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Toil and Trouble on Mount Thor
September 13, 2004
An attempt to set a world-record rappel down a fearsome rock face near the Arctic Circle plunged an ambitious team into a struggle against nature--and each other
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September 13, 2004

Toil And Trouble On Mount Thor

An attempt to set a world-record rappel down a fearsome rock face near the Arctic Circle plunged an ambitious team into a struggle against nature--and each other

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The plan, developed in consultation with park authorities, was for each member of the team to shuttle his gear 21 miles up Akshayuk Pass to the base of the mountain. The return trip would be easier, as the team planned to load much of the gear on a raft and float it down the whitewater of the Weasel River. A 5,000-foot rope weighs more than 300 pounds, so it was carried strung among six team members; the seventh hauled the deflated raft.

"It figured out to a 25-mile walk per day to move your gear five miles," Twilley says.

In addition the terrain--the group was hiking over loose gravel and crossing icy freshets--and steady rain slowed progress, adding two or three extra days to the hike.

"But we were still exactly on schedule for the rappel," insists Twilley, who had built extra time for delays into the itinerary. The group paused for a day at base camp. While they waited for a foot of snow to melt off the mountain in the 60? heat, ermine and Arctic fowl played about them--and the honeymoon ended.

Halfway up the left flank of Thor, the Fort Beard Glacier grinds down from the Penny Ice Cap. While climbers seek to challenge the face of the mountain, the top-down strategy of the rappel team was to ascend the gradual slope of the moraine to the ice cap, then cross to the backside of the mountain for a more gentle ascent to the summit rig point. From his hike in 1982 Twilley recalled only one place requiring rope, a climb of about 20 feet over an ice ledge to a relatively easy path up the 45-degree scree slope at the back of the mountain. But the planned two-day ascent to the rig point degenerated into a week of searching for the right route, enduring miserable weather, dicey climbs and traverses, equipment failure, diminishing food and declining morale. Days swung from sun to rain to snow to sun again, and the men were beset by hordes of hungry insects taking advantage of the brief Arctic summer. They crossed the paths of wolves. And they argued.

There remains no single cause for the team's decision, on or near July 22, to abandon its quest. Instead, there were many small causes, each now a bone of contention between the two leaders. Problems with the rigging plan, the route, food, equipment and weather all played a part in what followed.

There are two ways to get a long rope up a mountain: carry it or haul it. The latter requires one team to summit with a light haul cord, which is then weighted and dropped to a second team at the base of the cliff. The cord is tied to the heavier main line and used to haul it to the rig point. In theory this appears an obvious alternative to lugging a heavy rope up a mountain, but in practice it can cause problems. The cord can get hung up during descent or, worse, can snag and break during hauling. Even with radios, communication between top and bottom teams can be difficult; whole days can be wasted searching for the lowered end of a hard-to-spot haul cord. Englett argued for the slower--but surer--method of walking the main line to the top. Twilley insisted that careful cord placement would lessen the danger of breaks. In the end the group agreed to Englett's plan.

Glaciers reshape the face of continents; a lot can change on one ice-bound mountain in 22 years. Twilley's 20-foot climb to an "easy" route was anything but. The decision to carry the rope would probably not have been made had the team known the condition of the route.

"The old route up must have gone in a landslide," Kim says. "You can ask anyone; they'll tell you I do some pretty wild climbs. But this stuff was scarier than anything I'd ever seen. You're on a tiny ledge, and it's covered with slippery lichen, and frost on top of that, and you've got several hundred feet of exposure, a 5.7 climb ahead of you and an 80-pound pack."

On the first day of the ascent, less than halfway up the moraine, those at the head of the line stopped below the intended camp. Englett and the 38-year-old Kim were nursing sore knees. The next day the team struggled up the scree and established a camp Englett dubbed Meatgrinder, for the jagged rocks littering the ground. The team spent the following days in deteriorating weather, desperately trying to find the route to the summit. "We kept coming to a sheer 300-foot wall, then we'd have to backtrack and try another spot," Kim recalls. "This happened several times."

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