PAFlete: Katie Mills—Inquisition of the Arrigetch

This article was originally printed in the 2016 Mazama Annual. Katie Mills, along with Rebecca Madore, will be presenting during the Portland Alpine Fest about their recent experience climbing the Moose's Tooth in Alaska. Come out for Ham & Eggs on Tuesday, Nov. 14. Get tickets today!

by Katie Mills

Katie Mills, feeling right at home in
vertical terrain.
I thought I had picked an easy expedition. I laughed with glee at how easy it was going to be, feeling smug and smart at how clever I was, for we were going rock climbing. Alpine mixed/ice climbing is more a test of how tough you are, to endure the cold, to endure the exhaustion, to keep moving regardless because to stop is to die. Rock climbing? Well, you can't do it if the temperature is too extreme, and you can't carry all that much weight on your back, so you are guaranteed a mellower, pleasant time. The approach was a mere 12 miles or so, which, according to most American Alpine Journal (AAJ) reports, took parties a total of four days to do two carries of food and gear. Easy. We'll suffer for four days, enjoy 16 days of Type I rock climbing glee, then suffer four more days of hiking out. I couldn't believe how smart I was. I was soon to find out I was wrong.

The Executive Director of the Mazamas, Lee Davis, was the first person to tell me about the Arrigetch, because he had traveled there to backpack as a young man. I read AAJ reports and was astounded by the number of moderate 5.8 climbs, and a Google search revealed breathtakingly beautiful peaks. Why didn't more people go here?! During the ascents of the 1960s and 1970s, climbers were allowed to airdrop their gear. When the area became a national park, airdrops were outlawed, making climbing there a much more back breaking task.

I also admit I picked a rock climbing expedition because rock is what my boyfriend Todd excels at. While happy to leave him to go climbing for a week at a time (since alpine wasn't really his thing), three weeks seemed too long to be without his company. However, we had learned that when he and I climb together our motivation is less than when climbing with friends, so we would each need our own teammates. Together, but apart. The Alaska bush is an intimidating, remote, bear-filled place where one must be self-reliant, so a team of four seemed to be the safest way to manage it.
Nick Pappas walked into my office three years ago and said, "Hi. I'm Nick. I like your photos. I'm a climber too." "That's cool. You should come to my party," I replied. And we have been friends ever since. It was a very fortuitous meeting, as both Todd and I fight over who gets to climb with Nick. I want him for my alpine multipitch adventures, whereas Nick is equally at home sport climbing, crack climbing, bouldering, or on big walls with Todd. Nick was, of course, a shoe-in for our trip and we decided he would choose a big wall objective with Todd.

On the Ham & Eggs route.
So who was I going to climb with?! None of my usual climbing partners wanted to blow all of their vacation on a random week Alaskan trip into the unknown, surely involving great suffering, so I sent out emails to a few climbers I hoped might be interested. None of them really wanted to blow all their vacation either, except one girl, who displayed just the excitement I knew was necessary to stay psyched for the expedition ahead. I had met Cigdem Milobinski four years earlier in an 'alpine fitness class' but we didn't really talk much. Fast forward to present day and suddenly I noticed she had gone from a barely experienced rock climber to crushing hard routes at Trout Creek that I certainly didn't have the guts to get on. I am really grateful Cigdem was interested in my trip, because we quickly became very good friends, and with her being so much better than me at cracks, I hustled up my game to improve at climbing because I did not want to be the weak link letting her down! I made a new dear friend and got better at climbing. With three hot-shot rock climbers and me, the lone alpinist I had finally formed my team and submitted my application for the Bob Wilson grant in July. Happily, we were notified in September that we had won the entire $10,000 grant!

Over the winter I spent hours comparing photos to AAJ reports and found the unclimbed faces which I thought would make good climbs. I wanted to do day climbs with Cigdem, whereas Todd and Nick settled on a big wall. Nobody has ever hauled big wall gear into the Arrigetch. For good reason.
We went to work Friday, July 1 and then it was off to the airport that evening. The trip wasted no time in becoming surreal. During our first flight to Fairbanks we watched in awe as the evening got later but the sun grew brighter. Goodbye, darkness. Goodbye, night. We then took a small plane from Fairbanks to Bettles because there are no roads. The plane allowed 40 lbs. of luggage per person, with $1.80 for every extra pound. I almost passed out at the $560 overweight baggage fee. And we think we are carrying 470 lbs. on our backs?! Next time I will know to do a weight check of everyone’s gear before the trip.

