Just back from a 5 week trip to Alaska with Jon Griffith. Although ultimately unsuccessful in achieving our original aims, we had an awesome time, and did some of the most outrageous climbing ever.
After a frustrating few days in Anchorage, shopping and getting generally organised, and then a wild night in Talkeetna with some rednecks, our pilot Rico dropped us off in the Ruth Amphitheatre in his three seated Beaver ski plane on the 18th of April. Although Alaska had had one of the driest winters in living memory, the week before had seen huge amounts of snow throughout the range, and when we stepped out of the aircraft we went straight up to our hips in the lightest snow imaginable. We joked about the irony of it while we relayed our many bags through the snow to where we were to set up base (about 2 hours to move 6 bags 200 yards!), however, if we knew what was to come we probably would have saved the jokes!
The Ruth amphitheatre is a vast basin of ice that you could sit a large town inside and have room around the edges. Its formed by the jumble of immense glaciers which spill off Mount Silverthrone in the east, and Denali and Huntington in the North to culminate in ???? of ice, which at the end of the amphitheatre is squeezed through a gap a tenth of the size and forced down the gorge proper, which is the reason there are so many huge faces in this region.
The next day, in a state of excitement we made our way up to the very head of the amphitheatre to try and get a glimpse of the line we wanted to climb, which splits a large unclimbed face in a gigantic 1400 metre gash. It was snowing lightly all day and felt unseasonably warm, but we reached a point a kilometre or so from the bergschrund, where the glacier turns nasty. Up to this point the glacier is straight forward, with only a couple of broken sections where holes have to be negotiated, but to get to our line we had to take a sharp right and navigate our way through a frightening maze of poorly covered snow bridges. On this attempt we persevered for a few hours before skiing back to base, a little disappointed we didn’t get a glimpse of the line.
The next three weeks went in a haze of digging, trail breaking and card games. It would snow heavily, putting down a couple of feet every night and then clear up marginally in the day before the next snow hit. It took us three attempts over the period of a week to even get to the bottom of our line. This was a real shock as we had expected to be able to go and check it out early on and put a good track in and stash some kit. Other than the weather the main reason for this delay was the state of the glacier. From our base camp to the foot of our line was about 5 miles,with the last km being slow and dengerous, which took about three and a half hours with a good track in place and light bags, however without a track it was significantly longer. With it snowing so much we had to break trail more often than not to begin with. However, the biggest problem was that there was a section of glacier spanning about a kilometre beneath the face which was extremely dangerous. Probably due to the dry winter, it was very poorly filled in and one section which we dubbed Teletubby Land involved crossing a dodgy crevasse, only just covered by two joining cornices every 20 metres for about 300 metres, which meant the lead and the second were always standing on something nasty. We swapped our superlight 130 skis for our fat powder planks so we could displace more weight.
Eventually, after establishing a smaller camp beneath the route, where we could stash some kit, we managed to get on the line. We started quite late (set alarm for 3 a.m., and crossed schrund at 6), so we could get more sleep but make the most of the huge days you get in Alaska. The schrund and initial 200 metre couloir went fast and we were pleased with the firmness of the snow and the rock quality. At the top of the couloir we followed a steep narrow goullotte at about scot 6ish, this section was brilliant sticky ice in the back of a narrow cleft at a sustained 85 and 90 degrees. It was just like being at home in Chamonix. We moved together up this until it eased in angle. As Jon brought me up to his belay I glanced up at the next 30 metres, it made me feel sick to look at. A 20 metre wall of 85 and 90 degree crud and powder, which was capped by an overhanging snow plug the size of a fiesta. “O well its Jon’s block so his problem” I thought as I traversed to his belay and started to stack the ropes and sort gear, perhaps trying to disguise the deeper thought that this pitch could be a stopper, and that the steep narrow sides of the corner were unlikely to provide an alternative route.
