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.

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