The phone rings and it’s my friend Christain CAB, Cabanilla! He is one of a kind. I met him in the early days in Valdez. He came to Valdez Heli Ski Guides to get a job and get his foot in the mountains of the Chugach via helicopter. We only had some office work for him. He moved on shortly to other ski companies and was soon guiding Heli skiing in Valdez as well as Haines. Not too long after that, he s said he wanted to fly in these mountains and continued in getting his license as a Heli pilot. He worked his way up the ranks quickly putting in loads of hours doing tours in Hawaii and Alaska. He worked his magic and was soon flying Heli skiing in Alaska. It was a dream come true for the booth of us. He would fly me on the biggest adventures of my life and tell me what line I should “shred”.
On a beautiful Spring day we flew past the face of this magnificent and coveted line. METEORITE
CAB and I discussed the finest line down the face and agreed we both like the aesthetics of the spur. The skiing is actually easier there on the entry although it is quite exposed compared to the steeper drop in through the birth canal. Both are excellent options, but the spine is such a beautiful line. The trick is actually skiing both sides of the edge feature because the skiers left turn is much steeper then the right. Cab climbed the Heli to the top taking every opportunity to view the line. He was as excited as I was. We landed on top and he wiggled the Heli into a solid position and he cut the engine. We all sat in adrenaline’s rush silence and waited for the blades to stop. I’m pretty sure he was out of the ship before me and the guests. I unloaded the basket and tried to continue as ops normal, but I cringed as I looked at Cab peering over the edge and telling me how I better shred that line. ” Can you back away from that edge and please get in your helicopter,” I suggest. He laughs when I tell him he’s making me nervous. I will never forget that moment.
One day, I was flying with CAB and some of our regular thrill seekers, when I hear Belkin in the back seat chime up, “Can we Ski The Sphinx? Cab quickly looks me in the eyes and says, “You want to Ski The Sphinx?” I reply through the headset addressing the question, “Do I want to ski the Sphinx?” I ask my comrade, ” I’ve never seen it”. “You definitely want to”,he replies. I turn around to address my guests and confirm their desires with an encouraging look, ” You want to go to The Sphinx!.” They nod with giddy and nervous smiles. “So where’s The Sphinx?”, I ask Cab. “I’ll take you there,” he replies, Each magnificent peak we see, I ask,”Is that The Sphinx??” “Nope”, he’d answer and over the next ridge line we flew. This went on for quite awhile. This was the furthest I had been from our base of operations. I asked if it was in our boundaries (We didn’t use Gaia back then) and Christian said it was on the line, the very Grey line. We toed into the summit and crawled out. I think Cab was as excited as I was. He flew the long flight to grab the other group. I proceeded to start shoveling the landing zone for the next group. I looked over and Belkin was frozen in place like a cat staring at a goldfish. He was still on his knees gripping the mountain. It’s true, there wasn’t a lot of space and the edges were quite steep. I came over to him and dug a hole he could sit in to feel a bit more comfortable. ” I’m getting back in the Heli when they come back”, he told me. “Okay,” I said, letting him calm his nerves, Cab eventually came back, and I’ll admit it is quite exhilarating to have a Heli land on top of you on top of The Sphinx. I could see the excitement in Christian’s eyes as he tucked the ship into the freshly made LZ and I’m sure he could see mine through the big smile on my face. The guides and guests unloaded and Belkin tried to climb back in, but I grabbed the back of his pants and sat him down while I closed the door and gave Cab the thumbs up to fly away. I’ll never forget that moment.