Jon made steady but unstable progress up the first half of the plug, struggling to find much worthwhile gear as the rock walls were completely blank and there was no screwable ice no matter how deep he dug. After some time he managed to get near the bulging top section, at which point he put his arm straight through the snow to realise he was teetering up an eggshell of snow about a foot thick in places, with an airy cave behind. The only way to climb this snow was by aiding directly off a snow picket. I’m not a big fan of snow pickets as they’re a faff to climb with and more often than not you don’t even place them. Due to this and the extremely mixed nature of the line, we made the retrospectively poor decision to only take one on the route with us. After deeming it just too dangerous to climb, repeatedly aiding off the same picket with no decent gear until my belay Jon slowly reversed the pitch all the way down to me, tensioning off the picket then stabbing it in lower down quickly. He felt that he just could not afford to fall anywhere on the pitch, and that it was quite likely that he was going to! Also, the mushroom/plug above him was going to have to be passed, which on either side meant somehow spanning off it. I once had one a 20th of the size fall on me mid-move on a route in the alps, and that was from merely brushing it with my axe, this one must have weighed several tonnes and was probably going to need to be partially tunnelled through!!.
Once at my belay Jon traversed out right from where he could get a good look up the next 7-800 meters of our route. He brought me across and the sight of the ground above was the most motivating thing I’ve ever seen. The gully was stepped with long vertical sections, chockstone-trickery, leaning ramps and amazing rock until it leaned out of sight, - it was by far the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. After so much time had been spent trying this pitch, the sun had by now come directly in to the lower part of the couloir and stuff from the right flank of the groove system was starting to fall (we had planned to be above this point by then). It was one of those mutually agreed moments, we both knew we had to bail fast. But we also both knew that we’d be back, with one more snow picket and a huge rack so we could aid round the plug if needed.
Once again we played the waiting game. A forecast we got from NOAA at one point said high pressure for a whole week! We probably saw an afternoon of blue sky in this time. However, eventually we managed to get in to position with a day of good weather to give the line another shot. So once again we found ourselves at the foot of the snow mushroom pitch, this time with a second picket and a Jon that wanted revenge. He felt sure that with a second picket he could make it through the top mushroom, even if it was still inadequately protected. About 2 metres past his previous highpoint things went wrong. I heard a scream and looked up to see Jon hurtling through the air sideways, I watched and felt gear rip one piece after another. My heart was in my mouth at the thought of him coming on to the belay, as although there was one good nut, the blocks between which my wires were were definitely only frozen in place. He thumped heavily on to his back against the less steep part of the gully beneath the mushroom and was held by a screw and screamer. He hit the gully so hard that even though he fell probably 20 metres/60-70 feet, (he’s being modest when he says 50feet!!) not a single stitch of the screamer split.
After lying still for a minute or two to make sure his back was ok, Jon untangled himself from the slings, wires, rope, and axes in which he was entwined and returned to my belay. Although he’d obviously hurt his lower back a fair amount (giving him real problems a month later and he now prefers a hard floor to a mattress!) we thought we may as well try to aid up a splitter crack to our right. I took the lead and rock climbed with no gloves for a few metres, until I lost all feeling, when I dry tooled a few moves then sat on some gear to look at the next section over the lip. Unfortunately there was no next section! The wall was completely blank. By this point we were getting quite fucked off, the next few hundred metres looked so amazing and so doable! As the sun once again came round, some stuff started to fall from the right flank and sounded like bombs landing around us. It was time to go. Without needing to say much to each other, we set up an anchor and headed down.
We were gutted, but at the same time pleased that the decision had been made for us. Jon’s back was to cause him trouble throughout the rest of the trip. At first we thought we might try it one more time with some kind of ski pole anchor buried in the back of the cave, but the weather decided that for us. When we thought we’d had our snow quota for the month, once again it snowed for pretty much a week solid.
Paul Roderick flew us over to Denali base camp on the Kahiltna glacier in a brief weather window. We wanted to climb the Moonflower Buttress of Mount Hunter. The Moonflower is perhaps the definitive big mixed test piece of the world, even though it received its first ascent (over many days and with a fair bit of aid) in 1983. Although it can’t compete with routes on the south face of Denali for sheer size, it is one of the more sustained technical routes in Alaska and is usually climbed in two or three days. We really wanted to single push the route, which we knew would mean climbing for well over thirty hours and would mean less chance of actually finishing to the summit (the majority of the ascents this route has received have only been to the top of the difficulties, and there have been very few single push ascents, Marko Prezelj in 2002 being the first). However single pushing is what really interests me, and with 24 hour daylight, God made Alaska for single-pushing.
