Steeper, Higher, Farther: A Never-Ending Pursuit
by: Will Babb
There is always a desire to push further. To climb higher, explore the unexplored, see grander views and find your limits. This desire took a strong hold and revealed itself on a cool, foggy morning in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. A remote land of stunning beauty; how could you not explore it? Our camp was in a glacial river valley on the shores of silty Turquoise Lake, the U-shaped valley surrounded by towering, rocky peaks. The peaks loomed above, glaring down at us, intimidating us but luring us toward them. Steep slopes of scree seemed to isolate the peaks and make them unattainable. My eyes were consistently drawn upward, searching for a navigable route up the talus carved out of these mountainsides in the not too distant past by the retreating glacier. .
Low hanging clouds hovered over the glacial valley late into the morning, obscuring the summits of the peaks from our view far, far below. A cool wind blew off the lake as we stood around eating breakfast, shivering and contemplating the day. We had been spoiled by clear, sunny skies in this valley the previous day, and now a gloomy aura fell over the group. One by one, the group disappeared back into the tents to sleep off the dreariness. Olivia and I were determined not to let overcast skies ruin a day of adventure; after all we were on a once in a lifetime trip and the chance to explore this valley was limited to today- it was now or never. So as the last of the sleepy crew retreated behind a thin veil of nylon, the two of us promised Joe we’d return in an hour.
We packed light, expecting a short hike. Water, a rain jacket, trekking poles, bear spray, and a satellite phone made their way into our packs. Snacks did not. With light packs, we started away from camp at a quick pace. Our goal was the top of a green knoll below a steep field of black talus. The talus appeared impassable and dangerous, the mossy bump below it the highest attainable point on the mountain from our view halfway across the valley.
A 4 mile day hike up the valley the day before revealed our sense of scale and distance was way off in this land where everything is BIG- mountains, glaciers, lakes. We looked at our goal, knowing we had to traverse the rocky plain, cross a few braided streams, and then climb up a steep slope to the knoll. We estimated this hike might take us a half-hour, but we reached the stream in 7 minutes, crossed it, changed into our boots, and scrambled up the green moss to our endpoint before we reached the 20 minute mark. Even a delay to pick the luscious blueberries carpeting the steep slope didn’t slow us down much as we reached our goal faster than expected, stopping briefly to admire the view around us and marvel at how quickly we had gained elevation above the valley floor.
It was here that the nagging desire to climb higher took hold. Olivia and I glanced at each other and giggled, both thinking the same thing. Few words were exchanged and we were in agreement- let’s go on. The steep scree we had looked at from camp was less intimidating as we stared up at it from just below, and in a hurry we were off. We decided to push back our turnaround time since the others were contentedly sleeping and climbed higher, shedding layers as we worked up a sweat. With each step the loose rocks beneath our feet shifted precariously. We hiked apart so as not to send rocks tumbling down the slope into the shins of the other. The creaking of loose rocks and grinding of sliding scree kept us tense, but we ignored the warnings of shifting rock and pushed higher, aiming to reach a headwall a few hundred yards above us.
Our thighs screamed as we pushed up an inconceivably steep slope. We relied heavily on our trekking poles for balance on the loose rocks, struggling upward as gravity and the scree pulled our feet back down with each step. Two steps up, one step back. We panted breathlessly, smiling in the struggle of a steep climb. This was exactly the kind of hiking we both loved, tough scrambles, hard climbs, awe-inducing views. The headwall loomed large above us, but with heads down we climbed higher, our feet searching for the most stable rocks with each step forward. Finally we reached the end up the talus at the base of the crumbling headwall, granite cliffs and pinnacles rising above us, our heads tilted back and necks craned up as we stared upwards.
We had planned on turning around at the base of the scree, and then pushed on to the headwall, and now we weighed our options. Looking up, there was a definite path to gain even higher ground. Or we could take the safer option and turn back, heading toward camp and off of steep mountains, loose rocks, and sketchy scrambles. It was an easy decision. We continued on, the mindset that without risk and consequences, we weren’t truly having fun. One has to be slightly messed up in the head to hold this view, and we both are accepting of this truth.
A faint path appeared to trend straight up behind the headwall, but it didn’t appear to extend very far before it disappeared into sheer rock faces. Trying to get as high as possible, we took a longer route up. We scrambled sideways along the base of the headwall across the top of the scree field, sending rocks careening hundreds of yards down as we stepped delicately across. With relief we came to the edge of the scree and followed a mossy path littered with gravel steeply up, still scraping the base of the granite cliffs.
The droppings on the trail let us know we were trekking a goat path, not at all surprising given how high we were. This was an area fit for few animals but the mountain goats, and apparently two overzealous adventurers. Gravel slid down as we stepped up, our hands resting on the crumbling granite face for security and support as we climbed. Clinging to these rocks for our safety did little to ease our worries and was treacherous going, as every now and then we would pull off huge chunks of granite from the wall. We eased forward, taking each step with caution and moving much slower now than before, knowing that the consequences of a mistake, of one misstep, could be high. Broken ankles or legs, a tumble down the steep slope, a difficult rescue, and having to forego the remainder of the trip was the fate that awaited a single mistake.
