Running With Scissors on Pioneer Peak
By Troy Henkels
When my close friend Maggie told me “You don’t play well with others and you like to run with scissors”, I did not really understand. Ostensibly, I knew what she was trying to say, but at the time I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t until much later I came to realize her point.
Springtime in Alaska can be glorious, the sun starts to feel warm again and the days are getting noticeably longer. In spring, I planned to make another attempt on a mountain that had been defying me for several years. At 6,398’, Pioneer Peak is not particularly high, yet it towers over the farm land below, which lies just above sea level in the Palmer Valley. This peak offers such a drastic and dramatic north face, it was hard for me to imagine anyone climbing it.
Several years previous, I started my assaults on the north face of Pioneer Peak. I knew it had been climbed but could not actually find anyone that had climbed the north face. Over the course of two years, I made several attempts and only made it a little above halfway. My good sense always turned me back because of dangerously steep walls of rock, newly formed ice, and wet slippery rocks. My failed assaults were starting to add up.
This spring found me again at the base of Pioneer Peak, gearing up for another attempt. This time I opted for safe climbing and came prepared with crampons, short and long ice axes, climbing harness, rope, and numerous anchoring devices. However, my not so good common sense opted to leave all this equipment in the truck, except one ice axe and crampons. My reasoning was that if I encountered any dangerous terrain requiring such gear, I would retreat, and chalk up another failed attempt.
Because I was traveling with little gear, I made quick time up the lower ramparts of the mountain. Although strenuous, it didn’t pose any real threats or extreme technical difficulties. About halfway up, I reached a long, steep angled snowfield. The sun was slowly working its way around the mountain and it was quite warm out, thus making the snow surface heavy and somewhat avalanche prone. Keeping to my pace, I continued higher and eventually curved around into a natural chute that would take me straight up the crux of the north face.
It was here that, to my surprise, I came across other climbers tracks. I couldn’t believe it! On any given day, on any given peak in Alaska, someone had gone up before me? I wasn’t thrilled about it, but as I scanned the rest of the route I could see no one and hadn’t heard anyone, so chances were good they were already on top and maybe descending another route, and with any luck, I wouldn’t encounter them. However, I was grateful for the tracks/boot trail they had put in. It made the going relatively easy, compared to breaking trail in heavy snow, like I had been doing. I churned out the next 1,000 feet relatively quickly. I did encounter several sections of rock and ice that were at the upper level of my climbing ability. Midway through one of these, while looking below, I realized I would not be able to retreat down what I was climbing up without a rope. So, I would just have to find another route down. It dawned on me that whoever it was ahead of me, were pretty good climbers, as they were getting up some rather technical and dangerous vertical rock and ice. I figured if they could climb it, so could I, not knowing they were climbing with ropes and anchors thus protecting them from falling, which I didn’t find out until later.
The beauty of mountaineering is it offers a wealth of time for self-reflection. And it was then that my friend Maggie’s words started to come back to me. NOW I understood. “You don’t play well with others”. Well, she was right, I don’t. She certainly wasn’t implicating that I don’t get along well with other people, but more simply that when I go into the mountains, I usually do it alone. That is true and oddly, that is how I prefer it. I started at a very young age, alone, in the woods in Iowa where I grew up, honing my outdoor skills. Despite the inherent dangers, I feel safer traveling alone; there is less stress when I only have myself to worry about, and I can travel quicker.
“You like to run with scissors”. Certainly Maggie had a point here as well. There are times when I take risks in the mountains….akin to a child running with scissors. At no other time was this more apparent than clinging to the north face of Pioneer Peak. I realized right then and there, Maggie was right, I don’t play well with others and I do like to run with scissors. I’d have to worry about fixing those things later and concentrate on getting up this mountain in one piece.
After several precarious, un-retreatable pitches, I came across the two other climbers that had so graciously been breaking trail for me the last 1,000 feet. Dani and Laron were exhausted from a long day of climbing. They were hauling a lot of gear, which kept them safe, but also made this climb a real battle and slowed them to a snails pace. None the less, they were ready to retreat. They were so worn out, it was easier to give up and retreat than try to struggle up the last 1,000 feet of near vertical ice, snow, and rock. And the heat of the day was making the entire slope we were one a big question mark in the way of avalanche danger. I told them the least I could do was break trail for them for the last 1,000 feet as they had done for me the previous 1,000. I knew the difficulties involved with getting up this face and retreating seemed pointless this close to the top. They agreed to press on and I took off in the lead.
I’ve climbed a lot of mountains but the final push to the summit of Pioneer Peak genuinely scared me. It is very steep, avalanche prone, and sketchy to say the least. The summit ridge was windblown and required full on concentration as one wrong move would mean a fall down either side off a knife like ridge. Needless to say, I did make it to the top. However, it was too dangerous for me to descend the way I had climbed up. I had decided I would descend down the back, and supposedly, easier side of the mountain. But the weather had turned nasty and as I stood on the summit looking for a possible escape route, I realized it would be a very risky descent in windy, cold, and whiteout conditions. I was in dire straits.
About that time, Mike and Suzie reached the top. They were ecstatic with reaching the summit and not only offered to let me use their rope and anchors to descend but thanked me for convincing them to keep going for the summit. The success of their climb was dependent on me, and oddly, the success of my climb was still, dependent on them. We marveled in our good fortune to have each other on top of this peak in Alaska. In the end we all made it down safely and in good order. Certainly an epic climb and one that I was very glad was over. And I learned that Maggie was right, and sometimes in life, if you are going to run with scissors, it might be a good idea to play well with others. Because often, all you really need, is a little help from your friends.
Troy lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2007
Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, February 2008