2017 April Fools

Carly admiring the views.
Carly admiring the views.

April 1-2, 2017

Just a quick post to share some images from a recent ski/climbing trip to the desert.  Yup, the desert for climbing and skiing.  Outside Moab, UT are the La Sal Mountains, with many peaks topping 12,000′ they are even higher than the Wasatch outside our front door.  We gambled on the weather and got some fresh snow in the La Sals and enjoyed ourselves exploring a new area.  That day after skiing we camped in Moab and enjoyed a desert sunset.  Awesome place this UT.  

Best Photos of 2015

I’m not going to spend time waxing poetic on 2015 and all the enjoyable times, places, and people that I’ve experienced in 2015, even though I had all of those.  New Year’s resolutions are typically not my thing, but I will try one in 2016–more time outdoors and less doing everything else.

Here’s ten of my favorite shots from 2015.

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In January Carly, Eric, Matt, and I went up to the North Ridge of the Pfeifferhorn. Unfortunately the splitter conditions seen in this photo didn’t persist and we ended up bailing, though unnecessarily. This mountain still has an amazing look to it in winter and summer.
Fighting to see through the sprindrift.
Carly fighting through the endless spindrift on the Ribbon (WI4) in Ouray, CO. We were suckered into this climb on a bluebird and warm day in February. We didn’t pack super warm stuff and Carly didn’t have sunglasses. It turned out despite the mild conditions on the other side of the canyon we were in for a true alpine day.
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The early May weather in Salt Lake wasn’t looking great so Carly and I took the opportunity to be Utah National Park tourists and visit Bryce Canyon NP. We were lucky to get some snow overnight making for amazing vistas the next morning.
The distant mountains had more snow all day.
Another shot from Bryce. The distant mountains got hammered by snow squalls the entire day making for very stark contrast in the desert landscape.
Great sunset over the valley.
Another visit to the Pfeifferhorn. The heat in the valley drove Carly, Matt, and I up to the mountains for some cooler air. The fires west of the city created particulates in the air that made for a really pretty sunset. We just barely were able to catch this view as we were on the east side of a small ridge and desperately hiked our way up to catch the last rays of the sun.
Finishing up the Golden Staircase pitch on the Upper Exum.
Carly’s first foray into the high alpine. We did a three day trip up the Gran Teton in August in really hot conditions. There were no altitude problems and we had a great time. I’m looking forward to doing another route with her next summer.
The Friction Pitch yields some unprotected but fairly easy climbing for a little way up a rounded arrete.
A month later I was back on the Grand, but this time with Patrick and Matt (pictured). This time we blitzed it and did a sub-12 hour Upper Exum Ridge climb. Patrick lead the whole way as it was his first time on the peak.
On the ride home from a great weekend in the City of Rocks we had one of the best sunsets I've seen in a long time.
A late October trip to the City of Rocks with Carly had some good climbing, including her leading all of Theater of Shadows (5.7) on Steinfell’s Dome. It was a great time seeing her lead. On the way home we had one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen.
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Thanksgiving brought us to Indian Creek with Matt and Patrick. Here Patrick is battling it out on a long, sandbagged, steep #4’s crack in Donnelly Canyon. Despite the sun it was windy and cold. Ultimately we left the day after Thanksgiving to escape the snow in the desert and to do some skiing. Ah the benefits of living in Salt Lake City.
We conicidentally got to the base of the climb a few minutes before the sun poked around the ridge and we were basked in warmth for about an hour or two.
Despite getting a really good capture with my Canon G10, I was really missing the quality of my 50D on this day. Doug, Matt, Matt, and I headed up to Killer Pillar (WI5) on a splitter day during the Bozeman Ice Festival. A few minutes after getting there the sun poked up over the ridge. The glow created some awesome light when Doug lead the difficult pillar. One of my most memorable shots I’ve taken in a long time.

Zion National Park

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September 28-29, 2013

I guess I never posted these pictures.  Things must have gotten busy and forgot to.

Aaron and I headed to Zion for some climbing but the trip turned out quite differently that we expected.  We needed to get more proficient in aiding before attempting our objective.  Instead we just enjoyed one of the best National Parks out there for its scenery.

Dirtbag Visit to Utah

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Catching some speed to roll through the next bit.

October 26 & 27, 2013

Drew and Carly came to visit me in Utah and enjoy their recent entrance to the dirtbag lifestyle.  While they aren’t travelling the country for climbing destinations as I would be in their place, they are out travelling, living, hiking, biking, and just enjoying life.

I found a good BLM campground about 10 miles from Moab and gave them the info to meet me there.  It turned out to be a little difficult to find especially at midnight like when they rolled in.  The campground is the last one on the 10 mile dirt road.  While there’s nothing too tricky to cross there are two stream crossings which I wasn’t sure Drew would be able to get through because of his trailer.  Everything turned out fine and they finally made it to my site around 1am.

Saturday we headed, late, into town to figure out some mtn biking, which Moab has plenty of.  Moab could be compared to Yosemite as far as their respective sport meccas go.  We found a decent trail with the help of a bike shop and had a fun ride.  Well mostly, Carly had some technical difficulties and she wasn’t able to experience a bunch of the trail.  Next time right!

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Rolling terrain on the return stretch of trail.

This was my first time actually mtn biking in a long time, probably since high school.  Bikes have changed a lot since then and they are quite fun and comfortable.  I was able to borrow my buddy Matt’s and it was plush.  I was able to roll through stuff and at speeds I would never have thought possible back when I was on my red GT hardtail.

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Strange lanscape mixes.

Sunday we enjoyed a little bit of climbing and normal tourist sightseeing in Arches National Park.  As usual the desert landscape didn’t disappoint.  It wasn’t hard to understand why it is a National Park.  Delicate Arch is well worth the hike out, despite the large numbers of people.  Truly a Martian landscape!

Hope you guys can come back soon.

Mtn Biking

Arches National Park

Indian Creek with a Big Crew

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From thin crack to face with a slight rest in between.

October 19 & 20, 2013

A couple weeks ago I headed back to the desert for some time in Indian Creek.  The Creek never disappoints: splitters–check, lots of them–check, great weather–check, good friends–check, demoralizing smackdown when trying to lead routes–check.

Luckily in our crew which totaled seven for climbing, and eleven at our camp at Superbowl, we had a not so secret weapon named Alex Baker.  Alex is 5 foot 6 inches and 120 lbs of crusher and was our rope gun for the weekend.  He was also able to slay two of his projects, Less than Zero (5.12+) and Burl Dog (5.12+).  Coppi and Pat were also stepping it up and putting up some hard lines too.  On Sunday my attempt at leading was ill placed and ended up French freeing up just to get it over with.  I’ve still yet to get a route clean on lead in the Creek that I’m proud of.  I think I’ve only lead 1-2 actual climbs down there successfully.

One route I’ll be interested in getting back to is Pente (5.11-) on Reservoir Wall.  This amazing route stretches for 150+ and needs two ropes to get down.  However it can be split into three routes.  The first section is steep, the steepest of the whole route through a 15 foot #1 crack into a big detached block that affords a generous no hands rest as Kim shows.

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Milking that rest at the base of the long #1-#2 splitter.

The next part of the route is the money business.  It is a perfect splitter for 80 ft of wide #1 to #2s.  At the top of that there is another awesome no hands rest.  This is really where you need to get it all back.  The rest of the route is annoying #1 and #.75 in a left facing corner in mostly less than vertical terrain.  The crux of the upper section is where it gets a bit steeper which of course is near the chains.  Best route in Creek I’ve climbed thus far and I’ll have to try and lead it when I’m at this wall again.

Castle Valley and Jah Man

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Jon starting up the second pitch. You can see the squeeze chimney below.