We reached a point where the goat path we had been following upward along the cliff ran into nothing and a body-length of cliff stood between us and slightly safer walking. We paused here, not wanting to make the traverse across the cliff face. There was no other way forward, so it was either turn around here or commit to a traverse we might not be able to do in reverse. Once committed, we’d have to find another way down. A six foot traverse of cliff stood between us and the other side of a gully, an eight foot drop below us and a thousand vertical feet of talus awaiting us below that should we fall. For comfort we had crumbling granite to cling to and mossy, slippery footholds.
I hesitated, and Olivia set off across. She reached the middle, ran out of handholds, her hands fumbling for grooves or cracks to cling to, and finally did a trust fall onto a boulder on the opposite side to complete the sketchy, dangerous traverse. Now it was my turn. I took a deep breath and shuffled out into open air, my toes desperately grasping for purchase on the small holds and my hands white-knuckling the granite. I shuffled my hands across the rock, finding each weakness, each ridge, crack, and edge that I could crimp. I found good holds and shuffled further out, the other side of the drop just out of reach. I moved my right hand and searched for a hold to cling to, but found nothing further over. I moved it back to a more comforting hold and took a second to contemplate.
Feeling suddenly the open air beneath me and the consequences of a mistake, my adrenaline rose and my breathing quickened. I tried to calm myself, feeling the heady rush of fear that usually enters my mind 60 feet up an overhung cliff face run-out above the last bolt. For a brief second I weighed my options, unwilling to make the trust fall onto the adjoining boulder. I tried moving again, but couldn’t find a solid hold that I could fully trust. I couldn’t move back, and for the briefest of moments I thought about just giving up and letting go, falling backwards onto the talus. I shoved aside those thoughts and tried to shuffle to my right, but the trekking poles I had carelessly shoved into my pack caught on the crumbling rocks and held me in place. I inched sideways, but couldn’t move. I managed to get unstuck, and in desperation lunged to my right for the boulder, catching myself and scrambling to sure-footed ground once again. I trudged uphill behind Olivia, several minutes passing before my breathing returned to normal and the adrenaline left my blood. We both agreed to find a different route back, feeling equally shaken up by the sketchy traverse.
We turned right and continued following the crumbling headwall, pulling milk-jug sized chunks of loose granite off the wall. Rocks slid beneath our feet as we scrambled the last few vertical feet up to the top of a precipice. Looking up, more loose rock awaited us, but the descent was already in our minds. The danger of going down was unavoidable, but going up would only increase the risk. We stopped here at the peak of this portion of the headwall, peering down at the faint green dots of camp thousands of feet below us and across Turquoise Lake, up the glacial valley behind us and staring forlornly at the untravelled rock above us. We wouldn’t reach the top today, but the potential for first ascents in this land couldn’t be ignored and thoughts of a return trip took hold.
After a brief moment of glory on the precipice, disbelief at our own ability to climb so high in an hour and at the landscape surrounding us, we began the long, treacherous descent. Rocks skidded beneath us and tumbled down the slope, landing where we would come to rest if we took a fall from here. We slowly moved down, hiding behind the headwall at each corner as the other descended to shield ourselves from the cascade of sliding rocks. With screaming knees we picked a route down the nearest gully, longing to reach the soft moss that awaited us beneath the scree. We picked the closest mossy gully and headed toward it, the spongy moss cushioning our footsteps when we finally reached it. Back on more solid ground, we breathed a sigh of relief and commiserated over our trembling, beat-up knees. We made our way through a patch of waving, vibrant fireweed and snacked on blueberries as we descended the last bit to the stream and then returned across the rocky plain to camp. We returned after two hours of scrambling just as people started to emerge groggily from their tents. It had been a hard two hours of hiking and climbing, pushing our own limits and pushing the limits up the mountain. We had pushed further than we should have, kept going past our turnaround point, and crossed some questionable terrain. We had been overzealous and asked a lot of our bodies, but the rewards were grand. It was the scariest, most intense, riskiest day hike I had done, but I felt a sense of pride in pointing out the pinnacle we had sat atop far above us, now shrouded in clouds, to the rest of the group. A sense of accomplishment swept over Olivia and I. We had maybe pushed too far, but we also had fun. That’s the kind of hiking we love, the scariest moments the ones to look back on most fondly. So despite the reckless abandonment of caution, the fear that swept over us, we now felt a grand sense of adventure, and couldn’t help but wonder what could have been, how much higher we could have made it. Steeper, higher, and farther- that’s where we want to go. It’s a never-ending desire that you can’t seem to push out of the back of your mind, but following that desire leads to the grandest adventures. It was following that desire that brought us to Alaska in the first place, and now following it had rewarded us with a scramble to remember.