Climbing for Fun in Alaska

Shadow SW Ridge Francis AK

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.

Leon and Jake on the SW Ridge of Francis

Leon and Jake on the SW Ridge of Francis

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.

Jake on the corniced West Ridge of Mt Hunter

Jake on the corniced West Ridge of Mt Hunter

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.

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