Monday, July 11, 2011

Denali: Common Knowledge

Common Knowledge?

More rest days followed. More bad weather, too, though not as bad as forecast. Had our trip ended right now, we would not have been unhappy. However, we would not have completely satisfied, either. The Cassin gave us a great day out on a beautiful big-mountain route, it pushed us physically as few ascents ever had, but it did not push us as climbers. Now I love days like the one on the Cassin, when I get to run up miles of easy ground. But once in a while I also need to get on routes where my reality is reduced to the circle of vertical ice and rock within reach of my tools and crampons, routes that keep me oscillating between desperation and elation, all within the span of a single move.

We thought about having a go at the Denali Diamond, which after all had been our original objective. The lower, technical part of the route looked great; however, slogging up the upper Cassin for a second time did not appeal. Between that and simply wanting to see another aspect of the mountain, our thoughts turned to the Washburn Face. What face, you say? The Washburn Face, or more precisely the northwest face of the west buttress, suffers the indignity of being walked past and generally ignored by more people than just about any comparable feature on Denali. Each day of high season tens of people drag their sleds up Motorcycle Hill yet spare hardly a glance for the imposing wall rising in front of them out of the depths of the Peters Glacier. But myself, being an aficionado of all things obscure, I looked at it every time I walked up to 14k. This year I had an especially hard time tearing my eyes away from it, as a narrow but continuous ribbon of ice cascaded down a steep rock buttress on the left side of the wall.

I knew exactly what this line was, too. Not a new route, unfortunately, but something almost as good: a rarely (if ever) repeated testpiece. Ben Gilmore, Kevin Mahoney and Bruce Miller established it a decade earlier and called it Common Knowledge, as other teams had also been vying for it. On the lower half of the route they reported climbing pitch after pitch of water ice, with a WI6 crux thrown in for good measure. A couple of things were certain: as an ice climber I found the line absolutely irresistible; and having climbed ice with Kevin, I knew to take his ratings seriously. We had found our objective.

Spot the line (the arrow should help)! The Washburn Face (in the shade) from Motorcycle Hill.

Morning terrors

Big alpine routes are funny. They are about overcoming imagined difficulties as much as real ones. I find I both desire and dread them. I rarely sleep well the night before doing one. My mind and heart race along, spurred on by excitement and fear. The night before Common Knowledge was no exception. Strangely, what concerned me the most was not the climb itself but the descent to its base. Somehow, we had to find our way down to the Peters Glacier, a vertical mile below our tent at 14k where I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag. Descriptions of the descent were annoyingly vague, though one did helpfully refer to a “slope [that] felt like imminent death […] above a line of gnarly seracs.” In spite of it all, eventually I managed to drift off to sleep.

The alarm went off at four in the morning. I tried to get dressed as much as possible inside the warm confines of the sleeping bag, but once I had my inner boots and big parka on, there was nothing for it but to venture outside. Just as when we had set out for the Cassin a few days earlier, it was a cold, cloudless morning. But unlike that day, which had been beautifully still, a stiff breeze blew through camp. The previous couple of days had been unusually blustery, with snow streamers blowing from the ridges. We hoped climbing lower on the mountain would shelter us from the worst of the wind. Shouldering light packs we headed down, around Windy Corner and down Squirrel Hill. At the top of Motorcycle Hill we left the beaten West Buttress trail and began cutting down fresh snow on the lee side.

“How’s that slope?” I pleaded, hoping to open the door to retreat.

Josh would have none of it. “A bit of a wind slab right here, but it gets better lower down.”

Early in my climbing career I read an interview with George Lowe, one of my climbing heroes. At the end of it he was asked if he had any words of advice for aspiring alpinists. His answer stayed with me: “Try to separate your fears and hopes from a rational evaluation of what you should do.” And so on this bright, cloudless morning I forced my butterflies down and continued descending: downclimbing below some seracs, rappelling over others, and finally reaching the Peters Glacier.

Wake up! Raphael downclimbs below some small but nasty seracs. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

"I guess we're committed now." Josh makes the final rappel to the Peters Glacier.

Alpine fun

Once in the isolated basin of the Peters Glacier, the simplest way back to the comforts of our camp lay up the route. As soon as our bridges were burnt and we were committed, my butterflies flew off and I started having fun. The altimeter read well below 3000 metres. After a couple of weeks spent between 4000 and 6000 metres, the air felt rich and thick. It was like being back in the Rockies and we were able to push our pace to the base of the wall, as we threaded the needle between the runout of the giant serac spilling between the Washburn Face and the Fathers and Sons Wall on the left, and the debris of the serac bands below the crest of Motorcycle Hill on the right.

