Sunday, October 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Denali's Cassin Ridge - Classic Climb #45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mt Logan's Hummingbird Ridge

Reiner at 13,000' on the Hummingbird Ridge. The Seward Glacier below.
Ever since Janelle and I started our project to climb North America’s Fifty Classic Climbs four and a half years ago, we have heard this question countless times from climbers that know the book: “What about Hummingbird Ridge?” To which we reply, “I guess we will cross that bridge when we come to it.”
The entire ridge as seen from the East, from 8,000' to 19,554'
That bridge crossing finally came last month. In October, we began planning for this expedition. We recruited two great climbers and friends to join: Jed Porter, who is a fellow IFMGA certified mountain guide, and Reiner Thoni, a ski mountaineering national champion and my Atomic Waymaker partner. Jed had joined us for our climb of Mt. Fairweather, and Reiner joined us for both Mt. Robson and Mt. Alberta. We were thrilled to have such a strong team to tackle the hardest, most daunting climb on this crazy list that we have devoted so much time and energy to.
Pre trip food prep in Whitehorse, YT
In any expedition of this scale, the amount of pre-trip work is almost greater than the climb itself, so we divided the workload. Janelle handled transportation logistics, Jed took on route planning, I worked on trip financing and sponsorship, and Reiner researched the route’s grim history.

In 1965 the Hummingbird Ridge saw its first, and only, successful ascent. The late American hard-man Mugs Stump and his crew took 10 days to climb the lower section of the route (which the 1st ascent party bypassed) before bailing. In May 1987, two Canadian elite alpinists, Dave Cheesmond and Cathy Freer, were killed while traversing a section of the route called the Shovel Traverse. No one knows how they died, but cornice failure was the likely culprit. Their bodies still hang in place on the ridge. Later, an entire Canadian group of three were swept off the route by an avalanche, killing one of them.

Allen Steck photo from the first ascent, 1965
 Allen Steck, was one of the six men on the only successful expedition. He is also one of the authors of our Project’s inspiration, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Now 87 years old, he still climbs. We got to talk about the first ascent with him at his home in Berkley. Here is the run down: 4,000’ of fix rope, sixteen 40 lb. (17.5Kg) loads, 15 gallons of fuel, cotton and nylon tents, expedition style, several 1.5” thick 4’ tall aluminum stakes, a steel shovel from the hardware store, and a month of hard work completed by six super hard-men.
The flight in is always a highlight
Having drunk the new school alpinism kool-aid, we decided to tackle the route in alpine style, which meant attempting the route in one push, with all our supplies on our backs from bottom to top. This decision was dictated by a number of reasons:
1. Alpine style is what we are good at.
2. Our equipment and food is significantly lighter than theirs was 49 years ago.
3. Hauling loads up and down would expose us to more objective danger of rock/ice fall and cornices, whereas alpine style would lessen this exposure.
4. Expedition style climbing requires weeks of legit blue-collar work, and I think we are too soft for that.
Mt Teddy as seen from our adv. basecamp

To make a stressful situation more stressful, Janelle’s hip pain was getting worse. For the last two years she has been dealing with pain that comes and goes when she is active (which is always). The pain stopped her from competing in all but three ski mountaineering races this past winter. She also won three races this year, batting 1000 [husband bragging]. Being American, she avoided going to a doctor for a proper diagnosis at all costs until about three months ago. The MRI revealed labral tears in both hips—an injury that is not a total show stopper, but if it goes untreated can lead to arthritis. A cortisone shot gave her about three weeks of relief for her ski races. We were hoping that another cortisone shot right before the expedition would provide that same relief. A prudent course of action? Not at all. But since when have we claimed to be prudent?
Had to move at night as it was too hot during the day.

We all flew into Whitehorse, Yukon on June 22. Reiner’s friends, Whitehorse locals James and Samantha, opened up their home to us as an expedition staging area. Friends like this are critical in any expedition. They graciously loaned us their car, garage, bedrooms, food, local knowledge, and countless favors. We were able to return about 2% of the favors with some light duty babysitting and dish washing.

Weather delays kept us in Whitehorse for three days. On the fourth day we drove to Silver City, home of the two-plane gravel-runway airport known as Icefields Discovery. We would have to fly in two trips. Jed and Reiner won the coin flip and flew in first. When the pilot returned for us, he said the snow was too soft to land again until the next morning. Janelle and I spent the night in the hanger, and the following morning flew in.
Gearing up at Icefields, we had 855 lbs of gear and food.

