Thursday, July 5, 2012

Soul Destroying Wallowing Up Mt Huntington

Near the top of Mt Huntington
There is nothing like a big mountain in Alaska to motivate one to train hard throughout the winter. Janelle and I punched the workout clock on a regular basis the last 6 months, making sure that we arrive at Big Snowy in prime time condition. Nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, ice climbing, guiding a Peru expedition to climb 18K’ peaks, and several rando races where all on the menu.

Living in a ski town allowed for easy access to the backcountry, which was our preferred workout routine. Probably the best part about ski touring 8,000 vertical feet in one day somehow turns an entire package of Oreos into a single serving (yet another example of the human mind having the ability to rationalize anything).

We moved out of our rental in Crested Butte at the end of April, back into our van, Lulu, which is now our only home. Are you considered “homeless” if your place of residence gets 20 miles per gallon?

Wanting to be as strong as possible for Alaska, and wanting to have a little bit of summer prior to being locked in the glacier icebox, we headed first to Indian Creek. The climbing there is never ending, and no matter how many times we visit it seems as though we have barely scratched the surface.
Janelle climbing in Indian Creek, UT Super Crack area
Indian Creek was followed by two 50 Classic busts. We tried unsuccessfully to get permission to climb Shiprock, and got frozen off the Petit Grepon in Rocky Mt National Park [we are going to keep knocking on the Najavo Nation door until permission is granted]. Wanting to lick the wounds of my pride by getting to the top of something, anything, we pointed Lulu north to Washington State.
Descending Eldorado Peak, North Cascades, WA
Here we had great success with the two-week high pressure that settled in over the state in May. We completed the Forbidden Ski Tour, skied Eldorado Peak, and skied Mt. Shuksan. Come to find out that both of these ski descents are in Davenport’s book, “Fifty Classic Ski Descents”….the next project maybe?! Both descents are super worthy.
Jon Swain ripping it down the summit coulior on Mt Shuksan, WA
It was then time to make our final preparations for Alaska. Stuffing four duffle bags, each with 50 lbs worth of down products, sharp metal, and tons of camping gear, is quite a task. We did all this at Golden Gardens Park in Seattle, which borders the Pacific on a busy Saturday. I am proud to say that we made even the most seasoned Seattleite turn their head and stare, wondering what we were doing.

It’s a quick flight up to Anchorage where our good friend Bob Lohr picked us up.  This is the third year in a row he and his wife have extended their hospitality, and their Costco card, to us. With a packed SUV we headed further north to spend time with Janelle’s maid of honor, her husband, and their three kids. Any curiosity the Seattleites had for what all our equipment was for what dwarfed by the amazing curiosity of 3-year-old Jeremiah and his little sister.
“Watts dis?”
“Those are skis, for going fast on snow.”
“Watts dis?”
“That’s an ice tool….oh, lets play with something else.”
“Watts dis?”
“That’s a ski pole, its for helping keep your balance.”
“umm….I don’t know how to answer that question.”

The thriving metropolis of Talkeetna (population 876) was full of tourists, and we were happy to add to that number. Weather delayed the flight onto the glacier a day, so we got to hang out an extra night, which turned out to be a great way to settle the nerves after all the luggage schlepping.

The morning of May 23rd was nice enough to fly. Amped, we changed out of our street clothes for our techy climbing clothes. The Tokositna Glacier is not nearly as popular as the Kahiltna Glacier, so we were in a plane by ourselves with none other than the owner of Talkeetna Air Taxi, Paul Roderick. He has been flying climbers in and out of the mountains for a long time and really does a great job.

On the glacier there was one one other party of two. We dragged our supplies 100 yards away from them and set up camp. The two other climbers had their sites on the West Face Couloir Route, and gave us a report that one other group had climbed the Harvard prior to their arrival, which was 10 days before now.

