Tuesday, June 7, 2016

East Buttress - Middle Triple Peak

Middle Triple Peak - East Buttress - our base camp at 5400'
The East Buttress of Middle Triple Peak has been on our mind for a while. Janelle and I both knew it would be one of the hardest climbs on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America list. Royal Robbins visited this area several decades ago, and described the Kichatna Mountains as "Yosemite meets the North Pole." The range is 85 air miles west of Talkeetna, Alaska. Granite spires 2000-3500 feet tall shoot up from the broken glaciers like something steep shooting out of something icy. If these spires were miraculously transported right next to the Bugaboos, I'm pretty sure the Kain Hut would go out of business. It's that good. What's not good, is the weather. Prolonged storms hit the range on a regular basis. We were going to bat against an El Capitan sized buttress, with seracs at the base and steep snow guarding the summit.

East Buttress, the light colored rock at base is the blank section
Talkeetna Air Taxi lands us on the Tatina Glacier 
First, a bit of history. The "classic" route on Middle Triple Peak has only seen five successful ascents. The ascents took place in 1977, 1982, 1991, 1992?, and, to my knowledge, the last successful ascent was in 1997. In 2012, Canadian alpinist, Nancy Hansen, and her partner discovered the bottom pitch of rock had literally fallen off the mountain. Much like what happened on Half Dome last year. The rockfall left a blank section that would need to be re-established. Nancy returned with bolting equipment in 2013, and climbed about 20 meters of this new blank section, placed two bolts, and then got rained on for the next 19 days. Game over.
100 pounds each. The route starts on the other side of this pass.
To tackle a route this big, we divided it up into digestible sections. First, the approach. We landed on the Tatina Glacier and needed to hump 200 pounds of gear, fuel, and food up and over a 1500 foot semi-technical col. An additional 50 pounds of food and back-up gear was cached at the LZ. Knowing that Alaska mountains can dump amazing amounts of snow, we buried an avalanche beacon in our cache, turned on, so we could locate it even if the probe and wands fell over and got covered by snow (glacier life hack). We did two round trips to the top of the col. It was brutal even though we were able to skin within 100 feet of the top of the col. The last 100' was steep and icy and required some actual climbing. Once the second load was on top of the pass we looked over the other side and quickly realized the steepness and heavy loads required a technical solution. We lashed the sleds together side-by-side pontoon style, and used the ridiculous amount of rope we brought to lower the sleds down the entire 1500' couloir. We had come from the LZ to our basecamp in 11 hours. Sleep came easy that night. 
Lowering the sleds down the steep south side of the access col.
Second, re-establish the blank rock section and fix ropes as high as possible on the lower 1200 foot headwall. This was the steepest part of the 3200 foot tall wall. Day two, we ski toured over to the base of the wall to recon the scene. Very large and precarious seracs guarded the route on the right side. Above and left of the approach ramp a hanging glacier looked extremely cracked up. Janelle and I agreed that spending any extra time here was a bad idea. We snapped a few photos and we returned to camp. Two hours later we watched, slack-jawed, as literally tons of ice of the hanging glacier broke loose and cover where we had been with 20 feet of ice debris. A near miss, and a reminder that Alaska mountains can kill you without batting an eye.
Recon mission, in the serac blast zone. Bad place to be, so only stood here long enough to take the photo below
Debris covering our tracks
Approach ramp. Where I stood to take this photo got covered in 20' of ice two hours later.
Day three, the sun was shining so we moved through the serac zone as fast as possible. Camp to the base of the wall took 40 minutes. The serac exposure time was about 15-20 minutes even moving in 5th gear. Barf. We located Nancy's bolts, and set up shop to climb a blank wall. This freshly exposed rock was still very crumbly, so hooking was not a great option most of the time. Instead I relied on pecker pitons and drilling bat hooks (1/4 inch wide by 1/4 inch deep hole that I'd attach a talon hook to). I also placed a rivet and another bolt on this section. It took forever...4 hours to be exact. Too long really. A big wall ninja could have done it way way faster, yet we were happy to have completed this piece of the puzzle. Two more pitches of slow-mo aid climbing brought us a little over 300' plum (not clipping any gear) above the snow. One the 1982 topo, this was the top of pitch 5. We fixed the ropes, left as much gear at the top, and rapped down. Back through the serac zone and up to our camp. We had made a significant dent, and we were totally stoked to be this far on only day three.
Just past the serac danger zone, base of the climb
Fixing the blank 100' section took 4 hours of aid climbing
Third, fix another 120 meters of rope on the lower section. We had 5 Sterling Ropes with us. Our 9mm 90m static line was fixed already, 9.4mm 70m for fixing and backup lead line, 9.2mm 60m main lead line and for fixing, 7.8mm 60m Photon for rapping and hauling packs, and another 30m Photon for glacier travel. In hindsight, we could have done without the 30m glacier line and the 70m 9.4mm. But since we had it we wanted to use it. If we could get a total of 320 meters of rope fixed, it would be no problem to get to the first bivy spot, or higher, once we committed to the route.
300 vertical feet of slomo A3 aid climbing

