Thursday, June 26, 2014

Peak 11,300 ... What's in a name?

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

- Romeo and Juliet Act II. Scene II

The Southwest Ridge of Peak 11,300' (V, 5.8, 60°), leaving the Ruth Glacier on the lower left and rising to the summit mid frame.  One observation to make is of the incredible fore-shortening that takes place from this vantage.  The Ruth Glacier sits at about 7000' MSL, and the snow-capped summit is well, you guessed it, 11,300'.  4,300' in vertical gain, but the ridge-line itself is visually piled up in front of you.  This just means that what looks so close, is actually quite some distance away.  

It is amazing how close the Central Alaska Range is in point of time to climbers in the States.  Leaving my home in Colorado on the evening of Wednesday May 14th, I found myself standing on the remote West Fork of the Ruth Glacier by 1:30 pm on Thursday the 15th, 3300 miles by road!  Thank you Orville and Wilbur!

I'll just take a moment to preface this trip report/blog with a disclaimor/spoiler alert...because there were four of us on this climb and we all had cameras (though Billy sacrificed his go-pro to the mountain god), we left with an enormous volume of pictures.  Essentially, we have shots of every crux and every major feature on the route.  I have put this blog together so that one could get a fluid feel for climbing this peak.  If you are reading this in preparation for your own climb of peak 11,300, and want to keep the adventure level higher, you might want to delay viewing until returning home from your own adventure on the mountain.  Here is our story, such as it is...

Mt. McKinley A-2 topographic map showing the approximate location of the West Fork Airstrip/Base Camp.  - from Joseph Puryear's Alaska Climbing

Great flying weather and seamless transportation changes gave the 2014 'Steve Martin and their Bill Amigos' expedition a quick jump on the adventure.  Our team included myself, Martin leRoux, Bill McConachie and Billy Clapp.  We would be climbing the peak as two seperate rope teams of two, lodging together at our bivies.  If one is lucky enough to have the weather to fly to this airstrip, very little glacier travel is required.

TAT's de Haviland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, with pilot Trent giving Billy and I a lay of the land.  The enormous Reality Peak ridgeline forms an intimidating back-drop.  - photo curtesy of Martin leRoux

As Trent pulled the Beaver back into the air headed Southeast, we were left alone with our pile of gear on the isolated West Fork of the Ruth.  We quickly located an abandoned site and began the gear transfer to what would be our base camp for our time on the Ruth.

Our base camp, perhaps thirty minutes travel at most to the base of the route.  - photo curtesy of Martin leRoux

After we had moved into our nests and had some dinner, we had a short ski to reconnoiter the route.

Martin and I spotting ascent lines for the start of Peak 11,300.  I think Billy has fallen under the spell of the massive Northeast face of Mt. Huntington.  We are planning for a relaxed 2-3 day ascent.  - photo curtesy of Bill McConachie

All of us feeling the majesty of this inspiring gorge as we head back to camp.  As the terrain begins to slope down, a large crevasse field opens in front of us.  - photo curtesy of Bill McConachie

After a decent night's sleep and gear sort we rope up once again for the approach, this time on crampons but loaded for  bear!  - photo curtesy of Bill McConachie

At the base of the route we split into our rope teams and start up the easy initial 55° snow slopes.  Though this route is named as a ridge climb, the actual line often wanders over varying terrain on either side of the ridge.  There are certainly many variations that could be taken, but not all lines taken will end in success.  It is possible to cliff out or get lost among the miriad of rock features.  Cornices are also a major objective danger if one finds themselves too far off route.  You can compare our line of ascent with the major landmarks displayed in Joseph Puryear's guidebook.  I must note that this blog is NO surrogate for the Puryear route description.  Get Joe's book, it may become your most referenced climbing book ever!

Looking back at Martin soloing the initial snow slope.  - photo curtesy of Bill McConachie

A fantastic photo, showing Billy, Bill, and me out front.  I will soon be approaching the first crux, a 5.8 mixed right leaning gully.   - curtesy of Martin leRoux 
This has been a very low snow year for the Central Alaska Range.  Routes that we found quite fat the previous year like, 'Ham and Eggs' and 'Shaken-not-Stirred' were not completely formed up this year.  The ridgeline in the photo above often has far more snow than we experienced.  I'm not sure how this affected the overall difficulty of the climb, but it certainly exposed alot more loose rock and raised the objective dangers.

