By Joe Stock
Alaska gets a bad rap for rock climbing. The state’s most popular climbing area – the cliffs along the Seward Highway – was rated in Rock & Ice magazine among the worst places to climb in the United States. The routes follow road cut drill scars, the holds break off in your hands and you may get run over by a car. But if you avoid the Seward Highway, and are willing to hike an hour or two, you’ll find solid rock among glaciers and mountains.
One stash of solid rock, with no risk of becoming roadkill, is The Wedge, high in the Chugach
Mountains above Anchorage. On our first adventure to The Wedge, my wife, Cathy, and I met avalanche forecaster Kevin Wright at the Glen Alps trailhead. Under heavy climbing packs, we cycled three miles up the Powerline Trail, then hiked another hour to the base of the shady cliffs. Our first climb was aptly named Timeless. The 5.9 route followed a two-inch wide crack –the ideal size for fun climbing. As I led, the rope dangled free from my harness, down the vertical wall. I leaned out and yelled, “I can’t believe this is Alaska!”
A notch more adventurous is rock climbing at the Wosnesenski Glacier in the Kenai Mountains. Joining Cathy and I on this adventure was our unruly 18-year-old nephew. Northwind Aviation in Homer flew us to a glacial lake in front of the Wos Glacier. Beside the lake stood glacier-polished cliffs, recently emerged from the receding glacier. Although the polish was slippery like wet grass, the cliff was coated with small handholds the thickness of a cookie. For leading and attaching the rope, Homer climbers had drilled bolts into the rock every ten feet. For two days we climbed and camped in this glacial landscape. Then we packrafted the Class II Wos River to Kachemak Bay where Mako’s Water Taxi shuttled us back to Homer.
Over 40 years, Alaska climbers have thrown themselves at every cliff near Anchorage. After these intense, and often near-death experiences, they’d recount their stories to a few buddies at the bar. Without a written record, the cliff would stay wild for the next adventure rock climber.
Joshua Foreman and I entered the 40-year echelon of adventure rock climbers to visit O’Malley Peak’s west face in the Chugach Mountains. Without a guidebook or a route description, we started climbing up the 500-foot tall rock buttress. We had just a rope, an arsenal of rock climbing gear and a big need for adventure. Pumped on anticipation and adrenaline, we’d take turns leading pitches into the unknown. The belayer would hear from high above, “I don’t know if this will go!” or “Watch me! I might fall,” or just whimpering followed by a “Yeahoooo!” as they reached a big handhold. In the cracks we found ancient lichen-covered slings, rusted pitons and heavy metal plates called bongs. We also found a random set of 10-year-old bolts drilled into the rock, like visiting climbers panicked, bolted and rapped off with their tail between their legs. Maybe they didn’t know the caveat for Alaska rock climbing: Don’t bring your comparisons to Colorado and California. Alaska operates on it’s own scale.