Bettles isn't much of a town. Just an airstrip with a handful of lodges and bush plane outfitters. I immediately tell Todd and Nick to start dumping gear due to the weight limit. Out go the extra pitons. Out go the bolts. Out goes the 10 lb. bag of extraneous trail mix.

Rebecca & Katie on Ham & Eggs.
We make our way to the ranger station for back country orientation. Really, they just want to tell you about the bears by alleviating your fears while preparing you for an attack. We each rent a can of bear spray. Nick and Cigdem have pistols. Then comes the part I had been dreading, when we have to fit all of our food for 24 days into bear canisters. The ranger gives us each one bear canister, sets us and our giant bags of food up at a picnic table and tells us to "see what happens." "I need another one,“ I proclaim within 30 seconds. He begrudgingly produces a second canister. And then a third. And then a fourth. I see he is quite saddened that our team is hogging 16 of his bear canisters that are meant for all park visitors, but there is nothing we can do. The canisters are huge and guarantee two carries, since they are so bulky you can only fit two in your pack at a time.

We weigh all of our gear and our bodies. The weight limit for the bush plane is 1,100 lbs. and we are at 1,118 lbs. The pilot lets it slide. WHEW! Good thing I picked Cigdem for a partner instead of some large man. We pile into a plane that looks like it’s from the 1960s and held together with duct tape. I do not enjoy this plane ride. I am still getting over food poisoning from a couple days before and the plane dropping several feet at a time makes me motion sick. We fly over wide swaths of forest fires. We see the Arrigetch Peaks in the distance and it's amazing. The pilot lands us in a scummy lake and bumps onto shore. The only sign of humans is a rusty old gas can which I assume they leave there on purpose so you know you are in the right spot for pickup.

Nick administering backcountry medicine
to Katie's gaping leg wound.
The plane takes off and the mosquitoes and reality set in. It's 5 p.m. But it doesn't get dark. So let's get moving! The internet said there were two ways to go: up and then down a ridge or up the river and up the creek. One webpage says up the ridge is the way to go so up we charge. It's two miles to the top of the hill. I figure will get up there in two hours. An hour in we've barely made any headway.
The mountain Nick and Todd dubbed "The Shiv."
The brush is thick, the packs are soul crushingly heavy, the ground is spongy, and we sink back half a step for every step we take. The bugs have descended. It's hot. I feel sick. The motion sickness on top of the food poisoning is making me feel really ill. I'm out of water. I'm gonna die if I don't get water. I look longingly back at the stagnant lake. Unfortunately, I can't just drop my pack, get water and come back because I fear I will never find my pack again in this intense brush. This 90 lb. pack and I are together for life! Nick points out what looks like a drainage to us on the map, to the north. We traverse towards it for 45 minutes, desperately hoping, but not really expecting, to find water. A sludgy trickle of water appears and we rejoice and guzzle, never so happy to have found such an unappetizing, ugly stream! First adversity conquered!

We continue our struggle up the hill. Finally, we break out into a beautiful, open, flat area. We will camp here tonight. We'll have to conserve water, but thank god we found flat. I look at my watch. 1 a.m.?! It took us seven hours to hike two miles. I have so underestimated this trip already. We happily take photos of our magnificent hilltop campsite, but they are obstructed by big ugly mosquitoes that look like birds due to their proximity to the lens.

The second day isn't any easier. Although we are going downhill, the skies open and drench us, forcing us to slowly pick our way down a heavily-forested ridge with many dangerous drop-offs. It takes us six hours to hike two miles and we rejoice upon finding a trail at the bottom of the Arrigetch creek drainage. We set up camp.

