Friday, June 14, 2013

Alaska Part 1: The Mooses Tooth.

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.
The flight in was both awe inspiring and intimidating. It felt totally surreal; like I was watching someone else sitting in a ski plane, flying into the Alaska Range. Upon landing, we jumped out of the plane and started unloading our kit; making a chain where everyone passed bags to one another, throwing them in separate piles on the glacier. We landed on the Root Canal glacier, directly underneath the South face of the Mooses Tooth: WOW! I had been staring at images of this mountain for the past few months and now, I was standing beneath it, I remember laughing to myself; feeling so happy.

Just a little bit excited, Ham & eggs Couloir behind me.
Our ride, complete with Kangaroos on the plane with Ham & eggs Couloir rising behind.

Once we had piled our gear, we strapped on as much as we could to our sleds and started hauling our gear across the Root Canal glacier. We were only relocating a few hundred metres from where the plane had dropped us off! Fearing the huge ice fall that claimed the lives of two climbers in 2011, we walked as far out of the way of the ice fall as we could, setting up camp a short way up a mellow rise on the glacier. Digging out space for two tents, a kitchen, a toilet and a hole for the meat we needed to freeze is no easy task and took us around five hours.

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.
  It was so hard to sleep that night, it was light enough outside to read a book until midnight, so sleeping was a challenge, especially the night before one of the most exciting and challenging alpine climbs of my life! Also, it was very cold; I was wearing a big down jacket, laying on three sleeping mats and wrapped in two sleeping bags. I was warm enough, just anxious and excited. I think I managed two hours of broken sleep that night, at best. The alarm went off at 03:30, giving us an hour to crawl out of our "warm" tent, eat breakfast and gear up for a 04:30 departure. It was fucking cold, I mean, really fucking cold! I have had many early morning winter starts whilst ice climbing in Canada, so I'm no stranger to cold mornings but shit, this was hard. I had to take off my gloves to carry out the finer tasks like lighting the stove and lacing up my boots. As soon as I took my gloves my hands would sting violently, screaming for me to put them back on. I totally convinced myself that I would wear my puffy synthetic pants on the approach and climb with them all day, until the sensible, slightly more experienced John spoke to me and reminded me that if I did so, I would overheat, sweat horribly, soak my base layers through and be even colder for the rest of the day.
First pitch of Shaken, not stirred.
Low on Shaken, not stirred.
Being Alaska in May, it was already light enough at 04:30 to travel without a headlamp. We roped up and crossed the root canal glacier, listening to the snow squeaking and crunching underfoot. Every few minutes I would stop and swing my arms a few times, desperately trying to force blood into my hands.

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.
Loving life
*Lower pitches.
 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
Beautiful climbing!
Both Brendan and I were convinced we had climbed the crux, although when I turned a corner on one of the snow pitches, I looked up and realised we had not. Compared to some of the frozen waterfalls I had climbed in Canada, it was nothing, but there were a few things at play here; I was running on little more than two hours sleep; my head was pounding from exerting myself with a bad concussion; due to a number of injuries before the trip, this was the first real exercise I had done in six weeks; I was wearing a pack; I was dehydrated and at this point, we had been on the move for around 12 hours. I was both excited at the prospect of more steep ice, but at the same time totally demoralised and struggling with a contradictive mix of emotions. Wanting it to be over and longing for easier angled snow slopes above; I launched into the ice and worked my way up to the top of the flow. There was a small hole in the ice curtain and this feature provided nice stemming. There was literally one metre of steep ice to go. I swung my right tool, adjusted my feet and pulled my body up... “ARGH!” My bicep tendon spasmed and my hand, without my brain telling it to do so, instantly let go of my ice tool. I gripped hard with my left tool, tensed my core and managed not to swing off balance. Fuck, what happened? I grabbed my tool again, convinced it was nothing and tried to weight my right arm again. Same thing, the tendon in my arm felt like a steel cable that was about to snap. Seriously? One metre of this final ice bulge left and I can’t even finish it? I tried a few more times, adjusting my position but nothing was working; I could not weight my right arm. I tried aiding on ice screws but the quality of ice was inconsistent and seemed like it would take a long time, especially when I only had one working arm. I placed an ice screw, clipped in and proceeded to kick a hole through the six inch thick ice curtain. After twenty minutes I managed to create a hole big enough to crawl into. Now I was squashed underneath the giant frozen chock stone, it was a creepy yet strangely beautiful position. I knew it was not going anywhere but all I could think about was the rock moving and being squashed in a tomb of ice and granite. I placed two screws and brought Brendan up to finish the final metre of the crux, far from stylish but a bad fall avoided. For a few short moments I was upset at what happened and my ego was damaged, but I quickly reminded myself of where I was and pushed away any negative thoughts. I remember Brendan saying to me, "You made a good decision; remember it’s when you stop making decisions that shit goes bad." That will echo with me for a while.


