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Never Ending

Last week, we published a NewsWire by Jens Holsten on the 1,250-foot alpine route he and Vern Nelson Jr. established in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains in memory of alpinist Chad Kellogg. As a follow-up, Holsten agreed to republish his story Never Ending from Alpinist 47 on his travels with Kellogg in the Cascades and their last climb together in Patagonia.–Emma Yardley

Jens Holsten and Chad Kellogg in 2013 on the Complete Pickets Traverse. Because they left out three summits, they considered their ten-mile enchainment to be an “attempt.”

[Photo] Jens Holsten

“I DON’T KNOW, MAN.” Shards of rime stung my face in the cold, west wind. I squinted at Chad Kellogg and recited all my reasons to bail: too little food and not enough clothes, dirty black clouds instead of ocean blue sky. As always, Chad listened politely, his gaze locked on mine. “Yeah, we’re facing unforeseen challenges at the point of no return,” he said. “But this is what we came for and right now, we’re doing OK. I think we should keep climbing.” When I agreed to go on, Chad darted about looking for a rappel anchor. “There’s a perfect block to sling right here!” His hands encased in insulated blue fishing gloves, he wrapped a loop of cord around the ice-covered stone and tossed our single rope toward the moat. There were four days of ridge behind us and at least as many left. We made the overhanging rappel, pulled our cord and climbed into the mist.

I FIRST CAUGHT GLIMPSES of these pointy peaks when I was a boy, scrambling with my father in the North Cascades. The Pickets seemed so elusive, thrusting chaotically out of cracked glaciers with unrelenting abruptness. Bottomless valleys spread like tentacles from the ten-mile-long massif, fading into hellish mazes of brush and mosquitoes. In 2011 I made my first trip into the range with Dan Hilden and Sol Wertkin. Our seven-day adventure ended with the second traverse of the Southern Pickets, plus a climb of Luna Peak. Before we dove back into the valley, I took one last look over my shoulder. Serrated like a dragon’s back, a dozen more peaks arced into a lonely horizon. I tucked away the route-finding details and placed the full Pickets Enchainment near the top of my “to climb” list.

Even though we both grew up in Seattle, I first met Chad Kellogg in the dusty streets of El Chalten, Patagonia. “I want to do fifty expeditions while I’m alive,” he’d said. In the summer of 2013, at forty-one years old, he was quickly closing in on that goal. On July 7, we began breaking through the muggy air of Goodell Creek toward the southern end of the Picket Range to attempt the complete traverse. Our packs weighed thirty-five pounds each, including climbing gear, food, shelter, and clothing for a week. At a col that afternoon, Chad kicked stones into the abyss and leveled a place to rest. “Metered output” was one of his mantras. As we chatted about girls, training, and all the peaks around the world we hoped to climb together, we gazed out at a seemingly infinite stretch of mountains.

Up, down and around, we continued for days, adrift in the sea of our never-ending climb, on to the Northern Pickets, over Mt. Fury and across the ridge to our fourth bivy–a tarp-covered, tilted ledge of sharp stones. Outside our shelter, the wind ripped and summits were plastered in rime. Without sufficient clothing for the ice storm, we spent the evening and the next morning in our sleeping bags trying to stay warm. When the gusts settled down, we stuffed our packs and hung out on a rubble-strewn ledge discussing the implications of the next rappel. A sense of commitment seemed to pulse in the air. Would our rope cover the distance? Could I re-climb the steep ground if we needed to bail? Chad reached into his pocket and grabbed his tobacco. We were alive, he said. We were safe. We could do this. Onwards.

OVER THE NEXT TWO DAYS, we climbed like spiders, trying to disperse our weight evenly across the loose shale. A damp, cold marine layer curled over the crest, disguising darker clouds, heavy with rain and snow. We raced for the end of the ridge and our exit down the Challenger Glacier. But just as we descended from the summit of Mt. Challenger, the storm burst into a howling whiteout. Blind guesses at where to go left us stranded over crevasses. We shouted at each other through the wind and kicked our flimsy approach shoes into the steep, hard slope. A deep chill began to penetrate our thin jackets, and for the first time I caught another kind of glint in Chad’s eyes. This is serious, I thought. We bailed upward, back to the summit block and a small cave. All night, a relentless snafflehound pattered about, chewing on our cams and nosing into our food bags. The ice-cold talus under our pad-less sleeping bags kept us awake.

At last, the pink sun crept over the Cascades and washed over our shivering bodies. We could see our path through the shining glacier and the heather meadows beyond. All that separated us from friends, favorite foods and rest was a long walk home. Chad and I spent a day and a half traveling back to our car. Amid the fatigue, the mosquitoes and the bushwhacking, the intensity of the previous days dissolved. Finally, each step had no consequences: after a week of tiptoeing across a spine of stone, we could trip over our feet and weave drunkenly through a valley of huge old-growth trees, across a cool forest floor. Our experience had laid waste to the walls in our minds, leaving only honest brotherhood and love.

Seven months later, Chad and I were descending from Fitz Roy after a successful ascent of the Afanassieff route. As we pulled a stuck rappel rope, a rock broke away and struck Chad. He died instantly. Since that day, at times, a darkness flows into my mind, and I’ve tried to counter it by reflecting on our climb through the Picket Range. Unlikely, never ending, our journey led us through views of wild possibility I’d never glimpsed before. For seven days, the mountains lent us an endless summit perspective: we could go no higher, only farther. Our purpose was evident, and our partnership perfect. Not even Chad’s death can take that clarity away.


Alpinist 47