October 12, 2013

With the daytime temps dipping into the 60s and the leaves turning bright yellow it is time to start visiting the desert.  Places like City of Rocks are getting a little chilly if you aren’t in the sun, but the Utah desert is just starting to get comfortable.  Jon and I decided to take advantage of this by going after a desert tower last Saturday.  The common objective is Castleton Tower, a 400 ft sandstone tower, but there are other worthy objectives in the vicinity, namely Sister Superior.  This tower is north along the same ridgeline as Castleton Tower.  There are a number of routes on it but the one that everyone goes for is Jah Man (5.10+).  The route goes a little more than 3 pitches up primarily on thin hand cracks (#1 Camalots).

We camped near the entrance road on Friday night and had the place to ourselves.  There is a dirt road, or more accurately there was a dirt road that would bring you fairly close to the base of the tower.  However on Friday night we saw that it wasn’t passable with my WRX so we decided to walk the 2 or so miles in the morning.  To avoid potential crowds we got an alpine start around 6am in the dark.  As we walked along the road it quickly turned from rough dirt road to total washout.  The road appeared and disappeared for the entire way.  In some spots the drop from the road to the wash was a couple feet.  Only a fully prepped Jeep would have a chance of getting back via the road.  Or a couple ATVs.

We had neither so we just walked, as we got to the turn off from the wash there were some obvious cairns leading us left to the tower.  From afar Sister Superior doesn’t look all that impressive.  It is bookended by the Rectory and the Covenent which are two tiny mesa outcroppings.  Their bulk and Castleton’s isolation make Sister Superior seem like a tiny objective.  However it is mainly an optical illusion and the illusion goes away as you get closer.

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Amazingly beautiful desert scenery at sunrise.

Patchy clouds which had dropped rain a day or two prior still dotted the sky giving great lighting and depth for the sunrise.  We reached the tower after puffing up 1000′ of rubble below the tower.  Once at the base of the route, and all alone, we decided to take our time getting ready to climb.  The sunrise and location we viewed it from was well worth the early wake up.

Finally we got our act together and Jon picked the odd pitches.  P1 is moderate but has a squeeze chimney to negotiate.  The start of the chimney was by far the hardest point.  The trick was just getting in there and let it swallow you.  Once you can worm your way up about 20′ the chimney starts to widen a bit and it allows more comfortable travel with small ledges and other features inside to use as hand and foot holds.  There’s even protection within in the form of cracks.  Quite fun after the initial bit.

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First pitch of Jah Man has a squeeze chimney that was tough to get into but easy and fun higher up.

P1 dumps you on top of a large detached flake.  The space behind the flake is the chimney you come up.  Pitch 2 is the business and that fell to me.  At first glance the tight hand crack is stunning, going up about 40 feet before shooting left under an overhang.  I grabbed the copious amount of gear from Jon and made the first move and grabbed a broken block wedged in the crack.  My plan was to get on top of this block and place my first piece of protection from the stance it would afford.  As I grabbed it it rattled in place.  Probably not enough to come out but it was enough to go back down one move to the belay ledge and place my first piece from the security of it.  Confident I wouldn’t fall onto the belay I went up again.

I don’t typically tape but I decided for this climb, being mostly tight hands, that I would.  It helped a bit on this pitch.  I proceeded upward with the normal amount of pain and insecurity a crack of this size usually gives me.  I placed 2-3 pieces of pro along the way.  Getting to the overhang I reached out left and clipped the bolt, which is at the crux.  I’m not sure why the bolt is there but I wasn’t questioning since I was getting super pumped.  I moved a little more left after the clip and my strength failed and hung on the bolt.  I tried working the tricky sequence traversing under the overhang on thin hands and rattly fingers.  I made a couple of attempts and hangs before I found the sequence and hand holds.  Once passed that point it wasn’t a gimme getting around the end of the overhang and up on the 5.8+ ramp.  Once I finally did it wasn’t too bad getting to the next belay ledge.  Jon was able to get through the crux a little easier than I did but still had to hang a couple times.

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Tight hands on and on.

Jon’s pitch was also a money one.  This probably clocks in at 5.10 or .10+ as well in a similarly sized crack.  The differences is there’s no traverse under an overhang.  Jon did a great job leading it and was able to protect it well from the few stances it allowed.  Definitely a sweet pitch, perhaps a bit steeper than the one I did too.

At the top of P3 I racked up for the 5.9+ face climbing that lay ahead just before the summit.  From our vantage point and the book’s info it was unknown if there were just bolts or natural protection as well.  I scrambled on top of a block to the right and got hit with a nice dose of exposure.  At this point the tower was tapering out and this move right put me on the arete of the thing giving me a greater than 180 degree view of the valley below.  I reached up and clipped an old 1/4″ bolt and made a delicate boulder move on top of a small ledge.  From here another reach clipped a solid looking drilled piton.  This move proved to be a bit harder and was a definite boulder move to get up a little higher.  Turns out after making that move you are essentially on the top–only 30 ft from the belay.  Guess I didn’t need to take all that gear after all.

We lounged on the summit which is about 8-10 feet wide at it’s widest and about 20 feet long.  The sun, warm breeze, and 360 degree views were awesome.  We ate lunch and waited for the French couple who’d showed up behind us to arrive so we could combine ropes for the way down.

While we’d been on route there were five other parties that showed up so rapping down was a little bit of a pain since the belay ledges aren’t all that big.  Eventually we got back to our packs and walked out.  Jean-Jacques and Martine were super friendly and had been climbing in the States many times before.  They had wanted to climb in Zion but the government closure nonsense kept them away.

We chatted the afternoon away back at the car with them and a couple of girls from Bozeman, MT who were serious crushers.  They could out climb me and Jon on their worst day.  Over beers Martine and Jean-Jacques told us some of their stories from their many years of climbing.  They have been to Denali, Yosemite, Pakistan, Morroco, Madagascar, Himalaya–seriously well traveled climbers.  Martine is also the first woman to have been certified as a guide in Europe!  After a few beers, some of which were mixed with Sprite for Martine and Jean-Jacque, we parted ways but it was nice to make some new friends.  Hopefully I’ll see them again sometime soon.

Cirque of the Towers and the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head

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On the approach up the Grassy Ledges approach.

August 30-September 2, 2013

Over the long weekend Matt, Jamie and myself visited the Wind River Range for some alpine rock climbing.  Our objective in the Cirque of the Towers was the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (12,165′).  The route is one of the 50 Classic Climbs in North America.  While it is only 5.6 is difficulty it is one of the headiest, most exposed climbs of any grade, anywhere.

Matt, Jamie and I headed out after work on Friday and toward the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  The drive is only around 5 hours but the last hour at least is on dirt roads.  Some of them are good and as you approach the trailhead they get a little bit worse.  Still very passable by normal cars but just a little bumpy.  About 10 miles from the trailhead we decided to stop to sleep for the night.  The National Forest land out where is so much better than back East since you can just park and camp without any trouble.

As we arrived at the trailhead we were astounded by the number of cars which were parked–there must have been 150 cars in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.  It was Labor Day weekend so we shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Heading in on the 8 mile approach we made good time.  This was due in part to the minimal elevation gain or loss.  While our eventual camp would be around 10,300′ the trailhead starts around 9,000′.  The main elevation came in the last 2 miles.  The landscape along the way changed from forest and plains with lakes and rivers to high alpine lakes and tundra.  As we topped out the Continental Divide and dropped into the East side, we were welcomed with a great view of the Cirque of the Towers.  Pingora (11,884′), towers over Lonesome Lake and a beautiful alpine scene.

However, very quickly this idyllic scene was tarnished by the number of people we saw.  Cirque of the Towers has no permitting system or what even seemed to be enforcement of basic rules of alpine environments.  We saw lots of tents, some less than 200 feet from water courses.  There were perhaps 50 tents, luckily not all in the same spot, but there were few places you could look that didn’t has someone stating there.  Many of these visitors were probably not climbers, but some were.  The lake of knowledge or regard for Leave No Trace had prompted people to bring their dogs.  I saw at least 6-8 different dogs.  While I’m a big fan of dogs I think people are trending to bringing their pets into many places that should not have dogs.  Restaurants, retail stores, airplanes, and alpine environments.

