It’s always best to record details as soon as one can after an event, yet in this post I break that rule. In my defense the tale I’m about to tell was accomplished long before the cyber world started taking to blogs to share our ventures. I started writing this sage shortly after the climb only to put it on the shelf save it on an old floppy disk and then proceed to getting rid of the only computer that could open the disk I had saved it on… Oh well, but luckily this tale isn’t so much about the details of the climb, but rather the significance it has had on my climbing since.
It all started on a blue bird New Year’s Eve in Kodiak Alaska 2002. I knew it was going to be my last winter on the island and wanted to enjoy as many more climbs and summits as I could manage. Ironically the most appealing peak I knew of was Cope Mountain, a perfect knife edge ridge leading to the summit, and probably the least climbed mountain of all the easily accessible peaks of the immediate Kodiak area. So why not crank it out, I had done many winter ascents on Kodiak solo without issue and this one was just too good to pass up.
In typical fashion when my alarm went off in the morning I slept right through it having had a late night before hand and by the time I got up the morning was almost over. Assuming the ridge would only take a few hours I quickly threw a bag together (minus a boat load of necessary gear) and headed off, thinking about how I was going to approach Cope. Best plan I could muster was parking off the end of Old Woman and bushwhacking in. Parked, pack on, I headed off in the general direction of the mountain only to get off track during the bushwhack and head way to far West costing myself easy access to the ridge. Luckily I found the creek running the North base of Cope completely frozen over making for fast travel, but instead of heading south east for the ridge I traveled upstream paralleling Copes north face. At this point I was figuring things just weren’t going well and the day was going to result in a bust. But, shortly thereafter I stumbled upon something I thought couldn’t exist so low on Kodiak, ICE! I stared dang near at sea level and hadn’t gained much altitude yet so the very sight of ice so low turned into something I had no will power to say no to.
57⁰ 43’ 49” North 152⁰ 36’ 15” West
For anyone that wants to use Google earth to see where the ice flow stared from, unfortunately I didn’t own a decent camera to take climbing back in this period of my life.
The flow looked like a fun little WI3 route so up I started, ice climbing for the first time since moving to Kodiak 2 winters prior. The flow was a little thin, but all in all a really fun route, most of it only one to two meters wide at most and tame enough to free solo up without thinking too much about it. I estimated the ice took me about half way up the face back when I climbed it, so a little under 1500 vertical. From there the real work started, all reaming vertical of the face was steep, and completely covered in sugar light snow. I kept both ice tools out gripping them by their heads while trying to claw my way up the face. I didn’t get very far before realizing I might not be able to claw the remaining distance, honestly it felt like every foot I tried to claw up resulted in me sliding back two feet. It was in this though that everything about my climbing would change, thinking about bailing… my options were to keep going for the summit, which wasn’t going well past the ice, or down climb what I had already ascended. However I felt even more unsure of down climbing then I did about my chances of continuing the climb, all that gear I hadn’t brought included a rope so I couldn’t rap off either. To the east was a horrific looking rock outcropping that looked even more treacherous then the first two options, and to the west only took me further away from any path of escape. Without intending to I had put myself in a commitment climb, one where the only real choice was to accomplish the route, retreat wasn’t an option. This is the kind of situation where many people will start to freeze up not knowing what to do, surprisingly I thought about the situation but never really stopped, never openly questioned, I continued clawing my way up. The further I clawed the steeper it became, then shortly before attaining the ridge I was smiled on from above. Looking up at one of the last exposed rock outcroppings before the ridge I saw the biggest mountain goat staring down at me that I have seen to date. I took it as a positive sign and continued climbing until finally grabbing the ridge with a sigh of relief, pulling myself up the last step and then straddling the ridge with one leg off the north side and one off the south, sitting as comfortable as I would a chair at home. I stayed sitting for a while, or at least what seemed like a decent amount of time, looking down to see the Goat had an entire family, who were traversing the snow field about 150 feet below me.
After making the ridge and insight of the summit was when I realize the next mistake I’d made. On one hand straddling the ridge while the sun set on New Year’s Eve in Alaska was quite the experience, on the other with the sun setting was when I realized I didn’t have a head lamp with me…….. or any light for that matter…… I was going to be down climbing in the dark with no light. I had decided before making the ridge that the best descent was the south face, much more tame than what I had climbed and more than likely much more tame than the ridge too. This decision actually worked out quite well until reaching the base at Sargent Creek which wasn’t frozen over, thus soaking my boots and beyond while I still had several miles to hike out to where I’d parked. Luckily everything after the creek was following the wonderful Kodiak roads that I was extremely familiar with in this area.
The biggest part about this climb for me was the mental state I was in after realizing that I had unintentionally induced a commitment climb. Where this might not have been the most significant mountain to date I consider it one of my greatest climbs, no one climbs the North face of Cope. Kodiak is a island with a very small population and very very few inhabitants climb, also with it being Alaska and the mountains staying under 5k for the most part, no climbers travel there for the purpose of climbing. Had I been unable to finish the route things would have gone very badly, my best chance would have been trying to emergency bivy for the night, which I wasn’t prepared for, and hoping a helicopter might spot me the next day. That’s not an option I ever want to take, and to make it worse my point of contact did call SAR when I didn’t return on time but he told SAR I was on a completely different mountain. When the call went out a couple local hikers were called that considered going out on the wrong mountain, and when the correct mountain became known every single one of them backed out saying no way in hell were they going on that terrain. Thankfully while all the misinformation was going around I was doing what I do best, never give up.