Friday, August 8, 2014

Mentoring on Denali


Humble Horse on the north face of Diadem Peak was my first “hard” alpine route. Or at least it was the first route I’d ever done where you couldn’t sit down anywhere. Stopping for a drink and a bite meant kicking out a foot ledge in the ice, hanging the pack from a screw, and carefully fishing out bottle and sandwich. Anything you dropped, be it a piece of ice or a snack, would end up in the ‘schrund hundreds of metres below. Still, given all the gear I dragged up and over the route, it couldn’t have been that hard. Empty, my pack weighed nearly three kilos. A board-stiff Gore-Tex suit, plastic boots, Footfangs, a Canadian Tire sleeping bag, a bulbous Peak 1 stove: today I wouldn’t like to hike with that kind of weight, much less climb vertical pitches with it. Luckily twenty years ago I didn’t know any better.

Cody Wollen on the first roped pitch of Humble Horse.


The night before the climb we slept comfortably, if briefly, in Jim Sevigny’s Eurovan. We were up long before the sun: balancing on wet logs across a stream, cramponing up hard snow below the face while unseen rockfall echoed from the walls, sparks lighting up the night. Dawn found us stepping across a gaping moat and onto the rock. As the sun rose higher in the sky and the shadows of the mountains on the valley floor grew shorter, we scrambled across loose ledges and up gritty slabs. Finally, butting up against a steep quartzite rib, we pulled out the ropes. Reaching between incut edges on a purple, vertical wall, I reveled in an unaccustomed lightness, the straps of my nearly empty pack barely tugging at my shoulders. My older partner liked to say that the only bivi gear you really needed were spare headlamp batteries. It seemed like a fine way to climb the big faces of the Rockies, and I tried to make it my own.

Jim Sevigny low on the east face of Mt. Chephren. 


I like the mountains up north. I like the endless days of late spring, the glaciers filling the valleys from wall to wall – and the massive blueberry pancakes at the Roadhouse in Talkeetna. When Steve House asked if I would join him as a mentor on a June trip to Denali, visions of the Alaska Range filled my head. But mentoring? What could I offer to twenty-something climbers who were probably stronger and fitter than me? Then I thought back to the long, long days Jim and I’d shared on the Rockies’ shattered rubble (Jim also liked to say that most alpine routes are day routes, provided you keep in mind that a day has twenty four hours). I might've been the stronger rock and ice climber, but without Jim’s experience to lean on I would’ve never launched up something like Chephren. Steve started Alpine Mentors to connect successive generations of alpinists. His idea struck a chord in me. Like Jim all those years ago, perhaps I also had something to offer to the youths.

The plan was to acclimatize to the summit on the West Buttress, then send the Cassin Ridge. In the end, an unusually stormy June didn't allow us anything more than repeated jaunts to the top by the normal route. Even so, we had a good time: skiing, camping and running up and down the mountain. The following photo essay offers some snapshots of our trip, beginning with an introduction of the dramatis personae.

The Alpine Mentors team: Buster Jesik,

Colin Simon,

Marianne van der Steen and...

... Steven Van Sickle.

Steve House, the main man of the Alpine Mentors program.

Every Denali expedition starts with a shopping trip. In a garage in Anchorage, Buster, Colin and Steve try to inject some order into a pile of food.

While we frantically pack for the flight to the mountains, Beaver the TAT cat relaxes on the tarmac of the Talkeetna airstrip.

The Susitna River, swollen by snowmelt, rolls away from the Alaska Range.

Two giants of the range: Mt. Hunter on the left and Denali on the right.

After the warmth and greenery of sea-level Talkeetna, the first night on the glacier feels unreasonably cold. Mt. Hunter peeks over the east ridge of Mt. Frances.

Carrying enough food and gear for a nearly three-week trip makes for heavy packs and sleds. It's still early in the day, and so Colin and Buster are still smiling.

As cold shade swallows up the eleven-thousand-foot camp, Mt. Foraker glows golden in late-evening sunlight.