These flights are always a trip highlight. We had about an hour in the air. It was amazing. Lightly overcast, but still good views all around. To say that Mt. Logan is “big” is similar to saying that there are “many” stars in the sky. This mountain is the biggest mountain in the world if measuring by sheer mass. I have climbed Denali three times, and that mountain makes you feel small. Logan made me feel small, with the additional sinking feeling that it was going to try really hard to kill me. The glacier was broken to the point where the pilot landed us far out on the Seward Glacier. It was a 6.5 mile slog to the base of the route.

In the cool of that same night, with eight fat days of food and fuel, we started walking to the base of the route. The glacier at 6,500’ was warm and we plunged through breakable crust for 5 hours to the base of the entrance couloir. The fun level was low. Snow had started blowing and visibility was reduced significantly. As we pulled up to a possible camping site, Janelle threw down her pack, sat down, buried her face in her gloves and started crying. The cortisone shot had not worked. Carrying a pack made her hip pain spike to unbearable levels. Fully Gore-Tex-ed up, we discussed our options in the driving wet snow. We would camp here, wait for cold temps, and check out the access couloir the next morning. Janelle was not ready to throw in the towel. Maybe if she was “just climbing” it would not hurt as much as glacier slogging had. The following morning was still too warm to climb, and the forecast was going to crap. We decided to return to our basecamp.
Making another lap to adv base camp.

Arriving at the basecamp, Janelle declared, “Well boys, I’m out,” as another wave of emotion hit her. So much time, build up, preparation, training, all being stripped from her by a nagging overuse injury and a failed hail-Mary-cortisone-shot-solution. Now she would have to fly out and wait in Whitehorse for weeks while her husband tried to climb this infamous death route. Not ideal. She flew out with all our basecamp luxury items, omitting the need to do an extra $800 flight. Jed, Reiner, and I returned to advanced basecamp with an additional 12 days of food and fuel. We now had 20 days of provisions and no need to return to basecamp. Ideally, we would reach the summit in 7-8 days of intense climbing, descend the East Ridge route in a day, and fly out from that completely different location.

Three days went by with warm temps. During the heat of the day the entire valley erupted with avalanches and rock fall off of every aspect. We tried to sleep, but it didn’t come easy hearing how active everything can get when the temps rise above freezing. Angry birds on the iPhone, and coming up with my next business idea passed the time slowly. The unknown route conditions weighed heavily on all of us. Would we be able to pass? Did we have enough food? Was this acclimatization schedule too aggressive? Double cornices. Oh the double cornices, what to do with them.
Time to get in the blast zone for 4000'

After a 10 minute walk up further up the glacier from our advanced basecamp, Reiner and I discovered a more inviting access couloir than the original party had used to the gain the ridge. It would reduce rock fall and cornice fall potential. There was a big serac near the top of the face, yet this alternative route still seemed like a better bet.
Thousands of feet went by quickly climbing unroped in the runnel spines, while spotting for rock fall.

Finally, it was cold enough and we launched with 9 fat days of food and fuel. Pack weight hovered around 55 lbs. Fast and light style was metamorphosing into slowish and exposed style. We climbed from 8,000’ to about 12,200’ up icy runnels in the face, free soloing the lower 2/3rds, and pitching out the upper part in 12 pitches. The ice runnels protected well. With only one ice screw to place during the 60 meter pitch, we were thankful for easy ice climbing. The pack weight was crushing, and our calf muscles got a good punishing. There were a couple pitches that got up to 75 degrees, with a little business time climbing.
Calf pumping runnels. 60 meters, one screw half way, two screws for each anchor.

Jed following on one of the steeper access pitches.

Finally gaining the legendary ridge itself, we took our first real break. I had drunk four ounces of water in the last 12 hours—stupid. Moving along the ridge was slow going. The snow was deep and loose. The ice was airy and unstable. The rock was broken and hard to protect. Every foot was hard earned. As we climbed a mixed pitch of loose rock and thin ice, natural rock fall dislodged from the buttress just above Reiner and I, showering us with brick-sized rocks. One hit me directly on the helmet, leaving a sizable dent.
Reiner on the last pitch of the runnel. Jed plowed through a cornice to gain the ridge.