We were really worried about our fitness after so much inactivity. When in Chamonix, me and Jon pretty much climb every single day, big faces, ice cragging, dry tooling, ski touring the whole time, and even on bad weather days we try to do 800 to 1000 metres of height gain on skis. Over the last month we’d climbed for two days, and hadn’t been pumped for over 5 weeks. To try and gauge our current fitness we did some beasting on mountains around the Kahiltna glacier. Firstly the east ridge of Mount Francis, which we managed in a couple of hours from its base, and then Kahiltna Queen’s south west face, which is a bit like climbing the Couturier on the Aguille Verte, (to the summit ridge due to spooky snow).
A few days later, we decided we’d had enough of listening to weather forecasts, and even though it was forecasted to snow sometime in the next 24 hours we got on the moonflower. Its hard to explain just how amazing the climbing is on this route. Sustained and on your arms pretty much the whole way, pitch after pitch of dream-like mixed climbing. We were going super light. No sleeping bags, apart from our climbing kit just a duvet jacket a jet boil and a very very small bothy bag we could get our upper bodies in to. We made fast progress, over the “prow”, which is the technical crux of the route in four and a half hours. Continuing at a similar speed we negotiated tamara’s traverse and the Mcnerthey dagger without any problem and up on to the first icefield. The icefield is about 150 metres long and at its top the hard climbing resumes. Two pitches, the second being quite tricky, are climbed underneath the “Mascioli Mushroom”. This snow mushroom is huge, we’re talking largish caravan sized, and a few years ago part of it fell off killing Steve Mascioli who was belaying his partner. Just as I was leading the first of the two pitches the sun came on to the mushroom, providing me with ample motivation to get up the harder pitch and out of the way!! This leads to “The Shaft” which is the other crux of the route, consisting of 3 sustained ice pitches. All three are vertical for all but a few body lengths, which are overhanging. The first pitch wasn’t properly formed and I was forced to aid up the left wall then bairhandedly mantle a chockstone, my biceps were both cramping badly at this point, and after a gum drying rock move I looked down to see blood over the rock and ice, my hands were quite shredded but I couldn’t feel them so hadn’t realised. The last pitch is overhanging for the longest and on this one my arms gave up. In all it felt like climbing three WI6’s after each other, but I don’t think it can have been as WI6 can be fucking hard. But I certainly climbed 6’s this winter which were easier than that last pitch. I guess it all comes down to the style. If you climb it the normal way, you reach these pitches relatively fresh after the bivi on the first icefield, but single pushing you’re already about 19 pitches up and in our case 14 hours down the line. Above the shaft we agreed to stop for a couple hours or more. When climbing in this style you have to stop to melt snow, if you’re to achieve anything like 7 litres every 24 hours, which in theory is the minimum intake. After deciding against a slight scoop in the snow to our right due to the snow mushroom above it, we dug out a ledge a foot wide above and left. (about an hour later we were startled by a large bang and said snow mushroom collapsed and obliterated where we would have been sleeping.....) Perching on this ledge we melted snow and ate some much needed food. It was about mid minus 20’s so with no sleeping bag we were pleased for our foot warmers in our boots, however I still got very worried about my toes- the feeling didn’t return properly for a few days afterwards. When we sensed we’d been there long enough, it was mutually agreed that we had to make a decision as to keep on or head down. Although this break was planned, we both felt that the going down issue had to be broached. My toes were definitely an important factor for me, as well as the huge black clouds that were shrouding Denali- we couldn’t afford to sit out anything. We would also be lying not to say we were pretty spent, the month of inactivity had just destroyed our fitness, and for this we felt quite sorry. After a calculative discussion, we decided on down. It was weird, I’d wanted to climb this route more than any other ever since reading about it when I was 15, and in theory we’d been climbing great, 16 hours up to this point was a good time, past the hard climbing and both cruxes. Above us there were a handful of still interesting but apparently not too bad pitches before the long snow-plod to the summit. As so often in this type of climbing, it was the judgements that were dictating success or failure.
We rapped the face in 21 long abseils and some down climbing/traversing. The bagels tasted good at basecamp.
We felt it was time to go home, things were hotting up and I wanted to feel the texture of the sandstone boulders at home under my finger tips. We spent a further few days in Alaska, due to a complication with our flights. This was actually quite nice, as we saw other bits of Alaska, caught fish and I got charged at by a moose!
Now I’m at my parent’s home in St.Bees in west Cumbria, its a sunny evening and I’m about to go bouldering.
For lots of sexy photos go to http://www.alpineexposures.com/blogs/chamonix-conditions