Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The North Face of Karl Marx peak

On our climb of the Southwest Rib, I got a good look at the north face of Karl Marx Peak and after we got back to base camp I examined it further with the binoculars.   Based on my inspection I decided to inform Doug and Rusty that I would not to go up on the route.  I had several reasons for this;
  • The rock is not good - loose in places, and very compact with no crack systems in other places.  
  • The route is too steep, technical, and big to do in the lightweight style and minimal gear we had with us.  
  • It was hot and much of the north face was running with water during the day which combined with the loose rock meant there could be a lot of rock fall.  
  • The route we have chosen up the weakest line on the face had a big traverse halfway up.  If we got past the traverse and ran into terrain that we couldn't climb, or if someone got hurt, it  would be nearly impossible to retreat.  We wouldn't be able to rappel the traverse where we had come up.  The rock wall below the far end of the traverse looked overhanging and if we tried to go straight down from there we would be rappelling out into space away from the wall.  We also wouldn't have enough rock gear for anchors to get us all the way down.  
Rusty, and Doug were disappointed at my decision, and Doug came by awhile later and asked me to think about another option.  He  proposed that I could lead the ice pitches and they would lead all the mixed pitches.  They wanted a third person to share the work.  I said I would think about it, but the issue for me was not having to lead hard pitches - I just thought the route was dangerous and we are logistically not prepared for it.  But I thought about it and came up with a compromise which is to do a one day reconnaissance first.  We could go light and fast just to get a sense of whether the route is feasible.  I proposed this at lunch and at dinner we all agreed to do the recon as a threesome.

Approaching the North Face
On July 29th we left base camp to do our reconnaissance. Our goal was to camp that afternoon at a beautiful spot we found when we came down from the summit.  It was just off the glacier in a little pocket of soil that we called Shangri-la -  it was flat and full of wildflowers.  We got there about 10:30 as it was starting to get hot.  Rusty and Doug were looking at the face through binoculars while I was digging a tent platform in the dirt.  Rusty asked if we thought it was too hot to go up on the face.  He could see through the binoculars that there was water running everywhere on the face.  Doug mentioned that if we left at midnight we would be above the ice face in a sheltered spot at the base of the rock wall before the sun hit the face.  If there was any rockfall once it heated up, we could hang there under an overhang and wait till the sun went off the face which was around 1 or 2 PM.  Doug didn't think we would get stopped by rockfall, but he thought we might get stopped by technical difficulties.  I agreed with Doug, and we decided to go up.  It was a decision that we would soon regret.

Our camp we called Shangri-La
We left our camp at midnight anticipating that it would take 1.5 hours to get to the bergschrund (crevasse that you have to cross at the base of the wall) and then 5 hours up a 70 degree snow and ice face to the rock wall.  That would get us to the base of the rock wall by 6:30 when the sun hit the face.  We had explored the glacier approach from our camp yesterday afternoon so we didn't have to do that kind of macro-route finding in the dark.  As we went by in the dark, our headlamps illuminated a dead seabird frozen into the ice.  It was strange to see that kind of bird so far away from its natural habitat.  I should have taken it as an omen and walked away.

We made it to the bergschrund in a little over two hours, but we used more time to find a way across it.  By the time we got onto the ice face we were behind schedule by a couple of hours.  But we didn't anticipate any real problems if we were still on the ice face a little after 6:30AM as it should still be cold enough to climb for a few hours after the sun hit the face.  I already had the lead and the ice screws and rack so I took off.  Our system was I would lead as fast as I could, placing 2-3 screws in a 60 meter pitch and then set up an anchor (belay) and bring up Doug and Rusty.  They would quickly give me the gear they collected from the belay anchor and running belays and I would go again.  Once we were on the wall it was hard to tell where the upper snow and ice features were that we could see from below so we had to look at pictures on our cameras taken from Shangri-la.  We kept pitching it out and had gone about 5-6 rope lengths when the sun started to illuminate the upper wall in an orange glow.

Looking up the 6000 ft wall as the sun hit it.

I was leading about 20 feet past my last screw and Doug yelled “rock”. I instinctively looked up to see some giant boulders bouncing down the ice slope straight for me.    One in particular looked to be the size of a small hotel refrigerator.  I had been angling up and left so I thought Doug and Rusty would be safe, but that I would get clobbered.  I hunkered down with my head into the ice gripping both tools that I had planted firmly in the ice.  An small avalanche of small rocks, snow, and ice hit me, with one rock knocking my ice tool out of the ice but I didn't let go of it.  I planted it again in the ice as best as I could with the avalanche pouring over me .  It finally stopped and other than a few bruises from getting hit by small rocks, I was OK.  I looked back at Doug and Rusty and they appeared OK and I said, “shall we get out of here”?  They yelled yes so I placed a V-thread of rope in the ice and rappelled down to them.  

Doug and Rusty climbing up to the belay before the rock fall.
Doug had been hit in the shoulder by a rock and had limited use of his right arm.  There were more rocks coming down the the face so needed to get out of there as quickly as possible.  As we rappelled there was more rockfall, but nothing like the first one.  Doug got hit again in his other shoulder and one time in the face with a small rock when he looked up.  We were all worried about his face injury because there was blood everywhere.  But it was not such a big cut and luckily just missed his right eye.

Doug after getting hit in the face by a rock
We finally made our last rappel over the bergschrund and roped up for the glacier walk back to Shangri-la that we reached around 8AM.

Back on the glacier headed back to base camp
We were beat up and spent a couple of hours resting; packing: and doing a preliminary cleaning of Doug's face wound.  We reached base camp around 1PM, tired, hungry, and feeling lucky.  I felt like I should have paid more attention to my earlier instincts and to Rusty's concern about it being too warm.  Wandering past the dead seabird in the dark all by itself on the glacier also seemed like a warning.  We should have known better, but now everyone is convinced that this is not a good place to be.

Dead sea bird on the glacier far from home.  I thought it was a bad omen  


  1. Steve,

    Is there an email I can contact you at? Would like to discuss a book idea.

    Jon (jarlan@skyhorsepublishing.com)

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