Moving up the first crux, a 5.8 mixed (dry) right leaning gully, my 'photo-genic' black atire with white pack can be seen.  -  photo curtesy of Bill McConachie
A short snow arete follows the previous rock gully.  At the top of the snow begins the Flake Gully, a steep rock pitch at about 5.7 difficulty (dry).  I can be seen in the crux of the groove with Martin's yellow jacket just barely in view below. - photo curtesy of Billy Clapp
Billy leading up the steep Flake Gully. - photo curtesy of Martin leRoux
Atop the next short 5.6 step (mostly dry condition) looking for the Thin Man's Squeeze.  A traverse up and to the left was required to reach this point. - photo curtesy of Bill McConachie
Bill leading through the Thin Man's Squeeze, finally some ice.  It should be noted that a fair amount of terrain was covered between the 5.6 step and reaching the 'Squeeze'.  - curtesy of Martin leRoux

This steep corner was M4/5 and my favorite.  Protected very well with a crack right at the crux.  Just a short ways to the First Col (8900') from here. - photo curtesy of Bill McConachie

Another view of this corner, looking down after the crux.  This one taken by Billy after he lead the corner with Martin belaying. - curtesy of Billy Clapp

I've almost climbed out of the First Col (behind me and lower) and am heading for the snow arete above.  This was a great 55° snow/ice face that took ice screws well.  Also great protection in rocks nearby.  - photo curtesy of Bill McConachie

Bill took this great shot of me belaying him on the upper part of the snow arete.  He is headed for the S-Couloir.  A nice view of the First Col far below us. - photo curtesy of Bill McConachie
I took this short video showing a 360° view from this belay <click to view> while belaying Bill up to this stance.  It provides a nice perspective to where the Gray Rock sits in relation to the First Col.

Bill snapped this photo next showing the beginning of the S-Couloir and our target, the obvious Gray Rock, where we are planning to bivy. - curtesy of Bill McConachie

A classic bivy shot below the Gray Rock.  So glad Bill was able to capture the exposure of this tent site.  It was 12+ hours of climbing to reach this point.  Although you can't see from this picture, the Gray Rock itself provides a good natural shelter and overhangs the tents.  - curtesy of Bill McConachie

A fantastic silhouette shot of Martin at the bivy. - curtesy of Billy Clapp

A short rappel to the snow and I'm off climbing early morning by 3:30am on day two. - curtesy of Billy Clapp

This was a very interesting corner.  It is not given much description in the guidebook, but it was definitely in the M4/M5 range.  The feature behind Martin in this photo is called the Thumb.  The snice above him is somewhat delaminated and pretty thin requiring a couple spicey moves to surmount.  I lead the section with Bill and Billy lead with Martin.  - curtesy of Billy Clapp 

I took this shot from a higher snow arete looking back at the 80' horizontal traverse (past the Thumb) and leading to the 80' rappel into the 2nd Col (10000').  Martin is approaching the rappel anchor.  No shots of the 2nd Col itself, but it should be mentioned that it is pretty small and HEAVILY corniced!

I wanted Bill to take a picture of the 5.8 crux mantle out of The Slot.  This feature is just above the 2nd Col and at the time had a fixed piece of gear.  It was a little awkward with a large pack and took a minute to figure out. - curtesy of Bill McConachie 

This was a great simul pitch up to the crest and along a snow arete with cornices.  The arete was not very wide and had quite a bit of exposure on both sides.  I am approaching a rock buttress with some old webbing that allows you to rappel 40' down and to the right, depositing you below a rock gulley.  - curtesy of Bill McConachie

I took this shot looking back at Bill as he approaches the knife edge arete.  Scary cornices to the right!

I think this shot of Billy is also in the neighborhood of the knife edge arete, but regardless was such a great picture I had to include it!  Huntington to the left of course. - curtesy of Martin leRoux

Here is an example of how loose the rock was with no snow cover.  This is the upper part of the gully (after rapping down 40' and climbing 80' out of the lower gully).  Lots of scary loose rock, step carefully!  The next rock section was much better and is simply called the 5.8 rock gully.

And here it is, the 5.8 rock gully!  Actually one of the funnest rock pitches on the route.  Take the right exit. - curtesy of Bill McConachie.

The rock climbing is now over.  It is all snow and ice from here to the summit above.  Bill in the middle of the shot can be seen moving towards the 'big boulder on crest'.  He traversed right around this feature and up a slot. 

Our fantastic weather is finally ending as Bill moves up the slot.  After the slot it was 55-60° snow/ice to the summit, a real calf burner.
60° isn't that steep, but just at the angle that is sometimes hard to side-step.  Like I said, a real calf burner on relatively solid ice.  This shows part of summit headwall.

Martin has been going for 15+ hours and after leading the final headwall, his expression says it all.  Finally on the summit!

The tents are up on a great summit bivy.  It snowed for a couple hours but the wind was light and the skies started clearing somewhat.

We were all obviously tired after a long 2nd day of climbing.  But with weather moving in, we got another early start to our blind descent.

The beginning of what becomes the South Ridge descent.  Heavily corniced.

The morning of the 3rd day.  We are trying to make out the descent line in the poor visibility. - curtesy of Bill McConachie

The first steps down the long descent. - curtesy of Bill McConachie
Under the right conditions, this can be a quick 'plungestep' descent.  Unfortunately we found thin snow over ice, which required a little more precision.  The steep slope combined with the poor visibility kept our attention. - curtesy of Bill McConachie 

Slowly making our way through unkown terrain features. - curtesy of Bill McConachie

Yikes, I hope that thing doesn't fall!  - curtesy of Bill McConachie
We had to work ourselves from obstacle to obstacle as the visibility would occaisionally drop to less than 200'.
Feeling pretty small on this huge face. - curtesy of Bill McConachie

Bill doing an awkward rappel/traverse along what we think is the East snow ridge.  Bill was in great form today, excavating the rotten snow/ice and finding decent ice underneath for V-threads.  He would often dissappear from view when the visibility dropped.  This process was repeated many times as we made our way across the ridge.

