Sunday, May 15, 2016

Alaska bound

Three years ago, in 2013, Ian Welsted and I enjoyed a successful trip to Pakistan. We did a bunch of good climbing and even managed to summit what was, by Karakoram standards, a moderately big peak. Two years ago I went north to Denali with Alpine Mentors, presumably to impart some alpine experience to four talented climbers half my age. But all that June the weather in the Alaska Range was atrocious, and during the entire four-week trip we didn't swing a tool once. Then last year I got ambitious. Daniel Bartsch, David Gottler and I figured that if we were going to climb Everest, we might as well do it in alpine style by a new route. When the earthquake struck we hadn't even put our crampons on.

Ian Welsted curses the hot afternoon sun as he swings and kicks his way up a moderate ice pitch on the northwest face of K6 West.

Steven Van Sickle hikes up to the north summit of Denali. No swinging required.

Yours truly on a nameless bump in Tibet, with Everest in the distance. Even though the bump in question was taller than Denali, sturdy hiking shoes was all it took to get up it. Photo: David Gottler.

Tomorrow Juan Henriquez and I are leaving behind the warm rock and fresh greenery of spring in the Bow Valley and heading north, bound for the icy giants of the Alaska Range. There's something about the place that keeps drawing me back. I don't know if it's the endless ice runnels framed by walls of perfect granite, or the endless days of subarctic mountains as summer solstice approaches. But this time I figure the bar is set low: after my last couple of trips, I'll consider this one a success if I get to swing a tool.

If you know Juan and me, it won't come as a surprise when I tell you than we're not social media fiends. There'll be no real-time Facebook updates from the north buttress of Hunter or south face of Denali. But if you're curious if we're festering or sending, you can always check the Alaska trip links on this blog: the tracks from our inReach and the Kahiltna base camp webcams (the blue dot north of Anchorage).

See you back in the Rockies in June.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

May Day on the A-Strain

Tiles of black and yellow limestone shimmered in the late-afternoon sun as we pounded down the faint trail below the Athabasca-Andromeda glacier. A dashed line on the dirty surface of a snow patch showed where our boots had barely dented its frozen surface less than twelve hours earlier. Now we waded through isothermal slush, plunging down to scree with every step. It was only the first day of May, but the warm air had the soft, wistful touch of summer.

I felt both old and young. How many times have I walked down these moraines since an August day a quarter of a century ago, after my father had led my brother and me to the top of Athabasca? There've been so many afternoons like the one today, running down the trail worn into limestone rubble, feeling a familiar mixture of fatigue and happiness. I tried to see Andromeda, Snow Dome, Kitchener, all the big peaks clustered around the grey tongue of the Columbia Icefield below, as a wide-eyed twenty-something might've seen them. I tried and failed. The chimneys and gullies slicing through the layered cakes of the mountains were old friends now, not the strangers they'd once been. The twenty-something wasn't the same person as the sunburnt, grizzled man who'd replaced him. What hadn't changed was the need that'd driven the younger me, and that seemed to drive me still. 

The northeast face of Mt. Andromeda on a crisp May morning, with the obvious shadowed gash of the Andromeda Strain.

Juan Henriquez kicks steps up neve blasted hard by spindrift in the lower couloir of the route.

Alik Berg shuffles across a steep ledge of snow-covered choss halfway up the route.

The oldest member of the party starts up the rock pitch above the ledge. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Alik Berg makes the last few moves up the rock before it backs off into the upper couloir.

Unfortunately these days you need to tiptoe up another half a ropelength of low-angled mixed ground before you reach thick ice.

The upper couloir resembles nothing so much as a giant luge run.Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Alik Berg strikes a classic pose on the traverse to the exit ice pitch.

Leaving an ankle-wrenching belay on sixty-degree ice, Juan Henriquez steps onto the legendary traverse.

Alik Berg contemplates where the cornice guarding the summit might be the smallest.

From the summit, the entire Columbia Icefield lies spread out in the afternoon sun.

The same route, a different millenium: a wide-eyed twenty-something experiences the Andromeda Strain for the first time. Photo: Pete Takeda.