There are a number of reasons why I don’t think dogs belong in the alpine.  Dogs do not understand Leave No Trace.  They run and defecate anywhere, including through or near water sources.  They are not natural inhabitants, not that humans are either, of this area.  Humans can avoid disturbing natural wildlife, like pikas, as little as possible.  Unless your dog is very well trained or on a leash, can you keep your pet from going after a pika.  While the dog probably won’t be able to catch one, it certainly keeps a pika from gathering food.  Dogs are pets, but they are not 24/7 companions, especially in a delicate environment where small amounts of damage take a long time to be repaired.

The other major problem that I saw were fires.  Fires are more egregious than dogs.  There are few trees and those that do exist are only 20 feet tall because of the short growing season.  Snow covers the ground for a long portion of the year.  Dead wood isn’t very available.  A fire, even a small one takes an extremely long time to be absorbed in the cold environment.  Especially when you build it on rocks.  We did see a Ranger, but it doesn’t appear that he could prevent people from making fires.  It is too bad that the Cirque doesn’t have similar permitting and enforcement rules to the Tetons.

Sunday we got up early to do our climb, we were on our way out of camp at 4:30am.  The early start was to make sure we could get on the climb first.  Because of the moderate difficulty and number of people in the area we figured that getting on the route first was prudent.  This turned out to be a good idea.  We had a little bit of route finding problems on the approach before the sun came up.  After we figured out our problem we waited at the start of the technical climbing until there was enough light to see.

Wolf’s Head’s East Ridge is a knife edge climb.  The first crux of the route is what is affectionately called the “sidewalk” a 1.5 ft wide, 30 ft long, 30 degree angled slab.  While the low angle doesn’t seem all that imposing and were it only 5 feet off the ground it wouldn’t pose much trouble for most climbers to just walk across it.  However the section is hundreds of feet off the deck and the valley sweeps away from the approach ledges down another thousand feet.  It is one of the most heady sections of climbing I’ve done.  There is some protection, a good cam at the start, a small horn that can be slung, and a good cam at the end.  Great climbing for sure.

Just after this pitch a party of two passed us by simul climbing by.  This didn’t pose much of an issue for us since they were moving much more quickly than our party of three.  Jamie led a few pitches of simul climbing until reaching the first of numerous knife edge climbing which found us hand/foot traversing on one side of the ridge or the other.  A soloist passed us as well.  While passing us he mentioned to Jamie that though he’s solo’ed the route many times he’s never been able to walk across the sidewalk, he’s always crawled.

We finally summited in mid afternoon.  The descent wasn’t too bad but there was a bit of route finding to contend with.  The main thing was to traverse all the way across the saddle between Wolf’s Head and Overhanging Tower.  15 hours after leaving the tent we arrived back and made some dinner.

The hike out Monday was uneventful with a few rain showers.  Our fun alpine climbing weekend was shattered on our ride out upon news of the death of one of our friends and co-workers.  There are many things I would like to write down on the matter, but I am not at a point to do that, nor do I possess the ability.

Fourth of July in the Sawtooth Mtns

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The backcountry camping below Elephant’s Perch is along three alpine lakes in the hanging valley.

July 3-7, 2013

As the Fourth of July fell on a Thursday, my work had an unpaid shutdown day on Friday since most people would be taking it off anyway.  I took advantage of this four-day weekend to travel for some climbing.  I had thrown around the idea of climbing at the Incredible Hulk in the Sierra’s of California with Matt and Eric.  However as the weekend go closer Eric dropped out and I really thought that it would be better to not drive close to 10 hours and do a substantial hike.  My friend Mark of Coffin Roof fame, suggested Elephant’s Perch in the Sawtooth Mtns of Idaho. He described long alpine routes and an idyllic setting of jagged peaks, aquamarine alpine lakes, and uncrowded climbing.  I had to look up the Perch as I’d never heard of it before; from the pictures it looked like Mark knew what he was talking about.

Wednesday night I headed up with my buddy Joe from Salt Lake on the 6 hour drive.  Joe has what some might consider a dream job.  He works remotely as a software engineer for a regular 9-5 type job.  But since he’s hooking in remotely he can travel the country and work from anywhere that has a decent internet signal.  This freedom allows him to chase the warm weather and climb year round while visiting friends.

We wound our way northward on largely empty roads into the southeast corner of Idaho.  Around dinner time we stopped in Twin Falls for some food and decided to eat at a middle eastern fast food joint.  The owner, Joe, waited on us and proudly joked that “if you don’t like the food, I’ll shut the place down.”  With an endorsement like that how could we go wrong?  After ordering Joe proceeded to talk our ears off through a thick Arab accent while we ate.  He traversed many topics from the difficulties of hiring reliable workers, cost of living in San Diego versus Twin Falls, legal issues with contractors, not suing people, his alarming disdain for blacks, him personally speaking with God (not Allah, he’s Christian), and finally leaving us with driving tips such as keeping a bucket of ice in the front seat and holding an ice cube to your forehead to remain alert.  We spent nearly an hour there and closed the place down.

Moving along we finally got of the interstate and headed on the side roads to Sun Valley and Ketchum, ID.  Desert turned to high desert and faintly as night descended we drove into the forests of the Sawtooths.  As we neared Stanley, our entrance location to the climbing, we pulled off a dark dirt road looking for a place to camp for 6-8 hours.  We found one and pulled into a good spot.  Opening the door my nose was filled with an overwhelming smell of pine and freshness.  While there are pine trees in Salt Lake, it is so dry that they don’t have much aroma. Here it was an amazingly welcome change.

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The approach to Elephant’s Perch can be cut from 8 miles into just three with a cheap boat ride across Red Fish Lake.

The next morning we headed, with some confusion to Red Fish Lodge to pick up a boat ride across the clear and deep Red Fish Lake.  This quick and cheap, $16 round-trip/person, ride cut 5 miles of hiking off our approach.  The ride got us some great views of the jagged granite peaks and spires.  Only one looks was needed to see why they’re call the Sawtooths.  As we de-boarded we headed out on the trail through the picnic area on that side of the lake.  Hiking deeper into the woods we were a little surprised at the terrain.  Based on the crude maps we had available to us (we hadn’t seen any at the trailhead) we should be on the right side of the river flowing from the mountains; however our trail put us on the left side.  Continuing to a small pond and waterfall we ran out of trail.  At this point we realized that we needed to walk the mile or so back to the picnic area as we must have made a wrong turn.  This was just one instance of getting off route on this trip.

Finally back at the picnic area we found the quite obvious main trail and map at the trailhead.  This trail wound through the woods, fields, and meadows on an easy trail.  All the while we got great views of the Grand Mogul, the peak at the end of the lake.  Snow still clung to the deeper couloirs and gullies.  It was quite obvious this might be an interesting winter objective.  None of the information I found on the area discussed pure ice routes but a number of moderate snow climbs are established in the area.  I might have to come up here this winter for some moderate climbing, but likely cold conditions.

We pulled left off the main trail at about two miles in.  Here we crossed the river via some logs spanning the flow.  While not very deep it would not have been a fun drop into the white water.   Across the river the trail became less obvious and much steeper and more rugged.  The trail lead us upward to the hanging valley the Saddleback Lakes are nestled in.  These lakes are three small lakes formed by the rocky terrain, past glaciation, and the snow melt coming from the mountains towering above them.  After a mile (and some debate as to the correct trail) we arrived at three aquamarine, clear, alpine lakes in perhaps one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited.  The sun shown through the thin pines and reflected off the clear water welcoming us to our home for the next few days.

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The lakes are amazingly clear and cold. That didn’t stop Joe from taking a dip after our hike.