Josh threads the needle on the Peters Glacier to the base of the route.

We crossed an easy ‘schrund and headed up the couloir above. A ten-centimetre layer of hard snow covered black ice; in other words, perfect conditions. Between the good neve and the thick air, we fairly sprinted up the gully. We broke out the rope for a harder-than-it-looked step, where my feet sheared through the chandeliers as spindrift poured over my head, then put it away again and soloed on. We could now see the crux pitch, a beautiful column of water ice where the couloir reared up to vertical. A two-screw anchor, some food and drink, the rope, and then it was time to dance to a slower beat.

Josh enjoys good neve low on the route.

Spindrift pours over the first steep step.

Raphael approaches the crux pitch. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

Ice climbing is a strange game. A friend of mine likes to poke fun at it, saying the moves even on a WI6 are trivial. And he is right: pulling up from one placement to another even on a “hard” ice pitch certainly is trivial. But ice does not come with pre-placed tools one can just grab and go. One of the hardest parts of hard, traditional ice climbing is getting good (or at least decent) tool placements – and protection. Once you have finally managed an OK stick in a mess of fragile chandeliers, and spent minutes fiddling a small wire behind a suspect flake off to the side because the ice is too aerated to take screws, pulling up is indeed easy.

The pitch had looked straightforward from below, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be anything but. I got in a couple of decent screws on the low-angled shield at the start, but higher up they twisted uselessly into air behind sun-baked chandeliers. For a while I could stem between the cascade and the rock beside it, thus avoiding putting my full weight on tools driven into snow and air-filled ice. But then the stems ran out, and I was forced to move around to the front of the pillar – and to fully load my tools. “I’m not sure I can climb this ” flashed through my mind, as my picks bounced uselessly off of the rock beneath a detached skin of ice. I forced the thought down and committed to the marginal placements. At long last a tool thunked into solid ice. I ran out the rest of the pitch on placements each one of which I could have belayed off of. Our seventy-metre rope came tight just as I reached lower-angled ice.

Raphael tries to avoid weighting the tools... Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

... and takes a breather on the crux pitch.

Covered in spindrift, Josh tops out on the crux pitch.

We continued on sixty-degree ice interrupted by vertical steps. By now the sun had swung around the mountain and beat down on us, and some rocks crashed down from sidewalls running with meltwater. Fortunately the mists that had been swirling around us condensed into clouds, and we found ourselves enveloped in a cool, grey murk. The couloir eventually ended on a snowy ridge. We waded up it and stopped at the first flattish spot. It was seven in the evening and we had been going for over twelve hours on under two litres each. It was time for a brew.

Fun in the sun (except for the flying rocks) in the upper couloir. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

Josh guns for the top of the couloir.

Raphael takes the last few steps to the brew stop. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

The slog

We were near the top of the cloud layer, and every once in a while we would be afforded a view of the Fathers and Sons Wall to the north, and of the lower-angled upper slopes of our own Washburn Face above. We took our time, making litre after litre of water, eating, and changing into dry socks. After more than an hour, reenergized, we left our small perch and headed up. A mixed band had us rope up one last time, and then we were on easy ground – and in deep snow. The southeast winds of the previous couple of days had scoured the mountain and loaded its northwest aspects, which was unfortunately where we happened to be. There was nothing for it but to resort to the tried-and-true Rockies wallowing technique: carve a trench with your knee, step up into it, repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

Josh pours another precious litre.

The top of the Fathers and Sons Wall emerges from the clouds.

"We should keep our distance here. That way if anything slides only one of us goes." Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

An icefield glowing in the rays of the midnight sun provided welcome relief from the soul-destroying trail breaking, but then it was back to snow. It felt spooky being in the middle of a lee-loaded snowfield suspended a vertical mile above the Peters Glacier, and we detoured onto some rocks. After altogether too many hours we reached the crest of the west buttress. A cold wind whipped across the ridge, threatening to freeze our very eyeballs. Slowly, exhaustedly, we traversed to the top of the fixed lines and stumbled down to 14k. We were now satisfied and could finally go home.

A midnight sunset from high on the Washburn Face.

