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.