Camping here is all primitive and backcountry.  No reservations, assigned campsites, toilets, trash bins, or crowds.  What it did include was solitude, without feeling completely alone as there were a few other parties around the area.  The other, somewhat unwelcome inclusions were aggressively fearless chipmunks looking to steal your food as soon as you turn your back and mosquitoes.  While I’ve never been overly affected by bugs I’m certainly not immune.  My saving graces are that I’m from New England and therefore understand what buggy really means, and that while I may get bitten I don’t puff up for days afterward.  I’m usually hesitant believe someone’s assessment of a place being buggy while I’ve lived here in Salt Lake.  After all there aren’t any bugs here so any little flying thing will be “horribly buggy” to someone from here.  This was my first assessment of our camp, however as night began to fall they really came out in force.  It was truly buggy, even for a New Englander.  Thankfully they were tiny mosquitoes and fairly sluggish at the 8275 ft altitude.

Our planned objectives were The Fine Line (5.11a) and Direct Beckey (5.11a).  These two routes ran up the massive Elephant’s Perch hovering over the lakes.  The huge orange granite bulk is an amazing piece of rock.  It has a much more robust character than many of the jagged spires around it.  Cracks, corners, and flakes spotted it’s surface all the way to the summit, out of view.  The Perch has few routes under 5.10.  From Mark’s description these two were some of the best lines on the formation.

Friday morning we headed across to the base of The Fine Line and arrived a little before 7am.  The cliff faces primarily south and west so it would be after lunch before we were in the sun; luckily it wasn’t very cold overnight.  The first pitch of the route is the crux.  Joe headed up and after getting about 30 feet off the ground he found the death flake that threatens the beginning of this 10 pitch route.  I’ve encountered hollow flakes and things that you didn’t want to grab for fear they’d fall off in your hands.  However this flake upped the game.  The dagger shaped flake, approximately 5-6 inches thick and three feet across at its top, was literally floating on the face.  No warnings are visible until you touch the flake.  It rocked with just the slightest touch.  An enticing .75 Camalot sized crack behind it is quickly erased from the option list for protection and handholds as it nearly swings in the breeze.  It is amazing this flake hasn’t fallen off or been trundled as of yet.  It is good for nothing except scaring the bejeezus out of climbers and their belayers.

Joe worked his way up to the flake and on seeing its condition decided to aid passed it using some ancient bolts probably installed back in the 1970’s.  After trying some more moves and then aiding passed Joe finally reached the belay and hour and twenty minutes after he started–a sign that our chances of getting to the top in a decent time were unlikely.  I followed up and similarly aided passed the flake.  Once at the crux I tried the moves a little and while I can do 5.11a moves, perhaps not clean, but can do them, I decided that this 5.11a was closer to 5.12 than anything–also not a good sign.

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Pitch 2, 100 ft of amazing finger crack in bomber granite. It was in the hard 5.10 range and I had to hang a couple times because of how sustained it was.

The next pitch, a long right facing corner of finger size crack was all mine.  While this pitch was great, I’m a fan of finger cracks, it was brutal.  There was only one really good rest.  After about 20 feet up the good feet on the right side disappeared into blank smearing on vertical granite.  The crack took excellent pro and it is a good thing since I probably placed 12-14 placements in the 110 ft pitch and hung 3-4 times.

Joe lead the third pitch which finished with a wide section with a hidden finger crack inside for protection.  By this time our clear morning had turned into a mostly cloudy early afternoon.  The fourth pitch involves a small traverse left and then back right along a flake.  As I headed up the pitch I headed towards some fixed anchors that seemed to make sense.  While on my way to them I had to negotiate a small overlapping flake with underclings changing into a tight finger crack.  I placed a .75 cam and shook out at the rest.  I saw that the next few moves would be difficult tight fingers and few feet.  As I headed up I reached high with my right foot and cranked upwards on small fingers for the next handhold.  All of a sudden I was falling.  My right foot had lost it’s purchase on the high tiny edge it was on.  I’ve never fallen on trad gear before anywhere, much less in the mountains.  Thankfully it was a clean fall on vertical stone and I wasn’t hurt at all–only my ego.

I got passed this section and clipped the fixed anchors and moved upwards along secure but detached flakes.  After getting to the pinnacle of these I saw that I was more or less stranded.  It was a 15-20 foot down climb to a crack to the right or a doubtful looking crack to the left.  I debated for a while and looked at the route topo and photo I’d taken the previous day.  Eventually after some discussion with Joe I went delicately back to the fixed anchor and lowered back to the belay.  Joe headed up and did basically the same thing.  At this point we’d been on this pitch forever, perhaps two hours.  The mostly cloudy day turned into all cloudy and dark ones at that.  Joe insisted that the path lay to the left and I disagreed.  Eventually the weather made our decision for us.  The rain we could see off in the distance started falling on blustery winds.  Joe came back down and we headed down.  Unfortunately there are few fixed anchors on the route and we had to leave some of our gear, luckily only nuts to do the three rappels to the ground.  Our spirits broken from getting our asses handed to us on “just 5.10” climbing we did the walk of shame back to camp.

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After moving slowly through the first three pitches, we ran into route finding problems and wasted a lot of time. During that time a rainstorm came through and we had to bail off the route.

The rain passed and the afternoon turned nice but we had no time nor energy to go back up the route that day.  We decided that Direct Becky would be a bad choice for us as it is more sustained and 2 more pitches in length than The Fine Line.  Therefore we decided we’d head back up and try to do the route again the next day.

The next morning we headed back.  Opting to swap pitch order I didn’t bother trying to free the first pitch and aided it all just to get it over with.  Joe did the same.  He headed into the second pitch and unexpectedly popped off and fell.  Again it was a steep route and clean fall so we continued.  I was a little worried about the third pitch and its wide section near the top.  I knew the protection was there but I was worried about being in a good stance to place it.  Luckily the pitch protects well below that section and I was able to lace it up and even got the hidden piece in the wide section.  Not my most elegant lead but I got it.

On the fourth pitch, our previous high point, our assessment of the route after we bailed from the ground paid off.  Joe headed directly right and bypassed the garbage I’d gone up the day before.  We were actually making decent time as well.  As Joe reached the top of this pitch he found the thin flake described in the route beta.  It is indeed a spectacular feature and a great lead by Joe.

From this pitch to the top the rock quality deteriorated a bit.  While most of it was still quite solid there were many gigantic blocks that needed to be pulled, stood on, and protection place inside which was a little scary.  Joe lead the traverse below the large roofs to below the Beckey Tree–a large pine amazingly perched on the face at about 3/4 height and has not been struck by lighting.  Getting to this tree proved perhaps the most mentally challenging section.  Joe led this pitch who’s crux is standing delicately on a single right foot on a off-sloping hold, protected only by two ancient 1/4″ button head bolts sticking out 3/8″ out of the rock–oh with home-made aluminum hangers.

Thankfully the weather was holding.  Puffy clouds from the heat of the day and the mountains never formed into anything more threatening.  Above the Beckey Tree I lead the longest pitch of the route at 200 ft.  Unfortunately I headed a bit too much left and while never out of protection or holds I got into significantly stiffer terrain than the 5.8-5.9 terrain I was supposed to be on.  Because of my poor planning I had really bad rope drag too.  Joe finished up the route on some exciting ad hoc route planning to get us on the summit.  My usual on-route camera my G12 malfunctioned the previous day and since I didn’t have my iPhone I have no record of the spectacular view from the summit.  We spent 15-20 minutes on top and enjoyed the view but since it was just after 7pm at this point and we’d been on the move for over 12 hours we didn’t spend too much time.  Thankfully the decent is fairly straightforward.  Once back at camp we feasted on some dehydrated chili I’d brought.

I woke up in the middle of the night to see if I could get some star pictures and was greeted by a perfectly clear sky and no moon.  I was able to see the Milkyway, satellites, and even some shooting stars.  The star pics didn’t come out as good as I’d hoped but I’m still getting better.  Sunday we headed back out but not before I went fishing again in the lakes.  I was able to catch a few small brookies, which was nice since I haven’t been fishing in ages.

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There are brook trout in the lakes and I took my 4 weight flyrod and had some luck. While it would have been really cool to fry them up we didn’t have any ingredients.

