Alaska 2013: Deprivation and more…

I’ve just got back from a fun trip to Alaska, spending a couple of weeks climbing routes around the Kahiltna glacier. We were blessed with a very stable high pressure weather system whilst we were on the glacier, but the down side of this was unseasonably warm weather which forced us to cut our trip short. The locals that we spoke to seemed to agree that we got late June temperatures in May, hence the ice falling down at a depressing rate towards the end of our trip.

A massive thank you at this point to everyone who supported our trip. The BMC and Alpine Club gave generous grants, and both cragxclimbing.com and Arc’teryx/ Bigstone UK provided excellent gear at reduced rates. Bloc eyewear provided us with goggles, seen in action below.

I made the trip with a long-time climbing partner of mine, Aly Robertson. You can read his (unassumingly similar) take on our trip on his blog: http://alastairrobertson.blogspot.co.uk

 

Mt Francis summit ridge (photo A. Robertson)

After a very tiring couple of days flying in to Anchorage and buying all of the food and supplies we needed for the trip we found ourselves in Talkeetna, and then swiftly deposited onto the Kahiltna glacier by our Talkeetna air Taxi pilot. The scenery on the flight in was awe inspiring, the rock architecture in the Ruth gorge is breath taking and the mountains stretch away for a seemingly endless distance. The first views of the north buttress of Hunter elicited manic nervous giggling- the mountains look big and steep when you step off the plane onto the glacier for the first time.

Aly and the 3 weekly shop

We found an unoccupied spot in which to make camp for the next week or three, and then had a ski around to check out conditions. There was a really friendly scene in base camp, with lots of keen people willing to share information on routes and pass the time chatting.

Team at camp with the North Buttress behind us.

 

South-West ridge on Mount Francis

Mt Francis as seen from Mt Hunter’s north buttress. The SW ridge is the rocky ridge running up from the left.
Our first objective was the south-west ridge of Mount Francis. This small by Alaskan standards peak was a perfect warm up for the size of things to come, and despite being a fixture on the base camp day route circuit still boasts 1100m of vertical height gain between the ‘shrund and the summit.
Technical pitches on the ridge (photo A. Robertson)
The climbing was on generally moderate snow slopes, with a few pitches of excellent rock and mixed climbing up to 5.8 (UK ‘VS’-ish) thrown in to maintain interest. We found the route in OK condition, but did a lot of trail breaking/post-holing. One mixed pitch contained some of the worst sugar-like unconsolidated snow I’ve ever had the displeasure to climb, and it looked like it was going to turn into a bit of an epic if that continued, but luckily the grimness was short lived. The guidebook time for the round trip is 12 to 20 hours, so we were pleased to do the round trip in 12 hours considering the time consuming snow conditions. All in all an excellent, fun introduction to climbing in Alaska, and one that I would highly recommend.
Aly high on Mt Francis

Bacon and Eggs

After a rest day we jumped on the modern classic ‘bacon and eggs’, on the mini-mini moonflower buttress. This gave 300m of excellent ice climbing up to around WI4+ to the final snow slopes. We decided to turn around at the snow slopes (which seems to be the done thing) as we didn’t fancy the deep powdery snow on 60 degree ice, nor the massive cornice guarding the exit onto the ridge. Massive cornices seems to be a feature of the Alaskan mountains, and poking them with an ice axe seemed like a really bad idea to us. The car sized chunks of fallen cornice found at the base of the Mini-moonflower north couloir played a significant part in us choosing not to climb that particular route…
Heading up to the crux on bacon and eggs (photo A. Robertson)
The climbing on Bacon and eggs was similar to that found on routes like the Moudica Noury on the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, but without the crowds (or the burgers and beer in town afterwards). A couple of pitches of fairly unpleasant grey ice provided access to six pitches of awesome single-stick blue ice, through some impressive rock buttresses. A fast descent on abolokov threads saw us back at out skis incredibly psyched for more of the same. We skied back down to the tents picking out line after line of cool looking steep ice and mixed (some unclimbed) on the mini-mini, mini and moonflower buttresses.
Perfect ice (photo A. Robertson)