The weather had something else in mind. Nine days of stormy weather to be exact. Everyday we would unzip the tent door, peek outside, and then fall back into the sleeping bag. The descriptors were words like, ping pong ball, milk jug, full-on, pissy, gnarly, grey bird, etc. We would sleep as much as possible, which was roughly 13 hours per day, and played a lot of cribbage. If you have to be trapped in a tent of that long, a notable perk is being with someone you can have sex with. Our Goal Zero Nomad 20 and Sherpa 100 solar kit kept our phones and iPad fueled which helped a bunch with the stoke. That is until we watched the movie, Everest. Very very poor life decision to watch that movie while on a scary mountain with your spouse.  
clear midnight skies but very icy rock climbing
View from the tent. Serac wall had to be walked under to and from the route.
View of the approach to the base of the route.
The evening of day five the clouds cleared, our hopes rose, and we packed our bags. In the eternal evening Alaskan twilight, the mountain looked extra coated with snow and rime ice. The next morning, we red-lined through the serac zone a third time. Once at the base of the route we discovered the fixed lines were totally iced up from the storm. I started jugging up only to have my jumars slip on a regular basis. I made it up to the first anchor and looked higher, more icy ropes and pervasive vergas (thin smears of clear ice) on the rock. My trepidation grew. Am I getting soft or what? I rationalized the decision to rap back down by stating even if we made it up the icy ropes the pitch above our high point would be all iced up. We would wait for another day to push the route higher. We rapped back down and returned to the tent. Turned out it was a good thing as that afternoon the horrible weather returned with blowy snowy clouds.
One final push on a nice weather morning
Our high point, top of pitch 5 on the 1982 topo, 300' off the ground. We beefed up the anchors and "folded".
The next window came three days later, day 11. Once again we red-lined under the seracs. Once again our tracks had been covered by avalanche/serac debris. I wondered how many more times would be able to walk under this hazard before it would bite us. The chorus from "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers was playing in my head on repeat as I broke trail. Things were not working out for us on this mountain. We jugged the fixed lines again, looked at the weather, our food supply, our rate of ascent, and our stoke. It would also take four more passes under the seracs in the best case scenario to make it happen. Neither of us wanted to accept that risk, and it was time to "know when to fold 'em". To say it was depressing would be an understatement. So much work to get to this point. On a day that was nice enough, we made the decision to bail. I considered leaving the fixed rope in place for a future attempt, but then I realized it would be at least 100 years before the glaciers recede to the point where the seracs are not an issue. So we pulled the ropes and walked back to camp. Alive and well, relieved we would not have to wait in another nine-day storm.
Double carried back up the col.
That evening, we packed our bags and post-holed our way back up the couloir with all our non-camping gear. The next morning we did another load, and then started lowering the sled pontoon down the other side. The silver lining in all the stormy weather is it left a bunch of nice powder for us to ski. Once we were about 800 vertical feet above the flat glacier we lined up the sled pontoon and let it go! The thing mocked down the slope at 60mph and finally stopped about a 1/2 mile away from us. The sled-free turns were some of the best of the trip, which helped with moral. Nasty weather kept us on the glacier another day and we flew out the following morning, back to the land of amazing smells, birds singing, green grass, and a shower.
Back at the LZ, we skied in the runway and waited for the TAT cavalry.

Garage sale or drying session?


Helpful things we learned about the route, and suggestions for future attempts. It can be done!

- Footwear: Single boots are likely warm enough, like the La Sportiva Batura GTX 2.0, it was difficult to step out of the aiders with the big double boots. A techy approach shoe might be really good for those bottom pitches. The 200' above the blank section would go free at 5.10R is my guess.
- Ropes: I'd take a 300' static 9mm, 60m 9.2 Sterling Aero Dry, and 60m 7.8mm Photon, optional 30m glacier rope. You could fix 500' of rope and then get sendy.
- Seracs: That is what shut us down. We have walked under many seracs to get to routes, but the difference is we had to walk under this active set again and again, and that stress got to us. Best case is you can crush the aid climbing and fix all 500' in one day. Then come back and get on the route and send. That way you are only exposed for two round trip missions. Exposure time is 15 min each way.
- Timing: So few people go in here it's hard to know when is the best time. Good weather does happen, I'm told. Much later in the season than June 10, and the crevasses would be a significant hurdle on the approach and descent.
- Gas: We were able to melt a bunch of snow in a sled with black garbage bag, and only cooked one or two hot meals per day. Only used 1/2 of white gallon of gas in 13 days!
- Aid Gear: 5 Knifeblades, 2-3 of each size pecker pitons, set of standard nuts, two talon hooks, two skyhook (one big one small), and cams were enough to get up to where we stopped. The bat hooks I created were hard to find even the next day after drilling them, so a hand drill and a couple bits are recommended.
- Weather: YR.no had the most reliable forecast, but reality was generally worse than what it predicted
- Safe camping: The first flat spot on the other side of the col is where we camped at 5400 feet. It was 40 mins walking to the base of the route. If you camp at the lowest part of the Sunshine Glacier you are exposed to falling hazard in a big way.
- Hope that helps. You can do it. Get 'er done.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The North Face of Mt. Edith Cavell - Classic Climb #46

