When my friend, Brendan, sent me a Facebook message on the 27th of January saying; "Alaska? May/June? Just looking at the guidebook now." I did not really take it seriously. Of course I wanted to go to Alaska, but I was not ready for alpine climbing in the Alaskan range, plus I was barely scraping through in Banff. There was no way could I afford a month-long climbing trip to Alaska. The logistics alone were overwhelming, not to mention the prospect of actually climbing there. ‘Alaska’: it's such a powerful word; it has this intimidating mystique about it. Then you couple the words, ‘Alaska’ and ‘climbing’ and my stomach churns. All I can think about is reading about Mark Twights epics in 'Extreme Alpinism'.
After talking to a few people, securing a loan from my ever loving and supportive family, breaking the trip down into achievable chunks and letting my psyche grow more and more, I came to the realisation that it was a possibility. Within a week, I had told Brendan that I was committed and that we had to make it happen. We decided that we would like to climb steeper, more technical lines, as opposed to what the majority of people go to Alaska for - The West Buttress of Denali; simply a walk at altitude. After both looking through the guide book and talking to friends who had climbed there we quickly set our sights on the Mooses Tooth. We wanted to climb two routes on the South Face, 'Shaken, Not Stirred’ V, AI5 and ‘Ham & Eggs’ V, 5.9, AI4'. These are two beautiful couloirs that rise steeply to the summit ridge. Having spent more than seventy days climbing waterfall ice in the Canadian Rockies over the past two winters, I was so excited to put my new found skills and strengths to use in the Alaskan Range.
With Brendan living in Australian and myself in Canada, we organised the trip and hashed out the logistics through emails and the odd broken Skype conversation. Brendan and I decided to write sponsorship propositions to a few companies, not because we were doing anything new and amazing, far from it, but more because we were both interested in learning about the process of obtaining sponsorship for future expeditions and were excited about the prospect of free swag. Trips like this are expensive and even a few hundred dollars worth of kit can make a big difference. Patagonia Banff very kindly sponsored our trip, giving us some great pieces of technical clothing, including a M10 Jacket, (an incredibly lightweight alpine climbing shell) and the all famous R1 Hoody.
We met in Anchorage on the first of May, I flew there with a good friend of mine, Kris, who was also heading to Alaska for a climbing trip. Twelve hours before I was due to flew out of Calgary I stacked my bike, resulting in six stitches in my head and a very bad case of concussion. With my head pounding we decided not to rush heading into the mountains, instead we spent two days in Anchorage running around getting everything we needed for our trip. We hired a satellite phone, bought $500 worth of food and picked up the last pieces of equipment from various gear shops. On the third of May we took a shuttle to Talkeetna; the gateway town to the Alaskan Range for all climbers. Talkeetna is known as the "quaint little drinking village with a climbing problem". We asked our shuttle driver to take us straight to the Talkeetna Air Taxi office, as we were scheduled to fly into the mountains the following day and wanted to check in as soon as possible.
Brendan and I jumped out of the van and headed for the TAT office, dodging giant puddles on the way, a result of a heavy snow season and a spring that was reluctant to arrive. Upon opening the doors we saw Steve House and Vince Anderson chatting away to one another.... yes, we were definitely in Alaska...
We met the TAT crew, who told us were we could weigh all our gear and tag our bags. After filling out our expedition paperwork and aptly calling our expedition team the "Ginger Ninjas", we headed over to the Park Rangers Office to register our expedition, pay our park fees and pick up our ‘Poo Pot’ - a small container that Brendan and I would intimately share for the next two weeks. With the weather forecast looking uncertain, we were told that with luck, we would fly in the following day. We spent the afternoon weighing our gear and sorting food - the total combined weight coming in at 325lbs! (147kgs)
Hearing that the TAT bunk house was very busy and we would likely be sleeping on the floor anyway, we decided to sleep in the weigh station. There were some wooden beds upstairs that we could lay our sleeping mats out on. That night we watched the climbing film, ‘The Moonflower’, and got excited when the people in the film were packing their bags just downstairs from where we were sleeping right there and then! The next morning we woke to grey skies. Not hopeful about flying into the mountains, we walked over to the TAT office. They informed us we were on standby and told us to check in by 10:00. Perfect! It was time to go and eat at the famous Talkeetna Roadhouse. After stuffing ourselves stupid with food and drinking bottomless coffee we wandered back to the TAT office and were greeted with good news, we were flying in that afternoon! A few hours later and we were high in the sky, aboard an ‘Otter’, a small ski plane that managed to fit seven climbers, a huge amount of gear, food and of course our pilot, the legendary Paul Roderick.
