Alaska Part 3: The Iron Curtain -- Grade IV+ 5.12a

When I arrived in Juneau, it was 20 degrees warmer than Seattle, and not a cloud was to be seen. I could actually see the Mendenhall Towers from the airport!

(Our destination is just above my luggage)

As I had arrived in town a few hours before Jason, I went shopping and picked up some tasty local favorites for us to bring along.

When Jason arrived that night, he didn't help pack at all, instead he just went swimming in our pile of gear, like Scrooge Mcduck in the old cartoon.

The packing eventually got done, but it was like amateur hour at the helicopter office.

The flight out to the towers led over Mendenhall Lake and the never-ending glacier. Although it looks small and flat from the sky, we were to find it character-building on the way out. Jason and I wound up wandering around, somewhat lost in that alder forest to the left of the glacial toe.

Anyhow... the second day of climbing was stupendous, and we kept having to pinch ourselves to ensure we were not dreaming. White granite, splitter cracks, no moss, and T-shirts? Were we in Alaska or Yosemite?

We had spied a line on the steep wall that stretches for maybe half a kilometer between the "Main" tower, and Tower #4. The towers are numbered 1-7 from West to East, but it would be much better if they were named. Towers #1 and #3 have names (West and Main) so why not the others? This longwall is called The Curtain, and our route went up a major corner system on the left side of the curtain, visible above my head here:

The day started off bright and sunny again, with glare from all directions and Juneau buried under an inversion layer, which probably just reflected even more sun our way. I didn't climb with sunglasses on, and was starting to feel the effects in my vision.

The climb began with some minor moat and glacial shenanigans, where I completed my first ever dyno on lead on a non sport climb! It was done to get across the moat and onto the rock, with boots on and everything. I really didn't want to fall down into the dark icy moat, but luckily had a good belay from Jason as I committed to the leap.

The first pitch began up obvious clean cracks and set the mood for what was to follow.

After some lower angle pitches, we found the line and I started up intricate stemming right off the belay. There was a loosely wiggling flake that I tried to stand on, got nervous, and hung on the rope a few feet out from the belay.

I removed the flake to reveal a perfect foot jam, so I lowered/swung back over to Jason to start the lead again cleanly and got it right away. This would be our only non-onsight of the route.

Seconding the pitch

Higher up, Jason led a corner/arete to a series of overhanging hand and finger cracks we called 'The Radiator'.

I was happy to hang on and follow it cleanly.

I continued out on the left side of a flake, using our one #3 cam, one #4 cam, and one #5 cam to protect the wide crack. Eventually the flake ended, and I was standing on top of it, in a sea of blank granite, with what appeared to be a few thin face features leading the destination ledge. I tweaked in a couple of not-so-good nuts at the top of the flake and considered my options. Here was a point that I would either fall a significant ways, pendulum to who-knows-where off my dodgy nut, or make the face-climbing sequence onto the ledge. I ticked a few nubbins with chalk, stood up on the wobbly loose block, reached out on my tippy-toes, and with a "WATCH ME" began the moves. The holds were positive and just worked out, so with a whoop of relief I put Jason on belay.

Here is Jason climbing the flake, then standing atop it, looking at the face holds.

He thought that the loose block (which I had needed to stand on to reach some holds) was about to topple off, so he kicked it free before climbing. Luckily for Jason, he is about 8" taller than me, so he can probably reach a foot higher off the ledge.

Higher up we got into an unforgettable pitch that was like climbing double or triple cracks in an elevator shaft. You could jam, stem, chimney, layback, or all of the above.

The crux was pulling a thin-hands roof about 25 feet above a ledge. I gave the lead up to Jason and he almost came off, worked out the moves, then sent the pitch onsight. After pulling the roof, a laser-cut splitter continued onward and upward.

The last pitch of the wall began with a sustained offwidth that we called the Herrington Slot. It's tough to see in this picture, but I was walking our #5 cam up for the first 30' of this pitch.

Hand and finger cracks emerged again, and I was able to lead all the way out to the top of The Curtain!

We snacked and began up the East Ridge of the Main Tower.

Here we encountered smooth slabs interspersed with steps of vertical climbing in the 5.10 to 5.11- range, again the rock was perfect.

I couldn't get over the face holds and features everywhere, so took this video. Narration should say 2nd overall route, not second new route.

Stoked on our second summit, we took time to enjoy the views, then rappelled back down the climb, leaving lots of cordage but little gear.

Dinner was consumed amid sunset views from the Mendenhall camp. The twilight seemed to last from 10pm until midnight, without it getting very dark at all.

The summit area is extremely foreshortened and the runs away from the camera (rather than straight left), but here's the basic idea.

1 comment:

  1. Blake...very, very nice. Laser cut cracks and all. Looks and sounds great homie. Looking foward to more...