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The Question: The Direct East Face of Golgotha

The Revelation Mountains, Alaska, during Clint Helander and Jason Stuckey’s first ascent of Apocalypse (9,345′) in April 2013. David Roberts noticed the distant range in 1966, while he was on an expedition to the Kitchatna Spires. A year later, he and his parters became the first to climb in the Revelations, a name they bestowed. In the 1968 AAJ account, he wrote: “The sense of achievement hardens; but one continues to remember the feel of sharp, sun-warmed rock, the shared silence of a summit….”

[Photo] Jason Stuckey

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a vault flickers between blinding light and all-consuming darkness. The flickering is like a hologram, and when I focus I often see images of mountains. Sometimes they are clear: the first gold rays of dawn illuminating an impeccable spur against a shadowed glacier. Other times they appear distorted and even malignant, a tortuous gothic structure painted in violent slashes of black and red. One of those images is the east face of Golgotha, an 8,940-foot peak in the Revelation Mountains. To most climbers, among the world’s many summits, it carries no great significance. To me, it holds deep meaning.

Secluded at the western terminus of the arching 600-mile-long Alaska Range, the monolithic profile of the Revelations juts steeply above the lowlands. Many of the peaks are flawless, composed of soaring granite buttresses and ice-streaked headwalls. But perhaps only Golgotha is sculpted with such triangular perfection that might render plausible the idea of intelligent design. In the Bible, Golgotha or “the place of the skull,” was the mountain outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified; to this day, it remains a holy site for many Christians. Although I have no affinity for organized religion, the Revelations have become my place of pilgrimage. My church exists near the top of some untrodden summit, where the ascent toward the heavens is as visible as the arch of a ridge stretching from the sinuous glacier below.

In 1967 a band of Harvard Mountaineering Club climbers became the first to summit some of the peaks here. One member, David Roberts, then a graduate student at the University of Denver, had been reading the Bible to enhance his understanding of English literature. In his memoir, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, he muses: “The book that vividly matched the gloom and fury of our surroundings was of course Revelation, and I could not help reading out loud St. John the Divine’s evocations of the angel of the bottomless pit or the sea of glass mingled with fire.” Struck by the similarities between the images and the landscapes, he and his partners chose biblical names for the range and many of its mountains: Four Horsemen, Angel, Apocalypse, Golgotha. “[H]ere, I thought greedily,” Roberts writes, “lay one of the last challenges of its kind in North America–difficult first ascents of unnamed peaks in an unnamed range, weeks of prowling across terrain that no human had ever explored.”

Forty-one years later, when I first arrived in the Revelations, few had responded to Roberts’ challenge, yet it was his words that inspired me to seek out the remaining unnamed and untouched summits. In a 2011 Climbing article, Roberts ventured to say that Golgotha might be the most difficult of all the Revelations–perhaps to goad modern alpinists into attempting the still-unclimbed mountain. When I spoke with Ned Fetcher, part of the 1967 expedition, he recalled standing beneath Golgotha’s imposing east face: “I remember thinking that it was a peak for the next generation.”

From 2008 to 2014, I made seven expeditions to this distant range, but I still crave its silent majesty in some indefinable way. I need more moments of halting awe, of rounding a bend in the glacier and standing mutely while tracing the path of an ice runnel glistening toward the sky. Each mountain shines forth in that vault of my mind as a constellation of memories. Above all, I see my twenty-two-year-old self, bivouacking on the southwest ridge of the Ice Pyramid in 2008 with my mentor and friend Seth Holden. As the sunset blackened the main spine of the Revelations, their shadows reached toward us like cold, bestial fingers. Seth’s piercing blue eyes scanned the horizon, and I tried to read what he was thinking. Ever since we’d met in college, I’d been drawn to his mysterious demeanor; I hoped that one day I’d become his equal. But just then, with only the two of us nearing an unclimbed summit, I felt wonder at simply being where I was. Orange and red light flared along the upper western aspects of the mountains. Silhouetted against the evening sky, Golgotha cleaved the southern escarpment of the range.

