Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Devils Thumb via the East Ridge

Only a handful of climbers have set eyes on the Devils Thumb. Even fewer have put their hands on this stone. The weather is notoriously bad there. Some climbers have flown up from the Lower 48, only to sit in Petersburg for 10 days, waiting on clear skies that never came.

Pointing Lulu north, we drove for 2.5 days from Seattle to Prince Rupert, BC where we got on a ferry to travel the rest of the way on the Alaska Marine Highway. At 3:00AM we arrived in Petersburg. The sunlight was already beginning to grow on the eastern horizon, and Devils Thumb was out. It was the start of a bluebird day. At 8:00AM we stopped by the Temsco hanger to see if we could fly that day. The lady in the office called the pilot, Wally, who told us he could go at 2:00PM!

Amped, we went into town for some breakfast and to get geared up. Taking over three spaces in the harbor’s parking lot, we spread out everything and stuffed it into two duffles, two packs and a couple other random bags. The climb would only take one long day. Regardless, we took food to be on the glacier for twelve, which would hopefully be enough to wait out the bad weather, complete the climb, and get out.

The heli flight is a really efficient way to blow 600 bucks in 29 minutes, but it is totally worth it. Like a nature viewing three-ring circus on crack, the varied landscapes flew by. Passing over an inlet, then deep forest, followed by glacier, these views fit the bill for what a Jack London Alaska should be.

After landing we pitched the tent, made dinner and went to bed at 7:00, hoping to get an alpine start the next morning. Around 10:00 that night I woke to sound of rain hitting the tent. Welcome to the Devils Thumb.

For the next three days it rained and snowed. The emotional swing one goes through by sitting still for that long is amazing. After sleeping for 12 hours, you cannot sleep anymore. Thankfully we had cards, an ipod, and books to pass the time. The rain came in waves. We would peek our heads out during the lulls, and getting out only when the call of nature became a scream.

On the fourth day the clouds began to break in the afternoon. Blue sky is so glorious after that long living in a milk jug. This far north the sun is up nearly all day, so we were able to take advantage of the sunshine to dry out everything. Ropes, clothes, sleeping bags, and climbing gear where spread out on top of the tent to let the sun work its magic.

I barely slept that night. In the last three days I had gotten about 30 hours of sleep, and now the stars were out over the Devils Thumb, I was just too excited.

At 1:30AM the alarm went off. An hour later we were walking across the glacier toward the start of the East Ridge. There was a breakable crust layer on the snow, which made for slow going, but I was amped and charged through it to the rock.

The first selection of rock was totally crap. The rock was loose, covered in frost, muddy and downright scary. I had to pick my way up very slowly as to not knock down any rocks on Janelle. When we gained the ridge, and the early morning sunlight hit our faces, things were better. Janelle was not having the best time though. Her pack was heavy, making it hard to climb. The fact that we kept our mountaineering boots on made it even harder. We pushed on, simal-climbing half way up the first tower. When the hand-holds got thin I decided to make an anchor and pitch it out. On top of the first tower we went back to simal-climbing.

The traverse into the base of the second tower is pretty spicy, knife-edged awesomeness. I had the GoPro rolling for the whole thing, so check out the video for a real “description” of that section.
At the base of the second tower we put on our rock shoes for the first time. That made the world of difference. Angling up and climbers left (south) I picked my way though what looked like the path of least resistance. 2.5 pitches got us back to easier terrain. At the gendarme there was rime ice choking the path on the ridge, so we wrapped down 200 feet to the south. This put us on extremely loose rock. To make matters worse the rime ice we were “avoiding” going this way was now directly above us. The hot sun caused several chucks to fall on us. That and we had to climb through a significant section of wet rock from this ice melt.

Once back on the ridge the terrain was straightforward. Back to simla-climbing, we progressed quickly. At this point Janelle was really shaken from everything. It had been harder than 5.6 climbing on loose wet cold mossy rock, with a heavy pack for the majority of the climb. Not a girl’s favorite thing. I was still going strong, but feeling Janelle’s fear more and more as we got higher. On the last pitch of the route, on the summit ridge, she broke down. “I’m done”, she said. She was ready to get off this thing.
I couldn’t believe it. We were literally within 5 minutes from the summit. The Canadian side of the summit ridge was totally covered in snow, more moss, and ice, making it slow going. We had climbed the route, but I wanted to touch the top. I’m a dude. I need that definitive end point where I can brag to everyone that I “did that.” Janelle did not need that. In her mind we were there, the clouds were moving in, and she had had enough.

