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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Monday, November 4, 2013

The Steck Salathe Route, Sentinel Rock, Yosemite

The #4 BD cam is the money piece for this route 

It was time for our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite. I look forward to this visit from the time we make our camping reservations at 7:00AM, six months prior to arrival.  Short approaches, great weather, warm temps, and no avalanches or cornices trying to kill us….a welcome change.

Sentinel Rock, as seen from just across the street from Camp 4
Not wanting to waste any time, we planned to climb the Steck Salathe Route on Sentinel Rock with our friend and IFMGA certified mountain guide, Jed Porter, the first full day in the Valley. He climbed Mt. Fairweather with us in June, and we were excited to climb together again.

He brought his long time climbing partner, Ian McEleney, who had done the first winter ascent of the Sierra Palisade Traverse with Jed. This is a serious multiday undertaking in freezing temps.

Janelle and I had climbed the Steck-Salathe in 2010, but left the cameras in the van that time. This time, Jed and Ian would climb ahead and get some, much needed, lead climbing shots. Filming pure rock climbing with only two people gets pretty boring as its either a butt shot of the leader or a top down shot of the second.
Janelle on pitch 4
The previous experience had spanked me pretty good. I resorted to French freeing through many of the cruxes. “Feels like 5.12, unless you are 3’10” and “very hard, even French free” and “Only easy pitch” are a few examples of the notes I made in the guidebook after our original effort. This time I wanted to do it in better style and send everything.
We started before dawn and made it to the base as the sun began to creep down the Nose of El Capitan across the Valley.

Route beta after our first encounter in 2010
The first challenging pitch was the Wilson Overhang. Last time I had pulled on gear, this time I sent it. My wide crack and chimney climbing technique had improved dramatically over the past three years. This was an encouraging way to see measurable improvement.

Janelle and I swung leads like a well-oiled machine. Jed and Ian stayed just ahead of us, whipping out the camera at opportune moments. This style of run and gun shooting on a 16-pitch climb does not allow for any wasted time. The pressure is on so you have to get the shot when it presents itself and then move on, with no real setup time.
Mark Smiley on the headwall pitch

We made it to the top of the Flying Buttress, passed through a cool 2’ wide granite hallway and rapped down for the start of the next pitch.

Janelle Smiley mentally preps for the Narrows
The “great chimney”, as Allen Steck called it, is the definitive crux of the route. The lower pitch was mine. 5.10b, stupid wide, no “grips” (inside joke), but I got it done. I wouldn’t say it was pretty, or quick, but I sent. I was pumped about that.
Ian entering the pain closet
This photo (above) is the only way to paint the picture of the next belay. We were roughly 15’-20’ inside the cliff face. Think, vertical caving. This is the start of the Narrows. Allen Steck and John Salathe climbed the outside of the wall on the first ascent in 1950, which avoids the lion’s share of the squeeze chimney. Janelle and I had followed the first ascentist on our first ascent, so we had not been in the slot. This go, we decided to give it a try. Janelle took the lead and did a wonderful job, as did Ian and Jed. They each took roughly 30 minutes to get up this 60 foot section.

I went last. I had sent (climbed without falling or resting on the gear) every pitch to this point and didn’t want to blow it here at the last crux.
Jed Porter gettin' the job done

Walking my legs up the far wall I was able to get my head, chest and stomach into the narrow section just fine. Now, the problem was that I now had to get my legs from the wide part to the skinny part. This requires some kind of double chicken wing arm bar move.

I am as flexible as a brick. This personal attribute did not help me make any upward progress. Things got ugly. After flexing every muscle in my body and going nowhere, 20 times in a row, I ran out of gas and took on the rope. I blew the send. I was mad. Then I got stuck, and got really mad. The ego spanking I was taking made me madder yet.
The real crux.
There is a section that is so tight, when I’d turn my head from the left to right, my nose would scrape on the wall. Then the backpack that I was trailing started getting stuck below me. It too was a little too wide with two helmets clipped to it.

I lost it. Started screaming at the world. Not my proudest moment.

Eventually I fought my way up, while Janelle performed crevasse rescue on me with a 3:1 pulley. It was miserable. You can’t even call it climbing, more like hangdogging on top rope, only your belayer has tied the rope to a car bumper and is driving slowly away, effectively towing you up. To make things worse, Jed filmed it all. I guess I asked for that one.

Ian McEleney 3 pitches from the top
Janelle took over and lead the next two pitches, and I took the final 5.6 consolation pitch, tail still between my legs. The four of us were on top with a little daylight to spare.

All in all it was a great day with good friends. I do want to go back and do it again and lead the Narrows clean. First, I need to be able to touch the ground with my legs straight, and be able to sit Indian style with my knees touching the ground.

[Note: Following our time in Yosemite we visited Allen Steck, author of the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, and first ascentist of this route. It was great to have dinner with him and chat about the climbs he had done over 60 years ago! Watch the video we made about this whole experience, coming Nov. 11 at]

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Waiting On Fairweather

14,500 feet on Mt. Fairweather
In June we headed for Mt. Fairweather (15,325'), located a mere 13 miles from the Pacific coast in SE Alaska. The Carpe Ridge is the "classic" route on its South Face. This snow, ice, and rock route ascends a little under 11,000 vertical feet from the glacier camp. It's huge! I would equate it to a remote, steeper, rockier, longer, Liberty Ridge on Rainier.