THE LOTUS FLOWER TOWER
So, back to that phone call. Cab says, “Hey, I have this great idea. I want you to guide me up the Lotus Flower Tower.” “I didn’t know you Rock climb,” I reply. The Lotus Flower Tower is a remote fly in objective in the Yukon territories. It’s the ultimate dream trip for alpine rock climbers. ” I’ve been going to the climbing gym, while I’ve been working on flying wildfires, I’ve lost 20 pounds and I can climb 5.10 in the gym,” he asserts.” That.s awesome”, I reply. “We should go to Yosemite and I’ll teach you how to crack climb”. I continue to communicate the remoteness and severity of this 20 pitch climb. “I know, I’ve read all about it and that’s where I want to go. You only get so many trips in a lifetime:” He continued to tell me about a very special girl in his life who loves rock climbing and this was the trip he intended to win her heart. It was obvious that I wouldn’t change his mind. I knew guiding him and his girlfriend would be a big challenge on my own, so I quickly convinced him that we would bring my Lisa Vansciver.
A few weeks later, the 4 of us piled into a nice Large SUV that Christian rented for the trip.full of supplies and in route from Chickaloon, Alaska to The Cirque of the Unclimables, 20 plus hours of driving and many of them on dirt roads. The time passed quickly being amongst good friends.. We arrived at a remote lake where we unloaded our gear for the next two weeks and waited on the dock for the float plane to arrive. Cab was determined to make this a first class trip and hired Warren to fly us directly to basecamp in the Heli. We were on cloud 9.
Just as The name suggests, this place is utterly amaze balls! We were completely overwhelmed by the beauty and sheer cliffs surrounding us. Fairy Meadow is the name of the basecamp. Big boulders laced with dreamy spongy grass and a clear little stream running through camp with jaw dropping walls surrounding us.
We set up camp, unrolling the red carpet of all the fine things a person might bring if they didn’t have to hike in or out. We popped the cooler open and toasted our beers in blissful delight at our luck under the blue sky.
The following day, we would hike up to the wall and get a better feel for the line. From our camp it was around an hour hike gently rolling over mellow terrain to the base of the Lotus Flower Tower. Our plan was to climb a couple pitches, fix some ropes and cache our gear. I started up the 5.9 corner. When we spoke on the phone, I had told Cab that crack Climbing was a lot different than the gym climbing and his response was,that the climb was rated 5.10 and he was sure he could get up even if he had to jumar.. I started up the wet corner and soon found excellent hand jamming. The climbing was what you would expect for a Yosemite 5.9 crack. Eventually. The crack got too wide to jam and required some lie back moves to gain the belay ledge. I set up the anchor and belayed Lisa up while she pulled up Cab and Emily ‘s ropes behind her. The plan now was to belay Cab and Emily up together letting them climb together. Emily was a better climber than Cab and made her way up the corner with a few rests. Cab, on the other hand ,was thrutching at the rock and swinging back and forth out to the face to look for face holds. I yelled down at him,”Don’t you see the size of that rope you are on!! Get Back In The Crack!” Sweat running down his forehead he threw himself at the corner. Arriving at the wider section he struggled to get up and I encouraged him to “lie it back”. “What’s a-lie back.?” He exclaimed. I looked at Lisa. She looked up. We laugh. Cab arrives at the belay with total determination in his face. He’s ready to go up. Emily looks like she is swallowing the enormity of the wall. We do another pitch. The climbing is real granite crack climbing. Even 5.7 is strenuous. We rappel down and head back to camp for steaks and beer.
The next day we return to the climb with our bivy gear. The plan is to bivy on the big ledge at pitch 10 and complete the head wall the following day. We make it a few pitches up and Emily and Cab are exhausted with the extra weight on their backs. We decide to go down. Emily was feeling a bit deflated about climbing with a pack and the enormity of the challenge even though she had more technical climbing skills than her tenacious partner.. We took a break the next day and did some hiking and cragging out of camp. She encouraged Cab to try The Lotus Flower again while she stayed back in camp the following day. Lisa and I told Cab he should lighten his load and only bring essential items this time. We probably should have pack checked him!
Once again we started up the familiar first pitches of the route and Christian was showing some signs of climbing improvement. What a sick place to learn how to crack climb! We were moving faster this time, and it did look hopeful that we would make the bivy ledge until the clouds rolled in and raindrops fell. The rock was wet and it was time to go down. Upon telling Cab that we were going down, he responded ” I think we should go up, I’ve got my rain gear”,while doning his thick raincoat. “Should’ve pack checked”, Lisa states. We laugh and explain that the rock is too slippery to climb when it’s wet. I did appreciate his enthusiasm and true Alaska grit to carry on in the rain, but we still went down.