Janelle following one of the crux pitches.
“Oh the North Face aye, that’s a pretty hard route, and it is not in good climbing condition now” the gear shop employee said with a hint of who-are-you-and-do-you-have-the-search-and-rescue-number-on-speed-dail. It was 2010, our project’s first year. Janelle and I had just climbed Mt Rainier’s Liberty Ridge, Liberty Bell, Mt Shuksan, Mt Sir Donald, Mt Slesse and Mt Temple in about a month. We were hot with successful summits and it felt like we couldn’t be stopped. That is, until we drove up to the tourist lookout at the base of Mt Edith Cavell located 15 miles (25 km) south of Jasper, Alberta.

The North Face Route goes right up the center of Mt Edith Cavell
The 5000 foot (1524 m) North Face loomed over us. Its diagonal rock and ice bands, stacked one on top of the other all the way to its broad summit, at 11,033 ft (3,363 m), were scary looking. We were intimidated. The gear store employee’s remarks, and Internet trip reports did nothing to help our stoke level.

It’s difficult to find route beta that made us all excited to jump on it. Reports of avalanches, loose rock, unprotectable shale strata bands, bad weather, cold temps and constant rock fall where common place to others’ experiences. When combining these factors with the local’s look of hesitation, we got scared off. We chalked it up to “not being in good climbing condition” and headed south for lower hanging classic climbing fruit.

Mark on the approach.
The next year, 2011, we were in the area, driving south from the Lotus Flower Tower. We pretty much just kept driving, as the mountain was again reported to be “not in good condition to climb”. The following year, 2012, we were able to successfully climb Mt Alberta and Mt Robson, both of which are in the neighborhood. Edith Cavell was next, but we were exhausted from those stressful climbs. We were therefore relieved to hear that a massive serac from the Angel Glacier had broken off, and crashed into the alpine lake at its base. This caused a tidal wave that took out both the parking lot and a couple pit toilets. Thankfully, no one was hurt as it happened in the middle of the night. But the access road was now closed. We drove south yet again, having not even touched the mountain.

The seracs that make the approach a little more sporty
It was easy to notice a trend…the North Face of Mt Edith Cavell is never in perfect climbing condition. If it’s dry, the rock fall hazard spikes. If it’s snowy, the avalanche hazard spikes. Heck, a tidal wave can hit you. And it’s always cold. I concluded that in order to climb this bad boy, we would simply have to go for it. We would rely on our skill, judgment, and past experience to navigate any hazards the mountain threw at us. This is a mindset known as alpine climbing.

Janelle arriving a the bivy spots on the shoulder of the Angel Glacier
Our strategy would be snatch and grab. Fly in, climb, fly out. So we started watching the weather online, and blocked off chunks of time we could make it happen.
The first two blocks of time in May and September pasted with crappy forecasts. October 3-6 was our final block of time. On Friday October 2, I picked up Janelle from a weeklong retreat and training seminar. [She is training to be a personal development coach. You can hire her to help navigate life’s obstacles and make positive changes]. I greeted her with a big hug and kiss and said, “it looks good, so we should fly tomorrow.” That night we purchased tickets, and the following afternoon we were driving a rental car towards Jasper National Park. It was crazy. [Saturday afternoon is great time to fly, as we got non-stop round trip tickets from San Francisco to Edmonton for $409 each].

Crossing the Angel Glacier
The forecast predicted two clear days, Sunday and Monday. On Sunday we hiked part of the semi-technical approach, and went to bed around 8PM. The alarm went off at oh-dark-thirty Monday morning, and we drove to the trailhead. Having come straight from climbing in Yosemite the previous week, we jokingly wondered how many people would be queued up at the base of the route. Ten minutes out of the parking lot we stopped to shed our jackets. Lights from behind me caught my eye. Was that glow from the lights of Jasper? No, it was Northern Lights! We watched in amazement as the greens, muted yellows, and even reds dances across the sky. It was surreal, especially as this was my first time seeing them.