Jed led the last pitch of the day, which took him to the ridge crest. As he plowed through the loose snow up to the ridge crest, a 5-foot long cornice broke at his feet. The ridge was now clear in this one spot and he climbed to the other side and belayed us up. Having now been on the move for 18 hours, we were tired. The ridge was extremely steep on both sides. We set to work to make a tent platform. Two hours of shoveling, hacking, and ice chipping later we had our platform, so we pitched the tent and crashed out in our sleeping bags. Our tent platform scene resembled a photo I saw during a slide show from Steve House and Vince Anderson’s Nanga Parbat ascent, with the tent perched right on the ridge, and an area hacked out just big enough to fit the tent…and that made me feel hardcore.
Looking down from camp 1

The following day we rested. It was a nervous rest, knowing that we lay on the doorstep of the lethal Shovel Traverse, and that the glacier lay thousands of feet below. Rappelling that distance with only one 60-meter rope would take forever if we had to bail.
4AM, rapping from a ballard

Day three, we got up around 3a.m. The travel was painfully slow, as we had to dig for every tool and foot placement. Thankfully, the digging exposed solid ice. Thinking back, the climbing on the ridge was quite good when it comes to adventure alpine climbing. I’m no pro mixed climber, but I’d guess the mixed climbing was in the M4-5 range, similar to the crux pitches on Mt Huntington’s Harvard Route. Up and down, over little snow bumps we progressed. Jed broke a second cornice as he descended a snow roll. Thankfully, I was in position to arrest this mini fall with no consequence. 
Jed on one of several mixed pitches. All snow was faceted and had to be removed.
From snow to rock and back again

I was on the sharp end for the final rock pitches that ascended back onto the snow. I was tied into the middle of the rope, leaving the two ends to be tied one to Jed and one to Reiner. There was a definitive high point I traversed towards. I placed a really crappy picket to keep some remote sense of security as we simul-climbed higher through the thigh deep powder. Roughly 15 feet before reaching the high point, about 10 feet below the ridge crest, I was post-holing sideways. With no warning the ground all around me, including what I was standing on, dropped out. I was riding a 15-foot cornice into the abyss. I landed on a shoulder-width ledge, unharmed, after what seemed like a forever fall. From the other side Reiner felt no pull on the rope, and thought I was gone forever. I got up quickly, peaked over the ridge, and gave them proof of life. I was rattled.
The climbing was quite good, adventurous, and committing.
Had to ditch the 50 pound pack to get rowdy on this near vertical mixed pitch.
Post cornice death ride, trying to collect my nerves and stoke to keep going.

Standing there, snow blowing around me, looking out along the double corniced ridge in front of me, I felt very very empty. Four and a half years of climbing classics, trying to climb them all, and this is where it had brought me. To succeed on this route, to succeed on our Project, I would have to play cornice Russian Roulette. Only in this game I’d have to pull the trigger five times with the cornice gun held to my head.
Pawing through loose snow was so slow. We needed a shovel from Ace Hardwear

I hate quitting. I hate thinking of myself as a sissy. I hate thinking other people will think I am a sissy. I wanted to get back on the horse that had knocked me off. After about 10 minutes of standing there on the ridge, I looked down at the patiently waiting Reiner and Jed and said, “ok, I’m going to keep going, keep the rope pretty tight,” and then moved out of view on the other side of the ridge.
Looking back over the terrain we climbed through Day 3 of our attempt

The next cornice started where the broken cornice ended, only this one was hanging over the other side of the ridge. I kicked my feet over and over to get good purchase in the loose snow before committing weight to it. Then the other foot. Swinging my ice tools into the cornice 20 times I was able to hack a little trough for my body to wedge through. I paused to assess the situation. I had shaped this cornice into a big taco shell and I was the meat. If the cornice broke either way I was looking at a 40 foot fall onto rocks and ice. There, squeezed in this Mark-made snow slot, on an overhung cornice that could break at any moment, I froze. The thought that went through my mind from that still small voice said, “That first one was on the house, the next one is gonna cost ya.” I backed off. Shouted to the guys that I’m going to rap off the ridge, to a ramp 300’ below. They said nothing.
Reiner on one of the mixed pitches.

Into a building snowstorm we rapped four times down the West side of the ridge to gain an easier snow bench that formed the lower flanks of the ridge, near the feature known as the Snow Dome. Snow was sloughing off the all slopes steeper than 40 degrees as we made our way down. This sideways rappelling over loose snow spines is really taxing. Once on the snow ramp, Reiner took us up to the base of a stable looking serac wall where we dug another tent platform. 15 hours on the go gained us about ¼ mile of linear progress. Ouch.
One of the best pitches we climbed in my opinion

I had spoken with Janelle on the satellite phone the previous evening. We were trying to coordinate a Shovel Traverse fly over. I told her that we would check in by midday to give a progress update. With all the technical climbing and heavy snow, the packs stayed on our backs and we didn’t get out the phone until 10 p.m. Jed hit the button on the phone that sends an auto “we are okay” text with our coordinates to Janelle, his wife, and three other people. The text did not go through to Janelle’s phone. That night she lay in bed thinking that her husband was dead. Not ideal. The next morning I called. She kept her composure for the first two sentences and then started crying. Also, not ideal. I guess that is the shortcoming of modern technology. It’s all good until it isn’t, causing your spouse to think you might be dead because of an undelivered text.
View from Camp 2, hugged up against a serac wall.