Notes about route by Nick & Katie.
The third day is the worst. We set off back to our cache at Circle Lake around 1 p.m. We follow the trail this time, having sworn off the ridge as horrible. The trail is hardly a trail, being overgrown with plants and very faint, but it is better than nothing and we are excited to have it. We are in high spirits until we reach the main river valley and the skies open and pour mercilessly upon us. We learn that when it rains the mosquitoes swarm. We are trying to hike in bug nets, but the branches spray our faces with water so we can't see, and the mosquitoes swarming around us make it even worse. I don't know where the best place to hike is: down near the river where it is marshy or up higher on the ridge where it is brushier. They seem to equally suck. Many times we end up in a cursed tussock bog. Tussocks are plants that have grown on top of themselves so that they form a pedestal up to about 2 feet high, which doesn’t sound too bad, until you fall off into the space between two tussocks and break your ankle. For me, navigating through the bogs with my short legs and heavy packs is near impossible. At the cache the boys are still unable to carry everything and will require a third carry. It seems we choose an even worse way to return to camp, getting lost several times. We arrive back by 6 a.m., an exhausting 15 hours later.

Next is a rest day. We are too wrecked to do anything. It’s strange that all the reports claim it only takes four days to do two carries into base camp. What's wrong with us?! The next day we carry our gear forward for a change of scenery, dumping it when we get too cold and miserable to continue on. That night at camp, Cigdem slips on a rock and twists her ankle. We wait a day to see what happens, but she chooses to hike out rather than risk further injury. She offers up all her food she has ferried in and we tear into it like hyenas. In hindsight, without her extra food we probably all would've starved.

Katie on route.
The boys have to do a third carry from the lake, so they hike Cigdem out at midnight where a bush plane will pick her up at 10 a.m. I opt not to go because I am little and not in as good shape as they are, and I need my rest. As they get ready to leave, everyone hugs me like we're never going to see each other again. Everyone thinks I'm going to get eaten by a bear. They leave and I am alone. My only job is to stay alive. Funny how the simplest tasks are hard out here in the Alaskan bush.
We pack up camp and finally set up base camp in the Arrigetch Valley below the peak Caliban. Eight days! It was supposed to have taken us four! Now that I have lost my partner, I am resigned to fully supporting Nick and Todd's big wall goals. Maybe someone will have time to peak bag with me.

A solo backpacker named Josh hikes into our valley. He is really happy to see us. He tells us his first night lost in the bush he was so scared he cried. We all understood where he was coming from. It is scary out here, walking everywhere with your bear spray in hand, yelling at the bears to leave you alone. It takes some time to get used to. I read him the beta I had for climbing Ariel (the nearby "walk up" peak) and told him we'd keep an eye out for him. We saw eight people during our 24 days out here. Josh, a party of three across a river we never talked to, and an adventurous family of four and their dog.

Todd and Nick finally get a look at their big wall objective and decide it is too big for the time we have and the short number of sunny days we have between rain storms. So, as a consolation prize, we are going to climb Albatross! We have spotted a king line: 400 feet of beautiful crack to a lower angle shoulder leading to the striking dihedral on the north buttress. We decide to climb in a group of two for speed, leaving someone in base camp for safety. Todd and I climb better with other people than with each other, and since I had been eyeballing the climb this whole time, Nick and I choose to give it a go.

Katie & Todd enjoying their rest day.
Finally, on day 11, it is CLIMB DAY! When we wake up this morning there is not a single cloud in the sky, the first time that has happened the entire trip. I take it as a good omen. The mountain seems so close but it still takes us two and a half hours to reach the base, and we begin climbing at about 1 p.m. Nick wants to bring a ton of water and we have many layers because we know it will get cold up there, so the packs are heavy.

And we're off! I can’t believe the beautiful 400 foot crack above us is unclimbed and we’re not waiting for it behind four other parties, like in Yosemite. Nick stomps across the snow and changes into his rock shoes. He attacks the finger crack’s bouldery start mercilessly, utilizing some face holds. It widens to a nice hand crack for another rope length. Thankfully I had put in my crack homework the year before, else I wouldn't have been able to follow it competently.

The crack widens into a scary off width a size larger than the biggest cam we have but Nick bravely pulls some gnarly unprotected butterfly jams to get through it. I'm stoked I don't have to climb with a giant pack on, as off widths are not my forte. Finally, the angle eases and the climbing gets easier.