Snow and cloud greet Buster at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp.

Having installed ourselves at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp, we start going on acclimatization hikes. On the spine of the West Buttress, Steve demonstrates efficient movement at altitude for Buster, Colin and Steven.

Heavy traffic on both the up and down fixed lines. Avoiding the lineups, Steven downclimbs.

On a sunny morning at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp, Marianne enjoys a precious fresh grapefruit.

More typical weather at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp.

Steven, Marianne, Buster and Steve (on kitchen duty) escape the weather in the kitchen Megamid.

After a spell of snowy weather, Steve doesn't let a bad-hair day get in the way of his enjoyment of a cloudless afternoon.

With Foraker over her shoulder, Marianne goes on an after-lunch hike to the seventeen-thousand-foot camp.

The sun sets over the West Buttress and tens of lakes in the tundra far below.

Not yet acclimatized, Steven, above Denali Pass, feels the effects of altitude on our first trip to the summit.

At the base of Pig Hill, the final rise to the summit ridge, Steven, Colin and Steve find some shelter from the wind to have a bite and a drink.

Steve and Steven take the last few steps to the top.

"We're acclimatized but the weather sucks. Now what?" Steven, Marianne, Colin, Buster and Steve make plans for the coming days.

Steven ventures off the beaten track and makes for the rarely visited North Summit.

An unusual perspective of the Main (South) Summit from near the North Summit.

Steven on the North Summit with the Pioneer Ridge disappearing into the clouds below.

Steven walks back down to Denali Pass over rock reminiscent of the finest Canadian Rockies' rubble.

Steve keeps up with his yoga practice at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp.

The final weather window isn't long enough for the Cassin Ridge, so Buster, Colin and I decide to run up to the summit one last time.

The summit ridge of Denali with Mt. Foraker in the distance.

Yours truly keeps up with his yoga practice on the summit.

The North Summit seen from near the Main Summit.

Buster descends the West Buttress below the seventeen-thousand-foot camp.

The following day we pack up and head down through clouds toward the lower Kahiltna Glacier and basecamp. We're lucky to catch a flight out during brief clearing, and later that same evening we're eating huge desserts and drinking beer in Talkeetna.

Steve psyched about real food in Talkeetna.

After a few days of the dolce vita in Talkeetna, the youths go home and Steve and I fly back onto the mountain, hoping for some climbing. The sight of Mts. Foraker, Hunter and Denali under cloudless skies has us fired up and feeling optimistic.

Unfortunately, the closest we come to climbing is glimpsing the southwest face through the murk from the top of the West-Rib Cutoff.

"I wonder what's going on: it's dark, quiet and I can't breathe." A couple of days we wake up to the tent buried to the roof. 

Blowing snow reveals the shortcomings of our open-air kitchen.

When the storm finally clears, the mountain lies under a deep mantle of snow. At least the decision's easy: down! 

Steve ploughs a trench (downhill, on skis) around the (for once) poorly named Windy Corner.

Lower down we bump over car-sized avalanche debris.

Fortunately nothing slides above or beneath us, and a few hours later we celebrate the end of our not-quite-climbing trip with beers in basecamp.

Thirty minutes later we leave snow behind for good. It's time to embrace summer.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Timing and hormones

A few stars have to line up to get up (or down) something cool in the mountains. And the bigger the something, the more stars it takes. Thus, as long as you're fit and coordinated enough to ride a bike, you'll do fine on Professor Falls. You need somewhat bigger quads and a slightly better swing, all on top of a decent weather forecast, to climb Nemesis. However, to make Slipstream a reasonable proposition, you'd better have put in enough miles earlier in the season that you can run up the route - and have waited for bomber snow conditions. But I might be overcomplicating matters. In the end, success in the mountains comes down to "timing and hormones," to borrow Choc Quinn's memorable phrase. The sky might be blue, the ice plastic (or the snow fluffy, if down and not up is the goal), but if your body - or mind - are not up to the task, you're going nowhere. Conversely, you might be champing at the bit, but if the ice you dreamed about turns out to be slush, or the powder you hoped for has been replaced by avalanche debris, you're not going far. Last month I had a couple of days like that, days when desire and reality clashed. Still, it might've been for the best. If you never fail, the occasional successes don't taste as sweet.


