A Range of Revelations by Nick Brown and Ben Silvestre
The legion is black.
The road is quiet.
The people have left this place.
The contrast between city and sky is obscured by the harsh glow of streetlights. Stars are out there somewhere.
Under cars and round walls the wind whispers temptation to the paranoid soul, urges it to follow.
In the distance, someone waits around the corner.
The presence is real.
The legion is black.
Black like nothing you've ever seen.
It's blacker than night, blacker than pitch.
Blacker than the ravens that are its eyes.
Blacker than the deepest voids of space.
The legion is black and it follows you everywhere you go. You see it in reflections as your eyes scan windows on the street - always gone when you turn around. You feel it on your shoulders when you wake, dehydrated and aching.
Never quite close enough when you reach for its throat, but always too close when you try to run.
The legion is black and you can't escape it. You can't defeat it, either.
In March 2015, Ben flew to Alaska with his long time climbing partner Pete Graham. Their objective was in the Revelation Mountains, 100 miles south of Denali. Plan A was thwarted by poor snow conditions on the glacier, but Plan B offered the unclimbed north face of Jezebel - an Alaskan tribute act to the north face of the Grandes Jorasses.
Unfortunately, Plan B also had to be scrapped, which left them finally with Plan C: the equally impressive east face (also unclimbed). The Revelation Mountains are relatively low in altitude compared to ranges such as the Alps, meaning that Ben and Pete were going to be able to push themselves technically without worrying too much about acclimatisation.
Ben and Pete flew into the range on the 25th March, landing on the Fish glacier directly below their objective. Brimming with trepidation, they were excited to find a high quality line at the limit of their capabilities.
One thing thing for which you cannot acclimatise, is the sudden and extreme isolation. The flight is one hundred miles and the sense of separation only increases throughout. They found themselves using the tent as a ‘safe place,’ gradually daring themselves to go further and further away until they got comfortable with their surroundings.
Simple life becomes very different in such an extreme environment. Every action requires meticulous analysis, measuring the pros and cons, because if something were to go wrong, the consequences could be far more detrimental.
Glaciers in the Alps are varied and featured, allowing easy judgement of distances and heights. The Alaskan glacier that Ben and Pete had made their home was a giant, flat, featureless expanse of nothing. Looking up at their objective and planning the route, they based their preparation on vastly underestimated measurements. The 'small' ice step which was guarding entry at the bottom of the route turned out to be a 30 metre pitch of thin and overhanging ice. After their initial attempt they nicknamed it 'the Organ Pipes' pitch.
The legion is black, and it defines what you are, even in periods of grace and calm. It is the monster beneath your bed, the stranger on a dark street, the omen in your heart. No matter what you achieve, no matter what you do, the legion will come to take it all away.
You don't know where it came from, but you know where it waits.
You know where you'll end up.
The legion is black and one day we will all walk in its flanks.
You try to hide from it, to push it away, to fight it. The hardest days were when you welcomed it. As an antidote to your own stubborn indifference, you opened your arms and asked the legion to come. You became sick of it existing as an eternal whisper on the street, or a snarl beneath the wind.
The legion is black and you wanted to join it, but when you tried to find it, you couldn't meet it. You weren't brave enough.
How strange it was to realise that.
They went light on their first attempt – a minimal rack and practically no bivy gear. As soon as they saw the start of the route, they reassessed this decision as the difficulty was likely to be far greater than originally anticipated. This turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise, as that evening a huge storm rolled in leaving them grateful for their glacial retreat.
On their next foray into the unknown, Ben and Pete took no chances and packed sleeping bags, a tent and enough food for two and a half days. They were constantly re-evaluating the route. The first two pitches were harder than expected; Pete aid climbed sections to minimise risk. Decent ice turned into unconsolidated snow in the chimney on pitch four, and time began to slip away. Darkness crept in, along with snow showers, and the prospect of retreat meant having to reclimb the tricky first pitches. They bivvied for the night, hoping for better luck the following day.
Dawn was clear. Above was a feature that they had nicknamed ‘the tower of commitment.’ They were uncertain of what was behind this ridge and it was possible that there could be a large drop, making that section more committing. When Ben reached the top of the ridge and looked behind, his heart sank. In front of him was a practically unclimbable, vertical rock wall.
Luckily their rope reached the bottom of the gully and instead of totally committing themselves, they left a fixed rope – meaning they could descend along the same route and easily ascend their fixed rope.
The rest of the route was relatively straightforward and they arrived at the summit just before dark. At this point, Ben describes himself as feeling ‘cold and emotionless.’ A simple handshake with Pete sufficed, they were only half way there after all.
Their plan was to descend the North-East ridge, based on the information given to them by Clint Helander, the Godfather of the Revelations Range. However, when they looked down the ridge they saw it was scattered with crevasses, tottering cornices and looked utterly horrendous. Ben and Pete subsequently found out that Clint had made a mistake on his website, and attempting that descent would have been perilous.
They chose to descent the route instead, climbing the fixed rope and down climbing the easier sections to save gear. They arrived back at basecamp in a flurry of snow, counting themselves lucky that the weather had not arrived a couple of hours earlier. Their route, now named Hoar of Babylon, took the pair three days in total.
The legion is black and it frightens you, but you cannot own your fear. You mimic bravery instead, by putting yourself in harm's way. You stand on the edge, you feel the wind wrap its arms around you. You hope it will carry you off. You feel the cold biting at your skin, and just as you taste the very essence of the void, you realise that it isn't a place you want to be. In front of you the light shines bright, and you see something in it worth keeping.
A UKClimbing Digital Feature by Nick Brown and Ben Silvestre (Ben contributed sections of his writing for the piece).
You can read more of Ben's writing and hear about his latest adventures on his website here