Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Small is beautiful in Alaska

The West Buttress, Denali's voie normale, is a gorgeous hike at altitude. Between dragging a sled to the 14k camp and jetting to the top from there, my lungs and legs got a good workout. But the climbing muscles, the arms and the head, were left wanting. As soon as we returned to Kahiltna basecamp, I started scoping around for a partner. It did not take long to find one. Joel Kauffman (http://joelandneilsclimbingblog.blogspot.com/) had bumped over to the Kahiltna from Little Switzerland a few days earlier, and was game for some steeper fun before flying out. We decided on Bacon and Eggs on the Mini-Mini-Moonflower, a route my friend Eamonn Walsh and Mark Westman put up a couple of years earlier.

A typical Kahiltna basecamp scene.

From the left: the Mini-Mini-Moonflower, the Mini-Moonflower, and the real thing.

Mini-Mini-Moonflower's Bacon and Eggs Vegetarian Couloir on the left, and Mini-Moonflower's North Couloir on the right.

It being already June, it got quite hot on the lower glaciers during the day. We waited for the evening freeze and left basecamp at eleven. Have you ever climbed through an Alaskan white night? It is an unforgettable experience. As the golden evening sunlight slowly left the summits, it was replaced by a cold blue glow. We stepped out of our skis and into our crampons around one in the morning, and headed up a grey ice slope. After a while the ice steepened, and we roped up and simul-climbed into the dusk. The continuous movement kept me from getting cold or sleepy. The technical crux was a rock step barring access to the upper couloir. Water ice plastered a right-facing gash and gave good steep climbing. A few more lower-angled pitches on occasionally thin ice got us to below the heavily corniced ridge. I had a half-hearted charge at the cornice directly above the couloir, but steep, unconsolidated snow forced me back to the belay.

Joel starting up Bacon and Eggs the Vegetarian Couloir.

Joel halfway up the couloir.

The sun coming up on Foraker.

It was tempting to declare the route finished, pull out the Abalakov hooker, and start rappelling. After all, we had made it to the end of the difficulties, no? Well, if we were truly at the end of the difficulties, why did we not just walk up to the top fifty metres higher? Of course, the truth was that real crux still awaited. The Mini-Mini-Moonflower might be an insignificant bump in a land of giants, but formalities have to be observed all the same. I started traversing up and left below the cornices, hoping that what I could not see would prove easier than what I could. Every once in a while I would stop and dig like a badger, trying to find some ice for protection. Eventually the rope ran out and I shouted down to Joel to start moving. Making for a gap where the cornice had fallen, I punched precarious steps to the top.

The end of the difficulties?

The Tokositna Glacier lay below us. The sun was already rising on the east face of Mt. Hunter, while down the glacier the west face of Mt. Huntington lay in deep shadow. We snapped a few photos, then carefully retraced our steps down the snow slope. It was a relief to reach solid ice, and to drill the first of eight or so v-threads. We skied into basecamp just in time for breakfast, and by the afternoon we were drinking stout on a patio in Talkeetna. I looked forward to going home and rock climbing in the sun, but at the same time I already missed the Alaska Range. I knew that I would be back.

Joel on top of the Mini-Mini-Moonflower, dwarfed by Hunter's north buttress.

Looking down the Tokositna Glacier toward Mt. Huntington.

Saying goodbye to the Alaska Range.

PS: I thought I knew where Bacon and Eggs went, but it turns out I did not. It appears that in our rush to trade skis for crampons, Joel and I started climbing one ice slope too soon. Not that it matters: we found good climbing on our line, and we topped out on the same bump in Hunter's east ridge as Eamonn and Mark did on their route. The only reason our line would not have been climbed before is that no one had bothered; but unless someone comes forward to claim it, I suggest the name Vegetarian Couloir for this fun if not terribly significant outing.

For the record, the established lines on the Mini-Mini-Moonflower are Bacon and Eggs on the left, and the Vegetarian Couloir on the right. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

Denali: A walk in the sky

It is almost nine and the sun is high in the sky by the time I finally extricate myself from my sleeping bag. I eat a leisurely breakfast and leave the 14k camp at ten thirty. Unlike in most mountain ranges, predawn starts are not needed in Alaska in June. Daylight is not a consideration, only temperature is. This can mean climbing at night low down to take advantage of the cold, and the other way around high up. My pack is pleasantly light: two litres of drink, some bars, a parka, a spare pair of gloves, and a camera. Sweat fogs up my sunglasses and drips from the tip of my nose as I push myself up a sunlit snow slope toward the Headwall. It is a relief to have to slow down on the forty-five-degree snow and ice, all the while scrupulously avoiding touching the fixed lines. As a sport climber I have a horror of pulling on gear. At the ridge I turn right and follow the crest to the 17k camp. I thoroughly enjoy this section of the route: travel is easy on the styrofoam snow, the angle is not so steep that I am pushing my anaerobic threshold, and the views in all directions are spectacular.

A lineup on the fixed lines with the 14k camp below.

Looking up the ridge toward the 17k camp.