Deprivation

Mark Twight’s book ‘Extreme Alpinism’ has been required reading for this generation of alpinists, and in it he details his ascent of deprivation of Mount Hunter. When Aly suggested a trip to Alaska this was the route that instantly sprang to mind. Research showed the route to have reasonable climbing on a scale that we could comprehend. Other parties who had climbed or attempted it in the past kindly shared information about the route, all agreeing that it would make for a great experience. We set off to Alaska armed with laminated topo’s and buckets loads of psyche to get on the route.
Mt Hunter, with the steep North Buttress
Feeling warmed up and with a good weather window we decided to get on it, crossing the ‘shrund at around 5 am. Our initial plan to skip part of the route and start up a variation to the moonflower were discarded as we followed obvious ice runnels for several hundred meters up to the crux pitches on deprivation. We had been told that the pitches were out, having turned around a strong American team a few days earlier. Where they saw melted out ice we saw a possible free/aid/mixed/frigging pitch, which looked to me like the end of my block of leading and the start of Aly’s. He spent a couple of hours on one of the most impressive leads I have witnessed in the mountains, including a couple of moves spent using his picks as hooks in a shallow crack, with a prussic draped over the top of the pick which he then stood in.
I frigged my way up on second, pulling Aly’s sack with me. He led another short, steep pitch, and I then took over for a 60m rope-stretcher up steep ice to a gently overhanging exit. Pulling over onto the first icefield we knew that the technical crux was now behind us, with lots of reasonably moderate alpine ice above. We dug a small ledge in a snow patch and spent a couple of hours melting snow and eating, having already been climbing for around ten and a half hours and aware that we had much more to go.
seconding the steep crux pitch (photo A. Robertson)
Leading steep ice below the first icefield (photo A. Robertson)
Aly enjoying the first brew stop
Looking down fro the first stop
We set off at 7 pm, in still stable weather, quickly covering the first icefield. We paused at the base of the ice ramps through the second rock band to listen to the weather report on our radio- more sunny stable weather forecast. Shortly after that it began to snow lightly, which continued for the next 10-12 hours. Cue spindrift avalanches and a fairly grim and intimidating few hours pitching moderate ice where we would have moved together had we been fresh and climbing through a sunny alpine morning. We found out when we got back to camp that the snow had flushed teams off the Stump/ Bibler-Klewin ‘moonflower’ route, but we just about kept things together on Deprivation (which channels snow to a lesser extent) and cracked on.
Goggles on as snow cascades down the face (photo A. Robertson)
We climbed through the night to stay warm, not that we saw any good places to bivi.  We climbed without head-torches, and ‘dawn’ saw us finding our way through the third rock band and pitching the easier angled snow slopes across to the 3rd ice band on the Bibler-Klewin moonflower route. Here we found a good bivi ledge chopped into a snow arete, finally coming to rest 26 hours after beginning our climb. We spent 5 hours on the ledge, 2 sleeping and the rest melting snow and eating.
finding our way through the third ice band. Grim weather… (photo A. Robertson)
Feeling fairly refreshed we continued up the Bibler-Klewin route, climbing the ‘Bibler come again’ exit through the fourth and final rock band. At this point we decided that we didn’t fancy climbing more 50 degree ice slopes up to the cornice at the top of the buttress proper, and began rapping. It took us nine eventful hours to rap back to our ski’s. A particular highlight for me was prusicking 60m up a very frozen iceline through a waterfall to free a rope that had frozen into place…
Perfect ice runnels at the top of the buttress
On our penultimate abseil the tail of our falling rope wrapped around a flake. Unable to get up to the flake, we were left with one rope for a final 20m abseil down to the snow slope above the ‘shrund. We then dug a snow bollard to see us over the ‘shrund and onto the 50m high snow slopes back to our skis. Unfortunately the entire 2 m wide snow bollard collapsed as I was abseiling over the overhung bergschrund, causing me to fall four or five meters onto the snow slope, which I then rolled down. Through incredible luck I found myself uninjured, wrapped in the rope which had coiled around me and I log rolled down the slope, Ice axes and crampons still attached. I can remember feeling surprised and oddly disappointed as the accident happened, and came around feeling dazed and overwhelmingly tired (we had been climbing for around 50 hours, with 2 hours sleep in that time). I dusted myself off, sorted out the rope and climbed back up to throw the rope over the bergshrund to a concerned looking Aly, still stranded above. He caught the thrown rope, found a peg placement and joined me on the snow slopes. The ski back to camp was thankfully uneventful. In retrospect, it would have been better for us to have climbed the extra 200m up snow slopes to the cornice bivvy, slept and rested for a few hours, and then abseiled the buttress.
Prusicking back up stuck ropes (photo A. Robertson)

Deprived of success?

We did not summit Mount Hunter, and this has to be the gold standard for completing routes on the mountain. Historically most teams have finished at the top of the buttress, either where we did at the top of the fourth rock band or at the cornice bivvy 200m above this. Mugs Stump claimed the first ascent of the north buttress, finishing level with where we chose to turn around, yet this claim has been contested by those who see a route as finishing at the mountains summit. Some will see our climb as an attempt, as we finished below the summit of the mountain, and I would accept this. I’m happy that we climbed a big, steep north facing buttress to a place where it felt logical for us to turn around, and had a pretty intense experience in doing so. I learnt a lot from the climb, and intend to put that knowledge to good use in the future.
We spent a few days recovering on the glacier enjoying the sunny weather. An attempt to retrieve our stuck rope was abandoned when we were greeted by a sagging, overhung bergshrund running with water. We knew that soaring unseasonable temperatures meant that the ice was done for the year, so flew out for breakfast at the Roadhouse cafe and a fun night of beers at the Fairview inn. A few days sport climbing and wildlife watching saw us safely on the plane back to the UK.
Enjoying pancakes back at base camp (photo A. Robertson)

Alaska Beta

We flew onto the glacier with Talkeetna Air Taxis, who fly the vast majority of climbers out there. They were really friendly and helpful, and have a free bunkhouse in Talkeetna. They have more planes than the other companies and  fly in worse weather. Flights onto the glacier cost around £400.
In Anchorage we stayed at the Arctic Adventure Hostel. The owners were very friendly, and the hostel is ideally located within walking distance of a massive Walmart and the two excellent outdoor shops AMH and REI. This was the cheapest hostel we could find at $24 a night, but was clean, comfortable and the price included all the pancakes and syrup you could eat. Highly recommended.
For shopping use Walmart, REI and AMH. Sportsmans warehouse was recommended to us as a place for cheap camping gear, but its probably not worth the taxi ride from a mountaineering trip point of view, although it is an amazing place to ogle Americans buying massive guns whilst surrounded by stuffed animals.
The sport climbing at Mile 88/ wiener lake is well worth a visit, excellent steep granite-ish sport climbing. You will need a car to get here. The sport climbing on the Seward highway is considerably worse…
Aly enjoying the flight out
Home sweet home
Aly beneath the steep north buttress of Hunter

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