Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Denali: The Cassin

Rest days

Our acclimatization complete, we hung out at 14k and rested. A snowstorm blew though, dropping enough snow to set off numerous sloughs out of steeper terrain, and to build up windslabs on lower-angled slopes. While we were not thrilled with that particular turn of events, the storm did provide a perfect excuse for guilt-free eating, reading and sleeping. When we could stand festering in camp no longer, we stepped into our skis and skinned up to the crest of the West Rib. It felt good to stretch our legs, plus we wanted to check out the West-Rib cutoff descent into the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, rather melodramatically dubbed the “Valley of Death.” We had originally planned to attempt the Denali Diamond on the southwest face, but between a forecast that could not quite commit to more than one clear day, and me having just started a course of antibiotics, we decided to do something easier instead. The ultra-classic Cassin Ridge it would be.

Denali seen from Talkeetna. The Cassin Ridge is the left-hand skyline.

The evolution of style

The first ascent of the Cassin Ridge was made in 1961 by an Italian team led by, predictably, Riccardo Cassin. While early ascents of the route were made in siege style, with fixed ropes, stocked camps and large teams, gradually alpine style became the norm (including on the first winter ascent of the route in 1982). The first hint at an even purer form of ascent came in 1976, when Charlie Porter soloed the route in a 36-hour push (from the top of the Japanese Couloir). But it was Mugs Stump in 1991 that truly blew away preconceptions about how one could go about climbing the Cassin (and ultimately just about any route in the Alaska Range). Starting from the 14k camp, he descended the lower West Rib into the Northeast Fork, blitzed the route in 15 hours, and returned to camp 27.5 hours after setting out. This was the style we would aspire to: treating the route as a day climb, carrying little more than the clothes on our backs, and keeping going until we were done.

It's mostly the puffy jacket and pants. Raphael carries a light pack on the Cassin. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

The climb

We were up early, while Hunter and Foraker still lay silent and blue under a clear sky. It was cold, below -20 C, and we were glad to warm up with the 400-metre uphill to the crest of the West Rib. From there we descended the 1972 Ramp: hiking down snow, facing in on 45-degree glacier ice, front-pointing down over bergschrunds. We had brought an 8-mm rope and tied in for some crevassed stretches (and we were glad we did when Josh, who was out in front, stepped into a couple of slots). A quick jaunt below the seracs of the southwest face brought us to the base of the Japanese Couloir less than three hours after leaving camp.

The moon sets over Hunter as we leave 14k.

Josh descends the 1972 Ramp toward the base of the Cassin, with the Japanese Couloir, the Knife-Edge Ridge and the Hanging Glacier behind him.

Having run the gauntlet of the southwest-face seracs, Josh traverses to the base of the Japanese Couloir.

We downed some bars and gels, grabbed a swig from the water bottle, and crossed the ‘schrund below the couloir. Strangely enough today we were not alone in what is usually a lonely place. Taking advantage of the favourable forecast, two other teams had set out from 14k the evening before. One of these, Jasmin Fauteux and Paul Taylor, was in fact just finishing the couloir. In deference to the steady stream of small ice chunks rattling down the gully, we tied in and moved together with the occasional screw or cam between us. We said hello to our friends at Cassin Ledge and continued, past the rock crux and onto the Knife-Edge Ridge (knife-edged in name if less so in actual fact) leading to the Hanging Glacier.

Josh tops out on the Japanese Couloir.

Jasmin and Paul (from the left) enjoy the comforts of Cassin Ledge.

Josh hikes up the Knife-Edge Ridge, with the Kahiltna Peaks below him separating the East and Northeast Forks of the Kahiltna Glacier. A complete traverse linking the Kahiltna Peaks with the Cassin Ridge has been attempted but remains uncompleted.

A broad scoop at the base of the glacier made for an excellent food and drink stop. Then, unroping, we were off again. The slog up the glacier went quickly and soon we were scrambling through the First Rockband. Snow gullies, rock steps, ice chutes: at first it was all quite entertaining, but as the rockband went on, we grew impatient. The mists swirling around us had thickened into clouds, and we found ourselves climbing through a snowy murk. Eventually we exited the First Rockband and slogged up an ill-defined snow ridge toward the Second. Fortunately the Second Rockband did not drag on like the First, and before long we were emerging from the clouds at its top.

Raphael enjoys morning sunshine on the Hanging Glacier. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

Josh nears the top of the bigger-than-it-looks First Rockband. As Barry Blanchard said, "if it wasn't for foreshortening, nobody would get up anything."

Josh emerges from the clouds at the top of the Second Rockband.

The top of the Second Rockband marked the end of the technical climbing (it never was terribly technical, but it did require one to use all four appendages). From here on we would be hiking. In preparation for the upcoming slog, and taking advantage of the mid-afternoon heat, we fired up the stove and made litre after litre of water. Eventually the wind kicked up, reminding us it was time to get moving again.

The brew stop at the top of the Second Rockband, with Foraker in the distance.

We traversed out onto the upper slopes of Big Bertha, the hanging glacier dominating the south face, to bypass the Third Rockband. When we returned to the ridge crest above it, we were in for an unpleasant surprise. Up to this point we had been following in the tracks of the other party on the Cassin this day. Unfortunately Colin Haley and Nils Nielsen, having broken trail all the way to above the Third Rockband, had finally had enough. With the summit still some thousand metres higher, they traversed off across the endless avalanche slopes of the southwest face all the way to the West Rib. We had gotten off easy thus far, but from here on we would have to work.

Josh traverses out onto the snow slopes of Big Bertha.

Back on the ridge above the Third Rockband, we are forced to break our own trail.