 After the crux we had about six pitches of steep snow to Simul-climb, a 10 metre traverse and then few more rope lengths of steep snow to Englishman's Col, which was to be our high point. It was cold and the higher we climbed the more exposed we became to the strong winds, the hairs inside my nose were frozen and felt like coarse wire.We topped out after 13 hours of continuous climbing, a pretty mellow day in the world of alpine climbing. Upon reaching the ridge there was about 15 metres of visibility and the wind was gusting around 50+kph. With the wind chill I estimated the temperature to be at least -20c, probably colder. I was wearing five layers, two of which were a lightweight synthetic puffy (Patagonia Nano Puff) and a big down jacket (Patagonia Fitzroy), and I was still shivering violently. I had only decided to climb with 1.5 litres of water and did not drink enough before leaving base camp or on the approach. Dehydration was a big factor in how cold I was. Brendan and I looked at one another, and we instantly knew what each other wanted to do. We turned our backs on the west summit and started our descent. It took us three hours and 18 or more rappels to reach the glacier. The descent on both Shaken not stirred & Ham and Eggs couloir are very friendly. There are many fixed rap anchors from over the years, mostly comprised of old pitons and nuts. On our way down we would bounce test the anchors, before transitioning from one rappel to the next, ensuring they would not rip on us.

*Traverse pitch before the final rope lengths to the col.
*Brendan coming up to our high point.
*Brendan rappelling into the abyss.
Upon reaching the glacier conditions had improved and the bad weather seemed to be localised around the summit of the Mooses Tooth. I was a little disappointed we had not pushed for the west summit but with such poor conditions up high and thinking back to how cold I had been, I was at peace with our decision pretty quickly. We kicked off the crampons, strapped on the snow shoes and headed back to camp.

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 spok
e 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.
*Twid Turner & Freddie Wilkinson.

*Crampon Cheese

*Cooking dinner.

 *Still very light out..
* Bumped into Patagonia Ambassador, Vince Anderson.

After giving Brendan's toes a three day break we decided to climb Ham & Eggs. Ham and eggs was very similar to 'Shaken, not stirred'. The main difference being there was less steep ice on Ham & eggs and more snow climbing. We climbed Ham & Eggs in nine hours camp to camp. Brendan said he was happy for me to lead most of the ice as I would probably move a bit quicker. We fired up the route, this time with my right arm feeling fit and strong, no issues! When we reached the summit ridge, we had similar conditions to when we topped out on 'Shaken, not stirred'. Poor visibility and strong winds. We had spoken to other parties who had given us beta on reaching the main summit from the top of the route. It was taking parties around four hours to get to the summit and back to the couloir, involving precarious corniced ridge travel and somewhat sketchy snow climbing. With Brendan now sporting sore and swollen toes, we knew it would be unwise to continue to the summit. We started our descent and rappelled the route in a little over two hours.

Here are a few shots of Ham & eggs...

*Brendan coming up on Ham and Eggs.
 *Brendan after battling through spindrift.
*Brendan taking us up the last little flow of ice before the final snow slopes.
 *First Crux
 *Second Crux.
*Loving life.
*At the belay.
 *Tired & Feeling unfit after six weeks of rest due to a number of injuries.
 *Rapping Ham & Eggs.
*Final traverse to get back down to the glacier, spooky soft snow.

When we arrived back in camp that afternoon we heard that the weather was closing in the day after next. We wasted no time in calling Talkeetna Air Taxi on the satellite phone and quickly organised a flight down into the Mountain House Base camp for the following day.We decided to fly down instead of walking as we had three weeks worth of food and equipment, which meant travelling through the ice fall with overloaded sleds would be slow and dangerous. The next day we packed up camp and spent most of the day sitting on the glacier, waiting for the plane to chapter of the trip was over and the next was about to begin...

We are currently putting together a short film of our trip, in the mean time here is a little teaser put together by Brendan Maggs. 

1 comment:

  1. C'mon man! Where's part II? Loved part I, I've read it twice now, let's have the rest of the story!