As the sun dips toward the horizon, the temperature drops. Time to start wiggling those toes.

New picks after being dragged over two vertical kilometres of snow, ice - and granite.

Over and out

After a day’s rest, when getting up to make a cup of tea required a major effort, we packed up our home for the past two weeks and headed down. Ever the optimist, I confidently predicted it would take us no more than three hours back to the airstrip; in the end it took us twice as long. The lower Kahiltna Glacier was a mess. Its surface had melted down to a three-year-old layer of volcanic ash, and as a result it was pitted with metre-deep suncups. After our sleds had overturned for the tenth time we even stopped swearing. Minefields of barely bridged crevasses had us guide the sleds on a short leash to avoid being pulled into a hole by them. At least the rain held off until we had reached the airstrip, but then the skies opened up and it poured. We spent the day sleeping, eating and hanging out with the rangers (many thanks for the hot chocolate!). Just when it looked like we would have to crawl back into our wet sleeping bags for another night on the glacier, a couple of TAT Otters swooped in under low-lying clouds. Carving deep tracks into the mushy landing strip, they roared with effort on takeoff. But take off they did, whisking us back to green grass and hot showers. The adventure was over.

High winds over the summit from the 14 camp.

Josh takes a break on the lower Kahiltna Glacier as Denali and the Kahiltna Peaks glow in the setting sun.

Basecamp leftovers.

A messed up Kahiltna Glacier. Time to get off this mountain!

Summary: The second (?) ascent of Common Knowledge by Joshua Lavigne and Raphael Slawinski, June 22, 2011. Round-trip from 14k: 25 hours.

Peters Glacier cutoff descent beta

We found it hard to find reliable information about how to get down to the Peters Glacier and the base of the Washburn Face. Hopefully the following description will encourage more people to enjoy the fantastic climbing to be had on it.

From the 14k camp, walk down Windy Corner and Squirrel Hill to where the trail from 11k comes up Motorcycle Hill. Contour onto low-angled snow slopes on the north side of the ridge, trending to skier’s left. Eventually easy progress is interrupted by snow-covered rock slabs. Contour back to skier’s right and downclimb a 45-degree ice gully under a small but threatening serac. Leave the gully as soon as possible and trend again to skier’s left down 45-degree icefields. Face-in downclimbing or a couple of rappels reach more low-angled snow slopes. These can be traversed to skier’s left all the way to where easy slopes lead down to the Peters Glacier. We got impatient and took a shortcut by making a rappel over a serac/bergschrund, which also got us down to easy slopes and the glacier. 3 hours from the 14k camp.

The approximate line of our descent to the Peters Glacier.

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. Raphael,
    I once worked with your Dad at AMEC many years ago, great to find your blog.

    I was wondering the rational behind a single rope on such a huge and committing route?


  2. Craig, it is good to hear from you. BTW, Andre was also on Denali this spring. He is still at it!

    As for why I tend to use a single rope, in a word: speed. I find rope management is much simpler with a single, with fewer tangles, which translates into less wasted time. A single is especially nice in the mountains, where you are often switching between soloing, pitching things out, and simul-climbing (which sucks with double ropes). Just that much less coiling and uncoiling!

    On a route like Common Knowledge, where if all goes well the descent has no rappelling, I will only take one rope. If the descent has lots of rappelling, or if retreat is a real possibility, I will pack a 6-mm or so pull line. And yes, with only one rope there is extra motivation for getting up the route!

    I still use doubles occasionally, but there has to be a good reason for it (like weird traversing or a team of three). My default rope system is a single, with possibly a pull line.

  3. Good to hear Andre is still active, obviously the secret to growing old gracefully. I see from reading back in your blog that Andre went up Denali with you last year, that's amazing.

    Thanks for the feedback on the rope question, makes sense to me. Reading back through your blog is very awe inspiring. With your humble stories and writing, I have to keep reminding myself that you are on a whole different level of commitment and skill than the (below?) average climber like me.

    I'm still happy when I can struggle up a 5.9 trad lead at my local crags here in the Kootenay's after a six year hiatus due to kids/family etc. My main objective for the year is south Ridge of Gimli, which I had felt the need to practice up on the double rope technique again. Which I've been dreading as I remember the cluster f&^ck's that can happen at belays. Maybe leading on a single, taking a smaller rap line is worth consideration.

    Look forward to reading about more of your adventures! Be safe and climb well!