Ice climbing the Goat’s Beard route is a matter of timing and readiness
By Mandi Donohue
Ice climbing is an exotic experience under any circumstances. In the dark, on a route that is so seldom climbed that its handful of ascents can be individually recited, it can become something other-worldly.
On an early January morning before sunrise, climbing partners Seth Keena and Mark Allen were steadily front-pointing their way up a sheer icefall — on a route called Goat’s Beard on Mazama’s massive Goat Wall — and periodically pounding in the ice screws they used for protection. It was a bit surreal.
“When your headlamp is shining on it, the screw looks like it’s blowing the ice apart. You can’t normally see those types of micro fractures. That’s kind of heady,” Keena said in a recent interview.
In the world of ice climbing, the rare winter ascent of Goat’s Beard is more than heady. It’s a matter of fate and serendipity – the right climbers being ready and prepared when the right conditions occur. And that’s not often.
Cold weather created the climbing opportunity, and Allen and Keena were watching the wall. “By Dec. 28, we new exactly which day we wanted to make a bid,” Keena said.
“What a hell of a way to start the year,” Allen added.
Jan. 2 was the day. As dawn approached, Keena and Allen stood at the foot of the 350-meter climb in full anticipation.
Waiting for the moment
There are two types of ice climbing — alpine ice found in the mountains, or water ice that is typically found on a cliff or other rock outcropping when water flows over the surface and freezes to create what are essentially frozen waterfalls. Climbers use ice axes and wear crampons (metal cleats attached to climbing boots) with front points that they drive into the ice as they step up the icefall. They use ice screws — hollow metal bolts with sharp, gripping edges — that are driven into the ice to provide protection against possible falls.
It’s an adjunct of rock climbing and mountaineering that requires special concentration, and the right conditions for safe, solid ice.
Goat’s Beard is only rarely suitable for a winter climb. In fact, the ascent by Allen and Keena was only the fifth documented climb of the route. The rareness of opportunity, a Haley’s Comet of sorts, makes it a climber’s dream. The route had been on Allen’s radar for more than a decade. “Personally, I had been waiting 14 years to attempt the climb but the stars never aligned,” he said.
The climbers began their approach at 5:40 a.m., with Keena leading the first pitches. The plan was to get to the first “crux” (a term climbers to describe particularly challenging parts of a route) as the sun was coming up.
For both men, getting past the first crux was the most exciting part of the climb.
“Those first three pitches were exhilarating for me because you’re climbing steep ice in the dark,” Keena said. “Sometimes you can’t see the ice because your light is shining straight through it. The first crux, we had no idea if it was safe, if we could even do it.” Allen concurred. “After completing the third stage we knew we were going to the top. This moment is always one of the sweetest moments of any climb. You feel pretty unstoppable and you become energized,” he said.
The Goat’s Beard icefall has a constant flow of water underneath the surface, making for another breathtaking challenge. “Even though most of it is frozen, from the first pitch you hear moving water,” Keena said. “And up high, you hear splashing, wet ice. Luckily you’re not really in the deluge for that long but it’s pretty wild to climb through raining, showering water.”
The other 50 percent
Uncertainty never set in. “During our ascent it felt like we had the community with us,” Allen said.
The news of their climb spread like wildfire in the community. Informed locals knew of their efforts and kept track of their progress. “We felt rooted for, like we are all in it together,” Allen said.
It took the men approximately eight hours to get to the top. “We certainly weren’t fast,” Keena said. As for coming down with such a short window of opportunity to descend safely, there was no time to meander.
“I was relieved and just super, immensely grateful that I got to be involved with this process,” Keena said. “I was fortunate enough to be strong enough, have the right tools and be mature enough to do it. I felt really lucky that the route was in the condition that it was, and every day I feel luckier — really resolute, very purifying, in a way.”
Allen offered a similar perspective. “Climbing is a strange sport where we celebrate victory at 50 percent of completion,” he said. “However, we were both pretty excited, like we just won something. We had completed the improbable and that felt special. After the euphoria wore off it was back to business. We still had to get off the wall. The descent of this route is particularly dangerous as the sun dramatically affects the stability of the ice.”
On the ground again, the men found a growler of beer from Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies and a card of congratulations from Rick and Missy LeDuc, owners of the Mazama Store, waiting for them.