|Talkeetna Air Taxi Otter|
|Getting psyched flying in.|
|Just a little bit excited, Ham & eggs Couloir behind me.|
|Our ride, complete with Kangaroos on the plane with Ham & eggs Couloir rising behind.|
|View from the kitchen. Denali in the background.|
|Staring at Denali, light at 11PM.|
After setting up camp and brewing up a couple of hot chocolates, we walked around camp and got to know our neighbours, anxious to get recent conditions from parties who may have just climbed both routes. We met well-known mountaineer, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and her husband Ralf Dujmovits. They had been on the root canal for four days and had been waiting for calm weather to climb ‘Ham & Eggs’, but had not been so lucky; they were trying to acclimatize and using these as warm up routes for the Cassin ridge on Denali. They flew out the following day without having climbed anything. We decided on having a rest day, as we were quite tired from travelling and my head was still pounding from concussion. The weather was splitter and it was hard to sit around doing nothing while these incredible routes were rising directly above us! That morning we did the social rounds and found out what other parties were planning on climbing the following day, after all we did not want to be on the route with any other parties, if we could avoid it. It appeared that ‘Ham & Eggs’ was the choice for two parties, with no one attempting ‘Shaken, Not Stirred’. Even though it was the harder of the two routes, we decided we would take advantage of the good weather and lack of traffic and climb ‘Shaken’ first. My incredibly awesome brother, Nick, was texting us weather forecast updates on our satellite phone every morning and night. It was calling for light winds, overcast skies and lows of -20c. It would be a cold start, but we were in Alaska, during an unusually cold year, so a cold start was to be expected. That afternoon, we walked over to the base of ‘Shaken, Not Stirred’, and then dropped off one of our ropes and most of our heavy climbing equipment. We wanted to try and get a good look at the route, lingering cloud and the laughable zoom power of our $20 monocular made it a little challenging...
|Scoping Shaken, not stirred.|
|First pitch of Shaken, not stirred.|
|Low on Shaken, not stirred.|
We arrived at the base at 05:00 and adjusted the rope, switching from glacier travel mode to pitched climbing. We decided to block lead; a technique we thought wise to use as it would help keep us both warmer. My toes would go from a state of numbness to a state of intense pain, known as the ‘screaming barfies’. It is a sensation of overwhelming pain, caused by your hands, or feet, getting extremely cold from a standing around, then when you start moving again, the blood rushes back into your extremities, causing a intense stinging pain (imagine someone stabbing your finger tips with thousands of needles and you will come close to understanding) and sometimes making you nauseous. The first pitch involved a small awkward move to gain a low angled but thin sheet of ‘snice’, very mellow but awkward. There were no options for protection before this move except for a laughable piton, which I placed anyway. I decided to bash a snow stake into the firm snow, before the step, after all, if I blew this move I would slide 50 metres down into the bergschrund: not ideal! I took out my snow stake and bashed, once, twice "Ping". My hammer broke off my axe and flew down the slope, great start to the day! I moved a little higher, cleared some snow and found a bomber #1 camalot placement which gave me the confidence to make the awkward move.
*lower pitches of ice.
|Brendan on the sharp end.|
As the day went on, we slowly warmed up, but not much. We simul-climbed all the steep snow pitches and pitched the ice. The ice was incredibly fun and varied, from shoulder width narrow ice ribbons to short, but steep and in some places overhanging ice bulges. We were able to move fast while simul-climbing, placing ice screws, rock pro and clipping old fixed rap anchors as we went. We had every flavour of ice; dinner plates, sticky Styrofoam and unconsolidated snice.
|*The famous 'Narrows'|
|*Steeper than it looks|
|*Brendan catching some sun|
|*Traverse pitch before the final rope lengths to the col.|
|*Brendan coming up to our high point.|
|*Brendan rappelling into the abyss.|
On the way back to camp, Brendan mentioned his toes were quite painful. Once we reached camp and took our boots off he realised both his big toes were red and swollen and his toenails had turned black. Front pointing for a thousand metres for 13 hours in -20c will not do wonders for the feet. There just so happened to be a Denali Park Ranger & a doctor who were climbing together on the root canal. Brendan spoke to them about his toes. He had badly frost nipped (first stage frost bite) his toes. The Doctor said, and I quote: "As a doctor I should tell you to fly back to Australia, sit on the warm beach and drink beer, but as a climber I know you're not going to do that. Take care of them, keep them warm and be careful with the rest of your climbs, don't push it." We were in single boots, despite double boots being more common, singles are usually fine for the lower elevation climbs within the Ruth gorge but it was unseasonally cold this year. With Brendan's toes feeling worse for wear, we decided to rest a few days before climbing Ham & Eggs. We spent the days reading, eating, sleeping and discussing future expeditions. Friends came and went and our kitchen became a social hub for surrounding camps. Consuming whiskey and salami, we all shared stories from different walks of life; guides, literary agents, artists, Black Diamond engineers, sponsored athletes and modern climbing legends were amongst the motley crew that we passed time with.
|*Twid Turner, Bill Brody, Bruce Ostler & Freddie Wilkinson hanging at camp.|