We flew into the range on May 6th but the trip really started in November when Dane Christensen came to visit me in Vermont. He suggested the that we go on a trip to Alaska, maybe just a mellow and inexpensive visit to the ruth gorge. I told him I couldn’t afford it but he convinced me that I could and then I convinced myself that I could afford a Denali permit and new sleeping bag.
Dane backed out on Denali because of work but fortunately my friend Ryan Edwards was down to abandon his hopes of going to Peru in the summer and instead come up to Alaska and get cold on Denali with me. The plan was to climb the Moonflower as a group of 3 with Dane and Nate Goodwin and then head up to Denali with Ryan.
2016/17 was my first new england winter in 7 years. I had grown accustomed to the stable and cold-but-never-too-cold weather of montana. Vermont seemed like a climbing backwater, a place where old bearded crusties climb loose 5.7 trad with a rack of tri cams and hexes. And while there might be some truth to that my prejudice about Vermont climbin was gone as soon as things froze in the Notch. Vermont rock climbing sucks for the same reasons the Ice climbing is so good, moisture. After a season of pre-work and before school solo circuits, link ups in NH, and long ice routes at lake willoughby I was feeling pretty ready to go back to Alaska. Besides the one day a week I could find time to climb I was too busy to do the necessary low intensity new-alpinism cardio so I figure the next best thing was running up hills very fast, 90 minutes at a time and two or three times a week. I was feeling great and went for a link up of several local peaks that I had been running but ended up overdoing it and wrecking myself.
My achilles tendon was grinding and I had started feeling feverish with a sore throat. It was finals week and I was leaving in just 5 days. Total training failure, Steve House would be disappointed. I questioned whether or not I should even try to go on the trip. I even recognised my symptoms as being the exact definition of adenovirus in my microbio text book. But I got on the plane anyways and coughed all the way to anchorage. I was feeling like death after a night of not sleeping when I met up with Dane, Nate, and Ryan at the airport. We shopped and packed and hopped in a shuttle to talkeetna for our ranger briefing. As soon as Ryan and I stepped out of the ranger office Dane called and told us to run to Talkeetna Air Taxi because out plane was about to leave. I was really looking forward to sleeping a few days in the bunkhouse and recovering but when Alaska gives you the window you’ve just gotta take it. After a typically amazing flight in we landed on the Kahiltna, lugged our gear up the hill to where all the other moonflower hopefuls were camped (and away from the denali chaos).
Over the next few days it stormed and I began to feel slightly better. Dane, Nate and I skied powder on Radio Control Tower. The next day we headed up the SW ridge of Mt. Francis. Ryan and I climbed as a part along side Dane and Nate. We crushed the ridge unroped up to a surprisingly difficult mixed pitch that was not supposed to be there. We mantled the cornice in a whiteout and found surprisingly bad snow conditions up there, lots of whumping. The scariest moment for me on the whole trip was leading into the ridge traverse in a total whiteout without knowing where the edge of the cornice was. We reached the summit much later than we expected and enjoyed a brew together. We roped up as a group of 4 for the way down, Nate Goodwin, being the lightest, was given the job of leading us down the east ridge. We found the ridge to be in pretty bad shape as a result of the low snow year, Nate fell in some insidious cracks. About halfway down Nate triggered an 24 inch deep snow slab that picked him up and started carrying him off toward a steep part of the ridge. The three of us in the back arrested but the slide stopped on its own anyways.
The ridge was feeling pretty dangerous and full on so we opted to try a slow but very effective technique of placing gear, in this case a picket, and rapping down both of our ropes tied together making for a full 400ft rappel to the next safe zone. The first three people went down and thrashed around like hell trying to fall in a crevasse or trigger any unstable snow and the fourth simply walked/down climbed in their tracks. It was getting late and everything was well frozen so we bailed down an alternate couloir higher up on the ridge than the one recommended in the guide book. After downclimbing at least 2000 feet of 50 degree snow we wrapped the bergschrund and then went back to camp and drank whiskey. A surprisingly full on experience for a route that’s supposed to be a “5.8 romp”.
