Thursday, March 26, 2009


A Brief History
Keystone Canyon
The Valdez Ice Fest was an institution. Dr. Andrew Embick and friends started it in 1982, and the event ran until a year or so ago. Each February, I would take the family and participate in the Friday bonfire at the beach near the Valdez, Alaska, harbor where at least a hundred wood pallets were burned, hot dogs were incinerated, hair was singed, and kegs were consumed. Saturday morning, we would climb the great frozen waterfalls of Keystone canyon: Bridalveil Falls 850', Keystone Greensteps 850', Simple Twist of Fate, or Hung Jury. Saturday night was a giant spaghetti feed at a local restaurant, and afterwards folks would drink more beer or worse at the local bars. There was always a speed-climbing event on the first pitch of 'Greensteps'. It was as much a social as a sport.

Four years ago, Kirsten Kremer had a brilliant idea: organize an all-women's event, 'The Ice Pixies', where women could climb together without the glaring eye and overbearing advice of the men. It turned out to be a whooping success. So much so, that the guys couldn't stay away. Who could stay in Anchorage when "The Whipsaws" were playing rock and roll music for a mob of hot hardbodies in Valdez? So, the guys hung on the periphery, climbing together and meeting in the evening for the dance and free beer.


With this history and vision in my mind, I organized a group of friends to drive over to the 'Pixies' again this year. Cynthia, Amy, and I hopped in Troy's truck, piled in gobs of gear, and headed east on the 5-hour drive along the Chugach, the most beautiful mountain scenerey in Alaska. We breezed throught he cultural desert of Glenallen, Alaska, and stopped for gas and muchies at the "T" intersection, where a left turn would take us through Canada to the rest of the known world. A right turn leads to Valdez, the termination of the Alaska Pipeline, scene of the great Exxon-Valdez oil spill, the phantasmagoric Chugach mountains, the utter beauty of Prince William Sound, and the greatest frozen waterfalls in Alaska.

We had left at 8am, so we had time to climb a short icefall: "Horsetail Falls", a broad cascade of wide steps of ice undulating down the cliff side. The climbs are adjacent the road, so no approach was necessary; we buckled on our climbing harnesses, crampons, and grabbed the ice tools for the climb. The perfectly formed ice gobbled up the tools, and we climbed two moderate pitches up to an old Alder tree trunk festooned with nylon slings from which we would rappel back to the base on our climbing ropes. That evening we ate Mexican food and watched Kirsten Kremer's inspirational slide show charting her perigrinations around the world in search of big mountains, great snow and steep cliffs. With dreams of steep ice and big mountains we wandered back to the inn hot tubs and rest.

Hung Jury

Jazzed by our success the previous day, we headed for Keystone Canyon. Troy and I dropped Cynthia and Amy at the Pixies event, and we headed up "Hung Jury", a wild composite of ice bells formed by the constant winds past the bottleneck turn in the canyon. Sitting in the large room-size bell at the base was a lonely climber, abandonned earlier in the morning by his friends, awaiting the first humans to adopt him. We offered him a ride up the ice on our rope. Climbing over the bulges, bells, and up the vertical 200' icicle was the best, the epitome of ice climbing. It was early afternoon, so time to wander over to the Pixies and check out the action. The women had a line of ropes set up on the ice to belay the beginning and intermediate climbers in safety. Eight hundred feet of ice hung over the event and glistened in the afternoon sun; we sat on our packs in the snow and soaked in the heat, taking pictures of friends and hurling encouragement upward. Bryan Teal arrived with a keg of beer, charcoal grill, and all the fixings; he stuffed us with fine Copper River red salmon all afternoon.

Bryan Teale

The Eagles Lodge

The Pixies had organized a huge potluck at the Eagles Lodge, replete with a keg of Moose's Tooth beer hauled over from Anchorage. Socializing began; I worked the room to find old friends; and the band began to rock. My friend Cynthia asked, 'Do you swing?' Well, I learned to dance in Mrs. Sanderson's 5th grade class, so we did swing! I was on fire; the women were beautiful; the band blasted; and the night was off to a great start.