Mark climbing the first snow/ice section on Huntington
The following morning we woke at 7AM and were enroute around 8:30. The trail was kicked in to where the two routes diverge. Once on the fresh snow we sunk up to our knees and the progress slowed considerably. Moral was high so we put our heads down and pushed through it to the bergshrund, where we roped up and started simal-climbing. It really is amazing how quickly one can cover ground when not pitching things out. 3.5 hours of deep snow, a little ice climbing, and a lot of knee deep wallowing brought us to the base of the Spiral feature.
More simal climbing
This is the first of several mixed climbing pitches. M5 is the Supertopo rating. I don’t mix climb that much, so I was nervous. This was evident in the amount of cams I brought….many. Ditching the pack, I racked up and was off. There was a lot of snow covering the rock, which had to be removed. I hooked and pulled my way up little by little. Having a fifi hook was nice when things got cruxy. I would fifi into the highest piece, and start excavating snow and ice to get down to rock, hook my tools onto some stupid-tiny granite crystal the size of a pencil eraser, and pull up to the next placement.
Mark starting out on the Spiral section of, M5
The first anchor on the Spiral consisted of three old pitons at a hanging stance. More mixed climbing followed, which opened up into a 65-degree snow slope. The snow was fluffy, so I had to dig a vertical trench to make upward progress. This was both time consuming and exhausting. The heavy snow year covered up most of the fixed belays, so I dug for 20 minutes to expose a crack for an anchor, 195 feet above the last.
Mark aiding the Nose Pitch, C1
The next pitch was the most memorable. We took the farthest left of the three options listed on the topo. The asterisk on this option reads, “not recommended” due to hard mixed climbing on loose rock. This is where the large amount of snow was in our favor. It created an ice ramp on one side of this steep chimney, which I was able to place screws in the whole way up. With my back against one wall and four metal points biting into the ice on the other, I wormed my way up the 120ish foot pitch to a bolted anchor.
Hauling the packs on a frozen anchor
Two more snow wallowing pitches brought us to the Nose, it had been just over 13 hours since leaving basecamp. We were tired. Still more snow shoveling had to be done to make a bivy ledge. For weight savings we opted to just bring our Nemo Transformer Tarp as a shelter, and leave the proper tent behind. Rigging this to the bolts on the rock wall, and draping it over the snow walls Janelle created, was home for the night. It worked pretty well, but several snow spindrifts came in unabated by the tarp. The key to sleeping in this situation is to get really tired first!
Janelle high on Huntington
Unfortunately, the snow continued throughout the night. Not wanting to get avalanched off the mountain we reluctantly turned our sites downhill the next morning. We really dragged our feet making breakfast, as descending what we had just climbed was going to be no easy task. Around 10:30AM a pocket of blue sky passed over us. Shortly thereafter the snow subsided, and we decided to continue upwards. We had four pitches to get to the easy escape of the W. Face Coulior, which is what we descend if need be.
Janelle following the Nose Pitch
The Nose pitch is pure aid climbing. I was happy to have the experience gained by climbing the Nose in Yosemite to apply those skills here. It was straightforward C1 aid climbing up a 95-degree rock wall. Again the fifi hook was clutch. As I pulled over the slight roof my stomach dropped, this new 70-degree rock face was covered with 6 inches of snow and rotten ice. I had to excavate about 40 square feet of snow to get across to the where I hoped a fixed anchor would be waiting. I dug a while and revealed a fixed piton. This was like a treasure hunt. Making my way across this section took forever. I got to the anchor and had to chop at it for a while to extract the slings from three inches of ice. Janelle jugged the pitch, while helping push up the packs that I was hauling.

More trench warfare followed for another 400 steep vertical feet, where the West Face Couloir and Harvard routes merge. Our “trail” below looked like we just installed a half pipe in the side of the mountain. At this junction we were also able to look down the W. Face Couloir, which is thousands of feet of 50-70 degree perfect glacier ice. This would be our exit on the descent.
From here we had to go up 50 feet then down 80 feet, and traverse a scary unprotectable snow slope. The rock face we traversed beneath had no cracks for pro, but we survived.
Janelle 1500' below the top
Nearing the upper snowfield Janelle took the lead and punched a deep trail up and right, hacked through a corniced wind lip, and built an anchor in the rock. I took the lead on one more time consuming pitch which brought us to the point where it was a straight shot to the summit ridge. I was beat. Janelle was not. She unlocked this section, punching the route straight up to the ridge. We simal-climbed the whole way, literally taking one step up and 9/10th of a step back through the powder.

Near the top, we didnt take any "money" shots while on the summit
On the summit ridge it really started snowing, yet it was happy snow. That is to say there was no wind, and the flakes fell slowly to the ground. We pushed along the ridge until right under the final crux, an overhanging 40-foot wall of alpine ice. I dropped my pack, and went for it. It was pretty fun climbing this section, swinging tools on an overhanging ice wall, so close to the top of mountain in Alaska. How often does that happen?

A few hundred feet later we had run out of mountain to climb, it was 10:30PM. The snow had stopped and we had a semi clear view of the surrounding peaks, it was amazing.
Rapping down the West Face Coulior
The descent went smoothly as we were able to find ice for V-threads when we needed it. We rapped right down into the featured called the Cave, where we spent the night. The following morning it took us about four hours to rap down the W. Face Couloir and get back to the tent. The other group left V-threads all the way down the face, which helped greatly.

Back at camp, soaking in the victory
Back at camp we kicked off our boots, sat on as many pads as we could shove under our butts, and indulged in a lot of junk food. Alternating between salty and sweet food until our bellies were tight and happy. #36 was complete, and we slept with smiles on our faces.