Coming back to the Fairy Meadows camp was always a treat. We were well stocked with fine food and plenty of beverages and it was nice to have the whole gang back together. We decided to go cragging together whenever the weather allowed. There were some topos in a metal army box and it looked like some fun climbs were established on the massive cliff close to camp.
Another beautiful day allowed us to explore the single pitch routes on the wall across from camp. There were several nice cracks to put top ropes on and a flat grassy area peppered with boulders at the base. The day was hot, and after a few pitches, we let our guard down, taking off helmets and belaying barefoot in the grass. Lisa was Climbing and I was belaying her while Cab and Emily were enjoying each other’s company in this dreamy paradise. Lisa was halfway up the pitch on toprope when we heard rocks falling from above. The cliff is 2000ft tall and the rocks were coming from somewhere near the top. I looked up and yelled “ROCK!,,” as I watched a small vehicle sized rock soar high above me. It exploded against the cliff and refrigerater sized blocks commenced again smashing into the cliff into an assortment of sizes headed directly for us. Lisa laid her body against the wall like a lizard and I ran into the cleft of the corner making myself as small as possible.huggind the rock for my life. Emily and Cab ran away from the wall. I’m not exactly sure where they went as I was in self preservation mode. The air smelled like pulverized stone. The dust wafted around us and we yelled out to see if everyone was okay. I lowered Lisa and we found Cab with Emily who was”okay”, but had been hit by the shrapnel while trying to hide behind a boulder. Upon further investigation we found that she had a small head wound and a broken wrist. We had a Satellite phone and called Warren to get a rescue. We were in luck because he was just headed our way to drop off a couple more climbers in the Heli and would pick up Christian and Emily. Lisa and I would return to camp and piggyback onto the new climber’s exit plan. Warren told us to coordinate with them. The adrenaline from such a close call pumped through our veins. We gathered our things from the base of the climb emptying the rock dust from our climbing shoes, lunches, and other items scattered about the base and seeing my helmet crushed by rockfall was a surreal reminder of just how close it was. The Heli arrived an hour later and we waved goodbye to our friends and walked to the site the other climbers were dropped..
Lisa and I took a deep breath and walked up towards the new climbers camp which was closer to the base of The Lotus Flower Tower. We explained to them our situation and asked when they would be flying out so that we could coordinate to piggyback a flight down to the lake with all our kit to get a float plane from there. John, was Canadian Mountain Guide and planned to guide his client up the Tower tomorrow and hopefully be fast enough to get plucked off the summit before dark by Warren in his helicopter. “Wow,” that sounds awesome we said with glazed eyes as the adrenaline faded and we tried to make sense of how our needs would fit into their plans. John asked if we would climb it tomorrow. “I don’t see that happening. My friend who just paid for this whole trip is at the hospital with his sweetheart who just got pummeled by rockfall,” I said. John responded, ” Well, you have to wait for us anyway. You should climb it.” ” We’ll probably just break down camp and play it safe;” I replied. We wished them luck and said we’d see them tomorrow and walked silently towards our camp letting all the things circle around in our minds.
After a series of thoughts marched through my mind, I asked myself,” Would Cab want me to play it safe or would he want me to send it.?” I think you know by now what Cab’s response would likely be. The first words out of my mouth to Lisa on that silent walk home were, ” Well, We should probably get up pretty early.” She replied,” Yep,probably.”