The lower third of the face
While picking our way up the 4th and 5th class approach we might of gotten a bit off route. It turned into 5.6 climbing pretty quickly on snowy rock. Climbing by headlamp, in mountaineering boots and a pack with verglass got my heart pumping a few times, but we eventually made it up to the Angel Glacier. The alpine glow was touching the top of the mountain and the walls of the amphitheater that circled the glacier. This is a special time for any alpine endeavor. Getting up so early is always hard, but being up for sights like this makes it worth it.

Working through the snow covered strata bands
Crossing the Angel was straightforward, breaking trail through boot-top deep powder. That was about where the simple terrain ended and things got steep. Much of the lower third of the mountain had a slope angle of roughly 40°-50°ish, and four inches of powder on top of mostly supportable old snow. This made travel quick, so we simal-climbed. There were a few rock chokes where the snow covered the rock but was unfortunately not supportable. One ice tool would be hooking on a rock edge and the other would gain a positive ice placement. Same with the crampons, one on rock the other on thin ice. Janelle was out front and took us through the first two near vertical rock chokes. I took over and continued to sniff out the route up through the bands. We knew the snow band that crosses the entire face was a good waypoint to get into the more serious climbing out on the main central buttress. Up left, up right, or traverse right then up? Tough sayin’ not knowin’. I choose poorly and got to climb a bonus 170-foot (50m) pitch of 5.6 climbing covered in snow and ice. I do not know mixed climbing grades very well, but I would guess it was in the M1-M10 range. Climbers actually skilled at mixed climbing would make short work of this bush league level climbing. I on the other hand took my time.

Mark on the first of the crux mixed pitches
Three factors kept me moving slow and deliberate. One, the pro was thin and the rock was broken. All the cracks were filled with snow and ice or simply not present. This required some unnerving runouts and it took FOR-EV-VER to build legit anchors. Two, I had not packed our proper ice climbing tools. Instead we had two CAMP aluminum axes (Corsa Nanotech and Corsa) and two Petzl Sum’tec. These CAMP axes are great for ski mountaineering or glacier slogging, but not designed for the terrain we were on.  The leader used one Sum’Tec and the Corsa, so at least they had two steal pick tips. I don’t know why I didn’t pack the CAMP X-Mountains and Cobras when I was loading the van for this extended road trip in back September. I underestimated the terrain we would be getting on I guess. And third, this was my first time mixed climbing since Mooses Tooth in May. Talk about getting the rust off. All that to say, these next three pitches were tedious.

Leader had the tools on the left and follower had the two on right
Every pick placement was tested, every foot placement second-guessed, every useful edge excavated. Swing, pull, grimace, kick, kick again, place front point on quarter inch edge, move up, breath, excavate another snow patch, and look for a crack to fill with a cam or stopper. This was the routine. I had to pause a few times to shake out the screaming barfies. I hate the screaming barfies. It is definitely the worst part of any winter climbing adventure.

Looking down from the top of the crux pitches.
Janelle was not thrilled about the hazards, but hung in there. She was bummed that the icy conditions were outside of her self-preservation comfort bubble. Pulling up to the first belay she teared up a bit, saying, “sorry babe, but I’m not going to be able to swing leads on this part.”
“I know, I wouldn’t want you to. This is dicey. You want to keep going up?”
“Yep…I definitely don’t want to try to rap down from here.”
“Me neither…let’s keep moving.”
Unfortunately, the belays did not provide too much protection from the ice, snow, and rock I inevitably knocked down. So Janelle resorted to putting her pack over her head like a shield, Wonder Woman style. Now, come to think of it, I don’t know how she did that and gave me a proper belay? Thankfully, I did not fall and she did not get hit with anything too big.

Looking out on the amazing Canadian Rockies
The weather was bluebird and the air temp was manageable, even in the full shade of this Canadian North Face as we carried on. The alpine lake below got smaller and smaller. After three rope-stretcher pitches of crazy steep climbing the slope angle mellowed from vertical to only near vertical. Janelle got back on the sharp end through this terrain that was 90% steep snow and 10% near vertical rock. We were still a couple thousand feet from the top and the sun was well on its way to the horizon. The unrelenting technical slopes went on forever, but we kept pushing.

