocks and onto summit slabs. Belay on the ridge. 5.11a, 110'
P10 - Traverse lichen-covered summit ridge until you are out of rope. 5.6, 220'.
P11 - Unrope and hike to the summit. 3rd class, 200'. Enjoy one of the best summit views anyone could possibly ask for!
Descent: We more or less rappelled the line of the route.