Lisa is so much like me, that we often don’t have to say much to know we are on the same page. She is one of my all time favorite partners and we knew this was likely one of those few trips you get in a lifetime and we would give it our best shot tomorrow. We arrived shortly behind John and his partner and they were quite pleased to see us. We climbed on their heals for the first 10 pitches. We gave them a little space on the head wall and had snacks on the bivy ledge. The climbing on the head wall was more engaging and Lisa delicately moved from the tiny knobs on the face finding the line to the crack systems above. Apparently this engaging climbing had stirred something in our friends above. I was on lead now, as Lisa and I flip flopped every pitch. “Kremer,” I hear John yell down grabbing my attention. “What?” I holler back up. “I have good news and I have bad news,” he says.”Okay”, I answer with a bit of concern. “Well, the bad news is I have to take a shit real bad, the good news is I’m pretty sure it will miss you!” “Unacceptable,Negative, NO”,I shout looking up the clean wall that definitely does not look like a sure miss to me. He thinks fast, pulls his helmet off, grabs his “tuque” Canadian word for warm hat and poops in it. He flings the hat off the wall and exclaims,”I love that hat”. I’m relieved to not be shit splattered way up here on this precious piece of stone and amused by Lisa yelling up,” I’ve seen lots of hat tricks before, but I’ve never seen that one,” . Despite John’s efficient climbing, they will,not make the summit in time for the Heli to pick them up. They tag the top anchor and begin rappelling down the face.I am climbing the second to the last vertical pitch and they have arrived at the belay station Lisa is at. I look down and notice that Lisa is rummaging through their backpack and I wonder what my little partner in crime is scoring. When I bring her up,she smiles and tells me she scored a bivy tarp. Lisa knows I am not a big fan of rappelling in the dark and I smile at her cleverness. We arrive to the last bolted anchor and the summit looms above us. It’s not dark yet, but it soon will be. Lisa leads a long last pitch to the summit.
We agree that we should just sleep up here and get up super early to do the raps in the morning. We find a spot we can spoon and make our nest with our ropes. We only have climbing shoes and not much else aside from what we are wearing ,but we do have a lovely bivy tarp. We watch the sun set and cuddle in our nest, rolling from side to side to keep our legs from falling asleep. It’s cold. I got up and went pee. Lisa got up and peed, but came back with a piping hot water bottle, “That was so smart!” I exclaim.”I can’t believe I wasted my pee like that”: We laugh and I beg her to let me hold her pee bottle for awhile. We pull the tarp completely over our heads to try to keep all the warmth in. I wake up because it’s getting light out. Pulling the tarp off my head, I realize it’s not actually light out, we are just covered in a layer of fresh snow. “Uh oh”, I say as Lisa wipes her sleepy eyes. “Ruh oh”, she replies. We get up, it will be light soon enough, and we will take longer to get ready since we have to get the snow out of our climbing shoes and put our frozen harnesses back on. Mindfully, we down belay and climb back to the the bolted rappels on the gorgeous face. The wall is wet and the snow will soon melt off the ledges. We arrive at John’s camp around 10am. “What time is the Heli coming,” I ask. John replies,” He should be here in about 30 minutes.” “Oh shit,” I gulp. He replies,, ” Don’t worry,we’ll bump over and help you break down camp..” We still have a 45 minute hike to get to our camp. At Fairy Meadows, we bust ass to break down camp as we see the Heli landing up at John’s. They load up and fly past us. We are a little confused. I crack a beer and slowly continue my packing . “I guess they left us”, Lisa remarks. We have a ton of stuff. Cab’s tent, plus basecamp tent, plus five star kitchen. The Heli returns empty. We’re not ready and I signal the pilot to cut the engine. He stops the blades and gets out to give us a hand. Apparently the other guys got dropped at the lake where we will swap our positions soon. We load up all the things and I shot gun the remainder of my beer, because we don’t like wasting alcohol. In the next second, the entire beer comes projectiling out of my mouth and nose. Lisa laughs and says, ” wouldn’t want to waste alcohol,” The very kind pilot who I’m not sure is amused, gives us a flight down to the lake where we will wait for Warren to come pick us up in the float plane. We pass out with our hands soaking in the lake, the sun on our backs and the trip of a lifetime under our belt.
A million Thank Yous to my wonderful friend, Christian Cabanilla, who later died on a cornice failure in Haines, Alaska. He was a big dreamer, who made those dreams come true.