Working up the final snowfield to the top
We transitioned back to simal-climbing for the final 1000 feet (300m) with Janelle out in front. Yvon Chouinard’s 1961 first ascent report warned about the scary shale strata band just below the summit. He had to paw through choss to gain the summit ridge lip with no protection for 80 feet (23m). With the snowy conditions we did not have to climb through choss, but did have to negotiate very steep snow. Janelle placed pieces in the rock outcroppings where possible, but they were few and far between. Two full rope lengths below the summit ridge I came to the last cam and unclipped it. From there on, with Janelle 200 feet (60 m) above me, nothing held the rope to the mountain other than our crampons and ice axes. The 5000 feet of exposure below felt even heavier. Right below the summit ridge the slope angle went from 60° to about 75°. All I could do was watch and pray as Janelle dug a vertical trough through the snow. As she dug in and stepped up her helmet knocked into the snow above her. It was steep. Thankfully, she was able to place a screw in marginal ice, the first and only of the climb. This, of course, gave us a slightly elevated sense of security. Ten minutes of trench digging and fighting this very difficult section allowed her to crest the ridge and move out of view. Looking out I scanned the entire Canadian Rocky Mountain range in beautiful evening light. My wife had just pushed through her fear boundaries on a serious north face…totally awesome. 

Janelle launches from the final proper belay
A minute later I felt the rope go snug, that comforting I-am-now-on-a-real-belay type of snug. I plunged up through her foot buckets and we were on top together. It was surreal. Just two days prior we were in California getting sun burnt, to now on the top of a classic Canadian 11,000er in October. But the celebration was brief on the true summit, as we needed to maximize the distance we could travel down the West Ridge before we had to get out the headlamps.
On top…so stoked.

The descent was lame. So long down the West Ridge. It took about eight hours. Only 45 minutes of that were spent stationary. First, down the rocky ridge. Then down thousands of feet of loose scree and talus, and finally wrapping around Edith Cavell’s large sister peak to the road. The final 1.2 miles (2 km) back to the parking lot is along the paved access road. With no roots to trip over, we turned off the headlamps and walked by the sliver of moonlight. The steep North Face loomed over us again, the same as it had in 2010. Walking in the dark directly towards the face, looking at what we just climbed, it was like getting an alpine victory lap. Now the view came with a true sense of accomplishment. We had successfully scaled its steep bands safely even though it was far from being in, “good condition for climbing.”

It was 3AM when we got back to the car. Our feet were shot, we were exhausted, but the adventure wasn’t over. We still had to get back to Edmonton to jump on a plane by noon. We raced back to the airport using the thrill of success, and a healthy dose of caffeine, to keep us going. Fifty classic climb #46 is now complete.

4 hrs - car to Angel Glacier bivy sites, route finding in the dark.
12 hrs - Angel Glacier to the Summit
7.75 hrs - summit to car, which includes 1 hour of non-productive descending (resting and route finding) down the West Ridge, and a 2km walk back up the road. The East Ridge is the way to go in summer conditions. The West Ridge is not a simple mindless walk off, especially in the dark. East Ridge is reported to be technical, but I think totally worth avoiding the long long slog/scramble down the West.

Gear: two Sterling Photon 7.8mm 60m ropes (one single rope would be fine, but we thought we might have to bail, so brought two ropes), BD C3 000-2, BD C4 .3-#2, BD stoppers #4 - #8, and the 4 biggest BD micro offset nuts, 4 alpine draws, 4 quickdraws, 4 over the shoulder slings, steel crampons, technical tools, tethers, one 16cm ice screw (placed once), no pickets, MSR Windburner stove, MHG flat tarp, satellite phone, 40 oz of water each, eight 150 calorie snacks each, three pair of Arc’Teryx gloves, Gore-Tex layers, the best Arc’Teryx clothing in the world, helmet, headlamp, and courage.

Scout the approach to Angel Glacier in daylight, maybe leaving a fixed rope where it would help. Climbing the route with bivy gear would be lame. But if you decide to bivy on Angel Glacier, I would consider climbing back up after the climb to recover the gear…but that might be stupid.


Other trip reports (don’t let them scare you off, the climb is awesome):

Edith Cavell's North Face profile, the right side of this bad boy.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Denali's Cassin Ridge - Classic Climb #45

Janelle takes a break at the Matt's second bivy, 17K'
Denali’s Cassin Ridge is a true American classic. I have been intrigued by this 8000’ (2440m) ridge since hearing about it in 2004. It carves a direct line, up technical terrain, to the summit of North America’s tallest peak…what’s not to love! My wife of 8.5 years and I were back in Alaska for our third attempt.

Attempt #1 June 2012: First, we climbed the Harvard Route on Mt Huntington, and then bumped directly over to Denali. After skiing from the summit (20,320’) via the West Buttress route, and spending a total of 26 days on the glacier we were fried from continuous bad weather and inaccurate forecasts.