The Elephant’s Perch and the Saddleback Lakes are a great area for climbing as well as just the alpine environment.  I know I’ve written this in the past but this type of area is why I moved to the West.

Ruth Gorge, Alaska 2013

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View down glacier to Mt. Wake and the toe of Mt. Bradley in the foreground.

April 27 through May 12, 2013

Alaska, the Last Frontier, so the license plate says.  It must be true then, right?

Since getting into mountaineering a few years ago I’ve wanted to travel to some of the bigger destinations of the world.  These include but are not limited to Alaska, Canadian Rockies, Alps, and Patagonia.  Bigger embodies a number of concepts:  beauty, commitment, money, time, challenge, skill, reward, and fear.  I found all these things on my trip to the Ruth Gorge.

The Ruth Gorge is perhaps one of the easiest alpine playgrounds to get to in North America.  Fly to Anchorage, drive 2.5 hours to Talkeetna, and fly 45 minutes to the Ruth Glacier.  You can do it in 24 hours from nearly anywhere in the lower 48, with proper planning and weather of course.  The Ruth Gorge and the glacier of the same name that sits in it are a wonder of geology.  The altitude of the glacier is not significant, only 4,650 ft at our base camp, not much different from my house in Salt Lake.  What is significant is the scale of the place.  The glacier is one mile across, 3,800′ deep, and moving at over 3 feet per day.  The peaks that line the north-south trending gorge rise 5,000 feet from the nearly flat glacier.  Stealing an analogy from a friend at work, this is not unlike stacking El Capitan and Half Dome on top of each other.  The glacier feeds from the slopes of Denali (20,320′), the tallest point in North America.  More interesting facts and history are found in the American Alpine Club Journal.

I learned that a co-worker, Matt, would be heading to the Ruth back in January or early February.  I’d been interested in getting into a bigger trip for a while and I thought that it would be Rainier this year but the Ruth sounded equally interesting.  Matt had visited in 2012 with a friend from back East.  I asked if they minded me joining their expedition.  They were happy to have me along.

Contents

  1. Pre-Glacier
  2. Ruth Glacier Proper
  3. Root Canal Glacier
  4. Post-Glacier
  5. Calendar
  6. Photos and Videos

Pre-Glacier

I’ll skip the details of planning and training.  Matt and I ran, skied, climbed, etc to help prepare.  Planning we gChatted with Jesse back on the East Coast, reviewed American Alpine Journal articles, MountainProject, and the Alaska guidebook.  I forced them to use an elaborate spreadsheet for packing lists.  All fun stuff.

Despite my detailed spreadsheet in Google with multiple fields, categories, responsible persons, weights, and others, we had baggage issues.  Jesse doesn’t have access to the quantity of gear that Matt and I do.  This skewed the baggage responsibilities to Salt Lake and not equally between SLC and Albany.  Despite our best efforts we needed to use five checked bags for Matt and I, one ski bag, and four duffles.  In the past I have been under the wing of a UTC upgrade with Delta so that I got my first bag free, not to mention often getting bumped to first class.  I had booked my ticket when I was still active in the Silver status.  Unfortunately my upgraded status expired before the trip and Delta whacked us with $25 for the first, $35 for the second, and a whopping $125 for the third bag.  Matt obviously had the charges for his two bags as well.  What a downer, should have tried shipping more stuff.  On top of this of the 5 bags were all 48-49 lbs-due in part to my snazzy spreadsheet we could “virtually” pack and see what things weighed within a pound or two before stepping on the scale.

Flying into and out of Anchorage is actually quite nice from Salt Lake City.  We had a direct flight and the plan was largely empty allowing us to stretch out a bit and try to get some sleep.  The flight left around 10 pm so we were able to get a full work day in.  Take THAT NYC airports!  No need to leave 3+ hours before a flight and wonder if you’ll make it in time.  Ten minutes from my house to an international airport, and I don’t even live at the end runway close.

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While Matt is a narcoleptic bastard and got a good 4+ hours of sleep on the plane I wasn’t able to get any real sleep, despite a couple of beers and a melatonin.  I’m keeping my streak alive of never being asleep on a plane for more than 20 minutes.

The first crux of the trip now presented itself.  Did all of our bags make it?  As you can imagine not getting a bag would be a huge problem.  While REI would certainly have anything we needed should a bag become lost, it wasn’t really something we really wanted to do.  Shuffling down to the baggage claim area–which was dead as the few passengers who were on our plane must have gone through to Asia–we waited to see our gigantic duffles.  As they emerged from the conveyor belt we breathed a sigh of relief.

Stepping outside to wait for Jesse to pick us up I lost a half a breath.  It was cold!  Leaving Salt Lake we had enjoyed some spring temps and it was in the mid-60’s to 70’s.  In the dead of night in Anchorage it probably was in the teens.  Good thing I had a warm standing around jacket courtesy of work.

Jesse collected us and squeezed the gear into the Volvo wagon we was driving.  Very fortunately we had a place to stay in Anchorage this night.  Jesse has some friends who live there and have plenty of space in their beautiful house.  In the morning I got to meet Martha, Terry, and Skip their dog and thank them for their generosity.

Our ride to Talkeetna wasn’t until 1pm which gave us plenty of time to get out and do some shopping.  The Ruth Gorge is a place where you fly in with all the supplies you’ll need for the time you’re there.  There is nothing but snow, ice, and rock out there.  No toilets, campgrounds, structures, nothing.  Thankfully you don’t really need to kart all your supplies around.  Generally people lug their stuff a short way from the plane and set up base camp.  Our shopping list included food for 12+ days and liquor of course.  Our food list was pretty good, not just ramen noodles.  We were planning to eat well.  For liquor we had a bottle of 12 year Glenlivet and bottle of Knob Creek bourbon.

Going to the Ruth is not a cheap endeavor   While it isn’t hugely expensive, it isn’t cheap.  As such we tried to go a little cheaper for our ride to Talkeetna, which lead us to Go Purple shuttle. At 1pm our driver and her purple decrepit Chevy Astro van showed up.  It was clear that we would be taxing the gross weight of the vehicle and it wasn’t entirely because of our 500+ lbs of gear plus us.  Once underway our driver played tour guide and made sure to point out every little detail of menial interest.  Not just while in Anchorage–though, to be sure we drove by the only reindeer living in Anchorage city limits–the entire 115 mile drive was pointing out that there was a Subway in this town or that, or that if you look across the lake you can see Sarah Palin’s pink house.  Despite this the drive was fine, no wildlife though.  There is plenty to see outside the windows, and from what we saw it was very much winter still here.

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Sorting and reorganizing gear at Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT).

Arriving in Talkeetna we checked in with Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT).  As proudly displayed at TAT you can either “fly an hour or walk a week.”  The only powered transport to the glacier is by plane.  TAT, and it’s owner, Paul Roderick, have been flying into the Alaska Range for many, many years.  While they obviously fly climbers in they also do flightseeing tours as well for the more sane tourists.  As I would see, they have an enviable job.

After reorganizing, re-weighing, and tagging gear we headed to the TAT bunkhouse which is lodging provided with your ticket to the glacier.  We relaxed for a couple of minutes then set out into downtown Talkeetna, all 900 people of it.  The only paved roads are the spur road back to the state highway and Main St.  The town itself was still in the grips of late winter.  Plenty of snow on the ground and it was still cold.  As a result there weren’t any tourists, only climbers and locals in town.

There are few things to do in Talkeetna, especially with cold weather like it was: 1) Eat, 2) Sleep, 3) Drink, 4) Wait.  Matt and I thought #1 and #3 sounded pretty good.  Jesse on the other hand was fighting a bigger time difference and headed back to the bunkhouse for some sleep.  Matt and I headed to the Fairview Inn and Bar, a Talkeetna landmark and institution for the last 90 years.  Still being pretty early the locals sitting around the bar all turned to see who was entering when we opened the door.  No doubt when you live in a town as small as Talkeetna you’ll probably know everyone.

