Months of prep work and planing have brought us to this point. completely packed, weighed in for the glacier flight into the Alaska Range and bad weather is now keeping us grounded. The buzz of excitement we all felt when we arrived, organized gear and called friends and family 4 days ago is wearing off. It is like groundhog day, wake up, eat a half standard at the roadhouse, go back to the aptly named “hangar” to wait for an update on the weather. We try to entertain ourselves by fencing with wands and watching movies but each day around five o’clock in the afternoon we get the report that we are not going today and we make our way back to the Fairview. After a few pints we pull up weather models on our phones and discus our dreary fate. Though the Talkeetna Hang is trying our patients it is far more comfortable to be stuck in this small Alaskan town then pinned on the Ruth Glacier under the four feet of new snow that has just fallen.
After deciding to postpone our Dhaulagiri expedition to 2014, we found ourselves with an open schedule in the spring. Guides and climbers often struggle with sitting still, so Jake Baren, Leon Davis, and I quickly decided on a personal trip into the Alaska Range. The three of us have guided Denali many times – and as anyone who has been to the Alaska Range knows, it is difficult to travel past countless beautiful peaks, ridges, and faces and ignore the siren call to come climb them. This trip was all about pulling the wax from our ears and sailing directly towards the sirens song. With no clear plans or objectives we would simply climb what looked enticing. After about 10 days in the Ruth Gorge we got picked up and flown over to the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.
In early May the three of us climbed the Southwest ridge of Mt Francis, an excellent ridgeline that offered quality alpine rock and steep snow climbing. With good weather holding, we rested and retooled for the West Ridge of Mt Hunter. On May 9th Jake and I departed our base camp around 8:00 AM, skiing down the SE Fork through the cold, crisp morning to the main flow of the Kahiltna Glacier. We continued down glacier for another half hour to reach the West Ridge. Here we cached skis and began climbing. We approached this objective in a light and fast technique, known as “alpine style,” bringing 4 days of food, a small stove, lightweight tent, and no comfort items. As we started climbing we found a very nice boot pack leading up the ridge that made for extremely efficient travel. At first we felt guilty, drafting behind someone else breaking trail, but soon we decided that each of us has done more than our fair share of breaking trail on many other peaks and that we ought to just enjoy this one. As we climbed higher on the West Ridge with ear-to-ear smiles we decided on a plan, “lets climb until we’re not having fun and then camp there”. Well, the climbing on the West Ridge is extremely fun and after 12 hours of navigating the corniced ridge, peppered with exquisite sections of rock, steep snow and ice, we found ourselves at the 11,400’ bivy – tired but still smiling. We set our tent in a small notch and ate freeze dried dinners with a fantastic view of the Alaska Range. Truly an awesome place to be.
The next morning brought beautiful weather and a sense of excitement for where we were and what lay ahead. With our approach of simply having fun we enjoyed the morning views and a few cups of coffee and didn’t break camp until nearly noon. Moving quickly and relishing in every step and swing of an ice tool we ascended steep snow pitches and navigated gaping crevasses and soon found ourselves on the summit plateau at 13,000’. We walked across the largest stretch of horizontal terrain we had seen in 30 hours to the final 55 degree slope topping out on the summit ridge. From here, 40 more minutes of easy climbing gave way to the summit of Mt. Hunter. Jake and I hooted and hollered with excitement, standing on the top of Mt Hunter. “What a fun climb!” Soon we began our descent with the same approach we used on the ascent, climb until we are not having fun any more and then set up camp. Down the ridge we went back to our bivy site, where we decided to descend off the south side of the ridge down the Ramen Route. Quickly we realized that we had messed up the entrance into the top of the Ramen couloir and had to make some tricky rappels and down climb through some seracs to get ourselves into the correct couloir. A few more rappels down the steep and icy gully gave way to soft snow, though still steep, that allowed us to down climb the rest of the 3,300 foot Ramen coulior.
