The summer of 2007 was almost devoid of climbing for me, having spent most of my time on the clock with the Gannette Glacier fire crew. After being released and returning home from a fire in Idaho in early August I finally had time to climb, and with the season closing fast I arranged to head out to the rocks with Kelsey Gray, Richard Harrop, and Shasta Miller. We decided to climb above the Turnagain Arm near Anchorage on a wall called Goat's Head Soup, just off the Seward Highway. The evening progressed, and as the warm sun sank lower over the water we decided we didn't want to stop having fun, so we left the Highway behind and headed to Archangel Valley in Hatcher Pass with our sleeping bags and climbing gear.
The morning broke with a blast of bright sunlight finding its way through the cracks in the cabin walls, and the four of us set out to climb the six pitch "Toto," one of the classic climbs in the area with a rating of 5.10 according to our topo (a hand-drawn map of the route). We had all climbed the first two pitches many times in the past, but none of us had never set out to do the route in its entirety, so we were looking forward to seeing what was above our high point. Shasta and I started off, leading the way up three pitches of moderately easy terrain to the fourth pitch: a choice between a blank face or an intimidating looking wide crack in a dihedral at the right edge. Our topo was unclear which way was the actual route, so we pondered our options for a few minutes.
A climber typically ascends a crack in a rock not by grabbing holds or features of the rock as in face climbing, but by wedging hands and feet into the crack. An "offwidth" crack is so named because it's just a touch too wide for hands to gain sufficient purchase, but too narrow to be able to fit a torso or body all the way inside. Offwidths are often a difficult puzzle of determining how to wedge whatever body parts fit into the crack in such a manner that one won't slide right out, but will still be able to make upward progress as well. My climbing experience has left me naturally at home on featureless faces and usually panting and straining whenever I enter an offwidth, so I chose to head up the blank looking slab of unknown difficulty. We found out afterwards that the offwidth is indeed the route, and it's not as difficult as it looks, but we made an adventure of climbing this pitch the harder way.
I made a few moderate moves up the face past two bolts, and then found myself delicately switching feet on tiny divots over which I had to "smear" my rubber shoes, and trying to figure out how to advance up the slab without any holds at all. After a few tense minutes without progress, I managed to smear my feet a touch higher and stretch as far as I could to slide my fingertips onto a tiny sloping concavity, which gave me enough purchase to slowly step higher and gain some real holds. I've often been cursed by partners for doing such stretches to get past crux moves, and because of that it's something I thoroughly enjoy doing. I chuckled later as first Shasta, then Kelsey, then Richard asked me how I got through that blank section.
The next pitch presented another difficult challenge both in technical skill and the associated head game. For years I had been eying a beautiful crack that splits a large and unfeatured granite face, and wondering if it was part of Toto or not. From the valley floor it looks like it might be perfect hand jams the full length of it, and it almost is. It turned out the crack was slightly off route, so I climbed to a ledge at its base to see what it was like. My hands slipped into the bottom and jammed beautifully, and looking up I could see the crack only widened slightly from there, so I grinned and started climbing.
About fifteen feet off the ledge, I placed a #3 Camalot and climbed past it, struggling slightly as the crack widened out. A few feet further on I realized that I had grossly misjudged the width of the crack from below, and the rest of it was ever-widening offwidth some forty feet to the top. I tried backing down, but with a cam in the crack under my feet and no way to get a secure hold, I judged that going up would be easier and therefore safer, so I set my eyes upward. My #3 Camalot was the largest piece on my rack and as the crack widened there was no way I would get anything smaller placed for protection, so as I gained ground over my one and only piece of pro I knew that falling was no longer an option. Gasping and grating, I inched slowly higher.
Then ten feet from the top the sharp corner of the crack began to round off, leaving me with less and less to grip and delaying my already tediously slow upward progress. I knew a fall from here would send me flying perhaps sixty feet, well past the ledge where Shasta stood wide-eyed belaying me. Gritting my teeth, I stared hard at the top of the offwidth and a small hold that would end this miserably insecure predicament, and focused on my climbing. I discovered that although I couldn't efficiently gain ground move by move, I could in fact wedge a part of my hip and thigh solidly enough to move my shoulder and upper arm upward by scant millimeters, and then grunt and strain to hang from a wedged shoulder and one hand on the rounded lip while I re-situated my leg slightly higher. This move repeated itself until the tiny savior hold at the end was just out of reach, at which point I stretched my trademark long arm and reached it anyway. A couple more moves pulled me over the lip where I lay gasping, and turned around to moan a warning back to the others:
"This is not the way to go," I grunted.
They came anyway, following me up on toprope and making many of the same noises I had. Richard, who had left his shirt behind in the hot sun at the base of the cliff, reached the belay with his shoulder and half his back rubbed raw and seeping blood. He grinned through the pain, happy to have made it to the top. Shasta gave it a mighty effort having never had any experiences with offwidth crack before, and positively shone with her trademark smile after reaching the belay. The sense of accomplishment achieved by completing something so immensely difficult is a feeling that sticks with you, unforgettable and never fading with time.
The last pitch passed under us without trouble and we spent a few minutes collecting and sorting our gear while soaking in the enormous view offered by the summit block of the route, a sombrero shaped feature which sits prominently on the point of a ridge with empty space falling away into nothingness in three of the four directions. Our play then done for the day, we downclimbed the back side of the ridge and made our way back to the car with a short detour to retrieve Richard's shirt and cover his rock-burned skin.
In the months that followed the temperatures dropped and climbing season ended, sealing off Archangel Valley with several feet of snow. Skin grew back and scars healed up, but the memories of a challenging climb and great times with good friends still carry on, timeless and bold forever.