Alaska 2011

After six months of training, I hauled my 150lbs of gear to the airport and got on a plane to Alaska. Jesse and I met up in the airport where Delta promptly emptied our wallets to the tune of $185 in baggage fees despite only having three bags each with nothing over-weight. At midnight we arrived in Anchorage, got a cab to Jesse’s friend’s house, crashed for the night, and then spent the entire next day shopping for food and last minute items before getting on the shuttle up to Talkeetna. Our shuttle driver, Cliff, deserves mention, as he is possibly the most interesting person I’ve ever met and everything I hoped a native Alaskan would be. He has (according to himself) hunted everything there is to hunt, rolled one with Samuel L Jackson, and definitely does not carry hand grenades.

Anyway, upon arriving in Talkeetna, we learned that the weight limit for flying into the glacier was 150lbs a person. This proved a problem, since our bags not totaled 457lbs with the addition of a two-burner stove, grill, propane, large pots and frying pans, two bottles of scotch, two bottles of whisky, a bottle of Baileys, and tons of food (four steaks, bacon, chicken, sausage, veggies, and so on). The over-weight fee was $1 per pound. All in all, not as bad as Delta.

Jesse and I had a rather lofty goal for the trip, but we learned that our route was out of shape only a couple days before leaving for AK. We had two choices. Re-kit for something like a slog up Denali, or fly into the Kahiltna and do the base camp circuit of lower routes that have actual climbing on them. We chose the latter and boarded the Otter for our flight into the range. We hadn’t been on the ground more than a couple minutes when I heard someone yell my name and looked up to see Rick and Jess coming down the hill to greet us. They had flown in a couple days earlier and had been chilling out and waiting for the snow to end. They helped us lug some gear up the hill and we set up camp next to theirs. “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Things were a bit snowy and unsettled on the morning of day two, and we were still getting accustomed to the place, so Jesse and I decided to ski to the base of Mt Frances and climb the first little bit of the route to see what it was going to be like. It took us an hour and a half to make it to the top of the second tower, which included some really fun rock climbing with crampons in temps warm enough for bare hands. That night we went to sleep (as well as could be done with 24-hour daylight anyway) and set the alarm for 5:00am. When the alarm went off it was snowing like mad, so we went back to bed. 9:00 rolled around and we decided to greet the day, only to see a bluebird sky. Damn, should have gone. But then again, we reasoned, it never gets dark, so why don’t we just go? We made the call in about three minutes, slammed down some food, boiled some more water, and were walking out of camp at 10:00 in the morning.

With the lower snow section of the route nicely frozen, we made good time soloing everything up to the base of the second tower where we roped up and I took off in the lead. We cruised that pitch for the second time in two days, simal-climbed several rope lengths of steep snow and a bit of rock to the base of the third pitch, and then made the terrible mistake of following the topo. This is pretty much where things went to shit.

I followed the route description and climbed a hand crack on the right side of a short rock section. Unfortunately, due to the very low snow year, the “snowy slabs” above were just blank, unprotected slabs. So I tension traversed 15 feet to the left and climbed as high as I dared before placing more gear in order to make the move easier on Jesse. At the top of the pitch, I traversed 30 meters straight left (as per the route description) and came another 10-foot wide section of blank 70-degree slab. So, I reversed 15 meters, down climbed a bit, and went back out left. Once again, I came to a section of rock that I had no business dealing with. Finally, I had Jesse lower me 60 feet straight down and slightly to the left, to a snow ledge I could have walked to before climbing the crack, and the way ahead was clear. Well, that was an hour wasted for nothing.

So, with that cluster out of the way, I moved up the thigh-deep snow as fast as I could, turned the corner on the third tower, and moved into steep mixed terrain ahead. Only a couple body lengths into the slabby rock and snow it became clear that to continue straight up would be a terrible idea, so I built an anchor and brought up Jesse. At this point, after having done a bunch of really scary climbing in the last couple hours, I was mental fried. Jesse started his block by being lowered down and to the left until he was on 65-degree snow leading around the corner. We simal-climbed several rope lengths of steep, loose, scary snow with granite underneath. Occasionally Jesse would build a one or two-piece anchor and reel me in to reload on gear and then lead out again.