There are few moments when you can look back and identify the exact second when your entire life changed. Transfixed by the panorama of unclimbed peaks, I saw only one future worth pursuing. I wanted to climb everything I saw before me, and I wanted to share those experiences with Seth. The last beam of light bathed his face in pink. We laughed and stared at the horizon until the stars appeared. The pact was made: after many other trials, the east face of Golgotha would be our culminating testament. The alpenglow of that evening permeated my existence from then on.

In 2010 we reconnoitered Golgotha from a high pass: tiered buttresses rose up on the right side of the nearly 3,000-foot east face; a thin scourge of ice cut straight down the center. Our route was chosen without words. And then, several months later, Seth was gone, killed in a plane crash not far from the range. The next spring I returned to the Revelations seeking catharsis, but found only a reverberating, numbing loneliness. With my friend Scotty Vincik, I spread Seth’s ashes on the narrow, rime-coated summit of Mt. Mausolus–the peak that Seth and I had chosen as our final stepping-stone toward Golgotha. I looked northwest at the Ice Pyramid, its summit majestically purple in the coming dusk. I imagined the apparitions of Seth and my past self, still looking westward, imprinted there like Brocken specters. The same fiery sunset burst behind Golgotha that we’d seen several years before: the east face now demonic black against a gauzy late-winter sky. Fear. Doubt. Sadness. Scotty and I descended, and I put Golgotha out of my mind.

The following year, 2012, Ben Trocki and I rappelled into a valley under the eastern flanks of Golgotha. Even on flat ground, I fought waves of vertigo. The walls seemed to exude a miasmatic aura. Do I know why I am afraid or what I am afraid of? I wondered. Am I simply afraid of fear itself? I hoped the answers would reveal themselves on the mountain. We curved right at a hanging snowfield and into a shaft of fragile ice. Ben’s words of encouragement were muted beneath the hissing spindrift. I stared up at the shadows funneling down the dark, narrow walls and calculated our odds of being hit by debris. Below me, sixty meters of rope threaded through a distant tied-off piton in a bottoming crack, and my smallest cam jammed into an ice-choked seam. My picks and crampons sheared through illusionary ice, screeching against blank slabs underneath.

I belayed Ben up on a quadruple-equalized V-thread in three-inchthick crusty snow. Cowering to the side of one wall, I contrived peril in everything I saw: precarious granite blocks and snow gargoyles hung on the mountain above; the way ahead looked as impossible to protect as the terrain behind. My mind created gruesome scenarios: Ben falling on lead and ripping out the anchor, the two of us ricocheting to our deaths. He didn’t argue when I pleaded to bail. The spindrift grew quiet. Perhaps we were making a mistake. Some unknown fear had overcome me. To this day, I can’t define it.

As we entered a large couloir left of the main face, my fear began to ebb. The cleft appeared to lead all the way up to the gradually sloped southeast face. Instead of crossing the bergschrund to our tent, we continued up. Several hours later, we crested the final ridge and stood on the summit in a gale. I felt no victory, no lasting sense of fulfillment. Golgotha had been too easy. David Roberts’ prediction had been wrong. I wish we’d gone down: I’d compromised my ideal of a first ascent via the east face for a lesser definition of success.

Golgotha is burned permanently upon my mind. Some days it’s crisp, clear, glowing in dawn’s soft light. I reason that I could somehow make the east face safe, that perhaps it isn’t so dangerous after all. In dreams, I see it from those distant vantage points where everything is perfect, still left for an imagined future. I’m staring at it with Seth, and we’re laughing.

Other times, I see Golgotha through the confining darkness of steep, blank walls. I’m staring up from within the mountain, and my life seems poised to end, as if I’m reading the final page of a book. I’m watching my partner rappel, wondering whether the anchor will hold. I’m waiting for that hiss of spindrift to increase to the roar of an avalanche. Seth seems closer now, as if these shadows lead toward his eternal realm.

What would Seth do if he were still here? Would he go back? I don’t know. Will I go back? I don’t know. That is the battle. That is the beauty. That is the question that flickers in my mind.