And get worked we did, as the sun swung lower in the sky before eventually disappearing behind the West Rib. It grew colder, while as we got higher the air thinned noticeably. Lower down we had been able to move at something resembling a pace we would keep back home in the Rockies, but now we slowed to the point we were taking one, and then two breaths per step. As a result, even wearing all our layers, the movement was barely enough to keep us warm. Stopping to rest was not an option. I evolved a system whereby I would take a step, take a breath while I wiggled my toes three times, take another step… Every time I tried to cheat my hurting body and rush a few steps, I would end up slumped over my ice tools, coughing my lungs out. The summit ridge was not far above now, but it seemed to take an eternity before we left the crappy snow of the final gully behind and reached firm neve.

Evening sun the on the upper ridge, with Foraker poking up out of the clouds.

The sun prepares to disappear behind the West Rib.

Josh enters the shade on the upper reaches of the Cassin.

We crested the ridge just where the normal route comes up from the other side. One moment we were on our own on the southwest face, the next we stood on a well-trodden trail with wands every few metres. The summit was a bit higher still, but I did not think I would find anything there I did not already find on the ridge. We plunge-stepped down Pig Hill, across the Football Field, up the cruel rise on its far side and down again. The last thousand metres to the ridge had taken their toll on us, and even walking downhill we had to stop and rest occasionally. For the second time since we had gotten up the sun painted the summit of Foraker red, as we headed down the ridge below 17k toward the top of the fixed lines. Reaching our tent at 14k, we dropped our packs, pulled off our boots and crawled into our sleeping bags. We did not emerge again until many hours later, long after the sun had turned the inside of the tent into a brightly lit sauna.

Sunset over the North Summit of Denali from the top of the Cassin.

Raphael and Josh (from the left) look somewhat less than exuberant at the top of the route. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

Summary: An ascent of the Cassin Ridge by Joshua Lavigne and Raphael Slawinski, June 18, 2011. 14k to base: 3 hours. Base to summit ridge: 16.5 hours. Summit ridge back to 14k: 4 hours. Round-trip from 14k: 23.5 hours.

Some thoughts on alpine speed records

One of the sure signs a climb is becoming a trade route is that people start keeping track of the times achieved on it. Just think of the Nose or the 1938 Route on the Eiger. But while chances are successive speed records on the Nose were set under similar conditions, sunny granite being what it is, things are not nearly as clear cut on the Eiger – or the Cassin.

On the Cassin we followed in Colin’s and Nils’ tracks to above the Third Rockband, saving time and energy. What if we could have stayed in their tracks all the way to the top, and as a result beaten the current record of 14:40 (‘schrund to summit ridge)? Would that have made us the strongest alpinists around? I hardly think so. So does establishing a valid speed record require that one break one’s own trail? And how much fresh snow should there be on the route to ensure “typical” conditions? Reproducible “laboratory” conditions are pretty hard to achieve in the alpine, and as a result alpine speed records should be taken with a grain of salt.

Do not get me wrong, I am not against reporting times on alpine routes. I find hearing about fast times inspiring (if also a bit discouraging at times). Putting in a respectable time on a big alpine route requires exceptional fitness, skill, and a willingness to stick one’s neck out just that little bit further (all that in addition to good conditions!). And knowing that, 20 years after Mugs Stump’s standard-setting ascent of the Cassin, today's alpinists have improved on his time by a mere 2 percent makes us realize just how far ahead of his time he was.

(to be continued)

We would like to thank the Mountain Equipment Coop for its generous support of our trip. Both Josh and I are long-time MEC members, which made its backing all the more meaningful.


  1. Why aren´t you smiling in the (non) summit photo?

    Looks like it was (not) fun, but now that it´s over congrats

  2. "It don't have to be fun to be fun." Actually on the lower half of the route the fun factor was pretty high, but it dropped dramatically on the slog on the upper ridge. My long face on the (non)top might have something to do with that.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this trip report and seeing high quality images of this classic climb. I get a solid feel for what the higher part of the route entailed but can you please give your thoughts as to what the Japanese Couloir was like and how you climbed it ? What was the technical crux of the climb ? It appears a lot of time can be made or lost in this couloir depending upon how it is climbed, and it goes without saying, speed is super crucial on a climb with these features.

    I feel the pain heavy now because I missed Denali this year opting for a fall slot on Ama Dablam. This climb truly looks unbeatable. Maybe next year. Thanks very much for sharing. Good Work

  4. Thanks!

    As for the Japanese Couloir, it is your classic alpine ice gully, with 50 or so degree ice through most of its length except at the crux, which is maybe 10 metres of WI3/4. I cannot vouch for the length as we simulclimbed it keeping a couple of pieces between us (we took 4 screws and 4 cams), but I would guess maybe 6 ropelengths.

    The technical crux of the route is probably a short (15 metre?) corner a ropelength above Cassin Ledge, as it is steeper than anything else you have to climb (most descriptions call it 5.8). Even though this passage might contain the hardest moves, it seems a bit funny to focus on it as it is so short relative to the route as a whole.

    I think the places where one can waste lots of time are the Japanese Couloir, but especially the First and Second Rockbands. We climbed those unroped, but I imagine it would take a while to pitch them out. My recommendation would be to be flexible in how you go about the climb. For example, if you decide a rock step needs a belay, stop and belay it, but do not fall into the trap of belaying everything from that point on. Once over the step, look at the terrain ahead and consider simulclimbing or taking the rope off altogether. Keeping an open mind like that can ensure a reasonable margin of safety yet still get one up the route fairly fast. Of course in the end you have to decide what is "reasonable!"

    Last but not least, I would definitely recommend going to the summit on the West Butt before getting on the Cassin. The upper ridge was a hard slog for us, and I would hate to think what it would have felt like if we were not acclimatized.

    I hope that helps, and I hope you get to do the route at some point, it is a classic for sure!