First Ascent: Thicker Than Thieves

Edelweiss athlete, Angela VanWiemeersch shares her first-hand report of her recent ascent of a new 15,000’ traverse on Mt Hayes in Alaska called Thicker Than Thieves (VI 5.8R M5 AI4, 7300').

One, two, three in a row. Jason Stuckey, John Giraldo and I stood at the base of Mt Hayes with our chins high in the air, staring at the northeast face. We passed the binoculars back and forth discussing how to approach the beast, in which style and by which aspect. I remember feeling like we were the three Musketeers, getting ready to embark on an epic battle. However, I later realized that we were more like the three Ninja Turtles avoiding a run-in with their archenemy Shredder.

The northeast face of Mt. Hayes is an object of intimidation as well as inspiration. It’s face is riddled with poor quality rock, forcing us to climb all its runnels, prows, and snow slopes; making it a marvelous face to climb. The only catch was that nearly every line was threatened by seracs, including our originally planned line. So face down the cards went; we decided to fold. It wasn’t worth it. Instead, we decided to try and climb the line on the far left with the least amount of overhead hazards, a decision that all moms and dads from Alaska to Michigan would be proud of.

Night went, morning came, and soon there after we ditched our skis and headed up and over the bershrund. John blasted up the first block of steep “snice,” placing gear in small rock outcrops when he could. The gear was always in stupid places that were sketchier to get to than the actual climbing. So on cruiser-terrain we didn’t worry that much about the gear and kept pushing upward. We swapped leads in blocks while simul-climbing just about everything until the top 1,200 feet of the face.

At that point, we started pitching things out here and there when the climbing got trickier. We experienced icy snowfields, super fun rock moves, and calf-burning pitches of glacial ice. From there, we thought it was a straight shot until I lead a mixed pitch to the edge of a cliff. I traversed out left and set up a belay in hopes that the terrain above didn’t cliff out as well. As I handed the rack to John, I suddenly realized what Ninja Turtle John was. As he flew out of the belay and styled the exposed crux I had no doubt in my mind he was Raphael. No, he did not talk with a Brooklyn accent but he had that fiery, strong-willed, go-for-it attitude. Not to mention a witty comment here and there to keep me giggling all the way up the route.

Jason led us up some steeper ice pitches to a knife ridge as the sun went down. We were psyched to have finished the face. The cold temperatures settled in and we were getting sleepy. Our current location didn’t provide for a good bivy. John cruised up high on the ridge looking for a place to dig, but it was too steep and all ice. He eventually struck gold and found us the most amazing snowy cornice to sleep beneath. It was such a lucky find, really the only thing around. We dug out a trench as much as we could, but it was still only wide enough for one grown man to sleep comfortably in. So there we were, three smelly alpine climbers playing Tetris with body limbs and sleeping mats. We made it work and we were stoked.

In the a.m. we savored the rad exposure of our bivy and the majestic view of the sexy face below the main summit. Soon after, Jason led out of the bivy and headed up and over to the other side of the ridge. This would be the start of what seemed to be the never-ending knife ridge traverse. During this traverse the sky filled with low clouds, the wind kicked up and visibility got bad. The terrain ahead of us was a maze of ice and snow. It was going to be a gamble with or without good weather. We regrouped to discuss our plans. We didn’t even know if there was going to be a plausible route through the craziness. Our options were to either go for it or turn around, because once we ventured onward there would be no easy way to go back. Luckily we were all on the same page and opted to continue. That was one of the coolest moments of the climb for me. Three different people with three different perspectives, but we were all be on the exact same wavelength.

We consulted a zoomed in photo of the glaciated maze of the south buttress. Jason stepped forwards to point out a path in which he thought the route would go. I considered Jason’s Ninja Turtle identity to be Leonardo. He was the wise big brother. Jason had spent almost the last decade of his life in the mountains of Alaska, exploring the beautiful giants. He is an endless encyclopedia, well researched and experienced to say the least. I love his dedication.

As we stood before the icy mess, he knew exactly what we were looking at and how to best approach it. So on we climbed; through the crazy maze for hours and hours, over mushrooms and snow bridges, crevasses, and seracs. It was all so wild up there, so surreal and unlike any other place on earth. The moon seemed like the best comparison, so far away from other life forms with no color in sight.

After a long day of cold and super windy route-finding-craziness we found a rad ice cave to bivy in. It was amazing. As we dug a pit and melted water the light-pink alpine glow laid softly upon the beastly mountains around us. We were higher than each and every one of them. It was easily the most inspiring moment of all my climbing experiences. I took in each and every moment with disbelief and awe, realizing how completely satisfied I was in this cave high above the horizontal world. I felt so lucky to have made it there safely and with the company of such amazing people. We crawled into our sleeping bags pretty tired and loopy from a long day and the previous bivy. But this bivy was quality. I slept like a rock. We all did.

In the morning the business began. I lead us out first thing in the morning towards the south summit, one snow bridge at a time. We were happy to have made it so far but a sense of urgency ran through our veins. At this point, we had climbed 5,400' of elevation over 1.5 miles. We still had another 4 miles with 1,300' of elevation gain, and 7,400' to descend with very little food and fuel left. Jason took over leading and soon we were standing upon the South Summit.

We dropped off the south summit and quickly crossed the summit plateau. As I lead us over the bershrund, I found my own ninja turtle identity. I was Michelangelo, the baby of the turtles that was overly psyched to be on such a grand adventure. As I climbed up the summit slopes, I passed fluted snow mushrooms and other “Dr. Seussical” formations. The summit ridge went by in a blur and the next thing I knew I was standing at 13,832 feet, the highest I had ever been, atop the summit of Mt. Hayes.

We took some photos, had a snack, and quickly began our descent. Clouds had rolled in, and it had started to lightly snow. Visibility was low and descending was sketchier than I had expected. Jason led us into the abyss. Those next few hours were spent down climbing thousands of feet of steep snow and ice faces, rapping over giant crevasses, and weaving our way in and out of crazy glacial obstacles.  Another handful of rappels and some down climbing brought us down to the glacier and back to our skis, 72 hours after we had begun.

As we skied back to basecamp a strong wind began to blow out of the west, with gusts strong enough to make you stumble. I felt like we escaped the oncoming weather just in the nick of time, avoiding any run in with our archenemies. We sat safely in basecamp, playing Yahtzee while the wind howled for hours. What a trip.

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