Now, for the second time in 2 days, we found ourselves again on flat terrain on the glacier. At this point it was getting late and we were tired but still having fun so we decided to continue our descent. We chose to navigate the extremely broken up glacier instead of a small notch that offers multiple rappels as we would have more opportunities to set camp somewhere on the jumble of ice should we find ourselves not having fun in the coming hours. This was a time intensive descent however we were soon in a different world surrounded by uncoprehendable seracs and craveses. A couple more hours brought us back to main flow of the Kahiltna Glacier, very tired but still happy. We made our way back to our skis and skinned back into base camp 42 hours after having left, exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and smiling. Employing our tactic of “climb until we are not having fun” had been the perfect strategy for this route.
Take 1 part Dr Seuss images, add a heaping spoonful of sand, mix well and slowly scatter large rock outcroppings into the dry mix. Pre heat your oven to a high of 91. Avoid park rangers. Slowly add broken-down sunbleached pickup trucks and then pepper the landscape with frightened run-out climbers on all sides of the rock chunks. Wait one month and remove yourself from Joshua Tree, you should have a slight sunburn, worn out guide tennies, and throbbing fingers.
LONG LIVE THE DIRTBAG
After wrapping up another season on Mount Rainier it is time to hang up the crampons and break out the rock shoes. Rocktober. The truck is loaded, Leon Davis and I point the old Ford East. Our first stop, Spokane WA to visit a friend and fellow guide Paul Edgren. Paul takes us for an early morning dirt bike ride outside of town which ends in a few wrecks, no serious injuries, and a lot of laughs.
On to Bozeman MT to see some more friends including Garrett Stevens one of the six on our Dhaulagiri team. After some fundraising and sponsorship planing and a few days of drinking and celebrating Leon and I get back on the road heading for Colorado. Frontrange, finally getting some climbing in. For the first 2 weeks of October Leon and I have posted up on the front range, Boulder and Denver area, and are climbing as much as we can. Boulder Canyon, Eldorado, and the Flatirons make for some excellent playgrounds and training. After 5 months guiding on Rainier my legs have become pistons able to hike up steep uneaven terrain for hours but my arms and head have atrophed. It takes a while to get your arms back into rock climbing shape, and your head even longer. Exposure, cruxes, and gear placement all take a larger toll on my head and in turn I end up over gripping and getting tired quickly. I have lost my ability to flow over the rock with ease and confidence, but soon I will get it back.
In late July myself and 2 other guides went to the North Cascades to climb the West Ridge of Forbidden peak with 6 friends from Fort Lauderdale. The North Cascades offers some of the most spectacular alpine rock climbing in the US if you can get lucky enough to miss the notorious North West rain and torturing mosquitoes. We got lucky. After delaying the climb by one day, due to some unlucky rain showers, we made our way up into Boston Basin where we established our camp. The following morning started with a Colombian Alpine start, walking away from camp at 5:10 AM. We quickly found ourselves in the middle of an alpine painting complete with alpin-glow kissed summits to the west. After climbing the snow gully to the notch on the West ridge of Forbidden we prepared for the awe-inspiring rock playground that lay ahead. With three rope teams of three we stepped away from the notch and started weaving our way along the exposed ridge of Forbidden. After hours for climbing, negotiating cruxes, threading ourselves around obstacles, and resting on false summits we found ourselves sunburnt, smiling, and sitting on top of the most beautiful peak in the area. At 3:40 PM we started descending the same, never-ending ridge we had just climbed and by late afternoon we were once again back at the notch tired and happy. From here we began our descent off the South side back to the steep snow gully we climbed previously. Loose rock kicked off by a team above me honed in on my left arm like a pinball to the flipper for the arcades high scoring kid. After glancing of my arm the rock continued down to collide with a climber on my rope team. Frightened minutes went by before we established that Bill, though bruised and sore, was okay. The rest of the descent was comparatively uneventful and after 16 hours of climbing we retired to our tents to eat freeze-dried meals and have a nip of scotch.