The thermometer on the dashboard dipped down to -15 C as Juan and I drove up the gravel road above Canmore. With not quite enough room in the back of the Impreza, the tips of my skis poked me insistently in the arm. Then I looked up at EEOR and forgot all about skiing. An intermittent ribbon of ice stretched down the line of Dropout, a summer rock route. We didn't have even an ice axe between us, but as we continued on our way toward perfect corn snow, we made plans to return.

A few days later we were back. The high pressure of the previous weekend had given way to largely cloudy skies, which made for a warm night. Still, there had been enough of a freeze that - some of the time, anyway - we were able to walk on top of the snow. Most of the time, though, we'd punch all the way through the hollow snowpack to the scree underneath.

We were dripping with sweat by the time we kicked steps to the base of the wall. From where we stood, craning our necks to look up at the hundreds of metres of cliff overhead, the line of ice appeared less substantial than it had a few days earlier. Neither did the sound of a steady stream of meltwater inspire confidence. But, having come this far, we had to at least try. 

Apart from a few small patches of snow, the first pitch appeared to be bare rock, and I said I thought it'd go more easily without crampons. Unfortunately Juan followed my advice, which caused his heart rate to spike repeatedly, as his boots would sketch off of snow-covered holds and he'd slam onto handjams or drytool placements.

I'd forgotten how much more snowy a cliff appears when you're looking down it rather than up. Balancing on a small ledge, I dug out my crampons while managing to drop only one glove. Having spikes on my feet made what was in fact a mixed pitch much more enjoyable. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

I'm not not sure why I kept my crampons on for the next pitch, which was mostly dry rock. I suppose I optimistically assumed I'd need them higher up, where the ice streak started. Unfortunately, where we stood tethered to some rusty pins, it was nothing more than a wet streak. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

In the end monopoints did turn out to be nice on edges and in shallow divots too small for boots. However, I never did need them for ice. When, from where the corner ended below an overlap, I reached over to the white stuff, the pick merely sliced ineffectually through wet slush. All around us the face was warming up and what ice there was was turning to water. It was time to go down.

By the time we'd rappelled off, the snow in the scree bowls had turned isothermal. We didn't relish the prospect of reversing the long traverse below the cliff, so we postholed straight down a rib: though wet cotton candy, soggy avalanche debris and finally dry junipers. It was barely afternoon when we drove back to the city.


A couple of weeks passed. The sun grew stronger each day, and the ice down Dropout retreated further and further up the cliff. I put it out of my mind, at least for this season. Instead, with the mountains still slumbering under a heavy mantle of of snow, I tried to make up for a winter of almost no skiing.

On another cold morning under a perfect blue sky Juan and I skinned up to Chester Lake. Juan had been touring in the area just a couple of days earlier and saw people enjoying perfect powder down the classic Chester Lake Couloir. We wanted in on the fun, which is why we got up long before sunrise on a weekday and drove out to the mountains for a ski hit before work. 

From across the valley I saw what looked like debris in the couloir. Hmm, could they just be large sloughs from the Sunday skiers? Somewhat disconcerted, we continued. Unfortunately, once we got closer, the debris turned out to be just that - debris. Sometime in the last thirty six hours some cornices fell off of the right wall of the couloir and cleaned out the powder. We bootpacked halfway up the icy bed of the gully before giving up.

The skiing was as unpleasant as we'd expected. Most of the time we stayed in four-wheel mode, bumping down hard avalanche debris. Only occasionally, where the couloir widened out, did we manage a few fun turns in soft snow.

A week later, after a big dump of snow, Juan came back and enjoyed deep powder all the way down the couloir. I was stuck in an all-day meeting, my FOMO exacerbated by his Spot updates. What can I say? It's all timing and hormones.