Mt. Fairweather is "A"
Having a third person would be safer on a big mountain like this. It would also add to the fun level and make for better filming. We recruited our friend, Jed Porter, who is a fully certified (IFMGA) mountain guide from Bishop CA, which turned out to be a very good addition to Team Smiley., he is the man with the plan there in Haines
The three of us met in Juneau. Janelle and I flew from Anchorage, where we had just finished climbing the Moose's Tooth. Jed flew from Florida, where he had just finished lounging on the beach with friends. From Juneau, we took a six hour ride on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Haines. There, a facebook friend's daughter picked us up from the airport and shuttled us 10 miles to the tiny municipal airport, home of the very famous, Fly Drake charter air service.

Every bad weather day had a couple hours of blue where we could soak up some UV.
Drake Olson has been an Alaskan bush pilot for many many years. Prior to taking climbers to remote mountains and skiers to some of the steepest powder spines in Alaska, he was a professional race car driver for Porche. Drake is pure Alaskan through and through, and a real riot. We pulled up in the truck and he was sunning himself just outside his hanger. [check out the video to see how that went down]. This airport was perfect. No TSA, no lines, no automated voice telling us that the National Security Level is, "Orange". It was awesome. We pulled the truck right up to the plane, dumped everything out.

The Carpe Ridge from 4,600' to 11,000'. The remaining 4,000' is out of view from this angle.
The sky was blue, very rare in these parts, so we wasted no time packing the plane. We had a ton of stuff. Our lofty plan was to fly into Fairweather, and after climbing it we would "bump" directly to Mt. St. Elias with a different pilot, Paul Claus. After climbing that mountain, Paul would then take us back to his lodge in McCarthy, AK. This would save a lot of transportation expenses if it worked. All that to say that we required two flights into Fairweather. Jed went first and two hours later Janelle and I flew in and joined him on the Fairweather Glacier at 4,600'. The flight in was amazing to say the least.

Experience has taught me that if the sky is blue in Alaska, and you're not climbing, you are behind already. I was antsy. Should we start climbing right now? Forget setting up the basecamp, lets start climbing! Janelle and Jed were the voices of reason, and we set up camp, packed our climbing packs and tried to sleep. 24 hours prior, Jed was on a beach in Florida, now we were 8 hours away from climbing a 15,000'+ mountain.

Pacific Ocean is only 13 miles away.
4:00AM the alarm went off. The sky was still clear as we approached the base of the route. The long Alaska summer day had already begun. The first section of the route took us right under serious serac fall potential. Aside from getting an early, cold, start and moving as fast as possible, there is little one can do to mitigate this hazard. Above that there was some loose rock climbing (5.3), a little waterfall crossing, and then back on a long snow ramp.

Dont like a hold? Just throw it out of the way.
This snow ramp was horrible. Breakable crust FOREVER. The crust was strong enough to hold our weigh for exactly .46 seconds. Once it broke, my leg would drop into the hole, scraping my shin on the crust on the way down. Sometimes sinking up to the shin and sometimes up to my hip. Time and time again, step after step, it went like this.
1. Lift foot out of previous hole, step forward.
2. Shift weight to higher foot slowly, staying on the surface.
3. Have time to think half of this thought, "hey I think its getting firmer"
4. Break through up to shin, knee, hip, waist.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 a billizon times, up 3,000 vertical feet

Basecamp is the little black dot, center in the shade on the lower glaicer

There was another steep rock band with some fun challenges, both low angle ice and some proper rock climbing. We moved quickly though these sections as it was such a welcome relief from the breakable crust.

One of the only pitches we used a proper belay. Short (5.7c) layback moves. [Janelle then downgraded it to 5.7a, but she was on top rope, pissed me right off.  It's totally 5.7c with Spantiks, no heel spurs. If you have heel spurs, it probably feels like old school 5.6d, but Im not one to judge....unless you disagree with my omniscient grade identifying abilities, then I'll tell you you're wrong...& stupid].
Around 8,000' a steep snow ramp (approx. 35-45 degrees) took us to our high camp location at 10,200'. The sun was out in full force now and it was getting hot. We were really happy with our progress, getting from 4,600' to 10,200' in roughly 6 hours. At 11:00AM we had to make a decision. Set up camp, and go for the summit in the morning, or set up camp and keep going to the summit now while the sun was still out? We still had another 5,000 feet above us, and we were feeling tired, and unacclimatized, so we opted to go continue the morning. That afternoon we lounged in the tent, sleeping away our good weather.

The following morning, we were up again early. Dark clouds had moved in over the tops of the mountains in the distance. We could not see our summit yet, but figured it too was cloud capped. Maybe they would blow off? We had only brought three days of food with us, so we went for it, hoping the skies would clear.