It is May 17th, the day before my 29th birthday, I am Talketna Alaska hanging around the K2 hanger making last-minute adjustments to my gear and helping my climbers with theres. We are waiting to fly on to Denali for me this will be my fourth West Buttress trip but for them it is their first and you can taste the anticipation and excitement. Before long our ramper breaks the group in two and has us start loading the corresponding otters with our mountains of gear and 22 days of food. As my bush plane leaves the ground and banks hard we get one last view of Talketna, the rivers, and tundra shortly give way to glaciers and granite. As we enter the Alaska Range I am awed once more by the size and relief of these mountains. Our pilot navigates the otter through knife-edge ridges and daunting peaks like the steel ball of a wooden labyrinth maze game, perfectly focused and calm. I spot the massive Kahiltna Glacier as we come over second shot pass and hear the skis hydraulic dropping them into place. Minutes later we are on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna unloading the plane in the dominating presence of Mount Hunter. Base Camp is always circus, running into old friends, hearing about the pros get on the newest, baddest routes, gear everywhere, planes buzzing in and out.
Before long our group has fallen into a rhythm and we work our way, slowly, up the Kahiltna and on to 11 Camp. From 11 we begin our series of carries and acclimatization climbs, and like worker ants on daily missions from the ant hill we climb higher, establishing 14 Camp and finally caching on the West Buttress near Washburn’s Thumb. 14 is like a small snow and nylon city compleat with neighborhoods, snow walls that grow to form streets and alleys, descending climbers drag sleds around the different suburbs trying to pawn their extra food, fuel, and more. After days at 14 we get a weather window and push up to 17 Camp, our high camp. We don’t want to stay here to long, nobody gets stronger waiting at 17 so have to balance enough rest after the move from 14 with the weather window, with the slow degradation altitude has on our bodies. This year we are forced to wait, mostly tent-bound, for 3 days more than necessary as winds rip through Denali pass and scours high camp.
After weeks getting ourselves within striking distance of the summit the day is upon us. anticipation is high as we pack our summit packs and leave the safety of our high camp. The first obstacle we encounter is the Audubon, a steep hill we must traverse to Denali pass. The Audubon has been the site of many fatalities in the past including and AAI team that summited with me last year, R.I.P Suzanne. In the extreme cold of the early morning high on the Audubon we clip running belays and slowly work our way to Denali Pass, 18,200′. Once there the sun takes the deep chill back to a more reasonable dull, nose dripping, temp. Hours of climbing over more moderate terrain brings us to the football field where we look at pig hill and the summit ridge. People are tired and cold but we have only an hour and a half to the top of North America, I select a few climbers to jettison their packs there and take parkas and water in my own pack for the final summit push. Pig hill takes its toll on us all and as we begin the final exposed ridge traverse to the summit I need to keep my eyes on all members of my rope team, a slip here could end in catastrophe. I take a deep breath and we push on to the summit.
20,320 feet, the highest point in North America
THE DARK SECRETS OF A NORTH WEST CLIMBER
The damp doldrums of the day have sunk into my soul even before my swollen eyes open. It is nine something in the morning and I have gotten plenty of sleep but still can’t muster up the courage to face the day. As the sleepy fog begins to creep from my head to the coastal city around me I think of my life blood. Coffee.
I am not a North West native and to be honest I usually stay only for the summers. But this year is different. After spending three months in Asia in the fall and another two in Argentina I find myself living in Vancouver BC. It is winter becoming spring and the weather is as depressing as a cold wet sleeping bag. I am trying to keep motivated, climbing and skiing, or at least biking and trail running, or more commonly brewing coffee and reading.
In this region weeks of cloudy fog with rain, drizzle, mist, and a good old downpour are the standard. So, when you get a glimpse of good weather, maybe an afternoon that is just overcast, you have to seize it. This is why there is so much coffee being consumed in the North West, why there are Starbucks and local cafes on every street corner; to fuel the people poised to strike off into the mountains. With such unpredictable opportunities to get to the mountains it is beneficial to keep yourself in a constant state of nervous, jittery, caffeinated readiness. A steady regiment of three to five cups of black coffee throughout the day keeps me on standby for that “weather window” which I take full advantage of clawing my gortex off the hanger, stuffing my pack full of freshly cleaned and oiled cams, because what else do you do with so much forced indoor time. Then bursting out the front door like a high octane Ducati into the brilliant patchy sunlight I peddle through the damp glistening streets straight to the climbing gym.