Mark wearing his "grumpy pants" after concluding we could not climb the Cassin for the second time.
Attempt #2 July 2013. First, we were successful on the Mooses Tooth’s West Ridge. Then, straight down to Juneau for Mt. Fairweather, a hard-earned success that took 17 days. Then back to the Cassin. We returned to the 14,000' camp, waited, acclimatized, and waited some more. After 10 days of heavy lifting and skiing around we were poised to go. Upon arriving to the access couloir we discovered the route had melted out from record high temps that season. Rocks showered down the access couloir even during the coldest part of the day. Not willing to jump into this firing range, we bailed again, with tails between our legs. Another $4000 blown on flights and permits. The score was Denali 2, Smileys 0.

High camp on the Mt Logan. photo Jed Porter
Last year we directed all finances and time to Mt Logan…and failed. Following that sucky and scary effort, Janelle underwent two hip surgeries, in July and Sept respectively. She had been dealing with ever increasing hip pain over the last two years. The MRI revealed tore labrums in both hips due to overuse. This was the heavy price of competing at the World Cup level in ski mountaineering.  Thankfully, a full recovery was predicted, yet it would take 10 months to achieve. July 2014, Janelle walked into the hospital and came out in a wheelchair. 10 months of PT, icing, constant passive motion machine, tears and frustration, truckloads of support from friends and family, and 10 gallons worth of Colorado Bulldogs brought us to May. A decision had to be made; do we put the hips to the ultimate test by trying the Cassin a third time?

Despite the PT’s conservative recommendation, Janelle was game. She trained like a crazy person for the next 8 weeks.

Alpenglow on Mt Foraker at 3:30AM
Choosing the best strategy to get to the base of the Cassin Ridge is a tough decision. Each option requires time, motivation, and exposure to significant hazards. If you choose to acclimatize on Denali, 99% of climbers (48.6% of all stats are made up on the spot) make the five-day trek up to the 14,000’ camp, hang out for a week, and maybe go to the summit via the W. Buttress. To get to the base of the Cassin from the 14,000’ camp you must climb up to 16,000’ on the West Rib route, and descend to around 11,500’. Daunting? Yes. This style takes around 10-14 days to complete, assuming you are very strong, stoked, and blessed with great weather. 

On our past attempts we tried that style. We hate it. Getting everything to the 14,000’ camp is a huge effort. From there, it takes significant mental fortitude to ignore the bad weather, the wildly inaccurate weather forecasts, the scared naysayer climbers, and stay stoked for the big objective. Often, eager Cassin suitors do not even step foot on the route.

Nothing like a sit start to squeeze out every drop from this route. Photo: Janelle Smiley
It plays out like this. You go to the summit via the West Buttress and return to the 14,000’ camp. Stoke for the Cassin is quickly lost as the forecast “doesn’t look that great.” The smell coming from your nether region is reminiscent of a week old tuna sandwich, left in a hockey bag, that’s been marinated in baby vomit. The call-of-the-shower, French fries, and flush toilets grows louder and louder. Once a group of summitters (noun: person who has stood on a mountain’s highest point) come down and start talking about ice cream, garden salads and adult beverage consumption…you can kiss motivation goodbye.

This style also requires many many days of high pressure. Good weather to get to 14,000’, good weather to acclimatize, good weather to climb the Cassin, good weather to descend, and finally good weather to fly off. That’s a pretty tall order in the Alaska Range.

Mark pulls through the short but steep crux in the Japanese Couloir. Photo: Janelle Smiley
We were tried of failing, and tired of trying to stay mentally tough at the 14,000’-blackhole-vortex-of-climbing-stoke. This year we changed our strategy. We would acclimatize off Denali. So I went down to Ecuador to guide a Cotopaxi trip, and Janelle went to Colorado and climbed/skied 14ers for eight-days prior to flying up to Alaska. I flew straight from Quito and Janelle from Denver. This was just enough time at altitude to make us feel “juiced up”, and confident to go straight in.

Friday, June 12, The best air service for climbers in the range, Talkeetna Air Taxi, landed us on a very hot Kahiltna Glacier. Reports from the mountain claimed over a meter of fresh snow in the last two days. Walking through the “Valley of Death” after that much snowfall was extra unnerving with increased avalanche danger. We decided to burn a day before going up the V.o.D. Allowing the avy danger to chill out. [When discussing the route around loved ones, I recommend saying, “V.o.D.” opposed to Valley of Death. Additionally, only 4 people have been killed in this Valley. Compared to the estimated 20+ that have slipped to their death on the Autobahn, on the West Buttress Route].