The third pitch is a giant jumble of blocks we have to climb through. The fun subsides and terror sets in. Doing a FA means no one has ever been there and you don't know what's loose and what isn't! I belay Nick with horrible dread in the pit of my stomach, waiting for one of the giant, car-sized blocks to crush me. We shouldn't be here. Who was I to think I could pull off a first ascent. This was a bad idea. But we survive without incident, and come to a ledge I think of as a "nest" on the shoulder of the buttress where we can rest and feel safe for a bit. The next pitch looks chill so I get to lead! It gets hard again so Nick is back on the sharp end. He reaches the base of the dihedral and we are perplexed. The bottom of the dihedral is completely blank with no crack, and we don’t know how to get into it. Nick climbs up a nearby crack that peters out, bails, tries to the right and gives up, then walks all the way around the corner to the left to no avail. Our attempt at a first ascent may fail here. Todd texts me with the Gotenna, a device that allows us to text each other on our cellphones without signal, as if they are walkie talkies. He is worried we haven't moved in so long. I assure him we are trying our hardest to unlock a secret passageway.

Nick then pulls off the most amazing climbing I have ever seen. He bravely climbs the face to the right of the dihedral on unpredictable tiny crimps that just keep appearing wherever he needs them until he reaches an S-shaped crack that also requires pumpy technical moves, but at least takes pro, then pulls onto the ledge. We are dihedral! If it were on the ground it would be a 4-star 5.10c at Smith. It goes! I text Todd of our movement and let him know that Nick is an American Hero.

The great dihedral never sees sunlight. It is wet, full of flora and fauna, and crumbly. The undulating cracks appear and disappear and make the climbing still quite difficult. I see a black inchworm with a blue diamond on its back and I wonder if I should take a photo, for perhaps it is a rare species only found in this dihedral. We pop out of the dihedral and rejoice! We did it! We have summited the unclimbed north buttress of The Albatross. There is also another safe nest to rest in. It's probably 3 a.m. so we decide to curl up and take a nap. The mosquitoes are still merciless, even up here, but at least we are protected from the wind. We are low on food, so I start rationing. Only one bite of granola bar and a peanut every hour!

We run the gnarly summit ridge to a low point and then begin to rappel. "How do we do this, Ms. Experienced Alpinist?" Nick asks me. "I've never done this part before!" I cry. No, I have never made my own 1,200 foot rappel route into the unknown abyss. After our first rappel we pull the rope and a big rock comes with it, heading straight for us. Nick shelters me with his body (yes I noticed this ... what a saint he is) but the rock ricochets and misses us at the last second. I assume we are going to die on the rappel and spend the entire time shivering with terror. Nick doesn't mind leading all the rappels and I demand to leave behind two point anchors even if they're both cams. "I'M RICH!" I proclaim, then start naming off the dumb stuff I have bought that cost more than this rappel route will. After what seems like an eternity, and 5 lost cams later, we hit the glacier and celebrate with my last two bites of sausage. We're ALIVE! We saunter through the boulder field feeling surprisingly good and Todd meets us halfway up the last hill with a very welcome trekking pole for each of us. We get to camp and our minds and bodies give in to exhaustion. Thirty hours tent to tent. The next day is spent lounging in the shade of boulders reading and wading in the river. It feels so wonderful.

We then move base camp to the beautiful Aquarius Valley. On July 18, Nick and Todd climb the northwest ridge of an unnamed peak attempted in 2002. Classic 5.6–5.8 on the first few pitches leads them to a knife-edge sidewalk and a wild face, devoid of crack systems. It is clear that the 2002 attempt had ended here—Todd uses the previous party’s bail nut as part of the belay. Nick manages to free the next pitch on sight, calling it the culmination of 10 years of climbing and the best pitch of his life. Tricky ridge climbing takes them to the summit, from which they continue down the ridgeline to a notch, and then rappel the west side of the peak. Since it is our last day to climb before hiking out, they name the route Go Big or Go Home (5.10d R, ca 800 ft. vertical but considerably longer climbing distance) and dub the formerly unclimbed mountain The Shiv.

The Arrigetch Peaks may not have the best quality of rock and may be incredibly inaccessible, but I will say they are the most awe-inspiring mountains I have encountered. Never before have I seen a range with such incredible mystical spires and magnificent overhanging gendarmes soaring like the wings of some giant gargoyle. The peaks don't look like mountains, but instead sculptures designed by an almighty Gothic architect. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to spend time amongst these spectacular Alaskan behemoths of peaks.