We completely abandoned the topo and started climbing whatever looked climbable until we could make it back to the ridge. After climbing into the notch, we finally saw the other side of the mountain again and from there made one more long simal-climbing pitch to the base of tower 4 where Jesse led through and took us to easy ground. Or so we thought. From there it was nearly 2000 feet of thigh-deep heavy snow to reach the cornice below the false summit. We cranked as hard as we could, but the hours ticked by anyway. By the time we reached the cornice I was back in the lead. I crossed a crevasse and traversed hard right hoping to see the end of the massive overhang. Eventually I came to it after several hundred feet of traversing and quite a bit of down climbing. 80-degree since (not quite snow, not quite ice) guarded the corner where the overhand relented, and Jesse slid a picket down the rope for me to place before making the turn. I’ll never talk shit about pickets again.

At this point is was about 11:00 at night, and I was still climbing in only a long-sleeve shirt, but when I turned the corner I put on every layer I had including my down jacket. We plodded along the ridge and Jesse started out in front to weave us through the last rock section, but not before accidentally dropping a van-sized cornice and nearly soiling himself as he watched it fall down the west face. At midnight we made the final couple hundred yards to the summit with me pulling hard on Jesse. It was the only time in the entire trip where he wasn’t running me into the ground.

Luckily for us, someone had climbed the east ridge earlier and left us a nice trail down to the glacier where were were able to follow ski tracks back to camp and avoid potholing. It was 3:15 in the morning when we strolled into camp and saw Rick and Jess gearing up for a go at the North Couloir of the Mini-Moonflower. The route that we expected to take 12 hours on ended up taking 17 hours and 15 minutes camp to camp because of the conditions. What a shit show.

At 10:00 in the morning after our climb, one of the rangers poked his head into our tent to ask if we had seen any signs of other human traffic on the route or on the west side of the mountain. Two climbers were now four days overdue and no one had heard or seen a thing of them. We wished out loud for them to come out alright. Jesse and I spent the rest of the day eating and reading and chatting with Rick and Jess who made it well past the crux of Mini but turned back in 50mph winds near the ridge. The next morning Jesse yelled from outside the tent “dude, you gotta come see this. Grab your camera.” So I jumped out of the tent with the long lens and saw a helicopter long-lining a PJ off the glacier. Those guys are bad ass for sure. A dozen minutes went by and the chopper came back, this time with more than just a PJ hanging below it. I was stoked to be taking shots of a heli rescue, firing off frames like a damn idiot when I realized, all at once, that the guy below the PJ was hanging in an unnatural position and wasn’t moving. “Ahhh, Fuck!” I yelled out loud and carelessly tossed my camera into a pile of climbing gear. It wasn’t a rescue.

I wanted nothing to do with the scene. I had nor morbid curiosity. I knew what I needed to know, and then some. I laid back into the tent and started reading, trying to take my mind of what I just saw. That very last thing I wanted to see on this trip. An hour later the helicopter left and came back again. Neither of us bothered to look. We already knew what we’d see. Four hours later a serac broke off the top of Mt Hunter, avalanched the entire north face, ripped across a half mile of glacier, and slammed into the base of Peak 12,200 on the other side. The powder cloud covered the tracks where Rick and Jess had just come from, and where Jesse and I were planning on going next. If I knew Jesse could find another person to climb with, I’m pretty sure I would have walked down to the landing strip and hopped on the next plane. I was done. I’d seen too much. I wanted out.

Jesse cooks just as well as he climbs. Maybe even better. Armed with a two-burner stove and more food than I generally eat in two months, he made up gourmet meal after gourmet meal during our stay. Between the meals, drinking scotch, and talking through my fuck-this-place feeling with Rick, I managed to get re-stoked. Jesse and I eventually tired of hanging out and wasting time and decided to ski over and check out Mini-Moonflower from the base. So, we skied across the glacier where we had watched the massive slide cover everything less than 24 hours ago, took a look, and decided to come back in the morning to give it a shot. We came back to camp, ate even more food, packed, and turned in for the night.