That day we rested again and pondered our situation. Three of the four times that we had touched a cornice they had broken. We had roughly 200 more cornices to cross. The ice was good 20 feet below the ridgeline, but we had to dig for every placement. From there to the ridge crest the snow was loose “snice” (snow ice mixture) and powder. Progress was slow. We had plenty of food and fuel. My head game was rattled from the fall. Reiner was pretty checked out as well. Jed was still charging.
the Seward Glacier below is 15 miles wide here!

The following morning we packed up and climbed two short pitches back to the ridge. I took the pitch that met up with the ridge. More vertical trench warfare. Once on the ridge I waded through 10 inches of powder and another two feet of loose snow to get off the cornice I was on and belayed the guys up. As they crested the ridge we looked at one another and knew this was the end of the road if we wanted to live to climb another day. There was not much discussion—the decision was clear—it was almost a non-decision. Similar to deciding if you should drink boiling tar, or jump in a dark pit full of angry rattlesnakes buck naked. We took some somber “personal summit” photos and rapped down to our tent platform.
The start of the last pitch on our attempt. An hour of vertical trench warfare took us up 100ish feet.

Always the optimist, Reiner, offered some encouraging sentiments. Jed and I didn’t have ears to hear it. We were just pissed at this sucky situation. I thought of the following analogy, which eased my troubled mind a little. Continuing on that route, in those conditions, would be very similar to snowplowing down your 10 favorite steep backcountry ski runs on a day with extreme avalanche hazard. It really does not matter your ability, you’ll probably die.

Our "personal summit"

Now we were looking at a 4000+’ descent on technical terrain, under cornice and rock fall hazard…with one 60 meter Sterling Photon rope. Each rappel would only get us about 95’ down the mountain.
Heading down under full moon. Our Camp 1 snow tent platform notch can be seen on the ridge, seven-o'clock down from the moon, left of the the little peak. It took us hours to create.

At 11 p.m. we left our camp and started down. The plan was to get in the icy runnel troughs and rappel from V-threads the entire way. We took turns making the threads. Whoever was in the lead moved as fast as possible. We ended up having to rappel 34 times, do a bunch of down climbing, and near the of the descent, do some down run-for-your-life climbing as the rocks started falling around us.
34 V-threads were required to bail. Several times we had to dig a lot to find good ice.
The second we were on terrain that was down-climbable we did so...forever.

Once back on the glacier, out of the objective danger shooting range, I collapsed on the flat snow, not so much out of physical fatigue but more from stress fatigue. Our attempt was over. We did not die. In fact we were all perfectly fine. A true relief.
back on flat ground, alive and well.

We made our way back to the original basecamp, where we waited on flyable weather for 3.5 days. It was brutal waiting that long with nothing for entertainment but playing angry birds, watching 12 episodes of The Big Bang Theory (horribly awful TV show), cooking stovetop stuffing, developing a new business plan, and feeling our failure. Yet, all in all, we were very happy that we were unharmed and content that we had made the right choice to bail.
Days of tent time. This is our home entertainment system. It's state of the art.

Mt. Logan will be there another day. Will we return to try again? Definitely. If most of those cornices fall off, if we have funding, if we get time off of work, and if we have a strong team--absolutely. An anti-gravity belt would be nice too. Do I recommend other people try this route? Nope. I’d go for the Thunderbird, Early Bird, the East Ridge, or one of the numerous unclimbed lines on Mt. Logan.
Kickin' it on the Seward, wondering when the plane is coming. 

As for what this means for the Smiley’s Project, I don’t know. Does it really matter that we have climbed 44 of the 50 Classics? Is leaving 6 unclimbed any different than leaving one unclimbed? Would it matter if we were able to climb all 50? I don’t know.

What I do know is that it has been an amazing journey to get to this point. I know that I want to keep climbing big mountains and push my physical limits. Yet, I am typing this from Janelle’s hospital recovery room. She just got hip surgery to fix the issue that caused her have to leave this expedition early. Getting Janelle healed and fully functional is our top priority. It’s going to cost over $10,000 in medical bills and 8-12 months of recovery to make her well again. Both of these facts are real rain clouds on this dirtbagger’s parade.

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