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While in Talkeetna we hit a local landmark, the Fairview Bar. We showed up early enough that there were some locals.

In the bar already was Pete Tapley, a BD athlete, who I’d met in Bozeman at the icefest.  Actually we had bumped into him at TAT while checking in and he’d mentioned about being at the Fairview.  We chatted for a while and found out that he’d just finished a new line on the east face of Moose’s Tooth called NWS (V WI6 M5, 1400m).  For the non-climbers reading that, I’ll summarize that WI6 is hard ice climbing.  I’ve only done one pitch of WI6 and it was on a top rope and I was gripped.  It generally means overhanging or oddly shaped ice.  He’d been out on the Buckskin Glacier below the east face of Moose’s Tooth for a few weeks.  The weather was seriously cold while he was there, -30F.  Not much to do when it’s that cold except–huh, well the same things I mentioned earlier :-).  I’m beginning to see a trend in Alaska recreation when the weather isn’t ideal.

We chatted a bit more and as the night went on, though night is difficult to tell since it was still daylight out at 11pm.  The bar continued to fill.  At some point a cover band got up on the small stage and started playing.  They were really good, playing some bluesy and rock stuff.  Some number of beers later (not really sure how many) we stumbled back to the bunkhouse to sleep.  Between the full strength brews, strange daylight hours, and a jam-packed bar in the boonies with a respectable ratio of girls to guys, my first taste of Talkeetna was pretty sweet.

Ruth Glacier Proper

The next morning we awoke and headed to another Talkeetna landmark, the Roadhouse for some great breakfast.  I had some sourdough pancakes with birch syrup made just a few miles down the road.  The sourdough didn’t shine through, but that might have been a result of the raspberries in it.  The birch syrup on the other hand was obvious and delicious.  At TAT we bummed around until Paul gave us the green light to fly.  The weather looked good for at least 3-4 days so we thought we’d get the two classic routes in the Root Canal out of the way.  Paul warned that there was wind and we might not be able to land up there and might have to drop us off in the lower gorge.

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Loading your own bags on the plane is kind of nice. No worries about it getting lost.

Small aircraft flight is pretty awesome, there’s not security, no checking of IDs, no worries of losing baggage since we loaded it ourselves, and there’s no locked door to the pilot.  In fact since this was my first time to the Gorge I got the right seat up front.  We’d be flying in a DeHavilland Turbine Otter which in TAT’s configuration seats 9-10 people including the pilot.  These aircraft were designed for backcountry use on lakes and snow so they have lots of power and high lift.  This was blatantly obvious as we traveled perhaps 200 yards down the runway before we were in the air.  To be honest it could have been 100 yards, it was amazing how quickly we were aloft.

The flight in slowly transitioned from snowy forests with winding glacially fed rivers, still iced over for the most part, into the foothills of the Alaska Range.  These mountains had some pristine skiing terrain.  You could go steep or mild depending on what you like.  Paul mentioned that he brings his family out in the plane to ski the front range for the day.  The river of water turned into a river of ice and the Ruth Glacier started carving its way through the mountains.

Immediately after getting into the air in Talkeetna we could see Denali.  The huge mountain has no rivals anywhere near it.  The entire Alaska Range seems to flow down from its summit.  It is not surprising that the native people call it “The High One”.  Today it was shrouded, to some degree, in clouds as it usually is.

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Alaska is certainly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.

As we neared the climbing portion of the Gorge sharp granite peaks jutted through, too steep to hold snow like the front range peaks.  Seeing this terrain was awesome, in the true sense of the word.  As we approached the Root Canal the plane started to bump and jostle around.  Another minute or so and Paul pulled the plug and said it would be too windy today and we’d have to go to the lower Gorge.  Circling around the runway, which is no more than a trampled out patch of snow on the glacier, we could see some other tents.  As we approached for the landing it was amazing to stare up at the summit of Mt. Dickey (9,545′) while still being over a thousand feet off the glacier.  Wire thin lines of ice and snow dropped from the summit and were obvious hard climbing routes, certainly too hard for our party.

The landing was less noteworthy than you might think.  The plane’s wide skis and relatively hard snow made for a less harsh landing than I’ve had on some regular flights.  We all jumped out and immediately just gawked upwards.  Regardless of the number of times you visit this terrain I think the reaction would be the same.  We quickly began dumping our 525 lbs of stuff onto the snow and ferrying it over about 100 yards from the runway.  During this process Paul took off.  After all the planning and training we were really here.  More or less on our own, on a glacier.  Setting about we began to build camp, which primarily consists of using an avalanche probe to see if there are any crevasses under our camp spot.  There weren’t and the snow was over 265cm (8.6 feet) deep.  Once we were sure the camp was safe we started cutting blocks of snow to create walls to block the wind.  Unfortunately we made the camp a little small and had to squeeze our two tents in a bit.

Given the day was so nice and we were itching to climb, we headed towards the Japanese Couloir on Mt. Barrill (7,650′).  This is an easy snow climb that we only roped up for a couple of spots.  The rest of it is just steep hiking.  The great thing about the sun setting at 10:30pm is that it is really hard to get caught in the dark while climbing up here.  Our 5 hour 15 minute romp up the JC was a good way to break ourselves in.  We got back to camp around sunset and made up some dinner before bed.

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The terrain of the Japanese Couloir is pretty mild so we didn’t rope up. I used my piolet for the whole thing.

Thus far we’d arrived in Anchorage early Saturday April 27, grocery shopped, gone to Talkeetna.  Sunday flown into the glacier, made camp, climbed Japanese Couloir.  Two busy days.  Our next day, Monday we decided see some of the Gorge.  We headed over to 747 Pass between Mts Dickey and Bradley (9,100′).  These two are giants.  Wispy clouds clung to the rock and provided some sense of scale, though not much.  From camp we started heading towards the pass.  With the glacier being so flat and featureless there are no reference points to estimate how big or far away anything is.  A ski of what I thought 10 minutes would bring us between Dickey and Bradley. Thirty minutes later we just started to breach the gap between the two.  A snow cone below a route called Snow Patrol (AI5+) I estimated from camp to be 100 feet tall.  In reality it was probably closer to 400 feet as we got closer.

Skiing up the pass we headed cautiously over to the route put up by a couple Norwegians a few years ago.  High up on the cliffs there were hanging glaciers with the most amazing colored ice just balanced there.  These seracs demand a wide birth since if they fall they will wipe out everything below them.  As we neared the base of the route it was clear there had been some serac fall as the debris littered the snow.  We could see the first few pitches of the climb but the upper sections were obscured in the growing clouds.  We turned around and skied a couple of miles across the main glacier to mark a way through the crevasses for our attempt on a first ascent line.  This didn’t prove too difficult at this time of year because there is still lots of snow on top of the ice and the crevasses are hidden for the most part.

The next day we work up early to make an attempt on this new line.  Unfortunately the weather wasn’t ideal so the idea was scrapped.  The weather did clear a few hours later and it probably would have been a good day to climb.  In the evening and overnight we got some snow, which kept us from climbing the next day.  We did head towards a short ice line at the top of 747 Pass.  Despite the snow over night the weather was great during the day, but the route had a large cornice hanging over it that we didn’t like the looks of so we just went back to camp.

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The impressive Mt. Bradley (9100′). The sense of scale in the Ruth is difficult to grab. The featureless glacier provides no reference points. Here the base is probably at least two miles from where we’re standing. The height of the peak is similar to Half Dome AND El Cap on top of each other.

The weather had been quite varied over the couple of days since we arrived, typical of the Ruth though.  During the day the temperatures could be into the 40’s if the sun was out, well over that in the tents.  The snow makes it feel much warmer when the sun is reflecting off of it and coming down from above.  Overnight though it gets cold without the sun.  Low’s were probably around zero.