Mark Smiley & Matt Tuttle nearing the top of the Japanese Couloir. Photo: Matt Parker
Less than three hours of sled hauling, with rando race skis, brought us to our advanced basecamp at the base of Ski Hill. Some call this the 7,800’ camp, my gps told me 7,600’. At this camp 99% of climbers advance left up Ski Hill, but we would take a fairly hard right into the NE Fork of the Kahiltna (V.o.D.). Rolling into camp we noticed a very welcome trail already kicked in the V.o.D. by a guided group climbing the West Rib. This gift would save hours of trail breaking. Things were looking good.

Saturday, we slept in, sorted gear, made pancakes, and tried to keep cool while our nerves tried to psych us out with negative “what ifs”.

Sunday morning at 3AM we were walking up the V.oD. Rich pink and purple alpenglow blanketed tops of the surrounding mountains. The winds were light as we hiked quickly up this mega terrain trap. Janelle’s pack weighed 36lbs and mine weighed 41 (with crampons and tools, not including our 50m 7.8 Sterling Photon rope), which allowed for swift travel. Over the next five hours, on an established trail, we gained 4,400’ over 5 miles. Passing by the start of the West Rib route, one of my legs punched through a completely inconspicuous crevasse. The hidden trapdoor opened, and I fell flat on my face and hands without warning. Janelle instinctively pulled the rope tight as I wallowed backward to the safe side. This wake-up call reminded me that Alaska is the real deal, much like the honey badger. These mountains don’t blink an eye when they kill you, try to kill you, or let you pass by unscathed.

Reaching the top of the couloir, we touch the Cassin Ridge proper for the first time.
Cresting the final roll to the bergschrund, our jaws dropped when we saw three 2-man tents pitched side by side. Were we about to get behind a Korean-style assault of the route? Thankfully not, just six other climbers queued up and eager to send during this great weather window. Two of the six people were women gunning for the very difficult Denali Diamond route. [side note: Last I heard, they had sent the crux and were on their way to the summit, a first female ascent. Congrats!]. Two guys were still in their tent, and the remaining two guys, Matt Park and Matt Tuttle (aka the Matts), were eagerly packing up. The main problem with multiparty ice climbing is that the highest party inevitably sends down ice chunks on the parties below. With six eager people do we draw straws? Who would go first? We used a mixture of down home politeness, forward momentum, and Euro aggression and took the lead, telling the Matts to pass us ASAP.

The entrance of the route is the 1000’ Japanese couloir. For most parties this is simul-climbing terrain, and is dispatched quickly. We climbed three 50 meter pitches together, placing one screw per pitch, and regrouped at the base of the first crux. I hadn’t been ice climbing much last winter, so I moved deliberately, making sure to keep “the pump” at bay while working through the two 80° sections. Ice tools have a tendency to push the climber back, making this 80° slope feel like 90°. With only 5 screws total, I had to use them sparingly. My pack felt extra heavy as I pulled through the near vertical sections.

Snow the Cowboy Arete can be light and fluffy or bulletproof.
For the past hour we had been showering the Matt’s with ice. I wanted them to be able to pull through this crux sans-icefall-from-us, so we chopped a tiny ledge and chilled out. From there to the top of the Japanese Couloir it was more “hero alpine ice” simul-climbing. Near the top, Janelle’s elbow got beaned by a chuck of ice, causing her fingers to temporarily go numb. No bueno. I thought about yelling down the movie quote, “if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge the ice”, but I held my tongue. Good thing she’s tough like nails. No tears, just good ol’ fashion suck-it-up and keep going.

Simul-climbing along the Cowboy Arete. Photo: Matt Parker
Once on the ridge proper in the warm sun, we brewed up for some time…for three hours to be exact. This gave time for Matt’s to brew up and pass so they could get to 17,000’, their goal for the day. This siesta also allowed for needed acclimatization and hydrating. Normally on big alpine climbs this type of chill session is borderline sacrilege. But the forecast was perfect, and we knew our acclimatization strategy was on the aggressive side of the spectrum. The slower pace was just fine. Besides, we had five fat days of food and seven days of fuel, and eight pounds of camera gear, so we were grossly over-equipped to break any Colin Haley speed records.

Next up was the first rock crux. Janelle’s lead. I suggested, in vein, that she ditch her pack and we could haul it. She was determined to climb this pitch in style, and she did just that. I was super stoked for her. The upgraded hips were treating her right.
Brewing up with a hang kit makes everything easier. Camp 1 at 14K'

I jumped out in front again for the entire Cowboy ArĂȘte. The Matt’s had put in the booter for this section. It is 100 times easier to follow a booter than establish one, so we were thankful for their hard work. The sun was nearing the horizon as we pulled into camp. We had gone from 7,600’ to 14,000’ in 17.5 hours. Nothing like starting off with a bang! Fearing a total meltdown after such a big effort, we ate and drank like it was our job.