We rested for a day and then Nate and I set off for the Mini Moonflower. Sometimes you can just look up a route and say “this is gonna be a great day” and it was. We climbed the first two pitches when we saw two people who we assumed were Dane and Ryan approaching Bacon and Eggs. I immediately started yelling obscenities at them only to realize that it was not Dane and Ryan but instead two british guys, I had to apologize to them back in base camp, they thought it was pretty funny. The route starts off with calf burner ice and gets gradually steeper before the crux and then goes back to calf burner. We climbed 11 full 60m pitches and then rapped from the ridge feeling pretty wasted.
It was a good day except for the fact that I was testing a not-very-good sled hauling system I planned to use on Denali. I had borrowed AT boots from Dane that he forgot to bring the heel inserts for so I was basically telemark skiing downhill with a sled. Needless to say I got seriously wrecked a few times on ski hill above basecamp. I was thankful it was late and nobody could see how stupid I was.
Next up we attempted the Moonflower, or more accurately the Bibler-Klewin route on Mt. Hunter’s North Buttress. Last year Matt Cornell and I had tried the BK start and found some pretty gnarly conditions so we opted for the Muggs start which was both faster and more fun. We shared the route with the british guys I had been shouting at and another team from Bozeman/Colorado. The climbing was fun and it took us about 16 hours to get to the first ice band where we attempted to chop a ledge and ended up trying to sleep in seats. We woke at 4am to snowy conditions and the wall dumping spindrift down the crux pitches. We rapped off down the new anchors Colin Haley and Mikey Schaefer had built using pitons found in an abandoned cache.
Dane and Nate and I debated about another attempt on the route but in the end Ryan and I decided to abandon the BK in favor of heading up Denali a little bit earlier. We packed up out sleds, mooched some more food, and headed off towards 14 camp. Dane and Nate were nice enough to help up haul some of our stuff up to 9,700. From there we spent 3 horrible days double carrying 3 weeks of food and supplies up to 14 camp. We knew that if we wanted to get on the cassin we were gonna have to wait a while at 14. Most parties bail after summiting the west buttress and we figured this is because they were living well enough at 14 camp so we brought all the accessories and tasty food our bodies could carry up with us. We brought supplies to make cinnamon rolls complete with frosting, a laptop and solar charger with hundreds of hours of movies and TV, three stoves, two sleeping bags each. The west buttress was not light and fast and we suffered for it. Once we arrived at 14 we were prepared for multiple weeks of Glamping.
We met Jason Antin and Wade Morris at 11 camp. They were from Golden Colorado and Ryan and Wade had climbed together in Vail some time ago. They had the same goal as us and were planning on a similar strategy for acclimatizing so we hung out with them for a while. Jason is a fitness coach and Wade is an unemployed rock crusher at the moment. After an acclimatization run to 17 and waiting out a nasty 8 day long storm at 14 we felt ready to push for the summit. We made it in a 12 hour round trip push, it felt good to stand on the top of the highest mountain in North America, even if it was -20F and pretty windy.
Back at 14 the weather improved dramatically and we lingered around base camp drinking scotch, eating tons of bacon and recovering from the day before. The weather was beautiful but the forecast was not quite stable enough to launch on the cassin.
After four days of waiting and wasting beautiful weather we decided it was time to go despite the storm that was supposed to hit over the weekend. Wade was feeling sick, something that seemed like a flu and exacerbated by elevation, but he decided to give it a go anyways. When he turned back at the West Rib cut off, his voice was so hoarse that he could barely get words out. Jason looked crushed. I was actually a bit relieved when he asked to come along with us. Three people is a bit uncomfortable in a 2 man assault tent but it made us feel safer with him there, safety in numbers kind was a good way to hedge our bets, especially since the forecast was not looking very good. We were stoked to have him along. At around 16k we shuffled packs and opted for one skinny (7.7mm) 70 meter rope for the three of us.