I didn’t sleep one damn second. When the alarm went off at 2:00 in the morning I was still wide awake and staring at the tent celing. Jesse did much better, getting in maybe two hours, if that. We scarfed some breakfast, put on the skis, and started toward the base of the route. We made it in well under the guidebook time, which indicates we were moving well, but I felt like complete shit the entire time. I nearly threw up while trying to get under the the slide zone quickly, and my stomach didn’t settle down until were were well up the route. Jesse led the first section over the schrund and belayed where the angle kicked off a bit, then I took over for five 60m pitches of 60- to 70-degree ice and neve. We moved pretty quickly and tried to stay comfortable at the hanging belays, but our calves took a pretty serious beating. On the final lead of my block, with only 50 feet to go and in the steepest section of the pitch, my left arm decided it was over the whole swinging-tools thing and cramped up so bad I could not move it. I had one well planted tool already, so I leaned in, took the tool from my left hand with my right, drove it deep, and then made a really shitty three-piece one-handed anchor in snice and yelled “off belay.” Jesse came up, I apologized for my shit show, and he finished the last 50 feet of my block. Then he looked up at the crux pitch. It was barely there two days ago when Rick led it, and now it wasn’t there at all. “I’m not fucking leading that!” Came the description and the decision in one sentence, and Jesse started building the first of several rappels. So much for that route.

Back on the glacier Jesse and I tested the benefits of our ski setups. He had his standard touring setup and had to pack around two pairs of boot shells (one for skiing and one for climbing) while swapping liners. But that did offer him some more support than my Silvretta bindings (which work with climbing boots) on skinny skis and a home-made support/tether system. Basically, both systems sucked. On the other hand, my skis had scales, so I ripped my skins and hauled ass under Hunter, beating Jesse back to safe ground by a half hour or better. The soft snow actually made for good turns, and we were having fun again despite bailing on the route.

I never expected Alaska to be so damned hot. At 7200 feet, in a place so far north that it never gets dark, we wore T-shirts all day long and recorded 88-degree temps in the tent nearly every day. The whole camp was melting around us and avalanches were going off like fireworks displays each afternoon. It quickly became clear that no one was climbing anything else around base camp. Not safely at least. So while Rick and Jess ran up the east ridge of Frances to see the amazing view up there, Jesse and I scheduled a flight out. The next morning, we broke down camp, gave away all the food we could, and flew to Talkeetna. We managed to waste two days there drinking, drying gear, and generally being lazy asses until that got old and we got a shuttle to Anchorage where we basically did the same thing. Jesse and I are both very competitive people, so we pretty much had to find out who was better at any competitive thing we could come up with. It broke down like this: Jesse is way better at golf and darts. I’m way better at ping pong and foosball. We both suck at pool, so that was a wash. Fortunately, while Jesse is better than me at shuffleboard, I could hold my own and sometimes win, so we ended up playing about 100 games at the Pioneer bar in addition to going on a long-steep hike and a couple bike rides. Finally, with nearly a week wasted, we initiated operation “sleep on the plane.” Here’s how it went down. We drank and played shuffleboard until about 6:00. Then we went home got the surf shorts we bought the day before and my $30 running shoes from the mall, went to the start of the Twilight 12K road race and started. We ran ourselves into the ground, drank away what was left, and went to bed at 2:00am. We got up at 5:00am, went to the airport, got on the plane, and slept like champions. And since I like to share knowledge, you should all know this. We flew back with Alaska Airlines, who charge $20 a bag no matter what, which makes their three-bag fees $125 cheaper than Delta. Screw those guys!

Sorry for the ultra-long post with way too-many photos. Everyone wanted to see “all of the photos.” This isn’t nearly all of them, but it’s as many as I was willing to subject anyone to.

 

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