A rare opportunity
CB and Micki Thomas operate Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies, a store named after the Mazama wall route. Mulling over the route’s unique and ephemeral nature, CB noted that what makes this particular climb special is that it “comes into shape” very infrequently.
“We joke that to be an ice climber in Washington, you have to have a really fast car,” he said.
Micki Thomas added that the route doesn’t discriminate against or favor anyone. “You can’t buy it, you can’t train for it. It’s not all under your control,” she said.
According to Allen, in January of 1990 local climbing and guiding pioneer Tom Kimbrell and his partner, Jack Lewis, were the first to ascend the ice wall, and their story became local legend. Though many would try, it wasn’t until 2013, over 20 years later, that Craig Gyselinck and Vern Nelson from Wenatchee were able to successfully pull it off again. Reports of that climb spread quickly and two other parties were able to ascend within a 72-hour period that year.
Two days after Keena’s and Allen’s ascent, another experienced climbing pair, locals Michael Hutchins and Michael Gardner, also found their way to the top, marking Goat Beard’s sixth ascent. While conditions were favorable for both groups, who are all friends, Keena has a warning for potential “smash-and-grab” climbers: “Later that evening a big piece of the route came down. The next day someone else heard another big piece of the ice come down … To say the least, it’s sobering.”
After Gardner and Hutchins completed the course, two other groups had to back off days later when falling ice struck one of the climbers. No one was injured but the falling ice did break a helmet.
“Just because we climbed it does not mean it is this tamed beast. There’s a huge amount of luck that goes along with climbing frozen water,” Keena said. “I spent four weeks really intentionally watching the weather conditions and picking this day very specifically for the temperature and solar timing. You know, the stuff is really dangerous, you have to be careful.”
Lifetime of preparation
Allen grew up in Everett and was first exposed to rock climbing at summer camp.
“This led to high school adventure camps and organized cascade volcano peak climbs. I was hooked for life but my parents hoped it was a phase,” he said.
During college, Allen had the freedom to take it to the next level. He became more focused and progressing was important. “College was the job but climbing became our life,” he said. “We were climbing sponges. The pro climbers of the day were our super-heroes.”
After a 16-year career as a climbing guide, Allen moved to the Methow Valley in 2003 and became fast friends with the valley’s climbing elite, who in turn, motivated, encouraged and accompanied him on adventures.
“The rock and snow of Washington Pass became my training ground for ascents all over the world,” he said.
Professional climber Steve House and Mazama guide Larry Goldie opened Allen’s eyes to the potential of climbing as a lifestyle. After training with the North Cascades Mountain Guides, he got his mountain guide license and in 2014 started his own company, Mountain Bureau LLC.
Keena, a North Carolina native, had a similar start, having also been introduced to rock climbing in his youth at summer camp. As an adult, climbing for the past seven years, it has been a rich and rewarding experience for him, both emotionally and intellectually as a way to connect with the landscape.
“You find a literacy of the hills, kind of on a micro and macro scale, that I found really intriguing,” he said — not a surprising outlook coming from a seasonal employee of the National Park Service.
“I also get into a kind of flow state and calm state — a huge draw for me to quiet the mind noise, and to engage in using strength, mind and problem solving,” he said.
The collaboration between the two is strong. The duo met last winter on Methow Valley Climbers Facebook page. Together they finished routes on Goat Creek and as Keena jokes, “It’s been a love affair ever since.”
Allen has years of technical experience in the valley but currently lives in Seattle. Keena, a newer local in the valley, did a great deal of the legwork for the duo in preparing for the climb. With binoculars in one hand and Allen on the phone in another, he would study each pitch during various hours of the day, and collectively they would make decisions about the climb. “We both brought a lot to the table that made the ascent happen the way that it did,” Keena said.
So what’s next for Allen and Keena?
“We have a few unfinished projects on Goat Wall as winter climbs that we’re doing. They’re longer, significant routes,” Keena said.
Keena also mentioned putting together a slide show of the Goat’s Beard experience. In spring, the two also have plans to attempt some new routes in Alaska where Allen has previous guiding experience.
Climbing Goat’s Beard is not only memorable but also a bonding experience with the Methow Valley, the climbers said.
“This is a unique communal experience and again is an example of why I love this place so much,” Allen said.
“I feel more intimate with the valley and with the community,” Keena said. “It’s fun to see how exciting this is for the community. We need some positive news these days and I don’t care where that comes from. This is great; this is positive. I want people to be inspired.”