We descended into the wickwire ramp with Ryan in the lead but backed off to the west rib cutoff because it seemed too broken up to get down (Tom Livingsotne and Uisdean Hawthorn did the wickwire ramp a few days after us). We descended the west rib and the chicken couloir in nasty snice conditions and then continued up the Valley of Death towards the Cassin. We reached the bergschrund at 10pm and started to brew up. The Bergschrund below the Cassin is a beautiful spot, like a cave of ice almost.
I took the lead up the Japanese couloir at 11pm and we simul-climbed the route in three pitches up to cassin ledge. I got the “crux” pitch which was not nearly as hard as some of the other climbing on the route and also not even close to earning its 5.8 grade. Sometime in the early morning Jason took over the lead for the cowboy arete, he started out getting great screws but later was left with no other options but pickets in rotten snow. The cowboy arete was wild and steep on the sides, one of the most exposed places I’ve ever been. We stopped to brew up at 7am, had a nice long break, and ate some freeze dried meals. Jason continued leading us up though the hanging glacier to the bottom of the First rock band. The 70 degeree ice pitch up the hanging glacier was horrifying sugar snow but further over Jason found a creative way over involving standing on a strange fin of snow and stepping up onto good snice.
Ryan took over for the first rock band and began crushing long simul pitches through low 5th class terrain with difficult route finding. The Cassin is huge and individual sections of the route are as large as whole climbs in colorado so the topo is not very detailed, instead you have to rely on instinct and clues like old tat and fixed rope. As Jason and I followed Ryan I began to crash. The strenuous climbing, lack of zone 1 fitness training, calorie deficit and complete lack of sleep the night before were starting to take their toll. A storm had blown in and the gorgeous sunny conditions of the morning were now blowing snow and poor visibility. Ryan took us to the base of the second rock band where we made a bivy platform and melted some snow.
Three guys in a Mountain Hardwear direkt 2 is pretty cramped, even 2 guys is pretty cozy. Being the smallest I got the middle, which really wasn’t so bad because it was nice and warm. We got a text over Jason’s in-reach saying that the forecast was clearing and a bit of high pressure was building. We all slept surprisingly well and enjoyed a leisurely pace starting out the next day.
I lead us through the second ice band which had some of the best climbing of the route. I’m not sure if I was even following the route really. The climbing seemed hard and we were way left of the triangular roof the topo seemed to have us going to. We were directly under a good looking couloir that we thought might deposit us at the top of the second ice band. I turned over lead to Jason, partly out of guilt that I had been getting all the best pitches and partly because I didn’t want to be responsible for getting us any more off route than we already had been. Jason cruised up the couloir to the top of the second rock band bypassing the snow covered slab pitches on the normal route.
From here we unroped and climbed some mildly sketchy snow up and around the third rock band. And up to a nice bivy spot at 17,400 where I unfortunately took some slings out of my pack and left them draped around a rock horn by accident. (somebody has since grabbed them apparently). We continued up the ridge and found our way to the top of Kahiltna horn in cold snowy conditions in a cloud.
Topping out the ridge and continuing to the summit was a surreal feeling. The cassin is a route I have wanted to do since I began climbing and finishing it was a great feeling. We took some photos and headed down in some gnarly wind. On the descent Ryans crampon toe bail broke and we had to rig a sketchy fix to get across the autobahn.
After a day spent finishing the scotch and bacon in 14 camp, chiseling a frozen-together poop mass out of a clean mountain can, and unloading all of our unwanted food on other parties we packed out sleds headed down. Going down sucked with heavy sleds and it was raining on the lower glacier. Crevasse danger was serious and a climber had come very close to death the day before when he had fallen in and become wedged 40 feet down.
We flew out the next day and then got drunk at the fairview, as is tradition. Unable to change our flights home Ryan and I spent nearly a week eating as much as possible in Talkeetna and Anchorage. We went to Walmart and bought 50 dollars worth of vegetables. We tried eating them in the parking lot but a lady tried to sell us drug needles so we instead snuck a backpack sized salad into the movie theatre. We saw Alien Covenant and then Wonderwoman, which were both pretty okay, then guardians of the galaxy 2, which was great.