Attack of the Orcas

At 1:30am the band finally fizzled, and I was absolutely ready to wander back to the hotel. But foggier minds urged us to move to the "Pipeline" for margaritas. The rock and roll band at the Pipeline was hot, so the dancing continued unabated for hours. At 4am (Valdez bars close at 5am), I was still shimmying on the dance floor with Amy and others. A woman the size of an Orca with a drink in one hand grabbed my belt and pulled me smashingly close into her soft rolls. From the back another Orca, also holding a drink in her free hand, pushed into my back, grabbed the belt and crushed me like a hamburger patty. I was finally a piece of meat. As I was groped and grabbed to the beat of the band, unable to gracefully extricate myself from the sandwich, I wondered how I had ever ended up like this. I'd never closed a bar before; hell, I'd never stayed anywhere this late.

As I squeezed out like a bar of soap in a wet hand, two troglodites with long stringy hair and the usual missing body parts slipped off the bar stools and hauled onto the two girlfriends. Another woman walked by, and I sensed bad blood in the mumbled comments. Suddenly it was a slugfest. I had grabbed my coat and was heading out the door, but Curiosity turned my head. Hoping I wouldn't end up like Lot's wife, I stood transfixed at the fracas, watching the bartenders hop the bar and grab the women in the ring to stop the fight. The lights went up and it was clear the bar was instantly closed. My evening was at an end. The hotel was only across the street, a particuar blessing.

Bridalveil Falls
Bridalveil Falls
The morning dawned clear and cold with a 30 knot wind whistling through town. But for some strange reason I slept in a bit, in spite of my love of climbing and desire to get out on the ice with my friends. Breakfast at The Totem is a feast and time stood still. Could it have been that the portions of omlettes and pancakes were blue-collar monstrous? Maybe this is the best part of the trip; I love breakfast. Troy's helping of bacon looks like a side of pork. I think there is a pound of cheese melted in my omlette. I'm wondering how they make pancakes this big. The crowd in the room is a mix: Sunday morning locals, heli-ski clients and guides, and the Pixies.

The wind was howling through Vadez as we drove north; it was 20 F., and Keystone Canyon was brutal. A natural venturi, the wind whistled through driving us back into the truck wondering if we had the umph to get out on the ice. We had come to climb. It was our last chance for the big ice, so we jumped into our warmest clothes and hauled our gear over to the base of Bridalveil Falls where the Pixies were setting up fixed ropes. The purpose of the Pixies was to give women the confidence to climb. So I encouraged Cynthia to lead the first pitch of dripping chandelliered ice, a vertical pillar over a hundred feet high. She was marvelous! With all the confidence of a master, she gracefully floated upwards, sticking the ice tools into the grooves and crannies of the ice, exploiting its vulnerabilities. Slowly, methodically, she reached the anchors, turned, smiled, waved, and lowered off. This was the highlight. This is why we had come, and I had a chance to be a tiny part of it.
Cynthia on lead
In spite of cold temperatures, high winds, and falling ice, we had 'Cheated death once more!'

Sherrie Soltis


Julie said...

Ralph, cool blog! Your story "Attack of the Orcas" is hilarious. This must have happened just after we left the bar. I'm sorry we missed it! We had a blast that weekend, as always.

vudinhk said...

What a great read! I was laughing so hard out loud at the orca story and am still chuckling now!!!! You are a wonderful writer and I'm glad Julie tipped me off to your blog...

Elaine Goold said...

Hi Ralph, Gary is looking for an Alpacka Raft and I was searching for Sheri's company and happened to find your blogs. How much fun to see Valdez. But hey, if you came over every February with your family - I'm sad you didn't visit us. We did have one really fun visit when Thor and Daphne were young that I remember. But we didn't leave until 94 and so.... Hm... We should have gotten together more. And Andy and Kathy Embick were our friends - did you know them both also. Well, anyway I see that you are in Southern Utah quite a bit and Scott and Ann Hinckley are down here quite a bit now also. Call us next time you are down - Gary's email is I'm going to teach Gary how to access your blogs - he'd love them. Elaine (or Diana - just kidding).