I shouted down to her that she could stay where she was, and I would un-rope to scramble to the “tippy top” (as we called Columbia Crest on Mt. Rainier). With the response I got, you’d think I just said I was going to cut off her toes with a dull knife. “NOOOOO, please don’t leave me here alone, Mark!”
I had to make a decision. Touch the top by unroping, getting that “I did it” feeling and hurt my marriage, or turn there, join my wife and comfort her. I contemplated the decision for nearly 10 minutes.

Finally, I decided that my marriage is more important than standing on that little chuck of rock, just a little higher than where I was. I built an anchor and rappelled down to Janelle. Her hands were shaking from fear. This climb had really gotten under her skin. I felt bad. I knew she wouldn’t be talked into going higher, so we rigged the rappel and headed down into the cloud that fully blanketing the south side of the mountain.

Ten rappels later we were back on the glacier, and heading to our tent. It was too late for a heli flight out that night, so we cooked dinner and went to sleep. The following morning we woke to clear skies.  At 9:00AM Wally picked us up and at 9:30 we were back to Petersburg. Heli approaches are so cool. I want one for every climb I do.

Will we go back to touch the top of this mountain? Maybe. I'd like to at some point. Its one of the most beautiful places I've ever climbed, at least when it wasn't raining. I would go back to climb a different route, to explore something else I have not seen before.  There is so much untouched rock out there, and just looking out onto the horizon, seeing all the truly jagged mountains, how could you not want to go back.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Beware: Severe Corniced & Crevassed Ridge

Climbing in the Alaskan Range is the real deal. This real deal experience can be divided into three parts. #1 Planning , #2 Climbing, and #3 Gloating, with #2 requiring the least amount of time of the three.

1) Planning
Three weeks of planning, which included, reading trip reports online, upgrading gear to the lightest and warmest possible, packing, weighting everything, repacking, and repacking again.
We had our eyes set on climbing the Cassin Ridge on Denali. With all that planning and prep for the climb itself, we missed the critical deadline for the climbing permits. The Park requires 60 days notice prior to flying on. I had given them 30 days, and as in many government organizations, there were no exceptions to the rule.
So at the last minute we changed gears and set our site on the West Ridge of Mt Hunter. With it’s reputation being, “ the most difficult 14er in the world”, we had our doubts. Will our muscles (and nerves) be strong enough? Will the weather be nasty? Will the snow be stable? Will our packs be too stupid heavy to enjoy any part of this?
Putting these doubts in the back of our minds, we flew up to Anchorage on April 30th, where our good friends Bob and Celia Lohr, met us at the airport. We were far more organized this year compared to last, so after a quick stop at Costco and REI we were ready for action.
Once in Talkeetna we did a final prep of our equipment and food at the bunkhouse Talkeetna Air Taxi provides complementary to climbers using their services. We packed to be ready to go right from the landing strip to the route. The following morning we were blessed with blue bird skies! Every mountain in the range was out. We piled on TAT’s high-powered Beaver single engine plane equipped with skis for landing on snow, and were off.

2) The Climb
Not wanting to waste any of this good weather we quickly buried our base camp cache, checked in with Lisa, and hit the trail. Not wanting to snowshoe, we had brought our rando skis and boots for the approach and hopefully the climb. Two hours of ski touring and we were looking up at the base of the route. Janelle was not stoked. This thing looked intimidating in photos and down right scary in real life. I was pumped though, so after a little persuading we started up the ridge.

Ascending the first 300-400 feet we were in the “blast zone”, under an active serac that could break off at any time without warning. Putting it in 5th gear, we huffed through the knee deep snow up the 30 degree slope for about 20 minutes until we were clear of the hazard.

Janelle punched though a crevasse shortly after that. She pulled herself out and was unhurt, but it rattled her already sensitive nerves. I took over the trail breaking and we continued up through now hip deep snow. It was slow going. Our packs were full of seven days worth of food and fuel. Even after cutting every with weight, they still weighed about 55 lbs., which is way too heavy to be “light and fast.”

We parked it for the night at the “rabbit ears” rock feature on the ridge. The following morning Janelle was not saying much. On the other side of the rabbit ears was a 300 foot rappel down steep rock and snow. At the fixed anchor Janelle broke down. Rappelling was a huge mental commitment to the route, a point of no return, and she was scared.
My ambition exceeded my fears at that point. I told her that I did not want to turn around because of an unforeseen danger. I wanted to go as long as it was "safe". She made me promise that I would turn around if we encountered a section that was too dangerous to be worth it. I said I would. She looked at me saying nothing. I repeated myself with a little more gentleness. She was back on board, so we threw the ends of the rope down the wall.

The rest of that day and the next were full of steep snowy walls, ice faces, rock sections, pulling on fixed lines, sleeping on small snow platforms and a whole lot calories burnt.

(For fear of having a post that is way too long for any Internet user to actually read, I am going to break this up into two separate posts, so stay tuned for part II.)