Full whiteout conditions. Waiting for things to clear at 14,200' on our first go.
Very quickly we climbed into the cloud and the visibility went to crap. Walking around in a gigantic ping pong ball filled with smoke is what it was like. We had our GPS app (sweetest app ever, and total game changer Gaia GPS), which helped to keep us on the ridge. Unfortunately, it was worthless at steering us clear of unseen crevasses and seracs.

Through the clouds I caught glimpses of both. Wanting to avoid them I lead the team far to the left, NW, of the Carpe Ridge to a solid, but steep snow ramp. This took forever. The snow was knee deep or worse. 98% of the time the visibility was less than 100 feet.  2% of the time the clouds would shift just enough to get a view of what lay ahead, and that keep us moving forward. We climbed a 60-65 degree snow/ice slope to gain the ridge again. Swinging my tools into the slope I thought, "this isn't going to be very fun to descend. Too hard to down solo and not hard enough for V-threads."

Above high camp. This route has tons of this steepness (35-45 degrees).
Once on the ridge, at 14,000', the wind picked up significantly. Gusts of 40 mph wind will knock you down, steady 40 mph wind is manageable. This was steady 40 with gusts to 60. The snow was getting picked up and blasted into our eyes. Any straps on our jackets or packs that had a loose end turned into little whips. It was full on. We kept walking uphill.

At 14,300' we encountered the ice "Nose". We would have to stop and belay. The wind was blasting us. Huddled in a semi filled in crevasse, squinting at each other, knowing each others thoughts. It was grim. Jed took the lead and climbed up around the corner to see if the terrain would mellow out. We knew that belaying was going to make us too cold. The terrain did not mellow, and belaying would be needed. The nail in the coffin. We descended back down a couple hundred feet to a little wind pocket eddy. The air temp wasn't that bad out of the wind, so we sat on our packs for an hour, hoping for improved conditions.

I started thinking about how to get down. Our tracks were getting filled in. It would be difficult to backtrack. We gave it one more attempt up to the Nose, but it was futile.

Walking back down was just as epic. We couldn't see anything in front of us. I had to walk like a drunk blind person, feeling my way inch by inch. Using my hiking pole to see if the next step was up down or flat. Nerve racking.
Iconic knife edge snow ridge at about 11,000'

At 12,000 feet we exited the cloud cap, and it was actually a nice day from that elevation and below. We went from "full on survival mode" to "casual day in the mountain" simply by being able to see.

We went back to our high camp and slept. The following day we descended the remaining 5,600', through more waist deep breakable crust, to our basecamp. At one of the rappels Janelle asked me, "do you want to try this again?" I said, "you can't ask me that now! I need a couple days to forget about these horrible snow conditions."

The following day was nice, yet there was still a cloud cap on all the mountains above 13,00'. After that, the high pressure moved out to make way for the infamously bad weather this area is known for.

Tent bound for 11 days. Rummy 500 became rummy 5000.
For 11 days we sat in our tents, killing time. Many people ask what we do to pass the time while tent bound. I think it's probably similar to being in a nursing home. You have to turn the small everyday activities into individual major events. Things you normally do while multi-tasking (eating, pooping, grooming, etc). That, and try to sleep as much as your body will allow. For me, that is 13 hours/day. We also had an ipad, two computers, lots of movies, angry birds, some shooting game that I mastered, and a sweet Goal Zero battery and solar set up to keep the juice flowing.
Unlike a nursing home, we had a finite amount of food...oh, and we were not forced to drink cranberry juice.

Everyday there was at least an hour or so to get out and walk around. I skied "crop circles" into the fresh snow around our camp, breaking trail in an ever growing circle, lap after lap until it looked like a circular plowed bean field. Then it would snow, effectively shaking my giant etch-a-sketch, and I would do it again, making a fun new shape.

You are looking at a big mountain south of Mt. Fairweather. [In real life it is not black and white, I made it look like that using my computer.]
Day 14 on the glacier we started walking uphill again. We were well rested after 11 days in the tent (understatement). We reached the same high camp at 10,200'. Day 15 we climbed to the summit under some of the most perfect conditions that mountain might ever get. We could see all the way up and down the coast. We could see St. Elias to the north, Glacier Bay to the southeast, and I think we might have got a glimpse of Russia. I'll have to confirm that with Tina Fey of course.

The man, the machine, thee Jed Porter.
The summit was amazing. We topped out eight hours after leaving our high camp. In hindsight, it was a really good we had not tried to push it any higher on the first attempt because after the Nose pitch there was still a bunch of climbing to be done.

Heading down with the Pacific coast running endlessly in both directions.
The only bummer was that we had burnt through our food supplies, and Paul Claus was not willing to fly anyone into the range without at least two weeks of food. St. Elias would have to wait. Drake picked us up on day 16, and 45 minutes later we were back on the warm asphalt in front of his hanger, sunning ourselves, talking climbing, and eating cheesy quesadillas.

Summit oxygen deprivation at 15,325'

[to see the video of this climb, which happens to be my current personal favorite, please visit our website:, or click play below. Play it big, its better!]
Check out our facebook page as well.
Here is Jed's trip report. He is an entertaining writer.