On the way down from 747 Pass I decided to unrope and ski down.  Matt and Jesse aren’t skiers and they didn’t want to take a chance of falling on the walk down.  I on the other hand was interested in getting down  quickly and having some fun.  The sun had warmed the snow to a nice consistency and was only a few inches deep before hitting a supportable but corn type crust.  Even with mountaineering boots I was able to carve some turns in the wide open glacier.  Lot’s of fun.

Thursday we figured that the snow had settled enough and were eager to get more climbing in.  Leaving camp at 5 am we started heading to our objective  Our wands from a couple of days earlier got us quickly to the base and we started hiking up the large couloir between Peak 7400 and London Bridge.  Heading over to the line Matt lead up the final steep snow and over the bergschrund to the base of the rock.

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At the top of the first long pitch of our potential new route. The pitch had a little bit of rock and a lot of crappy snow and ice up to AI3+/4-.

The line looked better from what they remembered and had more ice than last year.  Matt headed up a bit.  Much of the first pitch crux was about 20-30 feet up.  The light snow covered many features and made it hard to find protection and good sticks for the ice tools.  After a little while he decided to give me the rope.  Starting up I got sucked into a little corner because of the better ice, but got stopped because of a rocky section with no protection. I down climbed and went across some eggshell rotten ice and thin mixed moves.  It reminded me a little of the Black Dike, the moves were easier but less protected.

These moves gave me access to some easier ice and I continued up.  Placing a screw here and there as well as a piton or two.  I’ve never climbed a new route before, rock or ice, and it is an interesting experience.  The mental game that plays out when looking for protection is one of the draws of climbing.  That same game goes up a level when you are looking for protection or the correct line when you have no idea if there is anything since no one’s climbed it before.  As a result this pitch of perhaps AI3+ took a while, perhaps an hour.  I kept asking how much rope I had because I didn’t want them simul climbing with me leading on this terrain.  Luckily a protuberance of rock poked through the ice and after cleaning it off I found two good piton placements and a cam.  Jesse and Matt made quick work following the pitch.

We headed up for another pitch and gained access to a snowfield.  From there we probably only had some steep snow and ridge climbing to make the summit.  Not to say that it was close, there was still a lot of climbing left, but the clouds had been building and we hadn’t been climbing quickly so we rappelled down.  This line will remain uncompleted for another season, at least by us.  Hopefully we can go back in a year or two and finish it up, assuming it isn’t done by another party.

The next day and a half were do-nothing days since it snowed 16-18″, but much of it was very light stuff and blown away on Friday evening/Saturday morning.  With only perhaps five more days on the glacier we decided to get a flight up to the Root Canal Glacier.  From our camp looking northeast Moose’s Tooth (10,335′), the biggest peak in the Gorge, was showing us it’s plumb line called Ham & Eggs (AI4).  The approach from the lower gorge to the Root Canal can be a heinous slog and has some crevasse hazard.  The recommendation by KP was to bump up there with TAT and it would be a much more pleasant experience.  We’d rented a radio from TAT for just this purpose and once we heard them flying around we got them up on the radio and had them pick us up.  I can definitely say the less than 5 minute flight was worth it.

Root Canal Glacier

For a lay of the land, the Root Canal is a glacier that spills down into the Ruth Glacier.  It starts on a cirque created by Moose’s Tooth and then splits around a peak of rock called the Incisor (7,500′).  These splits then join the Ruth but not after falling 3,000 feet in numerous crevasses.

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Up glacier to Mt. Barrill in the center.

I’m not sure when flights to the Root Canal started but it isn’t exactly a gimme approach.  If you are a little queezy flying then this would not be the flight for you.  The approach threads between two rock walls and you actually land uphill on the glacier.  The space below Moose’s Tooth is not very large and as a result is a little trickier to get into.

Again we set up camp but this time we had huge walls looming just over our shoulder a few hundred yards away, and out of the cirque we had a jaw dropping view of Denali, clear of any clouds.  There are really on two routes in the Canal, Ham & Eggs (AI4) and Shaken Not Stirred (AI5).  I’m putting AI rather than WI, because alpine ice is a very different animal than water ice.

There were 4 other parties joining us in the Root Canal and this situation forces a cordial interaction between climbers.  Due to the length, difficulty, and hazards of the routes, it is important to know when people are headed out to climb.  Two parties could easily slow each other down if they are too close or even too far apart because of the falling ice.  A number of the parties came to talk to us and we worked out that we’d rest a day and then climb H&E, along with Vince Anderson and two clients.  This worked out pretty well.  Since the approach is only 10 minutes we waited for them to leave the ground at the first pitch before leaving camp.  Climbers are generally friendly people anyway and we got to know Brendan and John from Australia, as well as Dave and Aaron from Salt Lake.

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Basecamp in the Root Canal. Hard to find a bad view here.

Ham & Eggs was definitely one of my favorite climbs.  I started off leading the first 2 pitches.  In the second pitch was a steep 10 ft section of overhanging hard snow/ice.  While this didn’t make for good protection, it was very secure climbing, especially with the stemming moves that were available.  From here we had the first of many long snow pitches that Jesse led.  This brought us to the base of the proper crux of the route at P7.  We headed left for the ice crux rather than the rock to the right.  Again there was more overhanging snow/ice but only for about 10 feet, though the overall vertical section was longer than the one on the P2.  Luckily though the protection was better.  I felt pretty good on this pitch, perhaps not the hardest ice I’ve climbed but one of the harder leads.

I led one more pitch up some AI3+ ice to a belay where Matt took over.  He continued up at a good pace for 3 pitches during which time the weather turned from thin clouds with the sun trying to shine through, to a little wind and snow filling the air.  At Matt’s last pitch we had to wait for Vince’s party to rap passed us.  The couloir isn’t very wide so we need to let them pass before continuing.  During which time Matt cooled down a little too much.  His next lead, though no harder than any of the previous two, took quite a bit longer.  His mental game had been thrown off and he got cold because of it.  After getting to the anchor and bringing us up I took the rack to finish the last three pitches of snow.  I went up the next pitch placing as little protection as I could just to keep Matt and Jesse’s wait time down.  It was too late however and the topic of bailing came up.  I did one more pitch again with limited pro since it was just snow and we were in sight of the top of the route.  With two pitches left we headed down.  The many rappels went pretty quickly as two of us simul-rapped all but the first one, with backups of course.  Tent to tent we were 13 hours, with only 3 hours of rappelling.  In camp we made up some of my dehydrated chili and gulped down a shot or two of scotch.  Have I mentioned how good single malt is on a glacier?  We’d made a good attempt at a classic line and got through all the hard climbing.  I’ll have to come back and finish the route then go on to the summit.

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Matt heading up his first lead pitch of the day. To this point I had done the hard parts and Jesse the easier ones. The next few pitches were in between.

Another rest day and we lounged around soaking in the view of Denali, only about 10 miles away.  During this time we made our plan for Shaken Not Stirred.  This route, by grade would be the hardest ice I have led.  As I mentioned, alpine ice and water ice are two different things. Not so much in difficulty of climbing, but in quality of ice.  In the alpine the ice tends to be older, less sticky, not as thick, more brittle, a whole host of things which make things more committing, but more rewarding too.  Our plan for Shaken was a few more screws than we had on H&E and a few less cams.  The next day, Wednesday we started for Shaken.

The approach isn’t very long, perhaps 20 minutes.  The route is laid out similar to H&E where a few lower pitches of some difficulty lead to many pitches of snow, and then again into harder pitches in the top third.  The weather was cold and made the snow pretty good for cramponing and for good sticks.  In more typical conditions the start can be a bunch of rock moves.  In our conditions it was mostly harder snow and I didn’t have to do much for rock moves.  Continuing up in the second or third pitch was another steep overhanging section of snow/ice, which I didn’t really think much of until we rappelled back down it.  It was perhaps 20 feet high and had a V thread and a #1 cam protecting it.  Perhaps the quality of the protection made me forget the difficulty when I first did it.  This pitch is where the first of many smaller things started to add up to our eventual bailing.

