Emotional Atrophy Amid the Revelations

The Revelation Mountains are a small, rugged subrange of the Alaska Range located about 140 miles northwest of Anchorage and about 130 miles southwest of Denali. The principal peaks are granite spires that rise out of relatively low-elevation glacial valleys. The high vertical relief of the Revelations creates a dramatic backdrop for some very challenging climbing conditions. They remain mostly unexplored because the weather is notoriously heinous and the flight to get there is long and expensive.

None of this has deterred alpinist Clint Helander, who made his eighth trip to the Revelations with help of a $1,000 grant from the Mazama Expedition Committee. 

The objective for his eighth trip? The tallest unnamed peak in the range, known simply as “9,304.” 
“Words cannot describe the beauty of this peak,” Helander said in his grant application. Helander planned to climb the Southwest Buttress of Peak 9304, a 3,500-foot route, in a single push of 24 hours. 

What follows is his account of the ascent.

by Clint Helander (all photos are courtesy of the author)

There would be no sleeping on this night. Last evening’s -25 degrees Fahrenheit freeze had given way to warmer temperatures, blown in with a ferocious storm. I knew my climbing partner, Tad McCrea, was also awake, but we said nothing. We just laid there in silent fear and listened. The wind moaned a slow, agonizing cry among the summits and lenticular clouds. Then, like an army of charging demons, it screamed down the valley, gaining momentum and strength as the surrounding walls tightened. 

Like counting the growing waves on a shoreline, we began to determine when the biggest of the gusts would hit. Despite our snow walls, they seemed to blow right through us. Our four-season tent would flatten, the fabric stretching and poles creaking. “We’re not going to make it through the night,” I thought. Like a captain talking to his battered ship amidst a tempest, I begged the tent to survive. “Hold strong,” I quietly pleaded.

This wasn’t what Tad and I had planned on when we landed under perfect skies the previous day. But now, in the northern heart of Alaska’s Revelation Mountains, we felt alone and adrift. I braced my side of the tent through the most terrifying of the gusts and began stuffing all of my loose belongings in bags. “Should I put my boots on,” I wondered? “She’s going to break at any moment.”

March’s early morning twilight began to eek through the sagging tent walls. So far, she had weathered the storm. The winds began to ebb, now gusting to perhaps only 80 miles per hour. Our snow walls were gone, the glacier scoured into a shadowy white and gray wasteland. I emerged from the vestibule in full war regalia. We dug all day, excavating a snow cave under the flat glacier. We couldn’t survive another night of wind like that without it.

The brunt of the storm passed, but ceaseless wind followed for another five days. We resigned ourselves to passing the hours in our tent and snow cave, emerging now and then to snatch a few glimpses of our distant prize: the unclimbed monolith labeled “Peak 9,304” on our Lime Hills USGS topographic maps.

Tad was running out of time--the pilot would be there to pick him up in less than 24 hours--and the wind had yet to subside. We called for a weather update. It would be calm the next day. We awoke at 4 a.m., but the incessant wind persisted. We rolled over and tried to sleep, but the sound of our enemy outside refused to let us kill more hours in slumber.

At 11 a.m. the wind finally blew away. We skied out of camp in rapid procession. The south face of Peak 9,304, a mountain I had long referred to as “the Obelisk,” held its triangular form as we approached.

A snow-filled chimney held my picks, but threatened to spit me out. My protection far below felt suspect. Sixty meters above, a grainy crack offered a decent spot to anchor in. Tad led a long block of simul-climbing to the base of an ice-streaked headwall. A prow reared out past vertical and the hanging daggers looked almost impossible to climb. The summit was many thousands of feet above us still. We retreated.

Tad reluctantly flew out the next day, and in his place John Giraldo arrived, fresh and unbeaten by the storms. We quickly reached our highpoint on the Obelisk. I searched for courage as I confronted the looming ice above. A bad screw penetrated snow and aerated ice, then a few feet higher a good, small cam. “Watch me, John. This is really hard and scary,” I muttered. My tool shuddered and reverberated as it penetrated nominal ice and struck the granite slab underneath. A deep breath and I trusted myself to it. Another swing and a wide stem and I was still moving upward. I swung again, only this time the tool broke through the ice and into air. A two inch crack! Hanging there, teetering on my loose pick, I excavated the crack and placed a dreamy cam. The crack continued for another fifteen feet of salvation. Seventy meters of difficult climbing continued and I searched for an anchor as the rope came tight. Small cams shifted in odd-shaped cracks, and pins bottomed out in seems. John followed and I studied the anchor while I thought about him on the crux moves.

We continued upward for hours in long blocks of simul-climbing. The absent wind seemed strange on our sunburned faces. We approached the summit in the afternoon, high above most of the surrounding Revelation peaks. At the top, I thought back to the stress of the previous week of fighting the endless winds. I pushed the pain of a failing relationship from my mind. Two words came silently to the front of my mind: emotional atrophy.

On the summit though, it was a brief moment of long desired tranquility.

Clint Helander started climbing in 2003 and has climbed a variety of alpine routes in Alaska, including an integral ascent of the Moonflower on Mt. Hunter and the third ascent of Mt. Huntington’s Phantom Wall. Yet, he returns to the less explored Revelations every year to seek solitude and adventure. It is those experiences in the true wild that mean the most to him.

Over the years, Helander’s trips have culminated in six first ascents and two first ascent routes on mountains that had only seen one prior ascent:
  • 2008: First ascent of Exodus Peak (8,380 feet)
  • 2009: First ascent of Ice Pyramid (9,250 feet)
  • 2011: First ascent of Mt. Mausolus via Mausoleum (4,400 feet, WI5)
  • 2012: First ascent of Golgotha (8,940 feet)
  • 2012: First ascent on the South Ridge of the Angel (9,265 feet)
  • 2013: First ascent of Apocalypse via 4,200-foot West Face (WI5 M5)
  • 2014: First ascent of West Face of Titanic (3,800 feet, M6 5.8)
  • 2015: First ascent of the Obelisk (Peak 9,304’) via Emotional Atrophy (Grade 4 M6 WI5 A0 3,280’) on the South Face. Clint Helander and John Giraldo, March 22, 2015.
This article was initially published in the 2015 Mazama Annual. All rights reserved.

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