17k: the halfway point. I sit down in the lee of a wall of snow blocks and rest for twenty minutes. I eat some energy bars, finish the first of my two litres, and put on more clothes for the windswept Autobahn. Actually it does not look too bad today. It was far more windy a few days ago on an acclimatization hike to Denali Pass, when swirling snow devils would try to throw me off balance. I am happy to see the acclimatization working its magic, with my altimeter watch telling me that my rate of ascent has not decreased with altitude. I pass a few roped parties, taking care to walk on the uphill side and not get flossed off the mountainside. At one point I hear a distant rumble and put it down to a collapsing serac. But after another, closer rumble I look around and notice a huge thundercloud building over the tundra to the north. At Denali Pass I sit down to watch it, and to make up my mind about whether to head up or down. In the end I decide that with the wind blowing from the east, the cumulonimbus is not coming my way, and I start hiking uphill again. I am breathing hard, enjoying the physical effort and rapid upward progress. I pass a couple of people on the Football Field. One of them especially looks to be hurting: he collapses over his trekking poles every few steps, while his companion patiently waits for him. I admire their toughness.

Looking up the Autobahn toward Denali Pass.

Denali Pass.

A nuclear explosion or merely a thunderstorm?

Two lonely figures emerge onto the Football Field.

Pig Hill goes by quickly, and I gain the final section of corniced ridge rising gently to the summit. It is not far now. And a good thing too, as there are some awfully gray clouds boiling up out of the valleys to the east. Few things scare me more than bad weather high in the mountains, and I have no desire to be on the featureless summit plateau if and when something nasty blows in. For all that, the last bit to the top is a joy: not difficult but spectacularly exposed, with the drop to the south especially exhilarating. I share the summit with Dane from Colorado, who like me preferred to hike up from 14k rather than to carry loads and camp uncomfortably at 17k. It is good to be up here on a warm afternoon, and not in the middle of a bitterly cold night like last time. I snap photos in all directions, narrate some video over my ragged breath, then turn around and head down. In the meantime an opaque veil of cloud has covered the sky, and while the weather is not truly bad, the flat light causes me to trip repeatedly. I slow down while descending the Autobahn, not wishing to have to test my rusty self-arrest skills. It is a relief to reach the ridge below 17k, where rock outcrops give some depth to the monochromatic landscape. I hand-over-hand down the fixed lines (my ethics do not quite stretch to eschewing them entirely) and plunge into dense fog. As if time mattered in the slightest, I nearly run down snow made heavy by the afternoon heat, and walk into camp less than eight hours after leaving it. For today it is enough. Tomorrow will be a different story.

The summit ridge.

Looking down the final stretch of ridge with Foraker in the distance.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Denali: Travels with Dad

A few days ago I got back from the Alaska Range. My father Andre and I spent a couple of weeks on Denali, trying for a family ascent of the West Buttress. Andre, who is in his early seventies, has been climbing for over fifty years. Starting in the Polish Tatras, his mountain travels have taken him to Nepal, South America, and of course all over the Canadian Rockies. He started me on my climbing journey, and I felt fortunate to be able to go up north with him.

Andre on the West Buttress of Denali.

Glacier plane, clouds and Foraker.

We went through the usual ritual of a Denali trip: fly to Anchorage; realize that it does not get dark at that latitude in late May; go on a massive food shopping spree; drive to Talkeetna; get issued a Clean Mountain Can by the rangers; and finally fly to the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier; all of this in less than forty eight hours. The weather was absolutely spectacular. This was my third trip to the Alaska Range, but only the first time I saw the mountains from Talkeetna. They looked very big, very white, and incredibly beautiful.

Denali seen from the shores of the Susitna River.

TAT, our ticket to the mountains.

The many colours of the tundra.

The east side of Denali from the flight in.

We took our time traveling on the lower glaciers, arriving at 11k (a.k.a. the eleven-thousand-foot camp) on the morning of our third day in the mountains. Both of us were new to hauling sleds, and while it was nice to drag rather than carry most of the weight, it still made for a bit of a slog. All I can say is that I was glad to have my iPod: Gordon Lightfoot and Rammstein went a long way toward easing the pain of skinning uphill with the kitchen sink following behind on a red plastic sled. In the spirit of the adage "climb high but sleep low", we spent a couple of nights at 11k with a day trip to 14k (a.k.a. the fourteen-thousand-foot camp) before moving up there for good.

Andre below 11k.

The train leaving the 11k station.

Andre returning to the 11k camp with the Peters Basin far below.

Rounding Windy Corner.

The sun about to set on the 14k camp.

Set at an altitude of 4300 m, the 14k camp gave us our first taste of thin air. When we first got there, even walking across camp up to the outhouse made us winded. But we gradually grew comfortable with only two-thirds of our usual oxygen supply. After a day's rest, we went on an acclimatization hike up the Headwall to the the crest of the West Buttress. The stretch of ridge between the top of the Headwall and 17k (a.k.a. the seventeen-thousand-foot camp) is without a doubt the most beautiful section of the West Buttress: not difficult but spectacularly exposed, a true sidewalk in the sky.

The ridge below 17k.

Andre on the fixed lines below the crest of the West Buttress.

Gaining the crest with Foraker in the distance.

Unfortunately, the top of the Headwall at 4900 m was the highest Andre was able to get. We tried three times  but every time his body refused to go higher. It hurt me to see how hard he pushed himself, and how disappointed he was when we finally decided that it was not going to happen. He had just lived through a year of loss, and had trained relentlessly for the trip, averaging over two vertical kilometres a week for several months. He was fit, and by all the usual indicators, well acclimatized. However, he just could not push his body any higher. There was nothing for it but to head down. Yet summit or no summit, we lived through a great adventure together. I know he is not done with the mountains; in fact, he might not even be done with this particular mountain. And so it is not "goodbye", but merely "until next time".

Andre at 4900 m on the West Buttress of Denali.