I dropped two screws.  I’m not quite sure how it happened but as I reached for my #1 cam I knocked two screws off, leaving six.  This wasn’t an issue on the many pitches of snow after the lower crux but it did become a problem in the Narrows.

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Shaken Not Stirred (AI5) has about 500′ of climbing called the Narrows. There is no question as to why.

As we were about half way up the snow pitches we saw the obvious section of the route called the Narrows.  The book describes it as only two shoulder widths at points and stretching for 500 feet.  We could clearly see this thin cleft and thought we’d be upon it after another pitch on the snow.  Again the Ruth Gorge played scale and size tricks on us and it wasn’t for three more 200′ pitches of snow that we finally got to the Narrows.

What started off as 3 feet of ice in front of me and 5 feet of space for my shoulders quickly trickled down into 8 inches of ice of an undetermined thickness and having to turn my shoulders sideways in order to swing.  It is an amazing feature in the rock that so deep and tight a cleft can form and not have any cracks or opportunities for rock pro.  The blank walls extended well behind me and offered no assistance.  The crux of this pitch came near the end of it.  Again an overhanging section arched over my head.  Getting to this point my confidence had been broken down a bit because of having two less screws.  Normally this wouldn’t be a huge problem but the length of these pitches is almost always a full 60m rope.  Note for next time, bring 70m ropes.  I had to conserve screws along the pitch which made me climb more slowly and cautiously.  I made a V thread at one point to keep from using a screw.  It was next to another thread but that one looked terrible.  As I got into the crux the width made things incredibly difficult.  The previous overhanging stuff I’d done was wide and allowed for stemming.  Here stemming was impossible on the smooth granite and the ice wasn’t extremely confidence inspiring.  Adding to this was the sun angling into the cleft.  This warmed up what little snow there was and made it softer.  The placements pulling over the lip of the overhang were tenuous and my feet were not in a good position making the situation perhaps the scariest I’ve had while climbing.

Bringing up Matt and Jesse I gave Matt the lead.  I was kind of shot mentally and needed some time to rest.  I was definitely getting out of my comfort zone.  Matt headed up the next 350 ft of ice, which was as narrow, or perhaps narrower but luckily never overhanging.  The vertical sections were still difficult and Matt did a great job leading them.  Though he missed a belay it took us to the base of the crux pitch, P12 by the book.  At this point Matt’s missing the belay therefore extra long pitch with less than idea gear and anchoring off of a somewhat questionable V thread, had rattled him as well.  Once all at the anchor we regrouped.

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Crux of Shaken Not Stirred (AI5) in fat conditions. We decided to bail at this point. Reasons for which were many.

The crux widens to a more managable width similar to the Ham & Eggs.  The chockstone that frequently requires a mixed move or two with thin ice was overflowing with thick ice.  It was similar to the other cruxes we’d come across, perhaps 20-25 feet of steep ice that was capped by a slight overhang then onto snow.  It was my call whether we’d continue or not.  While Matt had led a great pitch earlier he wasn’t going to lead it and neither was Jesse.

We were so close and though I wasn’t feeling 100% mentally back, I thought I could give it a go.  After all we were only two pitches from the top and this was the last hard section.  Above this was only snow and I’d felt pretty good on the previous sections like this.  I headed up a little way.  Knocking the balled up snow on my crampons I angled to the right when I saw a crack that could take a #.75.  The #.75 and #.3 had been indispensable pieces and this was going to be another bomber placement.  Moving gear around I found that I didn’t have it on my harness.    Had I’d dropped this too?  No, I’d left some gear at the belay accidentally and I’d have to go back to get it.  This was the straw on the camel’s back.  Losing screws, getting to my mental limit, sun softening snow, not having all the gear, all added up into pulling the plug.  We started rapping down.

I’m really disappointed we didn’t get to finish this route.  It is a classic climb and not an easy one at that.  On Ham & Eggs we’d gotten through all the difficulties the only thing that kept us from getting to the top was weather, so I know that I could do that one again.  This bail on the other hand was not driven by outside circumstances as much.  It was to a degree, but primarily it was my mental game that stopped us from continuing.  I still think it was the right decision, a disappointing one though.

Post-Glacier

Back in camp we had our last glacial dinner.  The next morning, weather permitting, we’d be flying out and back into town.  We were certainly ready for it.  I don’t think we could have done much more climbing.  Despite only getting to finish the Japanese Couloir, we’d had incredible luck with this trip.  It is possible that we could have come out and never even gotten out of Talkeetna because of weather.  Even if we got to the glacier the conditions could have been bad and we never would have stepped foot onto anything.  That’d be an expensive camping trip for sure.  But we didn’t have bad luck and I’m happy with the amount of climbing that we got in.

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Flights into and out of the Root Canal is not for the faint of heart.

A couple hours after our scheduled pickup Tyler, another pilot for TAT, buzzed through the Root Canal, practically touching the wheels on the granite walls as he made his inspection of the runway.  After landing we loaded up and headed down to the lower gorge, there were two other parties that needed to be picked up as well.  The takeoff from the Root Canal is super cool.  Since you land uphill it makes sense that taking off the plane is headed downhill.  This is a little strange since runways are usually flat.  Tyler joked that the flight down to the lower gorge would be quick and we probably didn’t even need the engine on, once we were in the air.  We all wanted to get back into town and take a shower and drink beer so this idea didn’t go anywhere.

We took off and Tyler kept the engines running,  The takeoff is perhaps the coolest part of the trip for me.  Even being in the back it was still great.  Jesse was able to capture it on his GoPro.  We picked up everyone and headed back into town.

A shower, even in the natty TAT bunkhouse was spectacular.  Shitting in a toilet with out having to sit on a tiny bucket and into a plastic bag was spectacular.  Pizza and beers at Mountain High Pizza Pie, you guessed it, spectacular.  Our schedule for the 20 or so hours in Talkeetna was eat, and once finished, decide when and where our next feeding out take place.  We spaced that out with a little walking around, organizing gear, and shipping stuff back to SLC via USPS flat rate to avoid our baggage issue.  In the almost two weeks we’d been gone the weather had turned in Talkeetna.  They finally started getting Spring.  Walking around with just a light jacket in the sun was great.  We returned to Anchorage and had another day of resting and catching up on emails.  Martha and Terry hosted a little dinner for us.  It was a great dinner.  Thanks again for hosting us!

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Morning sun lights the highest point in North America.

This was an amazing trip, certainly the biggest and most involved I’ve done to date.  I was able to test myself, make good decisions, and push my limits.  Seeing these mountains up close, being reliant on myself and my teammates are what makes climbing in these locations worth it.  It isn’t all to just get scared, you can do that at home on a sketchy 1 pitch route.  The involvement and beauty of this type of climbing is the allure.  I doubt that next year I will make it back, I think Liberty Ridge on Rainier is my objective for 2014.

Calendar

Sun
Mon
Tue
Wed
Thu
Fri
Sat
4/26

Flight to Anchorage

4/27

Land in ANC 1:30am, grocery shopping, drive to Talkeetna, food and beers in town.

4/28

Fly to the Ruth, set camp, climbed Japanese Couloir 

4/29

Scouted a route in 747 Pass and near Peak 7400

4/30

In camp because of weather, built kitchen area

5/1

Waiting for snow to settle, attempt on an ice line near 747 Pass cancelled because of cornice danger

5/2

First ascent line attempt on Peak 7400, bailed after 2 pitches due to weather

5/3

Snow

5/4

Struck camp and got picked up for flight to Root Canal Glacier

5/5

Some snow, another rest day

5/6

Ham & Eggs (AI4), bailed two pitches from col

5/7

Rest day

5/8

Shaken Not Stirred (AI5), bailed two pitches from top

5/9

Flight back to Talkeetna

5/10

Shower!  Pizza!  Beer!

More food and beer!

5/11

Back to Anchorage and flight out

5/12

Arrive in SLC 8am

Unpack & sleep!

My Photos

 

Matt and Jesse’s Photos

 

Videos