Day 2 – We slept in, cause why not? There was no wind and the sky was cobalt blue. It was our turn for trail breaking, so we left just before the Matts. The glacier above was easy cruising. There are two main rock bands on the Cassin. Each required climbing up a mixture of rock, snow, and ice. All on moderate technical terrain. We made our way up to, and through the first rock band. There was a bit of route finding, but between a good Suunto altimeter watch, the supertopo, and perfect weather, we were able to pick our way through the rock band without issues.

Janelle works up through the first rock band.
Around 15,400’ we pulled over for another epic brew-up session…a two-hour siesta. I was blown away we were doing this. Hanging out, shootin’ the bull with the Matts, in the middle of another perfect climbing day. It was awesome. The Matt’s took back  trail breaking duties, we drafted. Getting into the second rock band was the route finding crux. After putting our four heads together we choose correctly and climbed, in my opinion, the best pitch of the route. Because we carried a 50-meter rope, we had to use the entire thing, plus another 20 meters of simul-climbing to make the pitches go faster. Our light rack dictated long run-outs, but the climbing was moderate, with several big footholds to keep our weight over our feet whenever necessary. I had to pinch myself. We were in the middle of a true American classic alpine route, had great weather, and my wife and I were operating like a Swiss watch. It was a great moment.

A decision had to be made near the top of the second rock band. Go right to a 5.6 slab, or left to harder mixed climbing? We followed the booter left and found engaging mixed climbing. Janelle was simul-climbing below me, requiring me to pull the hardest moves without a proper belay. It was not the smartest move, but I was feeling adventurous. At the top of this great pitch was a large rock horn, perfect for slinging, to belay Janelle through the hard parts.
Janelle pulling through the alternate mixed terrain

We chopped out our second tent platform at 16,500’. It had taken 11 hours to get through the two rock bands, including a 2+ hour brew up and an hour of waiting below the crux pitch. We were feeling good about having the technical climbing below us, but the pressing question would be answered tomorrow. Did we acclimatize “enough” in Colorado and Ecuador to reach the summit the next day?

Janelle started coughing as we crawled into our two-person sleeping bag. As we tried to warm our ice blocks by playing footsie, her cough worsened. Had we pushed this ascent too fast? HAPE can be fatal. Descending from here would be a nightmare with only one 50-meter rope and a light rack. No railing in the lungs, no pink sputum, no headache. I think she will be okay. Four ibuprofen each and we went to sleep.
Looking down the ridge from 19K'
Not wanting to push our luck with this weather window, we were climbing again by 9:00AM. The previous evening, the Matts had broken the trail to 17,000’. This section was hardest trail breaking of the route…for them. We were sooo thankful that they put booter in. We took a rest break at their camp and learned it took them 2.5 hour to break the trail. It took us an hour.  Booters make all the difference. Once again they handed us the booter baton, which we would take it to the top.

The ridge flattens into a broad face above 18,000’. We felt the thin air big time, forcing a snails pace. This was the price we had to pay for such an aggressive ascent style. Remember we had launched from 7,600’ roughly 60 hours prior!  Had we put in the time at the 14,000’ camp for over a week, like our previous attempts, we could have moved twice as fast. Spend a week of time, festering on a glacier, hoping for good weather...all to shave 3 hours of moving time between 17,500 and the summit…not worth it.

Paying the price for a speedy acclimatization schedule at 19,500'
As we neared the Kahiltna Horn, the reality of completing the route took hold. Our third attempt would be successful. I teared up a little. Cause I’m sensitive. Very in touch with my two feelings. This feeling was the happy feeling, opposed to the other feeling, yucky.

We dropped the packs at the Horn and touched the top. The wind on the summit ridge was ripping around 40mph. The exact ambient air temp + windchill = stupid cold. This was Janelle’s 2nd time to the summit, and my 4th, so we high-fived, got a few photos and were off three minutes later. Proving once again that technical climbing is so much more about the route than the summit. Yet the summit is great because it is so definitive. I touched this spot, now I get to go downhill.
70ish hrs after leaving 7600' we were on top!

Descending the West Buttress took forever on foot as the wind continued to rip. We made it to the 14,000’ camp that evening. Tired and totally stoked we had pulled off a huge route in such a brief total time. The following afternoon we headed for the airstrip, stopping at friends camps along the way. Eating other people’s food, pooping in other people’s CMC’s (yeah that right, we did it, and it was awesome…stealth dump and run). The next morning, 7 days after arriving on the glacier, we flew back to Talkeetna.

When the weather is good in the Alaska range, big climbs can be completed in a timely fashion. All told, combining our three attempts, we have spent 33 days of our lives waiting to climb the Cassin Ridge. Now it is done, and it was totally worth the wait.
Back to the 14,000' camp, simultaneously exhausted and thrilled.