In the right conditions I think we could have easily finished the descent as planned on this, day 3 of the climb.  However, visibility and snow conditions slowed our speed to a crawl.  It took us an entire day to get to our 10,200' unplanned Southeast Ridge bivy.  Looking back at the descent, it was enlightening to see what we had actually traversed.  Definitely not straightforward, even in good visibility.

We woke to great weather on the 4th day.  This picture was taken from our excellent Southeast Ridge bivy site.

A close-up shot of the obstacles we had threaded on the previous day.  Great route-finding Bill, although I don't think he really had a clue what we were moving through as he couldn't see it either!

Our final comfortable bivy.  Only a couple hundred calories for the day ahead as we were pretty much out of food.  Enough fuel to get 2 liters of water and we were off. - curtesy of Bill McConachie 

Here I am starting down the South Ridge proper. - curtesy of Martin leRoux

The rest of the gang joining in. - curtesy of Bill McConachie

Union break!  Turf sticking out of my crampon, I am starting to feel the affects of 4 long days. - curtesy of Bill McConachie

We lost count, but somewhere around 15 rappels down the South rock ridge.  Anchors were either fixed or easy to create.  It is worth noting that it is easy to get suckered to the left as you rappel, but staying on the ridge gets you to where you want to be.  The last couple raps are fairly vertical as you are deposited on the upper snow field.  From here you can descend the snow couloir to the southeast, or take the direct line straight west down the glacier.  The hanging glacier above does create some serious risk, but I'd guess most parties end up going this way.  We had disscussed taking the couloir, but that would have added distance and unkown terrain onto the day, and we were knackered.  We chose to accept the short window of risk and take the direct option.

Bill made the final rappel onto the snowfield below the South Ridge.  However the challenges were not over.  In the heat of the day, the bergschrund was a challenge to get across.  In the upper left corner of the photo sits the hanging glacier we will soon have to walk underneath. - curtesy Bill McConachie

Bill searched along the bergschrund for a weakness and tried a snow bridge that collapsed under his weight.  He eventually found a spot to jump across while on belay from behind.  The rest of us were luckier, we jumped over at the same spot but with the anchor above had belays from both sides!  Here is a short video of Martin making the jump <click to view> taken by Bill, narrated by me (my voice almost gone).

The serac debris marks the 'safe route' around the hanging glacier.  Some of the blocks you see are 4-5 feet in diameter. Below the debris is a sharp dropoff and this leads to the final crevasse field.  You can see the four abandoned campsites (one of which is ours) just past.  We were still the only folks in the area.  It is about a mile to camp at this point. - curtesy of Bill McConachie

I had pretty much hit the wall here.  Wet wool-blend socks had burned my feet, and 200 calories just wasn't doing it for me.  My acid-reflux had scorched my throat and I had just about lost my voice (sound of tiney violin).  But still having a great time! - curtesy of Bill McConachie
Excellent view of what we had descended the previous day.  The exposure below the hanging glacier only lasted about 30 minutes.

When I reached camp after the descent and had stopped moving, I immediately began shivering, though it really wasn't that cold outside.  The lack of calories and fatigue on this 4th day had pushed me into mild hypothermia.  No big deal as long as you deal with it.  I jumped in the tent and crawled under my sleeping back.  Some food and warm liquids and I was soon recovered.  Thanks to Bill for pulling my boots and crampons!

'Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends', 'I get high (as in altitude) with a little help from my friends' (Lennon/McCartney).  Waiting for the pick-up, we are basking in a new day, Peak 11,300 a memory.  I am sporting the vintage 1920's look. - curtesy of Martin leRoux

You often don't realize how much you have enjoyed something until you have processed the experience later.  I have found this to be quite accurate, especially where a certain level of suffering is involved.  Cataloging these photos did it for me.  Hope you enjoyed it as much as us.

We left alive and without serious injury, we left as friends, and we reached our objective...Thanks for sharing a great climb with me guys! - curtesy of Bill McConachie

Went bumped over to the Kahiltna and climbed the East Ridge of Frances and split up for part of the southeast ridge of Frances and the mini-moonflower over the next few days.  On one of our last days we had strapped on our skis and started out of camp for the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter, hoping to climb to the Prow.  Unfortunately the weather had socked us in and visibility dropped down to less than 20 feet at times!  

A poor day of weather was followed by a small window of flyable weather.  We jumped at the opportunity and were on our way back to Talkeetna early the next day.  The weather here can be fickle, as we learned later that the glacier was socked in for the next week!